Read Loot the Moon Online

Authors: Mark Arsenault

Loot the Moon

For Patricia Arsenault,
my mother
Charlestown, Rhode Island
October
T
obacco smoke and moonlight filled the car. Outside, the headlamps painted a blur of green and tan onto whatever they touched in the forest as the old Lincoln raced through the gray night. From the backseat, Stu listened to the big V-8 gargling under the hood. He saw the slick of sweat on the driver's face as the young man hunched over the wheel, gasped and wheezed, and willed the lumbering car through the twists of an old country road.
The driver's as goddamn scared as me
, Stu thought. And the driver didn't have the gun at his head. Stu flinched at the casual tap, tap of the carjacker's pistol on the bump of bone at the base of Stu's skull. The dashboard clock said 1:30 a.m. The road through the woods followed the curves of a river. The trees were almost on the road. Stu would never forget those trees. White oak, six feet through their middles, older than the Constitution, stiffer than the hurricane of '38, unbending and unforgiving.
Stu's hands quivered in his lap. His palms stung with road burn,
from falling when the gunman had dragged him out of the car.
Why did I stop? Never stop for strangers
. Even two strangers around his own age, midtwenties, hitching along a darkened road. They had looked in Stu's headlights like a pair of graduate students desperate for a ride to the university. They were desperate all right, each for a different reason. Stu tried to understand what was going on here. A kidnapping, maybe? The gunman had taken the other man hostage. He sighed; the breath left him in a shiver.
I've been carjacked.
Still hardly seemed real. He swallowed hard. Stu thought back ten minutes. What could he have done differently? He had not seen the gun until his transmission was in park and his window powered down. The pistol jammed into his face had touched Stu's upper lip. His legs had turned to liquid at the smell of black powder and gun oil under his nose. He could not have run if he'd tried. Still couldn't. The scent lingered.
In the backseat with Stu, the carjacker pulled the gun from Stu's skull for a moment, flicked a lighter, and fired up another cigarette. Stu chanced a glance at him. The lighter was turned down low, to make a flame no bigger than a kernel of glowing golden corn. He saw sharp features, a long pointed nose with a bump at the bridge, no more than a day's worth of whiskers. Wet eyes unblinking, big round pupils that shrank from the light. A dark smear of blood on his cheek, though he had no cut.
Not his blood?
Stu lost his nerve and looked away before the gunman met his gaze.
“A little faster,” the gunman urged. He was calm. The gun returned to Stu's head. Tap, tap.
“I don't dare,” the driver said, eyes never leaving the road. “This thing's a sled.”
The driver had a thin voice, shaky. Stu was vaguely angry with him for just standing there by the side of the road and letting Stu stop for this madman.
He could have sent a warning
, Stu thought. Even with a pistol pressing against his ribs, he could have shouted.
Villain with a gun!
His sacrifice would have allowed Stu to escape—he'd be
remembered as a hero. But instead he'd let Stu get stuffed into the backseat, allowed himself to be pushed into the front to drive. Now he complained about the goddamn car. From the middle of the backseat, the gunman on his right, Stu could see only a slice of the driver's face, skin and shadows in the moonlight, shining with terror. Stu suddenly felt a scrape of pity in his throat for the young man at the wheel, and then toxic guilt for blaming him—two more emotions to stir with disbelief and raw fright. He made a silent apology in his head to the driver.
My final thoughts must not be petty,
Stu decided. He surprised himself with this reasoning. Stu was a freelance musician for hire—brass mostly, the guitar in a pinch, drums in an emergency; he never thought himself a deep thinker. He concluded that all men are philosophers at their last breaths, and surprised himself again.
