Tag Archives: Bayonne NJ

Review: Dirty Money, Part 3

hunter_germany_1

Parker took the Bobcat from his pocket and put it on the table, then left it there with his hands resting on the tabletop to both sides, not too close.  “That’s who I am,” he said.  “You Oscar’s brother?”

The guy stared at the gun, not afraid of it, but as though waiting to see it move.  “No,” he said, not looking up.  “I got no brothers named Oscar.”

“Well, how important is Oscar to you, then?  Important enough to die for?”

Now the guy did meet Parker’s eyes, and his own were scornful.  “The only thing you’re gonna shoot off in here is your mouth,” he said.  “You don’t want a lotta noise to wake the dog.”

Parker picked up the Bobcat and pushed its barrel into the guy’s sternum, just below the rib cage.  “In my experience,” he said, “with a little gun like this, a body like yours makes a pretty good silencer.”

The money inside the boxes was all banded into stacks of fifty bills, always of the same denomination.  The bands, two-inch-wide strips of pale yellow paper, were marked DEER HILL BANK, DEER HILL, MA.  The stacks made a tight fit inside the boxes.

It turned out to be easiest to dump a box over, empty the money onto the floor of the van, and then stuff it all into the Hefty bags.  The emptied box, with its cover restored, would be stacked with the others in the bed of the pickup.

As they worked, McWhitney said, “It’s a pity about this stuff.  Look how beautiful it is.”

“It’ll tempt you,” Parker said.  “But it’s got a disease.”

April 27th, 2008.  Not quite three years shy of a half century from when Donald Westlake first showed Lawrence Block a draft of The Hunter, Richard Stark got his last New York Times book review, courtesy of Marilyn Stasio.

The nice thing about the rather nasty stories Richard Stark (a k a Donald E. Westlake) writes about a career criminal named Parker is that none of the significant characters is ever innocent. Which is why it’s so easy to laugh when their intricate schemes begin to unravel, as happened in “Nobody Runs Forever” after Parker’s gang stashed the loot from a bank job in the choir loft of an abandoned country church — and couldn’t get it out. Although he’s still being pursued by the vigilant detective Gwen Reversa and the odd reporter, Parker gives criminality another shot in DIRTY MONEY (Grand Central, $23.99), under pressure from Sandra Loscalzo, an aggressive bounty hunter who’s even less trustworthy than the killers and con men she stalks for a living. Everyone in this merry misadventure ends up at Bosky Rounds, a quaint bed-and-breakfast that looks like the cover art for Yankee magazine — something to bear in mind on leaf-peeping excursions to picturesque New England villages.

Sometimes I’ve wondered if Stasio was reading the same books as me, but no two people have ever read the same book, any more than one person reads the same book twice.  (I come from the Heraclitus school of book reviewing).

Me, I don’t think Stark, at any time, is encouraging us to laugh at Parker–with him, maybe.  To sport a rueful grin at how the best laid plans of wolves and men gang aft agley, absolutely.  That goes with the territory. That’s what the heist subgenre is all about, going back to The Asphalt Jungle, or if you please, Jason and the Argonauts.

But if that grin doesn’t come with a glimmer of recognition as to how this insight applies just as much to us and our ostensibly more honest endeavors, you sure haven’t learned much from these books.  I’m all for entertainment, but entertainment that doesn’t on some level enlighten probably isn’t worth the time it took to peruse.  I mean, unless you’re planning to live forever.

Stasio couldn’t know that this was the last we’d hear from Richard Stark, that Donald E. Westlake would be dead in a little over eight months.  He sure wasn’t making any plans to live forever.  But he was making plans.   Right to the end.

I agree with her that nobody in these novels is ever innocent–and how many in real life ever are?  I’m not.  Why, may I ask, are so many innocent people enjoying stories about murder, mayhem, vengeance, betrayal and pillage?  And I don’t just mean on cable news.  Or in the bible.

I don’t rule out that there’s truly innocent people in the world, or at least truly good people, but doesn’t seem to me they’d constitute much of an audience.  Whether they were shelling out thirty-five cents for The Hunter in ’62, or $23.99 for Dirty Money in ’08, the publisher would go bankrupt if the readership was composed of saints.

No, I think the enduring popularity of these books attests to the fact that we know (and the saints most of all)  that we’re none of us all that innocent, and we’re still waiting nervously for some kind of law to catch up with us, and it will, never fear.  (My money’s on thermodynamics.)

But in the meantime, we’ve still got plans.  Most of which don’t work out half so well as Parker’s.  Truth is, Ms. Stasio, we’re not laughing at him at all.  We’re envying him.  His coolness under pressure, his lack of envy, fear, prejudice, treachery.  His matter-of-fact reaction to every setback, coupled with a determination to find the problem and fix it.  His patience.  His pragmatism.  His perseverance.  In short, his professionalism.

It seems perverse to say out loud, but these books have been at least as much about virtue as vice.  Whatever you do in life, do it well, as if how you perform your chosen task matters no less than your compensation for performing it, if indeed you get any.  Most of us don’t have such exciting jobs as Parker, to be sure.  But hey, we get retirement plans and health insurance.  Some of us.  For now.

If we’re laughing at anyone in these books, it’s those of inferior professionalism, or none at all.  Comparing their garrulous gamesmanship to the taciturn protagonist who is playing at nothing, because life isn’t a game, and neither is death.  That’s been the point of Parker, all along.  Made better in some books than others, and this last book is far from the best, but that’s because the professional behind them all is starting to lose his grip on the wheel.  Yet he refuses to call it a day.  He’ll know it’s time to lay down tools when the whistle blows.  Not before.

This is a flawed faltering book at points, but compelling all the same, like the twenty-three before it.  In Part Four, feeling the law closing in on him, that part of Westlake that is Richard Stark produces what I’d call, on reflection, a tightly-focused novella within a novel–to close out the day’s work.  Laying the groundwork for more books, that we’ll never read, because the whistle blew.  In Mexico.  And wouldn’t you know I’d get to this one during Dia de los MuertasHay más tiempo que vida.  Adelante.

Part Four opens with Parker checking to see if anybody picks up at Julius Norte’s number in Florida–the guy who did such a good job making him into Daniel Parmitt, in Flashfire.  He’s dead, of course, but maybe somebody else is doing the high-end ID work there now?  Nope.  That office is closed.

He reaches Ed Mackey, through channels of course–Mackey doesn’t have a direct phone number.  (Remind us again why Parker does?)  Mackey gets back to him at the good old gas station phone booth near Colliver Pond, and hey, does this gas station have free road maps and a uniformed attendant who chirps “Fillerup?” and then he cleans your windshield?  Because if they’ve got an actual working phone booth, really should make the whole retro experience complete.

Mackey isn’t working for the time being–says Brenda wants him to stay home (what happened in Breakout might be leaning both of them in the direction of semi-retirement, but it’s nothing definite).   Parker says he just wants to know if Mackey knows anybody else as good as Norte.  Mackey says he’ll ask around, and a day later, he’s got the name of a guy outside Baltimore, who seems well-regarded in their circle.  Kazimierz Robbins.  Not a name you hear every day.

He fronts as an artist.  You call him, tell him you need a portrait painted.  You mention a name of somebody he knows, and it’s understood–you want a special portrait.  A new identity.  And for that, you really do need an artist.  Though there has probably never been anyone less sympathetic to the artistic temperament than Parker.

“You understand, my studio is not in my home.”

“Okay.”

“I use the daylight hours to do my work.  Artificial light is no good for realistic painting.”

“Okay.”

“These clumpers and streakers, they don’t care what the color is.  But I care.”

“That’s good.”

“So my consultations are at night, not to interfere with my work.  I return to my studio to discuss the client’s needs.  Could you come here tonight?”

“Tomorrow night.”

“That is also good.  Would nine o’clock be all right for you?”

“Yes.”

“Excellent.  And when you come here, sir, what is your name?”

“Willis.”

“Willis.” There was a hint of “v” in the name.  “We will see you then, Mr. Willis,” he said, and gave the address.

