Paul Brooks is one of my oldest and dearest friends. We've been pals since high school. His biography, if someone ever writes it, will easily find its way to the top of those kinds of lists. Besides raising a wonderful, loving family, among life accomplishments, Paul graduated from Annapolis, attended the Naval Flight School at Pensacola. He went on to serve his country in many capacities, establishing himself as a highly respected military attaché to a number of countries. Paul has had a most distinguished career. A few years ago, Captain Brooks retired from the United States Navy and now lives in Pensacola. Since we've shared stories and memories for decades, I asked Paul if I could post one of his tales here as guest author for a month. Here it is. Thanks, Paul.
The convenience store parking lot was empty. Behind the counter, the lone service clerk drummed his fingers on countertop as he eyed the elderly woman who seemed to be taking too much time just to select a bag of chips. Maybe it was only his imagination, but something seemed wrong.
'Why's a little old lady out so late at night?' he thought. 'This isn't the best neighborhood in Berwood.' His attention shifted when a car stopped outside at the gasoline pump, paused, then drove on.
The small woman smiled up at him as she placed her purchase on the counter. He rang up the small bag of chips and a six-pack of canned fruit juice. He had to work not to smile at the blonde wig she wore - an ill-chosen mop piled high on her head that might have been fashionable in the sixties.
"Will that be all?" he asked.
"No, something else," she said, reaching into her purse.
The clerk's hand moved to the pistol beneath the counter. He held his breath, watching to see what emerged from the handbag. He relaxed when the strange lady handed him a lottery play slip.
"I feel lucky tonight," she said, and smiled again. "I always play this number.
He felt ashamed to think that a harmless old woman had made him reach for the gun.
"You might not be lucky walking around at night by yourself in this neighborhood, ma'am. A lot of unsavory characters are out there."
"Oh, I'm not worried," she replied. "I don't live far, and I don't have anything anyone would want to steal."
The clerked bagged her things and handed her a lottery ticket. "Well - my advice, ma'am, is to get home as fast as you can and lock the door. Dopers don't bother to ask if you have anything worth stealing before they mug you."
She smiled again and said, "You are a very considerate young man. I'll certainly take your advice. Goodnight."
When she opened it to leave, a burst of cold air swept in through the door. Outside, the woman walked down the empty street into darkness. A half-block further, she entered an alley, a shortcut to her apartment. She hadn't gone ten steps when a figure suddenly blocked her path.
"I'll take that purse . . . " It was a man's ugly voice.
"NO!" she shouted, backing away.
"Gimme that purse!"
The man fell on top of her as his charge knocked her to the ground. In the scuffle, he tore at the shoulder strap of the tightly clasped handbag. Bodies, one large, one small, rolled over and over on cold pavement as the woman kicked and screamed. A second man stepped out of the darkness.
"Ya need help, Fleming? Just kill the worthless old bitch. Let's get the hell outa here."
The first man regained his feet, kicked the old woman hard in the side and jerked the purse from her hands.
"Got it," he said, and spit. "Let's go."
As running footsteps faded down the alley, the woman got up painfully and gathered the only things the thieves hadn't taken - the small bag of chips and the juice.
'What did that man call him? Fleming? I'll remember that,' she told herself as she limped home.
Two days later, Fleming shuffled across a debris-strewn room and shook a sleeping figure.
"Wake up, Lutz - wake up."
The one called Lutz opened small, deep-set gray eyes and glared at Fleming. He sat up and swung his feet to the floor.
"What the hell time is it?"
"After noon," said Fleming.
"We got any beer left?" asked Lutz.
"Yeah," Fleming said. "I bought a case this morning with that old lady's money. An' some doughnuts - an' a paper so you can read the comics."
"Gimme a beer."
"Get it yourself," Fleming said, and sat down at the table, brushing paper cups and empty pizza boxes to the floor with a sweep of his arm.
Lutz popped a can open, poured half of it down his throat, belched loudly, and said, "Sixty bucks? That's all we got from that old dame?"
"Ya wanna go through her purse again? Help yourself. It's right there. Sixty bucks, two credit cards an' a lottery ticket. No drivers license an' no social security . There's a letter from somebody with her address on it. Ya wanna read it?"
"An' she didn't have no lipstick or make-up - or any of that stuff women carry. Is that weird?"
"Sixty lousy bucks," muttered Lutz, slamming the empty can on the table. "We should'a killed her for that, the cheap bitch." He stared at Fleming. "Man - yer eye is worse, That ol' lady really pasted you one. What the hell did she hit you with, anyway?"
"Her fist. She swung like a man. She got in a lucky punch, that's all - the bitch. It was dark. Hey - ya know, while we was rollin' around on the ground, her wig came off."
"She was wearin' a wig?"
'Yeah - an' know what? She was bald as a ball on top"
Lutz crushed the empty beer can. "That's why she was wearin' a wig, asshole."
"Her name's Edith Harlow," said Fleming, holding up a credit card.
"So who cares."
"An' ya wanna know somethin' else? There ain't nothin' about her in the paper."
"So - maybe she didn't report it."
"Are ya kiddin? An old lady gets ripped off an' don't go screamin' ta the cops? That don't make no sense."
"So - maybe she's senile - or maybe ya kicked her brains loose. Or - maybe she's dead," said Lutz, opening another beer.
"I'll give her this," said Fleming as he leafed through the newspaper, "she's a tough ol' broad, that's what. Stronger than she looked, an' kinda stocky. She reminded me of Miss Hofstedt, my algebra teacher."
