Loomis sat at his desk the next morning, his mind pretty much a blank, waiting until it was time to go to his interview with Zelbo. He was not thinking about his conversation with Martha the night before, which was why his mind was a blank. After an hour or so of sullen politeness she had blown up in his face. At first he thought, this is great, we're having a fight. But it wasn't great, it was awful. The only good thing was that they both knew they both were unhappy, but it looked like neither of them had a clue about what to do about it.
Through the glass door he watched cars pull into the little mall, people get out of their cars, complete their business and pull out again, usually within ten minutes. There just wasn't that much one could accomplish here.
He tried to concentrate on the Fishbein case, but he couldn't. There were two or three smaller things he was supposed to be handling, but he couldn't even think for the moment what they were. Martha was precious to him and their life together was essential, but there were apparently mute objections which guided his actions but would not reveal themselves. That, or he was just afraid. He hoped the latter was the case, because he didn't feel he had the equipment to examine the former.
He figured he wasn't smart enough to risk introspection. Maybe this had something to do with taking up his profession. He was supposed to be a man of action, but without the responsibilities of the policeman or the hierarchy of the soldier. No standards of conduct other than very general ones imposed by the state and those he chose to accept. No one to suffer by his failure but himself and, of course, his clients and he was always willing to give the money back. He resisted any tendency to thoughtfulness with prejudice. He saw meaning in the acts of his life and was willing, for better or worse, to let them stand for what he was. He usually wished there were more good acts and fewer bad acts, often resolved himself to make an effort in that direction and occasionally made such an effort, but any accounting of what his acts represented he regarded with hostility. If the result was bad, he was sorry. If the result was good, he kept the money. He didn't like doing things the hard way. He just did.
It was almost 9:30. It was the first really cold morning and there was still a smudge of frost on the bottom of the door. He capped the dregs of his coffee and deposited the container in his trash. He put on his jacket, turned off the lights and locked up.
The commuter train runs north-south down the middle of Asbury Park separating the beach area from the rest of the town. Originally, when it was the Jersey Central Railroad, the tracks separated the honky-tonk of the boardwalk from the more genteel homes inland. Then, for many years, the tracks separated the development of the beachfront from the decay of the interior. Now, things are pretty grim on both sides of the track. Its not as bad as Atlantic City, but, like they say, its no day at the beach.
Zelbo's office was a small cement block cube on Blank street. It was covered with some sort of faux-stucco and a lot of work and a certain amount of expense had gone into making it look upscale. This effort was a failure, but there was a kind of charm inhabiting its pretensions. You felt like rooting for it. There was a great deal of senseless ornamental grill work around the tiny single window and the door and the curtains were unmistakably a souvenir of a Mexican holiday. Five cracked steps led up to a retaining wall which, for the moment, held back three and a half feet of perfect lawn. Loomis paused and stooped at the top of the steps. Years of investigative experience paid off. It was astroturf. Oddly enough, there was a hole cut in the rug just off the short walk where a perfectly real and probably expensive topiary tree was thriving. A little sign on the door said "Walk In" and had a happy looking little guy walking in a door, just in case. Loomis made like the guy.
"Yes," said the secretary with such naked hostility that Loomis was stunned for a moment. Surely she couldn't be angry at him; he hadn't done anything. Must be having a bad day. Yeah, that must be it. The situation just required a little of the old Loomis charm.
"Well, hello," he said and warmed up his smile to just this side of My-prayers-have-been-answered.
She stared at him and narrowed her eyes into My-worst-nightmare-is-coming-true. Loomis liked being on the good side of secretaries, desk clerks and receptionists and some other morning he might have continued the effort, but not today. He looked at her desk plate, which said Maria Migliorini, and sneered. He curled his lip around Go-back-under-your-rock, sat down and picked up a People Magazine.
"Loomis," he said, from behind an article about Cher's new boyfriend. What horrible face she was making he couldn't imagine, but she made no move to tell Zelbo he was there. He looked at his watch. It was 10:05. He was leaving at 10:15.
At 10:15 on the dot the inner door opened. For ten minutes the only sound in the room had been Maria Migliorini's gum popping every six seconds. Loomis was hoping Zelbo would give him an opportunity to vent his hostility because, if he didn't, he felt sure he would hit Maria on the way out.
Zelbo looked like he had recently lost weight. Or maybe he just liked his suits a size or two large. His fingers barely poked out of the end of the sleeves. He was tall and awkward and made a lot of darting motions with his head. He had tiny features and bad skin. The suit, though ill-fitting, was expensive. His wide, red suspenders were not a legal affectation, but a vital necessity. He threw a fist-full of papers down on Maria's desk, waved his hand over them as if giving instructions and then turned to Loomis.
"I don't have much time," he said.
Loomis got up and started walking towards the office and Zelbo darted ahead of him and blocked the doorway.
"We better get started then, hadn't we?" said Loomis.
Zelbo waited a second and then, with an air of having won the opening point, jerked his head toward the client chair and said "Won't you come in?"
He did, but Zelbo didn't. The door closed and Loomis was alone in the office. What the hell was this? Loomis couldn't decide if he was getting jerked around or if this man Zelbo was a fool. Or if he was getting jerked around by a fool. The office was all painted cinderblock with a suspended ceiling and florescent lights. The furniture, a desk, a table, three chairs and a wall of bookshelves, was too big for the room and the rug was too expensive. On one wall were Zelbo's diplomas (Rutgers, Trenton State) and certificates. Under those were several framed signs. Leonard Zelbo, Attorney at Law. Leonard Zelbo Real Estate, Inc. Leonard Zelbo Tax Preparation Systems. Zelbo Cosmetics.
The door opened and a different Leonard Zelbo entered. Calmer, wiser, nicer. He smiled at Loomis and took his place behind his desk.
"I'm so sorry to keep you waiting. Its a madhouse this morning."
The phone hadn't rung once since Loomis had arrived, but he didn't mention the fact. Zelbo tented his fingers and fixed Loomis with a steady, sincere gaze.
"I want to know what I can do to help you."
"Good. There's just a couple of things. I mentioned that I've been retained by Mrs. Fishbein to, among other things, investigate the circumstances surrounding her husband's death. I'm told that the Cap'n recently became your client."
Zelbo's expression seemed to indicate that he'd heard something like that as well.
"It would be helpful to me if you could tell me when the Cap'n first approached you."
"Approached me?" He seemed to find that a bizarre choice of words.
"About the divorce. To engage your services."
Zelbo still looked confused. Loomis wondered which was the hard part.
"You see, Mr. Zelbo, very little is known about how all this came about. From what I understand, a few weeks ago the Cap'n and Mrs. Fishbein were more or less happily married. Then, suddenly they were in the middle of an ugly divorce. I'm trying to get a handle on what decisions were made and when."
"And you think his murder is connected with this divorce?"
"The police are convinced that Elroy Keever is guilty."
"If you don't mind my asking, in that case, what makes you necessary? Is there some reason why Mrs. Fishbein is dissatisfied with the police effort?"
"Not at all. On the other hand, its not at all uncommon for people with the means to do so to initiate parallel efforts." Even though it was probably obvious, Loomis was reluctant to say that his job was to eliminate the divorce and anything connected with it as a motive for murder. Zelbo began doodling on his legal pad.