After that, he talks to Meany, at Cosmopolitan Beverages, about the deal that will make it possible for Parker to pay for his new identity and still have something left to live on.  The big boss, Joseph Albert, has okayed it.  They need to see a sample of the cash–say ten thousand, just to make sure this is the bank money.  Parker says fine, but they’ll pay one thousand to see the ten thousand, because that’s the deal.

He calls McWhitney, tells him to make the exchange, gives him the contact info, hangs up.  He’s made all these calls from that same gas station phone booth.  You’d think somebody there would notice what a regular customer he is.  At some point, he needs to upgrade more than just his ID.  Payphones can be tapped, particularly if you keep using the same one. (Also, how come he never hears a voice telling him he has to cough up more quarters?  Even the phone company is afraid to ask him for money.)

Claire has to drive him to see Robbins.  He lives in a small town called Vista, which does not exist, near Gunpowder Falls State Park, which does.  His studio is in a space that used to be a hardware store. Robbins is there, older, arthritic, tall, thin, slightly bent–Stark tells us he looks like a praying mantis.  Claire opts to stay in the car, but Robbins notices her, says it’s well she did not enter, since beautiful women are always a distraction to him.  He tells Parker to call him Robbins, since he dislikes hearing Americans mangle his first and true name.

As they walked down the long room, on an old floor of wide pine planks, Parker said, “Why didn’t you change the first name?”

“Ego,” Robbins said, and motioned for Parker to sit.  “Many are Robbins,, or my original name, Rudzik, but from earliest childhood Kazimierz has been me.”  Also sitting, he leaned forward onto his knees, peered at Parker, and said, “Tell me what you can.”

“I no longer have an identity,” Parker said, “that’s safe from the police.”

“Fingerprints?”

“If we’re at the point of fingerprints,” Parker said, “it’s already too late.  I need papers to keep me from getting that far.”

“And how secure must these be?” He gave a little finger wave and said, “What I mean is, you want more than a simple forged driver’s license.”

“I want to survive a police computer,” Parker said.  “I don’t have a passport; I want one.”

“A legitimate passport.”

“Everything legitimate.”

Robbins leaned back.  “Nothing is impossible,” he said.  “But everything is expensive.”

“I know that.”

Robbins says it will cost two hundred thousand dollars.  Cash.  Parker figured that would be about it.  Half in advance, of course.  And even the former Mr. Rudzik (a Polish name) is surprised to learn Parker brought the cash with him.  “You are serious!” he exclaims.  Well, yeah.

So Robbins is Polish, he grew up under communism, learned his trade well, still has contacts over there.  Infant mortality under communism was higher than Marx and Lenin would have liked to believe.  So he can find some short-lived boy, born around the same time as Parker, give Parker the identity the child never had the chance to use himself.  A cover story must be concocted to explain why Parker has no eastern European accent (ever wondered what accent he does have?)

He’ll apply for a Social Security card–protective coloration–one is reminded how Joe Sheer laughed for days when he got his card in the mail, for a name he’d made up. He laughed hard, but not long.

To get all this done, to make the new identity stick, he’ll need to pose as a Canadian representative of an American company.  Which means he’ll need to work with Cosmopolitan Beverages again.  Getting to be a habit.  He gives Robbins Meany’s phone number (Robbins would have preferred his email).  Parker and Claire have worked out a new first name for him, and Robbins will attend to the family name.

He goes out and gets the duffel–presumably the same one Tom Lindahl picked up at a mall in upstate New York.  Full of cash from a racetrack.  Parker’s entire share of that job.  He’s going all in on this.  He passes portraits of celebrities Robbins has painted, from photographs we assume, to maintain the front.  They all look guarded, watchful.

That’s Saturday.  Monday, he’s driving to Bayonne, home of Cosmopolitan Beverages, and Stark has a positive genius for capturing the inimitable ambience of that highly scenic locale, but we’ve covered that already in Firebreak.  He’s driving himself this time, since it’s a short hop.  He passes somebody with a bumper sticker saying DRIVE IT LIKE YOU STOLE IT, which to Parker means drive so the law won’t notice you.

He doesn’t have an appointment, but he’s never stood on ceremony when it comes to mobsters of any stripe.  The guy at the reception desk tries to give him the brush off, and Parker doesn’t hit him, just tosses the kid’s copy of Maxim on the floor, so it’s not as if he hasn’t acquired a modicum of social veneer.

He and Meany are still sparring whenever they meet.  Meany’s going to enjoy this bout in particular.

Meany said, “What can I do for you today?”

“You liked the sample.”

“It’s very nice money,” Meany said.  “Too bad it’s radioactive.”

“Do you still want to buy the rest of it?”

“If we can work out delivery,” Meany said.  “I got no more reason to trust you than you got to trust me.”

“You could give us reason to trust each other,” Parker said.

Meany gave him a sharp look.  “Is this something new?”

“Yes. How that money came to me, things went wrong.”

Meany’s smile was thin, but honestly amused. “I got that idea,” he said.

“At the end of it,” Parker told him, “my ID was just as radioactive as that money.”

“That’s too bad,” Meany said, not sounding sympathetic.  “So you’re a guy now can’t face a routine traffic stop, is that it?”

“I can’t do anything,” Parker told him.  “I’ve got to build a whole new deck.”

“I don’t get why you’re telling me all this.”

“For years now,” Parker told him, “I’ve been working for your office in Canada.”

Meany sat back, ready to enjoy the show. “Oh yeah?  That was you?”

“A guy named Robbins is gonna call you, ask for some employment records.  I know you do this kind of thing, you’ve got zips, you’ve got different kinds of people your payroll office doesn’t know a thing about.”

“People come into the country, people go back out of the country,” Meany said, and shrugged.  “It’s a service we perform.  They gotta have a good-looking story.”

“So do I.”

Meany wants to know why he’d agree to this.  Parker says it’s a finder’s fee, for bringing him this nice little bump in corporate earnings for the fiscal year.  If Meany won’t help him out, he can go to somebody else in Bayonne with all that nice money.  Cosmopolitan doesn’t have a monopoly on this kind of thing.

And why should this arrangement cultivate trust between them, Meany wants to know.

“You’re gonna know my new straight name,” Parker pointed out. “And how I got it.  So then we’ve both been  useful to each other, so we have a little more trust for each other.  And I know, if sometime you decide you don’t like me, you could wreck me.”

“I don’t like you.”

“We’ll try to live with that,” Parker said.

It’s a deal, if not quite an amicable one.  As to the exchange, two million in crisp new bank notes for two hundred thousand in more experienced money Parker & Co. can actually spend, Parker says they’ll use the ferry between Orient Point and New London.  Meany’s guy drives onto it with the 200k, somebody else drives if off the ferry, he rides back and forth until the car comes back with the two mil.  Parker can’t get his new ID if Meany doesn’t get the bank money.

(This creates a new level of vulnerability, as Parker noted.  He’s compromising his independent status, and with the very type of organization he’s fought two bloody wars with in past. But, you could argue, Meany already sent a hit man to the house at Colliver Pond, a few years back. He’s already got a handle on Parker, if he wants to  use it.

If Parker can abandon the house, as he might yet have to do, he can abandon a burned identity, and he has, many times before.  Meany knows from personal experience that if you shoot at Parker, you only get to miss once.  He was lucky to survive the last time. And he might have use for Parker in future.  But still–it’s a compromise Parker has never had to make before.  To even pretend to be somebody’s employee.  It’s hard to see how this ends well, but we’ll never see how it ends.)

Parker goes back to Claire, and gets some more money from one of the empty summer houses he uses as safe deposit boxes.  We’re told more than half the money from the racetrack heist is spent–come again?  Parker and Lindahl got a bit under 200k from Gro-More.  Lindahl packed the duffels, while Parker dealt with complications.  Tom was in a hurry, no time to count it out, but it’s hard to figure he would have given Parker much more than half the score, and Parker just gave Robbins 100k. Well, I mentioned the creative accounting already.  I make far worse errors when I’m tired. Some people don’t need to be tired to make fatal errors.

