Our story so far: There is a thing, an object of some sort, of incalculable value. Many people want this treasure, want it enough to kill for it. Others are equally willing to perform violence to ensure the treasure is NOT found by anyone. Charles Lowell doesn’t give a damn about the object; but people are trying to kill him anyway. He has been hired by Lola Fanutti, neé Meredith Baxter, wife of a now-dead crime lord, and she holds a vital clue to the location of the object. Well, she doesn’t actually have the clue, but she knows where it is. Or, at least, she says she does. She’s not very good at the truth, sometimes, and it often seems that Lola Fanutti and Meredith Baxter are two different people, and she changes without warning.
It is now Sunday, the day Meredith said she could recover the Blood of the Saint, a stolen painting which contains the key to finding the treasure. Many factions have asked Charlie, with varying degrees of politeness, if he would tip them off when she had the painting, so that they might take it from her. Charlie can’t satisfy them all, and those he doesn’t help are not going to be happy. In this crowd, “anger management” means “stay calm so you don’t miss your target.”
Charlie is now in a limo with Meredith, speeding toward the East River, there perhaps to recover the painting. They are protected by a group of toughs who may or may not be loyal to them, and unbeknownst to Ms. Fanutti, Charlie has sent word to one Mr. Cello, self-made lord of the underworld. Meredith thinks something is not quite right, but she can’t put her finger on it.
Those new to the blog should be aware that this story is not planned out — not even the episode I’m writing at the time. I just try to get into voice and let the ideas hit the page unfiltered and barely edited. Inconsistencies, oddities, and questionable actions are par for the course.
To read the entire story from the beginning click here.
She looked out the window as we sped along, her brow creased in concentration, concern, or both. I watched her; there wasn’t much I could hope to do cooped up in the car if it turned out the people around us weren’t loyal. In the end, she was my problem, the hub of the wheel that threatened to run me over. She felt my gaze and looked across the car at me. “A penny for your thoughts,” she said.
“I don’t think you’d be getting your money’s worth,” I said.
She smiled, more out of courtesy than any found humor. “I’ll be the judge of that.”
“I think maybe it’s time to make a deal.”
“Whoever gives us the best chance of getting out of this with our skins.Â Cello could protect us.”
“You want out?”
“I never wanted in.”
She sighed and looked back out the window. “Do you know what it’s like, Charlie? Being on top?”
“You get used to it in a hurry. I can’t live at the bottom of the whole shit-pile that is humanity any more, Charlie. I just can’t. Not after tasting the good life at the top. I’ll take a swift death reaching for the stars over the slow death stretched out over decades while lying in the mud.”
“There will always be another chance.”
“Not like this one, Charlie. There will never be another chance like this, ever again. Whoever controls this treasure will never have to worry again. About anything. I’m going to be that person, Charlie. I’m going to sit at the very top of the pile and I’m going to run the show. But… it would be better if you were there with me.”
“All those fancy clothes and people fetching things for me makes me nervous.”
She laughed. “Is that what you think it’s about? The mansions, the servants, the people standing in line to kiss your ass? Those mean nothing. Just money. I like money, and I plan to have a lot of it, but that’s not what this is about.”
“For the few at the top this isn’t just the world, Charlie, it is their world. The world you see out there has been shaped by them, according to their rules. You’re just a little rat in a maze, running about looking for a bit of cheese. But they built the maze, and they decide which rats get fed. You are just here for their amusement, and it will always be that way, unless you knock someone off the top and take their place.”
“That doesn’t sound very fun.”
She shrugged, but she was looking into my eyes with intensity. “You don’t have to do any of that, Charlie. Not if you don’t want to. That’s what it means to be on top. You can do whatever you want as long as you’re with me. Booze? Cars? Travel? Women? Your affairs wouldn’t bother me, as long as you came home afterward.”
“Or I might die trying to get there.”
“Or we might die. Yes. Do you still want out? Do you want to go back to that dreary, desperate life you used to think was your own?”
I thought of that dreary, desperate life. I thought of waking up each morning not knowing how I was going to pay for the next bottle of rot-gut whiskey, wondering if this would be the day some random thug punched my ticket or some philandering husband thought a gun would be the best way to shut me up. I thought about nights alone with only a bottle to console me, never quite deep enough for me to fall all the way in and never surface again. I was a rat in a maze, and the cheese was always just out of reach. A pathetic, hopeless existence. An existence that, somehow, was me. I liked me, though Lord knows there wasn’t much to like.
Meredith shifted her position, to better display her shapely leg. There were certainly some benefits to sharing her life at the top.
The car eased to a stop. Out the windows I could see the wharves, silent in the dark of the night. It was too late to quit. It had been too late for a long time. “What’s the plan?” I asked.
She checked her watch. “We wait. There’s a boat arriving in fifteen minutes. They will have a small crate. No one touches it except you or me. No one.”
“What if there’s trouble?”
“Protect the box. Let me and my boys handle the shooting.”
I nodded. With only one hand I wasn’t going to be able to do both, and she was much better at shooting than I was. Her men began to issue from the cars and take up positions around the wharf, trying with varying success to blend with the shadows. We sat in silence for a few minutes, and I wondered what was going on up in her head, and what that meant for me. What was I to her? Stooge? Pawn? Lover? Perhaps to her they were all the same thing.
“It’s time,” she said without looking at her watch. I opened my door and levered myself up out of the car, wincing with pain as my shoulder protested.
“Are you all right?” she asked. Her concern sounded genuine.
I steadied myself. “Never better,” I said.
She touched my arm gently where it lay in the sling. “Everything will be all right, soon,” she said. She stepped closer, started to say something more, when her eyes narrowed, looking past me. “It’s here. Let’s get this done as quickly as possible.” She stepped past me and I turned and followed one pace behind. I could hear the soft putt-putt-putt of a boat motor out on the river, but I could see nothing. The far shore of the river was just a dim blur; fog was rolling in, shrinking the world until there was just me and Meredith. Still I felt exposed as we walked out on the dock, our shoes reverberating with dull thuds on the wooden planks. Meredith had her pistol out and was making no effort to hide it.
The engine noise came closer and I caught a whiff of diesel. A scraping noise just ahead announced the arrival of the boat. Meredith quickened her pace before stopping at the top of a ladder. She pointed her gun down into the shadows. “Benny?” she asked softly.
A muffled voice rose from below. “He went for pancakes,” I thought I heard. That must have been some sort of countersign; Meredith relaxed fractionally. “got something for you, Ms. Fanutti,” the voice said again.
“I’m sending someone down for it,” she said. She looked at me and indicated with a nod that I was to climb down. Coming back up with a package of any size would be tricky. Oh, well. I stepped to the top of the ladder, turned, and groped with my foot in the darkness for the top rung. Hanging on tightly with my one hand, I made my way slowly down.
“Easy, Chief,” someone said behind me a few moments later. “Almost there.” I grit my teeth as someone took my bad elbow and helped me into the boat. When the man realized I was wearing a sling he let go quickly, and I almost fell into the boat. “Sorry, Chief,” he muttered. The boat splashed quietly on the glassy water as I recovered my balance.
“You got something for me?”
“Yeah. Right over there.” He pointed to a wooden box, maybe a foot square and three inches deep. Such a small thing for all this trouble. I walked over and saw that it was sealed all around, and that a wire held it to the bench. “We didn’t touch it, just like Ms. Fanutti told us,” the man said.
I lifted the box, breaking the wire. I stepped back over to the ladder and looked up. I could see the outline of Meredith’s head as she peered down at me. I juggled with the package and finally wedged it into my sling. “Thanks,” I said to the men in the boat. As soon as I was off the dec
k the putt-putt accelerated slightly and the boat slid out into the river. I looked up, but from the ladder I could see nothing. I began my slow climb.
By the time I got to the top the fog was thick as cat’s breath. I could make out a few lights over toward land, and in the other direction a single glow marked the light on the shed at the end of the dock. Meredith materialized next to me, moving as silently as death. “You got it?” she asked.
“I got a box,” I said. “No telling what’s inside.”
“My husband died for that box, Charlie. Let’s get out of here.”
We began walking back to the cars, slowly, the blanket of fog hiding us and giving the scene a mysterious and furtive air, making me want to walk as quietly as possible. Meredith was to my left, a few feet away, little more than a vague shape in the darkness.
We reached the base of the dock and stopped when we saw a figure blocking our way. The short man stepped forward.
“Good evening, Ms. Fanutti,” he said softly. He took a careful pull on his cigar, the glow from the tip lighting his face in a hellish cast. Cello. “Good evening, Mr. Lowell.”
“You can’t have it.” Meredith said. “It’s mine.”
In the gloom behind Cello I could make out several more figures, all of them big, all of them armed. Cello just smiled patiently. “I believe the object is currently in Mr. Lowell’s possession,” Cello said.
“Same thing,” Meredith said.
“Is it? After all, it was Mr. Lowell who invited me here tonight.”
“W—what?” Meredith looked over at me and my guilt must have been etched in my face. She staggered as if punched, then recovered, but still she looked at me until I couldn’t meet her gaze any longer. “Charlie…” she said, quietly, then nothing more. With a swift motion she raised her gun and shot Cello in the chest. He staggered back, a dark stain blooming over his white shirt, as the men behind him opened fire and Meredith’s men arrayed around the dock fired into the group.
Meredith fired once more, then twitched, staggered, and spun as another bullet found her, and another. Nobody was shooting at me yet, but I wasn’t going to depend on things staying that way. I ran.
I ran, but all I could think about was the look of hurt in her eyes as she decided to die.
Tune in next time for: Day of Reckoning!