"I'm afraid, for whatever motives, Mrs. Fishbein may have painted you a slightly idyllic picture of her marriage. If you're interested in how and why the marriage broke up, she would have much more information than I. She was not only the adulterous partner, she was the one who initiated the action."
"First of all, the Cap'n himself told me that he was just as guilty of fooling around as his wife. He also told me that they were still friends. He said it was to be an amicable divorce. Second of all, Mrs. Fishbein didn't initiate any action. She never consulted a lawyer. Or rather she never engaged one. He did. You."
"He consulted me after his wife announced her intentions. While he may have anticipated a friendly divorce, his attitude changed because of his wife's actions."
"I beg your pardon?"
"What did she do that made him so mad?"
"Mr. Loomis, I can't divulge . . ."
"He's dead, Mr. Zelbo. He won't care."
In response he slapped his lips together and made a circular motion with his spread fingers that Loomis took as the Standard Lawyer's Hand Signal for client privilege. Which was bullshit, except for one thing.
"Mr. Zelbo, I understand you wrote a new will for the Cap'n."
Zelbo paused for a few moments and then smiled again and slipped into an even thicker robe of sincerity.
"All right, Mr. Loomis, I'll tell you what my difficulty is with this. I wrote a new will for Cap'n Fishbein. The purpose of the will, obviously, is to separate Mrs. Fishbein from the Cap'n's estate. You come to me as an agent of Mrs. Fishbein. It would be very surprising indeed if she did not challenge this new will. While the Cap'n may be dead, I, as the executor of the Cap'n's estate am charged with seeing that his wishes are fulfilled. The issues that were relevant to the divorce proceedings will undoubtedly become central to any challenge to the will. I don't wish to be uncooperative, but it should be obvious that there are areas where I cannot help you."
"I see. What can you help me with?"
"Try me," he said, smiling.
"Okay. Did you advise the Cap'n to hire me?"
"Yes. In response to your clients actions."
Circular hand motion.
"Okay. Who's the beneficiary of the new will?"
"A trust. For the benefit of indigent former party boat captains."
"Is that right?"
"It was my suggestion. He has no relatives and we needed to move quickly. He was wholeheartedly enthusiastic at the idea, however."
"How many of them can there be?"
"I have no idea. I expect I'll find out, however."
"All right. What about the boat? That was the main issue."
"What about it?"
"Well, I assume you handled the transfer over to Arlene Babayev."
Circular hand motion.
"Who was the Cap'n's lover."
Circular hand motion.
"And who claims the Cap'n was going to marry her."
The door opened and a small, homely boy about ten years old poked his head in. He took one look and scrammed. Loomis looked back and Zelbo's face was twisted with rage. He stormed to the door and yanked it open just as the outside door slammed behind the kid. Zelbo started going up one side of Maria and down the other while she checked out her nails and shortened her gum snapping cycle to two seconds. Loomis couldn't hear what he was saying because he was close to completely out of the cake and his voice was a hoarse, strangulated whisper, but Maria was unimpressed. He made one or two final points, made a half-hearted attempt to reassemble himself and stepped back into his office.
"I apologize, Mr. Loomis. I . . . my . . . she . . ."
"Don't mention it, Mr. Zelbo. My secretary is a problem, too."
They shared a man of the world gesture which seemed to calm Zelbo considerable. He settled himself behind his desk once again and began shuffling papers in a plainly haphazard manner.
"I'm a little pressed for time, Mr. Loomis, unless there's something else . . ."
"No, not at the moment," said Loomis, moving toward the door. "But I'm sure I'll need more information when I have more information."
"I am at your service."
Loomis opened the door, but then stopped, turned and pointed to Zelbo's collection of business signs.
"I was just curious. What's the deal with Zelbo Cosmetics?"
"The deal?" He smiled shyly. I happen to own distributorships for several of the best known lines of cosmetics and toiletries available."
"You're an enterprising guy."
Before Loomis knew what was happening he was out the door with an armload of catalogs. He turned and Maria swivelled slowly until facing directly away from him. He walked around to the front of her desk and she kept swivelling him to her backside.
"Who was the kid, Maria?"
She sighed dramatically and said nothing. Loomis wondered if she really was having a bad day or if it was just him. If she treated everyone this way it was easy to see why the office was so quiet.
"Hey Maria, he made me a Mary Kay distributor. I bet you wish you'd been nicer to me now, huh?"
Finally, slowly, she swivelled back around and fixed him with a glare of astonishing malevolence.
"You, and he, can go fuck yourselves."
"I see. Well, I hope you can get your job back at the Grand Union. Meanwhile . . ." He took out a Loomis Investigations card and tucked it under the side flap of her desk blotter. "Call me."
She looked at the card as if it had fallen off the second half of a dog.
"Why should I?"
Loomis bent over her desk and lowered his voice.
"Mostly because there's money in it. That guy's nuts. And he's screwing my client."
She pulled the card out by the very tip of a corner and dropped it into her wastebasket. Oh, well. He shrugged and walked out.
He flooded the Chevy trying to start it. Usually, it only took five minutes before he could try again. He started to play a Bill Monroe tape and then he saw the homely little boy playing with a evil looking cat at the rear corner of Zelbo's building. At least, the little boy thought he was playing. The cat looked like he was measuring the boy for a slash. Loomis got out and walked along the sidewalk until he was nearly upon them.
"Hi, son. I don't think that cat wants to play."
The boy looked like he wanted to bolt but he didn't want to do what Loomis told him, either, so he watched Loomis out of the corner of his eye and kept playing tag with the now almost frenzied feline.
"Well, when they spit like that it usually means they're upset."
Loomis flinched as the cat missed nailing the kid by a hair.
"If I had a cat he'd always want to play."
"Yeah. Heh, heh. Some cats are like that. I had a cat, once, played like a son of a gun."
"Yeah. Look, kid, how about this. How about we go talk to your mom? Maybe we could talk her into getting you a little kitty-cat."
"Nah. She wouldn't. He wouldn't let her." He gave a sullen little bob of the head toward the office. Loomis snapped his finger as if he had just remembered something nice.
"Wait a minute. What's your name, kid?"
"That's right. Ernie Zelbo, right?"
"Yeah," said the kid, with a mixture of wonder and wariness.
"Let's go try. I bet I could talk her into it."
Ernie looked at the cat, who was drawing back for another try at him, and shrugged.
Loomis followed him around behind the building. There was a short porch tacked on to the back and some wash hung from a line stretched from the door to a pole stuck in the mud twenty feet away. A rutted driveway ended at the steps, but just beyond a brand-new Lexus was parked. Broken toys littered the area and some trash was set out in disintegrating paper sacks. If the front represented pretensions to middle-class, the back was half-way down Tobacco Road.
As if to confirm this, there was a screen door hanging slightly askew from the pealing doorjamb. It framed a half-tone figure that stepped back further into the dimness when Ernie and Loomis stepped onto the porch.
"Get in here, Ernie."
She stepped forward and kicked the door open. As it swung out Loomis got a brief glance at a small, pale woman in a cheap print dress. Sure enough, she had a small child on her hip. The door banged closed, but Ernie just looked up at Loomis. Time to make his pitch. Loomis smiled and nodded.