"You took algebra?" asked Lutz, one eyebrow raised.
"Yeah - but only fer a few weeks. Me an' Miss Hofstedt didn't get along. Me an' high school didn't get along. Them teachers wanted . . . " He paused when something in the news caught his attention. He picked up and held the stolen lottery ticket next to an item in the newspaper. "Holy shit!"
Lutz took a swig of beer and belched. "So - did we win somethin'?"
"Flemming's face paled. "Jesus Christ - come here, Lutz - read what's on this ticket."
Lutz recited, "Seventeen, twenty-one, twenty-six, thirty-one, thirty-nine an' forty-seven. Ya sayin' they're the same?"
"Fleming looked like he might faint. "That's it, Lutz - that's it! We got all six numbers! Holy shit!"
So? How much do we win?"
"Seven million bucks . . . "
"Holy shit! Holy shit!"
The two stared at each other in silence. Lutz sat heavily next to his pal at the table.
"Do we got us a problem, or don't we? What happens if we goes in an' claims the money?"
"No way," said Fleming, shaking his head. "It ain't that easy. That old lady could finger us."
"So - maybe she don't even know who won," Lutz suggested.
"She knows," Fleming said with an unhappy sigh, "an' so do the cops."
Lutz lit a cigarette, shook out the burning match and tossed it on the floor.
"So - how do ya know that? Ya just said there wasn't nothin' in the paper."
"Get smart, Lutz. It's a trap. The cops are just waitin' for somebody ta walk in with the winning ticket. If we try ta claim the money - they'll snag us by the balls."
Lutz took a deep drag and narrowed small eyes, straining to understand the complexity of the situation.
"Damn it, Flem - we should'a wasted that ol' broad - then we wouldn't got no problem!"
Fleming shook his head and said, "Yeah -right! Then we'd have us another problem - it's called murder. "
"So what? What're they gonna prove? There wasn't no witnesses."
"Oh, yes there was, Lutz. Yes there was," spat Fleming, holing up the lottery ticket. "This here is their witness - seven million of 'em."
There was an animal-like flash of anger in Lutz's eyes as he grappled with Flemming's logic.
"Right now," explained Fleming, trying to get the message through Lutz's brain, "this is just a worthless piece of paper as far as we're concerned. We gotta assume the cops already know about it. They know where an' when it got bought - an' even who bought it."
"I got us an' idea," said Lutz, as though a light had been turned on in his head. "We could get my cousin Fred ta say he found it in the street. Like then it's their word against his. What are they gonna prove?"
Fleming's expression betrayed impatient anger. "Use yer feeble brain, Lutz! Anybody, an' I mean anybody who shows with this ticket is screwed! Besides - yer cousin Fred in a moron. As soon as they tell him he's gonna do twenty for assault an' robbery, he'll finger us in a New York heartbeat."
Lutz stomped out his cigarette butt on the floor and lit another. "Damn it - Flem - this ain't fair! That's our money - we earned it. Jeez - seven million bucks!" He stopped talking for a moment and tried to think, then his lips curled into a cunning smile. "Okay - so how about this? We waste the ol' lady - make it look like an accident. Then you an' me waits, say six months. I hear they give ya a year ta pick up the money. So - then we goes in an' says we just happened ta find this ol' lottery ticket. How they gonna prove it was us who mugged some ol' lady who's dead? No victim - no problem!" he smiled, proud of his cleverness.
Fleming closed his eyes and sighed. "Lutz - you an' me got rap sheets as long as yer arm. Ain't no way two guys like us is gonna walk in an' waltz away with seven million bucks! That ticket is tied to that ol' broad with a rope - an' you know how cops work. They'll - come up with some circumstantial evidence shit that'll nail us's ass ta the wall."
Teeth and fists clenched, Lutz slumped back in his chair, veins bulging in his neck. Fleming was thinking - not looking at his partner.
"But ya know - there is one way we could pull it off - one way. An' that's if the ol' bat has, for some far-out reason, never told no one - not even the cops. We could remove her from the scene nicely - an' this would be our ticket outta here."
Lutz stared at Fleming - a dense fog of confusion and frustration in his gaze. "So - tell me, genius - how da we's find that out?"
"Easy," said Fleming, broad smile revealing a missing tooth. "We asks her."
"Who is it?"
"The guys what found yer purse, Misses Harlow."
The door, secured by two chain locks, opened a crack. "My purse?" asked Edith Harlow. "You found my purse?"
"Yeah," Fleming said, holding up the black bag near open crack in the door. "Looks like everything's in it, too - all yer stuff - an your money."
"Oh - my goodness! How wonderful! Where on earth did you find it? Who are you?"
"Me - I'm Fleming - an' this here is my partner, Lutz. We took this off some bad guys. They must'a been the guys what ripped ya off."
"Yeah - what he says is right," Lutz chimed in, "We heard these guys braggin' about how they mugged some ol' lady - so we's mugged them. Ain't that justice. Me an' Fleming, we do good deeds, Misses Harlow. So - we're here ta do ya a good deed. So - ya gonna open up yer door, okay?"
"Oh, you dear boys!" The door closed just long enough for the chains to be removed, then opened. "Come right in," said Edith Harlow. "What are your names?"
"Fleming an' Lutz," replied Fleming.
"I meant your first names."
