Monthly Archives: October 2017

Review: Dirty Money

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Through the chill of winter
Running across a frozen lake
Hunters are out on his trail
All odds are against him
With a family to provide for
The one thing he must keep alive
Will the wolf survive?

Louie Perez and David Hidalgo

When the silver Toyota Avalon bumped down the dirt road out of the woods and across the railroad tracks, Parker put the Infiniti into low and stepped out onto the gravel.  The Infiniti jerked forward toward the river as the Toyota slewed around behind it to a stop.  Parker picked up the full duffel bag from where he’d tossed it on the ground, and behind him, the Infiniti rolled down the slope into the river, all its windows open; it slid into the gray dawn water like a bear into a trout stream.

Parker carried the duffel in his arms and Claire got out of the Toyota to open its rear door and say, “Do you want to drive?”

“No.  I’ve been driving.” He heaved the duffel onto the backseat, then got around to take the passenger side in front.

Before getting behind the wheel, she stood looking toward the river, a tall slender ash-blonde in black slacks and a bulky dark red sweater against the October chill.  “It’s gone,” she said.

“Good.”

There.  I’ve done it.  Typed out the final opening from the final Parker novel.  I don’t usually start a review that way.  Seemed to fit here.  But where does this book fit into what is now and will ever remain, a twenty-four book epic?  One novel for each hour in the day.  Not planned.  Destined, maybe.

Not half as good as the one leading into it.  To be blunt, I’d be hard-pressed to rank it in the top twenty.  Flashfire is still the worst.  The best? I could say The Hunter, The Man With the Getaway Face, The Score, The Jugger, The Seventh, The Rare Coin Score, The Green Eagle Score, The Sour Lemon ScoreDeadly Edge, Slayground, Butcher’s Moon, Breakout, or yeah, Ask The Parrot–and mean it every time.  This dark horse is out of the running, in either race.  Neither best nor worst–it’s the last.  For that alone, attention must be paid.

Much of what you find in it is more than good.  It contains many crisp clean clarified currents of prose, like what you just read up top.  Stark can still write like no one else.  But he seems a little confused here, as to what he’s writing about, and to what end.  Maybe because he knows, on a molecular level–this is the end. Nobody runs forever.  Whatever may become of Parker, Mr. Westlake’s string has almost run out, and Stark can’t go on without Westlake.  Anymore than Westlake could have gone on this long without Stark. Package deal.

The book is saying hello and goodbye at the same time; finishing arcs begun in Nobody Runs Forever, and in books before that–and starting new arcs, which we’ll never see the end of, can only speculate about.  It’s designed to be a pivot for the series, but it’s a pivot to nowhere, which I suppose is a fair description of death.

About the title.   I never liked it.  Always wondered what the point of it was.  How is this money any dirtier than what came before?  Because the bills from the bank are new, the law has the serial numbers, and Parker has to find a way to negotiate this marked moolah.  So the problem isn’t that it’s dirty, but that it’s too damn clean.  I guess you could say the money he’s going to get in place of it is dirty.  Or that all money is, by definition.  (Would Filthy Lucre be a better title?  Not for this franchise.)

The overseas market liked the title well enough, since every foreign language edition I’ve found translates it literally.  What you can say for certain is that for the second time in this Triptych, Westlake is consciously recycling the title of a foreign-made crime film.  Not the original title.  The American release title.  Huh.

I’m a longtime admirer of Jean Pierre Melville, Prince of the Nouvelle Vague.  (Wait for Godard all you like.)  His final film, Un Flic (aka Dirty Money) is not one of my favorites, in part because it’s so hard to see a decent print.  First time we rented a (bad) video of it, it was for Deneuve, and she was barely in it.

The dialogue can get a bit too vague, and it’s not tres nouvelle.  The scene with the toy helicopter and the model train is cheesy. He didn’t have the budget to pull the visual off, and maybe he didn’t care–these days, they’d be using CGI, and I’d be yapping about that.  I should probably give it another chance–great cast, some beautiful moments, and with Melville, it’s easy to miss the point.  He’s always got one.  But he hides it under a smoke screen of crime fiction.  Like Stark.  And he’s all about identity.  Like Westlake.

Catherine Deneuve doesn’t have a big role in Un Flic, but she’s still a key player in it–same thing could be said of Claire–who for the first and only time in this series is said to be a blonde–no more born that way than Deneuve.  Claire’s a redhead in Nobody Runs Forever.  No hint of her tint in any other book.  I’m going to go on thinking of her as brunette, and go on wondering why Westlake chose to bring up her hair color twice in the Triptych, after four decades of never mentioning it.

You can’t tell me he didn’t know the Melville film, a noir-inflected bank job yarn that feels more Starkian than anything Hollywood ever cranked out, allowing for the usual dose of existential fatalism that won’t let us have our cake and eat it too.  As with The High Commissioner/Nobody Runs Forever, there’s no direct influence.  But I don’t think this is a coincidence.  Knowing what something isn’t doesn’t prove you know what it is, so that’s enough about the title.

So how about the dedication?  Most Parker novels have none–the two previous books in the Triptych didn’t.  But here, before the title page, we get “This is for Dr. Quirke, and his creator–two lovely gents.”  I’m disappointed at how easy this case was to crack.  Dr. Quirke is the creation of John Banville, writing under the pseudonym Benjamin Black.  A mystery solving pathologist, hopefully less annoying than Quincy M.E. (I’ll find out at some point).  He and Westlake sort of interviewed each other for Newsweek.  Good bit of craic there.

One more thing before we get down to it. After a long rewarding stint at The Mysterious Press, the last two Westlake novels–the final Parker, the final Dortmunder–were put out by Grand Central Publishing.  A division of Hachette.

So let me get this straight.   Westlake’s two most famous characters departed this world via the auspices of a publishing imprint named after a world famous point of departure, under the umbrella of a huge media corporation, the name of which looks like a synonym for ax?  And people bitch about the contrivances in fiction.  The world is not simple enough to understand.  This book might be, so let’s talk about that.

Avalon meets Infiniti by a river (not subtle, still pretty).  Infiniti having been ditched, Parker and Claire head back to their personal Avalon by Colliver Pond, so he can take a short siesta, after which he needs her to drive him to Nelson McWhitney’s bar on Long Island, to talk about Nick Dalesia.  Who is now a major problem, because as Claire tells Parker, he escaped while being transferred to Federal custody–killing a marshal as he went.  The one thing that gets cops most focused on you–when you kill one of them.

Minor continuity error here–not the last in this book.  Parker says they grabbed Dalesia yesterday.  Yesterday he was pulling a heist with Tom Lindahl.  The day before yesterday, he met Tom Lindahl, and was going to pass on the heist Tom proposed, until he saw the news about Dalesia’s capture on TV.  Parker’s tired, sure.  He can make mistakes.  So can crime fiction authors in their 70’s.  (Or crime fiction bloggers at any age, but I’m right about this.)

We get one last physical description, elusive as always--“a big ropy man who looked squeezed into the Toyota.”  (Avalons are full-sized sedans, and he’s in the front passenger seat, so very big and ropy.)

Claire is taken aback when Parker offhandedly reveals that he pulled a second heist while on the run from the first one.  A long heavy duffel, crammed with untraceable cash.  Unlike the very traceable cash still hidden at the church in Massachusetts.  If they’re going to get that, find some way to fence it, they need to move, and soon.

Parker doesn’t trust the makeshift ID Lindahl made for him, useful as it was over the past two days.  His better-quality fake ID that he used in Massachusetts is now known to the law, worse than useless.  He’s got to get new papers, a new identity.  He’s coming to grips with the fact that things have changed, and it’s harder to slip through the cracks than it used to be.

For him to go on operating in this brave new digital world, he’s going to need 100% top-drawer ID work done.  Which is going to cost him.  So we’re back where we started, but with a switch.  In the first book, he made his own driver’s license at the DMV, forging the official stamp with a ballpoint pen, and he could open a bank account with it.  In the second book, it was plastic surgery.  Now, in the final book, it’s just a better grade of plastic.  That will hold up to all but the most intense scrutiny.

As they drive out to Long Island, late in the day, he fills her in on what’s happened since he last saw her, which involves obliquely mentioning that there’s been a fair bit of premature mortality going on, which has always been the part of Parker’s life she didn’t want to know about.  She’s been loosening up on this rule more and more, but he’s still surprised when she says she wants to come into the bar–same bar where Roy Keenan was murdered, by the bar’s proprietor.  Not that he told her that, but she’s got more than an inkling.

Sandra Loscalzo is there, still trying to get her reward money for Harbin.  McWhitney gave her the location of the body, she’s waiting to hear if it was found.  If it isn’t, she figures she can turn Parker and McWhitney in for a reward.  She’s real upfront about that.  I’d say she takes no prisoners, except that’s exactly what she does.  Dead or alive.

They’re all sizing each other up, distrust running in more than one direction, but Sandra’s the odd woman out, since she’s the only one who talks to the law.  Claire makes it clear that if the cops come to her door, she knows how to lie, and men love hearing her lie.  Sandra’s hand is in her pocket while she’s talking.  She knows Parker isn’t going to let her walk out of there if she’s going to the law. She respects that.  But she’s getting her money.  One way or the other.  He respects that.  Impasse.

Sandra has an idea about the bank money–why doesn’t she go get it?  For a share, of course.  Parker points out that even though there’s no warrant out on her, the cops could be sitting on the cash, waiting to see who comes for it–and if they get her, they’ll get everything she knows. The impasse is put on hold when she gets a callback–they found Harbin.  Everybody leaves, and Nels locks up.

Next day, Parker stashes the cash from the track, and comes back to see FBI agents are paying Claire a little social call.  They are following up on a lead–Nick Dalesia called the house, several times.  She convinces them she doesn’t know the man, he was never there, and they leave. No mention of her brother, Mr. John B. Allen, now wanted for bank robbery.  No mention of a Lexus registered to her, that he was driving, and she reported stolen.

So you can justify this by different law-enforcement bureaucracies not playing well together–still a thing, even today–or say that these hunters are being patient.  Or you can say that the justifications are getting too hard to justify.  Too much work to make it work.

In fairness, the area around the house is deserted–the summer people are gone–nobody else there the G-Men can talk to, about any gentlemen callers the charming Ms. Willis might have.  But you have to figure that they’re going to find out she was connected, under a different last name, to the armed robbery of a coin collector’s convention in Indianapolis.  (How many years ago?  A lady never tells.)

It’s getting to the point where the house in New Jersey is getting impossible to justify.  Parker accepted, long ago, that the house was essential to Claire, and she was essential to him, so they’ve done a lot of workarounds.  This book seems to be the beginning of where it becomes impossible to make it work anymore.  Something’s got to give.  (Turned out to be Westlake’s ticker.)

But whether or not the Bureau suspects Claire of harboring a hardened criminal (one way of putting it), something has to be done about that money.  Something has to be done about Dalesia.  Both are to be found near a small town in northwestern Massachusetts.  Parker needs to be there.  He needs Claire to make him look like a tourist–a leaf peeper, as they say. No fleabag motel this time. Best look extra-legit.  They’ll check into a bed and breakfast.

“You folks here for the robbery?”

The place was called Bosky Rounds, and the pictures on the website had made it look like somewhere Hansel and Gretel might have stopped off.  Deep eaves, creamy stucco walls, broad dark green wooden shutters flanking the old-fashioned multipaned windows, and a sun god knocker on the front door. The Bosky Rounds gimmick, though they wouldn’t have used the word, was that they offered maps of nearby hiking trails through the forest, for those leaf peepers who would like to be surrounded by their subject.  It was the most rustic and innocent accommodation Claire could find, and Parker had agreed it was perfect for their purposes.

Mrs. Bartlett, the matronly owner of this twee establishment, bears a marked resemblance to Mrs. Krutchfield, proprietress of The Sewing Kit B&B in upstate New York, who appeared in Westlake’s Smoke.

This being Stark, not Westlake, the comic elements are more muted, but still present.  She’s all agog about the bank robbery (she doesn’t come out and say it will give a little boost to business, but she’s thinking it).  Keeps talking about how they used bazookas, and Parker refrains from saying they were Carl-Gustafs.  Same basic kind of tool, what does he care?

The idea of Claire being there is not only that she’s got real ID she can get through roadblocks with, but that she’s such a stunner, the cops will be looking at her, not Parker, so they won’t be comparing him to that sketch on the wanted posters.  This theory is put to the test when they meet Terry Mulcany, a freelance journalist who does ‘true crime’ books.

He’s there interviewing anybody he can find who knows anything about the bank job.  He’s so busy chatting up Claire, he doesn’t notice Parker, who is standing right there.  While Parker is thinking about what he’s going to do to this guy if he ever does notice something besides Claire (but that, again, is one of the great advantages of having Claire around).

Under the pretext of driving to a local seafood restaurant, they pass the church twice–no sign of surveillance.  They get back, and Sandra Loscalzo is now ensconced at Bosko Rounds.  Different kind of surveillance.  She suggests they go have a few drinks together.

Sandra’s problem was not solved by finding Harbin’s remains, because there were so many law enforcement agencies after him, offering money for him (dead or alive), that they now need to work out whose budget line Sandra’s money comes out of.  This is the kind of shop talk Parker likes, because it means there’s still cracks in the system for him to slip through.  This may be The Information Age he’s living in now, but more information means more confusion.

So she again points out that she could expose Parker, and he again points out that he could kill her and her girlfriend in Cape Cod, who Sandra says has gone on a little holiday (which when you think about it, is exactly what Claire does when Parker is involved in something extra-heavy.)

Claire dusts off her diplomatic skills, and the way it works out is Sandra just wants a taste of the bank money–not all of Nick’s share–just half of it.  She could be useful.  Parker can’t deny that.  But he’s nowhere close to trusting her.  And he knows she’s going to try and follow them when they leave the bar.  Which makes it not too difficult to shake her in the dark–at which point he goes to check out the church, while Claire drives around in circles, ready to pick him up.

The money’s still there, hidden under hymnals.  Nobody sitting on it.  No cops, no Dalesia. Good.  And when he gets back to Bosky Rounds, Sandra is there on the porch.  She knows he’s been checking on their money.  And he acknowledges, verbally, that part of it is hers.  Her offer has been accepted.

In this same chapter, while they’re driving to the church, Parker makes it clear that if the Feds get any more interested in her, they’re both going to have to leave Colliver Pond for good.  Claire says that if she has to abandon her house, change her name, go back to living like a gypsy all year, she’ll do it.  She won’t like it.  Parker will go further out on a limb for her than anyone (in that he will go out on a limb for her at all).  So he’s still holding out hope that the exodus can be averted.  Whether he believes that is another matter.  (Speaking as a reader, I don’t.  The house is already half-burned.  At least.)

Now it’s time for the other good-looking nosy blonde in this Triptych to reemerge.  Detective Gwen Reversa, of the MA state police.  She comes into Bosky Rounds at breakfast time, making her rounds, and Parker has Claire block his face with her newspaper.  Sandra notices all this from her vantage point, figures out what it means.

As she figures out what Parker means, when he asks Mrs. Bartlett for directions to a scenic overview of the area, while she is sitting right there listening.  He wants a meet.  Up at the lookout, the three of them discuss the options.  Parker has to leave the B&B.  Claire has to stay, keep up a front.  And Sandra will drive Parker back to Long Island, so they can bring McWhitney into the picture.

Sandra gets them there by mid-afternoon. McWhitney, not the most chivalrous guy you’ll ever meet, will not say he’s pleased to see her, though a pleasing sight she remains. Thought they’d concluded their business when she got her body (and he knows he’s never getting hers). Nor is he pleased she’s getting a split of the take.

But as they fill him in, he realizes there’s no choice, other than letting it all go.  And while she’s in a different business than them, she’s got a talent for planning, logistics, finding cracks to slip through  Again, reminding me of someone.  Point is–

Parker said, “You’ve figured out a way to get our money out.”

“I think so.” To McWhitney she said, “You pretty well know the business operations around this neighborhood.”

“Pretty well.”

“Do you know a used-car lot, maybe kind of grungy, no cream puffs?”

McWhitney grinned for the first time since he’d laid eyes on Sandra.  “I know a dozen of them,” he said.  “Whadayou need?”

“A truck.  A small beat-up old truck, delivery van, something like that.  Black would be best, just so it isn’t too shiny.”

“A truck.” McWhitney sounded disgusted.  “To move the stash.”

“That’s right.”

“What makes this truck so wonderful?  It’s invisible?

“Pretty much so,” she said.  “Whatever color it is, and I really would like it black, we use the same color to paint out whatever name might already be on it.  Then, on both doors, in white, we paint Holy Redeemer Choir.”

“Holy shit,” McWhitney said.

“We’re the redeemers,” Sandra told him.  “It’s okay if the name on the doors is a bit amateurish, but we should try to do our best with it.”

McWhitney slowly nodded.  “The choir’s coming to get their hymnals.”

“And we’ll get some, too,” Sandra said, “in case anybody wants to look in back.”

“Jesus, you always gotta insult me,” McWhitney said.  “Here I was thinking you weren’t so bad.”

“I was used to dealing with Roy,” she said, and shrugged.

McWhitney says she should thank him for breaking up the partnership, i.e., knocking Roy’s brains out with a baseball bat.  She doesn’t bat an eye.  Who is this broad?

We get a serious clue, as she and Parker stop to eat on their way back.  He’s noticing that she’s not quite like the people he usually deals with.  She’s more like–well–him.  But unlike him, she’s living in the straight world, catching crooks, working with the law.  And now she’s getting throwing in with bank robbers.  He needs to know she knows what she’s doing here.  Who she is.  What she is.

While they waited for their food, Parker said, “This whole thing is the wrong side of the street for you.”

Sandra grimaced.  “I don’t think of it like that,” she said.  “What I think, there’s no sides to the street because there is no street.”

“What is there?”

She studied him, trying to decide how much to tell him, moving her fork back and forth on the table with her left hand. Then she shrugged, and left the fork alone, and said, “I figured it out when I was a little girl, what my idea of the world is.”

“What’s that?”

“A frozen lake,” she said.  “Bigger than you can see the end of.  Every day, I get up, I gotta move a little more along the lake.  I gotta be very careful and very wary, because I don’t know where the ice is too thin.  I gotta listen and watch.”

“I’ve seen you do it.”

She grinned and nodded, as though more pleased with him than herself.  “Yeah, you have.”

They were both silent a minute, and then their food came.  The waitress went away and Sandra picked up her fork, but then she paused to say, “You go see a war movie, the guy gets hurt, he yells ‘Medic!’, they come to take him away, fix him up.  Out here, you get hurt, you yell ‘Medic!’, you know what happens?”

“Yeah, I do.”

“There’s no sides,” she said.  “No street.  We just do what we’ve got to do to get across the lake.”

I can’t imagine a more perfect metaphor for how Parker lives his life.  If he gave a damn about metaphors, neither could he.  (And as Greg just reminded me, he trotted out that exact metaphor in The Green Eagle Score,  though he was a lot less wordy about it.  Maybe Sandra had a year or two of college on her lake.)

And what you have to ask–what he’s asking himself, as he listens to her–is she like him?  Is it possible he’s not alone in this insane world after all?  She figured all this out when she was a child.  As he must have done.  When you’re that different, you figure it out early.  And you start figuring out how to make that work for you.  Because you don’t have any choice.

Like him, she lives from score to score.  Like him, she returns to a woman and a house after each score.  Like him, she hides what she really is, blends into the herd, because she can never have a pack.

But she went another way with it.  Makes sense.  Maybe he could have gone that way, in a different life, a different time.  Right now, she’s starting to go his way, as their paths across the lake converge.

They get back to Bosky Rounds, and Claire quietly says they have to leave. Reversa was here again.  No doubt what side of the street she’s on (or that she believes there is a street).  She gave Mrs. Barlett wanted posters to put up there. If people can compare the police sketch with Parker, sitting there having breakfast, somebody will make the connection.

Parker tells Claire she can’t check out yet.  Leave tomorrow, so it doesn’t seem like she’s running.  He’s going to hide out at the church, with the money.  Sandra drives him there.  For all their mutual understanding, there’s still plenty of distrust (which is what you expect from two carnivores who pair up to take down something too big for a lone wolf).

She gives him a mover’s pad, to serve as a blanket.  It’s going to be cold in that church.  She’s got some bottled water as well.  He’s going to be hungry, but he’s used to that.  He checks everything out after she drops him off.  Nothing changed.  Just have to wait for McWhitney to come with the truck.

It was a long empty day.  For part of it he walked, indoors or out, and other parts he sat against a wall in the empty house or curled into the moving pad again and slept.  He woke from one of those with the long diagonals of late afternoon light coming in the window and Nick Dalesia seated cross-legged on the floor against the opposite wall.  The revolver in his right hand, not exactly pointing anywhere, would belong to the dead marshal.

Parker sat up.  “So there you are,” he said.

Somehow, even when you’ve got a gun on Parker and he’s barehanded, it always feels like you’re the one in danger.  Dalesia’s got the drop on him, and he should drop him.  But he needs a car.  Does Parker have one parked nearby?  (Damn, again seeing why Westlake sometimes regretted choosing that name.)

They’re five feet apart.  Parker has to play this just right.  Stay calm, wait for the opening.  Nick keeps asking questions, trying to figure out what Parker is doing here.  Then he knows–Parker is waiting–for back-up–and to kill him.  He hesitates.  Just for a moment.  They’re friends, aren’t they?  Oh Nick.  You know better.  The job is over.  You killed a cop.  You want all the money now.  The rules have changed.  For all we know, this is what happened to Handy McKay.

Parker tosses the water bottle towards Nick, and just for a moment it catches his eye.  A moment is all Parker needs.  He throws the makeshift blanket, and makes his move.  A bullet pierces the mat.  End of Part One.  I’ll do Parts Two and Three next time.  Then Part Four.  And then we’re done with Stark.

I don’t know if the frozen lake thing is a coincidence.  Los Lobos came out with that song back in 1984.  It was pretty popular.  Westlake could have heard it. And very different minds sometimes run along parallel lines.  If you believe in lines.  Do you believe the wolf will survive?

I need to.

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Ask the Parrot, Part 3

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Jane loved to read.  Reading invariably took her out of the world she lived in, out of this glassed-in porch with its changing views of the seasons, and off to some other world with other views, other people, other seasons.  Invariably; but not today.

Jane tended to buy best sellers, but only after they came out in paperback, so the excited buzz that had greeted the book’s initial appearance had cooled and she could see the story for itself, with its insights and its failings.  She was a forgiving reader, even when she was offered sequences that didn’t entirely make sense; after all, now and again the sequence of events of actual life didn’t make sense either, did it?