"Hello, Mrs. Zelbo. I had an appointment with your husband and I saw Ernie here playing with a nasty looking cat."
"I told you . . ." she hissed at Ernie, and she kicked the door again. Loomis started talking faster.
"Look, I don't want to get Ernie in trouble, Mrs. Zelbo, but I told him if he stopped I'd see if I could talk you into . . ."
"Uh, into letting him . . ."
"One . . . two . . ."
"Have his own . . ."
The door swung forward, Ernie disappeared like a genie, and the door banged shut again.
"You know, cat."
The inner door closed. Loomis stepped off the porch onto a small plastic turtle, crushing it. He was thinking of raising his rates. He was getting results all over the place.
The Chevy started up as if it had intended to all along. It was turning into a dull day, a cold iron sky over a pallid landscape. Loomis drove down 35, over the Manasquan bridge into Brick where it turns into Route 70. He cut across to 88 on Van Zile road and eased into the trailer park, watching for the State Police cruiser. It was parked two trailers down. The trooper was not making much of an effort to conceal himself, but on the other hand, once you saw him you had to drive by him or back up to get out of the park. Loomis drove past Keever's trailer and parked nose-in to the trooper, leaving plenty of room for him to pull out. As he walked in front of the cruiser the trooper rolled down his window.
"Francis," he said, and he nodded.
"Hello Trooper Schneider. How are you?"
"Oh, I'm fine. How's your mother?" He offered Loomis a pack of Newports.
"She's fine," he said, smiling. "No thanks."
"Good. You quit?"
"No. But I'm thinking about it. Say Carl."
"How would you feel about my taking a look around that trailer?"
"What, that one? Why would you want to do that?"
"Heard about that guy Fishbein that got killed?"
"There's been some talk about it."
"Well, it happens his wife hired me to look into it."
Schneider smiled at him and nodded for a few moments and then shrugged.
"I don't really mind, Francis. You mind if I come along with you?"
"On the contrary, sir, I'd be honored."
Trooper Schneider stepped out of his cruiser, shook hands with Loomis and they began walking toward the trailer. Schneider was the closest thing Loomis had to a contact inside the State Police. He used to go to the same church as Loomis' mother and had impressed her because he had taken an instant and evident dislike to Loomis' father. Loomis was just in high school, but he remembered Schneider's face when his father was talking; it said 'bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.' Schneider made his father very nervous so Loomis liked him, too. When the old man took off a few years later Schneider and his wife were there for his mother and she always asked after 'that nice Officer Schneider.' Professionally, he had never been able to help Loomis all that much -- had never offered to placed the state's computer banks at Loomis' disposal -- but had several times been a great help just by giving Loomis room to work.
Keever's trailer was at the end of a loop in the drive. It was effectively hidden from all but one other trailer. The entire inside area of the trailer covered about seven feet by fifteen feet, but it gave the illusion of having more space than Arlene's apartment. It was more than just neat, it was organized with the precision of a space capsule. Keever had little wire baskets hung from the walls and ceiling that held his clothes and rows of little boxes along the counter that were labeled as various dry goods. Neatly labeled bins were stowed under the counter. There was a tiny couch that folded out and a desk that folded down. Loomis unhooked the desk and as he pulled it down a single leg swung out. You set the leg in a notch in the floor and the desk's surface sat steady. Along the top were plastic pockets that held stamps, envelopes, paper and pens. Stapler and tape hung on the wall. He looked at Schneider, who was leaning against the open door.
"Not a bad little joint he's got here. How come it doesn't look searched?"
"What, you think we're pigs? Place this organized, you tend to be a little more methodical. Anyway, we didn't really have to search for what we were looking for." He went to the narrow chest of drawers and pulled open the shallow top left drawer.
"Gun was in here." He pulled open the top right drawer. "Stuff was in here."
"Stuff? What I hear it was about an ounce of grass."
"Try about two ounces of coke."
"That's quite a difference."
"No one's supposed to know that, by the way."
"You know, Carl, its hard to imagine this looking any more like a plant. I mean, you really think he was that stupid? Shoot a guy, take the gun home, put it in your hankie drawer next to your stash and then go on the lam?"
"It's not how I'd do it. But if I was going to plant the stuff on him its not how I'd do it either. She want you to prove he didn't do it?"
"She wants me to find him before you do. She says he's innocent."
"Hm. Know what I think? He's either guilty or dead."
"Uh-huh. And if he's dead?"
"I don't know. It's her gun."
True. All she needed was to find out about Keever and Arlene and she had a gorilla motive. All Loomis had to do was prove that relationship to her and he might find out.
"You find anything else interesting?"
"That's all we took out of here. As for interesting, you'll have to decide for yourself," said Schneider, with a gesture inviting Loomis to look.
He found a number of interesting things such as Keever's collection of practical joke paraphranalia -- hand buzzers, squirting flowers and rings, aerosol dog shit -- and his collection of plans. Plans for gliders, patios, log cabins, roll top desks, gazebos, self-dealing card tables. There was also a folder full of first response material from a number of fishy-sounding sales organizations. All this stuff made Loomis radically revise his notion of Keever. He pictured him sitting in his little mobile hut, tucking in all the corners so that he would be ready when his big chance came. He was going to make a killing on one of these deals he wrote away for. He might make up to $5,000 a week on his own time on the phone. He might become independent by selling shoes to his friends. He might find riches representing an internationally known jewelry firm. But whichever one of these shoddy companies wound up ripping him off would just be finishing the job that he began. The victimization of Elroy Keever.
He also found two things of narrower interest. While rooting in the trash under the desk he found an envelope from the same pharmacy that provided Arlene with her pictures. He noted that the date was the same and the handwriting was at least similar, but there was no time-stamp. Since Carl Schneider was watching, he left it in the trash but rooted around until he found a handwritten grocery list. If it was written by Keever then the handwriting on the photo envelope was not his. It occurred to him that if he could prove Arlene picked up both sets of photos and confronted her he might find out why it was so important to her to keep the relationship a secret. It would be interesting to see how Mrs. Fishbein reacted to the news as well. After he was finished with the trash he washed his hands and in the narrow window sill over the sink was a juice glass. In the juice glass was a tiny pink paper umbrella of the sort usually associated with tropical drinks. It was open and around the edge was written 'Buddy's - Seaside Heights'. He poked around for another half-hour, but there was nothing else to see.
Schneider walked him back to his car.
"Look, Francis, I want you to be careful. Its hard to think of this guy as dangerous after seeing this place, but you never know. As far as I'm concerned, your client may be right. But somebody killed the old guy and whoever did it left the gun here. You understand me?"
"Sure. Listen, there's one other thing you might be able to do for me."
"If I can."
"Tell me. The name Ciscone ring a bell?"
"John? You mean John Ciscone?"
"John and Douglas."
"Carl, you tell me why you know the name and I'll tell you why I know the name."
Schneider reached into his cruiser for his thermos and filled up the lid with black coffee. He leaned up against his cruiser and gave it some thought.
"All right. I know more about Doug than John, actually. There was a point a couple years ago it seemed he was getting run in about once a week. Mostly rough stuff. Cops go into a bar or behind a bar to break up a fight. Nobody files charges. He's had a few peace violations. One or two assaults that didn't stick. He's as dumb as dirt, what I hear. And mean. He and John both had quite a juvenile record."