"Just Fleming an' Lutz. we don't use no first names. It's a professional rule - ya know - jest ta ' be formal an' all."
"Yeah," Lutz added, "when we does good deeds we like ta be unanimous."
"Here's yer purse," Fleming said. "Everythin's in it - even yer money - all thirty bucks."
"Oh, thank you - thank you! You're so kind and thoughtful - returning it to me. I'm so grateful." She opened the purse and quickly went through its contents. "You know - I could have sworn I had more than thirty dollars . . . "
"There was only thirty bucks in it when we found it, lady," Lutz said, defensively.
"You boys have made me so happy - please - sit down and let me offer you something to drink. Some tea perhaps?"
"Got any beer?" asked Lutz, flopping back in an old overstuffed chair.
"Beer? No - I'm sorry."
"Tea's good," Fleming said, frowning at Lutz. "We'll take tea - but first, Misses Harlow - we need ta ask ya a few questions . . . "
As she looked at Fleming's face, Edith Harlow's showed concern. "Mr. Fleming - that's a very nasty bruise under your eye . . . "
"Yeah - well - it musta happened when we's was takin' yer purse away from those bad guys. Ya could say they was uncooperative."
"Oh, you poor dear! I'm so sorry." She gave him a sympathetic smile. "But now - what was it you wanted to ask me?"
Lutz's fingers slid into his jacket pocket and curled around a set of brass knuckles.
"What we needs ta know, Misses Harlow," said Fleming, taking a seat near Lutz, "I mean, what Lutz an' me was wonderin' was - did you report them guys snatchin' yer purse ta the police?"
In that instant, Fleming thought he saw something change in Mrs. Harlow's kindly expression - something brief - fleeting - a flash of suspicion, just like his mother's when she didn't believe him. Unsure, he glanced at Lutz whose fingers were tightening around the brass knuckles. Mrs. Harlow's expression changed to a gentle smile.
"Why of course I told the police. They were so sympathetic. They had me fill out a complete report."
Like predators ready to spring, Lutz and Fleming leaned forward.
"Then how come there wasn't nothin' in the papers about it?" asked Fleming.
"Oh, Fleming, my dear boy - you are so thorough. How sweet. They didn't put it in the paper because I asked them not to. You see, I live alone, and I'm a very private person. Very private, indeed. I couldn't stand the thought of my name in the papers - people staring at me - I just couldn't stand that - and I told them so."
Fleming tried to conceal his disappointment. Lutz's fingers momentarily eased their grip on the knuckles.
"Okay. So much for that," Fleming said. "Now - here's another real important question, Misses Harlow - what do ya know about this here lottery ticket?"
He held it up between two fingers like a playing card so she could see. There was that look again in Edith Harlow's eyes, and definitely hesitation, enough to make him wonder if he'd misread her, wonder if she really was a helpless senior citizen or a crafty old dame who was playing games with him.
Mrs. Harlow gasped, and flattened her hand against her breast. "Oh, how wonderful! It isn't lost! You've found it! Oh, I am so happy! When I didn't see it in my purse, I thought those awful men had taken it. I am so relieved. It really is my lucky number!"
Fleming looked at the ticket - then back at Mrs. Harlow. "When ya didn't see it in yer purse right now, how come ya didn't say nothin'?"
Edith Harlow laughed nervously. "Oh, my goodness - what is there to say? I would never want to burden you fine, considerate young men with my loss."
"An' so - maybe ya didn't bother ta tell the cops about this here ticket, neither - right?"
"Oh - yes, yes I did. Most assuredly, I did," Mrs. Harlow said with a sweet smile. "They were very excited about it."
Both men shifted back in their chairs, and Lutz removed his hand from his pocket. Fleming rubbed the stubble of a beard and studied the smiling old lady. Although he possessed no knowledge of chess, he instinctively recognized that his elderly opponent had just placed him in check by giving him all the right answers. And in doing so, she'd saved her life. The next move was his.
Before Fleming could speak, Lutz blurted, "So - how about a reward? Like maybe a couple-a grand. Ya can afford it."
"Shut up, Lutz!" hissed Fleming. "I does the talkin'!" He fingered the ticket with both hands and thought for a moment. "Misses Harlow, ya knows this ticket is worth a lotta money - right?"
"Yes I do, Fleming. Isn't that wonderful?"
"Yeah, Misses Harlow - that's really wonderful. An' ya also understand that it ain't worth squat unless I give it back ta ya."
Edith Harlow leaned forward and patted Fleming on the knee. "You are so clever! That's just what the police said. They said the crooks who robbed me would never be able to use it - to cash it in - at least without giving themselves away. Mine was the only wining number. Why, Fleming - you ought to be a detective!"
Fleming smiled broadly, pleased with his observations and armed with the knowledge of what to say next. "So - Misses Harlow - the way I sees it, it's kinda like you an' us needs each other. Without the ticket, ya got nothin'. Without you, we got nothin'. Ya understand what I'm sayin'?"
"Oh, Fleming - Lutz - you dear, dear boys," Edith Harlow said with a glowing countenance, "of course I understand - and don't you think for a minute I'd ever let you go away without repaying you for what you've done for me. No indeed. You've both been so kind."
"So - how much ya gonna give us?" Lutz demanded, eyes narrowed into a squint.
