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 Muertas. Hay 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.”
“I use the daylight hours to do my work. Artificial light is no good for realistic painting.”
“These clumpers and streakers, they don’t care what the color is. But I care.”
“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?”
“That is also good. Would nine o’clock be all right for you?”
“Excellent. And when you come here, sir, what is your name?”
“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.”
“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.”
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 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.”
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 killed him. For instance, he still had all his fingernails.
Parker lifted him to his feet, saying “Can you walk?”
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 pass 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?
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.
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)