Like that man, Smith, staying with Tom Lindahl.  What could possibly have brought those two together?  And how had Tom, a man she’d known for probably thirty years, suddenly come up with an “old friend” nobody’d ever heard of before?

No; that was the real world.  What she was trying to concentrate on was the world inside this book, and finally, after distracting herself several times, she did succeed, and settled in with these characters and their story.  Now she concentrated on the problems of these other relationships and intertwining histories and didn’t look up until the room had grown so dark she simply couldn’t read any more.

“You’ve got something else going on.”

Ed gave him an exasperated look.  “We work from different rule books, Tom.  You already know that.”

“Yes.”

Why did I think I could control him? Tom thought, remembering the sight of the man coming up that hill.  Because he was on the run?  That didn’t make him somebody that could be controlled, that made him somebody that could never be controlled.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down. I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’

Robert Frost

My 200th post here.  I can’t think of a better place for it.  This is the final Westlake masterpiece (so by definition, the final Stark masterpiece).  He had two more decent books left in him after this; they did not rise to this level.

Westlake gets slotted as a comic author, and he earned that backhanded compliment, but what I’ve found, again and again, is that his strongest work–even when comedic in tone–is often very dark, composed at trying moments in his life, as was this book, completed after he’d been afflicted with retinal tears and cataracts, leading to multiple surgeries on his eyes.  For the better part of a year (the worst, really), he could neither read nor write.

Hard for anyone to endure–terrifying for a writer. Too late to learn Braille.  Too private and involved in his work methods to write by dictation, as John Milton did.  “Does God exact day labour, light denied?”  He did not fondly ask.  Providence and modern medicine (and good insurance) gave him back his eyes, impaired but usable, and he put them to good use.  Make hay while the sun shines.

Ask The Parrot, the first book he finished after his recovery, benefits, ironically enough, from its crystal clear focus–relatively few characters, the action taking place over perhaps forty-eight hours, perhaps less.  Quite a lot of action, and yet it never feels rushed.  There is an autumnal chill over the proceedings, even when the characters themselves are in the grip of frenzy, vendetta.  Which Parker, who has felt such emotions in the past, never submits to here, never loses control.

Which is why we need Part Three, to bring us into the heads of all those who do. It skips around quite a bit in time and space.  And state of mind.

We start with Nelson McWhitney, the only member of the string from Nobody Runs Forever who has gotten through the dragnet with little trouble–because he’s driving his own car, with his own ID, we’re told.  He’s had troubles with the law before, so you might think his priors would show up when they checked on him, but how much of a check do they run on you when they stop and question you, if they stop and question you?  I think most of us don’t really know, because most police roadblocks are directed at drunk drivers, Latin-American immigrants, and, of course, black people.  Nelson is none of the above.  So he can get back to his bar on Long Island, and wait to see whether Nick Dalesia, whose capture he hears about on the car radio, knows enough about him to be a problem.

Then we’re back with Brian Hopwood and Suzanne Gilbert, the two civilians Parker has been forced to hold at gunpoint at Hopwood’s service station.  Parker wants to know more about Suzanne, who stopped to talk to him last night, when he was out strolling (prowling, really).  She wants to know why he took her grandfather’s gun.  The one he’s pointing at her now.

He looked at her, and though his face didn’t change into anything you could call a smile, Brian still had the feeling the question  had given him some kind of amusement.  “Just in case Brian here,” he told her, “would draw down on me.  You didn’t stop to see your grandfather last night.”

Last night?  Brian looked from the hardcase to Suzanne, who didn’t even look worried, much less scared, and he thought, What about last night?  Now there was some other story here, and he wasn’t in on it.

She said, “No, I just drive by, on my way home.  Sometimes he can’t sleep, and, if that happens, he’ll sit out on his porch with the light on and I stop and we talk awhile.  He knows I’ll be there and it makes it easier for him, so these days he’s sleeping more than he used to.  Last night when I went by he was asleep in front of the television set, so that was fine, so I just went on home.  I suppose that’s when you broke in and stole his gun.”

For Christ’s sake, Suzanne, Brian thought, leave it alone.  But the hardcase didn’t seem to mind.  He just shrugged and said, “He didn’t seem to use it much.”  Then he switched those cold eyes to Brian, considered him a minute as though he might decide after all he was the kind of pest you might as well shoot, and said, “When did you decide?”

“To be a hero?”  Brian, beyond embarrassment, shrugged and looked away.  “When I did it.”

The way it was, once he realized Parker was one of the bank robbers, he made this little bargain with himself–if Parker drove away after pumping gas into Tom Lindahl’s car (that he assumes Parker stole), he’d call the state troopers.  If Parker came back in, he’d make a citizen’s arrest.  In truth, it worked out better for Parker that he didn’t call the cops.  Brian’s starting to realize that it worked out better for him that Suzanne came in when she did.  He can’t look at this guy now, really look at him, and believe he’d have lived to brag about how he captured the bank robber single-handed.

Parker doesn’t want to leave any dead bodies behind him, it it can be avoided. Can he fix it so that these two can’t call the law before he gets out of this podunk town?  Between the three of them, they come up with a story–Brian has to work on a local doctor’s car, it’s an emergency.  He’s going to call his wife and tell her that.  Tell not not to hold up dinner for him.  She tells him he’s going to have to make do with reheated chicken curry.  He tells himself nothing will ever taste so good in his entire life.

Then Parker has Suzanne tie Brian’s hands behind his back with his own shoelaces.  Suzanne doesn’t want to be tied up–she still isn’t processing who and what she’s dealing with here.  But she finally accedes–shoelaces for her hands, jumper cables for her feet, stuck on the floor.  And then Parker rigs Brian’s office chair with screwdrivers and electrical tape, so it can’t roll.

Parker takes the keys for a customer’s black Infiniti (there was a white one in the last book; Westlake must have liked those cars, or at least the  name), and drives off.  Leaving Suzanne to ask who he thinks he is, treating them that way?  Brian says that a man in that situation will do pretty much what he likes.  Suzanne, beside herself with anger, asks what, is he famous or something?  Brian groans inwardly, thinking of the hours they’re going to spend in each other’s company.  It would be a great mistake to think Richard Stark did not have a comedic side to him, just as Westlake had a somber side–it’s a matter of emphasis.

(I wonder to myself, at moments like this, whether Parker could kill someone as patently innocent as Suzanne Gilbert. He’s caused the death of exactly one presumed innocent since we’ve met him–the first time we met him–by binding and gagging her. Turned out she had asthma, and suffocated while he was elsewhere.  He felt no guilt over it, but it bothered him, in a way he couldn’t really articulate, even to himself.

It’s a stupid question to ask, even if one believes, as I do, that Parker is a beast in human form.  A romantic notion, that true innocence is a sure defense against a carnivore, with four legs or two.  Yet, it must be said, others have had this notion in the past.  Best not take it too literally.  Remember Timothy Treadwell, and even more aptly, Amie Hugueonard.  Though grizzlies are really omnivores, like us.)

We pick back up with Cal and Cory, who are still looking for some way to score off ‘Ed’ and Tom.  Cal is brooding over the way Parker bitch-slapped him, not wanting to admit how scared he is, which means he’s got to do something to prove he isn’t.  Cory’s musing on how they need to be able to tail their quarry undetected.  He’ll borrow their sister’s car, telling her he’s got an interview for a nice respectable office job, suitable for someone of his intelligence.

She’s got no time for Cal the perennial screw-up (it’s been made clear that the only reason Cal is short an eye is Cal) but she still holds out hope for Cory.  She’ll buy his explanation that it’ll look better for him to show up for the appointment he doesn’t really have in her Jetta than in the pickup he and Cal share.

He drops Cal off at a diner, so sis won’t suspect anything’s amiss.  Cory knows his brother will want to over-indulge himself with food and drink, which will make him slow and stupid later–tells him just to have coffee. Cal promises, then goes into the diner and orders whatever the hell he wants, including beer.

Chapter 4.  We’re now with Fred, and his wife Jane, who has just brought back his rifle from Tom’s house.  This chapter is from Jane’s POV.  He’s watching football.  She can see it’s not helping.  She knows he’s wounded inside, doesn’t know what to do about it, has been emotionally overwhelmed for some time now.

She passes on what ‘Ed’ told her, that their son George would want Fred to be there once he gets out of Attica.  Fred is baffled by this, then agitated.  Why did ‘Ed’ say that?  What neither of them knows is that Parker was telling Jane to tell Fred that himself.  Give him a motivation to stay alive.  But honest to a fault, she reports it as an odd thing this friend of Tom Lindahl’s said.  Which Fred will now brood upon at length.

She settles in to read a book, her comfort, her anodyne, as it is for so many of us.  It works for her, far better than football did for Fred.  Frightening things happen in books, but you know they’re not real.  When she rouses herself from the book, she realizes Fred has gone.  He’s taken the car.  And the rifle.

It’s evening now. When the fake hunters get ready for bed, and the real ones get ready to prowl.  Parker tells Tom there’s going to be another change in the plan.  Tom should go ahead to the track without him.  He’ll catch up later.  Tom takes a quick look at his parrot, and thinks he’ll come up with a name for it when he gets back.

A short piece down the road, Jack Riley is worried about his granddaughter Suzanne.  She should have dropped by to check on him by now.  He’d better check on her.  He’s been unsettled ever since his pistol disappeared.  He always used to check on that, every night, just to remind himself it was there, if he ever needed it.

What he needs now is the only person left in the world who cares if he lives or dies.  Pooley is too small to have a sheriff, let alone its own police department.  He calls the local state police barracks, reports both disappearances–the missing gun and the missing granddaughter.  Not in that order of importance.  Suzanne hasn’t been missing that long, and old people lose things all the time, but the trooper asks him a lot of questions, decides this might be something worth checking on.  Jack’s told a car will be around in maybe half an hour.  He says he’ll turn the porch light on.

Now we’re in Fred’s head, for the first and only time in the book.  Not a pleasant place to be, and we’re just visiting.  He lives there.

It wasn’t football Fred saw on the blank television screen, it was the cell.  The all-purpose cell, sometimes the one he knew he was headed for, sometimes the one George was in right now–what has happened to our family?–but other times the cell/grave in which lay the man he killed, twitching still in death.

He had never seen George’s cell, of course, so this cell, constantly shifting, existed only in  his imagination, fed mostly by old black-and-white movies watched on nights he couldn’t sleep.  A small stone room it was, longer than wide, high-ceilinged, with hard iron bars making up one of the short walls and one small high-up window in the opposite wall, showing nothing but gray.  The cell smelled of damp and decay.  He lay curled on the floor there, or George did, or sometimes that poor man up at Wolf Peak, the last thick dark red blood pulsing out of his back.

It was getting dark outside the living room windows.  Imagination had never bothered Fred much before this, but now he was all imagination, screaming nerve ends of imagination, imagining the cell, imagining the shame, and now, as darkness was coming on, imagining the teeth.  Destroying the evidence.  It gets darker and darker, and all those rustling creatures gather around the body on the forest floor, gnawing at it, snarling at one another, gnawing and gnawing.

His body.  The way he sometimes became George, in that Gothic prison cell, now sometimes, too, he became the dead man on Wolf Peak, among all those jaws, all those teeth.

Day before yesterday, he killed a harmless old man for no reason.  A stranger who smelled of trouble told him not to report it, and he agreed, hating himself for his cowardice.  Now the stranger has told his wife to tell him, in effect, “Don’t shoot yourself.”

He wasn’t going to do that!  Well, of course he was thinking about doing precisely that, or rather, trying not to think about it.  But that doesn’t mean this shadowy bastard has the right to tell him not to think about it.  And the more he thinks about it, the more he thinks what this Ed Smith really meant was ‘go ahead and do it.’  Trying to plant the idea in him.  Trying to get him out of the way.

Fred tells himself that Ed’s sympathy for him was fake–he’s got that much right. But paranoia makes it impossible to put yourself in anyone else’s place, to see past your own fears and insecurities.  Parker couldn’t care less whether Fred Thiemann eats his gun or not.  He only cares about getting out of this podunk corner of New York with his share of the loot. Fred’s suicide would complicate that, so the message he sent through Jane was meant to head that scenario off, at least for a while.  It got garbled in transmission.

What passes for Fred’s reason now tells him is, if there were no Ed Smith, he wouldn’t be afraid anymore.  He wouldn’t worry about the cell, about the teeth.  He heads over to Tom Lindahl’s place.  But the only one at Tom Lindahl’s place now is a parrot who can’t talk. Or can he?

Chapter 8 of Part Three in this book has bothered me for a long time.  I happen to  know a lot about birds. I even know a thing or two about parrots.  And the one thing anybody should know about them, aside from the fact that they are smart and long-lived, is that they see color better than we do.  Why would they have such splendid plumage were that not the case?

So the opening to chapter 8 bugs me, and it always will.  Even though I’m probably taking it too literally (‘black and white’ probably refers to the lining of the cage).

I still think it’s damned well written, and haunting in its (for want of a better word) starkness.  Donald Westlake’s one and only attempt I know of at a deep dive into an animal mind is worthy of attention.  But I think this must be considered more of a portrait in solipsism than a true vision of what it’s like to be a bird in a cage.  We probably don’t want to know what that’s like (I avoid stores that sell parrots whenever possible).

But one thing we do know is that a smart social being like a parrot goes entirely mad when confined to a cage by itself for too long.  Normally, a pet parrot forms a very strong bond with the human or humans it’s living with, comes to perceive one special human as its mate.  I don’t know that Westlake did any research on parrots at all for this book.  It might have gotten in the way with what he wanted to say here, but again–irritating if you know something about parrots.

The parrot is described as being green–maybe a species of conure, perhaps a Monk Parakeet–not one of the larger, longer-lived, more expensive species known for their exceptional capacity to mimic human speech.  Not a bad metaphor for Tom Lindahl’s life, the last few years.  This is where Tom’s been headed, up until Parker showed up.  And maybe this is what Westlake himself feared his life would become, if he didn’t get his eyes fixed.  Or maybe he just wanted to imagine what it would be like to look through those eyes.  If the whole world is a cell, a cell is nothing to fear.

The parrot saw things in black and white.  He knew about this place of his, that it was very strong, and that he was very strong within it, and that whenever he thought he might be hungry, there was food in the tray.  He was clean and preferred to stand on his swinging bar rather than down at the bottom of the world was made new, almost shining white and black, crisp, noisy if touched, until he began to drop upon it again.

For movement, rather than down there, he preferred to move among the swinging wooden bar and the rigid vertical black metal bars of the cage.  Up and over, sometimes, for no reason at all, his strong talons gripping the bars even directly above his head, giving him, when he arched his neck back and started with one round black and white eye at the world, this world, a whole new perspective.

The parrot is aware of other creatures, outside its cage, occupying a still larger cage, and how these creatures sometimes depart the outer cage for some outer realm of which it knows nothing.

He had some curiosity about these Creatures, but not much.  He studied them when they were present, usually observing one eye at a time, waiting for them to do something to explain themselves.  So far, they had not.

The parrot becomes aware that another Creature, not the one who attends to his needs, has entered the outer cage, and is shouting at him.  Trying to communicate something.  He’s never felt the need to speak before, but when an alien talks to you, shouldn’t you try to say something back, make contact?  He begins by trying to repeat the Creature’s words back to him–“Air izzi?  Air izzi?  Air izzi?”  No mention of wanting any crackers.  Has anyone ever heard a real parrot say that?

It’s not just psittacines in cages who go mad, but only bipedal hominids, sane or otherwise, are  guaranteed the right to bear arms.  The parrot knows nothing of that, so he grabs hold of the metal tube stuck into his cage, cocks his head to look down the barrel, and…..Polly want a harp?  Already got the wings.

Next, we’re with State Troopers James Duckbundy (perhaps an even rarer name than Grofield, possible Westlake made it up), and Roger Ellis, driving over to Jack Riley’s house, when they hear a rifle shot.  There are still some gun laws enforced in these United States, and one of them is that you can’t discharge a firearm within five hundred feet of a house (probably not as tightly enforced as all that in some places, but this is New York State).

They see somebody getting into a black Taurus by a boarded-up house.  They see a rifle.  They identify themselves as police, command him to put the weapon on the ground.  They have no way of knowing this guy just shot a parrot for talking back to him.  But they know he’s read to shoot them for doing the same, and while eleven shots is probably excessive, you know how it is with semi-automatics and panic. (I would like to see ordinary patrolmen go back to revolvers, but I get why they probably won’t.)

Now we’re with Tom, heading for the track in his Ford SUV, thinking about what to name his parrot, wondering where the hell Parker is, vaguely aware of a Volkswagen Jetta behind him, seeing a black Infiniti rocket past him, dealing with the fact that if his accomplice has ditched him, he’s never going to have the nerve to take the money himself, even though the take would be twice as large, and the risk of capture about the same.

Chapter 11.  Suzanne and Brian are still tied up in the gas station.  She’s woken up by gunshots, which we know mark the end of Fred Thiemann’s life, but she doesn’t.  She’s quietly humiliated by her recent inability to grasp the fact that the man who tied them up was not being rude.  He was a bank robber, looking for a way not to kill them.

Bank robbers were being hunted all around the countryside, but when this had happened to Suzanne, did she think, bank robbers?  No, she thought, now, see what they’re doing to me, and it took Brian Hopwood of all people to tell her, not gently, that this time the story wasn’t about her, it was about him, about that man, the one who’d tied them up and gone away.

And on top of everything else, she really really needs to go to the bathroom.  Isn’t there some saying about how The Necessary is the Mother of Invention?  She’s the one tied the knots holding Brian fast–used to be a Girl Scout.  She figures what she can do, she can undo.  Brian is skeptical, but she’s insistent (because her bladder is too).  And as she starts to make progress, he perks up, begins to help, and they’re both free.  And she’s running for the rest room.  And he’s reminding her she’ll need the key.

A very light section for such a dark book.  Doesn’t advance the plot in any way, though it might have done if they’d gotten free a few hours ago.  No danger they’d die of starvation in there.  The worst possibility they faced was having to wet their drawers, a fate now averted by Suzanne’s knot-savvy.  What’s the point of this chapter?

Stark wanted to know. He wondered how it turned out. It’s that simple.  He’s got a lot of developing situations to monitor, but he kept an eye on these two, watching to see if they’d find a way to work together, get out of their shared predicament.  They did.  Well done.  His curiosity satisfied, he turns his gaze elsewhere, and these two groundlings are seen no more, save for a brief curtain call. Enough with the comic relief (and the very low-key sexual tension neither of them is ever going to do anything about).

Following Tom down the highway, in the sister’s Jetta, Cory and Cal are getting confused.  What’s he up to?  For that matter, what are they up to?  Their necks in trouble, but that’s nothing new for the Rosencrantz & Guildenstern of upstate NY.

They know Tom wouldn’t be covering for this wanted felon if there wasn’t something in it for him.  That something has to be money.  Cal would like some of that money for himself.  Cory too, though it seems more like he’s just doing it for his brother–and to see if he can do it.  If he can come up with a plan that will get them what they want.  If Westlake were writing this book, maybe he would.  He should have checked the title page.

Still, he’s got potential–he solves the mystery–the race track.  The one Tom used to work at.  That’s where they’re going.  That’s what this is about.  That’s where the money is.

Neither of them is really thinking about what they might have to do to get this money.  Well, Cal’s thinking about it a little–he brought a gun.  High Standard GI, in .45 caliber.  Small gun, big bullets. Bought it in a pawn shop, years ago. Just like Jack Riley, he’s been fascinated by it ever since, wondering what it would be like to use it on someone.  (Guns are a bit like snakes, you ever think about that? And we’re the birds.  Ask the parrot about that.  Well, too late now.)

Cory freaks.  A Westlake hero, in a Stark novel, he never counted on anything heavy.  And he suddenly notices that his brother seems drunk–that beer is kicking in all of a sudden.

Then Cal notices that Tom Lindahl is alone in that car.  They pull over at a closed gas station.  Cal is beside himself with anger and fear.  Where’s Ed?

Right behind you, doofus.  Has been for a while.  In the black Infiniti (get the implicit pun?)  Which now pulls in front of them, blocking the road.  Parker gets out.  His hands are empty.  Cal remembers those hands.  He yanks out his .45 auto.  Parker takes out his .22 revolver.  Guess who wins?

Cal drops.  Cory runs for it in the Jetta.  In the rearview mirror, he can see Parker, striding, hands at his side, the gun in one of them.  Maybe he wasn’t going to kill them before.  But that was before Cal pulled out the gun.  Nobody who sees Parker like that ever forgets.  A Romero zombie would be comforting by comparison.  Still, Cory could just keep driving.

A brother is not so easily abandoned.

Absolute panic compelled him to drive hard for three or four minutes on a road with no traffic until he overtook a slow-moving pickup and had to decelerate.  As he slowed, the panic receded and clear thought came back, and he knew he had to go take care of Cal.  He was the younger brother, but he’d always been the one with brains, the one who went along with Cal’s stunts but then–sometimes–got them both out of trouble when things went too far.

Cal was hit.  Shot.  How bad?

(So they’re not twins, after all?  Cal was just joking about that?  Or is Cory the younger brother by a few minutes?  For our purposes, it doesn’t really matter.  So I don’t really care.)

Nobody there at the gas station. No body. No Ed Smith.  No Infiniti.  The gun’s still there on the ground, where Cal dropped it.  Cory picks it up.  What would you have done?

Chapter 13 is Captain Robert Modale, trying to put all the pieces together.  A man is dead.  He shot a parrot, then committed suicide by cop.  Two people were tied up in a gas station by one of the escaped bank robbers, who stole a really nice car.  The dead man’s wife says he killed a vagrant while on the police manhunt that no armed civilians should have had any part in, and this house guest of Ed Lindahl’s they now know was the bank robber convinced them both to stay quiet about it, and it drove Fred Thiemann crazy, so he shot a parrot.  Of course.  It all makes perfect sense now.  The only thing Modale knows for sure is that if he gets his hands on Tom Lindahl, he’s going to have a whole lot of questions.

At Gro-More, one of the two security guards is bored.  He decides to go for a walk around the complex.  What the hell.  Do his job, why not?  He retires next month.  He’s feeling nostalgic.  So he walks around, and he sees headlights–a car.  In a place no car should be this time of night.  Could be more crazy people wanting to hurt the horses stabled there.  He hadn’t set out to be a hero, but…..(is a goddam leitmotif in this book).