Fleming turned on him with, "Lutz - if ya don't . . . "
Hand raised, Mrs. Harlow interrupted. "Oh, that's all right. That's a perfectly good question, and the reward I have in mind is quite substantial." She gave Lutz a warm motherly smile that was not returned. "I play the lottery every week, and though I've never won before, I know how it works. The ticket is worth seven million dollars - paid over a ten year period. But if the winner was to accept a lesser amount, they'll pay in a single lump sum."
"A lesser amount?" asked Fleming. "Like, how much?"
"Four million," Fleming repeated slowly, staring at the ticket held between dirty fingers, the sum sinking in giving him a greedy thrill.
"I don't get it," said Lutz, frown etched even deeper. "What happened to the seven million?"
"Just shut up!" Fleming repeated. "Okay, Misses Harlow - we got four million ta play with. How much do ya have in mind for me an' Lutz?"
Edith Harlow clapped her hands and entwined her fingers. "We'll share it - fifty-fifty."
"Fifty-fifty?" Fleming said, stunned. "Fifty-fifty?"
"Half for you - half for me," said Edith Harlow with an innocent grin. "Don't you think that's fair?"
"So - how about me? How much do I get?" asked Lutz, eyes narrowed with mistrust.
"Your share would be one million dollars."
"A million bucks?" said Lutz so loudly it made Mrs. Harlow jump. "I gets a million bucks?"
"Well - you deserve it," said Mrs. Harlow. "How you spend it is none of my business, but I'm going to give half of mine to my nephew, Elliot and then move to California."
"Wait a second," said Fleming, a look of disbelief on his face, "you're gonna give away a million bucks to your nephew?"
"Oh, yes - he's a wonderful young man - very devoted to me. You'll like him very much. He comes to Berwood quite often just to look in on me, and he takes care of all of my financial affairs. He's very good at that, though I've never had much for him to take care of. That's all changed now, thanks to you dear boys. I owe him so much . . . "
"So - good for Elliot, but first let's us work out the details," said Fleming, eagerness oozing from every pore.
"Oh, not to worry - it's so simple," said Edith Harlow, waving away Fleming's concerns. "I'll go right to the lottery headquarters at the state capital - present the ticket - and they'll give me the money. How much easier can it be?"
"Yeah - couldn't be easier, Fleming said, "but we'll go with ya if ya don't mind."
"We both goes with ya even if ya do mind," Lutz added, winking at Fleming.
"An' we holds onta the ticket until then," Fleming said, and put it in his shirt pocket, smiling at the old lady who was about to make him a rich man. "Now - let's us get down ta basics. When do we go an' get the money?"
"Well - let me think," said Mrs. Harlow. "How about the day after tomorrow?"
"How about today," snapped Lutz, frowning at his partner.
"No - I can't go today," said Mrs. Harlow, a disturbed look on her face. "I just can't do something like that today. Going outside is awfully hard on me. I have to prepare myself. Why, when those awful men stole my purse, it took me all the next day to work up my courage just to go to the store. It's all psychological, I know, but I can't help it. No - I'd never be able to just go out today - not there - or anywhere today, never."
"You sound like some kinda nut," spat Lutz, disgustedly.
"Shut up, Lutz!" Fleming scolded. "Misses Harlow , if ya can't make it 'til the day after tomorrow, Lutz an' me will wait. But let me be right up front with ya - four million bucks is big money - an' me an' Lutz will do whatever is necessary ta protect our interests. So - no surprises - an' no cops. If one of us don't get our cut, nobody does. Do I make my self perfectly clear?"
"Oh, Fleming - you're putting me to a test again," said Edith Harlow, with a little giggle. "Do you really think I would cheat you? My goodness - you're the one who has the lottery ticket, not me. Without your cooperation, I can't collect a cent, now can I? We need each other, my dear boy." She paused and looked into her purse. "Now - I have a wonderful idea. Now, don't take this the wrong way, but you two boys are just not properly dressed for this sort of thing. Here - Fleming - take my credit cards. I want both of you to buy yourselves a new wardrobe. There must be a nice men's store. Have them properly outfit you - suits - ties - shoes and socks - tell them to make you look your best."
"Suits an' ties? No way . . . " Lutz protested.
"Lutz!" said Mrs. Harlow, sternly. "Do you want a million dollars?"
"Well - yeah . . . "
"Then you'll do as I ask. And I want you both to visit a barber. When I see you the day after tomorrow, I want you scrubbed, shaved and nicely dressed. I want you both to look like a million dollars."
Lutz started to say something but Fleming waved him off. "Whatever ya say, Misses Harlow - whatever ya say."
"And one more thing - I want you to buy a car for me."
"Yes. A nice car. I don't care what kind, as long as it's comfortable to ride in. I know nothing about cars - I don't even know how to drive, but since I'm going to be wealthy, it seems like something I ought to have. And if we're going to drive to the capital to collect our winnings, well, we should do it in style, don't you think?"
It felt so much like taking candy from a baby, Fleming felt giddy. He knew he had Mrs. Harlow wrapped around his little finger.
"Any particular color?"
Edith Harlow thought for a moment, then said, "Red. Yes - a nice bright red car."
"Red it is," said Fleming, shrugging his shoulders and glancing at Lutz.
"Here - I'll give you a blank check," said Mrs. Harlow. "Just fill in the amount for the down payment - and if anyone has any questions, just ask them to call me. I can arrange for Elliot to take care of the insurance and the balance. After all, it will be paid in full this week. Can you do all that?"
"No problem," said Fleming, "but there's just one more little thing I wants ya ta do. Call the cops an' tell them ya found yer ticket - that everythin's okay."
