Read Watch Your Back Online

Authors: Donald Westlake

Watch Your Back (20 page)

Chapter 38
Preston never did get used to the ride. When the cigarette boat crashed across the sea, if you were down in the forward cabin, you felt it.

And the forward cabin is where he’d been put. The two hard men running this boat, Australians or New Zealanders or some such from their accent, had reached out strong, tough hands and taken him off the sailboat with Pam’s mocking laugh loud in his ears. They’d hustled him down the steps beside the wheel — “Watch yer ‘ead” — and into this front cabin, which in motion reminded him mostly of the machine at the hardware store that mixes the paint. They’d made it clear this is where he would remain. “Ye’ll stay ere,” one of them told him, “an make no trouble, an that way we don’t have to bop ye.”

“Where are you taking me?”

That made the fellow laugh. “Where do ye think, mate?”

Florida. No question in his mind. That was the scheme, damn their eyes. They’d inveigled him off the island — Pam had been just the perfect Judas ewe, hadn’t she? — so they could
grab
him and deliver him somewhere on the south Florida coast, directly into the arms of the process server. Years of thumbing his nose at them all, and now how they’d laugh.

No. He had to stop it, keep it from happening, somehow turn the laugh back at them. But how?

The two men who’d kidnapped him — were they bribable? He had no money with him, no wallet, not even clothing. He had nothing on his person but flip–flops, a bathing suit, a Rolex, and a floppy brimmed white hat with a chin–strap. But they had to know who he was, or at least something about him, enough to know he was wealthy, that if they took him to a bank instead of to the process server — No ID. No ATM card, no driver’s license, nothing.

Well, let’s say. Let’s say it’s possible somehow to get one’s hands on cash; would these fellows accept cash? Or would they bop him if he made the offer?

From the bunk where he sat braced against the sidewall in a vain effort to resist the endless pounding of their passage through the sea, he could look up diagonally and see the lower half of the one seated at the wheel. Occasionally, the other one moved in and out of view, sure–footed on the bucking deck.

Hard, methodical men in their forties, they were, with deep tans and leathery skin. They both wore battered old deck shoes, cutoff jeans, pale T–shirts that said nothing but had the sleeves torn off, and baseball caps without logos. Anonymous to a fault. Blond hair was visible around the edges of their caps, shaggy and unwashed, and their blue eyes contained no more warmth than the ocean.

They would bop him. He had to acknowledge that, that his money wasn’t any good on this boat, even if he had his money on this boat. Those two were tough, methodical professionals with long careers behind them and in front of them, and he was one day’s delivery.

What would they do on their other days? Smuggle people, smuggle drugs without taking any, smuggle whatever would pay. Today they were smuggling him, and they would concern themselves with his affairs no more than if he were a plastic bag of heroin.

How could he get around them, get away from them, spoil the delivery? He knew how to swim, and God knew he was dressed for swimming, but even if he could get past those two to the ocean, which he knew damn well he could not, where was land? Not to be seen outside the round window next to which he jounced.

When we get there, he thought. Somewhere in Florida. When we get there, we’ll see what we can do.

Six fifty–seven p.m. in this time zone by the Rolex, when the quality of their thumping progress across the sea abruptly shifted. The August sun, God’s blood blister, hung midway down the sky, and all at once the cigarette boat wasn’t lunging any more. It had come to a canter, a trot; its nose was lowering as though to graze. They had arrived.

Where? Preston looked out the round window beside him and saw nothing but sea, the same old sea, if perhaps a trifle less serrated than before. So he leaned forward, no longer having to hold himself tense against the pounding motion of the boat, and there it was: land. Very low land, pale tan, with what looked like mangrove here and there against the water.

Where was this? Not Miami, certainly. Somewhere very low and undeveloped, with shallow water now beneath the boat, though they were still some way from shore, which was probably why they’d slowed so soon.

Florida is almost nothing but coastline, but most of it is very heavily patrolled, because of drug smugglers and potential terrorists and illegals from Cuba and Haiti. The two men operating this boat would know the safe places to land, where there would be no one around to ask the awkward questions, and this would be one of them.