Tom Lindahl (they were his lights) reaches the dirt road he needs to turn off on, to reach the point where he and Parker can enter the complex, do the job. And he keeps going a ways, until he reaches another damn diner (no McDonalds up there?), and pulls over by a dumpster.  To think.  Maybe this was all a bad idea, start to finish.  But even bad ideas happen for a reason.  It’s the reason he’s after.  Why did he start this?  Where should he go now?

I can’t go back there.  He meant Pooley, he meant the little converted garage he’d been living in, he meant that whole life.

He didn’t think, I can’t go home.  That wasn’t home, he hadn’t had a home in years.  That was where he’d camped out, waiting for something to happen, although, until Smith had come along, there was never anything going to happen except one day he wouldn’t be waiting any more.

But Smith had come along and riled up the waters.  Tom had met him, and hooked up with him, and told him about his racetrack opportunity, because he’d thought he wanted revenge and money, but he’d been wrong.  He’d wanted a hand grenade to throw into the middle of his empty unbearable life, and boy, he’d sure found one.

And he knows, as he stands there in the dark, that whether he robs the track or not, he’s a marked man.  Too many people know too many things about him and his guest.  Tom Lindahl is going to get arrested if he goes home, so there can’t be any Tom Lindahl anymore.  He’s got to become somebody else, somewhere else.  But he still needs some closure, so he’ll go back, wait for Ed.  If Ed doesn’t show, he’ll just leave.

Once the decision was made, it was easy, as though it had always been easy; he’d just been too close to it to see the path.  Now he could see it.  He started the engine, drove to Dead End, and this time headed on in.  He went to where there was the right turn to the chain-link fence, and stopped at the gate there.  He didn’t get out of the car but looked through the fence at the clubhouse and after a minute switched off the headlights.  He didn’t need them to know where he was.

Smith, in the dark beside Tom’s open window said, “Time to get started.”

(Tom doesn’t pee his pants, that we hear about, so he’s not kidding himself about being ready.)

So that’s Part Three.  Part Four is seven chapters, thirty-four pages in the first edition.  Not enough for a Part 4 review, even on this blog.  Time to finish up.

Chapter 1 is the penultimate Stark Rewind, and one of the best in the series.  It doesn’t tell us much we didn’t already know.  Parker knew Cory had a plan, figured out what it was, countered it.  If Cal hadn’t taken out his gun, Parker would have just stopped them from going any further, but you know Cal.  And Parker knows who the real threat is.

The other one got scared, all right, and skittered away from there like a drop of water on a hot frying pan, but Parker knew he’d be back.  Cory’d made it his business to stand with his dumber crazier brother, so once the fright wore off, he’d have to come back.

Not 100% sure Cory won’t bleat to the troopers manning the roadblock, Parker disposes of Cal’s body, dumping it down a roadside gulch, into a creek.  He gets to the track ahead of Tom, and waits. Wondering if Tom’s nerve will hold.  He really does need a good score, but there’s no point without Tom’s keys and knowledge of the terrain.  If it’s not in the cards, he’ll just head back to Claire.  “It had been too long since he’d seen her.”  (Now that’s a Starkian love poem, much better than that schmaltz about the doors and windows in Flashfire.)

There are two pallets of cash waiting for them.  Much more than expected.  Parker says there’s no time to count it out, do a dead even split–stuff both duffels full of bills no smaller than a ten, they’ll each take one, and they’re done. Fortune favors the bold. Unless they’re security guards on the verge of retirement.

Bill, the hulking 6’5 rent-a-cop, who felt like taking a reminiscent stroll prior to his last day on the job, has stumbled across them.  Parker motions Tom to hide–and plays another role–the guy who came to play the ponies and drink, fell asleep in the men’s room. Honest, mister, I don’t know why all these doors were unlocked–I couldn’t find a way out!  Sure, call the cops if you like, just get me out of here.  And take me to your partner, so I can get you both out of the running.

Bill, suspicious, but not enough, takes Parker to the guard’s room where Max, the other guard feels like this guy is a bit of a smartass, might have to tenderize him. Parker takes out Hopwood’s little automatic, and a tender little moment follows, with a terrified Bill pleading with Max to remember how close they both are to getting out of this place alive. No need to bother with boot-laces this time, since they both have handcuffs.  Very convenient.

Parker gets back to the money room, where Tom is in a morbid state of mind, even for him.  He’s sure Parker killed the guards, both of whom he knew from his days at the track.  Parker explains once again that thing about how you don’t kill when you don’t have to, because it makes the law take you more seriously.  He can’t understand why everyone assumes he’s this mad dog killer.  (Doesn’t look in the mirror much.)

Tom is coming to terms with everything that’s happened because of his snap decision to go find Parker on that hillside, save him from the hounds.  He doesn’t know what happened to Fred (or his parrot), but he knows something awful will happen.  Parker, showing more patience than you’d expect, says Fred was already going crazy, because of his son, maybe.

If Fred had turned himself in, that might have purged his guilt, but he would have been just as doomed, because the mills of the law grind so exceeding fine.  He was doomed the moment he squeezed the trigger.  Nothing Tom did changed that.  It’s bad enough to be guilty about your own bad decisions you can never take back.  If you’re going to take responsibility for everyone else’s, where does it end?

Now Tom’s ready to start in on the old hobo, whose body they left to be devoured by scavengers; deprived him of a decent funeral, embalming fluids, a few scattered family members pretending they’re sorry he’s gone.  Tom never heard of sky burial, I guess.  Or certain practices of the North American Plains Indians. Or Robinson Jeffers.  May my own remains come to such a noble end.  Parker reminds Tom that if they don’t get out of there soon, they’ll come to a far worse one.  Tom agrees.

The loot is stowed in the duffels–Tom didn’t let his guilt paralyze him.  But they have one more hurdle to clear.  Cory’s here.  It’s not about the money anymore, for him.

Parker has to fill Tom in on what happened further back along the highway.  Tom has to process that while Parker doesn’t kill when he doesn’t need to, sometimes he really needs to.  And sometimes that creates the need to kill again. Another reason not to do it if you don’t have to.

Their strategic position could be better.  Cory, being the smart Dennison brother, has picked a spot outside, in view of their two cars, where he can pick them both off, if they go out the way they came in.  Parker has to try and flank him.  He has no reason to think Tom would be an asset in this fight, so he tells him to stay put–but Tom wants to know–suppose Parker loses?  Parker tells him to go to the guard room, get one of their revolvers. Then he goes hunting. For someone who is already hunting him.

What follows over most of the final three chapters must have been challenging to write–certainly challenging to write about, and I think I’ll pass.  Several men in the dark, with guns, maneuvering around, looking for an advantage, a target.  It’s exciting to read, and very hard to describe.  It’s the kind of scene Westlake himself was painfully aware could be more effectively depicted on film.

With one major exception–prose fiction’s great advantage over the visual arts, and Westlake knew it–he can tell us what’s going on inside the heads of the characters.  In this case, Parker’s head, since it’s all from his POV.  We follow him around in the dark, watch him calculate the odds with cold dispassion.  We only know what he knows.  And what he doesn’t.

He doesn’t know exactly where Cory is.  He doesn’t know what Tom is doing.  He doesn’t know if he can trust Tom not to pull a cross.  He doesn’t know if Cory is too overcome with rage to think clearly, or if his anger has made him more focused.  He assumes only one thing.  That if he sees Cory’s silhouette, backlit in the darkness, he’ll shoot him.

Cory gets a few shots off, and Parker knows he thinks maybe he’s killed Parker.  The maybe would only make him more frightened, as his rage begins to cool. Because now he’s not sure of anything.

We’re sure–Parker is unhurt, lying low, still waiting.  Tom emerges–Parker wonders where he’s been, what he’s planning.  He calls for ‘Ed’–Parker doesn’t respond.  Cory and Tom talk.  Cory says he’s killed Ed.  Does Tom believe him? Tom asks if Cory wants to kill him too.  Cory says no.  Does Tom believe that?  Does he just want to get away with all the cash?  Then Tom, who did get one of the guards’ guns, shoots at Cory, misses, but this provides covering fire for Parker to shift position undetected.  He knew, as Parker did, that Cory needed both of them.

In the end, nobody catches a bullet.  Cory, his strategy defeated, his nerve broken, gets clubbed over the head with the butt of Parker’s pistol, as he searches through the parked cars for Parker’s body.  Unlikely he’s dead, though he could have a bad concussion.  Parker doesn’t check. Because he doesn’t care.

He comes up on Tom in the darkness again–he did believe Cory killed Parker, so he’s taking the second duffel, putting it in his car, preparing to scram before the law shows.  Parker isn’t offended, he’d have done the same thing (he has done the same thing).  He’s pleased.  Tom got their money.  Now they need to go their separate ways.  Two roads diverging in a wood.

I will allow myself one more long quote.  These two have packed a lot into their short time together.  Now they have to express something to each other.  Without using a lot of words.  Or time.

Parker opened the rear cargo door and looked in at the two long mounds, like body bags.  Lindahl came and stood beside him, looking in at the bags.  “I did it,” he said, his voice quiet but proud.  “I know, you and me together did it, but I did it.  After all this time.”

“We’ll just put it on the ground outside,” Parker said, reaching for the top duffel, “beside the wall.”

“You don’t want me to see your car.”

“You don’t need to see my car.  Come on, Tom.”

They put their arms around the end of the duffel and carried it around the car and through the gate and put it on the ground beside the wall.  Looking down at it, Lindahl said, “Half the time I was sure, if we ever got it, and I never thought we’d get it, but I was sure…” His voice trailed off, with a little vague hand gesture.

“You were sure I’d shoot you,” Parker said.  “I know.”

“You could have, anytime.”

Parker said, “You brought me the job, you went in on the job with  me, that’s yours.”

Lindahl giggled; a strange sound out here.  “You mean,” he said, “like, honor among thieves?”

“No,” Parker said.  I mean a professional is a professional.  Take off, Tom, and stay away from roadblocks.  That car might be burned by now.”

“I’ll be okay,” said Lindahl.  The giggle had opened some looseness inside of him, some confidence, as though he’d suddenly had a drink.  “So long,” he said, and got behind the wheel of the Ford.  His window was open; he looked out and might have said something else, but Parker shook  his head, so Lindahl simply put the Ford in gear and drove away from there.

Once Lindahl had made the turn onto the dirt road leading to the county road, Parker went over to bring the Infiniti up close to the duffel.  By then, Lindahl was out of sight.  Parker wondered how far he’d get.

Parker wondered how far he’d get.  Perhaps the most six most enigmatic words in all twenty-four books.  He didn’t wonder if the  man who just tried to shoot him was dead.  He does wonder what will become of his fellow hunter. Parker never wonders about things he doesn’t care about.

Earlier in the book, when Parker told Tom that his best course of action after the heist would be to stay where he was, gut it out, face down the law, Tom responded, “It’s like hunting, I see that.  In some ways, it’s like hunting.  The main thing is, you have to be patient.  If you’re patient, you’ll get what you want.” Parker’s only rejoinder was his usual two-syllable affirmative.

As I’ve said already, Parker was not giving Tom good advice there.  Tom could never have stayed in Pooley and kept out of jail–probably not even if he hadn’t pulled the heist.  But it was for Tom to figure that out for himself.  He already had, when the job started, for reasons of his own–but Parker couldn’t know that.

He does know that to get that pistol he fired at Cal, Tom had to show his face to the two guards, who would have recognized him, could identify him.  He knows Tom wouldn’t have killed them.  So he knows he doesn’t need to tell Tom it’s time to leave Pooley, leave this part of the country, never look back.  I don’t know if he would have.  I’m guessing not.

Knowing more about what happened back in Pooley earlier that day, Parker does warn Tom that they probably already know about him, will be looking for his car.  He didn’t need to say that.  Tom could have figured it out for himself, as he has so many other things, in the course of the nigh-Himalayan learning curve he’s traversed the last two days.

But a professional is a professional.  Get it?  There are certain courtesies professionals owe each other.  And nothing else, far as Parker is concerned. Good fences make good neighbors.

But he still wonders.  To wonder implies giving a damn either way.  Why does he care?  Ask the Parrot.

Twenty-three down.  One to go.  That’s right.

(And a sidebar:  Up top, below the cover image for the audiobook, you see a photo of Vernon Downs, the only racetrack that actually exists between Albany and Syracuse–too far from the border with Massachusetts to be the track in this novel, but perhaps a model for Gro-More, all the same. John O’Leary mentioned it in the comments section, and I looked it up.

Last June, the owner was threatening to close the whole complex down.  First the casino [of course they got one, the sport of kings and the king of sports go together like Donald Trump and pussy-grabbing], then the track, then the hotel.  Last day for the track would have been November 11th.  I was going to write a little elegy, but then I found another article that said the state assembly caved, in the face of several hundred jobs disappearing, and agreed to give Vernon a bigger cut of the casino money.

If you want to know where your cut is, maybe ask the parrot about that too.)

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Ask the Parrot, Part 2

Twas a sick young man with a face ungay
And an eye that was all alone;
And he shook his head in a hopeless way
As he sat on a roadside stone.

‘O, ailing youth, what untoward fate
Has made the sun to set
On your mirth and eye?’ ‘I’m constrained to state
I’m an ex-West Point cadet.

”Twas at cannon-practice I got my hurt
And my present frame of mind;
For the gun went off with a double spurt-
Before it, and also behind!’

‘How sad, how sad, that a fine young chap,
When studying how to kill,
Should meet with so terrible a mishap
Precluding eventual skill.

‘Ah, woful to think that a weapon made
For mowing down the foe
Should commit so dreadful an escapade
As to turn about to mow!’

No more he heeded while I condoled:
He was wandering in his mind;
His lonely eye unconsidered rolled,
And his views he thus defined:

”Twas O for a breach of the peace-’twas O
For an international brawl!
But a piece of the breech–ah no, ah no,
I didn’t want that at all.’

Polyphemus, by Ambrose Bierce

They stopped at a run-down traditional diner for lunch on the way back.  They chose a table beside the large window with its view out to very little Sunday traffic on this secondary road, and after they’d given the waitress their orders, Parker said, “Tell me about the Dennisons.”

“The who?  Oh, Cory and Cal?  What do you want to know about them for?”

“They came to see me last night.  Right after you left.”

“They came–They were at my place?”

“They think I might be one of the missing robbers.”

“Jesus!”  Lindahl looked as thought he just might jump straight up and out of the diner and run a hundred miles down the road.  “What are they gonna do?”

“If I am one of the robbers,” Parker said, “they think I must have a bunch of money on me.”

“But you don’t.”

“But if I was, and if I did, I could give Cal money to get plastic surgery and an artificial eye.”

“Oh for–” No longer in a panic, Lindahl now looked as though he’d never heard anything so dumb.  “They said that to you?  You’re the robber and give us some of the money?”

“The robber part wasn’t said.”

“But that’s what it was all about.  And if you give them the money, they won’t report you? Is that the idea?”

“I suppose so.”

“That’s a Cal idea, all right,” Lindahl said.  “He’s jumped off barn roofs since he was a little kid.”

Cal, suddenly bristling, said, “My brother tells me when to shut up.  You don’t tell me to shut up.”

As Lindahl killed the sound on the television set, Parker took a step forward and slapped Cal hard, open-handed, across the cheek, under the patch.  Cal jolted back, astonished and outraged.  Parker stood watching him, hands at his sides, and Cal, fidgeting wide eyed, tried to figure out something to do.

I have many times had cause to give fervent thanks for my comments section regulars (and irregulars), who have provided me not only with their opinions, but with information I had not previously possessed.  Rarely has this information presented itself in such a timely fashion, however.

Responding to Part 1 of this review yesterday, PhilPo, whose own blog may be seen here, provided this tidbit–used to be on the Official Westlake Blog.  I’d heard about it from Greg Tulonen, but he didn’t have the exact wording.  Thankfully, Phil had the text archived in his email, and his sharp eye (two, I hope) perceived its relevance to our current investigations.  Westlake posted this in June of 2006:

It began in January of last year, when my wife and I joined three other couples on a long-planned three-week trip in Southeast Asia. The night before we left, I started to get flashers and floaters in my left eye, but decided to ignore them, since otherwise I’d have to cancel the trip at the last second. After a twelve-hour flight from New York to Seoul, change planes, four hour flight to Hong Kong, I couldn’t see out of that eye.

The next day, I went into a hospital for an operation for a retinal separation. Terrific hospital, terrific doctors, but it was just the beginning. With more retinal tears, plus cataracts, between January 26th and December 15th, I had ten eye operations, all but the first in New York, seven on the left eye and three on the right. As I was warned partway through the experience, the left eye is now permanently damaged, but usable.

For eight months last year, I was essentially one-eyed. I couldn’t drive. It was hard to read. It was hell to go downstairs, particularly at Angkor Wat (yes, we did the Asian trip anyway). That’s over now; the damaged eye is doing what it can.

But it cost me a year. I did very little work in that time, which was why there was a halt in my publishing anything new.

So January of 2005 is when this started.  Westlake was engaging in that bit of radio wordplay with Erin McKean that I referenced last week in November of Aught Four, and going by the fact that his applications of her three endangered words all appear early in this book, we may assume he had not handed in a finished manuscript by the time of the planned vacation.

Meaning, as you have no doubt already intuited, it’s not likely a coincidence that one of his characters in this book has lost the use of an eye (has lost the eye, starker image, no medical jargon).  He’s pissed about it.  As his creator was.  As anyone would be.

The facial scarring the semi-literate Cal has in addition to the eyepatch is there, I’d think, to substitute for the angst Westlake experienced from neither reading nor writing books for long months.  Motivation.  Being Polyphemus is fun for nobody, with the possible exception of pirate cosplayers.  (Cal is quite taken with Tom’s parrot, says he ought to have one.)

(I don’t know if Westlake would approve of my using that morbidly irreverent poem up top–morbid and irreverent even for Bierce–but he is known to have approved of Bierce and I figured what the hell.)

Cal Dennison, and I think his brother Cory as well, represent two more of those characters you notice here and there in Westlake novels, who represent a road not taken–a life Westlake feels he might have lived, had he been less fortunate.  Suppose he’d lost his eye as a young man, living in upstate New York?  Suppose he hadn’t had insurance worth a damn?  Suppose he never got to read all the books that made him who he was, expanded his horizons, filled him with ambitions above his station in life?

Or suppose he’d been twins?  And one half of the amniotic duo was holding the other back?

Possible some version of the Dennisons (I’m going to guess that’s a pun) was already cued up in his head, before the eye troubles began–a necessary plot complication, of a type familiar in these books–the Cal/Cory subplot and its bloody climax bears a certain familial resemblance to the Negli/Feccio story from The Seventh–but what happened to Westlake during the time he was writing this book would still have shaped them, and Cal in particular.  So it’s good that we know about it now.  And can put it in its proper context.  (Unless he had already conceived a one-eyed character before his own ocular occurrence.  Which would be kind of scary.)

This all tracks with other intel we have, such as the fact that the New York Times review of this book–and it’s a thoughtful full-length review in the Sunday section, not a squib in their little crime fiction ghetto column–written by none other than James Wolcott, very nice indeed–was published in December of Aught Six.  Over two years after Westlake said on NPR that he expected this book would be in stores no later than November of Aught Five.  (He didn’t say Aught Five, I’m being archaic.  Parker tends to put me in that mood.)

I like Wolcott’s review, and vigorously disagree with most of it.  In retrospect, it’s quite obvious this is a much better book than Nobody Runs Forever, and a bit silly to talk about how a few extra blondes Parker won’t even think about going to bed with add sexual tension, assuming you even think every novel in the mystery genre needs some of that (somebody better tell Agatha Christie).

But I can still see his point–this isn’t what we expect from a Richard Stark heist story, and as a sequel to the previous book, it’s downright baffling.  It’s The Jugger all over again–a book that departed from all the established tropes of the series, and was greeted with a good deal of head-scratching by the readership when it first appeared–and then grew on us, like a fungus.  And yet, I’d argue, this book lives up to the basic formula of the Parker novels much better than the other two panels in this Triptych.

Here, the multi-POV part of the book is Part Three.  In Nobody Runs Forever and Dirty Money, it’s in Part Two (Nobody Runs Forever also switches POV’s in Part Four).  But more than that, this book revisits one of the most fascinating and consistent elements in Parker’s behavior–how he’ll take some aspiring felon under his wing, show him the ropes. (Who had better learn those ropes fast, or Parker may garrote him with one.)

Tom Lindahl is the last in this line of journeyman heisters, that includes Alan Grofield, Stan Devers, Larry Lloyd, and a few less apt pupils who don’t make it to the end of their respective books.  Tom is perhaps the most ordinary of the bunch, in that he doesn’t really want to be a thief, isn’t looking to pull more than one job, but doesn’t try to kid himself about the fact that once is all it takes.  He’s going to change, and he wants to change.

Stealing from his former employer is the only way Tom can regain his self-respect, not a motive Parker can relate to much.  Tom and Parker have a wall between them.  But over that wall, they can converse, learn things from each other, serve each other’s needs.  And nowhere is that more evident than in Part Two of this novel.  Which is all Part 2 of this review is going to cover.  Meaning I have to cover the rest in Part 3.  Well, it kind of worked last time……

Lindahl has already driven down to the track once tonight.  Parker wasn’t going to risk being stopped by the law with no ID.  The track has a machine that can make him a new driver’s license, that will pass muster as long as the cops don’t call headquarters to have it run through their system–and they’re too bored with this roadblock gig to do that.

Using a picture he took of Parker’s faux license, bearing the name John B. Allen (that Parker can never use again), Tom cooked up a very real-looking card on a machine he himself purchased and trained on years before.  Presto chango, Parker is William G. Dodd, of Troy NY.  The name of a retired former colleague of Tom’s.  Now the name of his new colleague, for whom ‘retired’ is a synonym for ‘deceased.’

To say Parker is grateful for this vital service Tom has done him would be imputing to him an emotion he may not be capable of.  He’s appreciative.  Put it that way.  He respects good work of any kind.  And this is good work. Which he’s going to test by driving himself and Tom right back to this track he’s heard so much about.  Time to case the joint.

A billboard ahead on the right read

GRO-MORE RACING
Next Right

That’s the main gate,” Lindahl said.  “We don’t want that.  You keep going, about another quarter mile, there’s a dirt road on this side.”

The dashboard clock read 12:42.  In the last hour, William G. Dodd’gs new driver’s license had been inspected by two state troopers at roadblocks and found acceptable; which of course, was more likely at night than by day.