He handed her the phone from the end table. Mrs. Harlow looked in her phone book - found a number and dialed. "You are absolutely brilliant, Fleming. I'm going to call the nice officer who was so helpful."
"Yeah - I know. I just don't want no cops jumpin' outta the bushes. Don't say nothin' about us."
"I understand, Fleming," she nodded, waiting for the phone to be answered. "Hello, Lieutenant Sanders? This is Edith Harlow. Yes - I'm fine, thank you. I just wanted to - oh, yes - it's much better - I wanted to tell you that I found my lottery ticket - isn't that wonderful? It was in my coat pocket the whole time. You are? Well, I can understand your disappointment - but I know you'll catch those two thieves just the same - and thank you again, Lieutenant, for everything. You helped me when I needed you most. You, too. Goodbye."
She hung up and Fleming put the phone back on the table. "That was good, Misses H - real good, Now we're all set. We'll see ya the day after tomorrow."
The next two days were a combination of excitement and frustration. Buying new clothes gave the men a taste of better things to come, but the purchase hadn't gone without problems. Their grooming and appearances caused the clothing salesman to have more than a few questions about them using Mrs. Harlow's credit cards. However, after a phone call, he returned to write up the biggest sale of his career.
Later that afternoon, hair cut and dressed like prosperous young business men, things went smoothly at the automobile dealership. It did take a call from the sales manager, but the rest of the paperwork seemed a breeze.
That night, and the following, Lutz slept like a baby while Fleming stared into darkness and rehearsed each step of the trip to the capital. He couldn't stop worrying - yet couldn't find a single thing that could go wrong.
The following morning, a new red automobile pulled up in front of Mrs. Harlow's apartment building at ten. Lutz was eating a hamburger, carelessly allowing juice to drip on his new suit. Both men were obviously annoyed with each other.
"I'm hungry, gadamnit!" spat Lutz, spewing food particles. "When I'm hungry I eat. Ya gotta problem with that?"
"Yeah, I gotta problem with that, ya asshole! We're on our way ta pick up a million bucks apiece an' ya gotta stop at McDonalds®!"
Out of the corner of his eye, Fleming saw Mrs. Harlow's door open. As if on cue, a red-bearded man, carrying a briefcase, stepped out and walked straight to the car. As he approached, Fleming and Lutz tensed. Lutz dropped his burger on the floor and reached for his brass knuckles. Fleming left the engine running and kept both hands on the wheel.
"Fleming and Lutz?" asked the man, courteous but business-like.
"Who's askin'?" Fleming demanded. "You a cop?"
That got an amused smile. "I'm Elliot Carver," he replied in a friendly voice. "I'm Mrs. Harlow's nephew."
He was short - about the same height as his aunt, and the English hunting cap he doffed protected a balding head. Despite the short red beard, Fleming saw the family resemblance in the man's eyes and shape of face.
"Her nephew, huh?"
"That's right. Aunt Edith isn't feeling well today. She gets these anxiety attacks - it's the leaving home thing, I believe. She asked me to take care of a little business for her since I handle all of her financial affairs."
"Fleming held up his hand. "Wait - wait - wait! What's goin' on here? Where's the ol' lady? We got a deal with her."
"Yeah," added Lutz, "we got us a ludicrous business arrangement with her."
"First of all, gentlemen, I want to shake your hand and thank you for what you've done. Aunt Edith told me how kind you've been to her."
"So - what's her problem?" asked Fleming.
"Well," said Carver, "the poor dear suffers from intermittent agoraphobia."
"Can ya say that in English?"
"It's a fear of going outside - in public - too many people frighten her," Carver explained. "I thought she was getting better, but after the attack - well, I'm afraid she's just gotten worse."
"So she's sendin' you instead?" asked Fleming, frowning suspiciously.
"That's right - but gentlemen - there's another reason, too, and I would be less than honest if I didn't tell you . . . "
"Which is?" asked Fleming.
"As you may already have surmised, Aunt Edith is a very private person. She doesn't want anyone in this neighborhood to know she's won the lottery - that she's come into money. Do you understand?"
"Yer Aunt's a fruitcake, Carver," Fleming said. "You understand we got a deal with her?"
"Yes, gentlemen - I know the deal. That's why I brought this." He held up the briefcase. "It's empty, but it won't be when I hand it over to you. Shall we get on with business? It's a two hour drive to the capital."
Fleming parked the car in the closest spot available, an underground garage two blocks from the lottery headquarters. They walked the rest of the way in silence. Upon arrival, Carver spoke first.
"I'll take the ticket now."
"You brought it, didn't you?"
"Yeah - but I ain't givin' it ta you!"
"Of course you are, if you want your million dollars. The ownership of that ticket has been established. I have Aunt Edith's power of attorney to cash it."
Though he'd tried for two days to think every move through, Fleming had never envisioned this sudden change in the situation. He'd pictured himself in charge during the entire transaction. The idea of someone else taking possession of the ticket made his already frayed nerves uneasier. This guy Carver seemed a lot swifter than his old aunt.
"Come on - we're wasting time." said Carver, cool as a frozen lake.
"Hold yer pants on," said Lutz, then looking at Fleming. "Don't take no shit off this little pimp."
"Give me the ticket," Carver said in an emphatic whisper, "and wait right here."