The Keys — that’s where they must be, the hundred–mile line of islands dangling south of Florida like a Fu Manchu beard. Much of it was developed and overdeveloped, but some was deserted, like this section here.

Well, no, not completely deserted. As they rolled closer, he could see, off to the left, that the low land curved outward toward the sea, and in the elbow thus created, half a dozen small boats idly bobbed, one or two people standing in each, fishing.

Bonefish. That’s what people tried for down here. Those would be bonefishermen, standing in the bright, hot August Florida sun, its heat and glare and cancer–enhancing qualities redoubled by the bounce from the water all around them, the air very nearly as wet as the sea, and they were here to prove they were smarter than some skinny, inedible fish.

A thumping sounded on the cabin roof. One of his captors had climbed up to toss a rope to whoever was waiting on shore. The other had to concentrate now on maneuvering the big boat in as close as possible to land.

Could he reach the fishermen? He could only try, and this was surely his last chance. It was now or never.

His heart was pounding. What would they do if they caught him? Surely something more than just bop him, if only to relieve their feelings.

As he sat there, wanting to, afraid to, the image of his ex–wives rose unbidden into his mind. The four of them, laughing, and goddamn Pam with them, and by
God,
they all looked alike! Laughing at him for how easy he was to lead around, and not even by the hand.

A sudden embarrassed rage overtook fear, and Preston was on his feet, up the steps,
watching
his head, stomp, stomp,
over
the side like a hippopotamus into a swamp, but away, down, stroking, kicking, away, up, bright day, roar of motor far too near, bonefishermen over
there.

It was the crawl he’d learned in college, and it was the crawl he did now, arms pinwheeling, legs kicking, trying not to hear that goddamn boat. Thrusting, thrusting, then realizing the roar of the motor had not gotten louder, it was less, it was fading.

He was swimming faster than the boat? Impossible. He dared a quick look back, a break in the rhythm of the crawl, and the cigarette boat had stopped back there, was glaring at him like an attack dog on a leash, while both men in the boat were pointing at him and yelling toward shore.

Shore. He couldn’t stay floating in place out here; he had to keep swimming and somehow try to see the shore at the same time. He did it, panting, straining, and yes, there it was over there, a white limousine moving leftward beside the water, someone in the backseat yelling at the men in the boat.

Well, at least they’d sent a limo for him.

It was too shallow here for the cigarette boat — that’s what had happened — so he no longer had them to worry about. Now all he had to concern him was whoever was in that white limousine.

The fishermen had realized something was up, and one of them now put down his pole, sat, and started his little outboard. Putt–putt, it came toward him as the limo stopped, unable to continue along the deep sand and wet mangrove swamp along the shore. Three men clambered from the limo, all in shorts and light shirts and sunglasses, and began fighting their way through the vegetation, waving their arms around as though mosquitoes were happy to welcome them to their island.

The little boat came to a bobbing stop beside Preston, and the man in it called, “Come on up here!”

“Right! Thank you! Right you are!”

Preston flung his arms over the gunwale but could do no more. His legs kept drifting, under the boat, and he couldn’t lever his body up out of the water.

Finally, his rescuer grabbed Preston under both armpits from behind, pulled, and scraped his chest up and over the splintery wooden edge of the boat, until he could reach the top of Preston’s bathing suit and yank on
that,
at which point Preston found it was possible to help, thrashing and lunging and kicking and beating until he landed himself on the wet, dirty bottom of the boat.

The man gazed down at him with a grin. He said, “I like that watch.”

Gasping, Preston cried, “Get me out of here!”

“Oh, maybe you wanna see your friends, man,” the fisherman said, with a snotty little grin. He was Hispanic, heroically mustached, unshaven, dressed in a hopeless straw hat, a Budweiser T–shirt, and ratty green work pants. He was barefoot, and his toenails did not bear thinking about. Still grinning at Preston, he said, “Maybe we wait for them. That’s some nice limo.”