Claire tells Parker McWhitney left a message on their machine–reading between the lines, he’s calling for help.  Oscar Sidd is back, and McWhitney has the money.  If he doesn’t get there soon, the entire deal is shot.  He can feel this pushing the button in his head, the one that makes him kill, but he holds it in check.  He can’t afford a war right now.  But there’s going to be a skirmish.

He just wants a ride to the city, but Claire insists on driving him to Long Island–have to get to the bar before it closes.  He tells her to drop him off a block away.  She tells him she’ll have dinner in Manhattan, maybe catch a late movie, and he can call her cell if he needs anything.  It’s becoming increasingly clear Parker is the only person he knows who doesn’t have a cellphone yet.

He’s come heeled, but with his usual minimalist flair.  The final gun image.

Beretta_Model_21_In_Hand

(Beretta Bobcat .22, fires seven shots, weights twelve ounces.  Considered a ladies gun in some circles. Parker never moved in those circles.  Keeps it in a box of Bisquick.  Well, that tracks.  Imagine, if you will, how small it would look in his hand.  Just a tool to him.  Second Amendment?  What’s that?)

The bar is called McW, and it’s never been a runaway success, which is why the man it’s named after keeps resorting to armed robbery.  Parker can see some guys waiting outside in a Chevy Tahoe.  Waiting for the bar to close.  He wants to go over there and start shooting.  He controls it. He goes inside.

Other than McWhitney, there were four men in the bar.  On two stools toward the rear were a pair of fortyish guys in baseball caps, unzippered vinyl jackets, baggy jeans with streaks of plaster dust, and paint-streaked work boots; construction men extending the after-work beer a little too long, by the slow-motion way they talked and lifted their glasses and nodded their heads.

Closer along the bar was an older man in a snap-brim hat and light gray topcoat over a dark suit, with a small pepper-and-salt dog curled up asleep under the stool beneath him as he nursed a bronze-colored drink in a short squat glass and slowly read the New York Sun; a dog walker with an evening to kill.

(That could be me, except for the topcoat, the suit, the snap-brim hat, and I generally prefer a big dog.  Anyway, they don’t let dogs inside the bars in New York anymore.  And I wouldn’t use the Sun to wrap fish, even if it still existed outside cyberspace.  But there’s a time-stamp for you, if you care–that ill-fated rag started up in April 2002, folded a few months before Westlake did.  We already knew this story began after 9/11.  Not long after, going by the rapid response to the bank heist.  Fall of ’02 at the earliest, ’03 at the latest.  That’s where this Triptych begins and ends.)

Parker sees a heavy-set guy sitting alone at a table, in a tweed sports jacket, nursing a glass of club soda.  He’s not making it hard.  Parker tells Nelson he’ll have a beer, and sits down across from the guy.  You can see their initial exchange up top.  You can imagine how it would feel to have an angry Parker staring at you across a table, then shoving a gun into your ribs.  If the guy doesn’t wet himself, it’s only because he’s not drinking beer.

McWhitney comes over, and Parker tells him to take the guy’s gun out of his coat–a .357 Glock.  Size doesn’t matter, if you don’t know how to use it.  Or when.

The inside man being neutralized, McWhitney closes up.  When the coast is clear, Parker goes outside to the Tahoe, and shoots Oscar Sidd dead with the Glock.  The two guys with him decline to take exception to this.  Parker goes back inside, tells the heavy-set man that Oscar’s lying outside with a slug from his gun in him; he might want to do something about that, in case the cops show up.

Parker asks to use McWhitney’s phone, and calls Claire’s cell.  With bridge & tunnel traffic what it is, she’s probably not even  halfway to the city.  Tells her to come back, they’ll have dinner in the area, spend the night.  He’s not angry anymore.  (Horny, one would guess, but Claire can attend to that.)

Next morning, Parker goes to the bar, which is closed, but Nels is there anyway.  He’s reading the Daily News (that’s still around).  Also watching the TV news.  They just found Nick’s body in MA (and a few boxes of cash hidden under hymnals, though they don’t mention that).  So basically, Part Four has all been one long final Stark Rewind.  And it’s not done yet.

Nels is nervous.  About the hymn books he still has, about the truck with Holy Redeemer Choir painted on it, about anything that could link him to what happened over there.  So they deal with all that.  The gent who painted the words on the van is just as happy to paint them out again, no questions asked.  They pack the cash in Hefty bags, and the time passes amicably.  Time to get to the ferry soon.  Five chapters left.

McWhitney didn’t like they were bringing Sandra in for the exchange, but Parker wants somebody on their team who Meany’s people don’t already know about.  He doesn’t say out loud that she’s smarter and more effective than Nels, but that goes without saying at this point. It also helps that they have each others’ cell numbers, and again, Sandra warns of a tail–Oscar’s dead, but the people he brought in as back up aren’t ready to give up yet.

The exchange on the ferry goes fine.  Much smoother than a different mob-related exchange on an elevated subway platform–how many years ago?  Just about forty, going by the calendar, but Parker never paid much attention to those.

Job’s finally done.  They’ve got 200k in cash they can spend.  Parker can get his new ID stamped by Cosmopolitan.  Nels can just tend bar for a while (and maybe become Parker’s new mailbox?)  Sandra can wait for her reward money for Harbin’s body, and spend quality time with her girlfriend on Cape Cod.  And you didn’t think it would be that easy, did you?  Not after twenty-four novels.  Three chapters left.

McWhitney has the cash, and figuring to throw the hounds off the trail, says he’ll drive to his place the long way around from Connecticut, while Parker and Sandra take the ferry back to Long Island, and give Meany’s guy his Subaru with the bank money, completing the transaction.  Since the other guys are on the ferry, waiting their chance–oh damn–they got off.  They’re going after Nels.  And they still think he’s got millions.

McWhitney’s not answering his cell.  Sandra’s disgusted, ready to give up.  But there’s one possible way to track these guys–both the Chevy SUVs they used had dealer plates.  They’ve got an in with a dealership.  And Sandra always writes down the license number of any car that takes her interest.  Professional habit.  And she’s got contacts at the DMV.  DeRienzo Chevrolet, Long Island Avenue, Deer Park.

They’ll go over there, have some more diner food, maybe talk a bit more about frozen lakes, and wait for the Chevy to get dropped off.

Sandra frowned at the slow-moving traffic all around the.  They wouldn’t get clear of this herd from the ferry for another half hour or more, when they reached the beginning of the Expressway.  “You’re a strange guy to partner with,” she said.

“So are you.”

“Do me a favor.  Don’t kill anybody.”

“We’ll see.”

This dialogue’s a little too playful, too odd couple buddy action movie for me–Parker as played by Bruce Willis or George Clooney, Sandra maybe Michelle Pfeiffer or Kim Basinger–but hey, that could be fun.  Two chapters left.

When they go into the dealership, they pose as a married couple, looking for a family car, and you know Sandra’s the one selling it.  But seriously, how is this a place some two-bit wiseguys would be able to just show up and and borrow brand new rides with dealer plates to commit crimes with?  Let me just Google ‘organized crime, car dealerships, Long Is–man, that wasn’t hard at all.

Half a dozen car dealers were clustered along both sides of the wide road in this neighborhood, all of them proclaiming, either by banner or by neon sign, OPEN TIL 9!  All the dealerships were lit up like football stadiums, and in that glare the sheets of glass and chrome they featured all sparkled like treasure chests.  This was the heart of car country, servicing the afterwork automotive needs of the bedroom communities.

(And certain other communities, but they don’t put that in the TV ads.)

They wait around almost an hour before the Chevy Suburban shows, and much to their surprise, Nelson’s in the car, still alive.  Parker, the great detective, making his last bow, figures it out.  Sidd told them it was two million bucks.  Nels only had 200k.  They want him to tell them where the rest is.

Here’s the one problem with Sandra.  For all her talk before about how there’s no street, no line for her to cross, she still got raised respectably enough to go to college, she’s at least as much cop as crook, and she doesn’t want to cross the line between crook and killer, if she can help it.  She’d rather just watch the rough stuff, like she did the night of the armored car heist, then pitch in, and lose her cherry.  At some point, she’s going to have to choose, but for the present, Parker tells her to get the car.