"Bullshit - we're goin' with ya,"
"You want to answer questions in there, Fleming? You want them to know who you are? You want to call unnecessary attention to yourself? I think not. I think all you want is to get your hands on the money and then disappear. How about it, Lutz? Don't you prefer to remain unanimous? You can both watch everything through the glass doors. Now - give me the ticket."
"I don't get it," said Lutz, so confused he couldn't think.
Fleming took the ticket out of his pocket and held it tightly. It was against his instincts to obey, and his insides churned with mistrust.
"Okay," he said, "here it is - but don't even think of pullin' any shit or yer dead - dead - dead."
"Relax, Fleming," Carver said, face not showing any sign of emotion. "You're going to be a very rich man."
Inside, Carver went to the reception desk and spoke to a young woman. Fleming watched her stand, smile, shake Carver's hand, and motion for him to take a seat. The two men watched her lustfully as she walked to an important-looking gentleman seated behind a large desk. The man appeared pleased with what she said. He said something and she returned to her desk. She spoke again with Carver, and he stood and followed her back to the older man at his desk. Carver shook hands with him. Several other people appeared and examined the ticket. Each smiled and shook Carver's hand.
"The ticket must be good!" hissed Fleming, face against the glass doors like a kid looking in a candy store.
"Yeah," whispered Lutz, heart pounding. "But what the hell's goin' on in there?"
They saw Carver accept a cup of coffee. He was chatting amiably with everyone, casual and relaxed as if he had all the time in the world. Then someone brought some papers for him to sign. It looked to Fleming like the people were going to a lot of trouble to explain every single piece of paper. When he'd signed them all, copies were made and he put them in his briefcase. After what was a maddeningly long time, everyone stood and shook hands again.
"Okay - here he comes," Fleming said, moving back from the door.
"Has he got the money?" asked Lutz. "I don't see no money."
The young woman opened the door for him and Carver walked out into afternoon sunlight. "So far - so good, chaps," he said. Without pausing, he continued up the street.
"Where in the hell are ya goin'?" Fleming asked, hustling after him. "The car's the other direction!"
"I want my cut now!" demanded Lutz, with single-minded focus.
"Gentlemen - please - be patient," said Carver. "We have to go to the bank."
Lutz grabbed the shorter man's arm. "The bank? How come?"
"Because the lottery officials paid us by check. They don't keep that kind of money in their offices. We have to cash the check. You act as if you've never been paid by check before."
Lutz gripped harder and spoke through clenched teeth, "I only deal in cash."
"Let him loose, Lutz," Fleming ordered. "We're goin' ta the bank."
Two blocks later Carver said, "Here we are. I hope they have a few million laying around in their vaults - and I hope the manager's not the nervous type." He paused before entering the revolving door. "Perhaps you two should wait out here again . . . "
This time, Fleming grabbed Carver's arm and hissed in his face, "Nothin' doin'! We're comin' in - an' nothin' better go wrong - understand?
"Nothing is going to go wrong, gentlemen. I'm getting a million dollars from this transaction, too. I want nothing, as you say, to go wrong."
"Glad ta hear that," said Fleming. "Real glad".
"Something you should consider," Carver said, confidentially, "is that this check," and he patted his briefcase, "is going to draw an awful lot of attention in there - an awful lot of attention. So, just like back at the lottery, if there is any reason you may have to avoid recognition by numerous people at some later date . . . "
"Yeah, yeah - we'll stay in the background," said Fleming, sighing in resignation.
Elliot Carver walked into the bank as if he'd been there before, crossed the marble floor and entered the office section through a swinging gate. Several employees looked up as he approached a desk under a sign which read 'New Accounts'. A young man listened politely, then stood and gestured for Carver to follow him, leading him out of sight down a hallway.
"Hey! Where's he goin'?" Lutz hissed loudly.
"Keep yer voice down, asshole," Fleming whispered. "Don't draw no attention to us. The manager's office must be down that hall. You don't present a check for no four million buck to no teller, ya know,"
"Oh - yeah - right," nodded Lutz.
They stood around aimlessly for a minute, then took a seat in the reception area and waited. Fleming looked at his new wristwatch, courtesy of Mrs. Harlow. 'Nice,' he thought, looking down at his new shoes, having never owner a finer pair. 'This is only the beginnin'' he told himself, 'only the beginnin' - because on the other side of that wall, four million buck is bein' counted out an' one million of it's gonna be mine.'
Lutz fidgeted impatiently and reached for a cigarette. "What the hell's takin' 'em so long, Fleming?"
"Ya can't smoke in here, an' four million bucks is what's taken him so long. They gotta get the money outta the vault - then they gotta count it. That takes time."
Ten minutes went by. Then another ten. A string of people had come in, taken care of their business and left. Even Fleming began to feel uncomfortable.
"So - how long does it take ta count four million bucks?" asked Lutz.
"Awhile," replied Fleming, but a nagging sensation had crept into his brain. 'Just how log does it take?' he wondered. He looked at his watch again. 'Carver's been in there for thirty minutes.' "Wait here," he said, "I'm gonna go check this out."
Fleming entered the office area and approached the young man seated under the 'New Accounts' sign.
"Excuse me," he said, "I'm with Mr. Carver. and I was wonderin' how's he's doin'?"
The young man stared blankly. "I'm sorry?"
"Carver," said Fleming. "The short guy with the briefcase? He's in with the manager. How's he doin'?"
"I'm afraid you've got me there. sir. The only customer I've seen in the last hour was a gentleman who asked for directions and left by the side door."