The night was clear, cold for the season. Stu stared through the untinted sunroof, to the stars. So many stars were visible from the woods of South County, far from the lights of Providence. He imagined the pinpricks were a handful of salt scattered across black velvet. There was no helicopter trailing them up there, no help anywhere. The car swept down a steep dip and Stu felt a cold whoosh in his belly. The driver worked the brake as the road turned hard right. Stu's trumpet case in the trunk tumbled over noisily. He resisted the force of the curve pushing him toward the carjacker. The driver worked the gas again, the V-8 snarled under the hood, and Stu let himself be gently pushed to the seat back. His window was cracked a half inch and the wind hissed though it. Stu leaned toward the door, felt the fall air.
“Where the hell are we going?” the driver asked.
The red dot at the end of the butt glowed brighter when the carjacker sucked the cigarette. He blew the smoke straight up toward the stars. He yawned. “Stay on this road a while yet,” he said, speaking out of half his mouth while the other half clenched the butt. He gripped his chin and gazed out the back window to nothingness. As
an afterthought, he added, “You're both free to go when I get where I need to be.”
Stu's eyes widened.
Free to go?
He had dared not even dream it. He wiped the sweat off his forehead and eyebrows. The salt stung the bloody scrape on his hand. His face steamed hot, his body shook with chills.
The driver muttered, “You're a goddamn liar.”
The carjacker said nothing, but he withdrew the gun from behind Stu's head and aimed it generally toward the front seat.
“You can't kill the
driver
,” Stu croaked, shocked at hearing his own thoughts, not in his mind but with his ears.
Was that out loud?
“Oh, fuck that,” the driver said in disgust. His fists flexed on the steering wheel for a few seconds, clenching and unclenching. He spat into the dark space where a front passenger would sit. Rage rose in his voice. “You can't let me live. Not after what I seen.”
“Drive the car,” the carjacker said sharply. He shifted in his seat, cracked his window an inch, and stuffed the cigarette butt out.
“You can't,” the driver said again, more to himself than to anyone else. “You couldn't take that chance.” He pressed harder on the gas. The car revved to attention and sped faster into the night.
“Easy now,” Stu said. His mouth was dry. He gripped the seat in front of him with one hand and felt for the seat belt with the other.
The old Lincoln barreled around a curve. The tires whimpered. With the road ahead straightening, the driver pounded the gas. The engine gorged on superpremium; the car's chunky chug-chug noise smoothed into a heavy purr. The big V-8 liked the speed. Trees zipped by on either side. The tires rumbled over bumps.
Where is that goddamn seat belt?
“That's enough!” the carjacker shouted.
“Can't shoot me now,” the driver called back.
“He said he'll let us go!” Stu yelled.
The carjacker leveled the gun at the driver's head. Sounding calm again, he said: “I will blow your skull open.”
“Fuck you, you will,” the driver said. “Kill me, kill yourself.” He grimaced and tugged the wheel left and right, working the play out of it. “Throw the goddamn pistol in the front seat!”
The road suddenly bent left; the driver gasped, let off the gas, and yanked the wheel. Stu's body hit the door. The trumpet thudded back across the trunk. The engine took a breath. Then the driver punched the pedal again and the car roared. “The gun! Throw it in the front!”
The gunman barked, “Count of three—you're dead.”
“No!” Stu cried.
“One!”
Hairpin turn to the right, out of the blackness. The driver cursed and banged the brake. The pads ground into the rotors. The hood dove down and the tires yelped. A white oak scraped alongside the car and plucked off the mirror.
“Jesus!” Stu heard himself shriek.
The Lincoln bounced off the road and careened over a hill. Dark shapes rushed at the car. The headlights bore down on the final white oak. The light played within the grooves of the bark and electrified the tree with flickering shadows. Stu instinctively reached over the seat for the wheel and added his wet scream to the chaos of voices in the car. The oak forgave them nothing, probably didn't drop a leaf. With a tremendous crunch, the car crumpled into the tree and spun off. The windshield shattered with a muffled pop and the forest twirled. The gunman rolled onto Stu, then Stu rolled on the gunman. The car tumbled with a deafening boom into a boulder and bounced off the earth. The lights went black. For a second there was silence, like a gasp between screams, and then the head-splitting noise of the Lincoln rolling over and over and ravaging itself against the ground.
