Authors: Stephen King
“You're going to be here for at least six weeks and maybe as long as six months,” Giorgio says. “Depends on how long it takes for the moke's lawyer to run out the string fighting extradition. Or until he thinks he has a deal on the murder charge. You're getting paid for the job, but you're also getting paid for your time. You get that, right?”
“Which means you need a reason to be here in Red Bluff, and it's not exactly a vacation spot.”
“Truth,” Nick says, and makes a face like a little kid looking at a plate of broccoli.
“You also need a reason to be in that building down the street from the courthouse. You're writing a book, that's the reason.”
Giorgio holds up a fat hand. “You don't think it'll work, but I'm telling you it will. I'm going to show you how.”
Billy looks doubtful, but now that he's over his fear that they've seen through the camouflage of the
, he thinks he can see where Giorgio is going. This might have possibilities.
“I did my research. Read a bunch of writers' magazines, plus a ton of stuff online. Here's your cover story. David Lockridge grew up in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Always wanted to be a writer but barely finished high school. Worked construction. You kept writing, but you were a hard partier. Lots of drinking. I thought about giving you a divorce but decided it would be a lot to keep straight.”
For a guy who's smart about guns but not about much else, Billy thinks.
“Finally you get going on something good, okay? There's a lot of talk in the blogs I read about writers suddenly catching fire, and that's what happens to you. You write a bunch, maybe seventy pages, maybe a hundredâ”
“About what?” Billy's actually starting to enjoy himself now, but he's careful not to show it.
Giorgio exchanges a glance with Nick, who shrugs. “Haven't decided that yet, but I'll come up with somethâ”
“Maybe my own story? Dave's story, I mean. There's a word for thatâ”
“Autobiography,” Nick snaps, like he's on
“That might work,” Giorgio says. His face says
nice try, Nick, but leave this to the experts
. “Or maybe it's a novel. The important thing is you never talk about it on orders from your agent. Top secret. You're writing, you don't keep that a secret, everybody you meet in the building will know the guy on the fifth floor is writing a book, but nobody knows what it's about. That way you never get your stories mixed up.”
As if I would, Billy thinks. “How did David Lockridge get from Portsmouth to here? And how did he wind up in the Gerard Tower?”
“This is my favorite part,” Nick says. He sounds like a kid listening to a well-loved story at bedtime, and Billy doesn't think he's faking or exaggerating. Nick is totally on board with this.
“You looked for agents online,” Giorgio says, but then hesitates. “You go online, don't you?”
“Sure,” Billy says. He's pretty sure he knows more about computers than either of these two fat men, but that is also information he doesn't share. “I do email. Sometimes play games on my phone. Also, there's ComiXology. That's an app. You download stuff. I use my laptop for that.”
“Okay, good. You look for agents. You send out letters saying you're working on this book. Most of the agents say no, because they stick with the proven earners like James Patterson and the Harry Potter babe. I read a blog that said it's a catch-22: you need an agent to get published, but until you're published you can't get an agent.”
“It's the same in the movies,” Nick puts in. “You got your famous stars, but it's really all about the agents. They have the real power. They tell the stars what to do, and boy, they do it.”
Giorgio waits patiently for him to finish, then goes on. “Finally one agent says yeah, okay, what the fuck, I'll take a look, send me the first couple of chapters.”
“You,” Billy says.
“Me. George Russo. I read the pages. I flip for them. I show them to a few publishers I knowâ”
The fuck you do, Billy thinks, you show them to a few
you know. But that part can be fixed if it ever needs to be.
“âand they also flip, but they won't pay big money, maybe even seven-figure money, until the book is finished. Because you're an unknown commodity. Do you know what that means?”
Billy comes perilously close to saying of course he does, because he's getting jazzed by the possibilities here. It could actually be an excellent cover, especially the part about being sworn to secrecy concerning his project. And it could be fun pretending to be what he's always sort of wished he could be.
“It means a flash in the pan.”
Nick flashes the money grin. Giorgio nods.
“Close enough. Some time passes. I wait for more pages, but Dave doesn't come through. I wait some more. Still no pages. I go to see him up there in lobsterland, and what do I find? The guy is partying his ass off like he's Ernest fuckin Hemingway. When he's not working, he's either out with his homeboys or hungover. Substance abuse goes with talent, you know.”
“Proven fact. But George Russo is determined to save this guy, at least long enough to finish his book. He talks a publisher into contracting for it and paying an advance of let's say thirty or maybe fifty thou. Not big money, but not small money either, plus the publisher can demand it back if the book doesn't show up by a certain deadline, which they call a delivery date. But see, here's the thing, Billy: the check is made out to
instead of to
Now it's all clear in Billy's mind, but he'll let Giorgio spin it out.
“I have certain conditions. For your own good. You have to leave lobsterland and all your hard-drinking, coke-snorting friends. You have to go somewhere far away from them, to some little shitpot of
a town or city where there's nothing to do and no one to do it with even if there was. I tell you I'm gonna rent you a house.”
“The one I saw, right?”
“Right. More important, I'm going to rent you office space and you're going to go there every weekday and sit in a little room and pound away until your top secret book is done. You agree to those terms or your golden ticket goes bye-bye.”
Giorgio sits back. The chair is sturdy, but still gives out a little groan.
“Now if you tell me that's a bad idea, or even if you tell me it's a good idea but you can't sell it, we'll call the whole thing off.”
Nick holds up a hand. “Before you say anything, Billy, I want to lay out something else that makes this good. Everybody on your floor will get acquainted with you, and a lot of other people in the building, too. I know you, and you've got another talent besides hitting a quarter at a quarter of a mile.”
Like I could do that, Billy thinks. Like even Chris Kyle could.
“You get along with people without buddying up to them. They smile when they see you coming.” And then, as if Billy had denied it: “I've seen it! Hoff tells me that a couple of food wagons stop at that building every day, and in nice weather people line up and sit outside on the benches to eat their lunches. You could be one of those people. The time waiting doesn't have to be for nothing. You can use it to get accepted. Once the novelty of how you're writing a book wears off, you'll be just another nine-to-fiver who goes home to his little house in Midwood.”
Billy sees how that could happen.
“So when it finally goes down, are you a stranger no one knows? The outsider who must have done it? Uh-uh, you've been there for months, you make chit-chat in the elevator, you play dollar poker with some of the collection agency guys from the second floor to see who buys the tacos.”
“They are going to know where the shot came from,” Billy says.
“Sure, but not right away. Because at first everyone will be looking for that outsider. And because there's going to be a diversion. Also because you've always been fucking Houdini when it comes to disappearing after the hit. By the time things start to settle, you'll be long gone.”
“What's the diversion?”
“We can talk about that later,” Nick says, which makes Billy think Nick might not have made up his mind about that yet. Although with Nick, it's hard to tell. “Plenty of time. For nowâ¦” He turns to Giorgio, aka Georgie Pigs, aka George Russo.
Over to you
, the look says.
Giorgio reaches into the pocket of his gigantic suit jacket again and pulls out his phone. “Say the word, Billyâthe word being the passcode of your favorite offshore bankâand I'll send five hundred grand to it. It'll take about forty seconds. Minute and a half if the connection's slow. Also plenty of walking-around money in a local bank to get you started.”
Billy understands they're trying to rush him into a decision and has a brief image of a cow being driven down a chute to the slaughterhouse, but maybe that's just paranoia because of the enormous payday. Maybe a person's last job shouldn't just be the most lucrative; maybe it should also be the most interesting. But he would like to know one more thing.
“Why is Hoff involved?”
“His building,” Nick says promptly.
“Yeah, butâ¦” Billy frowns, putting an expression of great concentration on his face. “He said there's lots of vacancies in that building.”
“The corner spot on the fifth floor is prime, though,” Nick says. “Your agent, Georgie here, had him lease it, which keeps us out of it.”
“He also gets the gun,” Giorgio says. “May have it already. In any case, it won't be traced back to us.”
Billy knows that already, from the way Nick has been careful
not to be seen with himâno, not even on the porch of this gated estateâbut he's not entirely satisfied. Because Hoff struck him as a chatterbox, and a chatterbox isn't a good person to have around when you're planning an assassination.
Later that night. Closing in on midnight. Billy lies on his hotel room bed, hands beneath the pillow, relishing the cool that's so ephemeral. He said yes, of course, and when you say yes to Nick Majarian, there's no going back. He is now starring in his own last job story.
He had Giorgio send the $500,000 to a bank in the Caribbean. There's a good amount of money in that account right now, and after Joel Allen dies on those courthouse steps, there will be a good deal more. Enough to live on for a long, long time if he's prudent. And he will be. He doesn't have expensive tastes. Champagne and escort services have never been his thing. In two other banksâlocal onesâDavid Lockridge will have an additional $18,000 to draw on. It's plenty of walking-around money, but not enough to twang any federal tripwires.
He did have a couple of other questions. The most important was how much lead time he could expect when the deal was about to go down.
“Not a lot,” Nick said, “but it won't be âHe's gonna be there in fifteen minutes,' either. We'll know right after the extradition is ordered, and you'll get a call or a text. It'll be twenty-four hours at the very least, maybe three days or even a week. Okay?”
“Yeah,” Billy said. “Just as long as you understand I can't guarantee anything if it is fifteen minutes. Or even an hour.”
“It won't be.”
“What if they don't bring him up the courthouse steps? What if they use another door?”
“There is another door,” Giorgio said. “It's the one some of the courthouse employees use. But you'll still have a sightline from the fifth floor and the distance is only sixty yards or so longer. You can do that, can't you?”
He could, and said so. Nick lifted a hand as if to wave away a troublesome fly. “It'll be the steps, count on it. Anything else?”
Billy said there wasn't and now he lies here, thinking it over, waiting for sleep. On Monday he'll be moving into the little yellow house, leased for him by his agent. His
agent. On Tuesday, he'll see the office suite Georgie Pigs has also leased for him. When Giorgio asked him what he'd do there, Billy told him he'd start by downloading ComiXology to his laptop. And maybe a few games.
“Be sure to write something between funnybooks,” Giorgio said, half-joking and half not. “You know, get into character. Live the part.”
Maybe he will. Maybe he will do that. Even if what he writes isn't very good, it will pass the time. Autobiography was his suggestion. Giorgio suggested a novel, not because he thinks Billy's bright enough to write one but because Billy could say that when someone asked, as someone will. Probably lots of someones, once he gets to know people in the Gerard Tower.
He's slipping toward sleep when a cool idea wakes him up: why not a combination of the two? Why not a novel that's actually an autobiography, one written not by the Billy Summers who reads Zola and Hardy and even plowed his way through
, but one written by the other Billy Summers? The alter ego he calls his
? Could that work? He thinks yes, because he knows that Billy as well as he knows himself.
I might give it a try, he thinks. With nothing but time on my hands, why not? He's thinking about how he might begin when he finally drifts off.
Billy Summers once more sits in the hotel lobby, waiting for his ride.
It's Monday noon. His suitcase and laptop case are beside his chair and he's reading another comic book, this one called
Archie Comics Spectacular: Friends Forever
. He's not thinking about
today but what he might write in the fifth-floor office he's never seen. It isn't clear in his mind, but he has a first sentence and holds onto it. That sentence might connect to others. Or not. He's prepared for success but he's also prepared for disappointment. It's the way he rolls and it's worked out pretty well so far. In the sense, at least, that he's not in jail.
At four minutes past twelve, Frank Macintosh and Paulie Logan enter the lobby dressed in their suits. There are handshakes all around. Frank's pompadour appears to have had an oil change.
“Need to check out?”
“Taken care of.”
“Then let's go.”
Billy tucks his
book into the side pocket of his bag and picks it up.
“Nah, nah,” Frankie says. “Let Paulie. He needs the exercise.”
Paulie holds his middle finger against his tie like a clip, but he takes the bag. They go out to the car. Frank drives, Paulie sits in back. They drive to Midwood and the little yellow house. Billy
looks at the balding lawn and thinks he'll water it. If there's no hose, he'll buy one. There's a car in the driveway, a subcompact Toyota that looks a few years old, but with Toyotas, who can really tell?
“Yours,” Frank says. “Not much, but your agent keeps you on a tight budget, I guess.”
Paulie puts Billy's suitcase down on the porch, takes an envelope from his jacket pocket, removes a keyring, unlocks the door. He puts the keys back in the envelope and hands it to Billy. Written on the front is
24 Evergreen Street
. Billy, who didn't check the street sign yesterday or today, thinks, Now I know where I live.
“Car keys are on the kitchen table,” Frank says. He holds out his hand again, so this is goodbye. That's okay with Billy.
“Shake her easy,” Paulie says.
Less than sixty seconds later they're gone, presumably back to the McMansion with the endlessly peeing cherub in the gigantic front yard.
Billy goes upstairs to the master bedroom and opens his suitcase on a double bed that looks freshly made. When he opens the closet to put things away, he sees it's already loaded with shirts, a couple of sweaters, a hoodie, and two pairs of dress pants. There's a new pair of running shoes on the floor. All the sizes look right. In the dresser he finds socks, underwear, T-shirts, Wrangler jeans. He fills up the one empty drawer with his own stuff. There's not much. He thought he'd be buying more clothes at the Walmart he saw down the way, but it seems like that won't be necessary.
He goes down to the kitchen. The Toyota keys are on the table beside an engraved card that says KENNETH HOFF and ENTREPRENEUR. Entrepreneur, Billy thinks. There's a word for you. He
turns the card over and sees a brief note in the same hand as on the envelope containing the housekeys:
If you need anything, just call
. There are two numbers, one for business and one for cell.
He opens the refrigerator and sees it's stocked with staples: juice, milk, eggs, bacon, a few bags of deli meats and cheeses, a plastic carton of potato salad. There's a rack of Poland Spring water, a rack of Coke, and a sixpack of Bud Light. He pulls out the freezer drawer and has to smile because what's in there says so much about Ken Hoff. He's single and until his divorce (Billy's sure there was at least one), he has been fed and watered by women, starting with a mother who probably called him Kenny and made sure he got his hair cut every two weeks. The freezer is stuffed with Stouffer's entrees and frozen pizza and two boxes of ice cream novelties, the kind that come on a stick. There are no vegetables, fresh or frozen.
“Don't like him,” Billy says aloud. He's not smiling anymore.
No. And he doesn't like what Hoff is doing in this. Aside from Hoff being too out front after the deal goes down, there's something Nick's not telling him. Maybe that doesn't matter. Maybe it does. As Trump says at least once a day, Who knows?
There's a hose in the basement, coiled up and dusty. That evening, as the heat of the day is starting to fade a little, Billy lugs it outside and hooks it up to the faucet bib on the side of the house. He's standing on the front lawn, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, spraying the grass, when a man comes over from next door. He's tall, his own tee blinding white against very black skin. He's carrying two cans of beer.
“Hi, neighbor,” he says. “Brought you a cold one to welcome you to the neighborhood. Jamal Ackerman.” He's got both beers in one big hand and holds out the other.
Billy shakes. “David Lockridge. Dave. And thanks.” He twists the hose shut. “Come on inside. Or we can sit out on the steps. I haven't really got the place sorted out yet.” No need of the
here; in Midwood he can be a more regular self.
“Porch steps'll do fine,” Jamal says.
They sit. They open the cans:
. Billy tips his to Jamal's and says, “Thanks.”
They drink. They survey the lawn.
“It'll take more than water to bring that mess back,” Jamal says. “I've got some Miracle-Gro, if you want to use some. They had a BOGO deal at the Wally World Garden Center last month and I have plenty.”
“I might take you up on that. I'm planning a trip to Wally World myself. I might get a couple of chairs for the porch. But probably not until next week. You know how it is, new place and all.”
Jamal laughs. “Do I ever. This is the third house we've lived in since I got married in '09. First one was her mom's.” He pretends to shiver. Billy smiles. “Got two kids, ten and eight. Boy and a girl. When they bug you, cause they will, holler them back home.”
“If they don't break the windows or light the place on fire, they won't bug me.”
“You buying or renting?”
“Leasing. I'll be here awhile, don't know just how long. I'mâ¦ it's a little embarrassing to come right out and say it, but I'm writing a book. Trying, anyway. Looks like there's a chance I can get it published, might even be some real money in it, but I'll have to buckle down. I've got an office in town. The Gerard Tower? At least I think I do. I'm going to look at it tomorrow.”
Jamal's eyes have gotten very wide. “An author! Living right here on Evergreen Street! I'll be goddamned!”
Billy laughs and shakes his head. “Easy, big fella. I'm just a wannabe for now.”
“Still, man! Wow. Wait 'til I tell Corinne. We gotta have you
over to dinner some night. We'll be able to tell people we knew you when.”
He holds up a hand. Billy slaps him five.
You get along with people without buddying up to them
, Nick said. It's true and it's not a shuck. Billy likes people, and he likes to keep them at arms' length. It sounds like a contradiction, but it's not.
“What's it about, your book?”
“Can't tell you.” This is where the editing begins. Giorgio may think he knows it all from reading a few writers' magazines and online posts, but he doesn't. “Not because it's a big secret or something, but because I've got to keep it bottled up. If I start talking about itâ¦” He shrugs.
“Yeah, man, got it.” Jamal smiles.
And so, yeah. Just like that.
That night Billy browses Netflix on the big TV in the rumpus room. He knew it was a thing these days but has never bothered to investigate it when there are so many books to read. There's so much to watch as well, it seems. The sheer volume of choices is intimidating and he decides to go to bed early instead of watching anything. Before undressing, he checks his phone and finds a text from his new agent.
GRusso: 9 AM at Gerard Tower. Don't drive. Uber.
Billy doesn't have a David Lockridge phoneâneither Giorgio nor Frank Macintosh gave him oneâand he doesn't have a burner. He decides to use his personal since Giorgio already did. With the encrypted messaging app it should be all right. And Billy has something he really needs to say.
Billy S: OK. Don't bring Hoff.
Dots roll as Giorgio composes his reply. It doesn't take long.
GRusso: Have to. Sorry.
The dots disappear. Discussion over.
Billy empties his pockets and puts his pants in the washing machine along with everything else. He does this slowly, brow furrowed. He doesn't like Ken Hoff. Did not like him, in fact, even before he opened his mouth. Gut reaction. What Giorgio's parents and grandparents would have called
. But Hoff is in it. Giorgio's text made that clear:
. It's not like Nick and Giorgio to bring a local into their business, especially not life-and-death business like this. Is Hoff in it because of the building? Location, location, location, as the real estate guys like to say? Or because Nick isn't local himself?
Neither of those things quite excuse Ken Hoff in Billy's mind.
I'm a little bit tight this year
he'd said, but Billy guesses you had to be more than a little bit short in the shekels department to get involved in an assassination plot. And from the very firstâthe macho beard scruff, the Izod shirt, the Dockers with the slightly frayed pockets, the Gucci loafers worn at the heelâHoff smelled to Billy like the guy who would be first to flip in an interrogation room if offered a deal. Deals, after all, were what the Ken Hoffs of the world made.
He turns in and lies in the dark, hands under the pillow, looking up at nothing. Some traffic on the street, but not much. He's wondering when two million dollars starts to look like not enough, when it starts to look like dumb money. The answer seems obvious: after it's too late to back out.
Billy Ubers to the Gerard Tower, as instructed. Hoff and Giorgio are waiting in front. The face-bristles still make Hoff look (to Billy, at least) like a hobo instead of a cool dude, but otherwise
he's squared away in a summerweight suit and subdued gray tie. “George Russo,” on the other hand, looks larger than ever in an unfortunate green shirt, untucked, and blue jeans with enough ass in them to make a puptent. Billy supposes it's that fat man's idea of how a big-time literary agent dresses for a visit to sticksville. Propped between his feet is a laptop case.
Hoff seems to have pulled back on the salesman
, at least a little. Possibly at Giorgio's request, but he still can't resist a jaunty little salute:
“Good to see you. The security guy on duty this morningâand most weekdaysâis Irv Dean. He'll want your driver's license and a quick snap. That okay?”
Because it has to be if they're going to proceed, Billy nods.
A few workbound people are still crossing the lobby to the elevators. Some wear suits, some of the women are in those high heels Billy thinks of as click-clack shoes, but a surprising number are dressed informally, some even in branded tees. He doesn't know where they work, but it's probably not meeting the public.
The guy sitting at the concierge-type stand at the lobby's center is portly and elderly. The lines around his mouth are so deep they make him look like a life-sized ventriloquist's dummy. Billy guesses retired cop, now only two or three years from total retirement. His uniform consists of a blue vest with POLK SECURITY on it in gold thread. A cheap hire. More evidence that Hoff is in trouble. Big trouble, if he's solely on the hook for this building.
Hoff turns on his charm turbocharger, approaching the old guy with a smile and outstretched hand. “How's it going, Irv? All okay?”
“Fine, Mr. Hoff.”
“The arthritis bothers her some, but otherwise she's fine.”
“This is George Russo, you met him last week, and this is David Lockridge. He's going to be our resident author.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Lockridge,” Dean says. A smile lights
up his face and makes him look younger. Not much, but a little. “Hope you'll find some good words here.”
Billy thinks that's a nice thing to say, maybe even the best thing. “I hope so, too.”
“Mind me asking what your book is about?”
Billy puts a finger to his lips. “Top secret.”
“Okay, I hear you. That's a nice little suite on five. I think you'll like it. I have to take your picture for your building ID, if that's okay?”
“Got a DL?”
Billy hands over the David Lockridge driver's license. Dean uses a cell phone with GERARD TOWER Dymo'd on the back to photograph first his license and then Billy himself. Now there's a picture of him on this building's computer servers, retrievable by anyone with authorization or hacking skills. He tells himself it doesn't matter, this is his last job, but he still doesn't like it. It feels all wrong.
“I'll have the card for you when you leave. You need to use it if there's nobody here at the stand. Just put it on this reader gadget. We like to know who's in the building. I'll be here most of the time, or Logan when I'm off, and when we are, we'll sign you in.”
“You can also use your card for the parking garage on Main. It's good for four months. Your, uh, agent paid for that. It'll open the barrier as soon as I put you in the computer. Parking on the street when court's in session, forget it.” Which explains the Uber. “There's no assigned space in the garage, but most days you'll find a spot on the first or second level. We're not overcrowded just now.” He gives Ken Hoff an apologetic look, then returns his attention to the new tenant. “Anything I can do for you, just tap one-one on your office phone. Landline's installed. Your agent there took care of that, too.”