On the drive down, Lindahl had alternated between a kind of buzzing vibrancy, keyed up, giving Parker little spatter-shots of his autobiography, and a deep stillness, as he studied his newly changed interior landscape, as mute as his parrot.

There’s just two guards, working for an outside company, and they rarely patrol–they do watch TV monitors showing various parts of the complex, and the building is alarmed.  It’s not much security for a place that holds hundreds of thousands in cash.  If Parker had known about this track before now, he’d probably have hit it years ago.  Getting so hard to find soft targets like this in the new cashless economy.  He’s been dealing with that ever since we met him, and it’s only gotten worse.

But the fact is, people still use cash.  And for gambling–well, would you want the wife to know how much you blew at the track?  She will if it’s on your credit card statement.  Many businesses still prefer cash, insist on cash, because of the added expense that comes with credit, that little slice of the pie the banks take, the equipment you have to buy.

Gro-More got with the times, they take credit cards, but a lot of people still pay cash.  And no track casino yet (though you can bet it’s in the works–maybe that’s one of the reasons the owners were greasing palms in Albany).

(Sidebar: Little story before we go on–I work at a college campus.  A significant amount of petty cash–enough that you might question calling it petty–was kept in an office here.  When that office was closed, somebody broke in and took the money.  Thousands.  Everybody assumed it was an inside job, and it likely was, but the perps were never caught.

No publicity–because you wouldn’t want to encourage others to try the same thing.  It wasn’t the crime of the century or anything.  Nobody got hurt.  Most people here never even knew about it.  But when I go into that office now, and there’s just one person there, sometimes that person gives a little start, you know?  Calls out “Who’s there?”  Looks around to make sure I’m not wearing a mask, holding a pistol.

There’s stashes like this all over the place, waiting for some aspiring crook to find them, and they do, much more often than you think.  Because people still use cash.  In Colorado, that’s all the newly minted Pot Lords can use, because banks won’t touch their profits.  Nothing petty about that cash, and they buy big heavy safes for it, hire tough guys to watch it.

This particular score I’m talking about was minor league–they probably blew it all on a night on the town [or the kids’ braces, how would I know?]  But you think they’ll ever stop grinning to each other about it when they meet?  Easy money.  As long as you know how to avoid the pitfalls.  As long as you don’t get caught.

I won’t even mention the woman who got caught embezzling here–a lot more money than those office heisters got.  Nice lady, used to talk to her all the time.  That got covered in the campus paper [kids must have been so excited over the scoop.]  A different kind of crime, requiring a different kind of criminal, and a different kind of crime writer.  So many specialties.

She didn’t go to jail, by the way.  Which you can bet the office heisters would have done, if they’d been caught. Nobody said life was fair.  Or that the phrase “I won’t even mention” should be taken literally.

Okay, back to the book.  Which feels a lot more real than Parker robbing an island casino run by a German aristocrat who used to be a Nazi.  Or fighting off a small army of mobsters in an amusement park.  But you know, I love those too.  Ain’t genre grand?)

There’s a wooden wall surrounding the entire facility, but Tom can turn off the alarm, unlock the gate.  Nobody has ever tried to rob this place–a few times, weirdos came here wanting to hurt the horses, that’s the only thing they really worry about.  Parker could care less about the horses.  All he’s interested in is the lay-out, and Tom is giving it all to him as they go.

They’re in the main building now, where the offices are.  Tom takes Parker through one office, so as to avoid some security cameras.  Somebody left a partly eaten omelet on a desk.  Tom knocks it over.  Here’s the final secret word from the game Westlake played with McKean–only 99 pages in–

He had bumped into the wrong desk, causing the breakfast to flip over and hit the floor facedown.  Lindahl stooped to pick up the plate, but the omelet stuck to the black linoleum, which was now a black icean, and that omelet the sandy desert island, with the solitary strip of bacon sticking  up from it, slightly slumped but brave, the perfect representation of the stranded sailor, alone and waiting for his cartoon caption.  On the floor, it looked like what the Greeks call archeiropoietoi, a pictorial image not made by a human hand.

“I ought to clean that up,” Lindahl said, frowning down doubtfully at the new island.

“A mouse did it,” Parker told him.  “Drop the plate on it and let’s go.”

Maybe the last time in these books that Stark interjects his personal perspective and knowledge into the narrative–because you know damn well Parker doesn’t know from archeiropoietoi. He doesn’t see the egg island and bacon sailor.  Tom may perceive the image, but he doesn’t know the word.  Neither did Westlake, before McKean gave it to him.

But language maven that he was, he was always picking up odd bits of obscure neglected verbiage (like pootle), putting them back to work.  It sticks out a bit–but it reminds you somebody is telling this story, and he is seeing things Parker misses.  And perhaps wishing he could stop seeing them, but he sees them anyway.  Stark cares about art.  Even accidental art.  So contrived as this is, sticking a word into a book simply to answer a challenge from a fellow word nerd, it also feels organic to the series.  Strange.

With some care, they make their way to the room where the cash is stored, in long metal boxes–which Tom proudly says he’s stolen a few of, for when he does the job he was never really going to do until somebody came along to prod him into action.  (He’s crestfallen when Parker says later they have to dump those boxes, pack the loot into easily toted anonymous canvas duffels–where’s the romance in that?  Stark may be a romantic; Parker is anything but.)

Looking at the cash there now–the cash they aren’t going to take yet–Parker asks the crucial question.

“How much is in there, usually, on a Saturday night?”

“Probably more than a hundred thousand, less than one-fifty.”

Parker nodded.  Enough to keep him moving.

Lindahl, proud and anxious, said, “So what do you think?”

“It looks good.”

With a huge relieved smile, Lindahl said, “I knew you’d see it.  You ready to go?”

“Yes.”

On their way out, up the stairs from the basement, Lindahl said, “You know, I know why you wanted me to open that box.  You didn’t want your fingerprints on it.”

“That’s right,” Parker said.

So they drive back to Pooley, and Parker, beginning to see Lindahl as a fellow professional (one who needs a lot of retraining), starts to lay out the rules.  Lindahl has to follow his lead, do what he says.  He’s the expert–that’s why he’s here, and Lindahl is willing to settle for half.  They’re going to take no bills smaller than a ten.  They’re going to obtain cheap canvas duffels, not use the heavy identifiable metal cash boxes, as Tom, looking for symbolic retribution as much as profit, wanted to do.

Lindahl has some rules of his own–

“But I can say no, I guess,” Lindahl said.  “I can say no, I don’t want to do that, and then we don’t do it.  Like if you say, ‘Now we go kill the two guys in security,’ I can say no, and we don’t do it.”

I’m not out to kill anybody,” Parker said.  “It only makes the heat worse.”

“Well, whatever it might be,” Lindahl said. “If I don’t like it, I can say no, and we don’t do it.”

“You’re right,” Parker told him.  “You can always say no.”

“Good.  We  understand each other.” Lindahl nodded at the window. “Lights out there.”

Another roadblock.  Another ID check.  Another narrow escape. And then Parker hits Tom with the rule he didn’t see coming.  Because he still hasn’t grasped the full implications of what he’s doing.

Parker tells him they’re going to take the money tomorrow night.  Tom had the notion that they’d wait for the weekend.  The armored car comes on Friday to pick up the cash, doesn’t come back until Monday.  So do it Saturday night–by the time they find out the money is gone, he’s got a thirty-six hour lead for his getaway.  And they’ll know it was him.  They’ll know he beat them.

Parker says that’s all bunk.  A few more hours won’t make any difference, one way or another.  Tom’s going to leave a trail.  He’s not experienced at getaways.  He should just stay put, cache his share in that boarded up house next to his converted garage, look the cops and prosecutors right in the eye and say he didn’t do it.  Let them prove he did.  In a year, he tells people he’s going on a trip, and he doesn’t come back.  Sets himself up in a new place.  Tells people back home he decided to retire someplace warm.

This is decent advice in the abstract, I think–though it might require more nerve and conviction than Tom has shown us so far.  It has the advantage that Tom wouldn’t need to build up a new identity from scratch, and he could still collect Social Security in a decade or so. It’s not like they’re heisting millions here.  Tom’s share would amount to no more than a small nest egg in the early 21st.  The whole take wouldn’t be enough to set him up for life.

So Parker’s suggestion would have much to recommend it–if so many people hadn’t already seen Tom with ‘Ed Smith.’  At this point, only Cory and Cal know who that really is–though Fred suspects.  Tom has also shown his ID at multiple roadblocks, going to and from the track.  The second time with a man matching Parker’s description, using an ID Tom made himself, with the name of a former co-worker of his on it.  Too many weak spots.  It wouldn’t work. Tom would get taken by the law–or tortured by greedy low-lifes like the Dennisons, for his share of the take.  Either way, he’d never make it to retirement.  You have to believe Parker knows that.

Does Parker care that he’s giving Tom bad advice?  Nope.  Tom’s no more than half a professional to him at this point, if that.  Parker wants to do the job ASAP because he needs to get out of there.  Thanks to Tom, he’s got new ID–he’ll have the money soon enough–now he needs a few other things.  What happens to Tom is up to Tom.  If he can’t see the cracks in the scenario Parker is laying out for him, he’s never going to make it on the run anyway.  It’s no different from what Parker said to Fred and Tom, to get them not to talk about Fred shooting the old derelict in the back. Telling them an edited version of the truth, to get the reaction he wants.

(It’s not all that different from the song and dance he gave that scared teenager in The Jugger, about how he’d help the kid get away from the consequences of killing someone by mistake. The kid takes Parker at his word. He’s making a grave mistake. Spoiler pun alert.)

Difference here is, he still needs Tom to pull the heist–and for all his lack of seasoning, Tom is starting to impress Parker with his sagacity.  There’s a wall between them, and Lindahl is straddling it, talking about what he will and won’t do.  To get the real advice, the full benefit of Parker’s expertise, he needs to get both feet planted on the other side of that wall.  Until that happens, he’s just another civilian–and, if he gets in Parker’s way, a casualty of war.  (Remind me again why some people think Parker got soft in the later books?)

They make it back.  It’s five-thirty in the morning.  Parker tells Tom to set the alarm for ten.  “You’ll sleep when we’re finished,” Parker tells him.  One way or another……

So next morning, Parker shows Tom the way he fixed up that boarded house so that you can get in or out without leaving any trace.  Then they drive to a mall that’s on its last legs.  Tom has to get those duffels, and the plastic gloves.

Parker has more serious shopping to do.  He brought the pistol he stole last night.  Uses it to rob one of those hip clothing stores where they look at you funny if you’re over thirty.  One of those places where people think it’s cute if you wear clothing with the name of a penitentiary on it.  ‘The Rad’ (now what could that be aimed at?)   He scares the kid at the cash register out of five year’s growth.  Gets cash he can actually spend on the road–in case the job tonight doesn’t work out.

Tom comes out of the Walmart or Target or whatever with the equipment.  They drive back.  Meet squad cars going the other way, lights flashing.  Tom wonders what’s up.  “Nothing to do with us,” Parker said. Us. Get it?  Mental reservation. I knew he was raised Catholic.  Just like Dortmunder.  Funny what takes and what doesn’t.

They stop to eat, and Parker tells him about Cory and Cal–doling out information in small amounts.  Have to be careful not to scare this finger away before they get into the pie.

Fred Thiemann’s wife is waiting for them when they get back.  She’s come for Fred’s hunting rifle.  He’s told her what happened at Wolf Peak.

Looking at her through the windshield, Parker saw a woman who was weighed down by something.  Not angry, not frightened, but distracted enough not to care what kind of appearance she made.  She was simply out in the world, braced for whatever the bad news would turn out to be.

Parker and Lindahl got out of the SUV, and Lindahl said “Jane.  How’s Fred?”

“Coming apart at the seams.” She turned bleak eyes toward Parker.  “You’re Ed Smith, I guess.”

“That’s right.”

“Fred’s afraid of you,” she said. “I’m not sure why.”

Parker shrugged.  “Neither am I.”

She tells them that Fred blames ‘Ed’ for what happened–not the shooting–he knows that’s on him–but for his deciding not to tell the police what happened.

That was a violation of his nature–maybe worse than the shooting itself, which was just an impulse act, regrettably commonplace, wherever firearms are sold.  He can’t live with it, and he can’t go back and fix it.

Parker doesn’t care what Fred can live with.  He just wants him to hold whatever’s bugging him in for another day, two at most.  He tells Jane to say that George, their son serving his time in Attica, will want Fred to be there when he gets out.  A not so subtle message about truth and consequences.  That Fred will somehow manage to garble, but we’ll get to that.

Cory and Cal show up as Jane is leaving.  All of a sudden, it’s like Grand Central Station at the hermitage.  Tom probably didn’t have as many visitors in the past year as he’s had in the past twenty-four hours.

Cal shows Tom a copy of the police artist sketch of Parker, done to Detective Gwen Reversa’s specifications.  It’s not a really good likeness.  But it’s a likeness.

“He could be a thousand guys,” Parker said.

“Not a thousand.”

Lindahl said, “Cal, if this picture looks so much like Ed here, and everybody up at the meeting at St. Stanislas had a copy of the picture, and Ed was standing right there with us, how come nobody else saw it?  How come everybody in the goddam parking lot didn’t turn around and make a citizen’s arrest?”

“It was that story in school,” Cal said, and frowned deeply as he turned to hand the sketch to Cory.  “That writer we had to read, all that spooky stuff.  Poe.  The something letter.  All about how everybody’s looking for this letter, and nobody can find it, and that’s because it’s right out there in plain sight, the one place you wouldn’t think it would be.  So  here’s a fella, and a whole bunch of guys get together to find  him, and where’s the best place he oughta hide?  Right with the bunch looking for him, the one place nobody in the county’s gonna think to look.”

Voice arched with sarcasm, Lindahl said, “And you, Cal, you’re the only one there figured it out.”

“Could happen,” Cal said, comfortable with himself.  “Could happen.”

“Not this time,” Parker said, and Cory said, “Look at that.”

Tom needs to turn that TV off sometime.  The one with the parrot over it.  It’s showing news footage about the daring robbery at the local mall.  Police say it was one of the bank robbers.  Oh, and the clerk’s name is Edwin Kislamski (he’s still shaking, but he’s also enjoying his moment of celebrity).  So we’ve got a Fred, an ‘Ed’ and now an Edwin.

Lindahl says nothing, but he’s trembling with anger and fear.  Parker waits to see if he’s going to have to shoot all three of them.  Tom somehow holds it all in, Cal oversteps his bounds, and Parker slaps him (this is where we came in).  Cory reins Cal in, and the brothers depart.  Parker is not reassured–he can see Cory isn’t like his brother.  He’s got a plan.

(You wouldn’t expect a guy like Cal to reference Poe, would you?  Something about that story got to him, but he never followed up, never became a reader,  never decided to see how many other interesting things you might learn from books, how far they might take you. Cory worked harder in school, learned self-control, how to plan, but he lacked imagination, vision, humor. Two halves who don’t quite make a whole, but who remain somehow essential to each other.  Ah, Anarchaos!  Almost missed that one, Mr. Westlake.

But you’re not talking about brothers now, anymore than you were back then. You’re talking about different parts of the self–your own younger self.  About who and what you might have been, if things had been a little different.  If you hadn’t gotten the two halves better aligned.  And what was it about losing an eye for a while that brought that out in you?  That got you thinking about contingency again.  There but for the grace of…..)

Tom’s  angry at Parker.  Not just for robbing a store while he was nearby, but for not telling him about it, even afterwards.  Not telling him about the gun, either.  Aren’t they partners?  Well no, not really. He understands that now.

But he’s getting over the anger, even while he’s expressing it.  Because after all, what did he expect when he went out looking for a crook to help him rob a racetrack?  It’s not quite the Scorpion and the Frog (Parker would at least wait until they were on the other side)–but–he’s on the edge of a realization.  An insight.  An  understanding very few have ever arrived at, about his guest.

After the Dennisons left, Parker said, “I’ll drive down to the corner, put some gas in the car.”

Sounding bitter, Lindahl said, “Using some of the money you stole from that boy?”

Parker looked at him. “You got that wrong, Tom,” he said. “I didn’t take anything from that boy.  I took some cash from a company that has nine hundred stores.  I needed the cash.  You know that.”

“You had that gun all along?”

“I’ll be right back,” Parker said, and turned to the door.

“No, wait.”

Parker looked back, and could see that Lindahl was trying to adjust his thinking.  He waited, and Lindahl nodded and said, “All right.  I know who you are, I already knew who you were.  I shouldn’t act as though it’s any of my business.”

“That’s right,” Parker said.

“It’s hard,” Lindahl said. “It’s hard to be around…”

The sentence trailed off, but Parker understood.  It’s hard to be around a carnivore.  “It won’t be for long,” he said.

I could almost believe that’s sympathy.  Well–empathy.  Tom understood him, just for a moment.  That’s rare.  He’s willing to return the favor.  It’s hard for a carnivore too, in a world of sheep. Lonely.

Tom tells Parker don’t go to the gas station just up the main drag in Pooley–it’s run by a semi-retired grease monkey, who doesn’t really like selling gas, so he charges more, hawks lottery tickets on the side.  Almost as anti-social as Tom.

Name’s Brian Hopwood. He’s a good mechanic, honest about that.  Always working on some car or other.  No, Tom says, go to the Getty station, not much further, way cheaper.  Like it really matters when they’re about to commit grand larceny.  Tom’s still in the straight world, worried about bargains.  Well, Parker needs a bargain deal on a getaway car.  Free would be good.  You won’t get that at Getty.  But that’s where he tells Lindahl he’s going.

He drives to the corner, and it’s one of those places you pay inside before you pump it yourself (it’s all self-service in New York, once you’re out of the big cities–New Jersey is more civilized, you can stay in your car, watch somebody wipe your windshield for you).  He walks in, gives Hopwood two twenties, says he’ll probably be needing change.  What he needs is a better look at this place and its proprietor.

He tells Hopwood he’s the guy staying with Tom Lindahl, knowing that Hopwood would have already recognized the car he’s serviced in the past.  He’s servicing a few others right now.  Just waiting there in the parking lot–the keys on the rack inside.  Thinks to himself he’ll come back later, pick out a ride.

Not so fast, sonny.  All of a sudden, Hopwood’s pointing a Seecamp LWS32 at him.  You know, there really are an awful lot of tiny little guns in these books.  I guess because with Parker, a gun really is just a gun.

250px-LWS32

But a .32 bullet really hurts, no matter what size the gun is.  Hopwood does the old don’t move a muscle routine.  He has the wanted poster, with the damn drawing.  Says he’ll wing Parker if he doesn’t get his hands over his head.  Figuring he’ll wait his chance, Parker starts to comply–and a woman comes in.  That same woman who talked to him last night.  Wanted to know if she could help.  She just did.  Parker throws her at Hopwood, and takes out his own tiny pistol.  “I don’t wing,” he says.

And to finish out Part Two, this woman looks at the Smith & Wesson Parker is now pointing at her and Hopwood, and says “You! You’re the one who stole Jack’s gun!”  Detectives. You can’t get away from them.  No matter how small the town is.

That’s a bit over 6,000 words.  For a section of the book that runs eleven chapters, fifty-seven pages.  Didn’t leave much meat on the bone for you this time, did I Greg?  Well, you know what they say about carnivores.  They always come back for thirds.  See you at Post #200.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Ask The Parrot

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.

Robert Frost

Thiemann looked out the windshield, not saying anything more, but thinking it over. He was suspicious of something, but he didn’t know what.  He had sensed the otherness in Parker, but he didn’t know what it meant.

An older Cadillac convertible, bright red, top down, big as a speedboat, came the other way, suddenly honking madly.  The three guys in it, middle-aged, in their bright orange or red hunting caps, waved hands with beer cans in them at Lindahl, who honked and waved back but didn’t stop.  Neither did the Cadillac, which went on by, the three guys all grinning and shouting things, now at Parker and Thiemann. They were very happy. Parker nodded, but didn’t honk.

“That’s part of our group,” Thiemann said.

“I know.”

“They shouldn’t be drinking.  That’s the worst thing you can do.”  Then Thiemann turned away with a grimace.  “Almost the worst thing.”

Ahead, Lindahl signaled for a left, and Parker did too.  “How much farther?”

“A couple miles.” Thiemann turned toward him again.  “You don’t think much of us, do you?”

“How do you mean?”

“Not just those guys with the beer,” Thiemann said.  “All of us, running around, being man hunters.  You could see in those troopers’ eyes, they thought we were all just a joke.  Useless and a joke.  And I could see it in your eyes too.  You think the same thing.”

Parker followed Lindahl around the turn.  Thiemann’s sense of Parker’s otherness, which had led him toward suspicion, had now led him to embarrassment instead. Parker wasn’t an alien from outside them, unknown and untrusted, he was a judge from above them, finding them wanting. Good; that moved Thiemann away from a direction that might have caused trouble.

Richard Stark

When Westlake conceived and wrote The Jugger, it seems to me that he had a very specific purpose in mind.  A bottle story, as it’s sometimes called.   Isolate Parker in a small midwestern town, where he would be cut off from the world he knows, his fellow professionals.

Not planning a job, because he just had a very satisfactory one, in Copper Canyon. Not knowing the terrain, the people he interacts with, the rules of the game he’s playing, or its stakes.  Trying to blend into the crowd, as he always does, finding it harder than usual, because any stranger draws attention in such a hick burg.  Fish out of water story would be another applicable term. But Parker is no fish.

He can’t leave until he knows what happened to his mentor Joe Sheer, and why–to see if it represents a threat to him.  Which it does.  There’s a lot of violence and evil beneath the innocent facade of that town, along with some genuine innocence.  Well, that’s pretty much true wherever humans live.  Parker has known that a long time.  He has never for one moment considered himself human.  Because he’s not.  What does he consider himself to be?  Unknown.

No doubt there’s a bit of Bad Day at Honda in it.  That short story by Howard Breslin that got turned into Bad Day at Black Rock.  I’ve read the story, seen the movie, and they’re both good–not a patch on The Jugger.  The Jugger, to me, is one of the finest short novels ever produced in any genre.  A minor masterpiece.  (The Godard film loosely adapted from it stinks on ice, which is nobody’s fault but Godard’s. Auteur theory cuts both ways.)

Westlake would not have agreed.  He repeatedly called The Jugger the worst failure he ever had.  Because he felt like he hadn’t come up with a strong enough motivation for Parker to come to this town in the first place, expose himself to so much risk with no potential reward.  Spencer Tracy comes to Black Rock because he’s a decent man trying to find out what happened to a friend.  Parker is neither decent nor a man, and in his mind, he doesn’t have friends.

