Authors: Stephen King
“Dutched,” Billy murmurs to his empty kitchen.
Nick said that six weeks ago, when this job looked like becoming a reality, he sent Paul Logan up to Macon and told him to buy a Ford Transit van, not new but not more than three years old. Transits were the workhorses of Red Bluff's Department of Public Works fleet. Billy has already seen several, painted yellow and blue with the motto WE ARE HERE TO SERVE painted on the sides. The brown Transit Frank bought in Georgia was now in a garage on the outskirts of town, painted in DPW colors and with the DPW motto.
“I'll have a good idea of when Allen's extradition is getting close,” Nick said. He was sipping a little more brandy. “Those guys I told you aboutâthe ones coming inâwill start being out and about in that van, always looking busy but not really
anything. Never staying too long in one place but always near the courthouse and the Gerard Tower. An hour here, two hours there. Becoming part of the scenery, in other words. Like you, Billy.”
On the day of Allen's arrival, Nick said this bogus DPW van would be parked around the corner from the Gerard Tower. The bogus city workers would maybe open a manhole cover and pretend to be doing something inside. When the shot came, and the flashpot explosions, people would run everywhere. Including from the Gerard Tower and including Billy Summers, who would race around the corner and into the back of the van. There he would jump into a pair of DPW coveralls.
“The van pulls around to the courthouse,” Nick said. “Cops are already on the scene. My guysâand youâpile out and ask if there's anything they can do to help. Put up sawhorses to block the street, or something. In all the confusion, it will look a hundred per cent natural. You see that?”
Billy saw. It was bold and it was good.
“They probably tell us to get lost,” Billy said. “We're city workers but we're civilians. Is that right?”
Nick laughed and clapped his hands. “See? Anyone who thinks you're stupid is full of shit. My guys say yes sir, officers, and off you drive. And you keep driving. After switching vehicles, of course.”
“Driving to where?”
“De Pere, Wisconsin, a thousand miles from here. There's a safe house. You stay there a couple of days, relax, check your bank account for the rest of your payday, think about how you're going to spend your money. After that you're on your own. How does it sound?”
It sounded good. Too good? A possible set-up? Unlikely. If anyone in this deal is being set up, it's Ken Hoff. Billy's problem with Nick's unexpected offer is that he's never had to depend on other people to disappear before. He doesn't like it but that wasn't the time to say so.
“Let me think about it, okay?”
“You bet,” Nick said. “Plenty of time.”
Billy hauls his suitcase out of the master bedroom closet. He puts it on the bed and unzips it. It looks empty, but it's not. The lining has a Velcro strip running along the underside. He pulls the lining up and takes out a small flat case. It's the kind smart peopleâthose who read more challenging stuff than
digests and supermarket checkout lane scandal papersâmight call an etui. There's a wallet inside with credit cards and a driver's license issued to Dalton Curtis Smith, of Stowe, Vermont.
There have been many other wallets and IDs during Billy's career, not one for each of his assassinations (he calls them what they are) but at least a dozen, leading up to the current one belonging to a make-believe individual named David Lockridge. Some of his previous selves had good ID, some not so good. The credit cards and DL in the David Lockridge wallet are very good indeed, but the stuff in the flat gray case is better. The stuff in there is gold. Putting it together has been the work of five years, a labor of love going back to when he decided he must eventually get out of a business that makes himâadmit itâjust another bad person.
Dalton Smith isn't just a Lord Buxton wallet with a legit-looking driver's license inside; Dalton Smith is practically a real person. The Mastercard, the Amex card, and the Visa all get used regularly. Ditto the Bank of America debit card. Not every day, but often
enough so the accounts don't gather dust. His credit rating isn't excellent, which might draw attention, but it's very good.
There's a Red Cross blood donor card, his Social Security card, and Dalton's membership in an Apple User Group. No
here; Dalton Curtis Smith is a freelance computer tech with a fairly lucrative sideline that allows him to go wherever the wind blows him. Also in the wallet are pictures of Dalton with his wife (they were divorced six years ago), Dalton with his parents (killed in the ever-popular car crash when Dalton was a teenager), Dalton with his estranged brother (they don't talk since Dalton found out his brother voted for Nader in the 2000 election).