"We're not talking about the mob, are we?"
Schneider smiled, which irked Loomis considerably. Everybody knew that since the casinos started up in Atlantic City, Ocean County had become a second home base for the North Jersey mob. There was the famous case of a local businessman being beaten to death with golf clubs in his driveway a few years back. Just last summer arrests were made in that case which made clear how deeply the Mafia had bought into local businesses. It wasn't a stupid or naive question but Schneider was obliged to respond to any civilian mention of the mob with a patronizing smile.
"I'll tell you what its like. Here's a guy with a kind of romantic Sicilian notion of the way things work. He's not connected in any meaningful way, but its something to shoot for. Like growing up to be president. He'd love to be known as a wise-guy. I don't know but that the guys that count might use him from time to time, but my guess is that would pretty much steer clear of him. He's not the kind of guy that likes to work his way up, you know what I mean? From what I hear he's got more talent for business than crime. For a young guy he's been into a number of businesses around the shore and he's made them all work. Pizzeria, arcade. I think he had a pet shop a couple years ago. Then he gets some crooked scheme going and he winds up broke."
"Probably. I haven't heard him mentioned in a big way, but then I haven't heard him mentioned at all in a while. Maybe he went straight, maybe he's got his criminal priorities straightened out, I don't know. Why?"
"You think he might be dangerous?"
"What is this? Dangerous? Yeah, he probably is. He's not really a gangster, but he thinks he is, you see? He wants to be. He feels a certain obligation to be hard. Its a question of style. Far as I know neither of them ever killed anyone but I don't think they're proud of that, you know?"
"They might be pussies."
"Nah. I don't think so. Not Doug, anyway. If he had a trade, you know, something to fall back on, but the way he sees it he has to make it as a felon or go to work for his uncle."
"Cleaning septic tanks."
"That pays good."
"More than you make."
"John's just as bad. I think he likes having a psycho to boss around. They'll wind up in jail sooner or later, at least the two older ones."
"There's Joey, the young one, but I wouldn't worry about him. He's a schnook. Just as dishonest, but no guts. You gonna tell me why this is an issue?"
"I'd rather not, but I guess I better."
"Yes, that's correct."
"They introduced themselves to me last night."
"They get rough?"
"Well, they leaned on me pretty good, then Doug got physical. More or less to make a point."
"What did they want?"
"Same thing I want."
"Is that right? They're looking for Keever?"
"You don't know what that's about?"
"Not the slightest. It's interesting, though."
"C'mon, Carl, is it really a complete surprise?"
"I ain't saying I'm surprised. You notice I did not drop my coffee. I'm just saying its news. As far as I'm concerned the Ciscones are young criminals in the formative stage. Keever is a drifter slash loser. I know of no connection."
"Well, I expect you'll look for one now. If you find out Keever worked at their pet shop or something like that would you let me know?"
"That's kind of ticklish. I promise I will if its at all possible."
"Good enough," said Loomis, offering his hand. "You get anything from the neighbor?"
Schneider shook his hand and laughed.
"If you get anything from Mr. Burns I'll show you the police secret handshake."
"That's a deal. Its just a matter of charm."
Schneider laughed again and climbed back in his cruiser. Loomis waggled his eyebrows at him, strode off to the neighboring trailer and knocked. Immediately the door snapped open until it banged against the peep chain. The door was slammed shut and the chain unhooked, but the door didn't open. Instead, a dead bolt slid into place and the handle started to rattle. Loomis could hear mumbled curses from the other side of the door. Whoever it was started yanking the door, pushing at the bolt and even tried reattaching the chain to get the door open, but it was beyond him. Finally he just started pounding on the door as if pleading with Loomis to let him out. Finally, during a lull, Loomis got him to detach the chain again, slide the bolt back and step from the door. Loomis turned the handle and gently pushed the door in and immediately he had a small, smelly old man pushing him out of the doorway and down off the step.
"Jist what the hell do you think yer playin' at, Mister?" He had spotty grey skin and stained white hair. Both eyes seemed to wall in the same direction, but then he switched them and Loomis realized that at some point in his unpleasant life he had stopped looking directly at people. His way of not looking at you was very aggressive, however, and the tighter he bunched his lips in anger the faster tobacco juice ran down his chin. Perhaps the Loomis charm would be wasted. He pulled out a ten dollar bill and held it up.
"I'll give you this if you talk to me for ten minutes."
The next instant the ten-spot was gone and the horrible old man was folding something into the watch pocket of his jeans. Loomis pulled out his picture of Keever and held it up.
"Mr. Burns, do you know who this is?"
Loomis thought the guy quacked at him in response until he realized the noise came from inside the trailer. He guessed it was a duck.
"Nope. Niver seen'm," said Mr. Burns.
"Its your neighbor, Elroy Keever."
"Z'at right?" he said and he shrugged.
"You never met Keever? Is that what you're saying, Mr. Burns?"
Burns shrugged again and Loomis thought 'this bastard knows something.' He saw the duck walk up behind Burns and try to shoulder his way through Burns' legs. Burns shot Loomis a hostile, wary glance, picked up the bird and, murmuring sweet nothings, deposited it a small closet just off the door. It was a funny looking black duck with orange waddles all over its head like an exploded party favor.
"Mr. Burns, do you remember two nights ago . . ."
"No," said Mr. Burns and he cackled. He was starting to enjoy beating Loomis out of ten bucks. Loomis felt his face get hot and his fingers long for Mr. Burns' scrawny neck. He pulled out his picture of Arlene.
"Have you ever . . ."
"Nope. Niver seen'r," he said, slapping his side. Loomis turned away as Burns started a little dance and walked back to the Chevy. He accepted a salute from Schneider and drove off.
There is no quality that is so fixed and rooted in man as stupidity. Morons have a halflife far longer than the term of reason. That simple fact should ensure that they will win in the end. And yet, Loomis was fundamentally an optimist. He didn't believe people necessarily got what was coming to them in this life and he only rarely and under great stress believed in another life. Somehow, he just didn't take it personally.
Loomis had painted a yellow block in the space in front of his office and, due to the low traffic in the mall, it usually served to hold the space open. As he was unlocking his office he heard a pother developing to his left. He saw Gallagher trying to close his door in the faces of an angry young couple.
"Read your contract, read your contract," he was saying. He looked over at Loomis, shaking his head and rolling his eyes. The couple looked angrily at Loomis.
"Fuck the contract," said the woman. "You have to retake the pictures. You have to, or . . ."
"Or what?" asked Gallagher mildly. He looked at the husband and smiled. "Or what?"
The three of them stood silently for a moment, the husband twitching slightly. The couple then looked at each other and silently walked to their car. Gallagher watched them and then stretched, slapping his belly as if pushing away from a wonderful meal. He looked back at Loomis and frowned.
"You owe me a C-note, Loomis."
"Read your contract," said Loomis and he went into his office.
The first thing he wanted to do was call Mrs. Fishbein. The longer he put off telling her about Arlene and the boat the bigger chance he was taking.
"Mrs. Fishbein. Hello, its Loomis."
"You find him?"
"Uh, no, not yet. Have you talked to Mozarsky?"
"Mozarsky? What for? I ain't been charged with nothing."