The shock numbed Fleming's on-edge brain. A cold sweat oozed from his poses and a buzzing vibration centered just behind his eyeballs. After a brief moment of mental inertia, he arose from his stupor and forced his mind into overdrive. 'What's goin' on here? Is this some kinda trap? Has Carver gone ta the cops? He's made off with all the money? What the hell . . . ' He stepped back, unsteady on his feet, then turned without a word and walked quickly toward the door, brain working so hard that it hurt.
Lutz jumped up and followed. "Hey - wait up - where ya goin'? What's happened? Where's Carver?"
Fleming scanned the busy street in all directions; no sign of Carver and no sign of police. "That little shit just did a number on us, Lutz. He's gone!"
"Jesus! Gone where?"
"I don't know," Fleming said, summoning street smarts to the crisis, "but I know one thing. Old lady Harlow is gonna be our ace in the hole. We gotta get back ta Berwood fast. Let's go."
Startled pedestrians had to jump aside as two well-dressed men sprinted down the sidewalk, Fleming out front, Lutz close behind. Two blocks further, they dashed down the exit ramp into the parking garage, down to the lower level where they'd parked, footsteps echoing in the underground chamber. Mrs. Harlow's new red car was gone.
A short man wearing a weathered brown leather jacket and a baseball cap entered a phone booth and closed the door. After punching in the numbers, he carefully pealed off a fake red beard and mustache and stuffed them in a jacket pocket. He waited patiently as the phone rang several times. Finally a voice answered.
"Attorney General's Office. May I help you?"
"Yes - connect me with Martin Boyle in Witness Protection."
"Thank you. One moment."
He donned a pair of sunglasses and surveyed the adjacent gas station and highway in both directions. After almost a minute, his party answered.
"Hi, Marty. This is case number four seven two nine. Remember me?"
On the other end, Martin Boyle chuckled. "Yes - of course - Misses Harlow. How are you?"
"I'm calling to inform you that Misses Harlow has gone away and won't be coming back. She's completely disappeared. Looks like foul play, I'm afraid."
"Shorty Talbot - you bastard! Don't do this to me."
"Ah, ah - no names, please. Look Marty, I'm taking you off the hook. A situation has come up."
"What the hell do you mean you're taking me off the hook? We went to a lot of trouble and expense to set you up the way you wanted. You bail now and you're dead, fella. They'll nail your sorry ass within two weeks. You know how the mob operates."
"Put yourself in my place, Marty. I've been impersonating a little old lady for four goddamn years - waiting for the FBI to get off their ass. You guys are all talk and no action."
"Listen - Shorty . . . "
"No. You listen. Like I said, a situation has come up and I'm taking advantage of it. I have my ticket out of here . . . "
"You walk now, Shorty, and you lose your immunity. You know that."
"I'm not walking. This is a unilateral change of venue. If you ever come up with Romano, I'll testify against him, but we'll both be old men by that time."
"Where are you going?"
"None of your business, Marty. You're out of the loop."
"How will I contact you?"
"You won't. I'll contact you."
"Shorty - be reasonable. What you're doing takes money and know-how. It wasn't easy setting up Edith Harlow. Ramano's people are still looking for you. Don't blow your cover now . . . "
"I can handle it.
"Get this through your thick skull, Shorty - you do this and you're out of the program. Completely out. There's no way we can provide for your safety. And your funds are cut off."
"I hear what you're saying, Marty - and I'm willing to take full responsibility for myself. Four years masquerading as an old female hermit was enough. She taught me something very useful - she taught me how to make her real, how to turn her into a genuine person. I'm going to leave, but Edith Harlow's persona will remain long after I've gone."
"You sound schizoid, Shorty. I have no idea what the hell you're talking about."
The festive lights of Rio de Janeiro illuminated with glowing intensity. The sun settled just below the horizon. They multiplied with silent boiling as darkness fell. Shorty Talbot's condominium nestled high in a towering building, obelisk-like, with encroaching shadows of nightfall running up the side like mercury in a thermometer. By the time it had reached his floor the streets below had made their nocturnal transitions. The Atlantic Ocean beyond Copacabana Beach obediently faded into ultramarine gray. The most beautiful city in South America assumed dominance over night. Shorty Talbot stood in the middle of the huge corner living room, admiring the spectacular view.
"Marisa," he called out, "you want a drink?"
A shapely nude woman emerged from a half-open bathroom door, water dripping from her body.
"No - not now. I dry my hair," she said in a heavy Rio accent.
"Suit yourself, baby."
"I said, suit yourself."
"What means, soot?"
"Forget it, baby."
Forget it - forget it. You speak Portuguese to me."
"Okay - how do you say, suit yourself in Portuguese?"
"Ah!" she said in mock disgust, then retreated behind the bathroom door.
Shorty poured three fingers of scotch in a stumpy glass. He caught his image in the mirror as he took a sip and liked what he saw. 'The Brazilian plastic surgeon did a good job - the guy's an artist,' he thought, admiring how the doctor had masterfully changed his appearance. The cheekbones were more prominent - nose longer and narrower - flesh once destined to become double chin, had been removed. 'No hair on top,' he mused, ' but what's left is darker - and it makes me look younger.' He smiled. 'Even my own mother would have to look twice. This tan and the mustache makes me look almost Latino.' For the twelve grand paid, the doctor had thrown in a liposuction job that reduced three inches off Shorty's waist. He smiled at himself in the mirror. 'What a man! Maybe I ought to go in and grab Marisa before she gets her clothes on . . . '
The TV automatically came on for the evening news, a ritual seldom missed. With money flowing through Swiss and Brazilian accounts, Shorty religiously kept track of world affairs that could affect his investments. Drink in hand, he settled onto the huge white leather couch as CNN, via satellite dish, told him what was going on around the world.
