The call came at three a.m.
He rolled to the side of the bed and picked up the receiver. "Yeah?"
He frowned. "I told you never to call here."
"I know. But Bryce--"
"Shh. Wait a sec."
Helen moaned in her sleep. "Whassit?" she murmured.
"Nothing dear. Go back to sleep." He paused for a moment, listening as his wife's breathing deepened into renewed slumber.
"I'm taking this to the den. Hold on," he whispered. Putting the phone on "hold," he gingerly slid out of bed, crept downstairs, wiped the grit from his eyes, and wished to hell he had a cup of black steaming coffee just now.
Settled behind his desk, he took up the receiver. "Now what the hell is so important, Brenda?" "It's Bruno. I think he's on to us."
“Shit. How do you know?" he snapped. “A woman knows, Bryce."
"So, we'll be more careful from now on."
"No. You don't get it. You don't know him like I do. He's crazy jealous."
He felt a quick stab of irritation. "So what if he's jealous? He owns a machine shop. I'm a state senator. What can he do to me?"
There was a long beat. "Well, I'm not a state senator, and I'm afraid he can kill me."
In spite of himself, Bryce felt a chill riffle along his spine. "Bullshit. Don't be so melodramatic."
"Bryce, there's more to this than simple jealousy. I know--things."
"Jesus! Brenda, he owns a machine shop. Big deal. What's so special about that?"
"Bryce. Listen. He's in deep with the mob." "The mob?" He sat bolt upright. "You never told me anything about the mob."
"Think I can tell him that? Think I can tell Carmine Bartello that?"
"Bartello?" Bryce's heart began to pound in his chest, and his mouth dried out like day-old shaving cream.
"Bartello is Bruno's uncle," she cried. "Bruno does-- certain things for him. The shop is just a front. Bruno kills people."
Bryce turned cold. Queasy. He felt fine sweat break out on his brow. "Hell, baby. Let me think a minute."
"I need help, Bryce."
He mulled it over. "Where are you?"
"Stay there. I'll meet you Saturday night. The usual place. We'll work it out."
She sighed. "I love you."
"Yeah, yeah, me too. Be goddamn careful."
He put down the receiver, trekked upstairs, took the phone off hold, and lay down. But sleep eluded him and he soon slipped out of bed again and went down to his office. He paced back and forth, trying to put down a rising panic. The stakes were high. This simple dalliance had turned into a nightmare for State Senator Bryson Cabot II. He spent the rest of the night trying to sort it out. By morning he still hadn't a clue. He had a tiger by the tail and didn't know whom to be more frightened of–the mob or his wife.
Chet Beakman clutched the tiny possum to his chest, trying to force the nipple of a bottle of formula into its mouth. It was maddening work.
Lumpish Doobie Kring, aware of Chet's discomfiture, put down a bucket of water and sidled up to him. "Let me do that Chet, I got more patience. Ain't that what you always say?" Chet sighed. "Yeah, Doobie. Here, take him."
Doobie hugged the squirming little creature, took hold of the bottle, and expertly fed the possum pup, his vague glance roaming about the room.
Chet stepped back and eyed the retarded boy with affection. They were partners, like George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men Chet's favorite flick. Dim-witted Doobie lived next door. He and Chet took in strays: birds, possums, dogs, cats, you name it. When not working down at the tire shop, Chet spent his waking hours here in the garage with the animals. Doobie was his helper. And despite the boy's impaired mental state, a kinder, more generous friend Chet had never known.
Doobie sang softly to the possum. Then his face wrinkled with concern. "Chet?"
"You remember when you was doin' bad things?"
Chet frowned. "I remember."
"You said if they was to arrest you again, I was to take care of the critters till you got out. Like I did before."
"Yeah, but I don't do bad things anymore, Doobie."
Doobie squirmed, unused to expressing complex thoughts. "Sure Chet. But you might do bad things again. Right?"
"No I won't. Now what put this bee in your bonnet?"
"A man come to see you whilst you was at work. I seen him before. When--when you was doin' bad things."
Chet stiffened. "What man?"
Doobie looked at his shoes. "Dunno. Big man." "Ben Darro?"
Doobie looked up and nodded. "Maybe."
Chet grunted irritably and hauled the bucket down the row of cages, opening a door and dipping out water into Durango the Rabbit's bowl. Ben Darro was bad news. He worked for Bruno Graziani, a mob underling.
"Not to worry, Doobie," Chet said over his shoulder.
But Doobie was worried.
Early that evening Chet took a call. "Yeah?"
"Yo, Chet, long time no see." Ben Darro's husky voice was almost apologetic. Chet began to sweat. He'd once done some driving for Ben. He'd also done some time as a result. But he'd been clean for four years now and was finally off parole. No way he wanted anything to do with Ben.
"Chet, you're needed," rasped Ben.
"Forget it." Chet hung up the phone, walked outside to feed three-legged Wily Coyote and the other animals, then went out to get something to eat.
When he got back, Big Ben was leaning against his pale yellow Caddie. He was an ugly pockmarked man, squat and powerful, a man with an attitude. But he softly called Chet over and gave him a big smile. "Listen Chet, you wanna make a fast buck?"
"No? Now wait a sec. Hear me out."
"To hell with you! Last time I listened to you I got two years at the honor farm."
"I know, I know. A real tragedy." "Yeah, I can see you're real broke up over it."
Ben grinned and pulled out a $1,000 bill, tore it in two, and handed one-half to Chet. "Earnest money."
Chet's eyes widened. "Who I gotta kill?"
Ben laughed. "Nobody."
"What you do, you drive somebody out in the country to make a delivery. Afterward, you take the client to a private landing strip, then come back here and collect the other half of this. Simple."
"Why not? You got a closed mouth. You proved it."
Chet thought it over.
Ben lit a cigar. "So, what'ya say, Chet?"
"Let me think." He was a month behind on the rent and hadn't bought a shirt or a pair of pants in a year. The animals consumed all his meager resources. Still, he had his pride. "No thanks. I'm doin' okay."
Ben shrugged and looked over at Chet's rundown house and the battered truck in the drive. "Sure you are."
Chet snorted and walked away.
"Let me know if you change your mind," yelled Ben. "I'll be at the club next couple a days."
The following night Chet parked his truck near work, drank a few beers, and assessed his situation. It was a grim reverie. An ex-felon with forty cents in his pocket, without a future, and with a menagerie of injured animals to care for, he was hard-pressed to ignore Ben's offer. When he got home there was a note on the door. Call me tonight.
He had a choice?
About midnight he met with Ben and a cold-eyed albino, appropriately named Whitey, a smiling little man who gave him the willies. They handed over a set of car keys, told Chet where he could find the heap, and where to pick up his passenger.
Later, Chet parked the car, a new Ford Taurus, in a small shopping center off Sunset, near Doheny, looking for someone in a black raincoat and carrying a red attache case.
She surprised him. Instead of a thick-necked Mafia hood in a silk suit and Italian loafers, Chet got a hard-looking, skinny blonde in her twenties, with high-cheekbones, thin lips and a pencil neck. Under her coat she wore dark slacks, black turtle-neck sweater and running shoes.
"Let's go," she murmured as she settled in.
"San Diego Freeway to I-5. Drive north till I tell you to stop. What do I call you?"
"Just Plain Bill, eh?" She grinned. She was quite attractive. But there was something wrong with her eyes; they were hooded and didn't have much color, like there was nothing behind them. And for some reason this give Chet a brief chill.
He threw the car into gear and slipped smoothly into traffic. He wanted to show her his special skill--his only skill.
"What do you do, Bill, when you're not in stir or sweeping out the tire shop," she asked in a bored, cynical, and patronizing voice.
He blushed, thinking Ben must have told her about what a big nothing he was. They must have had a good laugh. It hurt his feelings. Yet he found voice to wax eloquent about the animals; about the three-legged coyote, the one-eared rabbit, the possum cubs, about all the birds and creatures he'd saved from starvation--or worse.
And for some odd reason she suffered him to ramble on. Perhaps she dozed through most of it, or maybe there was a faint spark of interest. Whatever, he pretty much told her his life story while she sat there brooding--grim-faced, eyes half-open, slim fingers moving restlessly in her lap.
He added: "Some folks snicker and call me the `Animal Man,' you know. Goddam people. I hate `em for the way they treat their critters."
She frowned. "Where do you keep all these animals?"
"Mostly in the garage and house."
"Bet it stinks in there," she said with a dry chuckle.
Chet nodded. "Sure does. But I wish more folks was like me. That there Cleveland Amory is my sure enough hero. He puts his money where his mouth is."
She sighed and lit a cigarette. Her face, caught in the bright yellow glow of her lighter, was hard-looking and cold.
"Tell me your name," he ventured after awhile.
"How about, Cat? That ought to sit well with a guy like you."
She's funnin' me, he thought. "That your real name?"
"Of course not, you idiot," she snapped.
Chet flushed and concentrated on driving. Won't take no offense, he decided. Hell with her anyway. Be rich after tonight.
He ran the Ford up the hill and into the Valley. Nice car, he thought. Beats my old pickup all hollow. Bet the owner misses it plenty.
Looking over at Cat he saw she was deep in thought, a nervous tick working under her left eye. She tightly clutched her bag, seemingly bedeviled by something, some intractable problem.
Soon Chet found a country station on the radio. Travis Tritt was singing. Chet loved Travis Tritt.
"Will you shut off that goddamn hillbilly," Cat immediately shrieked with high-decible irritation.
Jeez! He shut it off and shook his head. Don't know nobody that don't like Travis Tritt.
He kept driving, wondering what this mystery girl was up to. What was she delivering? Dope? Cash? Did he really care? Naw. All he could envision was the splicing together of both halves of that thousand dollar bill.
After awhile Cat relented, breaking the chilly silence by politely asking Chet to tell her more about his animals.
He carried on for twenty minutes, until she told him to pull over. He parked along the freeway. The night was warm, a hot breeze sweeping sand devils across the highway. He rolled down the window. The overheated air smelled of sage. Chet loved the desert.
The highway was deserted.
Cat had a tiny penlight in her hand. She quickly reviewed a road map she hauled from her bag. As the map came out, Chet caught the glint of something shiny in her purse. Nickle-plating? A gun? His heart began to race. What did she need with a gun?
She put away the map, snapped off the light, and said in a tense voice, "A few miles up ahead turn right on Bennington Trail."
They found Bennington Trail and turned right. It was a hard gravel road and pretty smooth. Chet hit the accelerator and sunfished a bit around the turn.
"Whoa, you idiot!" she hollered, "Take it easy. I want to get there quiet." She glared at him with her furious, hooded eyes, and he suddenly felt like a white rat in a cage of rattlesnakes.
"S-sorry." He shivered and slowed to a crawl.
She turned and stared straight ahead. She seemed to wrestle with something profound; it puckered her brow, compressed her lips and narrowed her eyes.
After a few miles she grunted, "Stop here."
He stopped on a remote trail in a hidden canyon. A house, a large one, lay off to their left. There was just enough moonlight to make it out. It had a stone wall around it. A light shone bright in an upper window.
"Wait here." Cat grabbed her bag and slipped quietly from the car, running lightly across the road and into the brush. He noticed her attache case. She'd left it in the car. Now why was that?
Ten minutes later he heard smothered reports, like rifles from a long way off. Soon Cat returned, bringing with her the acrid stink of gunpowder. She leaped into the car. "Get moving."
He whipped the Ford around and made tracks.
But halfway to the main highway she told him to stop the car and pull off the road. He did, and they sat there in silence. She seemed to be weighing something in her mind.
"W-what now?" he finally blurted.
"Can't you guess, you poor sap?" Her face was indistinct in the moonlight. In her hand he saw a nickle-plated `22 automatic; something right out of the hitter's handbook. Her eyes glittered, lips flattened against her good teeth.
Uh-oh! He got the message. Step out of the car, Bill. Present the back of your head, Bill. Some fast buck! Ben Darro was not expecting his return. They'd never splice together that grand. He'd been set up.
"Why?" he asked, mortal fear drying up his mouth.
She squeezed her eyelids into slits as though wanting to shut this part out. "Why?" She lowered then inspected the pistol.
"Surely, you can at least tell me that?" he pressed, praying for time, taking the rest of his life on the moment by moment installment plan.
She sighed and nodded. "Okay, what happened back there. It's big time. There can be no leaks. It goes to high up. Regrettably, you're a loose end. They can't afford to let you live. I'm sorry."
He was so frightened by now, that his hands shook like he'd been on the mother of all benders. He had one more question. "Then dammit, why the hell didn't you just drive the goddamn car yourself?"
She raised her glance, her hard eyes softening just a tad, her finger a little less tense on the trigger. "That's simple, Bill. I'm an imported city girl. Cabs and subways. I don't drive in traffic. I can, but it scares me to death. That was the deal. I'm good, so it was worth their while to humor me."
His next words caught in his throat. This was it. He started to open the door to get out. He knew he was--
"Hold it," she snapped. He turned, watching with amazement as she put away the gun. "You are one lucky sonofabitch," she said.
"Shut up and drive before I change my mind."
During the brief ride, she opened the attache case and shuffled something into a large envelope. Ten minutes later they arrived at a small airstrip. A Cessna was waiting, its prop turning quietly in the warm desert air. She carefully directed Chet to park in the deep shadows behind the moonlit hangar, well out of sight of the pilot. "Don't get out of the car," she whispered. "You're supposed to dead."
She grabbed the attache case, then leaned over and put the envelope in his lap. "Take this and listen good. "There's a shovel and a tarp in the trunk. I was supposed `em to use to get rid of your bod. You get rid of them, instead. Then ditch this heap."
"But, how come--"
"I didn't waste you?"
She laughed and climbed out of the car, came around to the driver's side, and leaned in the window. Her breath smelled of Spearmint gum. "Let's just say we animal lovers gotta to stick together."
"Cleveland Amory is my hero, too. Hell, I just can't kill one of my own kind, can I? Be like shootin' family." She laughed and squeezed his arm.
"But Bill," she continued, "if you ever show your face in L.A. again, they'll kill us both. What happened tonight is gonna cause a major stir, a huge investigation. So you gotta disappear. Permanently. Forever.
"You gotta change your name. Get lost in some big city. You're supposed to be dead and buried. I didn't cap you. So I'm risking my own life here. Comprende?"
"Gee. How the hell can I thank--"
"Don't try. You know somebody who'll take care of your zoo?"
He nodded, thinking of Doobie, feeling sad because he'd never see the poor kid again, never see Wily Coyote or Durango the Rabbit, for that matter. Worse, Doobie would no doubt figure he was back doing bad things. This hurt more than anything. But, considering the alternative, he'd have to choose life and vanish. Totally. At the very least, he owed it to this girl.
"For the record," he murmured, "my name's Chet."
She grinned. "Okay Chet. So long Chet." She leaned over and kissed him, brushing her soft lips over his. Then she ran for the plane, moving like a graceful panther.
He watched her take off, then headed north at flank speed. Driving into the night, he stopped briefly near Bakersfield to bury the shovel and tarp. Later, he checked the envelope. Inside he found twenty $500.00 bills! A fortune. So long Ben & Whitey, may you both rot in hell.
Next morning, after ditching the car, he caught a ride with an old couple. In the afternoon they stopped in Modesto for gas. He bought a newspaper and saw this headline in the Chronicle:
STATE SENATOR SLAIN IN DESERT HIDEAWAY!
Below he read:
Senate finance chairman Bryson Cabot and a friend, a Mrs. Brenda Graziani, were shot to death last night, execution style, in a desert hideaway near White Canyon, CA. . .
Chet put down the newspaper. He didn't need to read any more. The girl was right. He had to disappear. But, thanks to her, he was alive and rich, instead of being dead and buried in some forgotten patch in the sand.
And so God bless Cat and Cleveland Amory, he thought, wherever they may be.