And that kind of failure, real or perceived (and art is all about perceptions anyway, right?) tended to eat at Westlake, make him look for a way to get it right.  I think that’s part of what led him to write this book.  A do-over.  Parker’s motivation is impeccably contrived this time.  Fleeing the law after a heist gone wrong, he’s forced to take shelter in a slow-dying upstate NY hamlet, not far from where his creator grew up.  He makes a run for it too soon, the hounds will get him. Tarries too long, same deal.

Instead of trying to solve the mystery of a colleague’s death, he’s trying to stay out of prison, avoid the tightening dragnet.  He looks to blend in with his rustic surroundings, does his human impression once more, and once more learns it’s a harder act to pull off in the provinces.

The thing that really sticks out about The Jugger, probably hurt its sales when it first came out–that it’s got no heist in it–not an issue here.  The heist comes to Parker, via a most unexpected finger, with a story of his own to tell.  Parker has a secondary motivation to stick around.  A big stash of poorly guarded cash.

So maybe that chronic itch in the back of Westlake’s head was finally eased.  A very fine and oddly revealing late entry in the Parker series resulted.  I still think The Jugger is better as a standalone story, simpler anyway, but this center panel of the final Starkian Triptych has murky depths of its own to plumb. We’ll toss a line in, see how far down it goes.

Ask the Parrot picks up minutes after the end of Nobody Runs Forever, with Parker still climbing a steep wooded slope.  He can’t see down to the bottom anymore, but he knows the state troopers and their tracking dogs will be coming up after him.  He looks up, and sees a man holding a hunting rifle.  Figuring better the devil you don’t know, he finishes the climb.

At some point in that climb, he crossed into New York state from northwest Massachusetts.  My guess is Rensselaer County.  Not far from Albany,  The part of the world where Donald Westlake’s first conscious memories would have occurred.

This hunter’s name is Tom Lindahl.  He saw news coverage of the robbery and the subsequent manhunt.  They’re just a short drive from his house.  He ostensibly went out to plink a few rabbits, but really he was hoping to run into a genuine bank robber.  Someone with the guts to pull that kind of job.  “Those guys aren’t afraid of their own shadow, they go out and do what has to be done.”   Thinks he can use a man like that.

But he’s no fool.  He knows Parker would happily jump him, take his gun and his Ford SUV, make a dash for it.  Lindahl makes it very clear the searchers are up here as well, roadblocks all over the place, and Parker wouldn’t get very far.  But they aren’t going to search his home. A fugitive could find respite there.  He’s speaking in terms Parker can  understand–mutual need.

But what is it Lindahl needs from him?  What has he stumbled into here, in a ‘town’ called Pooley, that is not much more these days than a stoplight, a gas station, a few shuttered businesses, and a handful of people waiting to die?  And why does Lindahl have a green parrot (who doesn’t talk) in a cage on top of his TV set?  We never learn the answer to the last question (the bird’s not talking), but the others are easy enough.

“I’m a whistle-blower,” Lindahl said, as though he’d been planning some much longer way to day it.  “My wife told me not to do it, she said I’d love everything including her, and she was right.  But I’m bullheaded.”

“Where did you blow this whistle?”

“I worked for twenty-two years at a racetrack down toward Syracuse,” Lindahl said, “named Gro-More.  It was named afer a farm feed company that went bankrupt forty years ago.  They never changed the name.”

“You blew a whistle.”

“I was a manager, I was in charge of infrastructure, the upkeep of the buildings, the stands, the track.  Hired people, contracted out.  I was nothing to do with money.”

“So whatever this is,” Parker said, “you shouldn’t have known about it.”

“I didn’t have to know about it.” Lindahl shook his head, explaining himself.  “What we had was a clean track,” he said. “The people working there, we were all happy to be at a clean track.  There’s a thousand ways for a track to be dirty, but there’s only one way to be clean, so when I found out what they were doing with the money, it just hurt me.  It was like doing something dirty to a member of my own family.”

The strain of getting his point across was deepening the lines in his face.  He broke off, made erasing gestures, and said, “I need a beer. I can’t tell this without a beer.” Rising, he said, “You want one?”

“No, but you go ahead.”

What he found out was that the people who owned the track were using it to launder money given to state politicians running for reelection. It’s not a mob-run track, they always did everything straight there, but one supposes the owners had other concerns, and this was a convenient way to address them.

Tom went to the state police.  He wore a wire (still with the wires).  But the people this scandal would have touched had too much suction.  So in the end, the only one who lost his job (and his wife) was the whistle-blower.  And ever since, he’s lived by himself, stewing in his own juices, with only a parrot for company. (I guess maybe the answer there is that they don’t eat much, you don’t have to walk them, and good bet a parrot will outlive a bitter lonely middle-aged man.)

He wants his own back, on several different levels, and that’s why he wants to rob Gro-More.  He knows the track inside-out.  He’s got keys to everything.  He still goes in there some nights, just walks around, never gets caught, and if he sees a new lock, he finds the key and copies it. You get the feeling he still considers it to be his, somehow.

Nobody’s ever tried to rob it, so security is a joke; two bored guards nearing retirement, watching TV screens at night.  It has to be done during one of the two twenty-four day meets held during the year, and there’s one going on right now.  At an absolute minimum, there’d be a hundred grand in untraceable cash–usually quite a bit more.  But he hasn’t got the experience to spot potential pitfalls.  Nor does he have the guts do to it alone. He needs an expert. He needs a secret sharer.

Parker finds the set-up at the track interesting, from a professional standpoint, but he’s just done a heist, he needs to get  back to Claire, and he’s had his fill of pissed-off amateurs for the time being. He’ll just humor Lindahl, wait for a good moment to scram.

Then the TV under the parrot’s cage shows him a confederate’s face–Nick Dalesia.  They caught him (comes out later that the cash from the bank was new, and extremely traceable). The first thing you expect a pro in that position to do is give up the location of the money for a lighter sentence.  Meaning Parker is back to square one, and now that track is starting to look good to him.  Back to the races.

Parker says they’ll go take a look at it tonight–he needs to see for himself if it’s as good as Tom says.  But before they have a chance to discuss it further, a car parks outside the converted garage Tom lives in now.  Tom wants to know if Parker is there or not.

When there’s no place to hide, stand where you are.  Parker said, “I’m Ed Smith, I used to work with you years ago at the track, I moved to Chicago, I’m back for a visit.”

“Smith?”

“There are people named Smith,” Parker said as a heavyset man in maroon  windbreaker got out of the car.  “Who’s he?”

Name’s Fred (there are also people named Fred, quite a few in Westlake novels). Tom can’t place the last name.  Used to know him from the Rod and Gun Club.  Which he’s still technically a member of, though he hasn’t paid dues in years.

(Before we go any further, I think I detect a final homage to Peter Rabe in Parker’s alias, and his matter-of-fact justification for it–from Anatomy of a Killer.

When the policeman turned him over, he found one driver’s license which said Smith and another one which said Jordan.

“Must be Jordan,” he said. “There aren’t any Smiths.”

Sure there are.  So many that when the law tries to look for an Ed Smith in their fancy databases, later in the book, they get an overload of useless data.  Parker laying down a false trail for the hounds. But the downside is that people will naturally assume it’s an alias, even though there are actual Smiths. Can’t say I know a single one.  Even though my workplace directory has sixteen of them.  Half as many Joneses.  They’re keeping up and then some.

So anyway Fred is all hepped up over the manhunt for the bank robbers.  The state police have requested that groups like the American Legion, VFW, and sportsman’s clubs (the linking element being guns and spare time) volunteer to help cover the area. Fred wants Tom to pitch in and do his bit.

Tom, wanting no part of the search (because he’s already won that game), looks at ‘Ed.’  Who says says the safest place to be is with the posse.  Which Fred interprets as ‘Ed’ wanting safety in numbers from these violent fugitives, but Tom knows what Parker really means–the best protective coloration he can take on at present is blaze orange–that or a red and black checked hunting jacket, which is what he borrows from Tom, along with a good pair of boots and a rifle. Blend into the herd. Tom is nervous about giving Parker a gun. Parker’s not the one he should worry about.

They go to a community center to get their marching orders–which means now a lot of people have seen Tom’s guest, including two brothers, younger than most of the posse, local troublemakers–one with an eyepatch. Three eyes giving Parker a look he doesn’t like one bit, nor should he.  More on them later.

All the troopers overseeing the search make it clear they think this posse thing is a dumb-ass idea, but whoever had it outranks them, and at least this heads off any freelance vigilante crap.  They do their best to send the deputies to very isolated places where the robbers are least likely to be found. With luck, they’ll only shoot at each other. But in a Parker novel, that kind of luck is thin in the ground.

The three of them get through all the roadblocks just fine, nobody asks to see Parker’s ID, just as well, since he doesn’t have any.  They get assigned to search Wolf Peak (hmmmm), the site of an old abandoned railroad station, from the days when there was still a lumber industry there.  The roof of the station has fallen in, there are trees growing up out of it.

There’s a bedroll by one of the crumbling walls.  There are signs its owner heard them coming, forced his way through the bramble to escape. Fred’s excitement is palpable. Never mind they were told to only defend themselves if attacked, report back if they saw anything suspicious–he’s getting away!

They hear somebody running through the brush, give pursuit.  Tom yells at Fred not to do it.  He does anyway.  And then they’re all looking at the body of a ragged scabrous old derelict, his life’s blood oozing from a bullet wound in his back.  Fred, the light in his eyes dimming, asks why he was running.  “Men with guns chased him,” Parker responds.  Fred’s idea of himself collapses like the roof of that station.  Though as we’ll learn, the foundations were already compromised.

And for Parker this is a problem, because if the police learn about the shooting, they’re going to question all three of them–he’s a witness to accidental manslaughter, at the very least.  Not blending into the herd anymore, and he won’t have the right answers to their questions.  He’s got to talk Fred into staying quiet. Tom as well.

He tries to make it sound like he’s concerned for all three of them, which is true if you subtract two.  Good chance Fred serves a short prison sentence.  He and Tom will be implicated.  The old hobo was killing himself, just more slowly and painfully.  It was a mistake, why beat yourself up about it?  Why be a martyr?  You know, it’s not as if he doesn’t practice what he preaches.

Ground’s too hard to dig a grave.  He asks about carnivorous wildlife in the area, who could dispose of the remains–they tell him there’s coyotes, bobcats, hosts of Turkey Vultures.  Corpse picked clean, bones carried off to gnaw on.  They don’t mention timber wolves.  Been a long time since there were any of those at Wolf Peak.

Fred wants to make a clean breast, purge himself, but he’s terrified of prison–and of the world knowing what he’s become.  He’s suspicious of ‘Ed’s motives for counseling silence, but that doesn’t make the arguments any less persuasive.  He’s in shock, clay that can be easily molded–but which might rebel against the sculptor later on.

Tom is torn both ways–if it comes out who his guest really is, he’s in more trouble than Fred.  But he still knows what Parker is doing here, doesn’t like it. Parker doesn’t care what Tom likes.  If need be, he’ll shoot both of them, take his chances in Tom’s car, with Tom’s other rifle, that hasn’t been fired yet.  But there’s no need for any of that if they’re both going to be reasonable.  Not being human, he only kills when he has to.  A moral in there somewhere, I’m sure.

For all their doubts, they both agree to stay silent–once they’ve reported back to the state troopers and not mentioned the shooting, they’ve already committed a crime.  As they take the shellshocked Fred back home (they’re hanging onto Fred’s rifle for the time being), Parker tells Fred he should talk to his wife about it, don’t keep it locked up inside, where it can fester.  He tries to sound sympathetic, compassionate. Not really his strong suit.

He really has been watching us a long time now, knows more than he used to about how our minds work, how to manipulate us. There are, however, still significant gaps in his understanding of our mental make-up.  Well, that would be true of anyone, right?

(For those who have read Ripley Underground; I see the parallels, and so did Stark.  He wrote this type of scene almost as well as Highsmith  There are other types of scene she wrote almost as well as him.  And still other types sui generis to each.)

And as Lindahl drives Parker back to the house, he gets the rest of the story.  Fred’s son was on active duty in Iraq when he was caught looting.  He saw the locals doing it, the ones referred to as Hawasim, an Arabic slang term relating to something Saddam said about the war (there’s a story about how that word ended up in this book, we’ll get to that).  He went a little too native; now he’s serving a stretch in Attica.  Hit Fred very hard. Made him think about prison a lot.  And maybe want to take his anger out on the same general type of person who corrupted his son.

Parker wishes he’d known all this before.  Now he understands better why Fred did what he did–and why talking to his wife about it may not be enough to keep him in one piece, mentally.  And if he goes all to pieces….well, hopefully Parker will be gone by then.  Fred will be somebody else’s problem then.

The immediate problem is the racetrack.  And now Tom, who was getting cold feet before Fred showed up, is telling Parker he definitely wants to do it.  The encounter with Fred has reminded him how everyone there sees him–as a crazy old hermit, on his way to being like that guy dead by the railroad station.  He can never get past that–he’s got to escape this life, this world, if he wants to be anyone else.  Parker says they’ll drive out that night to look it over.

While Tom goes out to get food, Parker goes over to the boarded-up house by Tom’s converted garage.  He rigs the door so that it still looks boarded up, but he can get in and out easily (the old gag with the sawed-off nails that goes back to Jimmy the Kid).

Tom comes back with pizza, and as they eat, it comes out that there’s a machine at the track used to make employee ID’s.  Tom bought the machine, knows how to use it, could run off a new driver’s license for Parker, out of the burned fake license he has now under the name John. B. Allen.  Give him a new identity, that would hold up to a cursory glance, nothing more.

So Parker sends Tom to the track by himself–more than an hour’s drive, each way.  He’ll make the new license, and come back with it.  Then they’ll drive out together that same night.  This way, Parker doesn’t have to risk hitting a road block with no ID.  Each man is a bit antsy about letting the other out of his sight that long, but if you gotta you gotta.

While Tom is gone, Parker has visitors.  The two brothers from earlier that day.  Still giving him funny looks, like they know something.  Like they want something.

They figure he’s the bank robber, which he is.  They figure they can get some of that money, which they can’t, but the one with the patch, Cal, no point telling him that.  He was pretty wild before he lost his eye.  He’s still got scars.  He wants plastic surgery and a glass eye.  He wants to look like Cory again, the calmer smarter brother–his twin.  He wants that money.

Parker manages to intimidate both of them into leaving (now there’s a psychological technique he has few peers at), but it’s clear they haven’t given up.  Cory, the brains, figures it’s time for a strategic withdrawal.  As they go, Parker tells Cal (the opposite of brains) to make sure nothing happens to his other eye.  Frightened, ashamed, and enraged at Parker for making him feel that way, Cal asks him what about the eye he lost?  “Ask the parrot,” Parker responds.  I believe that constitutes the only instance where the title of a Stark novel is derived from a line of dialogue.  Or vice-versa.  Ask the author.

Still plenty of time before Tom gets back.  Parker goes for a walk in town.  Pooley only runs a few blocks either way, and pedestrians are as rare as they would be in Los Angeles. A woman in her thirties (very young for this burg) pulls up, asks if he needs help.  Not suspicious.  Just being neighborly.  He tells her he’s staying with Tom Lindahl.  She’s amazed.  Everybody knows Tom is a wacky old recluse.

He needs a gun. Pistol, not hunting rifle.  He figures he can find one in the home of one of these elderly shut-ins.  He figures right.  Sees an old man watching TV in his living room.  Breaks in the back way with a credit card.

There were two places people usually kept a handgun inside a house, both in the bedroom: either in a locked box atop a dresser or in a locked drawer in a bedside table.  There was no box on top of the dresser in here, only coins, socks, magazines, and a very thin wallet, but the lower of two drawers in the bedside table was locked.

Parker opened the drawer above that one, felt in the near-darkness through a jumble of medicines, flashlight, eyeglasses, and a deck of playing cards, and found the key.  He closed that drawer, unlocked the other, and took out a Smith & Wesson Ranger in .22 caliber, a stubby blue-black revolver with a two-inch barrel, moderately accurate across an average room, not much good beyond that.  But it would do.

I don’t believe Smith & Wesson ever made a gun called the Ranger.  I don’t know if Westlake made a mistake, or he just wanted to call it that for some reason. Pretty sure this is the gun Parker found, though (with a box of ammo, citizens can be so helpful).

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Model 317 Kit Gun.  So called because in all its variations, it’s compact and light-weight, and you can carry it around with your camping gear, or in your fishing satchel, or whatever.  Just what an old man in the country would have.  And put in his locked night table drawer, because robbers.  But what does he have that a robber would want?  He never thought it that far out.  Parker did.

Parker walks back, goes into the boarded up house through his secret entrance, with his new pistol and a flashlight.  He waits in the attic, watching for Tom to get back.  Just in case Tom had a change of heart, called the cops.  When he’s sure Tom came back alone, he goes back down.  Sees his new ID.  It’s really nice.  This guy can be useful.  Pity if he has to kill him.  End of Part One.

I think I’m going to leave it there for now.  Been over a week since I posted, and I’m thinking this will be another three-parter after all.  I’ve got all the cover images I need for that.  Lots of parrots next time.  Nary a one of them green.  Go figure.

But before I sign off until next time, let me get this out of the way.  There are three words in this book that Westlake put in there as his answer to a spirited challenge from ‘activist lexicographer’ Erin McKean, in a segment she did (does?) for NPR’s Fresh Air.  (Both segments aired in 2004, the year Nobody Runs Forever came out, and Westlake mentions having finished the previous book a year ago, and the next one would be out in about a year and a half.  So much for my supposition he wrote them back to back.)

Hawasim was one word–the only one that changed the book in a significant way–perhaps it never occurred to Westlake to make Fred’s son a solder in Iraq before he got this assignment from Ms. McKean.

Blat (referring to a smalltime local paper of dubious quality) was another–Parker’s reading one of those to get an idea of his surroundings, just before Tom tells him about the whistle-blower thing.  The version you hear on the NPR segment is a lot more involved than what he finally settled on.  Probably because it wouldn’t make sense that a local blat could have the news about Dalesia’s capture so soon, complete with photo.

The third and strangest word we’ll get to next time, as I pootle along in my own fashion.

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Nobody Runs Forever, Part 3

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“You said it was Jersey plates,” Barry pointed out, and poured them both some more chardonnay.  “Maybe he went home.”

“Or maybe he’s lying low,” she said.  “If he isn’t a landscape designer, and I know damn well he isn’t, then what’s he doing here, what’s he doing with Elaine Langen, and why are they both lying about it?”

“Hanky-panky?”

“No,” she said, sure of that.  “She would, with anything in pants, but not him.  He’s a cold guy.  With me, when I stopped him, he wore this affability like a coat, it wasn’t him.”

“The cloak of invisibility,” Barry suggested.

“Exactly. Who knows who he is, down in there?”

It starts with technology, but it still ends with tracker dogs.

One more cover gallery, and a bit repetitive, I know, but how fortunate that University of Chicago Press finally published The Triptych.  Meaning that from now on, all twenty-eight of the books Westlake published as Stark are evailable, which means they’ll stay in ‘print’ no matter what.  Well, for the foreseeable future, which Parker wouldn’t think was saying anything much.

Not much to say about the cover itself, either–not sure what Parker is leaning against there.  Bank vault door?  Safe tumbler?  I’ve no idea.  The one next to it is tiresomely over-literal, and I’m not even sure who put out that edition.

Rivages, in its Thriller and Noir imprints both, chose to focus on Parker’s target–an armored car.  And was perhaps alone in choosing not to use the original title. Google tells me that it would translate to Personne Ne Court Toujours, though presumably other phrasings would be possible.  Perhaps none had the right ring, so they went with the above, which means ‘running on empty.’  Sound familiar?

C’est vrai. (And Parker has seen his share of both fire and rain.)

Marilyn Stasio, in her NY Times review column devoted to crime fiction (descended from the Criminals At Large column once written by Anthony Boucher, that originally championed these books), doesn’t so much review as describe.  Never having been taken seriously in the past, but now possessing the authority of longevity, Stark and his chief protagonist are treated as found art, changeless relics of another time, which isn’t altogether wrong, but you miss a lot that way–it’s all been changing over time, we’ve seen that in some detail here. (And if Parker doesn’t have a sense of humor, please explain the ending of The Seventh to me, Ms. Stasio. )

The world around Parker is shifting, and he has no choice but to shift with it.  The question is, how far can he adapt to the encroaching exigencies of this digital age and still remain himself?  If he can’t go far enough, how much longer can he last?  Is he running on empty?   He wouldn’t be alone.

This book is hard to figure, and that’s because it’s not a book.  It’s one third of a book.  Three novels that form one trifurcated epic.   Not a trilogy, but a Triptych, as I said, as Westlake belatedly realized.

Like Butcher’s Moon, the blood-drenched epic that concluded the First Sixteen (which isn’t divided into sections at all, just fifty-five chapters of ever-switching perspectives), this longer, bleaker, more contemplative and far less sanguinary conclusion to the Final Eight just doesn’t fit the profile.  But unlike Butcher’s Moon, it pretends to.

We did the multi-POV round-robin thing in Part Two, each chapter from a different character’s perspective.  Part Three sticks with Parker and his colleagues.  But then there’s Part Four, which flouts the established protocol altogether.

In the fairly long first chapter of Part Four, where the heist finally goes down, Stark is just floating around in the ether, like a hovering hawk with x-ray vision, showing us everything happening at once, checking in on everybody who still matters in the story.  He can do what the frustrated heist planner in Westlake’s Castle In The Air can only fantasize about.

What Eustace wanted, what Eustace needed, was for the entire city of Paris to suddenly be reduced to the size and aspect of a model train layout, with himself on a high stool overlooking the whole thing.

Much easier to do for a lightly peopled corner of New England, late at night, but still a tricky balancing act for any writer.  Westlake had done something like it in a few chapters of Dancing Aztecs, though in a more lyrical form.  (If you want to see that form done to perfection in a recent novel, I shall again plug Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent).

This really should have been released as one volume, and I hope it will be someday–you can’t properly appreciate any one panel in The Triptych without the others to refer to.  To split them apart almost amounts to art crime.  That I hold these three final installments of the Parker Saga in  higher estimation than some probably stems from the fact that I read all three in quick succession.  As individual books, they must always be somewhat unsatisfying, for all their undoubted merits.  Their cumulative impact is exponentially greater.

