Authors: Stephen King
Last, the most expensive item, the
piÃ¨ce de rÃ©sistance
. It's a silicone pregnancy belly, sold by Amazon but made by a company called MomTime. It was expensive because it's adjustable, allowing the wearer to look anywhere from six to nine months pregnant. It attaches with Velcro straps. Billy knows that these fake bellies are notorious shoplifting tools, big-box security personnel are told to be on the lookout for them, but Billy has not come to this small city to shoplift, and it won't be a woman wearing it when the time comes.
That will be his job.
Billy shows up at Nick's borrowed McMansion a bit before seven on Thursday evening. He has read somewhere that the polite guest arrives five minutes early, no more and no less. Paulie is the official greeter this time. Nick is once more waiting in the hall, thus out of sight of any passing law enforcement dronesâunlikely but not impossible. His smile is turned up to maximum, arms outstretched to enfold Billy in a hug.
“Chateaubriand on the menu. I got a cook, I don't know what he's doing in this rinkydink town, but he's great. You're going to love it. And save some room.” He holds Billy back at arms' length and drops his voice to a hoarse whisper. “I heard a rumor about Baked Alaska. You have to be tired of microwave dinners, right? Right?”
“That's right,” Billy says.
Frank appears. In an ascot and a pink shirt, with his hair combed in gleaming swoops and swirls piled high above an Eddie Munster widow's peak, he looks like the hoodlum in a gangster movie who gets killed first. He's got some glasses and a big green bottle on a tray. “Champers. Mote and Shandon.”
He sets down the tray and eases the cork from the bottle's neck. No pop and no splurt. Frankie Elvis may not know French, but his opening technique is superb. So is his pour.
Nick lifts a glass. The others do likewise. “To success!”
Billy, Paulie, and Frank clink and drink. The Champagne goes pleasantly to Billy's head at once, but he refuses another glass. “I'm driving. Don't want to get stopped.”
“That's Billy,” Nick says to his amigos. “Always thinking two steps ahead.”
“Three,” Billy says, and Nick laughs like this is the funniest thing he's heard since Henny Youngman died. The amigos dutifully follow suit.
“Okay,” Nick says. “Enough with the bubble-water.
It's a good meal, starting with French onion soup, progressing to beef marinated in red wine, and ending with the promised Baked Alaska. It's served by an unsmiling woman in a white uniform, except for the dessert course. Nick's hired chef wheels that in himself to the expected applause and compliments, nods his thanks and leaves.
Nick, Frank, and Paulie carry the conversation, which is mostly about Vegas: who is playing there, who is building there, who is looking for a casino license. As if they don't understand that Vegas is obsolete, Billy thinks. Probably they don't. There is no sign of Giorgio. When the serving woman comes in with after-dinner liqueur, Billy shakes his head. So does Nick.
“Marge, you and Alan can leave now,” Nick says. “It was a great meal.”
“Thanks, but we've just started to clean up theâ”
“We'll worry about that tomorrow. Here. Give this to Alan. Carfare, my old man would have said.” He pushes some bills into her hand. She mutters that she will and turns to go. “And Marge?”
She turns back.
“You haven't been smoking in the house, have you?”
Nick nods. “Don't linger, okay? Billy, let's you and me go in the living room for a little chin-chin. You guys, find something to do.”
Paul tells Billy it was good seeing him and heads for the front door. Frank follows Marge into the kitchen. Nick drops his napkin into the smeared remains of his dessert and leads Billy into the living room. The fireplace at one end is big enough to roast the Minotaur. There are statues in niches and a ceiling mural that looks like a porno version of the Sistine Chapel.
“Great, isn't it?” Nick says, looking around.
“It sure is,” Billy says, thinking that if he had to spend too much time in this room, he might lose his mind.
“Sit down, Billy, take a load off.”
Billy sits. “Where's Giorgio? Did he go back to Vegas?”
“Well, he might be there,” Nick says, “or he might be in New York or Hollywood talking to movie people about this great book he's agenting.”
None of your business, in other words, Billy thinks. Which is, in a way, fair enough. He's just an employee, after all. What they'd call a hired gun in the old Western movies Mr. Stepenek used to like.