T
he man who surprised Billy Povich at the dog track smelled like vegan bath oils—not tested on animals, probably not even tested at all—and a ripened human armpit. He was a modern-day hippie, who wore a linen business suit the color of wheat, and fake-leather shoes that reflected light in a melting rainbow, like in a petroleum spill. His gray ponytail had been lassoed by a strip of cotton shoelace; the whiskers of his white Santa Claus beard were kinked and stiff. He did not bother with a necktie. His shirt was open two buttons, to reveal a smooth shard of blue beach glass on a braided silver chain peeking through the whiskers.
He collapsed into the chair next to Billy as the handlers were leading the dogs out for the third race. “You won't return my calls,” the man said, speaking up over the bleeps of electronic slot machines that sounded like a laser gun battle. Though a lawyer who defended the most violent and vicious and impoverished people in Rhode Island, he had been cursed with a flighty voice, like a nervous speaker in front of a crowd.
“You won't take a hint, Martin,” Billy answered. He looked Martin over. “I see that your wife is still dressing you.”
“I do not argue with the Keeper of the Nookie. How's your pop?”
Billy recoiled at the question. “Fine,” he lied. He pressed his lips together, looked up from the racing form marked in yellow Hi-Liter in his lap, and subconsciously scanned for the most direct route to escape: down the rows of stadium seats that angled sharply to a two-story wall of glass, to the dirt dog track outside, the color of a clay pot, past the infield lawn dotted with regal concrete statues of anonymous greyhounds and sickly shrubs that never seemed to grow, to the hand-lettered tote board beyond the far straightaway. Beyond the tote board, in a wasteland of parking lot ten times bigger than it needed to be, Billy's white van waited like a lone houseboat on an asphalt lake.
Just looking around calmed Billy. He felt comfortable in his regular seat at the indoor grandstands, one chair in from the aisle, with unbroken views to twenty television screens showing simulcast races that brought out-of-state action to Rhode Island gamblers. He even found familiar comfort in the stench of the place: like a used ashtray moistened with glass cleaner. He hated only the noise, still new and unsettling—the electronic giggles of digital slot machines, a recent addition to Billy's beloved dog track.
“I'm here to talk to you,” Martin said. He pulled a manila envelope from his inside coat pocket. “I need help.”
Billy said nothing. He watched seven muzzled dogs, in numbered bibs, and their human handlers parade down the near straightaway, toward the gates. Dog number 3, a brindled male, pulled against his leash.
“Oh, Christ, look at that,” Billy moaned.
“What?” said Martin. He squinted down to the track. “Holy shit, don't they feed them skinny pups?”
“That dog, number three—look how he's fighting to get to the gate.”
“Maybe he has to pee,” Martin offered. He crossed his legs.
“That dog's name is Runnin' for Bob,” Billy said, a quick glance to his racing form. “He's going off at thirteen-to-one.” Billy scraped fingernails over his chin stubble. “I remember that dog. Good on a muddy track, not much heart on a fast surface like today. But he looks like he came to run.”
“Not your dog, I assume?”
Billy glanced to the nearest cashier—ten people in line. Too busy to lay a wager before the next race. He sighed. “You ever have a hunch arrive too late?” He tapped his Hi-Liter on the paper. “My dog in this race is Move Over Rover, at five-to-two odds.”
“Which one? The one that looks like he needs a nap?”
“Rest now, run later,” Billy said. He was never so sure he was about to lose. “I saw you on TV last week, during your big trial. Must have been the day of the verdict, because your client was being led off in handcuffs. You were trying to look suave. Your client looked put out.”
“Put out? He drank a quart of Canadian whiskey and ran down a teenager—on the sidewalk! What did he expect would happen at trial?”