"I think you better call him, Mrs. Fishbein, as soon as we hang up. I went by the Carousel last night."
"Yes?" She was expecting bad news.
"Well, its like this, Mrs. Fishbein, your husband apparently signed the boat over to Arlene within the past week. She's living on it now."
Mrs. Fishbein was suddenly panting, as if pausing at the landing.
"He . . . she can't . . . she can't . . ."
"I really don't think she can. But the thing is to get Mozarsky to let her know she can't as soon as possible. He'll take care of it, believe me. I don't think you really have anything to worry about. Mrs. Fishbein? Are you all right?"
"Yes, well . . ."
"I . . . I just have to pull myself together, Mr. Loomis. I've been in a fog. A positive fog for the last few days. I have to pull myself together and take care of things."
"My feeling exactly, Mrs. Fishbein. And I'm glad to hear you say it. You'll call Mozarsky, then?"
"You're damned straight I'll call him. Then I'm going straight out to the boat and slam that bitch around a little."
"Uh, bad idea, Mrs. Fishbein. She's got a gun."
"Lord. A gun."
"It was the Cap'n's. It was broken yesterday when I saw her, but she said she was getting it fixed. I wouldn't take a chance, if I were you, she seemed pretty stressed out."
"Just call Mozarsky and let the rest go. All right? Mrs. Fishbein? All right?"
"All right. Anything else?"
"Remember that list you were going to make for me?"
"List? What list?"
"The Cap'n's friends, business associates. Places he frequented."
"I don't know, Mr. Loomis, I'll try, but I got things I got to take care of."
"Mrs. Fishbein. This is one of the things you got to take care of. If you want to get your money's worth out of me you've got to do this. I've got to have more places to start. You understand."
"I understand I'm paying you to find Elroy, Mr. Loomis. We know where the Cap'n is."
"While you're at it see if you can help me more with Elroy, too. Sit down and think of anyplace, any person at all that you can remember him mentioning. Please trust me, Mrs. Fishbein. If Elroy didn't kill the Cap'n then the best way I'm going to find him is tracking the Cap'n's killer. Its also the only thing I can do that doesn't duplicate what the police are doing with more resources. I promise my first priority is finding Elroy. Make that list. Do it, would you?"
"Good. Now call Mozarsky. I'll talk to you tomorrow morning."
He hung up wishing he were really as confident as he hoped he had sounded. He also wished he knew why Mrs. Fishbein was stalling. The question was: was she dragging her feet because she believed him or because she didn't? Or because she was in a 'fog'?
He sat staring into space for several minutes and then lifted the phone and dialed the Pine Tree Inn. Goz thanked him for prompt payment which was his way of saying 'where the hell's my money?' and said he was free after work. He asked, somewhat daintily, if there was to be any more of 'that picture taking business'.
"No, Herbert. What's going to happen is that we're going to drive down to a bar in Seaside and I'm going to buy you a couple drinks."
"What do you need me for, then?"
Loomis knew better than to suggest that he wanted Goz for his bulk. Goz thought of himself as a free-lance consultant and Loomis always made sure to listen very carefully when Goz made suggestions and just as carefully ignore them.
"I'll tell you, Goz, I'm kind of stuck on this one. I thought I might bounce a couple of ideas off you."
"Well, I'm flattered, Francis, but you know I wouldn't charge you for that."
"Yeah, well, I don't know what I'm looking for in Seaside so I figured an extra couple of eyeballs wouldn't hurt. Say fifteen an hour?"
"Fine," said Goz, quickly dismissing the question of money. "My car?"
"Mine. No quick get-aways today. Pick you up at 4:30."
Loomis hung up. The truth was he had no idea why he wanted Goz along. He simply felt that the less hard information one had, the more one should trust ones instincts and act upon them. He didn't decide to call Goz. Decisions would be based on information which, as yet, he did not possess. He called Goz to make himself comfortable.
He dug out the photo envelope he swiped from Arlene. There was no question that the handwriting was the same as on the one he saw at Keever's, but in order to find out what it meant he would have to go down to the pharmacy. It wasn't something he had to know right that second, however, so he put a little time in on finding the missing nephew.
Mr. Desipio had flown in from Seattle and spent most of a week looking before contracting Loomis. He was an overbearing, unpleasant man and it was easy to see why he wasn't having much luck. By the end of a twenty minute interview he seemed angry with Loomis for not having found the kid yet. His sister was sick, his asshole nephew had disappeared and he seemed determined to get his $600-worth before he even left the office. Loomis knew that if he were the nephew he'd hide and if he knew where the nephew was he certainly wouldn't tell this jerk, unless he were getting paid to tell him. As it turned out, it took just under two hours to find the kid. He was working in a cabinet shop in Howell Township and he turned out to be one of the first people Loomis had phoned, but he wouldn't admit it the first three times. The kid hadn't really been hiding, he had just taken off and had been laying low only because Uncle Sydney was in the area. He agreed to call his mother. Very easy work and since Uncle Sydney was footing the bill Loomis inevitably tried to talk himself into padding it by a factor of, say, three. It was an idle dream, however. He typed a short report for Uncle Sydney and closed the case.
Creede's Pharmacy in Point Pleasant had been on the corner of Arnold and Blank forever, but Loomis hadn't been inside for twenty years. Back then their policy regarding fifteen year olds examining certain magazines for typographical errors before deciding not to buy was more liberal than most. He spent a lot of that summer leaving thumbprints all over Creede's merchandise. The woman at the cash register apparently represented a change in policy. She was in her early thirties with lovely brown hair and dark, deep eyes. She would have been a stunner except for the resentful hunch in her shoulders and the sour, had-it-up-to-here expression on her face. She fixed Loomis with a suspicious eye the moment he entered. He adopted his most brisk manner and led with his license.
"Hello," he said in low, carefully modulated voice, "my name is Loomis. I'm a licensed private investigator working with the Asbury Park Police Department and the New Jersey State Police."
"What?" she said. From her expression, Loomis had spent thirty seconds going 'Warga, warga, warga, warga." He laid his license, open, on the counter. She was reluctant to take her eyes off the lunatic in front of her. She picked it up and stepped back, squinted at the photostat and tossed it back on the counter.
"Wha'dya want?" Not particularly gracious, but an opening.
"I want some information."
"You'll have to talk to Mr. Cone."
"Mr. Cone may not have the information I need."
"Mr. Cone will be back in an hour."
"If you could just tell me . . ."
"I'm sorry," she lied. "Come back in an hour."
He sighed and pulled out his wallet. He extracted a twenty and laid it on the counter, holding on to one corner. She looked around as if wondering where Loomis had gone and her hand twitched toward the bill. They were immediately into a very low tension tug-of-war and Loomis was delighted with how much she wanted the twenty.
"If Mr. Cone has the information I want, then this belongs to him, doesn't it?"
"What do you want?" she asked again, much nicer than the last time.
"Do you work here every afternoon?"
"Tuesday through Saturday, ten to six."
"When do you take lunch?"
"I don't. Rather get the eight hours pay."
"Very good. So you were here last Tuesday at quarter to three."
"You handle all the photo pick-ups?"
"While I'm here, yes."
Loomis smiled and lifted his hand. For the second time today a bill evaporated before his eyes. He hoped he would get a little something back for this one. He pulled out Arlene's envelope.
