Authors: Stephen King
That night he sits beside Alice on the couch. She looks good in her black pants and striped shirt. When he turns off the TV and says he wants to talk to her she looks frightened.
“Is it something bad?”
Billy shrugs. “You tell me.”
She listens to him carefully, her wide eyes steady on his. When he finishes, she says, “You would do that?”
“Yes. They need a payback for what they did to you, but that's not the only reason. What men like that have done once they'll do again. Maybe you're not even the first.”
“You'd be taking a risk. It could be dangerous.”
He thinks of the gun in Don Jensen's nightstand and says, “Probably not very.”
“You can't kill them. I don't want that. Tell me you won't kill them.”
The idea hasn't even crossed Billy's mind. They need to pay, but they also need to learn, and those who are obliterated are beyond lessons. “No,” he says. “No killing.”
“And I really don't care about Jack and Hank. They weren't the ones who pretended to like me and got me to come to that apartment.”
Billy says nothing, but he does care about Jack and Hank, assuming they participated, and based on what he saw when she was undressed, he's sure that at least one of them did. Probably both.
“But I care about Tripp,” she says, and puts a hand on his arm. “If he was hurt that would make me happy. I suppose that makes me a bad person.”
“It makes you human,” Billy says. “Bad people need to pay a price. And the price should be high.”
We could hear heavy small-arms fire and explosions in other parts of the city, but until the shit hit the fan, our area in the Jolan was relatively quiet. We cleared the first three houses in our section, Block Lima, with no trouble. Two were empty. There was a kid in the third one, not armed and not wired up to explode. We made him take off his shirt to be sure. We sent him to the police station with a couple of army guys who were headed that way with their own prisoners. We knew that kid would probably be back on the street by nightfall, because the cop shop was basically a turnstile. He was lucky to be alive at all, because we were still red-assed about losing Albie Stark. Din-Din actually raised his gun, but Big Klew pushed the barrel down and said to leave the kid alone.
“The next time we see him he'll have an AK,” George said. “We ought to just kill them all. Fucking roaches.”
The fourth house was the biggest on the block, a regular estate. It had a domed roof and a courtyard with palms on the inside to give it shade. Some rich Ba'athist's crib, no doubt. The whole thing was surrounded by a high concrete wall painted with a mural of children playing ball and skipping rope and running around while several women looked on. Probably with approval, but it was hard to tell because they were so bundled up in their abayahs. There was also a man standing off to the side. Our terp, Fareed, said he was the
. The women watched the children, Fareed said, and
watched the women to make sure they did nothing that might incite lust.
We all got a kick out of Fareed, because his accent made him sound like a Yooper from Traverse City. Lots of the terps sounded like Michiganders, who knows why. “Dat picture means dis house, the
, da kiddies, can come und play.”
“So it's a funhouse,” Donk said.
“No, dey don't allow fun in da house,” Fareed said. “Just in da yard.”
Donk rolled his eyes and snickered, but no one laughed outright. We were still thinking of Albie, and how it could have been any one of us.
“Come on, you guys,” Taco said. “Let's get some.” He handed Fareed the bullhorn that had GOOD MORNING VIETNAM printed on the side in Sharpie and told him
Billy is snapped back from Fallujah by the sound of Alice running down the stairs. She bursts into the apartment, hair flying out behind her. “Someone's coming! I was spritzing the plants and saw the car turn into the driveway!”
One look at her face tells Billy not to waste time asking if she's sure. He gets up and goes to the periscope window.
“Is it them, do you think? The Jensens coming back early? I turned off the TV but I had coffee, the place smells of it, and there's a plate on the counter! Crumbs! They'll know somebody's beenâ”
Billy pushes the curtain back a few inches. He couldn't see the new car if it was able to pull all the way up, the angle is wrong, but because his leased Fusion is in the driveway, he can. It's a blue SUV with a scratch running down the side. For a moment he doesn't know where he's seen it before, but it comes to him even before
the driver gets out. It's Merton Richter, the real estate agent who rented him the apartment.
“Did you lock the door?” Billy jerks his chin upward.
Alice shakes her head, her eyes big and scared, but maybe that's okay. It might be even if Richter tries the door and peeks in when there's no answer to his knock. The Jensens asked him to water their plants, after all. But he may be coming here, and Billy isn't wearing the wig, let alone the fake stomach. He's in a T-shirt and his workout shorts.
The front door opens and they hear Richter step inside. The puke has been cleaned up, but will he detect the smell? It's not like they opened the door to air out the foyer.
Billy wants to wait and see if Richter goes up to the Jensens' but knows he can't afford to. “Turn on the computers.” He sweeps his hand around, indicating the AllTechs. And Christ, Richter
going up there, he's coming down here. “You're my niece.”
It's all he has time for. He slams down the lid of the Mac Pro, runs for the bedroom, and shuts the door. As he crosses to the bathroom, where the fake belly is hanging on the back of the door, he hears Richter knock. She'll have to open it because he'll know from the car in the driveway that someone is home. When she does he'll see a young woman half Billy's age, bruised and still flushed from her run down the stairs. Only that's not the exercise Richter will think of first. This is bad.
Billy puts the belly in the small of his back so he can cinch the strap, but he misses the buckle and the belly falls to the floor. He picks it up and tries again. This time he gets the strap in the buckle, but he pulls it too tight and can't turn the belly to his front even when he sucks in his gut. When he loosens the strap, the fucking thing falls down again. Billy bumps his head on the washbasin, picks up the appliance, tells himself to calm down, and buckles the strap. He rotates the belly into position.
Back in the bedroom, Billy can hear the murmur of voices. Alice giggles. It sounds nervous rather than amused. Fuck, fuck,
He yanks on chinos and then the sweatshirt, both because it's quicker than a button-up and because Alice was right, fat guys think baggy clothes make them look less fat. The blond wig is on the bureau. He grabs it and jams it on over his black hair. In the living room Alice laughs again. He reminds himself not to say her name because for all Billy knows, she's given their visitor a false one.
He takes two big breaths to calm himself, puts on a smile that he hopes will look embarrassedâas if he's been caught doing the necessaryâand opens the door. “We have company, I see.”
“Yes,” Alice says. She turns to him with a smile on her lips and an expression of naked relief in her eyes. “He says he rented you the apartment.”
Billy frowns, trying to remember, then smiles as it comes to him. “Oh yes, right. Mr. Ricker.”
“Richter,” he says, and extends his hand. Billy shakes it, still smiling, trying to read what Richter is thinking. He can't. But Richter will have noticed the bruises on her face and her nervousness. Those are impossible to miss. And is Billy's hand sweaty? Probably.
“I was in theâ¦” Billy points vaguely toward the bedroom and the bathroom beyond.
“Quite all right,” Richter says. He looks at the screens of the AllTech laptops, which are cycling through all sorts of pre-loaded clickbait: the wonders of acai berries, two weird little tips for erasing wrinkles, doctors plead with you not to eat this vegetable, see what these ten child stars look like now.
“So this is what you do?” Richter asks.
“As a sideline. I earn most of my beer and skittles doing IT work. Travel around a lot, don't I, dear?”
“Yes,” Alice says, and gives another of those jagged giggles. Richter slips her a quick side-glance, and in it Billy sees that
whatever Alice may have told Richter while Billy was fumbling with the fucking fake stomach, the man believes that she's Dalton Smith's niece like he believes the moon is made of green cheese.
“Fascinating stuff,” Richter says, bending to squint at the screen that's just changed from the dangerous vegetable (corn, as it happens, which isn't even a real vegetable) to ten famous unsolved murders (JonBenÃ©t Ramsey leading the pack). “Just fascinating.” He straightens up and looks around. “I like what you've done to the place.”
Alice has neatened it up a bit, but otherwise it's the same as it was when he moved in. “What can I do for you, Mr. Richter?”
“Well, I just came to give you a little heads-up.” Richter, recalled to business, smooths his tie and puts on a professional smile. “A consortium called Southern Endeavor has bought up those storage sheds back there on Pond Street and the houses, the few that remain, here on Pearson Street. Which includes this one. They're planning on a new shopping mall that should revitalize this whole section of town.”
Billy doubts that malls can revitalize anything in the age of the Internet, including themselves, but he says nothing.
Alice is calming down, and that's good. “I'll just go in the bedroom and let you men talk,” she says, and does just that, closing the door behind her.
Billy puts his hands in his pockets and rocks back and forth on his feet, making the fake stomach bulge a bit against the sweatshirt. “The storage sheds and houses are going to be knocked down, is that what you're telling me? Including this one, I assume.”
“Yes, but you'll have six weeks to find new accommodations.” Richter says it as if conveying a great gift. “Six weeks is firm, I'm afraid. Give me a forwarding address before you move out, Cuz, and I'll be happy to refund any rent that's owing.” Richter sighs. “I'll have to tell the Jensens when I leave here. That could be harder, because they've been here longer.”
It's not for Billy to tell him that Don and Beverly will be looking for a new place anyway, maybe to buy instead of to rent, when they get back from their cruise. But he does tell Richter that the Jensens will be gone for awhile and he's been taking care of their plants. “Me and my niece, that is.”
“Very neighborly of you. And she's a lovely girl.” Richter licks his lips, perhaps just to moisten them, perhaps not. “Do you have a phone number for the Jensens?”
“I do. It's in my wallet. Will you excuse me for just a sec?”
Alice is sitting on the bed and looking at him with big eyes. Most of the color has left her face, making the bruises even more prominent.
those eyes say. And
Billy raises a hand and pats the air with it:
Be cool, be cool
He gets his wallet and goes back into the living room, remembering to walk fat. Richter is bent over one of the AllTechs, hands on knees, tie hanging down like a stopped pendulum, looking at the wonders of the avocado, nature's most perfect vegetable (it's actually a fruit). For one moment Billy actually considers lacing his fingers together and bringing the hammer down on the back of Richter's neck, but when Richter turns, Billy just opens his wallet and holds out a slip of paper. “Here it is.”
Richter takes a little pad from his inner pocket and jots down the number with a silver pencil. “I'll give them a ringy-dingy.”
“I can do it, if you want.”
“By all means, by all means, but I'll still have to call them myself. Part of the job. Sorry to trouble you, Mr. Smith. I'll let you go backâ¦” His eyes flick briefly to the bedroom door. “â¦ to whatever you were doing.”
“I'll see you out,” Billy says. Pitching his voice lower, he says “I want to talk to you aboutâ¦” He tilts his head to the bedroom.
“None of my business, Cuz. This is the twenty-first century.”
“I know, but it's not like that.”
They walk up the stairs to the foyer. Billy brings up the rear, puffing a little. “Got to lose some weight.”
“Join the club,” Richter says.
“That poor kid's my sister Mary's girl,” Billy says. “Mary's husband left her a year ago and she picked up this loser, I think in a bar. Bob somebody. He's been after the girl and beat her up when she wouldn't come across for him, if you know what I mean.”
“I get it.” Richter is looking out the foyer door like he can't wait to get back to his car. Maybe the story makes him uncomfortable, Billy thinks. Or maybe he just wants to get away from me.
“Here's the other piece. Mary's got quite the temper, doesn't like anyone telling her her business.”
“Know the type,” Richter says, still looking out the door. “Know it very well.”
“I'll keep my niece for a week, maybe ten days, let Sis cool down a bit, then take her back and talk to her about Bob.”
“Got it. Wish you luck.” He turns to Billy and offers a hand with a smile to go with it. The smile looks genuine. Richter may believe his story. On the other hand, he may be acting as if his life depends on it, which he might think it does. Billy gives him a good firm shake.
Richter exclaims, “Women! Can't live with em and can't shoot em outside the state of Alabama!”
It's a joke, so Billy laughs. Richter lets go of his hand, opens the door, then turns back. “I see you shaved off your mustache.”
Startled, Billy raises two fingers to his upper lip. What he did was forget to put it on in his haste, and maybe that's for the best. The mustache is tricky, it needs spirit gum to hold it, and if he applied it crooked, or the spirit gum showed, Richter would have known it was fake and wondered what the fuck.
“Got tired of picking food out of it,” Billy says.
Richter laughs. Billy can't tell if it's forced. It might be. “I hear that, Cuz. Loud and clear.”
He trots down the steps to his scratched SUV, shoulders a bit hunched, maybe because it's chilly this morning, maybe because he's expecting Billy to put a bullet in the back of his neck.
He gives a wave before getting in. Billy waves back. Then he hurries downstairs.
Billy says, “I'm going to visit your bad date today. Tomorrow I'm getting out of Dodge.”
Alice puts a hand to her mouth but drops it when her index finger brushes against her swollen nose. “Oh God. Did he recognize you?”
“My instinct says no, but he's observant, noticed I didn't have my mustache anymoreâ”
“He assumed I shaved it off, so it's okay. At least I think so. I'm willing to push my luck one more day. Did you give him a name?”
“Brenda Collins. My best friend in high school. Did youâ”
“Give him a different one? No, just called you my niece. I told him your mother's boyfriend beat you up because you wouldn't go to bed with him.”
Alice nods. “That's good. It covers everything.”