Dalton's birth certificate is in the etui, and references. Some are from individuals and small businesses whose computers Dalton has fixed, others from people who have rented to him in Portsmouth, Chicago, and Irvine. His go-to guy in New York, Bucky Hanson, has created some of these references; Bucky is the only person Billy trusts completely. Others Billy created himself. Dalton Smith never stays long in one place, a tumbling tumbleweed is he, but when he's
, he's a very good tenant: neat and quiet, always pays the rent on time.
To Billy, Dalton Smith with his low-key but impeccable bona fides is as beautiful as a snowfield without a single track on it. He hates the idea of defacing that beauty by putting Dalton to work, but isn't this exactly what Dalton Curtis Smith was created for? It is. One last job, the
last job, and Billy can disappear into a new identity. Probably not live the rest of his life in it, but even that's possible, assuming he can get out of this town without being burned; the five hundred thousand down payment has already made the rounds and finished up at Dalton's bank account in Nevis, and half a mil's the biggest sign that Nick isn't playing this funny. When the work is done, the rest will follow.
Dalton's DL headshot shows a man of about Billy's age, maybe a year or two younger, but he's blond instead of dark. And he has a mustache.
The next morning, Billy parks on the fourth level of the garage near the Gerard Tower. After making certain adjustments to his appearance, he walks in the opposite direction. This is Dalton Smith's maiden voyage.
When the city is small, small distances can make a big difference. Pearson Street is only nine blocks from the Main Street parking garage, a brisk fifteen-minute walk (Gerard Tower still looms close enough to be clearly seen), but this is a different world from the one where guys in ties and gals in click-clack shoes man and woman their posts and lunch in the kind of restaurants where the waiter hands you a wine list along with the menu.
There's a corner grocery, but it's closed up. Like many declining neighborhoods, this one is a food desert. There are two barrooms, one closed and the other looking like it's just hanging on. A pawnshop that doubles as a check-cashing and small-loans business. A sad little strip mall a bit further on. And a line of homes that are trying to look middle class and not getting there.
Billy guesses the reason for the area's decline is the vacant lot right across the street from his target house. It's a big expanse of rubbly, trash-strewn ground. Cutting through it are rusting railroad tracks barely visible in high weeds and summer goldenrod. Signs posted at fifty-foot intervals read CITY PROPERTY and NO TRESPASSING and DANGER KEEP OUT. He notes the jagged remains of a brick building that once must have been a train station. Maybe it served bus lines as wellâGreyhound, Trailways, Southern. Now the city's land-based transportation has moved elsewhere, and this neighborhood, which might have been busy in the closing decades of the last century, is suffering from a kind of municipal COPD. A rusty shopping cart lies overturned on the sidewalk across the way. A tattered pair of men's undershorts flap from one of its wheels in
a hot wind that tousles the hair of Billy's blond Dalton Smith wig and flutters his shirt collar against his neck.
Most of the houses need paint. Some have FOR SALE signs in front of them. 658 also needs paint, but the sign in front reads FURNISHED APARTMENTS FOR RENT. There's a real estate agent's number to call. Billy notes it down, then goes up the cracked cement walk and looks at the line of doorbells. Although it's just a three-story, there are four bells. Only one of them, second from the top, has a name: JENSEN. He rings it. At this time of day there's probably nobody home, but his luck is in.
Footsteps descend the stairs. A youngish woman peers through the dirty glass of the door. What she sees is a white man in a nice open-collared shirt and dress pants. His blond hair is short. His mustache is neatly trimmed. He wears glasses. He's quite fat, not to the point of obesity but getting there. He doesn't look like a bad person, he looks like a good person who could stand to drop twenty or thirty pounds, so she opens the door, but not all the way.