"What can you tell me about this?"
Not much. Nothing that would stand up and look you in the eye in court, but she unhesitatingly picked out Arlene as being in the store that day picking up photos. Not that she could say they were these photos, but her register showed two sets of pictures in two envelopes associated with the number on the envelope Loomis handed her. In other words, everything he wanted to find out turned out exactly how he thought it did and he still didn't have any idea what it meant if it meant anything at all.
The sky was looming again, the air was moist and quick again, dusk was falling early again. Loomis appreciated the meteorological appositeness since nothing else seemed willing to hang together. It was starting to seem like everyone was willing to just let things play themselves out. No one, except Loomis and John Ciscone, seemed to be out there trying to move things along. Mrs. Fishbein, Arlene, the cops, Zelbo and certainly Keever, all seem to have gone to their corners to see what would happen next. Loomis was a fundamentally lazy man and would undoubtedly have fallen into the same dreamlike, falling forward motion were it not for that moment of gratuitous violence which Douglas Ciscone had thrown his way. He was still pissed off enough at that to be on the lookout for a way to hurt them back. He didn't doubt that they were involved in this in some way, but had nothing to indicate that their involvement would intersect his investigation at any point. He just didn't know what else to do. He decided to call Schneider in the morning and see if he knew how they could be found. Meanwhile, he was hungry, but decided that he would eat in Seaside with Goz. He started the Chevy and headed for Lakewood.
Lakewood was a fairly famous, mostly Jewish resort in the late nineteenth-early twentieth century. As recently as twenty years ago there were still some of the huge old hotels standing. Supposedly, the temperature is always six or seven degrees higher than the rest of the shore and there is a small cedar-stained lake, but there is no other reason for this town to be a resort. No mountain, no seashore. Rockefeller and Mellon had summer homes there, maybe that's all you need.
Goz nodded to Loomis when he sat at the bar and put a Wild Turkey in front of him. Loomis didn't really want it, but after he finished it he wanted another so he ordered a Coke.
The Pine Tree was a more relaxed place than the Tomahawk. No one would be all that disappointed if they didn't get laid tonight. Expectations in general were tempered as a sort of entrance fee. There was a shuffle bowl game that was rarely in action, but otherwise it was an atmosphere of experienced, competent drinking and good-natured resignation. It had a reasonably pitched juke box that was probably the only one east of Tulsa that still had "You're the Reason God Made Oklahoma." D7. Burton Marvet was the owner and was usually behind the bar evenings. He was one of Loomis' father's few friends. Despite this, Loomis liked him.
Marvet snuck up behind Loomis, got him in a mock strangle-hold, mussed his hair and punched his arm.
"Frankie, you son-of-a-bitch, how's the kid?" He was a short, blocky redhead. His hair had gone white, but the rest of his head was still red.
"Fine, Burton, how are you?"
"Me? Can't complain. Har. What d'ya hear from your old man?"
"Still in Florida. Still married. Still preaching the good news."
Marvet's face went solemn, as if they were discussing prostate surgery.
"Is that right?"
"Last I heard."
Marvet scrambled up onto the seat next to Loomis and craned his neck to put his face as close to Loomis' as possible.
"Now, you tell me what that's all about."
Loomis glanced at Goz who explained to his boss that his shift was over and that he and Loomis had an appointment. Marvet raised his arm and shook his wrist as if jingling a charm bracelet and burrowed his face closer to Loomis.
"That's all right. Hang on a second there, Herbert. Frankie doesn't mind."
Right. There was nothing he would rather do than sit around in tired, old bar talking to a rich, old drunk about his god damned old father. He smiled as unpleasantly as possible.
"What do you mean?"
Marvet checked around for eavesdroppers and continued in a voice that penetrated every corner of the bar.
"I mean, is this preaching business some kind of a deal? Is he making money at this? What is this shit?"
"Burton, I have no idea. It's my hope that it's motivated by a deep seated and well deserved sense of guilt."
"Has he got a television show? Radio, at least?"
"What I hear is he's got a tiny little cinderblock church on a dirt road in a godforsaken hole in central Florida."
"Get the fuck outa here." Marvet said, wonderingly. "Arthur Loomis? No fucking way."
Marvet suddenly slapped the side of his head and smiled slyly at Loomis, as if he had suddenly realized his leg was being pulled.
"What is it really? C'mon, Frankie. I won't tell. It's not drugs, is it?"
Loomis jerked himself to his feet.
"Barton, I havn't talked to the cocksucker in more than ten years. I don't know if he's up to anything more harmful than saving souls and I don't care. You were his friend. Why don't you write him a letter? C'mon, Goz."
As Goz settled himself in the Chevy he pursed his lips reprovingly.
"You hurt his feelings."
"You think I ought to apologize? You think I should send him some flowers?" asked Loomis, gunning the engine.
Goz shrugged his shoulders.
"I know you're sensitive about your father, but that doesn't mean you have to be unpleasant to other people about it."
"I'm unpleasant to other people about it because I'm sensitive about it and if I'm unpleasant enough maybe they'll shut the fuck up about it which would be good because I don't like to talk about it because I'm sensitive about it. Then I wouldn't have to be unpleasant about it and people's feelings wouldn't get hurt and you wouldn't be getting your tutu in a bundle."
"It would probably be good to talk about it."
"No, it wouldn't."
"You can always talk to me about it."
"Hey. Goz. Who died and made you Phil Donohue? Leave it alone. Wouldya?"
Loomis drove ill-humoredly and they both sulked all the way to Seaside Heights. He drove around for ten minutes before spotting Buddy's one block off the boardwalk. The rides were shut down and the arcades were open only in the faint hope of dumping as many of the dated souvenirs as possible before winter really put the locks on. About half this rude little town was made up of summer shacks. The older folk who remained were pleased to have a little peace and quiet at last. The kids were already sullen and resentful over the beginning of another long, barren, incredibly boring winter. The arc of their disaffection could be precisely tracked by the wave of vandalism that crested in February. Now, they jammed the three year-round bars, all on two blocks, all within a bottle throw of each other, shuttling back and forth, trying to burn off their thwarted libido and idle malevolence. Loomis drove past a seething knot of louts and parked on the far corner. Goz reached over and laid his paw on Loomis' arm.
"I'm sorry, Goz," said Loomis.
"Its all right, Loomis. I understand."
Loomis withstood that and began to open the door, but Goz laid a little more pressure on his arm. Loomis was afraid Goz was determined to have a meaningful dialogue, but he was wrong.
"What are we looking for?"
"Ah." Loomis would have to give him something to make him feel like he was part of the investigation. He pulled out Keever's photo.
"This is the guy I'm looking for. I don't expect to find him here, but I think there's a possibility somebody here might know something. What I want you to do is to stick with me and watch the people when I ask them about the picture. You're better at reading people than I am. Don't say anything, but if you think anybody's lying or holding out, you remember and tell me when we leave."
"What do you want for fifteen an hour? Secret codes? This is a boring business, Goz, and I'm paying you to do the most boring part. Just stay awake."