McWhitney, no maiden he, makes his move before he sees Parker and Sandra, hitting two of the three guys, and going for the second one’s pistol (this is the same portly guy from the other night, who Parker humiliated–same gun too). The driver fires his gun in the air.  The salesman starts yelling “Not the model!”

Parker grazes the ear of the bulky guy with the Bobcat, McWhitney shoots one of his captors with the captured Glock, gets in the Suburban and drives.  Sandra picks up Parker in her Honda, and they leave, with the salesman still screaming about the damn model.  McWhitney’s headed back to his bar, probably still having no idea who just saved his ass.

They follow, but they don’t know Long Island that well, and may be the last to arrive on the scene.  If you’ve ever been to Long Island, this is totally believable.

Final chapter.  Up ahead of them, Nelson gets out of sight in the traffic.  Behind them, Parker spots the two remaining hoods in their own car (their deal with the dealership is presumably shot to hell, much like the dealership itself).  They seem to be taking a shortcut, and now all Parker and Sandra can do, without the aid of GPS, is get to the bar soon as they can, hope it’s not too late.

It’s all dark on the block when they get there.  The Suburban is parked outside.   The place is locked up, but Sandra’s got a set of lockpicks.  She took a class. Bit out of practice, but she gets them in.  They creep through cautiously, and they can hear Nels being interrogated.  If that’s the word.  Their idea seems to be ‘make him tell us where the  rest of the money is, tell him we’ll give him a share, then his share is a bullet.’  Nels isn’t that dumb.  He passes out.

One of them goes out to get water to revive him, Parker clubs him with the Bobcat, which for all its virtues, isn’t the right tool for that task.  Violence follows.  You’ve seen it before. Sandra tells Parker not to kill anyone if he doesn’t have to.  He already knows that, but guess what?

The bulky guy’s name is apparently Mike.  You know, the one Parker told at the bar that a fat body makes a good silencer if you press the gun right up against it. Right again. Good to know. The other one’s tied up.  Less than two pages left.  One last quote.

“Let’s see what Nels looks like.”

He didn’t look good, but he looked alive, and even groggily awake.  The two guys working him over had been eager but not professional, which meant they could bruise him and make him hurt, but couldn’t do more permanent damage unless they accidentally kiled him.  For instance, he still had all his fingernails.

Parker lifted him to his feet, saying “Can you walk?”

“Uuhh.  Where…”

With Parker’s help, McWhitney walked slowly toward the bedroom, as Parker told him, “One of them’s dead in the bar, the other one’s alive right there.  Tomorrow, you can deal with them both.  Right now, you lie down.  Sandra and me’ll split the money and get out of here.”

He helped McWhitney to lie back on the bed, then said to Sandra, “If we do this right, you can get me to Claire’s place by two in the morning.”

“What a good person I am.”

“If you leave me here,” the guy on the floor said, “he’ll kill me tomorrow morning.”

Parker looked at him. “So you’ve still got tonight,” he said.

That’s right.  And that’s all.

So many more questions than answers here.

Greg and I were sort of going round and round in the comments section about this one.  It doesn’t feel like a finale.  So many balls still in the air, many of which only got up there in the very last part of the book.  So yes, it does feel like there’s much more coming.  This dance is not done.

But that final line.  That feels like somebody who knows he’s writing on borrowed time.  And the loan’s about to come due.  And the repo man is parked outside.  That’s how it feels.  That’s how it’s supposed to feel.

Butcher’s Moon was one of the greatest finishes any series ever had, and I don’t just mean crime novels, and I don’t just mean print fiction, and I’m not sure I even need the qualifier.  (And yet, decades later, came eight more novels, and I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on one of them, even Flashfire.)  And Westlake always said he never meant Butcher’s Moon to be the last one.  It was the last one until the next one, is all.

This finish, by contrast, is quite tame and uncertain by comparison.  And yet it feels more final, if only because we know–it’s the last one.  And we can only decide for ourselves how the story ends, or if.  Abrupt inconclusive conclusions were a Westlake trademark, that Stark shared with him, and this is no exception.

I see Sandra driving Parker back to Colliver Pond.  They head down the LIE (I didn’t pick that acronym), threading the needle through the heart of the city Donald Westlake first saw light in, until they past the sign saying “Last Exit in New York.”  You miss that turn-off, and guess what?  You’re on the George Washington Bridge.  Next stop New Jersey.

Parker’s eyes are dark, unreadable.  What is he thinking about?  Is he remembering a different trip across that bridge?   Back when he couldn’t afford a car?  But you know, probably not.  You or I would be remembering, so we project that on him.  We think we’re identifying with him.  We think it’s the same thing.

The lights of the city recede behind them, as they head into the northwestern corner of that very misunderstood state.  The sign says “Welcome To Sussex County” and before long they’re at the house.  Claire’s outlined in the doorway as they pull up.  Sandra called her cell.

A brief friendly chat, an offer of sustenance passed up, and Sandra’s headed back to her own Claire, on Cape Cod, with her share.  Her cherry still intact, but for how much longer?  Domesticated on the outside, wild on the inside.  How you gonna keep her down on the farm, now that she’s seen Paree?

Claire and Parker talk softly, and she goes inside.  He puts his split in the garage–Robbins will be getting most of it soon. He’ll need that new identity. He’ll need to work again before long. If he had a billion dollars, he’d still need to work. It’s who he is. It’s what he is. It’s all he is.

He goes out back, to look out on the lake.  It’s the middle of the night, dead quiet, no birds or crickets chirping in the cold.  He hears a rustle by the lakeshore, his eyes, quickly adjusted to the darkness, pick up a shape moving towards him.

Four legs. Bushy tail. Long pointed snout. Two sharp-pointed ears. Two yellow eyes, picking up the ambient light, shining at him. Sharp teeth. Grinning at him. He grins back.  They converse. Without words. Only humans need words.

 

How’s the hunting been on your side?

Not bad.  Just ate a cat.  Easy kill.  House pet.  I think maybe they turned it loose before they left. Where do they go in the winter, anyway?

Oh, other places.  Cities.  Full of light and noise.  Some of your folk are there too.  You’re better off here, I think.  

No doubt.  But you have to make a living, wherever you are.   You back from a hunt?

Yeah.  A hard one.  Complicated.  It’s always complicated with them.  They don’t know anything about themselves.  But they think they know everything.

Tell me about it.  You think they’ll last much longer? 

Maybe not.  

I, for one, would not miss them.  But I’d miss their cats. And the little dogs. Tasty.

Saw one just the other day you’d have enjoyed.  The big ones can be dangerous, though.

Yeah, I avoid them. Best be on my way. My mate’s waiting.

Mine too.  Good hunting.

Any hunt you survive is good.

That’s right.

 

They grin again, and the shape fades into the trees.  Parker walks to the back porch door, opens it, is about to go inside.

Then he turns.  He looks around.  Looks right in our direction.  Oh God. He can see us.

He studies us a moment.  He’s thinking to himself. Deciding whether we need to die or not.  Are we a threat?  Nah.  Harmless.  We just like to watch.

There’s amusement in his gaze. Maybe more like contempt.

I hope you people had fun with your words.  No more words now.  Good Night.

And for the very last time, he shuts the door in our faces.

Postscript: That cover image up top, below the two German editions for this book, is the first German edition of The Hunter.  Title translates to Now We’re Even.  Sehr gut! Though personally, I never saw Parker as Cary Grant.  Which begs a question, I suppose.  How do we see him?  Who do we cast in the movie playing in our heads?

Before I get to the next book in our queue–the last book in our queue–why don’t we talk about that a bit.  After all, we still have tonight.

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Firebreak, Part 2

West of the Holland Tunnel, the Turnpike Extension rides high over the Jersey flats, where garbage and construction debris and used Broadway sets and failed mobsters have been buried for a hundred years.  Arthur drove, with Parker and Rafe behind him on the backseat.  Rafe had nothing to say until Arthur took one of the steep twisty ramps down from the Extension into the industrial wasteland of the flats.  Then, not looking at Parker, he said “I’d like to live through this.”