As if I couldn't push my way in and strangle you right there in the foyer, Billy thinks. There's no car in the driveway or parked at the curb, which means your husband's at work, and those three unmarked bells strongly suggest that you are the only person in this old faux Victorian.
“I don't buy from door-to-door salesmen,” Mrs. Jensen says.
“No, ma'am, I'm not a salesman. I'm new in the city and looking for an apartment. This looks like it might be in my price range. I just wanted to know if this is a nice place. My name's Dalton Smith.”
He holds out his hand. She gives it a token touch, then draws her own hand back. But she's willing to talk. “Well, it's not the greatest area, as you can see, and the nearest supermarket's a mile away, but me and my husband haven't had any real problems. Kids get into that old trainyard across the way sometimes, probably drinking and smoking dope, and there's a dog around the corner that barks half
the night, but that's about the worst of it.” She pauses and he sees her look down, checking for a wedding ring that's not there. “
don't bark at night, do you, Mr. Smith? By which I mean parties and loud music.”
“No, ma'am.” He smiles and touches his stomach. The fake pregnancy belly has been inflated to about six months. “I like to eat, though.”
“Because there's a clause about excessive noise in the rental agreement.”
“May I ask how much you pay per month?”
“That's between me and my husband. If you want to live here, you'd have to take it up with Mr. Richter. He's the man that handles this place. Couple of others down the block, tooâ¦ although this one's nicer.
“Completely understood. I apologize for asking.”
Mrs. Jensen thaws a little. “I will tell you that you don't want the third floor. That place is a hotbox, even when the wind blows from across the old trainyard, which it does most of the time.”
“No air conditioning, I take it.”
“You take it right. But when it comes on cold weather, the heat's okay. Course you have to pay for it. Electricity, too. It's all in the agreement. If you've rented before, I guess you know the drill.”
“Boy, do I ever.” He rolls his eyes and finally gets a smile out of her. Now he can ask what he really wants to ask. “What about the downstairs? Is that a basement apartment? Because it looks like there's a bellâ”
Her smile widens. “Oh yes, and it's quite nice. Furnished, like the sign says. Although, you know, just the basics. I wanted that one, but my husband thought it would be too small if our application gets approved. We're trying to adopt.”
Billy marvels at this. She has just revealed a crucial piece of her heartâof her
heartâafter she balked at revealing how much rent she and her husband pay. Which he asked not because
he really wanted to know but because it would make him seem plausible.
“Well, good luck to you. And thanks. If this Mr. Richter and I see eye to eye, maybe you'll see more of me. You have a good day, now.”
“You too. Nice to meet you.” This time she holds out her hand for a real shake, and Billy thinks again about what Nick saidâ
You get along with people without buddying up to them
. Nice to know that works even if you look fat.
As he walks down the sidewalk, she calls after him, “I bet that basement apartment stays nice and cool even in the hottest weather! I wish we'd taken it!”
He gives her a thumbs-up and heads back toward downtown. He has seen all he needs to see and has come to a decision. This is the place he wants, and Nick Majarian doesn't need to know a thing about it.
Halfway back he comes to a hole-in-the-wall store that sells candy, cigarettes, magazines, cold drinks, and burner phones in blister packs. He buys one, paying cash, and sits on a bus bench to get it up and running. He will use it as long as he has to, then dispose of it. The others as well. Always supposing the deal goes down, the cops are going to know right away that it was David Lockridge who assassinated Joel Allen. They will then discover that David Lockridge is an alias of one William Summers, a Marine vet with sniper skills and sniper kills. They will also discover Summers's association with Kenneth Hoff, the designated fall guy. What they must not discover is that Billy Summers, aka David Lockridge, has disappeared into the identity of Dalton Smith. Nick can never know that, either.
He calls Bucky Hanson in New York and tells Bucky to send the box marked
to his Evergreen Street address.
“So this is it, huh? You're really pulling the pin?”
“Looks like it,” Billy says, “but we'll talk some more.”
“Sure we will. Just make sure it isn't collect from some toolie-bop city jail. You're my man, hoss.”