Thinking of Mr. Stepenek makes him think of a thousand junked carsâit seemed like a thousand to a kid, anyway, and maybe there really were that manyâwith their cracked windshields winking in the sun. How many years since he last thought of that automobile graveyard? The door to the past is open. He could push it shut, latch and lock it, but he doesn't want to. Let the wind blow in. It's cold but it's fresh, and the room he's been living in is stuffy.
“Hey, Billy.” Nick is snapping his fingers. “Earth to Billy.”
“Yeah? Thought for a minute I lost you. Listen, are you actually writing something?”
“I am,” Billy says.
“Real life or made up?”
“Not about Archie Andrews and his friends, is it?” Smiling.
Billy shakes his head, also smiling.
“They say that a lot of people writing fiction for the first time use their own experiences. âWrite what you know,' I remember that from senior English. Paramus High, go Spartans. That the case with you?”
Billy makes a seesaw gesture with one hand. Then, as if the idea has just occurred to him: “Hey, you aren't getting up on what I'm writing, are you?” A dangerous question, but he can't help himself. “Because I wouldn't wantâ”
“God, no!” Nick says, sounding way past surprised, sounding actually shocked, and Billy knows he's lying. “Why would we do that even if we could?”
“I don't know, I justâ¦” A shrug. “â¦ wouldn't want anyone peeking. Because I'm no writer, just trying to stay in character. And passing the time. I'd be embarrassed for anyone to see it.”
“You put a password on the laptop, right?”
“Then nobody will.” Nick leans forward, his brown eyes on Billy's. He lowers his voice like he did when telling Billy about the Baked Alaska. “Is it hot? Threesomes, and all that?”
“No, huh-uh.” A pause. “Not really.”
“Get some sex in there, that's my advice. Because sex sells.” He chuckles and goes to a cabinet across the room. “I'm going to have a splash of brandy. Want some?”
“No thanks.” He waits for Nick to come back. “Any word on Joe?”
“Same old same old. His lawyer's appealing the extradition like I told you and the whole thing is on hold, maybe, who knows, because Johnny Judge is off on vacation.”
“But he's not talking about what he knows?”
“If he was,
“Maybe he might have an accident in jail. Never get extradited at all.”
“They're taking very good care of him. Out of gen-pop, remember?”
“Oh yeah. Right.”
That seems a little convenient
is an observation Billy can't make. It would be a bit too smart.
“Be patient, Billy. Settle in. Frankie says you're meeting the neighbors out there in Midwood.”
So. He hasn't seen Frank in the neighborhood, but Frank has seen him. Nick is checking his sexy new lappie at will and also keeping an eye on him at his temporary home. Billy thinks again of
“And in the building?”
“There too, sure. Mostly at lunch. The food wagons.”
“That's great. Blend in with the scenery. Become
of the scenery. You're good at that. I bet you were good at it in Iraq.”
I was good at it everywhere, Billy thinks. At least after I killed Bob Raines I was.
Time to change the subject. “You said there was going to be a diversion. Said we'd talk about it later. Is this later enough?”
“It is.” Nick takes a mouthful of brandy, swirls it around like it's mouthwash, swallows. “Happens to feed into an idea I wanted to try out on you. The diversion is going to be a couple of flashpots. Do you know what those are?”
Billy does, but shakes his head.
“Rock bands use em. There's a bang and a big flash of light. Like a geyser. When I know for sure that Joe is coming east, I'll have a couple planted near the courthouse. One for sure in the alley that runs behind that cafÃ© on the corner. Paulie suggested putting one in the parking garage, but it's too far away. And besides, what terrorist blows up a fucking parking garage?”
Billy makes no attempt to hide his alarm. “Planting those things isn't going to be Hoff's job, is it?”
Nick doesn't bother to swirl the second mouthful of brandy, just gulps it down. He coughs, and the cough turns into a laugh. “What, you think I'm stupid enough to give a job like that to a
grande figlio di puttana
like him? I'd be sad if that was your opinion of me. No, I've got a couple of my guys coming in. Good boys. Trustworthy.”