“Everybody would,” Parker said

Take me home–to Bayonne
To the place–that I call home!
Jersey City!–By the turnpike–
Underneath–
Exit 14-G!

Mark Russell, parodying John Denver, and getting the exit number wrong, but the aggrieved writer of that linked Times article got his lyric wrong, so they’re even.

Writers of crime fiction often stake out a patch of home turf to write about.  Dashiell Hammett had San Francisco, where he did most of his writing.  Raymond Chandler had L.A., and so did his prolific emulator, Ross MacDonald (though his gumshoe avoided competition from Mr. Marlowe by sticking to the ‘burbs)  San Diego had Wade Miller (the writing team of Bob Wade and Bill Miller), who dreamed up the melancholy loser Max Thursday to solve its sun-drenched mysteries.

At the other end of the country, David Goodis, who spent a short time in L.A. himself, was never more at home than when writing about his native Philadelphia and its environs, though I don’t think Philadelphians of the time necessarily appreciated the way he wrote about it (many do now, which only goes to prove that even the seamiest scenarios can seem romantic in retrospect).

Jim Thompson got around some, but his best books tend to be out there in the dry dusty southwestern states he grew up in, some panhandle or other.  John D. MacDonald more or less invented the Florida crime novel, followed by the likes of Hiaasen and (in the final years of a strange peripatetic life) Willeford. Chicago, by comparison, has a perplexing paucity of first-rate crime fiction, but it got Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, and that ain’t nothing (honestly, I haven’t read the books, so I don’t have an opinion).

Patricia Highsmith and Chester Himes, expatriates both, took different paths in their long European exiles–writing out of France and Switzerland, Highsmith transplanted New York bred Tom Ripley to the French countryside, while her one-shots mainly stayed in New York.  Himes, a Parisian by way of Missouri, dreaming of the country that had rejected him as a writer and a man, turned the metropolitan microcosm that is Harlem (which he spent a rather short period of his life in) into his own personal Dublin, ala James Joyce.  (Needless to say, there’s crime writers for Dublin as well, and plenty of real crime there to keep them busy).

But when they weren’t working their own patch, most of them wrote about New York.  When it comes to crime, New York is nobody’s turf, because it’s everybody’s turf.  One writer proved the exception to that rule, made New York (city, state, and half of New Jersey into the bargain), uniquely his own, to the point where they became not merely settings for a story, but dramatis personae in themselves.  Give you one guess.  Well, actually, you’d need at least three.  The reluctant detective agency of Westlake, Coe, and Stark.

Westlake didn’t like to confine himself too much to his patch, but he was always somehow more sure-footed when negotiating it.  Spending a few weeks in a different part of the country, or some sultry tropic clime may give a writer all kinds of ideas for stories, but it doesn’t give him/her that deep familiarity with the terrain that comes from spending the better part of a lifetime there.  You gotta know the territory, if you want to make it work for you.

I doubt Westlake spent all that much time in Florida, a state he never seemed to like very much (a big club, that includes a fair few longtime residents, but the winters are nice, and not everybody there is crazy).  And the section of it he’d have felt the least affinity for would have been Palm Beach, primary setting of Flashfire.  And that is certainly one reason Flashfire is a bit of a misfire.

But Firebreak, by comparison, is set primarily in Manhattan and North New Jersey (with a quick nod to the wintry upstate region Westlake was raised in).  He concludes the story in Montana, but such a relatively unpeopled part of the state, the need for extreme familiarity with the landscape isn’t really there.  He could have done a fair bit of his research for that part of the book with the Delorme State Atlas and Gazeteer for Montana, and no one would be the wiser.  (Plus he would have loved that it still calls itself a ‘Gazetteer’, whatever that means.  And is still printed on paper, though they’re diversifying into GPS now.)

Because Parker doesn’t like to work too close to home, his settling down with Claire in Sussex County made it harder to justify him pulling heists in and around nearby Gotham, but the main action of this book isn’t actually heist-related, and he’s really got no choice but to attend to business in both Bayonne NJ and Greenwich Village NY.  Two more disparate communities could rarely be found in such close proximity to each other (maybe six miles as the crow flies).  And yet Parker’s visit to the former leads inevitably to his grim descent upon the latter.  One of the charms of this book.  Which I’d better get back to now.

Having gotten involved in the plan to steal dot.com mogul Paxton Marino’s stolen collection of famous art from his grandiose hunting lodge in Montana, along with series perennials Frank Elkins and Ralph Wiss, Parker has discovered that their new recruit, disgraced uber-nerd Larry Lloyd, has accidentally identified Parker’s home address to old enemy (and nerdy in his own right) Paul Brock, who promptly dispatched a Russian hitman to that location, only to have the hitter be dispatched by Parker instead.  I feel fairly confident that sentence will never be typed again.

Parker has learned there’s a surveillance device in the currently vacant house in New Jersey, but to find whoever is using it, he needs a specialist.  Lloyd is elected.  Parker is reserving judgment on whether he goes on living after this job is over, but his digital acumen is necessary for the heist, and in the meantime he might as well help clean up the mess he created with Brock and (presumably) Brock’s larcenous lover, Matt Rosenstein.

To track down the base the hidden camera is broadcasting to, Lloyd will need some equipment from his house, just outside Springfield, MA.  Parker drops him off there, and drives off in Larry’s car, planning to swing around and pick him up.  A paranoid with very real enemies, Larry has his house wired for sound, and the car can pick up the audio of a conversation he’s having with some people who clearly aren’t supposed to be there and are leaning on him hard.

Parker figures the same people who sent the Russian after him sent these people after Lloyd, because they can’t find Parker.  Now does Parker give a damn what happens to Larry Lloyd?  No, but these people are grilling him about the Montana job.  Even if he doesn’t tell them anything crucial, and even if they don’t kill him (which would kill the job), he’ll be so mentally crushed by the third degree that he won’t be useful to anybody afterwards.  Parker to the rescue once again.

Parker breaks into the house just before a weeping Larry spills everything he knows.  He shoots one man in the knee, and the other jumps through a closed window to escape.  Parker’s all ready to do the old “you can dish it out but you can’t take it” routine, to find out how much these people know about him, but in a humiliation-fueled rage, Lloyd shoots the remaining hood in the head with his own gun.  It’s not like Parker didn’t already know about the Mr. Lloyd’s self-control issues.  But this nerd-on-the-bend’s chances of living to spend his share of the loot just got significantly worse.

Parker calms him down by asking him a sobering question–does he want to leave his current life on parole and go on the lam, or does he want to dispose of the body and stay put?  Larry’s not ready to be out in the wind yet, so he opts for the latter–Parker tells him how to go about getting rid of the stiff, and leaves him to it, while he takes a little nap.

It’s not often we learn anything at all about Parker’s sleeping habits.  After almost 40 years, we still don’t even know what he dreams at night, or if.  And we’re not going to find out this time either.

It wasn’t real sleep, but something close, learned a long time ago, a way to rest the body and the brain, a kind of trance, awareness of the outer world sheathed in unawareness.  The dim room remained, shades drawn over both windows, the gray-canvas-covered synthesizer in which Lloyd kept his computer equipment not so much concealed as reconfigured, the shelves and cabinets, the close door, the framed color photographs of machines, the small occasional sounds from outside the room, and the cot, narrow, with a thin mattress covered by a Canadian wool blanket in broad bands of gray and green and black that held him like a cupped hand.  Inside it, farther within it, there was nothing except the small bubbles of awareness that surfaced and surfaced and found nothing wrong.

Call it sleep mode, if you like.  Power-save?  Mind you, this type of half-waking dormancy was around a long time before electronics.  If you have a dog or cat, you’re well familiar.  Can’t say I’ve ever met a human who’d mastered it.  Wish I could.

Mr. Lloyd does okay with the corpse disposal, a point in his favor.  He thanks Parker for the help, and Parker doesn’t want thanks, of course.  He wants to go back to Colliver Pond and find out who’s watching the house.  Lloyd takes very little time to pinpoint the source–another unoccupied vacation cottage, a short distance off.  Not wanting to seem unneighborly, they go pay their respects.

