“Why me?” I asked.
“A mutual friend recommended you. Willy Gancek.”
Willy Gancek, a.k.a Willy the Weasel, was hardly a friend of mine. He was a two-bit punk with the temper of a rattlesnake and the intelligence of a hubcap. He was ambitious, the Weasel was, but he’d burned all his bridges long ago and was only now starting to realize it. That made him desperate on top of stupid. Just the kind of guy a savvy woman could suck in and use and ditch when the time came, but not the kind she could rely on for exercising good judgement. For that, she would have to find someone else, some sap too scared to be a criminal and too honorable to go completely straight. Me, apparently. “It was nice of Mr. Gancek to think of me,” I said. “I’ll have to send him a fruit basket.”
She smiled. “I believe he called you a washed-up hack who will do anything for a drink.”
“He’s smarter than I thought. For the record, though, a pretty face also works.” Hers was more than pretty, but there were some things I was not prepared to do, even for a drink. Dying was at the top of the list.
“Not very much smarter. He offered to drive me to France. He thought it was in New Jersey.”
My turn to smile. “You mean it isn’t?” I put my serious face back on and left my latest drink on the table, to prove a point. “All right then, Mrs. Fanutti, tell me what it is you would like me to do.”
She produced another cigarette and while I was fumbling for a light she said, “I want you to get me out of the pool.”
I struck the match and concentrated on holding it at the correct angle. She leaned slightly into the flame and took her time puffing her cigarette to life. “I’m sorry?” I asked when we were done. The fire had come close to my fingertips by then, but I wasn’t about to let go.
She looked at me through the thin trail of smoke rising from the tip of her cigarette. Turkish tobacco, I thought. Expensive. The kind used by people more worried about impressing those around them than enjoying the smoke. “The pool full of sharks you mentioned before. I want out of it,” she said.
“Have you tried asking them?”
“Believe me, there is no love between me and those people. They would be happier if I wasn’t around. But there are things I know that they would prefer I didn’t mention to anyone. While I am here, they can keep an eye on me.”
“There’s something they want from you, too, isn’t there?”
She seemed surprised that I figured out that a bunch of thugs who had no qualms about murder would need a reason to keep her alive. “Viti had a large pile of money stashed away. They want it.”
I wondered what the definition of large was among those people. Larger than my large, that was for sure. “And you know where it is?”
“If they thought I knew where it was, they’d have started cutting off my fingers already. But they think Viti will lead me to it.”
She hadn’t answered my question, but I let it slide. “That would be quite a trick from where he is.”
“You didn’t know Viti. He planned for this. Sooner or later something will turn up and lead me to the stash. They want to be there when that happens. He even told them that if anything ever happened to me they would never see the money.”
“So he bought you an insurance policy, did he? He must have known it wouldn’t last forever.”
“Of course he knew. He was a smart man.” From the tone of her voice I wasn’t stacking up so well in comparison. “He did it to buy me time to get away.”
“Which is where I come in.”
“I would like you to help me fake my own death. I will pay you handsomely.”
Somehow I knew she was going to say that. It all sounds so neat and clean; no one will look for you because they all think you’re dead. But it’s not so simple. First, there’s the money. Some of it is going to disappear and reappear somewhere else, and these people are exceptionally good accountants. Then there’s the people. Everyone in on the plan is a liability. Third, there’s the body. There’s got to be some stiff to put in the coffin. I could tell that she had been thinking about it for some time, and she probably thought she had the answers to all those problems, but the plan would be complicated, and somewhere it would go wrong.
“Better to just run,” I said. “Plan ahead, but don’t take too long. Get new papers. Get as much cash together as you can, buy a bus ticket and don’t stop until you’re in South America.”
She looked across the table at me. “It’s not that simple,” she said.
“You better make it that simple if you want to live.”
She suddenly seemed smaller than she had before. She had come in with a plan, some kind of fantasy that had given her hope, and I hadn’t even bothered to hear it. I wonder if she had told her plan to the Weasel, and whether he had encouraged her. She should have known right then that it was going to fail. “I—I need to think.” That wasn’t Lola Fanutti speaking, it was a frightened Kentucky girl a long way from home.
“If everyone did that I’d be out of business.” I tried for a reassuring smile, but I think I missed.
Her voice was rushed. She wanted badly to get out of there. “I’ll contact you again. We have to leave separately. They’re watching me. That’s why I didn’t come to your office.”
It didn’t matter; I was made. If they were watching her, they’d seen her come in here, and they’d seen me come in. She wouldn’t come in to a place like this for a casual drink and I was the only regular who could help her. Out there somewhere there was now a bullet with my name on it. When it would arrive I didn’t know but there was nothing I could do to dodge it. I hadn’t even accepted the job, but they wouldn’t bother to find that out. My only way out was to go to them myself and expose her, but I knew I wasn’t going to do that. I was well and truly fixed.
By the time she had finished paying Jake (“One more for Mr. Lowell”) she had recovered her poise. I watched as she swished her way out the door and into the bright furnace of the city. She could swish with the best of them, I’ll give her that.
Tune in next time for: Death in the Street!