Billy thinks, You don't want Hoff placing the flashpots, because that could come back to you, but you don't mind him procuring the gun and placing it in the shooter's nest, because that will come back to me. How stupid do you think
“I'll probably be in Vegas when this thing goes down, but Frankie Elvis and Paul Logan will be here with the two other guys I'm bringing in. If you need anything, they'll take care of you.” He leans forward again, earnest and smiling. “It's going to be a beautiful thing. The gunshot goes, scaring everybody. Then the flashpots goâ
âand anybody who's not running already starts running then and screaming their heads off. Active shooter! Suicide bombers! Al-Qaeda! ISIS! Whatever! But the
beauty of it? Unless somebody breaks a leg running away, nobody gets hurt except for Joel Allen. That's his real name. Court Street is in a panic, and that brings me to what I wanted to talk to you about.”
“Now I know you're used to planning your own getaways, and you've always been good at itâfucking Houdini, like I saidâbut Giorgio and I had a little idea. Becauseâ¦” Nick shakes his head. “Man, this could be a tough one, even for you and even if we panic the street with the flash-bangs. Which we will. If you've already got something worked out, go with God. But if you don'tâ¦”
“I don't.” Although he's getting there. Billy gives a big
smile. “Always happy to listen, Nick.”
He's homeâhe guesses the yellow house
home, at least for a whileâby eleven PM. All of his Amazon swag is in the closet. It
would have stayed there until he got the call that Allen is headed east from Los Angeles, but things have changed. Billy is uneasy.
The black wig can stay here when it comes, but he takes the other stuff out to the car and stows it in the trunk. He won't be spending all of tomorrow in the fifth-floor office, and that's okay. The nice thing about being the Gerard Tower's writer in residence is that he's not a working stiff who has to keep regular hours. He can come in late and leave early. He can take a stroll if the urge strikes him. If anyone asks he can say he's working over a new idea. Or doing research. Or just taking an hour or two off. Tomorrow he will stroll nine blocks to 658 Pearson Street. It's a three-story house on the border of municipal downtown. Billy has already looked at the house on Zillow, but that's not good enough. He wants eyes on.
He locks the car and goes back inside. He brought the shiny new MacBook Pro back from his office and parked it on the kitchen table. Now he opens it and reads what he's written as Benjy Compson. It's only a couple of pages, ending with Benjy shooting Bob Raines. He reads it over three times, trying to see it as Nick must have. Because Nick
read it, after that crack about writers using their own experiences Billy has no doubt of it.
He doesn't care if Nick finds out about his childhood, for all Billy knows Nick has checked that out already. What Billy does care about is protecting the
, at least for now. He won't be able to sleep until he makes sure that there's nothing in those two or three pages that makes him seem too smart. So he goes over it a fourth time.
At last he shuts the laptop down. He doesn't think there's anything in the prose that a C student in English couldn't have written, assuming most of it really happened. The spelling is mostly good, and the punctuation, but Nick would chalk that up to autocorrect. Although the Word program isn't able to detect the difference between can't and cant, the computer always turns dont into don't, it underlines misspellings in red, it even notes the most egregious
grammatical lapses. The verb tenses in what he's written come and go, which is fine because that's above the computer's pay gradeâ¦ although the day will probably come when it flags those, too.
But he's uneasy.
He's never had reason to distrust Nick, who is undoubtedly a bad person but who has always played straight with Billy. He is not playing straight now, or he wouldn't have denied cloning the Pro. Would not have cloned it in the first place. Billy feels he can still assume the job is straight, the first quarter of the payout is in his bank account, five hundred thousand dollars, tall tickets, but this whole thing still feels wrong. Not big wrong, just a little wonky. It's like one of those shots you sometimes see in a movie where the camera has been slightly tilted to give you a sense of disorientation. Dutching is what movie people call that kind of tilt, and that's how this job feels: dutched. Not enough to call it off, which he might not be able to do anyway now that he's said yes, but enough to be concerning.
And there's the getaway plan Nick sprang on him.
If you've already got something worked out, go with God
, he'd said.
But if you don't, me and Giorgio had an idea that might work fine.
Nick's idea isn't a problem because it's bad; it's not. It's good. But disappearing after the job is done has always been Billy's responsibility, and for Nick to get in his business like that isâ¦ wellâ¦