It’s a double set-up.  The people the Russian worked for, Cosmopolitan Beverages (a legit business fronting for all kinds of illegal activities), sent a semi-retired former employee of theirs (strictly smalltime stuff), named Arthur Hembridge, to watch the monitor linked to the camera in Claire’s house.  If he sees a man matching Parker’s description (“A big man, hard and shaggy, with brown flat hair”–Stark tended to alternate between making Parker’s hair brown and black, and I’ve never been quite sure what he meant by ‘shaggy’),  he calls a number to report.

What he doesn’t know is that calling that number generates a signal that will automatically trigger a bomb in the house he’s watching.  What he also doesn’t know is that he and his wife blow up at the same time, removing all possible witnesses, and avoiding the need to pay him for his services.  Cute, huh?  Arthur is most amused, as you can imagine.

So after they clear up a little misunderstanding with Arthur’s wife (she panics when she wakes up and hears voices in the other room, runs to the other house, and very nearly calls that number herself before Arthur stops her), Arthur agrees to accompany Parker on a little investigation into the inner workings of Cosmopolitan Beverages.  Parker knows what he’s up against here–another version of The Outfit.  He knows how you deal with people like that.  Make them bleed.  They always have more soft spots than they think.

Lloyd will stay behind, clean up all the explosives and such.  Parker and Hembridge head for a building on Hudson Street in lower Manhattan, which is where Arthur’s former colleague Rafe Hargetty works–his successor there, the ‘friend’ who sent him on a suicide mission.  Arthur is a bit sore about this, you know.  He was a good organization man, always did what he was told, never talked out of school.  He’s sort of feeling like Cosmopolitan’s retirement package isn’t all it was cracked up to be.  We’ve all been there, or will be in future.  One way or another.  Never trust a boss.

Parker plays a variation on the game he played in the early books.  Climb the ladder, from one underling to the next, until you reach the top.  He leans hard on Rafe, who folds like the proverbial cheap suit.  Once Parker has the address where they can find Rafe’s boss, in Bayonne, they head over there.  They drop a relieved Rafe off along the way, in the midst of the industrial wasteland, far from the nearest phone, with no shoes or socks. I’m sure he turned up eventually.

Ah, Bayonne.  You know, it’s not really such a bad little town.  Some parts are downright livable.  They’re not going to any of those parts.

It’s called the Port of New York, but years ago most of the shipping businesses moved across the harbor to New Jersey, where the costs were lower and the regulations lighter: Newark, Elizabeth, Jersey City, and Bayonne are, along their waterfronts, a great sweeping tangle of piers, warehouses, gasoline storage tower, snaking rail lines, cranes, semi-tractor trailers, chain-link fences, guard shacks, and forklift trucks.  Day and night, lights glare from the tops of tall poles and the corners of warehouses.  Cargo ships ease up the channels and into the piers every hour of every day from every port in the world.  The big trucks roll eastward from the Turnpike and the cargo planes lift off from Newark International.  The thousand thousand businesses here cover every need and every want known to man.

Gentrify that, yuppies.

The receptionist at Cosmopolitan, a well-mannered young black man, is rather perturbed to have actual visitors to receive out here in the wilderness–normally he just sits there, more or less as window-dressing.  Parker identifies himself as Rafe Hargetty, and asks to see Frank Meany.  It works.  Down comes Rafe’s boss, with two goons.  He’s just a better-dressed goon himself.  Too good a physical description to skim past.  And we’ll be seeing this one again a few books from now.

He was tall and bulky, with a bruiser’s round head of close-cropped hair that fists would slide off.  He’d been dressed very carefully by a tailor, in a dark gray suit, plus pale blue dress shirt and pink-and-gold figured tie, to make him look less like a thug and more like a businessman, and it might have done a better job if the tailor’d been able to do something about that thick-jawed small-eyed face as well.  The four heavy rings he wore, two on each hand, were not for decoration.  He had a flat-footed walk, like a boxer coming out of his corner at the start of the round.

So this is the capo del tutti capo, right?  Wrong.  Just another flunky, who may have been genuinely tough once, but has been sitting behind a desk too long, wearing tailored suits.  Clothes sometimes unmake the man. Standing next to him is the thug who got away at Larry Lloyd’s house, bandaged, still bearing the marks of having gone through that window, and very unhappy at seeing Parker instead of Rafe–he reaches for his holster.

All Parker’s got is a small-caliber Beretta he took from the dead thug (the one Larry killed him with).  Not enough range and power for this situation, but just drawing it makes Meany nervous (flying bullets don’t discriminate) and he suggests they go back to the office and talk.

Parker’s never really the chatty type.  As soon as they get to the office, bunched closed together, he kills the hood with the bandages, and takes his .32 revolver.  He has Arthur take the guns from the other two.  Then he says he’s going to shoot Meany in the spine, paralyze him for life, if he doesn’t arrange for Parker to talk with his boss–not just a higher-up–one of the owners.  There’s five of them.  Meany only knows one, named Joseph Albert.

See, Meany is more than willing to call the hit on Parker off, just a misunderstanding, let bygones be bygones.  Brock does little things for them like debugging their offices so the Feds can’t listen in, plus he can make neat gizmos like remote-controlled bombs, so they did him a solid in return.  They gave him Viktor Charov’s number, so Charov could do a little freelance job for Brock.  But when Charov disappeared, and they knew Parker must have made that happen, screwed up their system, so it got personal, and they tried to do the job themselves.  Mistake.  They know that now.

But Parker isn’t buying that.  Meany isn’t the boss of anything, he’s just an employee, a soldier, so he can’t call it off.  Best way to make Cosmopolitan realize going after Parker is a poor business decision is to start sacrificing assets–like Meany.  Make him the message.  Keep killing soldiers until the generals are ready to make peace.  Meany, eager to discourage this line of strategic thinking, agrees to get Mr. Albert on the phone, stat.

The conversation has to be somewhat encoded, in case Brock missed some of the taps on their phones.  But Albert gets the gist.  He can put an end to any further attempts on Parker’s life, and tell Parker where Brock is.  Or Parker shoots Meany, and comes after him next.

Albert doesn’t sound like he’s easily intimidated.  But even if Albert doesn’t think Parker could get to him–like he just got to Meany, and Hargetty before that, and a very professional Russian hitman before that–he knows what would follow would be unpleasant, and noisy, and when things get noisy, cops get nosy.  They can always find another nerd-on-the-bend (more of those in Russia than hired killers these days).  Brock is expendable.  He agrees to Parker’s terms.  Meany relaxes.  Parker gets the address.

414 Bleecker.  The Village.  Brock didn’t run far.  He and Rosenstein used to share an apartment at the fictional address of 8 Downing Street,  and now he owns a fictional townhouse that would be maybe a brisk ten minute walk from the former address, a mere block away from the seriously overrated Magnolia Bakery (come check out the long line of suckers sometime), were 414 Bleecker not in fact the site of a large municipal playground.  Mr. Stark giving us a rare glimpse of his droll side.

Part 2 ends with Arthur Hembridge dropping Parker off in Manhattan, just after they exit the Holland Tunnel.  Arthur seems oddly crestfallen Parker doesn’t require his services anymore.  It’s almost a Handy McKay moment, but Arthur isn’t nearly so handy, and while they both had a score to settle with Cosmopolitan, Parker needs to settle with Brock and Rosenstein alone.

“I was getting used to going places with you,” Arthur says.  “Now you’re retired again,” Parker responds, and sets off for 414 Bleecker. On the way, he phones Lloyd, says to tell the others he’ll have finished with his personal business soon, and he’ll see them in Montana.  But the first chapter of Part 3 opens in a very different (though no less scenic) locale.

Horace Griffith, art dealer to the rich and famous, is in Geneva negotiating over the sale of a Titian when he gets a call from longtime client Paxton Marino, who wants to meet.  No need for him to come to New York, where Marino is now; Marino will jet over to Northern Italy, meet Griffith at his chalet in Courmayeur.  Griffith readily agrees to make the three hour drive, since obscenely rich and obsessively acquisitive people like Marino are, after all, his bread and butter.