Preston sat up. No time for nonsense. “If those people capture me again,” he said, “they’ll kill you. You’re a witness.”

Abruptly the smile went away, and the fisherman gave a worried look toward the running men. He would know the stories about what sometimes happened in this part of the world. He said, “I don’t want none a this shit, man.”

“You’re already in it,” Preston told him. “Get me away from here, and this watch is yours.”

“Oh, it’s mine, man, I know that,” the fisherman said. “Okay, get down now.” And at last he turned back to his outboard motor.

Get down? Preston was already seated on the bottom of the boat. “What are you doing?” he wanted to know, and twisted around to look forward.

The fisherman was steering them directly toward the shore. The trio from the limo had found some sort of path and were running much more strongly than before, their arms pumping. The boat and the three, it seemed to Preston, were all going to meet at the same spot, on the shoreline. “What are you
doing?

“Get
down,
man!”

Then he saw it. A tiny inlet curved away into the mangroves, and just visible way back in there, a footbridge stood barely above the water.

“We can’t go under
that!

“Not with you sitting up that way, fool!”

Preston flopped down onto his face as the three men ran on, almost to the bridge, which slapped Preston on the backside as he zoomed by.

Chapter 39
Wednesday was the most jam–packed day of Judson Blint’s life, beginning when he got to the office in the morning and J.C. paid him for his first week’s work, and ending when he rode in the rented Ford Econoline van full of his earthly possessions through the Midtown Tunnel into Manhattan just before midnight. And in between, he’d joined a gang and learned a skill.

The start was nine in the morning, when he entered suite 712. He started toward his desk, and J.C. stuck her head out from the inner office to say, “Come on in. It’s time you got paid.”

He’d wondered about that. He’d been working here a week now, taking care of all the businesses J.C. didn’t need any more, Intertherapeutic and Super Star and Allied Commissioners, and apart from a few cash advances he still hadn’t seen any money. Yes, this was essentially a criminal operation going on here, or a whole bunch of criminal operations, but he still needed to get some kind of salary.

However, he hadn’t yet figured out how to raise the subject, so it was a relief that J.C. had brought it up herself. “Good!” he said, and followed her back into her office, still a neater place than his own.

She gestured to him to sit in the other chair, herself sat behind the desk, and opened a drawer to take out a ledger book and a gray canvas sack with a zipper on it and a bank logo across the side. Setting the sack apart, she opened the ledger and said, “You started here last Wednesday, so I guess it’s just easiest to put you on a Wednesday to Tuesday week.”

“Okay.”

“I gave you a couple advances — a hundred fifty — so that comes out of it.”

“Uh huh.”

She took a wad of cash out of the sack and started counting it on the desktop as she said, “Your take this week comes to seven hundred twenty–two, but I don’t do singles, so we round it down to seven–twenty, subtract the yard and a half, five–seventy, and here you are.”

Five hundred and seventy dollars, a thick wad of cash, was thrust toward him. He took it, gaped at it, gaped at her. “J.C., uh,” he said, “can I ask?”

“What, you don’t think that’s enough?”

“No, it’s fine! It’s more than I — But you said, my take for this week. I don’t understand. How did you get to that number?”

She looked surprised for a second, then laughed and said, “That’s right, I negotiated your deal for you, and then I never got around to telling you the agreement you made. You get twenty percent of the scams you’re covering. The rest goes to me for office upkeep and thinking them up in the first place.”

“Twenty — twenty percent of all those checks?”

“Judson, I just don’t think I can get you a better piece. Believe me, I —”

“No no,” he said. “I’m not complaining. Twenty percent, that’s fine. Fine. I didn’t, I didn’t realize it was going to work that way.”

“What’d you think I was gonna do, pay you by the hour? Do you want wages? Or do you want a piece?”

“I want a piece,” he said. Some answers he knew right away.

Later that morning, when he brought into her office today’s mail for Maylohda, he said, “I want to come back late from lunch. I’m pretty much caught up out there.”

“Got a nooner?”