'This is real luxury - having English-speaking newscasters and a taste of Americana right here in the middle of Brazil,' he thought, sipping scotch and listening contentedly as Bernard Shaw described major events of the day. At the moment, he wasn't interested in an oil spill off Newfoundland or a trade conference starting in Asia. He let his mind drift away until a piece of news made him curse himself for missing the first few sentences.
" . . . town of Berwood where two men were convicted of her murder, a decision reached by the jury based on what the prosecution insisted is not entirely circumstantial evidence. Edith Harlow's body was never found, but blood stains in her apartment and car abandoned on the Berwood River Bridge gave strong evidence that the elderly woman had met a violent end . . . "
Shorty smiled wryly as the TV camera approached a red car and panned bloodstains on the bridge railing. He held his left little finger up to the light. Almost imperceptible, the scar had healed well. 'A couple of ounces of blood sure goes a long way . . . " he thought.
" . . . two men, Robert Fleming and William Lutz, both with criminal records involving armed robbery and attempted murder, went on a spending spree a few days before Mrs. Harlow's disappearance, using her credit cards and check book . . . "
Two men in shackles were shown being lead into a courtroom, still wearing the new suits.
"Sorry assed bastards," said Shorty. "They almost look halfway decent if it weren't for those defiant expressions."
" . . . little was known about Edith Harlow before she moved to Berwood four years ago. No one knows where she came from. Neighbors say she was a quiet person - never socialized, and stayed in her small apartment most of the time, until singled out by two brutal thugs who extorted money from her, then killed her. All that's known about the mystery lady is contained in her diaries. She recorded each day of the past four years in meticulous detail - every meal - every trip to the store - every book she read - every event in her lonely life was written down in four compact volumes found by the police. The last few entries contain astonishing information used by the district attorney to indict Robert Fleming and William Lutz for murder . . . "
Marisa appeared in the hallway, fully dressed, affixing an earring. "I will be ready soon," she said.
"Take your time, baby," Shorty replied.
" . . . kill her if she notified the police and brutally beat her. Although Edith Harlow lived her last moments in pain and terror, she summoned her remaining strength to record them in her diary, naming names and describing her assailants, and thereby providing the remarkable documents used in court to bring these two men to justice. Fleming and Lutz denied the charges, insisting they were hired to help the old lady claim a lottery prize."
Shorty was still smiling as the camera showed the Berwood district attorney answering a reporter's questions.
" . . . the two defendants claimed that Mrs. Harlow enlisted their help to acquire a lottery prize, and that it was her idea for them to buy new clothes and a new car. They said they went with her nephew to the state capital lottery office where he picked up the money and disappeared. Mrs. Harlow's diary doesn't support those claims, nor is there any evidence that this so-called nephew ever existed. Lottery officials told us that a European tourist named Klaus Edmundson produced a winning ticket and arranged for the money to be transferred to his Swiss bank. So it is clear that Fleming and Lutz were grasping at straws in establishing an alibi. Besides, Mrs. Harlow's diary places them both in Berwood, inside her apartment, when they say they were allegedly in the state capital with the non-existent nephew. Interestingly, if it were not for the incriminating details in the diary, I don't think Lutz would have turned state's evidence."
"What?" shouted Shorty, sitting up straight. "He what?"
" . . . but when he learned that Mrs. Harlow had written about him it was enough to make him cooperate to save his skin. He testified that it was Fleming alone who bludgeoned Mrs. Harlow to death in her apartment, but he admitted he helped carry her body to the car, and later to throw it into the river."
The screen returned to the CNN studio where a stern-faced announcer continued. "Following their conviction today, William Lutz faces thirty years in prison, while Robert Fleming faces death in the electric chair, convictions that came about primarily by the testimony of a dead victim . . . "
Shorty Talbot shook his head. "Fleming gets the chair? I would have preferred it the other way around, but that's close enough."
"Who are you talking?" Marisa called out from the bedroom.
"Bevis an' Butt-head."
" . . . shocking and sad last words of a senior citizen, the final entry in her diary, written in weak and shaking hand, a page splattered with blood, reads: 'My rib must be broken and my left arms hurts terribly. I must have been unconscious for an hour - it's ten-thirty in the morning - they left me on the floor - they are wild animals - I hear them coming again - they're drunk and arguing - they must have spent all of my money. I should have called the police when I had the chance - before they destroyed my phone - but I was so afraid they would kill me - I was a fool. They are going to kill me anyway - I know it - I must find a place to hide - dear God it's too late . . . " The announcer paused dramatically and stared into the camera. "Those are the last words that helped to impose the maximum possible punishment on her killers. It was as if Edith Harlow, herself, had returned from the dead to sit on the jury - or to perhaps be the judge."
Shorty Talbot leaned forward and watched carefully as CNN showed close-ups of the two men. Lutz's cruel beady eyes glowered, unrepentant. At the announcement of the verdict, two bailiffs held back the raging Fleming whose twisted mouth screamed his innocence. Shorty leaned back, chuckled and raised his glass.
"Life's a bitch, kid. Cheers."
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