As a unified whole, they are still far from perfect: the author was starting to falter, his race nearly run–but you understand them much better that way, how each complements the other.  I don’t know how close together Westlake wrote them, but he certainly came to understand along the way what he was doing here, quite different from anything he’d done before.

A pity that publishing schedules demanded they come out so far apart.  I broke my usual rule of reviewing books in order of publication for this very reason.  Let’s see how many more rules I can break before we’re done here.

Another way in which this book goes against the grain is that Parker is less involved in planning.  Dalesia seems to have a knack for that as well, so while he’s been out scouting for the spot where they hijack the armored car, and the hideout where they can chill with the cash afterwards, Parker has been rustling up some  ‘materiel,’ a phrase I don’t think has been used in a Stark novel before.

Remember Briggs?  He showed up briefly at the start of Butcher’s Moon, the jewelry store heist that went wrong–he was the guy Parker told to throw a bomb to cover their escape.  He had to throw it in the direction of Michaelson, their fallen comrade, who might still have been alive, but not after the bomb went off.  Ruined his nerve, and he retired.  Well.  As much as a Stark  heister ever can retire.  He and his wife have a nice little house on a lake, just like Parker and Claire.  But this one’s in Florida.

Watching the movement on the lake, Parker said, “You like things calm.  No commotion.”

“We get commotion sometimes, Briggs said.  He’d put on a few pounds but was still basically a thin unathletic man who looked as though he belonged behind a desk.  Nodding at the lake, he said, “A few years ago, a tornado came across from the Gulf, bounced down onto the lake, looked as though it was coming straight here, lifted up just before it hit the shore, we watched the tail twist as it went right over the house, watched it out that picture window there.  That was enough commotion for a while.”

Parker said, “You watched it out a picture window?”

Briggs either shrugged or shivered; it was hard to tell which.  “Afterwards, we said to each other, that was really stupid.”

Anyway, he’s still got connections, which is why Parker is here.  They need something along the lines of a bazooka, or an RPG–powerful enough to knock out a heavily armored vehicle–and they’ll need several of them, no time for reloading.  They also need assault rifles for the aftermath.  (No, I don’t know why they can’t just go to a gun show, or rob a Walmart, stupid modern reality screwing up my crime fiction.  The Second Amendment doesn’t apply to calm professional crooks, only psycho-zealots with death wishes, how’s about that?)

Briggs mentions something about how the Feds are paying a lot more attention to weapons dealers now, because terrorism.  Now that could have been true in the 90’s (the first World Trade Center job), and nobody mentions 9/11, but it’s pretty strongly implied that we’re living in a brave new world that includes a Department of Homeland Security.  Anyway, he knows some people with just the can opener Parker needs.  The Carl-Gustaf.  (The hyphen seems to be a mistake, and who cares?)

“Sounds like a king,” Parker says.  Because it’s named after one.   Just another Saab story.

(This is an old design, with many variations, no need for us to know which one Parker’s getting.  You can see Westlake trying to avoid too many specifics–still going to get irate letters from anal weaponry buffs, but keep it to a minimum. “No, it’s a grenade firing system!” Now they’ve got the internet to kvetch on.  I bet none of them have slept for a week.)

With an assurance from Briggs that he’ll get them the materiel in time, Parker heads back to Massachusetts, and hears about Dalesia recruiting McWhitney (and of the untimely demise of Mr. Keenan).  He’s fine with both developments, though he’s a little worried about McWhitney’s tendency to fly off the handle–the guy seems okay in a crisis, going by what happened at the card game, and they don’t have time to find anyone better.

Parker likes the spot Dalesia picked for the trap to be sprung, and he also likes the hideout–an abandoned church on a little-used two-lane road.  There’s a place they can hide the armored car, and it’ll be invisible from the air.

What follows is a lot of professional-grade threatening, because too many people know about this job–unavoidable, but no less annoying for that.  Parker has to threaten Elaine Langen, who is spooked by all the attention she’s getting from Detective Gwen Reversa, which she brought on herself by shooting Jake Beckham in the leg when nobody told her to do that.  She’s not sure she can hold up under questioning.  Parker reminds of how she accused him and Dalesia of playing good cop/bad cop with her.  She says so far Reversa is being the good cop, and there’s no bad cop.

“Yes, there is,” Parker said.  “Me.”

The look she gave him turned bleak.

Parker said, “Everything she says to you, every hour she spends on you, just keep reminding yourself.  This is the good cop.  The bad cop is out there, and he’s not very far away, and he doesn’t go for second chances.”

“I’m sure you don’t.” Her voice was now a whisper, as though all strength had been drained from her.

“The bad cop is nearby.”

She closed her eyes and nodded.

“Talk to the good cop all you want,” Parker said.  “But always think about the bad cop.”

“I will.”  “Whispered again, this time almost like a prayer.

Then  he refers to the make of her car.  Infiniti.  Means forever.  Worth going for, right?  And people say he has no sense of humor. Nobody puns forever.

Next he talks to Jake’s sister Wendy, asks her to give her brother a message for him.  She’s not happy about even peripheral involvement in some illegal act, straight as a die this gal, but her main concern is Jake, because like I said last time, she needs a project.  And while she’s no genius, she’s got good instincts for people–she’s noticed this Dr. Myron Madchen, hanging around her brother at the hospital all the time, when there’s no reason for it.  It’s making her nervous.  Parker thanks her–says that makes him nervous too.  Someone else to threaten.

As he drives away from the trailer park, he realizes there’s an old beat-up Plymouth Fury tailing him, and if you’ve read Dancing Aztecs, you know who is likely as not to be driving one of those.  State cops.  It’s Reversa.  He tries to shake her, but she’s too good.  Finally pulls him over.  She wants to talk.

He’s got good phony ID, identifying himself as Claire’s brother, John B. Allen (possibly a reference to a 19th century western politician who has a street named after him in Tombstone AZ, I wouldn’t know).

Says he borrowed the car because his was in the shop.  He’s a landscape architect.  Well, after a fashion, I suppose that’s true.  The car is clean, his ID doesn’t set off any alarms, she’s got nothing to hold him on, so she lets him go, and he resolves to ditch the Lexus, find something else to drive.  He knows she suspects him, and he can see this is a smart cop.  And here’s a little plot hole.

See, we’ve already been told that Keenan and his partner tracked Parker down by running the plates on the Lexus–using databases maintained by the law, which they can access as what you might call a professional courtesy.  So once it becomes obvious that ‘John B. Allen’ was involved in a bank robbery, how hard is it going to be for the law to zero in on the house in New Jersey?

Okay, maybe there’s a workaround (he’s going to tell Claire to report the car stolen), but seems like a bad idea for Parker to have gone there on a job, in a car registered to Claire, unless the registration was for a false address, which would be equally problematic.  Oh well, let’s see how that plays out further down the road.  It’s not going to matter for the immediate future.

Parker and Dalesia go to Madchen’s house, and terrify the hell out of him.  He’s going to stop hanging around Jake.  So he’s nervous, fine.  He needs his cut out of Jake’s share to get away from this life he hates, no problem.  But he’s only putting them in a situation where they’ll have to kill him just to neaten things up.   We learned in Part Two that he’s been on the verge of suicide for a while now–and wants to live, more than anything.  Parker is convinced he’s too scared to go to the cops, so they let him off with a warning.  This time.

Now it’s time for them to be threatened, by someone as professional as they are, albeit in a somewhat more legal profession.  Sandra Loscalzo, the late Mr. Keenan’s partner.  Not of the Hammett school, she doesn’t feel like when a woman’s partner is killed she should do something about it.  She just wants the same thing Keenan did–the reward money on Harbin.  She was always the brains of that outfit anyway.

She holds McWhitney at gunpoint, at the motel all three at staying at–has him call the other two in for a confab.  The other side of the coin from Gwen Reversa–also tall, slender, blonde, very attractive (this leads to some confusion, when McWhitney tells the others about this woman following him).  She’s right on the edge between legal and illegal.

Oh, and she’s gay.  She lets slip (for no reason I can see) that she lives in Cape Cod, has a mortgage on a house there, where she lives with a friend who has a little girl going to private school.  To which Parker says “To find a dyke on Cape Cod with a daughter in private school and a canary-yellow-haired roommate would not be impossible.”   It would if she shot them all dead with her .357, but it’s a small motel room.  She knows better.  So do they.  They work out a deal.

McWhitney will get her Harbin’s mortal remains (Keenan’s she could care less about).  She’ll get all the reward money herself, no partner to split it with.  She knows they’re planning a job, but she doesn’t care about that, none of her business, she’s just an implausibly hot skip tracer (heavy heisters don’t skip bail, because they don’t make bail). Seems like there’s really nothing she cares about but scoring big and heading back to the woman she’s shacked up with.  Hmmm.

Part Three ends with Parker seeing Wendy Beckham sitting in her little Honda, parked by the motel.  She knows about the bank job, and now that she knows they’re staying at the very same motel Jake works at, she figures there’s no way in hell her little brother isn’t going to jail again if they pull the job. (Of course, if he’d done what Parker told him to do in the first place, break parole and turn himself in, but Parker isn’t going to bring that up now.)

She’s got a point, but Parker’s got a better one.  He tells her that if she’d talked to this other guy in the string, who tends not to think things through (I’m going to assume this is McWhitney), he’d just shoot her right then and there.  But that’s not the threat.  He knows she’s brave enough, and devoted enough, and dumb enough to risk all that.

Here’s his final and most sophisticated threat.  Threats, you see, have to be tailored to the person being threatened.   What is this woman most afraid of?

Parker said, “The reason it’s better to tell me than this other guy is, I take a minute to think about it.  I take a minute and I think, “what is she gonna tell the cops?  Does she know when or where or how we’re gonna do it?  No.  Does she know who we are when we’re at home?  No.  The only thing she can do is blow the whistle on her brother, so instead of maybe he’s in trouble definitely he’s in trouble and you did it.”

He waited, watching her eyes, as she went from defiant to frightened to something like desperate.  Then he said, “You want to talk to the cops, go ahead.  Don’t worry about us.  I gotta pack now.  Goodbye.”

Part Four, Chapter One, is the most exciting part of the book, and the most free-ranging. Divided into thirty-seven segments, no more than two or three pages apiece, some no more than a  paragraph, each divided from the others by short horizontal bars centered on the page.  I guess I could follow suit, just to be different.

_______________

The pack, on the hunt now, departs the fittingly named Trails End Motor Inne (sounds like someplace Burke Devore might have stayed on one of his hunts, in The Ax), while Jake and Wendy contemplate a dwindling set of options at the hospital.  Jake says he’s sorry he told her about it.  So is she.

_______________

Parker meets Dalesia and McWhitney at their staging area, an old abandoned mill.  They’re waiting for Briggs and the materiel.  If Briggs doesn’t show, it’s all off.

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As they wait, four International Navistar Armored Cars, model 2700, are getting started for Deer Hill Bank, coming from Chelsea, just outside Boston.  Four big boxy vehicles like this one.

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Dalesia heads off to meet Briggs at the motel, and lead him to the staging area.

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The armored cars, on their way upstate, head onto the Mystic-Tobin Bridge. (Why am I hearing Van Morrison in my head?) Most people just call it the Tobin Bridge. It’s not just a metatextual reference to Mitch Tobin, though of course it is that as well. It exists in physical reality. Here, I’ll prove it.

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Dalesia comes back to the mill with Briggs, who arrived on time, with the goods. McWhitney’s the only one who doesn’t know him from past jobs. They shake hands, neither convinced the other is okay. Both were generally dissatisfied people, in different ways, and couldn’t be expected to take to each other right away.  Awkward, introducing people you know from different places in your life. We can all relate.

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Elaine Langen heads for the banquet that celebrates the destruction of her father’s legacy.  She hopes to be celebrating something else soon.  But she’s nervous.  Holding herself together with Valium and liquor.

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Briggs introduces the team (and us) to the ordinance he’s acquired, sounding like a sales rep, which is what he is.  The three Carl-Gustafs (geez, they could knock over a small country) have three methods of sighting; the useful one here will be infrared. He was going to get them Valmets (remember them from Good Behavior?), but he could only find the ones without trigger guards (for Finnish soldiers wearing mittens), and he figured that would not be a good idea.  So the assault rifles are Colt Commandos–basically short-barreled M-16s.  I don’t feel like posting an image.  Too soon, you know?  Or do I mean too late?

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Elaine stands there while her shit of a husband openly gloats about what he’s done to daddy’s bank.  She needs another drink.  Open bar.  Uh-oh.

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At the Green Man Motel, Dr. Myron Madchen and his girlfriend Isabelle Moran, make love to celebrate their impending delivery from unsuitable spouses.  They have to make love carefully because of the broken rib her shit of a husband recently gave her.  Westlake recycling the love scene from that novel he recycled from a rejected Bond script; a book he figures nobody will ever read.  Fooled you, didn’t we, Mr. Westlake?

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Briggs heads back to the motel, where he’s supposed to rest up in Dalesia’s room (no need to register that way) before going home to Florida. McWhitney says it would be nice if the rent-a-cops just gave up when they saw the Commandos. Dalesia opines that they have to put up some kind of token resistance, just to feel okay with themselves afterwards. Parker says the only stupid thing the uniforms could do would be to shoot at them, since that would get them all killed.  Dalesia points out that Parker’s going to be in a borrowed police car, so nobody will be shooting at him.  “It’s still stupid,” he says.

_______________

Also at the Green Man Motel, Sandra Loscalzo comes back to her room and switches on her police scanners.  She doesn’t want to stop the heist, doesn’t even know what exactly is being heisted, but if there’s a way to include herself in, she’s going to find it.

Sandra had once heard a definition of a lawyer that she liked a lot.  It said: “A lawyer is somebody who find out where money is going to change hands, and goes there.”  It was a description with speed and solidity and movement, and Sandra identified with it.  She wasn’t a lawyer, but she didn’t see why she couldn’t make it work for her.

_______________

Elaine is really drunk now.  If you were forced to watch a lot of bankers give speeches, so would you be.

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Wendy calls Jake at the hospital.  She wants to give him a pep talk, about how he mustn’t give up, just deny everything, she’ll get him a good lawyer, etc.  And when she means if they catch him out, he can always tell the law everything he knows about these guys who like nothing better than exterminating rats, to get a shorter jail sentence.  (This is her way of encouraging a man who couldn’t even face two weeks in a county lock-up to establish an alibi).  So buck up, baby brother!  By the time she’s done, she’s annihilated whatever nerve he had left.

_______________

Briggs is at the motel, but he can’t sleep.  He’s pacing around like a caged animal. The MassPike is right outside, and he wants to be on it, even though he’s exhausted from the long drive. Retired from active service though he be, part of him wants to join in.

It was the job those three were on; that’s what had agitated him.  He’d been away from that business a long time, and he’d forgotten the rush it involved, the sense that, for just a little while, you were living life in italics.  You weren’t really aware of it when it was happening to you, but Briggs had seen it in Parker and Dalesia and the other one, and he’d found himsel envying, not the danger or the risk or even the profit, but that feeling of heightened experience.  A drug without drugs.

Like any addict, he’s got to get away from the opportunity to relapse.  So he hits the road. Having reminded us all why we’re reading these books.

_______________

On his way south, Briggs passes a nice restaurant, and who should be there but Detective Second Grade Gwen Reversa and her criminal defense lawyer boyfriend, Barry Ridgely, about who Gwen knows everything there is to be known, because she checked him out like a potential perp after the first date. They talk shop, of course, and she tells him about her encounter with ‘John B. Allen.’  That quote’s up top, ending with a very good question.  And for all the words I’ve typed here, I don’t really know the answer for sure. Did Stark?

_______________

Elaine’s had enough.  In several senses of the term.  She excuses herself, and walks to her Infiniti parked outside, trying to look sober, and not succeeding.

_______________

The armored cars are still on their way.  Parker and the other two have dinner. At a diner. Not the one at the intersection where they’re going to lie in wait shortly. That one doesn’t serve dinner.

_______________

The armored cars pull into the Green Man Motel, where Myron and Isabelle are just kissing each other good night.  The security men are going to take a quick nap, then head for the bank at around 1:00AM.

_______________

Having eaten, the crew needs two cars for the job, not being dumb enough to use their own.  They steal an old rustbucket from a used car lot for McWhitney and Dalesia to drive, and then Dalesia takes Parker to some miniscule Hamlet that can’t even afford a regular police department, but gets enough ski traffic in the winter as to need to hire two retired cops for a few months each year–and the rest of the year, their only squad car is in a garage behind the town hall.  Won’t be missed for a while.

_______________

At Deer Hill Bank, it’s time to start packing everything up to be loaded into the armored cars.  Elaine’s supposed to be there, to see which car has the cash.  She’s home, sleeping it off.  Elaine, you had one job……

_______________

Jake was so agitated from his sister’s pep talk, they gave him a pill.  But he just refuses to chill.

_______________

Parker is in the squad car.  Not the first time he’s driven one of those.  Not as good a string as the one in Copper Canyon.  Then again, the finger on this job isn’t out to destroy a whole town.  Just herself, mainly.

_______________

Sandra is glued to her scanners, and she’s starting to pick up chatter relating to the armored cars.  Cops clearing the route.  She can tell something’s up, but she’s not sure what.  Yet.

_______________

Dalesia gets the truck to transport the cash in once they dump the armored car. Rented with McWhitney’s credit card, the one related to the bar he owns.  Back to the factory, where McWhitney is waiting with the stolen Chevy Celebrity.  The name of a real car make.  This isn’t a Dortmunder novel.

_______________

Sandra sees the armored cars leaving the motel, figures there’s a connection, but can’t get to her own car in time to follow them, so she goes back to the scanners.

_______________

Elaine doesn’t show at the meeting spot where she was supposed to give Dalesia the number of the money truck.  Surprise. He races to the ambush spot, and tells Parker.  Parker gets into the pick up, and directs him to the Langen home. Elaine’s got some ‘splainin to do.

Frightened as she is to see Parker standing by her bed, she’s even more horrified to realize how much she screwed up.  She’s got to drive back to the bank, where the party is long over, and get the truck number.  She repeats it all the way back to where Parker is waiting.  “One-oh-two-six-eight.”  

_______________

Jake’s starting to wake.

_______________

Sandra has gotten a rough idea of the route the armored cars are taking, and you remember her favorite quote about lawyers.  She’s going to try and be there when the money changes hands.

______________

Everybody’s getting in place now.  Soon.

_______________

Sandra sees two police cars, one parked by a diner at an intersection, apparently empty.   The other has real cops in it.  The first one isn’t empty.

_______________

Filled with panic and pain-killers, Jake decides he’s got to get out of the hospital, run away, can’t go back to prison, not ever.  He’s not fit to walk yet, but he somehow manages to get his clothes on, and inch his way down the staircase on the seat of his pants.  It takes a long time.  But he’s outside.  No hospital can hold Jake Beckham!

_______________

Jack watches in satisfaction as his life’s work of destroying his father in law’s life’s work is completed.  He’s mainly just worried about the bonds and securities–there’s a lot less cash than before, because they’ve been letting people take it out without putting more back in.  Somebody says he thought he saw Elaine’s car.  Jack says she’s asleep in bed.  He’s happy to think of the misery she’ll feel tomorrow.  You know what misery really loves, Jack?

_______________

Dalesia and McWhitney are where they’re supposed to be.

_______________

Sandra is where she’s not supposed to be, which we gather is where she always wants to be.

______________

Jack Langen drives with a few other bank officials, to the new improved home of the Deer Hill bank’s assets.  Shorter route than the armored cars are taking, they’ll be waiting when the money arrives.  He’s playing Sinatra.  Thinking about that future trophy wife.  Forgetting the current wife.

______________

Sandra is right on the spot when the Carl-Gustafs lay down their royal edicts. Chaos ensues.  A squad car appears out of nowhere–looks familiar–three of the Navistars are totaled, the mystery squad car cuts the fourth one out of the herd, using the loudspeaker to direct it away from the carnage, to safety, right?  No, that can’t be right.  That car’s a ringer!  It’s the crooks!   She’s an officer of the law.  You know, kind of.  Okay, not really.  More of a relic of America’s frontier history.  Cue the identity crisis.

She had to tell them; she had to let them know.  The story isn’t here, with these blocked roads and burning trucks and dazed people.  The story just went away with the only armored car that wasn’t hit.  Get after that phony cop.  She actually had her hand on the door handle, shifting her weight to get out of the car, when she thought again.  Wait a second.  Whose side am I on here?  If those are my three guys–and who else could they be?–I don’t want them arrested, I don’t want them in jail.  That way I’d never get the proof I need on Mike Harbin.

Keep going, fellas, she thought, as she put the car in reverse and U-turned backward away from there.  Keep going and I’ll see you in a couple days.

Quickly the fires shrank and then disappeared from her mirror.

Reminds me of this time I saw a Red-tailed Hawk and a Cooper’s Hawk in the same place, and there’s bad blood there, family feud, you know? But then this murder of crows showed up, started chasing the Red-tail, because they like to chase all hawks, and the Red-tail was bigger and slower, they could attend to the small fry later.  They don’t want these hardened predators robbing nests they’re supposed to be robbing. Crows are simultaneously the crooks and cops of the bird world.

The Coop, about the same size as a crow, joined in with the mob for a moment, caught up in the excitement of the moment. But then you could almost see a thought balloon appear over his head–“What am I doing?” and he darted off the other way before the crows noticed him. It’s a bit like that. Except the Red-tail wasn’t going to meet up with him later so they could do business.  I never said it was a one-to-one analogy.

So that’s Chapter 1 of Part Four.  Six chapters left in the book.   We’re over 5,000 words.  Why don’t we cut it short here, and synopsize Chapter 2 next time, as this eight part review of a 295 page novel continues.  Happy Columbus Day.

(I had you there a moment, admit it.)

In spite of all the little personnel snafus with Jake and Elaine and Myron, the heist went off like a dream, everything happened the way it was supposed to, and they got away clean with the cash.  Zero fatalities. The disoriented men in the truck put up no fight at all–what little nerve they had left, McWhitney scared out of them with his psycho act that isn’t 100% an act.

This would normally be the part of the book where one of the partners turns on the others, or some interloper tries to get the loot away from them, because nothing can ever be easy for Parker.   There has to be a hitch.  This time it’s the law.  That’s a switch.

They make it to the factory in fifteen minutes, switch the cash to the rented truck in under ten.  And as they head for the church to hole up, they hear choppers overhead.  They split up, to avoid attention.  On the way there, Parker sees Dalesia with the rented truck, waiting for a break in the chopper surveillance, since a truck’s what they’ll be looking for.  When Parker arrives at the church, McWhitney is already there, looking even more irate than usual.  “I don’t like how fast they’re being,” he says.