Peeved with himself for blushing, but feeling the damn blood in his cheeks anyway, he said, “No, I just thought — I need my own place in the city, I thought I’d go look for an apartment.”

She nodded. “Furnished or unfurnished?”

“Furnished for now, I mean, I don’t —”

“Studio?” At his blank look, she said, “An L–shaped room, sofa over here, bed over there, separate kitchen, separate john.”

“Oh. Yeah, that’d be good.” Did she also rent apartments?

Reaching for her phone, she said, “Lemme make a call. There’s a woman in this building, down on four, she’s got a pretty good agency. Muriel, please. Muriel, it’s J.C. Making a living. Listen, I got a jailbait boy here needs a furnished studio. Well, he
can
go two, but he’d rather not.” She looked at Judson. “East Side or West Side?”

“I don’t know, really.”

“West Side,” she told the phone. “Maybe downtown, one of the Spanish parts of Chelsea. He doesn’t wanna pay MBA rates. He works for me, if that’s a vouch. His name is Judson Blint.” Hanging up, she said to Judson, “Go down to four oh six. They’ll give you the address. Go now, come back after lunch.”

“Thanks.”

“Welcome to Big Town,” she said.

He never did see Muriel. Four oh six said
Top–Boro Properties
on the door, and inside was a very high–class reception area with a very high–class receptionist. He gave her his name and she said, “Oh, yes, here you are,” and gave him a card.

It was Top–Boro’s business card, with
Muriel Spelvin
on the lower right. On the back was an address on West Twenty–seventh Street, and the name
Eduardo.

“That’s the super,” she said. “Ask for him, he’ll show you the place, if you want it, come back here.”

“Thank you.”

Not knowing any better, he walked the two miles, and found the block to be half very old tenement–type buildings in brick, with high stoops, and half tallish old apartment buildings in stone. The address he wanted was one of the original tenements, and at the top of the stoop was a vertical line of doorbells, half with names attached. The bottom one said SUPER, so he pushed it, waited, and a short, heavy guy in undershirt and work pants and black boots came out from under the stairs to look up and shout, “Hoy?”

“Eduardo?”

“Si.”

“I’m Judson Blint, I’m here to see the apartment.”

“Hokay.”

Eduardo trotted up the stoop. He had shaved this week, but not today. He was friendly but distracted, as though in some other corner of his life he were busy cooking an elaborate lunch. He said, “Come wit me.”

Judson went with him into the building, up two narrow, dim flights of stairs, and to the leftward of the two doors at the rear of the hall there. Elaborately he undid three locks, then opened the door, walked in first, and said, “Empty three weeks. I keep it clean.”

It was clean — shabby, but clean. All the furniture looked gnawed somehow, as though some previous tenant had kept small, nervous wild animals in here. The layout was exactly as J.C. had described, though she hadn’t mentioned how small the kitchen and bathroom would be — no tub, just shower — or how old the appliances. The refrigerator door was propped open.

“Is the electricity off?”

“You call Con Ed, they turn it on,” Eduardo said. “Switch your account from your old place.”

“I don’t have an old place.”

Eduardo shrugged. “You call Con Ed.”

The bathroom and the bedroom end of the L–shaped room each had a window, old, large, double–hung, guarded by expanding metal gates. Judson peered through the metal strips at half a dozen plane tree branches and the back of a building similar to this one.

“S’okay?”

“I like it,” Judson said.

“See you around.”

Back at Top–Boro he signed a lease that the receptionist assured him was full of loopholes, so he could always walk away if he found something better. The rent was seventeen forty–two fifty–three a month, which meant he immediately owed three thousand, four hundred eighty–five dollars and six cents, none of which he had, but which the receptionist assured him his employer was taking care of. He left with a dizzy head, a copy of the porous lease, and a lot of keys, all to the same apartment.

Upstairs, he went into J.C.’s office and said, “You’re paying the rent?”

“Because you don’t have it,” she said. “I’ll take it back from your piece, ten percent a month, one percent vig.”

He thought he understood what that was. “Thank you,” he said.

She nodded. “You got more stuff to do?”

“Con Ed.”

“Right. And open a checking account — people don’t trust you if you give them cash.”

“I will.”

“And no matter how late it is, come back here and finish up today’s stuff. You don’t wanna let things pile up.”

“No, I won’t.”

It was quarter to five before he got back, but he now had an apartment, electricity, and a checking account. He was becoming, he realized, an actual person.

J.C.’s door was open, and she was coming out, ready to go home, looking terrific in white dress and white heels. “Call Andy Kelp,” she said. “I put his number on your desk.”

“Okay. Thanks.” Proudly he said, “I have an apartment and a checking account.”

“Today you are a man,” she said, but she seemed to be grinning to herself as she left.

Casting that from his mind, Judson phoned Andy Kelp, who answered right away, saying, “Hello, Judson, I understand you’re moving to town.”

“In a couple days, yes,” Judson said, because he planned to start setting the place up tomorrow and make the move over the weekend.

But Kelp said, “No, Judson, you’ve got the place now, why not move in? You’ve got your electric?”

“I just came back from Con Ed.”

“Good. Here’s what I’m gonna do for you, my kinda welcome wagon. When you get done your work, call me, then go to your place, I’ll meet you there. I have a little training session for you, then we’re gonna rent a van, you and me, and while I drive you’ll practice some more, and when we come back to town with your goods you’ll do a little something for me, then give the van back and go to your new home and sleep like a baby.”

It was after seven before Judson could phone Andy Kelp and say he was ready. “I’ll walk down now, I’ll be there in half an hour.”

“Take a cab,” Kelp said.

“Oh. Okay.”

So he took a cab — more grownupness — and Kelp was waiting for him on the sidewalk, a big cardboard box standing next to him. “Give me a hand with this,” he said.

The box was about the size of a wheeled suitcase and pretty heavy. They lugged it up the stoop and then had to wait while Judson figured out which key opened the front door. The two flights up from there were tricky, with a number of banged elbows, but then they got to the door of Judson’s apartment, he figured out those keys, too, and they carried the box in and set it down.

The only change from this morning was that the electricity was on. The refrigerator door was still open, spreading light and coolth into the kitchen, so the first thing Judson did was shut it, while Kelp was figuring out how to open the gate over the main room’s window so he could open the window. Turning from that, he said, “My recommendation, get an A/C. Either that, or rent the apartment in front, too. What you want is your cross–ventilation.”

“I don’t know this place yet,” Judson said.

“No, I know that,” Kelp agreed, and turned back to the box. “Let’s have a little training session, then grab a bite, then rent that truck.”

Judson watched as Kelp opened the carton and pulled out of it a dark gray metal box, laying it on the thin dark rug on the floor. It was an alarm box. It looked exactly like the alarm box on that building Tiny had been studying. “That’s the alarm box,” he said.

“The one you wanted to be boosted up to, yeah,” Kelp agreed. He was now pulling out of the carton a packet of soft black leather, which he unrolled to show a toolkit. “We got a better idea,” he said. “Also, it turns out, the manufacturer did some modifications on these things since the last time I met one.”

“How’d you find that out?”

Kelp shrugged. “I went on their Web site. People will tell you anything if they think they can make a sale. So I lifted this one from their warehouse so we could study it. And also use it.” He rooted around in the box, came out with a little pamphlet. “Okay, here’s the instruction manual. It’d be better if it was attached to a wall, but we don’t wanna mess up your place, so we’ll do it on the floor. I’ll read from the manual, and you do like it says. Here, take the tools.”

Judson took the toolkit, admiring the softness of the leather, and sat cross–legged on the floor in front of the alarm. Kelp sat on the sofa, bounced experimentally, and said, “My advice, get a sheet a plywood, put under the cushions. Your springs here are but a memory.”

“Okay.”

“Okay. Now, the first thing we do, we’re gonna learn how to remove the cover.” Kelp bent over the instruction manual. “You will notice four Phillips–head screws in the corners of the cover.”

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