“Probably expected you to get him off.”
Martin grumbled, “I went to law school, not magic school. There are no guarantees in my business. Sentencing is coming up. I'll be glad to be rid of that case.” He uncrossed his legs and then recrossed them with the other leg on top. “What's with the goddamn racket in here?” he snapped. He frowned and looked over his shoulder at the rows of digital slot machines in formation like an invading robot army behind the grandstands. “Sounds like a Pac-Man tournament.”
“Computers collect money faster than the greyhounds,” Billy
said. “It's like a tax on people who don't understand statistical probabilities.”
“You don't play the slots? I thought you played everything.”
“A circuit board is pure randomness—immune to my hunches.”
He turned to Martin. The lawyer's eyes had a dull sheen over them, squiggling red veins beneath it. This was not quite the Martin Smothers whom Billy had come to know.
Where's the righteous twinkle?
Martin was a slave to justice and the law, in that order. He was the kind of lawyer always ready to hike up his pants and pick a fistfight to defend some constitutional ideal that had fallen from favor. Billy knew of no other man who once had his ass kicked in an all-night diner after an argument over the Fourth Amendment.
He's wounded
, Billy realized.
Two old men nearby began to holler at a televised race. They were retirees, both in tweed cabbie caps, buttoned-up sweaters measled with pills of yarn, and polyester slacks that draped at the crotch. They looked like most of the men at the track on a weekday afternoon. Billy watched them. Near the end of the televised race, both crumpled into their chairs, gutshot with the despair of losing. A lame puppy that didn't want to run at a track in upstate New York had destroyed their afternoon. Billy never liked betting on the televised races; he preferred the local dogs. Some gamblers thought nothing of watching the daily local races on TV too, rather than turning their heads to watch the dogs race live on the oval outside the windows.
The handlers on the track loaded the dogs into a row of concrete bunkers at the end of a straightaway. Billy always wondered what the dogs thought about inside the gates, in the dark minute before the race began. Were they nervous? Did they ever question why they ran themselves to exhaustion in chase of a rabbit on a rail that none of them had ever caught? Did they wonder how a rabbit could run so fast with no legs? Did they find their lives futile? Or were dogs just optimistic?
Martin snatched away Billy's racing program and glanced at it. “I
like Sassy Lassie,” he said. “At twenty-to-one.” He offered his right hand.
Billy shook it. “You're on. One buck.”
The bell rang, the gates flew open, the rabbit whirred ahead. Dogs shot from the gates, flinging a wake of dirt as they sprinted down the front straight.
“That's a rabbit?” Martin said disapprovingly. “Looks like a dog bone made of sheepskin.”
Billy's dog, Move Over Rover, started slowly, and then tapered off.
Billy sighed and tore apart his betting slip before the race was half over. He let the pieces flutter to the floor. The dogs circled the track, then dashed one-half turn around again to the finish. Sassy Lassie pressed for the lead right to the end, and finished second to Runnin' for Bob.
“I knew it,” Billy muttered. “As sure as my own name, I
knew
Runnin' for Bob could not lose that race. Goddamn late hunch.” He pulled out his wallet.
“You really don't have to pay me,” Martin said. He snickered and hiccuped at the same time.
Billy handed him a single. “Can't afford another legbreaker on my ass.”
Martin took the dollar, sniffed it, smiled, and tucked the bill into his shirt pocket. He let the grin fade, gazed to the empty track, and said flatly, “You know that a friend of mine is dead.” He stroked his beard, discovered crumbs in the whiskers, frowned and brushed them away. “Judge Harmony was my first law partner, back when I passed the bar.”
“I thought Abe Lincoln was your first law partner.” He gave Martin a sad smile.
“He came later,” Martin said, grimly going along with the joke. “My original mentor was Gil Harmony.”
“I wrote his obituary for the paper,” Billy said.
“It was beautiful, so I figured it was you who did it. Did you do the obit for the kid who slaughtered him?”
“Murderers don't get obits when they're killed during the getaway.”
“A quick death was too good for him,” Martin growled. “We should have shut him in a concrete box for the rest of his life, with no hope, no contact with anyone, nothing except the very best medical care to make his sentence as long as possible.”
Billy smiled and tried to lighten the mood. “I always thought you opposed the death penalty because you're a flower child.”
“I oppose it for premeditated murderers because I've
seen
inside the prisons, an hour or two at a time, with my clients. It's like being locked in a gas station restroom, forever. States who poison their worst killers—or hang them, or shock them—are doing them a favor.” Martin laid a hand on his shiny bare forehead, as if checking himself for a fever. The hand holding the envelope dropped slowly to his side, as if he were overacting a death scene on daytime television. Was he acting? The anger seemed real. Martin swallowed hard. His Adam's apple bounced in his throat.
“Martin,” Billy began, “I don't know what you think you need from me—”
“The judge was shot just once,” Martin said, interrupting. “Lawyers used to say Judge Harmony had an eye for when they were full of shit. Well, he was shot once through the eye.” He paused a few seconds, and then added a stray thought. “His wife's name is June.”
“I remember from the obituary.”
“She's an old friend of mine too. I have a vague recollection of their wedding, but I used to like tequila back then, so that decade is hazy.”
“Marty—”
“What I remember best is Gil's advice when I split our partnership. ‘Marty,' he told me, ‘you're a goddamn fool for leaving this
firm.'” Martin laughed; a twinkle of life stirred in his eyes. He imitated his former partner in a lockjawed aristocrat's voice: “‘Don't make the same mistakes I made—make
different
mistakes.'” Martin chuckled, gazed away, looked backward in time. “And though Gil was a crusty New England Yankee, as emotional as the average Vulcan, I could tell on the day I quit to join the public defender's office that he respected what I had done.”
“So you're a vegan
and
a Trekkie,” Billy said. “I'd guess you didn't date much.”
“I'm a closet carnivore—don't ever tell my wife. And I prefer
Battlestar Galactica
.”
“You certainly made your own mistakes.”
Martin smiled. “My mistakes,” he said, “are why Gil Harmony drove a custom BMW, and I drive a Ford Escort with two hundred thousand miles on it.”
A gambler ten rows behind them barked profanity at televised dogs. Two crumpled betting slips sailed in high arcs, five seconds apart, far over Billy's head, as if the angry bettor were shelling the front of the room with mortar fire.
Billy inhaled deeply and meted the air out slowly. Lawyers around Rhode Island sarcastically referred to Martin Smothers as “the Saint.” Now in private practice, he was the patron saint of hopeless causes, the Saint Jude of legal services. A few rare attorneys devoted their practices to people stuck on America's bottom rung; Martin's clients were lower than that—they were the ones under the heel of the ladder. Martin had helped Billy once, and few things bothered Billy as much as an IOU. Unpaid debts had led him into many face-to-fist confrontations with bookmakers. His nose itched. He traced a finger over the bump where his sniffer had been broken on three occasions by collectors.
Billy folded his arms. He knew he could not refuse Martin, but he tried to put up a fight: “Have I mentioned this isn't a great time for me to take another case with you?”
“I can't investigate this myself,” Martin said. “I'm too close to it. Plus, I'm representing Gil's wife”—he paused, grimaced, smacked the envelope on his knee—“I mean his
widow
, in probate court, as a favor. Her son is still battered from the car crash. June needs my help. I want to be ready when they open Gil's will later this week.”
“What's left to investigate?” Billy asked, still hoping to get out of the job. “The killer died in the crash.”
“Naw, that's bullshit,” Martin said, not angrily, merely as a point of information. From the envelope he pulled a five-by-seven photograph—a police mug shot enlarged to the point it had just started to become fuzzy.

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