They planned for every contingency–except the new communications tech. Except massive terror attacks ramping up readiness.  A machine built to stop Al Quaeda is being used to swat flies. And thing is, because of the hardware they used, the law can’t be sure they’re not Al Quaeda, or something like that.

Law enforcement in recent years had come to expect an attack from somewhere outside the United States, that could hit anywhere at any time and strike any kind of target, and they’d geared up for it.  Because of that, the few hours Parker and the other two had been counting on weren’t there.

The church is a solid hideout, but it’s not set up for them to stay there a long time, because they’d never planned it that way.  The plan was to get out of the area before the net closed.  Could they get away?  Sure.  With the cash?  Not a hope.

Parker improvises in the clutch, perhaps his most valuable talent.  The choir loft is full of boxes full of hymnals, similar to the ones the money is packed in.  Put the boxes up there.  Put a layer of books over the cash.  Leave.  Come back later. They pack up and go, in three different directions.  Parker hits a roadblock after a few miles–his ID holds up.  This time.  He’s got four thousand in cash from the bank in his pocket.  He finds a diner and sits down to eat.

There’s a TV showing the news there.  Parker sees Myron Madchen at a podium, making a statement to the press, with his lawyer standing next to him.  They got Jake.  Of course. He talked.  Of course.  What he said was not very coherent, but still pretty incriminating. Madchen is there to talk about his patient–but he himself is a person of interest, as they say.

His lawyer says it’s very wrong to cast any suspicion on the good doctor in his hour of bereavement–his wife just died.  Of a heart attack.  He’s in shock–never saw it coming.  Parker doesn’t have to be much of a detective to solve that mystery.

Gwen Reversa is on next.  She’s going to make first grade in no time.  Taking a modest little bow for having sensed something funny about Elaine Langen, who is now in custody.  Not quite the way Elaine wanted to get revenge on Jack, but something tells me that providing your wife with information used in an armored car heist is not the fast track to success in the banking world.

Then they show a police sketch of ‘John B. Allen’–presumably drawn from Reversa’s very distinct memories of that brief encounter with Parker.

They think that’s me, Parker thought, and studied it, as the interviewer’s voice, over the picture, said, “This is almost certainly one of the robbers.”

An 800 number appeared, superimposed over the drawing.  “If you see this man, phone this number.  Rutherford Combined Savings has posted a one-hundred-thousand dollar reward for the capture and conviction of this man and any other member of the gang, and the recovery of the nearly two million, two-hundred thousand dollars stolen in the robbery.”

Parker looked up and down the counter.  Half a dozen other people were gazing at the television set.  None of them looked to be ready to go off and make a phone call.  It seemed to him, if you told one of those people “This picture is that guy.  See the cheekbones?  See the shape of the forehead?” they’d say, “Oh, yeah!”  But if it wasn’t pointed out, they’d just go on eating.

Parker has never been much impressed by the drafting skills of police sketch artists. Reversa didn’t have a dash cam when she stopped him in her plainclothes Plymouth Fury, or it might be much worse. Parker pays the check and walks out. It’s much worse. There’s a squad car parked by his Dodge.

John B. Allen.  One computer talks to another, and it doesn’t take long.  He’d been moving through the roadblocks just ahead of the news.  John B. Allen is wanted for robbery over here.  John B. Allen rented a car over there.  Let’s find the car, and wait for Allen to come back to it.

He strolls towards the trees by the parking lot.

Final chapter.  Well, it really could be this time.  Chapter 7.  Don’t tell me Stark doesn’t have a sense of humor either.

Parker is climbing the increasingly steep wooded slope by the diner, stopping here and there to look down, check out the situation.  He’s thinking as he goes that the bank people are lying about what they got, they always make it more. The haul was just a bit over a millon, he’s sure.

Less than expected. Nowhere near enough to bankroll the escape fantasies of the comedy team of Elaine, Jake, and Dr. Myron, not that it matters now. Still, Parker’s biggest score ever, if you don’t factor for inflation, which of course you do.

His idea is he’ll wait for them to decide he’s not coming back, then go back down, maybe steal another car, catch a bus, something.  Not gonna happen.  Oh, there’s a bus, all right. Well, a van.  Full of dogs.  Parker’s bane.  He’s always feared them, more than the humans and their machines.  So much more focused.  So much harder to fool.  One or two he can handle.  Not a pack.  With armed handlers backing them.

He doesn’t wait for them to come out of the van.  He’s seen this movie before. You will detect a note of angry sarcasm in his thoughts as he clambers upwards, as relayed to us by Stark.

Soon he heard them, though.  There was an eager note in their baying, as thought they thought what they did was music.

Parker kept climbing.  There was no way to know how high the hill was.  He climbed to the north, and eventually the slope would start down the other side.  He’d keep ahead of the dogs, and somewhere along the line he’d find a place to hole up.  He could keep away from the pursuit until dark, and then he’d decide what to do next.

He kept climbing.

“As though they thought what they did was music.”  I guess everybody really is a critic.

When this book came out, people were heard to wonder out loud–mother of mercy–is this the end of Parker?  It could have been.  Westlake was maybe four years from his own end when it came out.  If he’d put off writing the next book much longer, this would be the finale, and we’d be debating that very question in the comments section.

But just as in Breakout, when he got Lyme Disease in the middle of writing it, kept typing feverishly until he’d gotten Parker out of jail, Westlake couldn’t leave Parker there on that hillside, the dogs closing in for the kill.

Not literally, of course–they must be bloodhounds, German Shepherds don’t bay. Bloodhounds won’t do much more than lick you when they catch up, but you know what I mean.  Whether he goes down in a hail of police bullets, or gets taken off to prison forever–he’s over.  The second fate would be the worst. There’s a reason he didn’t kill Jake Beckham for not following his alibi instructions. The inability to suffer confinement is something he can understand. He said so at the time.

Now he’s going to have to understand somebody else. Somebody much more like–well–us.  Parker is crossing much more than the border between Massachusetts and upstate New York as he climbs that hill.  He’s crossing the line between his world and a place we’ve never really seen him in before, for any great length of time.  What he would call The Straight World.

Not so straight as he might think.  If he gets lost, he can always ask directions from the parrot.

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Nobody Runs Forever, Part 2

crossroads-diner-nj

McWhitney sighed and slipped the automatic out of sight under his jacket.  “I’ll tell you what happened,” he said.  “I fell for an old one.”

“Yeah?”

“This guy Keenan, he comes to me, he says you told him he should ask me where to find Harbin.”

Dalesia laughed.  “Why would I do that?”

“That was my question.  What were you up to. But it wasn’t you up to something, it was Keenan.  That’s the old dodge, he tells me you told him this thing or that thing, then I’m supposed to figure it’s okay to tell him more.”

“He had no idea what was going on.”

“None,” McWhitney agreed.

“So that was a big mistake he made.”

“Yeah, it was.”

Dalesia grinned. “I bet he learned a lesson from it.”

“Yeah.” McWhitney nodded.  “He learned the harp.”

Bit of a mystery about this week’s covers.  The British edition, from Robert Hale Limited, is well done as always (Hale did some of the finest cover art I’ve seen for this series, and that’s going some).  Nobody will ever convince me Parker looks like that, but you make allowances for regional preference. Other than physiognomy, I’d rank it over the Mysterious Press cover art, which I do like quite a bit, but this is more specific.

The Italian edition, from a different publisher, seems to be a blurry close-up of that cover.  What’s up with that?  If they had the rights to the Hale art, why wouldn’t they just use it?  If they didn’t have the rights, or didn’t want an identical cover, why not just commission something along similar lines?  Hale is gone, as of 2015, its imprints now owned by The Crowood Press, and sorry I am to hear it.  Another independent gone the way of all things.  Shall we assume they never had the deep pockets to do anything about it if somebody glommed their art?

Also, could one of my German readers explain the alternate editions for the Parker novels I find on Amazon.de?  Two imprints of the same publisher?  The shared theme for this one was snakes.  I could think of more fitting novels in the series for that motif, but effective, all the same.   Unless Parker is supposed to be the snake, and I think everyone knows my zoological take by now.

And my penchant for prologue, but I’ve run on long enough here.  Notice how the foreign publishers just translated the original title?  (Not the French, as we’ll see next time, but they always go their own way.)  Something about this particular title struck a deep chord.  Let’s cut back to the chase, shall we?  While we’ve still time.

In all of the Stark novels but the last three Grofields, the book will have four parts, identified by number only.  One of them will be the round robin section, where you explore a variety of perspectives and Parker is not heard from much, or at all.  Part Two is the round robin this time, as happens now and then in the series–it’s usually Part Three.

But when there were a lot of people in the mix, many of them not really connected to Parker’s world, he sometimes opted for Part Two, so he could establish those perspectives, introduce key players Parker doesn’t know about yet, set things up for the big finish.  So that’s a bit out of the ordinary, but wait until we get to Part Four.

Part Two kicks off with a chapter from the POV of Gwen Reversa, a tall good-looking blonde Massachusetts State Police detective, with their CID unit, and I’m not sure they call it that in reality, nor do I think there are a lot of people with that last name, going by the fact that the online White Pages only came up with one match.  I’d guess it’s reverse-engineered (nothing implicit about that pun) from one of several similar French surnames, and Mr. Westlake is playing his name games again, but he draws attention from her last by telling us about her first.

Gwen Reversa had decided to change her first name from Wendy even before she knew she was going to be a cop.  The name Wendy just didn’t lend itself to the kind of respect she felt she deserved.  Wendys were thought of as blondes, i.e., airheads.

Or good little witches who date friendly ghosts, but never mind that now.  She found out Wendy is short for Gwendolyn, and there was an end to that (and isn’t the most famous Gwen in fiction a not over-bright blonde who got killed by the Green Goblin so Spider-man could date a much smarter redhead?  Never mind that either.)

She’s at the local hospital to talk to Jake Beckham about his being shot in the fleshy part of his thigh as he was leaving the motel he works at.  He suspects Parker of having done it, but he can’t very well tell her that.  So he talks a lot, she listens to what he doesn’t say, and knows he’s hiding something.  She knows he’s lying about not suspecting anyone, and about not being involved with Elaine Langen anymore.  She believes him when he says the husband didn’t do it.  But she figures she’ll go talk to his recently divorced sister, who is going to be taking care of him during his convalescence.  And is named Wendy.  She’s looking forward to it.

Chapter 2 is about Myron Madchen, Jake’s personal physician, there to see him, which he shouldn’t be doing (he’s not a surgeon), but he’s doing it anyway.  He’s very worried to learn there’s a cop there talking to Jake.  He’s worried about everything in his life.  In a bad marriage, to the unpleasant woman who put him through med school, who will never give him a divorce.  In a tense passionate affair with a lovely young married woman whose drunken husband is beating her, and all he can do is patch her up prior to illicit coitus.

They want to run away together to California.  But his practice isn’t that lucrative, and he doesn’t have the cash.  Hence Jake Beckham.  Hence Dr. Madchen taking a very real risk of going to prison for aiding and abetting a felony.  He may end up wishing it had been that easy.

Chapter 3 is Elaine Langen, tooling along in her white Infiniti, which isn’t really hers,  and neither is anything else.  That’s why she’s doing this.  God bless the child who’s got her own back with interest.  Just like Madchen, her woes stem from a very bad marital choice she made, that her father told her not to, and when will fathers ever learn?

The fact was, when Harvey believed he knew hat was best for his daughter, he was almost always right.  Her angry feuds with him were not because he was wrong, but because he left her no space to come to the right answers on her own.  Since he preempted the right, she had no cohice, the way she saw it, but to defiantly claim the wrong as her own.

Thus, Jack Langen.

Well, it wouldn’t be for too much longer, and in the meantie Jack wasn’t particularly hard to get along with, all wrapped up as he was in the coming merger.  A self-involved man, once he’d captured Elaine and the bank she sat on, he was content to let life just roll along.

Especially now, with this takeover that he’d insisted on, over her own objections and the posthumous objections of Harvey, relayed through Elaine.  This was not a merger!  It was a swallowing up, and Elaine knew it, and so did everybody else.

Well,  Jack would be happy in the new headquarters of Rutherford Combined Savings, where he could play at being an old-money banker the rest of his life.  And Elaine would be happy in the South of France, with all the money she’d need until the found the right well-off replacement for Jack.  And Jake Beckham would be happy wherever he decided to go with his piece of the pie, so at the end of the day everybody’s happy, so what’s the problem?

Well, for one thing, there isn’t likely to be enough money in that armored car to make all these people happy for very long (Elaine is forgetting Dr. Madchen & the mistress, not to mention inflation and the rate of exchange with the Euro), even if nothing at all goes wrong with the heist.

Something’s gone wrong already.  That’s why Parker is waiting for her when she gets home.  Always the best detective in these novels, because he overlooks all the distracting static and focuses on the essentials.  And right now, what’s essential is that Elaine give him her gun.  The one she told him she knew never to pull out unless she was ready to use it.

Since the chairs all faced the television set, he half-turned one toward her before sitting down.  Then he said, “A pro would throw the gun away right after, but you’re not a pro and you are greedy, so you held on to it.”

“If you’re saying I shot Jake–”

“We’re past that,” he said.  “You did it, and sooner or later a cop is gonna show up here, and you’ve got a license for that gun.  They’ll want to see it.  If you say you lost it, they’ll get a warrant and search the house and find it and match it to the bullet they’re gonna take out of Beckham.”

Being called greedy had overshadowed everything else he’d said.  She said icily, “I really don’t see–”

“What happens to you, I don’t care,” he said.  “But if they nail you as the shooter, the whole bank job comes undone.  I don’t want it undone.”

She hit exactly what she aimed at–the fleshy part of the thigh.  She was worried Jake wouldn’t have an alibi for the heist, so she arranged one.  The same old personality flaw that sabotaged her before–the need to take control of situations she doesn’t understand well enough.  Parker is subbing for her dad now, and is giving her no room at all.  But that’s hardly his fault.  And then the maid tells Elaine that Gwen Reversa is at the door right now.

Terrified, she gives Parker the gun, and he goes out the back.  Elaine has a little conversation with Detective Reversa, which goes no better for her than it did for Jake, but they don’t find the gun. Which looks bad, but not as bad as if they’d found it.

Jack Langen shows up in his Lincoln Navigator (of course), right as they’re searching the house.  Elaine’s wrong about a lot of things, but she’s 100% right to think he married her for her daddy’s bank.  What she doesn’t know is more important.  1)She could still block the merger if she really tried–2)Once it goes through, he’s going to divorce her and get to work on that trophy wife, and–3)She’s getting alimony, of course. Maybe not South of France alimony, but he figures maybe Alaska, or some island.  Nice guy.

She doesn’t need the heist to win her freedom from him.  On some level, she probably knows this, doesn’t care.  She wants revenge on the man who helped her ruin her life, even if it means ruining it all over again.  Parker already knows this.  She doesn’t.  All Jack knows is that he better watch her close, because she’s lying about having lost the gun.

Chapter 5 is Roy Keenan, bounty hunter, tracking down the elusive Michael Maurice Harbin for the big government reward, and I guess he’s under the impression Joe Gores is writing this book.  He bribed a state cop in Cincinnati–a mere hundred dollars gave him some names, of guys at that card game that opens this book.  The card game where Parker killed Harbin with his necktie, but the cop didn’t know that, so neither does Keenan.  Not that he’d care, he collects for a dead body just as well, except it doesn’t occur to him that the people responsible for Harbin’s death might like him to stay lost. Habeas corpus and all.

This Willis gent he braced in Jersey was unhelpful, and maybe a bit intimidating, even for him.  He hasn’t been able to find Nick Dalesia, but Nelson McWhitney owns a bar on Long Island.  He figures he’ll drop Dalesia’s name and see what results he gets.  He gets his results in the back room.  Direct from Louisville.

He staggered rightward, against the wall, throwing his arms up to protect himself, yelling, “Wait! No! You got this wro–“and the bat came around again, this time smashing into his upraised left arm, midway between elbow and armpit, snapping the bone there, so that the arm dropped, useless, and amazing pain shot through him.

McWhitney stood in a tree axer’s stance, not a baseball stance.  “So Nick Dalesia’s got a big mouth, does he?  Thinks he’s a comical fellow, does he?”

“No, no, not like that!  Let me–”

“I’ll see to Dalesia.”

This time the bat smashed his jaw and flung him again into the side wall.  “Naa!” he screamed.  “Naa!”

But the jaw wouldn’t work.  He’d always used words; he was a talker; words got him into places and out of trouble, got him answers, got him everything he wanted; words had always saved him, but now all the words were gone, the jaw couldn’t work, and all he could bleat was, “Naa! Naa!” Even he didn’t understand himself.

“Say hello to Mike Harbin,” McWhitney said, so at least he got the answer to that question, and the bat was the fastest thing in the world.

Chapter 6 is where the former Wendy meets the present one, as Reversa, still making the rounds, goes to see Jake’s sister at the trailer park.  Wendy Beckham (back to her maiden name, now that the divorce is final) is a nice person, the kind who takes care of family, and she knows her brother hasn’t always behaved himself, but he’s still family, and she needs a project.

Reversa shares a bit of what she knows, and Wendy realizes this project is going to be harder than she thought.  He wasn’t just dipping into the bank’s money, he was dipping into the bank manager’s wife.  And now this pretty young detective thinks the wife put a bullet in his leg–not to kill him, but to render him inactive a while.  Why?  That’s something any sister would like to know, so she goes to the hospital for a little heart to heart.

Chapter 7 is just Grace, Dalesia’s  former wife, talking to her pal Monica about how she still occasionally does things for her ex-hubby the heistman.  She’s basically serving as his mailbox.  She just got a fax with the number 4 written on it and nothing else.  The day of the big money move, but she doesn’t need to know that.

Chapter 8, Gwendy (she can’t shoot me, she’s a police officer) comes back at Jake a little harder this time, and he’s genuinely rattled when she lets him know who really shot him, but he improvises a story about why she might do that (hell hath no fury), and why he’d never consider pressing charges, even if they can prove it.  After all, she was just making a point.  Reversa shoots him a “Who do you think you’re kidding” look, and leaves.

The last two chapters are McWhitney and Dalesia ironing out this little misunderstanding on McWhitney’s part, and you can see how that worked out up top.  Dalesia’s less of a talker than the late Mr. Keenan, but he’s a lot less cocksure, and he speaks fluent heister. A language most skip tracers don’t speak well, if at all.  Honorable mention to Dan Kearny.

Before that rapprochement takes place, we see Dalesia, driving along the route he knows the convoy will take, looking for the best possible spot for an ambush.  An intersection, say.

And he believed he’d found it.  It was not part of any town, but it had a little commercial buildup around it; a cafe open only for breakfast and lunch, a gas station that shut at dark, a used-car lot with cards behind a chain-link fence and with a small shed out front with a handwritten sign on the door: PHONE FOR APPT.

The area was occupied, but not at night.  The roads heading north and east met other turnoff roads almost immediately, making an escaper’s route very hard to guess.  At the intersection itself, the two roads coming up from the south and east met at dogleg angles, no straight lines.  And the diner, the used-car shack, and the layout of the gas station made for a somewhat constricted area around the intersection.  The armored cars would have to come through very slowly.

For breakfast and lunch, the diner’s parking lot at the front and left side was full of pickup trucks.  This was where the labor force in this part of the world ate everything but dinner.  They were all regulars, talking to one another about their jobs and their bosses and their favorite sports teams.  They paid no attention to Dalesia when he sat among them and spent some time over coffee at a window table at the front, looking out at the intersection, pleased with his choice.

The point was to be here before the armored cars arrived to set themselves in useful positions.  They had a rough idea how to pull it off, and how to lead the target car away, but where should they place themselves to begin with?  The armored cars would come up along that road over there, to cross the intersection northbound.  Parker and Dalesia would want their special one to go out the road on that side, they would want the other three armored cars to block the intersection there and there, and the more Dalesia looked at the place, the more it seemed to him they needed two guys on the ground and one to bird-dog the target.

Three.  They needed one more man.

The end result is that McWhitney becomes the third man on the job, since Dalesia figures they’ll need one.  So now this little podunk bank has to have enough money for Dalesia, McWhitney, Elaine, Jake, Dr. Madchen, and the hopeful future Mrs. Dr. Madchen.  And Parker.  Or really, Claire.   And that’s all he wrote for Part Two.

And maybe the most interesting POV character in this book who isn’t an armed robber hasn’t even been heard from yet.  We’ll see a bit of her in Part Three, but we don’t get into her head until Part Four, which ranges around almost as much as Part 2.  Weird.  This one breaks a fair few Starkian rules.  And the last two parts kind of dovetail together.  So I might as well bend one of mine, and cut this short (for me).  Make up for it next time, I’m sure.

Oh, there is one other key player we’ll be meeting next time.  Not really a POV character, but he makes his presence felt.  Swedish.  And a king.

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Nobody Runs Forever

folded-film-poster-nobody-runs-forever-the-high-commissioner-1968-bp9nb2

When Parker got back to the lake a little before noon the next day, Claire was in the living room, reading a shelter magazine.  She tossed it aside, got to her feet, and said “Oh good, I was hoping you’d be home before lunch.  Take me someplace nice, with a terrace.  There won’t be many beautiful days like this left.”

“We can drive over to Pennsylvania,” he said.  There’s some places along the river there.”

She looked doubtful.  “With good food?”

“You want good food and a terrace?”

She laughed.  “You’re right.  Come with me while I look at my hair  We got a very strange wrong number this morning.”

“What kind of strange?”  He stood in the bedroom doorway and watched her poke at her trim auburn hair, which had been flawless when she started.

“He asked for somebody named Harbin.”

Thinking about it, it surprised him that there were always the same people in every job.

From The Man With the Getaway Face, by Richard Stark

In The Getaway Car, the thirteenth and penultimate section of that anthology of Westlake nonfiction is Jobs Never Pulled, which is a list of titles Westlake had considered but hadn’t used.  Many of them pretty awful–Cloak and Dagger, Clay Pigeon, Crossfire, Dark Angel.  Some are worse than that–and you will note, perhaps, that all those I mentioned have been used, though not by Westlake.  Perhaps not all when he first wrote them down (Crossfire was in theaters when Westlake was in his early teens), but good bet some of them had been.

He often fell back on well-worn clichés for his titles, which he would transform into ironic wordplay.  But some clichés are just too clichéd for that to work.  So he never used them, and just as well.

At the top of that list, there’s one title crossed out–the one you see above. Which had been the American release title of a Rod Taylor movie I haven’t seen yet (new DVD coming out in November, I’ve pre-ordered, can’t resist).  But which, going by every synopsis I’ve read, can’t be any kind of influence on the novel I’m about to review.  Maybe I’ll eat my words in November, but I’ve got to review this book now.

Pretty sure Mr. Westlake, like myself, was a fan of Mr. Taylor (I’ll explain why I think that some other time), but he only would have had to read the entertainment section of the paper back in ’68 to have seen that title.

The funny thing about titles is that they aren’t copyrighted.  In some cases they can be trademarked, but that takes a lot of lawyers.  You want to name your book Great Expectations, Moby Dick, or War and Peace?  Go ahead.  Only thing stopping you is the shadow you’ll be standing in. There have been a lot of books called The Hunter.  All but one have languished in obscurity.

Great cast, little-remembered film.  Bit of a dud when it came out, only available now under its original title, The High Commissioner. Doesn’t cast much of a shadow, does it?  But that American title is noir as noir gets. Fits Parker’s current situation (and his creator’s) like a well-worn black leather glove. That’s what I think happened here.

This is the largest panel in the Triptych (see previous article) going by word count. Almost three hundred pages in the first edition.  Longer than it needed to be, I think.  After a strong opening, it sags in the middle, then revives with a vengeance at the end.   Too much repetition of effort, not something you often find in Stark.  It’s what you might call a high-maintenance heist.

The grandeur of Plunder Squad and Butcher’s Moon notwithstanding, Stark, child of the gaudy paperbacks that he was, never fully adapted to the demands of the modern hardcover market–the pressure to crank out more pages to justify the cover price, be more ‘immersive.’  (Show me anything more immersive than those early Stark paperbacks, I dare you.)

If he had a big enough story to tell, not a problem, but this is more like half a story, with a completely different story sandwiched between.  Would have been better as a novella, leading into a shortish novel, leading into another novella–but who was publishing novellas then?  (Evan Hunter, but alas.)

No point crying over spilled ink, and I shouldn’t throw stones either, since I’m currently planning to make this review a three parter (the better to finish my final Stark review in one, since it wraps up the story this one kicks off).  Nobody runs forever; some bloggers come close.  However, I’d prefer none of the installments run over 6,000 words, so let’s emulate Stark at his best, and get to work.

The book begins in the middle of a card game, and we are reminded that poker can be a full contact sport in Parker’s world.

When he saw that the one called Harbin was wearing a wire, Parker said “Deal me out a hand,” and got to his feet.  They’d all come to this late-night meeting in suits and ties, traveling businessmen taking a break with a little seven-card stud.  Harbin, a nervous man unused to the dress shirt, kept twitching and moving around, bending forward to squint at his cards, and finally Parker, a quarter around the table to Harbin’s left, saw in the gap between shirt buttons that flash of clear tape holding the wire down.

As he walked around the table, Parker stripped off his own tie–dark blue with thin gold stripes–slid it into a double thickness, and arched it over Harbin’s head.  He drew the two ends through the loop and hanked back hard with his right hand as  his body pressed both Harbin and the chair he was in against the table, and his left hand reached over to rip open Harbin’s shirt.  The other five at the table, about to speak or move or react to what Parker was doing, stopped when they saw the wire taped to Harbin’s pale chest, the edge of the black metal box taped to his side.

(Loathe as I am to quarrel with such fine workmanship–Stark even describes the murder tie!–this story, as we shall see, takes place in the era of modern digital communications tech, as Parker shall have cause to lament.  It also takes place after 9/11, as we may infer from certain references later on.

Therefore, it is most unlikely even the most underfunded state police investigations unit–and that’s who was behind this–would have one of their informants wear a wire.  There were better ways to do it, long before then.  The convention lives on in crime fiction, and explaining how Parker somehow noticed a miniaturized listening device would have spoiled the rhythm of the scene. So, live with it.)

The rest of the chapter is the assembled felons (of whom Parker knows only Nick Dalesia, first and last seen in Butcher’s Moon) pretending to continue their game for the sake of whoever is listening in, while the guy who brought Harbin there to talk business,  red-bearded gent name of McWhitney, makes amends for his mistake by disposing of the body.  There was a potential job, involving a shipment of gold meant for people’s teeth, but that’s just as dead as Harbin now.

Parker leaves with Dalesia, who has an alternative score to offer.  A bank heist.  Way out in New England.  Parker says what they could get from some piddling backwater bank wouldn’t be enough to justify the risk. Dalesia says they can get basically everything there, because it’s merging with a larger bank, and all the assets are going to be moved at one time.  They take out one armored car, and it’s all theirs.  He already knows the route.  It’ll be in a convoy of four, the other three running empty–they have to know which one has the cash, and that won’t be decided until the last possible minute.

This, as Parker quickly intuits, is where you need somebody on the inside, and Dalesia’s got somebody.  Or rather, an old friend of his does.  Former security guard at the bank, named Jake Beckham.  Got caught on the skim (hmm….)  Served time for it.  Lives in a trailer park now, works at a cheap motel, wants a ticket to something better, figures this is it.

He arranges to meet them at his doctor’s office–doctor patient confidentiality means there can’t be any bugs there, and even if somebody was wearing a wire (or whatever they wear now), it would be inadmissible.  The doctor, Myron Madchen, is a mite bent himself, expects a nice taste of the proceeds, whatever they are–Jake’s not dumb enough to tell him, he’s not dumb enough to ask, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t both dumb about other things.

Jake’s been screwing the wife of the bank manager for years.  Daughter of the man who started the bank, she’s angry about the merger that will destroy her dad’s legacy, angry at her husband for tricking her into marrying him so he could take over.  She’s the one who can get them the info they need.  Parker smells emotion all over this one, and he doesn’t like it.  But so hard to find a lot of cash on the hoof these days.  This one could be worth millions.

The big problem right off is Jake wants to be part of the heist, and Parker and Dalesia both know he can’t be anywhere near it, has to have an titanium-clad alibi, because the cops will look at him hard.  He says Dr. Madchen will admit him to a local hospital, private room, and he can sneak out and meet them, then sneak back in afterwards.  No one will ever know!

Parker nixes that scenario, suggests an alternative–Jake’s on parole.  He breaks it by flying to Vegas.  He turns himself in there, says he was drunk, there was a woman.  They’ll have heard it a million times before.  Not like he killed anybody. They’ll lock him up, ship him back to New England, where he’ll be locked up some more.  He’ll be out again in a few weeks–after the job is done.

Jake hates every aspect of that idea.  Prison did not agree with him, or he with it. Plus he loved the idea of being in on the job himself (sticking it to the husband like the husband stuck it to him like he stuck it to the jerk’s wife).  He says he’ll go along with it, but without a whole lot of conviction.  Parker and Dalesia depart the trailer park with some trepidation.

As they drove, Dalesia said, “Jake’s problem is, he’s still part amateur himself.”

“He is,” Parker said.

“I like him, don’t get me wrong, but he didn’t start out to be one of us.  He started out to be a soldier boy, obey orders, get drunk, chase girls.  He got turned and turned, and he’s with us now because he’s got no place else to be.”

“He brings us a job,” Parker said, without emphasis, “he got us from the woman he’s in bed with.”

“I know.  It’s worse than a soap opera.  Do you think you got him to back out of this?”

“Maybe.  If not,” Parker said, “you’re the one he can finger.”

Dalesia laughed, but then he said, “No.  I put one in his head before that.”

“Then her head, too.”

Dalesia, considering, said, “You think so?”

“Never trust pillow talk.”

Dalesia thought about that for a while, then said, “We could just keep driving.”

“We could.”

“I got nothing else.”

“Neither of us has anything else.”

So they have to talk to the daughter.  Elaine Langen.  You might call her The Last Finger.  The first was named Alma, waitress at a New Jersey diner–where an armored car carrying a payroll would park, so the security men could eat.  Using a guy she’s sleeping with (named Skimm, hence the ‘hmmm’ ) to try and escape–and get even with the whole world.  She’s plotting a cross, which gets her killed, because Parker.

This finger was raised with money, isn’t planning any cross, just wants revenge on her dirtbag husband, with a bit of fuck-you money on the side–but otherwise it’s a lot like that.  Check out the descriptions.

First Alma:

She was in her mid-thirties, and her waitress-short hair, a mousy brown in color, was crimped all around in a frizzy permanent.  Her eyes were sullen and angry, glaring out at a world that had never given her her due.  She was heavily built, with broad hips and full bosom and thick legs, all of it solid and hard.  She had a double chin and a pulpy nose and a surprisingly good mouth, but the mouth was obscured by the hardness of the rest of her.

Now Elaine:

Well.  The first impression was of a slender, stylish well-put-together woman in her forties, but almost instantly the impression changed.  She wasn’t slender, she was bone thin, and inside the stylish clothes she walked with a graceless jitteriness, like someone whose medicine had been cut off too soon. Beneath the cowl of well-groomed ash-blond hair, her face was too thin, too sharp-featured, too deeply lined.  This could have made her look haggard; instead, it made her look mean.  From the evidence, what would have attracted her husband most would have been her father’s bank.

And now it begins to dawn on me at last that Stark knew all along what he was doing here, even if he didn’t know exactly where it was going.  As he had already done once, with the Dortmunder novella Walking Around Money, (credited to Westlake, but Stark was ghost-writing), he is consciously revising The Man With the Getaway Face.  Or, as Stark originally titled it, The Mask.

The second book in the series, the one that made it a series. The first that was really about a heist, that showed us what Parker was like when he wasn’t in mad wolf vendetta mode, the one that began to lay down the rules, the guidelines for what would come after.  The Hunter was the launchpad–The Mask the trajectory.  These last three books are the splash down.

You stay on the merry-go-round long enough, sooner or later you come back to where you started.  Dalesia, thin and dark, resembles Handy McKay quite a bit, has the same quiet competence and affable nature–less of his loyalty. It’s not that hard to see the parallels once you’re looking for them.  But see, that book came out more than forty years before this one, and the scenario can’t play out like last time.  The more things stay the same, the more they change.  No more Handy McKays in the world Parker lives in now.  Yeah, foreshadowing.

They tell Jake to tell Elaine to meet them at a service area on the MassPike.  There’s a cafeteria style restaurant there (a diner would be too on the nose).  She’s every bit as much of a handful as they thought, and even less of a professional than her lover.  Still, you have to give her points for brass.

She looked at the booth, looked at the privacy they’d arranged for her, and said “Thank you.”  She slid in and said, “Jake had to talk me into this, you know.”

Dalesia said, “Into this, or into the whole thing?”

Her laugh was brief and harsh.  “Into this,” she said.  “I had to talk him into the whole thing.  But I guess you two must agree with me.”

Parker said, “About what?”

“There was an old movie,” she said, “called, Nice Little Bank That Should be Robbed.”

Dalesia laughed and said, “That’s what we got here, huh?”  In the movie, did they get away with it?”

“I never saw the movie,” she said.  “I just noticed the title, in a TV listing.  It struck me.”

“Probably,” Dalesia said, “being a movie, they didn’t get away with it.  Movies are very unrealistic that way.”

She seemed amused by him.  “Oh? Do bank robbers usually get away with it?”

Well yes, Dalesia explains–in that the phrase literally refers to the robbers getting the cash away from the bank, and bank employees are instructed to let them do precisely that, so they pretty much always ‘get away with it.’  It’s the aftermath that tells the tale–if the robbers are stupid, as is often the case, they get caught or killed later on–if they’re smart, they may ‘get away with it’ in the more expansive sense of remaining alive and free and spending the money–perhaps multiple times.  But not too many.  Nobody runs forever.

(And yes, that’s a real movie title Elaine references, minus a prefatory article of speech, and I haven’t seen it either, but now I really want to, c’mon TCM.  As to whether they get away with it–yes and no.  Basically, the movie is making the same point as Dalesia.  Don’t go to the well too many times.)

It’s arranged that she’ll fax them the day of the big money move as soon as she knows it, using a fax machine at the bank itself.  The position of the money car is more time sensitive, and turns out the only way this can be worked is for her to go there that night, watch to see them loaded up, then drive to a pre-arranged intersection and give them the number of the car.  It won’t be the first or last of the four, she knows that already, but that isn’t enough.

Her only contribution to this job is information, but it’s an indispensable contribution. If they could get rid of Jake altogether, the job would work a lot better.  His relationship with both Dalesia and Elaine makes that impossible.  She’s not too enthused about his breaking parole to establish an alibi–mainly because she knows how much he hated prison.  But she accepts the necessity of his having an unbreakable alibi, in order for suspicion not to fall on her as well.

She tries not to show much bothered she is by their conviction that her husband knew about the affair with Jake all along.  She says she knows her husband, would know if he knew about her and Jake.  Her husband’s name is Jack.  Do I really have to spell out the implicit pun here?  Point is, much as she may think she is above suspicion, nobody would ever accuse the old man’s daughter, she better take care to establish an alibi for herself as well, call her husband the minute she gets home that night.

Frowning, she said, “You really believe it, don’t you?  That Jack will suspect me.”

“Whether he does or not,” Parker said, “do you like to take risks?”

“To wind up in jail, you mean?” Her mouth twisted.  “Prison orange is not my color.”

Really?  I’ve heard it’s the new black.  Parker notices she’s got a gun in her purse, which she’s very defensive about (there’s a lot of that going around lately, can’t imagine why). She kids on the square about how they’re playing good cop/bad cop, complains they never even offered to buy her a cup of coffee, and departs.  Leaving them less than reassured of her soundness, but they still have nothing else.

Parker goes back to Claire in New Jersey, they go swimming together in Colliver Pond, in the warm September weather, she’s wearing a bright blue bikini, and let’s just say Parker has a lot to lose here.  Then again, women like Claire come with a certain amount of overhead built in, even if they’re happy with a small house on a lake in Northwestern Jersey that they have to vacate during the summer, when it gets all touristy.  Anyway, Parker has to work whether he’s got a woman or not.

She tells him the bank account is getting low, so he goes to his bank–caches of cash, concealed in little hidey-holes he’s made inside surrounding vacation cottages, that he can easily access when they are unoccupied, which is most of the time he and Claire are in residence there.  It’s a neat system.  No interest accruing, to be sure.  But you know, with the market so volatile of late, call it a hedge fund.  Perhaps in actual hedges, at times.

He comes back to the house, and Dalesia left a message to call–bad news.  Jake went to his scheduled appointment with his parole officer like a lamb.  They head back to Massachusetts to see if the lamb needs slaughtering.

They go to the trailer park this time, never mind the doctor.  Barge right in.  Jake tells them he knows what they’re going to say.  Parker says he was going to say the job works just as well if Jake is dead.  Dalesia, the good cop, is in general agreement with this sentiment, with the difference that he feels personally let down by his old camping buddy.

Jake’s rattled, but sticks to his guns–he can’t do another minute of time.  He won’t.  He came up with a better version of his medical alibi.  Madchen will diagnose him with stomach problems, he’ll be in a hospital ward, not a private room, and he agrees he can’t sneak out to participate in the heist.  He’s already talked to his parole officer about it–meaning that it’s a fait accompli.  And if they kill him, Elaine will be too scared to play ball.  Not liking it one bit, Parker gives in.

Back to Claire again, leading to the exchange you see up top.  Which I’ve found interesting for a while now, for two reasons.  Reason the First: Would Parker know or care what constitutes good food?  I guess he knows the difference between rare and burned.  It seems more like a Westlake Foodie thing.  Away from major cities, you pretty much do have to choose between classy ambience and good food.  Even in major cities, you have to look pretty hard and pay through the nose to get both.

Reason the Second: Claire’s a redhead?  She was introduced in the ninth book of the series.  This is the twenty-second.  First time we’ve ever been told what color hair she has.  She was depicted on the cover of three of the four Gold medal originals, each one drawn by Robert E. McGinnis.

I’ve always preferred the brunette.  But that’s just McGinnis, perhaps going with his personal preference of the moment, given no visual cue in the books–or else he just assumes that if a woman has red or yellow hair–in a crime novel–you mention it.  For whatever reason, his final take on Claire is a strawberry blonde.  And is being pawed by somebody we assume is Parker (though it could be one of her abductors), who looks an awful lot like a younger version of McGinnis himself.

I could probably spend a good five thousand words just speculating on Westlake’s reasons for telling us what previously only Parker and Claire’s hairdresser knew for sure.  Five thousand wasted words, because in the final novel of the Triptych, which takes place just a few weeks later, she’s suddenly ash blonde, and Parker doesn’t say one word about that when he sees her.  Okay, it’s Parker, why would he care, wolves being colorblind and all.

Is Stark messing with the heads of his faithful longtime readers?  Westlake, in truth, never cared all that much about matters follicular himself–to the point of sometimes describing this or that character as having ‘hair-colored’ hair.  He doubtless had been asked by some readers whether Claire was blonde or brunette, as most of his female love interests had been in the past. Only redhead I can think of offhand in the Westlake canon is Jigger Jackson, from the ill-starred Who Stole Sassi Manoon?

I saw one exchange where a fan asked Westlake why Parker had started out as a blonde, then had dark hair–but that reader was just responding to the early cover art, since none of the books ever described Parker’s coif that way–it did seem to get darker over time.  As did that of the author himself.  Childhood photos of him show a tow-headed boy, adult photos show a man with hair both dark and rapidly thinning –it’s an Irish thing, as me and one of my sisters can attest–we were both born blondes.  We didn’t stay blonde.  (Maybe because we got smarter.)  I went from blonde to brown to salt & pepper.  Sis was a redhead by choice, last I saw her.  It’s just hair.

Point is, by starting to define Claire a bit more, after decades of letting us (and the cover artists) imagine her, Stark is making her less of an ideal.  She’s going to start coming into focus more and more during this and the final book–leading to some questions about the long-term stability of her arrangement with Parker.  She’s now freely discussing a job with him, before it’s even pulled–she never used to want to hear a word about what Parker did to earn their living.  But that’s been changing for some time now.  Like everything else in Parker’s world.  Except Parker himself.  He adapts.  It’s not the same thing.

The third thing about that scene with Claire is the important thing–the guy who called looking for Harbin.  Who is dead, you should recall.  Parker does.  Not long after that, the guy calls again.

“I’m looking for Harbin.”  The voice was gravelly and a little false; not as though he was trying to sound tougher, but softer.

“Which Harbin would that be?”

“The Harbin from Cincinnati.”

“Don’t know the guy, sorry.”

“Hey, wait a minute, I think you can help me.”

“I don’t.”

“From your phone number, I got a pretty good idea of your general geographical location.  I can get up into that northwest corner of New Jersey in, say, an hour.  Give me directions to your place, we can talk it over.”

“There’s nothing to talk about.”

“I just don’t want to leave a stone unturned here,” said the gravelly voice, sliding back and forth between menace and gentleness.  “I’m the kind of guy, I’m dogged, I just keep coming.”

People who tell Parker they know where he lives tend to end up going, but there’s no point telling this guy that.  He obviously knows he’s living life dangerously.  He plays a little game of tag, agreeing to meet the guy at a gas station by the Delaware Water Gap, having no intention of keeping the appointment, not expecting the mystery caller to do so either, but figuring he can spot the dark red Chevy Suburban the guy said he was driving.  (Parker’s driving a Lexus himself, but he didn’t mention that over the phone.)

Whoever is behind this, they know about surveillance.  Parker never sees the Suburban, but he still gets followed back home–spots the tail, black Honda, tall good looking blonde woman inside.  Like the wolf he is, he tries to double back, lead them away from the den, from his mate, but no good.  He finally parks, and waits for the mystery caller to identify himself.

Parker’s heeled, Beretta Jetfire .25, a handgun smaller than most hands (but look at all the movies it’s had cameos in).  Parker never did go in for ostentation much. Nor has he ever been much inclined to mince words.

Parker showed him the Beretta.  “One step back; I don’t want blood on the car.”

The guy took the step back, but he also gave a surprised laugh and stuck his hands up in the referee’s time-out signal, saying, “Hold on, pal, it’s too late for that.”

Too late?  Parker rested the Beretta on the windowsill, his eyes on the other’s eyes and hands, and waited.

The guy nodded toward the supermarket.  “Sandra’s already been on the horn with the DMV.  Claire Willis, East Shore Road, Colliver’s Pond, New Jersey Oh-eight-nine-eight-nine.  Why don’t you wanna have a nice little talk?”

“You’re not law,” Parker said.

The guy shook his head.  “Never said I was.”

Being with a partner, running a license through Motor Vehicles, having all the time in the world for a stakeout, not particularly impressed by the sight of a handgun.  “You’re a bounty hunter.”

“You got it in one, my friend,” the guy said, grinning, proud of either himself or Parker.  “If you’re not gonna blow my head off, I can reach in my jacket pocket for my card case, give you my card.”

“Go ahead.”

“Not that a Beretta like that’s gonna blow anybody’s head off, the guy said, reaching into his jacket, coming out with a card case.  “Though it would make a dent, I give you that.”

Roy Keenan Associates.  Sandra’s the associate, and Roy mentions she packs a S&W 357.  Parker could try getting her too, with his dinky little rod, but wouldn’t it be easier to talk?

There’s a big government reward out on Harbin, which Keenan can collect just as well by proving Harbin’s dead.  We still do that dead or alive thing?  I thought that was just Steve McQueen.  Googled around, seems to be a bit of a grey area–you can’t shoot the guy in the back and drag him in, no legalized murder, but you can bring in a dead body to collect, as long as you didn’t plug the guy in the back. If he resists, and you shoot him, you get paid.  Somebody else shoots him and you dig him up, same deal.  Keenan would take that deal all day long.

Keenan’s got Dalesia’s name as well, and perhaps a few other names from that ill-fated card game the book began with.  He doesn’t know much of anything else–like Parker strangling Harbin with his tie–or he wouldn’t be this close.  He tells Parker he’s not giving up until he finds Harbin, or Harbin’s corpse.  Parker figures there’s no point mentioning the third option and leaves.

He calls Dalesia, to warn him, only to hear yet more bad news.  Jake’s been shot in the leg.  He’s in the hospital, which was part of the plan, but there’s cops asking him questions, which wasn’t.  One of those cops is also a good-looking blonde, who we’ll meet next week.  See, you mention a woman being blonde in a crime  novel.  There’s three blondes in this one.  All of them trouble.  Well, that’s a crime fiction thing too.

That finishes Part One.  We’re over 5,000 words.  I actually have enough cover images to make this a four-parter, if I want.  Nobody runs forever, you say?  Try and stop me, coppers!

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark