Authors: Stephen King
Billy learns that Jamal is the foreman at Excellent Tire, and Corrie isâsmall worldâa steno at the courthouse. He learns that Diane Fazio keeps an eye on Shanice during summer vacation while Jamal and Corrie are at work. Shanice's brother Derek goes to day camp and will go to basketball camp in August. He learns that the Dugans, who moved out of the yellow house very suddenly last October (skedaddled is how Paul Ragland puts it), were “snooty,” and Dave Lockridge is, consequently, a good change. After the shot, they'll tell reporters that he seemed like such a nice man. That's okay with Billy. He thinks of himself as a nice man, one with a dirty job. At least, he thinks, I never shot a fifteen-year-old on his way to school. Supposing Joel Allen, aka “Joe,” actually did that.
Before bed, he unboxes his AllTech laptop, powers it up, and googles Ken Hoff. He's quite the mover and shaker in Red Bluff. He's an Elk. He's in Rotary. He was president of the local Jaycees chapter. Chairman of the local Republican Party during the 2016 election cycle, and there's a picture of preâbeard scruff Ken wearing a red MAGA hat. He was on the city planning board but stepped down in 2018 after accusations of conflict of interest. He owns half a dozen downtown buildings, including the Gerard Tower, which Billy supposes makes him a kind of Donald Trump Mini-Me. He owns three TV stations, one here in Red Bluff and two in Alabama. All three are affiliated with World Wide Entertainment, which probably explains Hoff's reference to WWE. He's divorced not once but twice. That means hellimony. Plans to build a golf course were scrapped late last year. Plans for another downtown building are on hold. So is Hoff's application for a casino license. All in all, it's a picture of a man whose small-time business empire is teetering. One push and off the cliff it will go.
Billy hits the rack and lies staring up into the dark with his hands under the pillow. He's starting to understand why Nick was attracted to Ken Hoff and why Ken Hoff was attracted to Nick. Nick can be charming (that million-dollar grin), and he's smarter than the average bear, but when you get right down to it, he's a hyena and what hyenas are good at is sizing up the passing herd and picking out the one that's limping. The one that will soon fall behind. Ken Hoff is the patsy. Not for the killing, he'll have a cast-iron alibi for that, but when the cops start looking for the guy who ordered the killing, they won't find Nick. They'll find Ken. Billy decides that's okay with him.
He's used up the reservoir of cool under the pillow, so he rolls over on his right side and goes to sleep almost at once.
Being a good neighbor is tiring.
The next day Billy hooks up his new MacBook in the office on the fifth floor and downloads a solitaire app. There are a dozen different versions. He opts for Canfield and rigs the computer to leave a five-second pause before each move. If Nick or Giorgio should choose to look in and monitor his activities (or maybe Frankie Elvis would be given that task), they will have no idea the computer is playing solo.
Billy goes to the window and looks out. Both sides of Court Street are lined with parked cars, many of them police cruisers. The umbrella-shaded tables outside the Sunspot CafÃ© are filled with people eating doughnuts and Danish. A few people are descending the wide courthouse steps, but a lot more are on their way up. Some trot, showing off their aerobic fitness. Others plod. Most of the plodders are lawyers, identifiable by their huge, boxy briefcases. Court will soon be in session.
As if to underline this, a small busâonce red, now wash pinkâtrundles slowly down the choked street, passes the steps, and stops outside the smaller door at the righthand end of the big stone building. The door of the bus folds open. A cop gets out, then a conga-line of prisoners in orange jumpsuits, then another cop. The jumpsuits perp-walk around the bus's snub nose. The door of the employees' entrance opens and the men in the jumpsuits go inside, where they'll wait to be arraigned. Interesting, and worth filing
away, but Billy believes Nick is right: when Allen comes, he'll be escorted up the steps to the main entrance. Not that it matters. The shot will be almost the same either way. What's important is that Court Street is a busy place during the working week. There may be fewer people out and about in the afternoons, but most arraignments take place in the morning.
You've always been fucking Houdini when it comes to disappearing after the hit
, Nick said.
By the time things start to settle, you'll be long gone
He'd better be, because disappearing is part of what they're paying him for. A large part. Nick surely knows that using Billy has certain advantages if he botches the disappearance. He has no friends or relatives that can pressure himâor be
to pressure himâinto giving up the name of his employer. And while Nick might consider Billy far from the brightest bulb in the chandelier, he knows his hired gun is smart enough to realize he can't trade a name for a reduction to homicide in the second or manslaughter. When you shoot a man with a sniper rifle from the fifth floor of a building where you've been set up for weeks or months, there could be no argument about the charge. That's premeditation in big red letters and only murder in the first would do.
Yet if Billy were caught there's one offer the prosecution
make, and Nick would know that, too. This is a death penalty state. A smart DA might well offer Billy a shot at life in Rincon Correctional instead of the needle. If he talked. Billy supposes that if it came to that, he actually could still keep Nick out of it. He could name Ken Hoff, because Hoff wouldn't live long if the cops grabbed Billy Summers coming out of Gerard Tower. Hoff might not live long in any case. When dealing with Nick Majarian's ilk, patsies rarely did.
Billy might not live long even so, because safe is always better than sorry. He might fall down a flight of prison stairs with his hands cuffed behind his back. He might be stabbed in the shower with a sharpened toothbrush or have a bar of soap stuffed down his throat. He could hold his own against one guy, maybe even two, but
faced with a posse of 88s or three or four widebodies from People Nation? No. And does he want to spend life in prison in any case? Also no. Better dead than caged. He guesses Nick knows that, too.
None of it will be an issue if he isn't caught. He never has been, seventeen times he's gotten away clean, but he's never been faced with a situation like this one. It's not like shooting from an alley with a car nearby to carry you away, the best route out of town carefully marked.
How did you disappear after you'd gunned a man down from the fifth floor of a downtown office building, with a shit-ton of city and county cops right across the way? Billy knows how it would work in a movie: the bad-guy shooter would use a sound-and-flash suppressor. That's not an option in this case. The range is just a little too long, and he won't get a second chance if he misses the first time. Also, there's going to be the unmistakable
of the bullet breaking the sound barrier. A suppressor can do nothing about that. Billy has a personal issue, as well: he has simply never trusted potato-busters. Put a gadget on the end of a good rifle and you're taking a risk of fucking up your shot. So it's going to be loud, and while the source may not be immediately identifiable, when people stop cringing and look up, they're going to see a window on the fifth floor from which a small circle of glass is missing. Because these windows don't open.
The problems don't daunt Billy. On the contrary, they engage him. The way the prospect of certain dangerous escapesâbeing chained up inside a safe and thrown into the East River, or dangling from a skyscraper in a straitjacketâno doubt engaged Houdini. Billy doesn't have a whole plan yet, but he's got a start. The parking garage was a little more loaded on the first two levels than Irv Dean had indicated, maybe today's court docket is especially heavy, but by the time Billy got to Level 4, he had his pick of spots. Privacy, in other words, and privacy is good. Billy is sure Houdini would have agreed with that.
He goes back to the table, where the expensive Mac Pro is still playing Canfield. He powers up his own laptop and goes to Amazon. You can buy anything at Amazon.
A stretch of curb in front of Gerard Tower has been stenciled AUTHORIZED PARKING ONLY. At quarter past eleven a truck with a big sombrero on the side pulls up there. Below the sombrero, JOSE'S EATS. And below that, TODOS COMEN! People start leaving the building, trundling toward the truck like ants drawn to sugar. Five minutes later another truck pulls up behind the first. On the side of this one is a grinning cartoon boy woofing down a double cheeseburger. At eleven-thirty, while people are lined up for burgers and fries and tacos and enchiladas, a hotdog wagon appears.
Time to eat, Billy thinks. Also time to meet some more neighbors.
There are four people waiting for the elevator, three men and a woman. All are dressed for business and all look to be in their mid-thirties, the woman maybe even younger. Billy joins them. One asks if he's the new writer in residenceâ¦ as if Billy has supplanted an old one. Billy says he is and introduces himself. They do likewise: John, Jim, Harry, Phyllis. Billy asks what's good down below. John and Harry suggest the Mexican wagon. “Excellent fish tacos,” John says. Jim says the burgers aren't bad and the onion rings are A-plus. Phyllis says she has her face fixed for one of Petie's chili dogs.
“None of it's haute cuisine,” Harry says, “but it beats brown-bagging it.”
Billy asks about the cafÃ© across the street and all four shake their heads. Such instant unanimity strikes Billy funny and he has to grin.
“Stay away from it,” Harry says. “Crowded at lunch.”
“And the prices are high,” John adds. “I don't know about writers, but when you work for a start-up law firm, you have to watch your nickels and dimes.”
“Lots of lawyers in the building?” Billy asks Phyllis as the elevator doors open.
“Don't ask me, ask them,” she says. “I'm with Crescent Accounting. Answer the phone and check tax returns.”
“Quite a few of us legal beagles,” Harry says. “Some on three and four, a few more on six. I think there's a start-up architectural firm on seven. And I know there's a photography studio on eight. Commercial stuff for catalogs.”
John says, “If this place was a TV show, they'd call it
The Young Lawyers
. The big firms are mostly two or three blocks over, other side of the courthouse on Holland Street and Emery Plaza. We stay close and get crumbs from the big boys' table.”
“And wait for the big boys to die,” Jim adds. “Most of the lawyers in the old-line firms are dinosaurs who wear three-piece suits and sound like Boss Hogg.”
Billy thinks of the sign in front: OFFICE SPACE AND LUXURY APARTMENTS NOW AVAILABLE. It looked like it had been there awhile, and like Hoff, it had a certain whiff of desperation. “I'd guess your firm got a break on the lease.”
Harry gives Billy a thumbs-up. “Bang. Four years at a price just north of incredible. And the lease will hold even if the guy who owns the building, Hoff's his name, goes into Chapter 11. Ironclad. It gives us little fellas some time to get traction.”
“Besides,” Jim says, “a lawyer who gets screwed on his own lease agreement deserves to go broke.”
The young lawyers laugh. Phyllis smiles. The doors open on the lobby. The three men forge ahead, intent on chow. Billy crosses the lobby with Phyllis at a more leisurely pace. She's a goodlooking woman in an understated way, more daisy than peony.
“Curious about something,” he says.
She smiles. “It's a writer's stock in trade, isn't it? Curiosity?”
“I suppose so. I'm seeing a lot of people dressed casual. Like them.” He points to a couple just approaching the door. The guy is wearing black jeans and a Sun Ra tee. The woman with him is in a smock top that declares her pregnant belly rather than hiding it. Her hair is pulled back in a careless ponytail secured with a red rubber band. “Don't tell me those two are lawyers or architectural assistants. I guess they could be from the photography studio, but there's a whole herd of them.”
“They work for Business Solutions on the second floor. The
second floor. It's a collection agency. We call them BS for a reason.” She wrinkles her nose as if at a bad smell, but Billy doesn't miss the touch of envy in her voice. Dressing for success may be exciting at first, but as time passes it must become a drag, especially for womenâthe good hair, the good makeup, the click-clack shoes. Surely this nice-looking woman from the accounting firm on the fifth floor must from time to time think about how much of a relief it would be to just slop on a pair of jeans and a shell top, add a dash of lipstick, and call it good.
“You don't need to dress up when you spend the day working the phones in a great big open-plan office,” Phyllis says. “Your targets don't see you when you're telling them to cough up the cash or the bank will slap a lien on your house.” She stops just shy of the doors, looking thoughtful. “I wonder what they make.”
“I guess you don't crunch their numbers.”
“You guess right. But keep us in mind if you hit big with your book, Mr. Lockridge. We're also a new firm. I think I've got a card in my purseâ¦”
“Don't bother,” Billy says, touching her wrist before she can do any serious digging. “If I hit it big, I'll just come down the hall and knock on your door.”
She gives him a smile and an appraising look. There's no engagement or wedding ring on her third finger left, and Billy thinks that
in another life, this is when he'd ask her to come for a drink after work. She might say no, but that look, up from under her lashes, along with the smile, makes him think she'd say yes. But he won't ask. Meet people, yes. Get liked and like in return, yes. But don't get close. Getting close is a bad idea. Getting close is dangerous. Maybe after he retires that will change.
Billy gets a burger dragged through the garden and sits on one of the plaza benches with Lawyer Jim, whose actual name is Jim Albright. “Try one of these,” he says, holding out a fat onion ring. “Fucking delicious.”
It is. Billy says he's got to get some of those and Jim Albright says goddam right you do. Billy gets his rings in a little paper boat along with some packets of ketchup and goes back to sit with Jim.
“So what's your book about, Dave?”
Billy puts a finger to his lips. “Top secret.”
“Even if I signed an NDA? Johnny Colton specializes in em.” He points to one of his colleagues, over by the Mexican wagon.
“Not even then.”
“I admire your discretion. I thought writers loved to talk about what they're working on.”
“I think writers who talk a lot probably don't write a lot,” Billy says, “but since I'm the only writer I actually know, I'm really just guessing.” Then, and not entirely to change the subject, either: “Look at the guy over there at the hotdog wagon. That's an outfit you don't see every day.”
The man he's pointing to has joined some of his colleagues at the Mexican food wagon. Even among the other Business Solutions employees, this one stands out. He's wearing gold parachute pants that take Billy back to his Tennessee childhood, when some of the
would-be town sharpies wore such gear to the Friday night dances at the Rollerdome. Above it is a paisley shirt with a high collar, like the ones worn by British Invasion rock groups in old YouTube videos. The ensemble is finished off with a porkpie hat. From beneath it, lush black hair spills to his shoulders.
Jim laughs. “That's Colin White. Quite the fashion plate, ain't he? Gay as hell and cheerful as a Sunday afternoon in Paris. Most of the BSers stick to their own. Earning their beer and skittles by dunning people at the end of their financial rope doesn't exactly make them popular and they know it, but Colin's a regular social butterfly.” Jim shakes his head. “At least at lunch he is. I have to wonder what he's like when he's on the clock, hectoring widows and busted-up vets out of their last quarters and dimes. He must be good at the job, because there's a lot of turnover at that company and he's been here longer than I have.”
“How long is that?”
“Eighteen months. Sometimes Col comes to work wearing a kilt. Serious! Sometimes a cape. He's also got a Michael Jackson outfitâyou know, the cavalry officer deal with the epaulets and the brass buttons?”