The two of them were large enough and old enough and looked enough like cops to silence the youths swaying outside Buddy's. As a group they seemed to hunker together and fix Loomis and Goz with a single hooded eye as they swept past and then disintegrate again into murmuring, percussive obscenities. Inside, the crush around the door was almost impassible. Neither exiting nor entering it blocked the way like a membrane, a bladder of humanity. Once they pushed their way inside the music fell on them like a wall. Behind it was the heat and behind that was the smell, alcohol and hormones. There were three men to each woman. The men ran from aging hippies to college kids to manual laborers. The women were young, dressed and made up with stylized violence and drunker than the men. It was like they knew they could have their pick, they knew they were going to pick, but they didn't want to remember it tomorrow. The only light came from over the bar and from a number of colored strobes scattered about the ceiling. Otherwise, it was night, a shimmering, oily blackness and it was impossible to say exactly how large the place was.
They squeezed their way toward the bar and the crush began to abate. The atmosphere seemed just as oppressive, though, because wherever there were no people there was noise and desire, less massy, but every bit as opaque. The bar was seventy feet long, staffed with half a dozen frenzied barmen. It was surprisingly easy to find space along the bar, but almost impossible to nail a passing bartender. Finally one screeched to a halt and lunged across the bar at them as if he were about to do a push-up.
"What!" he screamed.
"Ever seen this guy?" shouted Loomis, holding up Keever's picture.
The bartender jerked his head back and regarded Loomis with astonishment.
"You gotta be shitting me, mister." He waived his hand in disgust and raced on down the bar.
It took Loomis a half an hour to get the same nothing from the next two bartenders. Finally he stopped one and ordered a couple of Millers. Instead of paying the guy he handed him the picture.
"Five bucks," said the guy.
"Ever seen him?" asked Loomis.
"Five bucks," insisted the guy.
"Ever seen him?" persisted Loomis.
"You gonna pay me?"
"Of course. Just answer me."
The photo was plucked out of the bartenders hand by skinny guy in a Hawaiian shirt who floated up behind him out of nowhere. He stared at the photo for a long moment and then looked up at Loomis.
"Pay him," he said.
Loomis laid a five and a one on the bar and the bartender disappeared with his money, fleeing the guy in the Hawaiian shirt as much as Loomis.
"Who wants to know?" said the guy.
Loomis held his ticket open on the bar.
"Why does F.A. Loomis want to know?"
"He wants to prove this guy isn't a killer."
For a moment it seemed like the guy didn't understand Loomis. He glanced at the photo again and then looked at Loomis, holding the photo up and waving it.
"This guy? A killer?"
He snorted and tossed the photo on the bar.
"Hang on," he said, and he was gone.
Loomis and Goz looked at each other and sipped their beers. Ten minutes later a bartender came by with two more beers and a note.
"Meet me behind the Tilt-a-Whirl in fifteen minutes. If your fucking me your dead. Just you, Loomis."
It was signed 'Keever' but the signature had been all but obliterated. Loomis checked his watch.
"What do you think?"
Goz shrugged his shoulders.
After ten minutes Loomis jerked his head toward the door and they started out. After ten more minutes they were standing by the car gulping air.
"Wait in the car. With the window open."
He pointed across the street at the dark forest of skeletons on the boardwalk.
"That's the Tilt-a-Whirl. Right under the highest part of the Wild Mouse. You hear something, like, for instance, me screaming for help, you come. You don't hear something, come anyway in twenty minutes. Okay? Okay, Goz?"
"Okay." There was a sullen, bruised quality to his affirmation, as if he had suddenly realized his mission for the evening and resented it deeply. But he said it and that was the only part Loomis responded to.
"Good boy. If you come, bring a stick or something, okay?"
Goz had given him all the positive responses he was prepared to give him and merely turned with quiet dignity and got into the car.
"Good," said Loomis, as if everything were going according to plan, and he crossed the street.
The boardwalk was about six foot above the street and Loomis had to walk most of a block to find a ramp going up from a parking lot. When he got up onto the boardwalk he saw that there was only one arcade with the lights still on off to his left and that was shutting down. The main section with rides was to his right and it was completely dark. He turned right and walked down a narrow alley lined with shuttered wheel games. He could hear the surf which crashed to a halt under the acres of boardwalk not far from where he stood. Every surface was studded with lightbulbs, but under the dim moonlight the fevered colors were reduced to a tame jumble of greys and deep greens. One wall was coated with little metallic discs that shivered dully whenever the moon escaped the clouds. At the end of the alley was another transverse passage with larger arcades and sausage stands. He passed under an ornate archway announcing the Gateway to Fun. He followed the kiddie rides on his right, the little tinker-toy rollacoaster and the giant bumping catapiller, to the Tilt-a-Whirl. It was covered with tarp and its slanted series of bumps made it look like some sort of reptilian behemoth curled up and tucked in for the night. It was surrounded by linked iron barriers and it was on a section of this that Loomis could see a figure sitting, smoking, half-way around the back. He took one more look around and headed for the figure.
"Hi, John. What's new?"
"Loomis," acknowledged John Ciscone.
"Where's your brother?"
"Douggie?" asked John and he made a face to indicate Loomis' guess was as good as his. Loomis' guess was that Douggie was making sure Goz stayed out of harms way. John stubbed his cigarette out carefully on the barrier next to him and looked up at Loomis, smiling warmly.
"How are you, Loomis."
"Not bad. Headache's gone. Stitches come out next week."
Ciscone looked at him blankly for a moment and then got the joke and chuckled appreciatively.
"Ah. That Douggie. He's something, ain't he? No, what I really mean is how's the investigation? Huh? You closing in on our friend? You about to wrap this up or what?"
"Its only been a day, John. So far, I haven't got a clue."
"Well, you disappoint me, Loomis. I'm starting to think I'm in bed with the wrong guy. I was hoping you were here to claim your reward."
"Just looking for a guy named Keever."
"I can help you with that. No charge."
"I'd appreciate it."
Ciscone stood and set his feet carefully in front of Loomis, as if it were important that his feet lined up exactly with Loomis'. He gazed up at Loomis with the softest, liquid smile and whispered.
"Don't look in Seaside."
"Because he ain't here. Don't look in Point, either."
They stood like that a moment.
"How do you know?" asked Loomis.
Ciscone sighed and paused, as if gathering the last shreds of patience, but he continued in the same tone.
"Because if he was fucking here, or in fucking Point, I'd fucking know about it and I wouldn't let some cheap scumbag of a detective run around asking questions."
"Oh, I see. You telling me you run this town? You saying nothing moves in this town without your sayso? And Point? You're the big guy in Point Pleasant, too? John, get a grip on yourself."
"Asshole. You just beat yourself out of a nice piece of change."
"I guess I'm fired, huh? Deal's off?"
"That's right. Here's the new deal. You're out. Your little investigation stops now. But you don't have to get hurt. You just have to tell me who you're working for."
"We'll convince them to stop looking. Look, Loomis, you're a working guy. We don't really want to hurt you."
"Yeah. And besides, I got a gun."
"No, you don't."
"Nah. Bar's crowded. Take another pass through there and I'll tell you what kinda shorts you got on."
"I'm telling you, John, this is coming eerily close to a threat."
"I'd have a problem finding clients if it got around I was giving them up."
"Got around? Got around where? Its not like this is a community, Loomis. This is the Shore, for chrissakes. You think it'll be in the Asbury Park Press? Who's gonna know? Who's gonna care?"
Loomis started backing away.
"Okay. Well, I'll think about it."
Ciscone reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a business card and held it out for Loomis.
"Okay, fella, think about this."
Loomis reached for the card and Ciscone hit him. It was a stunning, crunching straight jab. A well-designed and perfectly executed sucker-punch. For a moment it gave Loomis a very peaceful, even pleasant sensation, as if everything was suddenly, breathtakingly clear. This is the moment depicted in cartoons by birds circling the head. Most cartoons leave out the part where the birds turn to pitbulls and attach themselves to the victims face. Everything seemed to come loose at once. Everything hurt. The noise was awful. There were two colors; red and black. Then just black. Then the black seemed to break apart as the noise began to abate. Ciscone began to assemble from many liquid parts in front of him. He was smiling. Loomis thought 'this is all just a couple of seconds. It seems like hours, but its just a couple of seconds.' Ciscone's arm was drawing back like a crossbow. Loomis tried to bring his arms up in front of his face, but they were pinned. He realized that the wall he was backed up against could only be Douggie. His mind and vision were rapidly beginning to function again and he wished they weren't because they were just going to be painfully turned off again. He kept remembering and forgetting to call for help. He kept his face towards John, figuring his nose was a small price to pay for not getting his neck broken. He was able to see John release the punch an instant after Douggie released his arms. Loomis dove to his left and rolled away from John and saw Douggie topple towards his brother, receive the punch meant for Loomis, and continue right down onto his face. As he stood he saw Goz step over Douggie, flick away a hastily thrown left hand by John and bring his own right from down below deep into John's diaphragm. John oophed and folded over onto his knees and Loomis and Goz were sprinting for the Chevy. They needn't have hurried, but they felt like it.
Loomis stormed across the street and leapt into the Chevy. He slammed the door and yanked the Chevy into reverse just as Goz was hurling his bulk into the passenger seat.
"Thanks, pal," said Loomis, once they had cleared the town and returned to the speed limit.
"You should be more honest with me," said Goz. "You really should. Why don't you just tell me that you need a bodyguard? Then I can make an honest evaluation of whether this is the type of job I want to take and if so, whether $15 an hour is adequate."
"I don't know what you're talking about, Goz. I hired you as an observer of human nature. Its not my fault those dirtbags decided to get rough. I can't anticipate every eventuality."
"Right. 'If you come, bring a stick.' Right."
"I'll give you this much. In my business, if you have a choice between a human behavior expert with glasses and a pocket protector and a human behavior expert at 230 pounds and excellent upper body development, at that point you're going to go with the beef. It only makes sense."
"I don't know what's your problem. Everything came out okay. I'm the one that got clipped. Lookit this."
Loomis stretched his neck around to show Goz the gathering welt on his chin.
"Just before you got there."
Loomis drove in silence for a minute before asking.
"When . . . uh . . . when did you actually decide to come find me?"
"Oh, I followed you right away. If you think about it, Francis, it didn't make any sense for me to wait in the car."
"Don't call me Francis. I see. So you saw the whole thing."
"You saw me talking to John Ciscone."
"And you saw . . ."
"I saw the other guy watching you. I was only about fifteen feet from you."
"You were? You saw Douggie hiding in the shadows?"
"Is that his name?"
"Yeah. And, needless to say, you saw John sucker-punch me."
"Boy, that made me mad."
"I'll bet. Now, what I'm interested in is this. You saw Douggie grab me from behind and John hit me, right?"
"At that point there was a period of, say, twenty or thirty seconds while I'm out on my feet and they're enjoying their handiwork and lining me up for another shot. Am I right?"
"I don't think quite that long."
"My question is, what are you doing in this period."
"Why didn't I just, you know, act immediately? Is that what you want to know?"
"That's exactly what I want to know."
"Oh, well, you've got to admit, there were ambiguities involved. He was clearly the aggressor, but you were both talking in unnecessarily hooded language and his agenda was difficult to assess. There's also the nature of your business to consider and the fact that you've had a previous confrontation with the same fellow. You've never told me what was involved at that occasion so how could I know what was really right? You did seem to be taunting him while he spoke very politely."
"What tipped the scale?"
"Well, I decided that even if you were in the wrong, I couldn't stand by for two against one."
Two minutes later Loomis swivelled his head and looked at Goz and then turned his eyes back to the road. He didn't speak for another minute.
"Asshole," he finally said.
"What's eating you?" asked Goz, with genuine hurt.
Loomis kept shaking his head in tight, rapid little arcs.
"I don't think we can do this anymore. I don't think I can afford to hire you again."
"What the hell are you talking about? I just saved your ass."
"You don't understand something, Goz. That guy was going to kill me and you had to make up your mind if you were going to do something about it. Now, I intend to avoid these situations in the future if at all possible, but, God forbid, if I ever am in a spot like that again, I don't want my welfare to be at the mercy of your ethical decisions. Do you see my point?"
Goz gave it some thought.
"I suppose you're right. In a practical sense."
"You see? There's your flaw. There's where your thinking goes wrong. In a situation like that there is no other sense. Practical is the only sense in town."
"No, I can't agree with you there. Every time a person is faced . . ."
"Never mind. The next time I'm trying to decide whether to cheat on my taxes I'll hire you. If I need muscle I'm better off with Martha."
They both sulked all the way to the Pine Tree.
Of course, what Loomis was really angry about was letting himself get smacked around by the Ciscones two days in a row without getting one lick in himself. Just because he was a coward didn't mean he had no pride.
One good thing did come out of the glutinous silence, though. As he passed the Mayflower Motel Loomis' mind naturally turned back to the last thing in his life that went right -- the boom-snap. As he played the whole thing over in his mind he remembered his impression that the desk clerk was a friend of Keever's. He almost swung into the parking lot to see if the same guy was on, but his desire to get rid of Goz was greater and he drove on. Later, of course, he would wonder if that decision cost a life. It would not be possible to say definitely that it did, but it was possible.
Driving on, something else clicked. The desk clerk was the same young man he felt he recognized from the Arlene's photos taken onboard the Carousel. That realization didn't make him as happy as it should have, though. He worried it for awhile until he realized that though there had undoubtedly been a moment of faint recognition when he had seen the photo, it wasn't the desk clerk he was recognizing in the photo. It was the same guy, but the initial connection was somewhere else. He should have taken the picture. He should have taken all the pictures. Maybe there was some way to prove a sequence in the photos at Arlene's and the ones that Keever gave Mrs. Fishbein. Then we could put all this nonsense about Arlene and Keever not being involved to rest.
Loomis parked at the Pine Tree and paid Goz in cash. He gave him an extra $50.
"Thank you," said Goz, returning the $50, like the pissant he was. He got out and headed for his car.
Loomis watched him. He was angry, but he regretted his outburst. Goz was an easy guy to make up with in one sense, because he was a formalist and his terms were so clear. In another sense he was difficult because his terms were humiliating, even when complied with insincerely. Loomis knew he would have to do it, though, because muscle didn't come any cheaper.
Loomis gave himself a second chance to go talk to the deskclerk and turned it down. He was tired and very hungry. He missed Martha. She was happy to see him. She made a big deal out of his bruised chin. She made Hungarian pork chops.