Griffith didn’t actually believe in ghosts, and yet he was always among them.  He traded mostly in European paintings and sculpture, from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries, and most of the creators of those works had firmly believed in an unseen world, in spirits, in an often vengeful and occasionally merciful God.  They’d painted saints and sinners, martyrs and miracles, and Griffith had steeped himself in their work.

He had also, in the darker side of his profession, showed himself to be at one with the world those artists had described.  He, too, was merely human, full of error.  He didn’t really believe in all that cosmic moral accounting, but he couldn’t help some faint awareness in the back of his mind that, if retribution ever did fall on him, he’d damn well deserve it.

Every dealer in valuable art, at a certain upper level of market worth, is offered the temptation now and again.  To deal, in almost absolute safety, with stolen work, or forged work.  Griffith at times envied those who had never fallen, but he also knew he could not possibly live as well, as comfortably, if he had been one of the virtuous ones.  If virtue truly is its own reward, then Griffith regretfully had to go where the rewards were more palpable.

He’s the one who arranged for Marino to buy all those stolen paintings, and even arranged for some of them to be stolen in the first place.  And now he needs to arrange to unload some of them.  Because the sad truth is, he’s broke.  In the manner that only the very wealthy ever can be broke.  Property rich.  Cash poor.

“That’s all it is,” Marino insisted, turning his glower at last full on Griffith.  Still standing there in all that Alpine light, he looked like a later Roman Emperor, lesser and more effete, but still both powerful and dangerous.  “I have a cash-flow problem,” he said.  “It’s temporary.  I’m projected to be out of it in less than eighteen months, probably under a year.  But the problem is, if I’m seen to cut back anywhere, it will be taken as a sign.”

“Yes, of course.”

“That’s where the self-fulfilling prophecy comes in,” Marino said.  “With the hyenas.  With the schadenfreude.”

If he stops spending at his current rate, if he starts selling off houses, planes, other fungible assets, the scavengers of the marketplace will close in and rip him to shreds.  But if he merely sells off things nobody knows he has, because he’s not allowed to have them, they’ll just assume he had more cash at hand than expected, and seek another wounded wildebeest at a different watering hole.

The attempted theft of Marino’s lodge in Montana that started this whole narrative unfolding; which Griffith had not known about, and the potential implications of which chills him to his very marrow, has made Marino aware that he needs to move all of that stolen artwork out of his cunningly concealed basement gallery there.

This is what he wants Griffith to do for him, tout de suite–and then to pick out three or four masterworks, and negotiate with museums and/or insurance companies as if he’s representing the thieves who stole them (which of course he is).  The rest can be restored to their unlawful owner once he’s set up a new secret gallery to gloat over. (Geez, man, you’re a nerd, not an aesthete.  Couldn’t you just collect old Spider-man comics or something? Oh yeah, that reminds me. Still very topical, this book.)

Chapter 2, in this very traditionally Starkian multi-POV Part 3, shows us Pam Saugherty coming out of the D’Agostino supermarket at 790 Greenwich (which closed recently, but seems to be open again–no, you didn’t ask, I’m just trying to be current–rents are so damn high in the Village now, it’s getting hard for anybody to stay in business).  She’s headed for 414 Bleecker, where she is, in effect, the housekeeper.  On the way there, she bumps into Parker, who is too focused on his objectives to notice her, but she recognizes him, and it brings back memories, none of them pleasant.

Okay, the last time we saw Pam, her pleasant suburban home in Philadelphia had been invaded by Messrs. Rosenstein and Brock, the former of whom had beaten her husband Ed to death for not letting him rape her (and then raped her anyway).  After a brief bloody engagement with Parker, both men were critically wounded, incapable of defending themselves, and Parker, not caring if they lived or died, left them to her tender mercies.  Which seem to have been more tender than Parker could have ever imagined.  Pam, what happened?

After Parker untied her, she had every intention of hurting Matt Rosenstein, torturing him, making him pay for what he’d done to her and her family.  Then calling the cops, once she’d gotten back some of her own.  But Paul Brock called to her from the basement Parker had left him lying in, unable to move.  Imploring her to help them.  Help Matt.  Help the man who used her like a blow-up doll, only with less empathy.  But who is still the only person in this world Paul Brock has ever loved.

He’s offering to support her and her three children, even send them to school, everything, anything, if she’ll call a doctor he knows, the kind who can be discreet.  She is oddly moved by his devotion, and uncomfortably aware that with her husband dead, her economic prospects are extremely poor.  Rosenstein can’t ever hurt her again–Parker’s bullet severed his spine, he’s probably going to die anyway.  She agreed to call Brock’s doctor. And here she is, an unspecified number of years later, still looking after them.

(Sidebar–there is a bit of a timeline clue here–we’re told her oldest child was ten at the time of the home invasion, and all of them are in college now.  Well over ten years have passed from her perspective. A lot less than the 30+ years that have passed from our perspective.  Time warp.)

Rosenstein didn’t die, but if Brock’s love had been less possessive, less needy, he would have let his sociopathic sweetie go.  It was impossible for a man like that to adapt to life in a wheelchair, reinvent himself–he liked himself the way he was, even if nobody else other than Brock did.  No life of the mind, only of the body, and the body has been wrecked beyond repair, leaving only a shell of the predator he once was.

Predator?  No, that’s the wrong word.  To call Matt Rosenstein an animal would be doing a disservice to animals, predatory or not.  The worst person ever to appear in a Parker novel.  Even Otto Mainzer was a pro compared to him.  And this is his hell, to which he has been consigned, not for his many evil deeds, but for being incapable of self-knowledge.  Or love–even for the one person who has single-mindedly devoted himself to Rosenstein’s welfare.  Another way in which love and life resemble each other.

Pam tells them about seeing Parker at dinner, and Rosenstein’s response is along the lines of I Told You So, even though he obviously wanted Parker dead, and just as obviously could never do the job himself.  Brock is terrified, remembers that look Parker gets in his eyes when he’s hunting all too well, but holds himself together somehow.  Rosenstein can afford the luxury of self-pitying rage.  He has to find a way to shore up their defenses for the assault that is surely coming.

He was hoping that if Parker was dead, Matt could let go of his anger, which was foolish, but understandable.  He goes out at night sometimes, to slake the needs Matt can’t satisfy anymore, but that’s just sex.  He should have just put Matt in a private hospital and walked away, but he can’t do that.  Just like he can’t run now, when he knows he should.  He can’t let Parker finish the job he started years ago, even though that would be merciful at this point.  Anyway, Parker would keep coming after him, after Rosenstein was dead.  He’d never stop looking over his shoulder.  He’s not a strong man, never was, but in his own quiet way, he’s got more guts than his lover ever did.

He tells Pam to go to Florida or somewhere, he’ll call her when it’s over–unless it’s really over, in which case there’ll be no call.  One somehow assumes he remembered her in  his will.  Fellow caretakers, they understand each other very well, formed a sort of tenuous friendship, but that’s coming to an end now.

He nails the inner door of the townhouse shut.  He seals off the roof entrance.  He’s got a gun–Matt wants one too, but he’s afraid of what he might do with it, in his growing panic, knowing the wolf is closing in, stuck in that chair, telling himself that if he could just walk again, he could deal with Parker himself (like you did before, Mr. Rosenstein?).  He hears footsteps on the roof.  “He’s here,” Paul thinks.

And then a few chapters that have nothing to do with Parker, Brock, and Rosenstein.  Stark can be sadistic sometimes.  Let’s skip over them fast.  We meet Bert Hayes, an investigator working for a the Art Identification Department of the Secret Service, in charge of art theft.  (I can’t find any evidence this department exists, but I wouldn’t be surprised–they do a lot more than just try to keep VIP’s from being shot).

He’s very suspicious of Paxton Marino.  An early report of the theft at the lodge in Montana mentioned some valuable old paintings–then later reports left that out (because local cops were bought off).  He talked to Marino about it directly, and let’s just say rich people probably never do learn much about diplomacy.  Well, I guess we all know that now,  huh?  He’s going to nail this guy if it’s the last thing he does.  And he just found out about a bunch of crates suitable for shipping paintings are coming to the lodge, along with a certain art dealer.

And then we’re with Larry Lloyd again.  He’s found out his old business partner, Brad Grenholz–you know, the one that cheated him, who he then tried to murder, and they both ended up in prison, that guy–is getting out of prison, a lot sooner than he’d expected.  And then he gets a friendly visit from the local fuzz, who make it very clear they are never going to stop harassing him–he’ll never have a normal life again.  Because of Brad Grenholz.  Who is rich, and will therefore never have to worry about the police knocking his door down and searching the premises, and treating him like slime, even though he’s a criminal too.

Larry belatedly decides that of the two options Parker gave him earlier, he prefers the first one after all.  He destroys any evidence he ever had a computer there–after he uses it to ‘buy’ plane tickets for Brad’s location.  He makes his way to the beachfront house, which belongs to Brad’s crooked lawyer brother-in-law, George.  They’re planning to make a fortune together–a fortune that should have been partly Larry’s.

He gets into the house.  Wanders around a bit, stumbles into Brad.  Brad is surprised, but he recovers his equilibrium quickly.  And Larry feels the tug of  his old identity, the self he used to inhabit, before he became a convict, and then a crook.

And all at once, Lloyd was himself again.  The nerd, the follower, the number two, the fellow born to be a sidekick.  The years on his own  had, after all, been horrible ones, left to make his own decisions, with no one to trail after and obey.  Brad was a leader, and needed Larry.  Larry was a follower, and needed Brad.  It was as simple as that.

Except it’s not.  He can’t go back to that Larry.  He died in prison.  Brad killed him, and will happily do it again, given half a chance.  And Larry has gotten used to making his own decisions now.  He’s gotten to kind of like it.  So he decides to hit a very surprised Brad with a very nice half-empty bottle of wine, again and again, until it breaks over his head.  And then he’s got a very nice cutting implement to work with.  Afterwards, he heads for Montana, and the life he has now.  Which isn’t much, but at least it’s his.  The King is dead–long live the independents.

Then there’s a chapter set at the small house for security staff at the Marino lodge.  A fine group of self-obsessed social misfits, since nobody else would want the job.  One of them named Dave is happily playing something called ‘DoomRanger II’ on his handheld gaming device, as he clearly intends to do for the rest of his life; we are now officially in the modern era, like it or not.  He sees a bunch of ATF vehicles descending like locusts upon the estate, and experiences a moment of dislocation between the gaming world and the real one.  He has no idea what this means, but he’s pretty sure it’s nothing good.

Chapter 8 comes from inside the head of Matt Rosenstein, not a happy place to be, as has already been explained.

He hated this body.  He remembered who he used to be, when he was someone who wasn’t afraid of anybody, when he was stronger than anybody, and more reckless than anybody and tougher than anybody, so if anybody ever had reason to be afraid, it was the people who had to deal with Matt Rosenstein.

He knows Paul is soft, can’t protect him, and who can he call for protection?  He was a scavenger bird, as Madge once told Parker.  He preyed on other predators.  Nobody could ever trust him, particularly those who worked with him, so he can’t call on any of them now.  He assumed he could just take whatever he wanted, from anybody dumb enough to trust him, and it would never come back to bite him in the ass.  Not that he can feel his ass now.

He’s not remotely concerned with what happens to Paul Brock.  He’s just thinking about how to prolong his life a while longer, and for that he needs a weapon.  He gets a heavy chopping blade from the kitchen, but that’s not a range weapon.  Parker won’t give him the chance to use it, unless he can trick him somehow.

He can’t even move between floors now, because Paul turned off the chair lift.  He hates needing Paul, hates needing anyone.  He screams for Paul, and Paul comes, like a whipped dog, which is what he is, loyal to the very end, and far better than his master.  They decide they better wait together for Parker to come.  Matt still wants a gun, but Paul won’t give him one. He seems strangely resigned to what’s coming.

Paul doesn’t see the knife hidden beneath the blanket on Matt’s useless legs.  He does know that Matt’s arms are still very strong.  He knows, down inside, that Matt doesn’t care about him, but a long time ago, he surrendered a piece of his soul to the person he needed Matt Rosenstein to be, and he can never get that back again.  Love can be a way to find yourself, or to lose yourself.  It depends on what you do with it, and who you do it with.

A noise comes from below.  Parker sized up the defenses, found them inadequate.  As he so often does–as he did when he came after Brock and Rosenstein all those years before–he takes the direct route, no second story crap. He’s got one of those police battering rams.  He’s inside the vestibule, where nobody will notice him smashing through the inner door, reducing it to splinters.  He’ll be upstairs soon.  They have nowhere to go.  You’d think Brock would have invested in a panic room, but who really believes that would stop Parker?  When you can’t call the law, and the attackers are determined enough, a panic room is just a tomb for the temporarily living.

Paul insists he doesn’t have a gun with him, but Matt won’t believe him.  Overcome with fear-driven rage, he grabs Paul with one hand, and shakes him.  The other hand has the sharp steel blade.  It goes about the same way as it went with Ed Saugherty.   Before he even realizes what he’s doing, it’s done.

Christ, why didn’t you give me the gun?  Shit, he’s coming up, where is it, where is it?

Matt yanked Paul’s body across his lap, frisked it desperately, one-handed, knife in the other as he patted the pockets, searching…

There was no gun.  There was no weapon of any kind.  How could Paul not have a gun?

Matt looked up, and Parker stood in the doorway.  He had a gun, a small stub pistol in his right hand.  Matt lifted the slippery red knife, but there was no threat in it.  He knew he was no threat.  He stared at Parker, and Parker stepped forward to look at the scene.  Matt let go of Paul’s arm, and the body slid off his lap onto the floor.  Parker looked at it, at the knife, around at the room, and at last into Matt’s eyes.  He shook his head.  “You aren’t worth much,” he said, and turned around, and walked away.

Now once again I have to explain why Parker shows mercy.  Or do I?  Isn’t it obvious that’s not remotely what this is?  Mercy would have come in the form of a bullet crashing into Rosenstein’s thick skull, but Parker doesn’t care about Rosenstein.  Parker was never after Rosenstein.  The target was Brock, and Brock is dead, so the hunting instinct has once again switched itself off. Parker doesn’t kill without a reason.  He’s not like  us.

He knew just what he’d done to Rosenstein in Philly; that the injury to his spine would never heal, and that without his body, Rosenstein was no threat to him.  He knew who had been combing the internet for Parker’s location, who had used his connections to send an assassin after him, who would never stop looking for some way to kill him.  Parker knew the real threat was always Paul Brock, the brains of the outfit–always more dangerous than Rosenstein, from the very start.

It was Brock, not Rosenstein, who humiliated Parker all those years before, giving him drugged coffee, so Rosenstein could interrogate him–it was Brock who made the money, it was Brock who gave Matt Rosenstein a safe home base to operate from, enabled him, indulged him, kept him out of jail all that time, kept him alive when there was no reason. Rosenstein was the id creature of this collective consciousness, nothing more.  Brock was everything else.  And as sometimes happens, the id has destroyed the ego, and there was never much of a superego there to start with.

Without Brock, without his legs, Rosenstein is now truly helpless.  Maybe he’ll starve to death in that room.  Maybe the cops will come, and he’ll wind up ranting impotently in some state nursing home.  Maybe he’ll have the guts to use that knife on himself.  But I doubt that last one.  A lot.  Because the truth is, Matt Rosenstein was a coward all his life, and he’s going to die a coward.

And the other, more unsettling truth that comes to me now, is that the world we live in is full of Paul Brocks, men and women, straight and gay, all desperately seeking a Matt Rosenstein to cling to.  I called Brock a dog just now, and that wasn’t right.  Because as Cesar Millan once said, the primary difference between dogs and humans is that dogs don’t follow unstable energy.  You know exactly what I’m talking about.

There’s one more chapter in Part 3, but I don’t really feel the need to get into that.  Part 3 of the review will be ready when it’s ready.  If there’s someone you love, who deserves that love, go hug them.  Now.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark