Jane loved to read. Reading invariably took her out of the world she lived in, out of this glassed-in porch with its changing views of the seasons, and off to some other world with other views, other people, other seasons. Invariably; but not today.
Jane tended to buy best sellers, but only after they came out in paperback, so the excited buzz that had greeted the book’s initial appearance had cooled and she could see the story for itself, with its insights and its failings. She was a forgiving reader, even when she was offered sequences that didn’t entirely make sense; after all, now and again the sequence of events of actual life didn’t make sense either, did it?
Like that man, Smith, staying with Tom Lindahl. What could possibly have brought those two together? And how had Tom, a man she’d known for probably thirty years, suddenly come up with an “old friend” nobody’d ever heard of before?
No; that was the real world. What she was trying to concentrate on was the world inside this book, and finally, after distracting herself several times, she did succeed, and settled in with these characters and their story. Now she concentrated on the problems of these other relationships and intertwining histories and didn’t look up until the room had grown so dark she simply couldn’t read any more.
“You’ve got something else going on.”
Ed gave him an exasperated look. “We work from different rule books, Tom. You already know that.”
Why did I think I could control him? Tom thought, remembering the sight of the man coming up that hill. Because he was on the run? That didn’t make him somebody that could be controlled, that made him somebody that could never be controlled.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down. I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
My 200th post here. I can’t think of a better place for it. This is the final Westlake masterpiece (so by definition, the final Stark masterpiece). He had two more decent books left in him after this; they did not rise to this level.
Westlake gets slotted as a comic author, and he earned that backhanded compliment, but what I’ve found, again and again, is that his strongest work–even when comedic in tone–is often very dark, composed at trying moments in his life, as was this book, completed after he’d been afflicted with retinal tears and cataracts, leading to multiple surgeries on his eyes. For the better part of a year (the worst, really), he could neither read nor write.
Hard for anyone to endure–terrifying for a writer. Too late to learn Braille. Too private and involved in his work methods to write by dictation, as John Milton did. “Does God exact day labour, light denied?” He did not fondly ask. Providence and modern medicine (and good insurance) gave him back his eyes, impaired but usable, and he put them to good use. Make hay while the sun shines.
Ask The Parrot, the first book he finished after his recovery, benefits, ironically enough, from its crystal clear focus–relatively few characters, the action taking place over perhaps forty-eight hours, perhaps less. Quite a lot of action, and yet it never feels rushed. There is an autumnal chill over the proceedings, even when the characters themselves are in the grip of frenzy, vendetta. Which Parker, who has felt such emotions in the past, never submits to here, never loses control.
Which is why we need Part Three, to bring us into the heads of all those who do. It skips around quite a bit in time and space. And state of mind.
We start with Nelson McWhitney, the only member of the string from Nobody Runs Forever who has gotten through the dragnet with little trouble–because he’s driving his own car, with his own ID, we’re told. He’s had troubles with the law before, so you might think his priors would show up when they checked on him, but how much of a check do they run on you when they stop and question you, if they stop and question you? I think most of us don’t really know, because most police roadblocks are directed at drunk drivers, Latin-American immigrants, and, of course, black people. Nelson is none of the above. So he can get back to his bar on Long Island, and wait to see whether Nick Dalesia, whose capture he hears about on the car radio, knows enough about him to be a problem.
Then we’re back with Brian Hopwood and Suzanne Gilbert, the two civilians Parker has been forced to hold at gunpoint at Hopwood’s service station. Parker wants to know more about Suzanne, who stopped to talk to him last night, when he was out strolling (prowling, really). She wants to know why he took her grandfather’s gun. The one he’s pointing at her now.
He looked at her, and though his face didn’t change into anything you could call a smile, Brian still had the feeling the question had given him some kind of amusement. “Just in case Brian here,” he told her, “would draw down on me. You didn’t stop to see your grandfather last night.”
Last night? Brian looked from the hardcase to Suzanne, who didn’t even look worried, much less scared, and he thought, What about last night? Now there was some other story here, and he wasn’t in on it.
She said, “No, I just drive by, on my way home. Sometimes he can’t sleep, and, if that happens, he’ll sit out on his porch with the light on and I stop and we talk awhile. He knows I’ll be there and it makes it easier for him, so these days he’s sleeping more than he used to. Last night when I went by he was asleep in front of the television set, so that was fine, so I just went on home. I suppose that’s when you broke in and stole his gun.”
For Christ’s sake, Suzanne, Brian thought, leave it alone. But the hardcase didn’t seem to mind. He just shrugged and said, “He didn’t seem to use it much.” Then he switched those cold eyes to Brian, considered him a minute as though he might decide after all he was the kind of pest you might as well shoot, and said, “When did you decide?”
“To be a hero?” Brian, beyond embarrassment, shrugged and looked away. “When I did it.”
The way it was, once he realized Parker was one of the bank robbers, he made this little bargain with himself–if Parker drove away after pumping gas into Tom Lindahl’s car (that he assumes Parker stole), he’d call the state troopers. If Parker came back in, he’d make a citizen’s arrest. In truth, it worked out better for Parker that he didn’t call the cops. Brian’s starting to realize that it worked out better for him that Suzanne came in when she did. He can’t look at this guy now, really look at him, and believe he’d have lived to brag about how he captured the bank robber single-handed.
Parker doesn’t want to leave any dead bodies behind him, if it can be avoided. Can he fix it so that these two can’t call the law before he gets out of this podunk town? Between the three of them, they come up with a story–Brian has to work on a local doctor’s car, it’s an emergency. He’s going to call his wife and tell her that. Tell not not to hold up dinner for him. She tells him he’s going to have to make do with reheated chicken curry. He tells himself nothing will ever taste so good in his entire life.
Then Parker has Suzanne tie Brian’s hands behind his back with his own shoelaces. Suzanne doesn’t want to be tied up–she still isn’t processing who and what she’s dealing with here. But she finally accedes–shoelaces for her hands, jumper cables for her feet, stuck on the floor. And then Parker rigs Brian’s office chair with screwdrivers and electrical tape, so it can’t roll.
Parker takes the keys for a customer’s black Infiniti (there was a white one in the last book; Westlake must have liked those cars, or at least the name), and drives off. Leaving Suzanne to ask who he thinks he is, treating them that way? Brian says that a man in that situation will do pretty much what he likes. Suzanne, beside herself with anger, asks what, is he famous or something? Brian groans inwardly, thinking of the hours they’re going to spend in each other’s company. It would be a great mistake to think Richard Stark did not have a comedic side to him, just as Westlake had a somber side–it’s a matter of emphasis.
(I wonder to myself, at moments like this, whether Parker could kill someone as patently innocent as Suzanne Gilbert. He’s caused the death of exactly one presumed innocent since we’ve met him–the first time we met him–by binding and gagging her. Turned out she had asthma, and suffocated while he was elsewhere. He felt no guilt over it, but it bothered him, in a way he couldn’t really articulate, even to himself.
It’s a stupid question to ask, even if one believes, as I do, that Parker is a beast in human form. A romantic notion, that true innocence is a sure defense against a carnivore, with four legs or two. Yet, it must be said, others have had this notion in the past. Best not take it too literally. Remember Timothy Treadwell, and even more aptly, Amie Hugueonard. Though grizzlies are really omnivores, like us.)
We pick back up with Cal and Cory, who are still looking for some way to score off ‘Ed’ and Tom. Cal is brooding over the way Parker bitch-slapped him, not wanting to admit how scared he is, which means he’s got to do something to prove he isn’t. Cory’s musing on how they need to be able to tail their quarry undetected. He’ll borrow their sister’s car, telling her he’s got an interview for a nice respectable office job, suitable for someone of his intelligence.
She’s got no time for Cal the perennial screw-up (it’s been made clear that the only reason Cal is short an eye is Cal) but she still holds out hope for Cory. She’ll buy his explanation that it’ll look better for him to show up for the appointment he doesn’t really have in her Jetta than in the pickup he and Cal share.
He drops Cal off at a diner, so sis won’t suspect anything’s amiss. Cory knows his brother will want to over-indulge himself with food and drink, which will make him slow and stupid later–tells him just to have coffee. Cal promises, then goes into the diner and orders whatever the hell he wants, including beer.
Chapter 4. We’re now with Fred, and his wife Jane, who has just brought back his rifle from Tom’s house. This chapter is from Jane’s POV. He’s watching football. She can see it’s not helping. She knows he’s wounded inside, doesn’t know what to do about it, has been emotionally overwhelmed for some time now.
She passes on what ‘Ed’ told her, that their son George would want Fred to be there once he gets out of Attica. Fred is baffled by this, then agitated. Why did ‘Ed’ say that? What neither of them knows is that Parker was telling Jane to tell Fred that himself. Give him a motivation to stay alive. But honest to a fault, she reports it as an odd thing this friend of Tom Lindahl’s said. Which Fred will now brood upon at length.
She settles in to read a book, her comfort, her anodyne, as it is for so many of us. It works for her, far better than football did for Fred. Frightening things happen in books, but you know they’re not real. When she rouses herself from the book, she realizes Fred has gone. He’s taken the car. And the rifle.
It’s evening now. When the fake hunters get ready for bed, and the real ones get ready to prowl. Parker tells Tom there’s going to be another change in the plan. Tom should go ahead to the track without him. He’ll catch up later. Tom takes a quick look at his parrot, and thinks he’ll come up with a name for it when he gets back.
A short piece down the road, Jack Riley is worried about his granddaughter Suzanne. She should have dropped by to check on him by now. He’d better check on her. He’s been unsettled ever since his pistol disappeared. He always used to check on that, every night, just to remind himself it was there, if he ever needed it.
What he needs now is the only person left in the world who cares if he lives or dies. Pooley is too small to have a sheriff, let alone its own police department. He calls the local state police barracks, reports both disappearances–the missing gun and the missing granddaughter. Not in that order of importance. Suzanne hasn’t been missing that long, and old people lose things all the time, but the trooper asks him a lot of questions, decides this might be something worth checking on. Jack’s told a car will be around in maybe half an hour. He says he’ll turn the porch light on.
Now we’re in Fred’s head, for the first and only time in the book. Not a pleasant place to be, and we’re just visiting. He lives there.
It wasn’t football Fred saw on the blank television screen, it was the cell. The all-purpose cell, sometimes the one he knew he was headed for, sometimes the one George was in right now–what has happened to our family?–but other times the cell/grave in which lay the man he killed, twitching still in death.
He had never seen George’s cell, of course, so this cell, constantly shifting, existed only in his imagination, fed mostly by old black-and-white movies watched on nights he couldn’t sleep. A small stone room it was, longer than wide, high-ceilinged, with hard iron bars making up one of the short walls and one small high-up window in the opposite wall, showing nothing but gray. The cell smelled of damp and decay. He lay curled on the floor there, or George did, or sometimes that poor man up at Wolf Peak, the last thick dark red blood pulsing out of his back.
It was getting dark outside the living room windows. Imagination had never bothered Fred much before this, but now he was all imagination, screaming nerve ends of imagination, imagining the cell, imagining the shame, and now, as darkness was coming on, imagining the teeth. Destroying the evidence. It gets darker and darker, and all those rustling creatures gather around the body on the forest floor, gnawing at it, snarling at one another, gnawing and gnawing.
His body. The way he sometimes became George, in that Gothic prison cell, now sometimes, too, he became the dead man on Wolf Peak, among all those jaws, all those teeth.
Day before yesterday, he killed a harmless old man for no reason. A stranger who smelled of trouble told him not to report it, and he agreed, hating himself for his cowardice. Now the stranger has told his wife to tell him, in effect, “Don’t shoot yourself.”
He wasn’t going to do that! Well, of course he was thinking about doing precisely that, or rather, trying not to think about it. But that doesn’t mean this shadowy bastard has the right to tell him not to think about it. And the more he thinks about it, the more he thinks what this Ed Smith really meant was ‘go ahead and do it.’ Trying to plant the idea in him. Trying to get him out of the way.
Fred tells himself that Ed’s sympathy for him was fake–he’s got that much right. But paranoia makes it impossible to put yourself in anyone else’s place, to see past your own fears and insecurities. Parker couldn’t care less whether Fred Thiemann eats his gun or not. He only cares about getting out of this podunk corner of New York with his share of the loot. Fred’s suicide would complicate that, so the message he sent through Jane was meant to head that scenario off, at least for a while. It got garbled in transmission.
What passes for Fred’s reason now tells him is, if there were no Ed Smith, he wouldn’t be afraid anymore. He wouldn’t worry about the cell, about the teeth. He heads over to Tom Lindahl’s place. But the only one at Tom Lindahl’s place now is a parrot who can’t talk. Or can he?
Chapter 8 of Part Three in this book has bothered me for a long time. I happen to know a lot about birds. I even know a thing or two about parrots. And the one thing anybody should know about them, aside from the fact that they are smart and long-lived, is that they see color better than we do. Why would they have such splendid plumage were that not the case?
So the opening to chapter 8 bugs me, and it always will. Even though I’m probably taking it too literally (‘black and white’ probably refers to the lining of the cage).
I still think it’s damned well written, and haunting in its (for want of a better word) starkness. Donald Westlake’s one and only attempt I know of at a deep dive into an animal mind is worthy of attention. But I think this must be considered more of a portrait in solipsism than a true vision of what it’s like to be a bird in a cage. We probably don’t want to know what that’s like (I avoid stores that sell parrots whenever possible).
But one thing we do know is that a smart social being like a parrot goes entirely mad when confined to a cage by itself for too long. Normally, a pet parrot forms a very strong bond with the human or humans it’s living with, comes to perceive one special human as its mate. I don’t know that Westlake did any research on parrots at all for this book. It might have gotten in the way with what he wanted to say here, but again–irritating if you know something about parrots.
The parrot is described as being green–maybe a species of conure, perhaps a Monk Parakeet–not one of the larger, longer-lived, more expensive species known for their exceptional capacity to mimic human speech. Not a bad metaphor for Tom Lindahl’s life, the last few years. This is where Tom’s been headed, up until Parker showed up. And maybe this is what Westlake himself feared his life would become, if he didn’t get his eyes fixed. Or maybe he just wanted to imagine what it would be like to look through those eyes. If the whole world is a cell, a cell is nothing to fear.
The parrot saw things in black and white. He knew about this place of his, that it was very strong, and that he was very strong within it, and that whenever he thought he might be hungry, there was food in the tray. He was clean and preferred to stand on his swinging bar rather than down at the bottom of the world was made new, almost shining white and black, crisp, noisy if touched, until he began to drop upon it again.
For movement, rather than down there, he preferred to move among the swinging wooden bar and the rigid vertical black metal bars of the cage. Up and over, sometimes, for no reason at all, his strong talons gripping the bars even directly above his head, giving him, when he arched his neck back and started with one round black and white eye at the world, this world, a whole new perspective.
The parrot is aware of other creatures, outside its cage, occupying a still larger cage, and how these creatures sometimes depart the outer cage for some outer realm of which it knows nothing.
He had some curiosity about these Creatures, but not much. He studied them when they were present, usually observing one eye at a time, waiting for them to do something to explain themselves. So far, they had not.
The parrot becomes aware that another Creature, not the one who attends to his needs, has entered the outer cage, and is shouting at him. Trying to communicate something. He’s never felt the need to speak before, but when an alien talks to you, shouldn’t you try to say something back, make contact? He begins by trying to repeat the Creature’s words back to him–“Air izzi? Air izzi? Air izzi?” No mention of wanting any crackers. Has anyone ever heard a real parrot say that?
It’s not just psittacines in cages who go mad, but only bipedal hominids, sane or otherwise, are guaranteed the right to bear arms. The parrot knows nothing of that, so he grabs hold of the metal tube stuck into his cage, cocks his head to look down the barrel, and…..Polly want a harp? Already got the wings.
Next, we’re with State Troopers James Duckbundy (perhaps an even rarer name than Grofield, possible Westlake made it up), and Roger Ellis, driving over to Jack Riley’s house, when they hear a rifle shot. There are still some gun laws enforced in these United States, and one of them is that you can’t discharge a firearm within five hundred feet of a house (probably not as tightly enforced as all that in some places, but this is New York State).
They see somebody getting into a black Taurus by a boarded-up house. They see a rifle. They identify themselves as police, command him to put the weapon on the ground. They have no way of knowing this guy just shot a parrot for talking back to him. But they know he’s ready to shoot them for doing the same, and while eleven shots is probably excessive, you know how it is with semi-automatics and panic. (I would like to see ordinary patrolmen go back to revolvers, but I get why they probably won’t.)
Now we’re with Tom, heading for the track in his Ford SUV, thinking about what to name his parrot, wondering where the hell Parker is, vaguely aware of a Volkswagen Jetta behind him, seeing a black Infiniti rocket past him, dealing with the fact that if his accomplice has ditched him, he’s never going to have the nerve to take the money himself, even though the take would be twice as large, and the risk of capture about the same.
Chapter 11. Suzanne and Brian are still tied up in the gas station. She’s woken up by gunshots, which we know mark the end of Fred Thiemann’s life, but she doesn’t. She’s quietly humiliated by her recent inability to grasp the fact that the man who tied them up was not being rude. He was a bank robber, looking for a way not to kill them.
Bank robbers were being hunted all around the countryside, but when this had happened to Suzanne, did she think, bank robbers? No, she thought, now, see what they’re doing to me, and it took Brian Hopwood of all people to tell her, not gently, that this time the story wasn’t about her, it was about him, about that man, the one who’d tied them up and gone away.
And on top of everything else, she really really needs to go to the bathroom. Isn’t there some saying about how The Necessary is the Mother of Invention? She’s the one tied the knots holding Brian fast–used to be a Girl Scout. She figures what she can do, she can undo. Brian is skeptical, but she’s insistent (because her bladder is too). And as she starts to make progress, he perks up, begins to help, and they’re both free. And she’s running for the rest room. And he’s reminding her she’ll need the key.
A very light section for such a dark book. Doesn’t advance the plot in any way, though it might have done if they’d gotten free a few hours ago. No danger they’d die of starvation in there. The worst possibility they faced was having to wet their drawers, a fate now averted by Suzanne’s knot-savvy. What’s the point of this chapter?
Stark wanted to know. He wondered how it turned out. It’s that simple. He’s got a lot of developing situations to monitor, but he kept an eye on these two, watching to see if they’d find a way to work together, get out of their shared predicament. They did. Well done. His curiosity satisfied, he turns his gaze elsewhere, and these two groundlings are seen no more, save for a brief curtain call. Enough with the comic relief (and the very low-key sexual tension neither of them is ever going to do anything about).
Following Tom down the highway, in the sister’s Jetta, Cory and Cal are getting confused. What’s he up to? For that matter, what are they up to? Their necks in trouble, but that’s nothing new for the Rosencrantz & Guildenstern of upstate NY.
They know Tom wouldn’t be covering for this wanted felon if there wasn’t something in it for him. That something has to be money. Cal would like some of that money for himself. Cory too, though it seems more like he’s just doing it for his brother–and to see if he can do it. If he can come up with a plan that will get them what they want. If Westlake were writing this book, maybe he would. He should have checked the title page.
Still, he’s got potential–he solves the mystery–the race track. The one Tom used to work at. That’s where they’re going. That’s what this is about. That’s where the money is.
Neither of them is really thinking about what they might have to do to get this money. Well, Cal’s thinking about it a little–he brought a gun. High Standard GI, in .45 caliber. Small gun, big bullets. Bought it in a pawn shop, years ago. Just like Jack Riley, he’s been fascinated by it ever since, wondering what it would be like to use it on someone. (Guns are a bit like snakes, you ever think about that? And we’re the birds. Ask the parrot about that. Well, too late now.)
Cory freaks. A Westlake hero, in a Stark novel, he never counted on anything heavy. And he suddenly notices that his brother seems drunk–that beer is kicking in all of a sudden.
Then Cal notices that Tom Lindahl is alone in that car. They pull over at a closed gas station. Cal is beside himself with anger and fear. Where’s Ed?
Right behind you, doofus. Has been for a while. In the black Infiniti (get the implicit pun?) Which now pulls in front of them, blocking the road. Parker gets out. His hands are empty. Cal remembers those hands. He yanks out his .45 auto. Parker takes out his .22 revolver. Guess who wins?
Cal drops. Cory runs for it in the Jetta. In the rearview mirror, he can see Parker, striding, hands at his side, the gun in one of them. Maybe he wasn’t going to kill them before. But that was before Cal pulled out the gun. Nobody who sees Parker like that ever forgets. A Romero zombie would be comforting by comparison. Still, Cory could just keep driving.
A brother is not so easily abandoned.
Absolute panic compelled him to drive hard for three or four minutes on a road with no traffic until he overtook a slow-moving pickup and had to decelerate. As he slowed, the panic receded and clear thought came back, and he knew he had to go take care of Cal. He was the younger brother, but he’d always been the one with brains, the one who went along with Cal’s stunts but then–sometimes–got them both out of trouble when things went too far.
Cal was hit. Shot. How bad?
(So they’re not twins, after all? Cal was just joking about that? Or is Cory the younger brother by a few minutes? For our purposes, it doesn’t really matter. So I don’t really care.)
Nobody there at the gas station. No body. No Ed Smith. No Infiniti. The gun’s still there on the ground, where Cal dropped it. Cory picks it up. What would you have done?
Chapter 13 is Captain Robert Modale, trying to put all the pieces together. A man is dead. He shot a parrot, then committed suicide by cop. Two people were tied up in a gas station by one of the escaped bank robbers, who stole a really nice car. The dead man’s wife says he killed a vagrant while on the police manhunt that no armed civilians should have had any part in, and this house guest of Tom Lindahl’s they now know was the bank robber convinced them both to stay quiet about it, and it drove Fred Thiemann crazy, so he shot a parrot. Of course. It all makes perfect sense now. The only thing Modale knows for sure is that if he gets his hands on Tom Lindahl, he’s going to have a whole lot of questions.
At Gro-More, one of the two security guards is bored. He decides to go for a walk around the complex. What the hell. Do his job, why not? He retires next month. He’s feeling nostalgic. So he walks around, and he sees headlights–a car. In a place no car should be this time of night. Could be more crazy people wanting to hurt the horses stabled there. He hadn’t set out to be a hero, but…..(is a goddam leitmotif in this book).
Tom Lindahl (they were his lights) reaches the dirt road he needs to turn off on, to reach the point where he and Parker can enter the complex, do the job. And he keeps going a ways, until he reaches another damn diner (no McDonalds up there?), and pulls over by a dumpster. To think. Maybe this was all a bad idea, start to finish. But even bad ideas happen for a reason. It’s the reason he’s after. Why did he start this? Where should he go now?
I can’t go back there. He meant Pooley, he meant the little converted garage he’d been living in, he meant that whole life.
He didn’t think, I can’t go home. That wasn’t home, he hadn’t had a home in years. That was where he’d camped out, waiting for something to happen, although, until Smith had come along, there was never anything going to happen except one day he wouldn’t be waiting any more.
But Smith had come along and riled up the waters. Tom had met him, and hooked up with him, and told him about his racetrack opportunity, because he’d thought he wanted revenge and money, but he’d been wrong. He’d wanted a hand grenade to throw into the middle of his empty unbearable life, and boy, he’d sure found one.
And he knows, as he stands there in the dark, that whether he robs the track or not, he’s a marked man. Too many people know too many things about him and his guest. Tom Lindahl is going to get arrested if he goes home, so there can’t be any Tom Lindahl anymore. He’s got to be somebody else, somewhere else. But he still needs some closure, so he’ll go back, wait for Ed. If Ed doesn’t show, he’ll just leave.
Once the decision was made, it was easy, as though it had always been easy; he’d just been too close to it to see the path. Now he could see it. He started the engine, drove to Dead End, and this time headed on in. He went to where there was the right turn to the chain-link fence, and stopped at the gate there. He didn’t get out of the car but looked through the fence at the clubhouse and after a minute switched off the headlights. He didn’t need them to know where he was.
Smith, in the dark beside Tom’s open window said, “Time to get started.”
(Tom doesn’t pee his pants, that we hear about, so he’s not kidding himself about being ready.)
So that’s Part Three. Part Four is seven chapters, thirty-four pages in the first edition. Not enough for a Part 4 review, even on this blog. Time to finish up.
Chapter 1 is the penultimate Stark Rewind, and one of the best in the series. It doesn’t tell us much we didn’t already know. Parker knew Cory had a plan, figured out what it was, countered it. If Cal hadn’t taken out his gun, Parker would have just stopped them from going any further, but you know Cal. And Parker knows who the real threat is.
The other one got scared, all right, and skittered away from there like a drop of water on a hot frying pan, but Parker knew he’d be back. Cory’d made it his business to stand with his dumber crazier brother, so once the fright wore off, he’d have to come back.
Not 100% sure Cory won’t bleat to the troopers manning the roadblock, Parker disposes of Cal’s body, dumping it down a roadside gulch, into a creek. He gets to the track ahead of Tom, and waits. Wondering if Tom’s nerve will hold. He really does need a good score, but there’s no point without Tom’s keys and knowledge of the terrain. If it’s not in the cards, he’ll just head back to Claire. “It had been too long since he’d seen her.” (Now that’s a Starkian love poem, much better than that schmaltz about the doors and windows in Flashfire.)
There are two pallets of cash waiting for them. Much more than expected. Parker says there’s no time to count it out, do a dead even split–stuff both duffels full of bills no smaller than a ten, they’ll each take one, and they’re done. Fortune favors the bold. Unless they’re security guards on the verge of retirement.
Bill, the hulking 6’5 rent-a-cop, who felt like taking a reminiscent stroll prior to his last day on the job, has stumbled across them. Parker motions Tom to hide–and plays another role–the guy who came to play the ponies and drink, fell asleep in the men’s room. Honest, mister, I don’t know why all these doors were unlocked–I couldn’t find a way out! Sure, call the cops if you like, just get me out of here. And take me to your partner, so I can get you both out of the running.
Bill, suspicious, but not enough, takes Parker to the guard’s room where Max, the other guard feels like this guy is a bit of a smartass, might have to tenderize him. Parker takes out Hopwood’s little automatic, and a tender little moment follows, with a terrified Bill pleading with Max to remember how close they both are to getting out of this place alive. No need to bother with boot-laces this time, since they both have handcuffs. Very convenient.
Parker gets back to the money room, where Tom is in a morbid state of mind, even for him. He’s sure Parker killed the guards, both of whom he knew from his days at the track. Parker explains once again that thing about how you don’t kill when you don’t have to, because it makes the law take you more seriously. He can’t understand why everyone assumes he’s this mad dog killer. (Doesn’t look in the mirror much.)
Tom is coming to terms with everything that’s happened because of his snap decision to go find Parker on that hillside, save him from the hounds. He doesn’t know what happened to Fred (or his parrot), but he knows something awful will happen. Parker, showing more patience than you’d expect, says Fred was already going crazy, because of his son, maybe.
If Fred had turned himself in, that might have purged his guilt, but he would have been just as doomed, because the mills of the law grind so exceeding fine. He was doomed the moment he squeezed the trigger. Nothing Tom did changed that. It’s bad enough to be guilty about your own bad decisions you can never take back. If you’re going to take responsibility for everyone else’s, where does it end?
Now Tom’s ready to start in on the old hobo, whose body they left to be devoured by scavengers; deprived him of a decent funeral, embalming fluids, a few scattered family members pretending they’re sorry he’s gone. Tom never heard of sky burial, I guess. Or certain practices of the North American Plains Indians. Or Robinson Jeffers. May my own remains come to such a noble end. Parker reminds Tom that if they don’t get out of there soon, they’ll come to a far worse one. Tom agrees.
The loot is stowed in the duffels–Tom didn’t let his guilt paralyze him. But they have one more hurdle to clear. Cory’s here. It’s not about the money anymore, for him.
Parker has to fill Tom in on what happened further back along the highway. Tom has to process that while Parker doesn’t kill when he doesn’t need to, sometimes he really needs to. And sometimes that creates the need to kill again. Another reason not to do it if you don’t have to.
Their strategic position could be better. Cory, being the smart Dennison brother, has picked a spot outside, in view of their two cars, where he can pick them both off, if they go out the way they came in. Parker has to try and flank him. He has no reason to think Tom would be an asset in this fight, so he tells him to stay put–but Tom wants to know–suppose Parker loses? Parker tells him to go to the guard room, get one of their revolvers. Then he goes hunting. For someone who is already hunting him.
What follows over most of the final three chapters must have been challenging to write–certainly challenging to write about, and I think I’ll pass. Several men in the dark, with guns, maneuvering around, looking for an advantage, a target. It’s exciting to read, and very hard to describe. It’s the kind of scene Westlake himself was painfully aware could be more effectively depicted on film.
With one major exception–prose fiction’s great advantage over the visual arts, and Westlake knew it–he can tell us what’s going on inside the heads of the characters. In this case, Parker’s head, since it’s all from his POV. We follow him around in the dark, watch him calculate the odds with cold dispassion. We only know what he knows. And what he doesn’t.
He doesn’t know exactly where Cory is. He doesn’t know what Tom is doing. He doesn’t know if he can trust Tom not to pull a cross. He doesn’t know if Cory is too overcome with rage to think clearly, or if his anger has made him more focused. He assumes only one thing. That if he sees Cory’s silhouette, backlit in the darkness, he’ll shoot him.
Cory gets a few shots off, and Parker knows he thinks maybe he’s killed Parker. The maybe would only make him more frightened, as his rage begins to cool. Because now he’s not sure of anything.
We’re sure–Parker is unhurt, lying low, still waiting. Tom emerges–Parker wonders where he’s been, what he’s planning. He calls for ‘Ed’–Parker doesn’t respond. Cory and Tom talk. Cory says he’s killed Ed. Does Tom believe him? Tom asks if Cory wants to kill him too. Cory says no. Does Tom believe that? Does he just want to get away with all the cash? Then Tom, who did get one of the guards’ guns, shoots at Cory, misses, but this provides covering fire for Parker to shift position undetected. He knew, as Parker did, that Cory needed both of them.
In the end, nobody catches a bullet. Cory, his strategy defeated, his nerve broken, gets clubbed over the head with the butt of Parker’s pistol, as he searches through the parked cars for Parker’s body. Unlikely he’s dead, though he could have a bad concussion. Parker doesn’t check. Because he doesn’t care.
He comes up on Tom in the darkness again–he did believe Cory killed Parker, so he’s taking the second duffel, putting it in his car, preparing to scram before the law shows. Parker isn’t offended, he’d have done the same thing (he has done the same thing). He’s pleased. Tom got their money. Now they need to go their separate ways. Two roads diverging in a wood.
I will allow myself one more long quote. These two have packed a lot into their short time together. Now they have to express something to each other. Without using a lot of words. Or time.
Parker opened the rear cargo door and looked in at the two long mounds, like body bags. Lindahl came and stood beside him, looking in at the bags. “I did it,” he said, his voice quiet but proud. “I know, you and me together did it, but I did it. After all this time.”
“We’ll just put it on the ground outside,” Parker said, reaching for the top duffel, “beside the wall.”
“You don’t want me to see your car.”
“You don’t need to see my car. Come on, Tom.”
They put their arms around the end of the duffel and carried it around the car and through the gate and put it on the ground beside the wall. Looking down at it, Lindahl said, “Half the time I was sure, if we ever got it, and I never thought we’d get it, but I was sure…” His voice trailed off, with a little vague hand gesture.
“You were sure I’d shoot you,” Parker said. “I know.”
“You could have, anytime.”
Parker said, “You brought me the job, you went in on the job with me, that’s yours.”
Lindahl giggled; a strange sound out here. “You mean,” he said, “like, honor among thieves?”
“No,” Parker said. “I mean a professional is a professional. Take off, Tom, and stay away from roadblocks. That car might be burned by now.”
“I’ll be okay,” said Lindahl. The giggle had opened some looseness inside of him, some confidence, as though he’d suddenly had a drink. “So long,” he said, and got behind the wheel of the Ford. His window was open; he looked out and might have said something else, but Parker shook his head, so Lindahl simply put the Ford in gear and drove away from there.
Once Lindahl had made the turn onto the dirt road leading to the county road, Parker went over to bring the Infiniti up close to the duffel. By then, Lindahl was out of sight. Parker wondered how far he’d get.
Parker wondered how far he’d get. Perhaps the most six most enigmatic words in all twenty-four books. He doesn’t wonder if the man who just tried to kill him is dead. He does wonder what will become of his fellow hunter. Parker never wonders about things he doesn’t care about.
Earlier in the book, when Parker told Tom that his best course of action after the heist would be to stay where he was, gut it out, face down the law, Tom responded, “It’s like hunting, I see that. In some ways, it’s like hunting. The main thing is, you have to be patient. If you’re patient, you’ll get what you want.” Parker’s only rejoinder was his usual two-syllable affirmative.
As I’ve said already, Parker was not giving Tom good advice there. Tom could never have stayed in Pooley and kept out of jail–probably not even if he hadn’t pulled the heist. But it was for Tom to figure that out for himself. He already had, when the job started, for reasons of his own–but Parker couldn’t know that.
He does know that to get that pistol he fired at Cal, Tom had to show his face to the two guards, who would have recognized him, could identify him. He knows Tom wouldn’t have killed them. So he knows he doesn’t need to tell Tom it’s time to leave Pooley, leave this part of the country, never look back. I don’t know if he would have. I’m guessing not.
Knowing more about what happened back in Pooley earlier that day, Parker does warn Tom that they probably already know about him, will be looking for his car. He didn’t need to say that. Tom could have figured it out for himself, as he has so many other things, in the course of the nigh-Himalayan learning curve he’s traversed the last two days.
But a professional is a professional. Get it? There are certain courtesies professionals owe each other. And nothing else, far as Parker is concerned. Good fences make good neighbors.
But he still wonders. To wonder implies giving a damn either way. Why does he care? Ask the Parrot.
Twenty-three down. One to go. That’s right.
(And a sidebar: Up top, below the cover image for the audiobook, you see a photo of Vernon Downs, the only racetrack that actually exists between Albany and Syracuse–too far from the border with Massachusetts to be the track in this novel, but perhaps a model for Gro-More, all the same. John O’Leary mentioned it in the comments section, and I looked it up.
Last June, the owner was threatening to close the whole complex down. First the casino [of course they got one, the sport of kings and the king of sports go together like Donald Trump and pussy-grabbing], then the track, then the hotel. Last day for the track would have been November 11th. I was going to write a little elegy, but then I found another article that said the state assembly caved, in the face of several hundred jobs disappearing, and agreed to give Vernon a bigger cut of the casino money.
If you want to know where your cut is, maybe ask the parrot about that too.)
(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)