“A brutally funny, wickedly clever nightmare that heralds the triumphant return of Scott Phillips, the twenty-first century’s greatest purveyor of crime fiction.”
—Blake Crouch, author of Recursion and the Wayward Pines trilogy
Heading up the 5 and in a hyper-enervated state, he stopped in Mission Viejo at Manny’s Liquor and Variety Store, where he knew a working pay phone was attached to the brick wall outside. Scored and pitted, covered with graffiti and rust, for all Rigby knew it might have been the last one in Southern California. Next to it stood a skeletal derelict with a week’s growth of beard and stiff, ancient jeans gray with filth, looking as though he was waiting for a call. Rigby decided to go inside and buy a celebratory bottle, in case the tweaker decided to shove off on his own.
This might be the seedier side of Mission Viejo, but that still meant a fine selection of champagnes and a patronizing sales clerk. “We have a nice Veuve Clicquot here for sixty-four ninety-nine,” he said, nostrils flaring, eyeing him sidelong. “I imagine that’d do you nicely.” Minus the condescension, that would have been fine for Rigby’s purposes, but he felt compelled to put the salesman in his place.
“That’s white trash booze,” he said. “How much for the Krug?”
“That’s vintage. 2003.”
“Swell. How much?”
“Three hundred nineteen dollars and ninety-nine cents.”
“Great, and stick a bow on it.”
Outside, the stick figure was still standing by the phone. Rigby would have preferred not to have to interact with anyone in the context of this particular call, but the man gave no sign that he intended to get lost. Once Rigby had placed the champagne in the car, he walked up to the phone, jingling the quarters in his pocket.
“Phone’s in use right now,” the tweaker said.
“Doesn’t look that way to me.”
“Waiting for a call. Urgent.”
“That’s not the same as in use.”
“This is my phone, buddy.”
His initial instinct was to ratchet the conflict up, preferably ending with his throwing the tweaker into an arroyo somewhere, but making the least possible impression was important here, so he reached into his wallet and pulled out a ten. “Here. I need privacy for ten minutes.”
The tweaker snorted and looked away. “Ten bucks. Jesus, last of the big fuckin’ spenders here.”
Rigby crumpled the ten in his fist and focused on calming himself. He could easily lift this man over his head, snap his spine in two, could in fact do any number of things that would attract attention and ruin his chance to make an untraceable phone call.
“What you want, then?”
“Fuck you. A Benjamin or I ain’t moving.”
Again he resisted his natural impulse to escalate the situation, instead reaching back into his wallet and extracting a beautiful new hundred-dollar bill. The tweaker took it with a demented, near-toothless grin and scooted away across the parking lot and down the sidewalk before disappearing into a copse of dried-up trees. Just as Rigby was about to pick up the receiver, the phone rang and he picked up.
“Jason,” said a raspy voice on the other end of the line. “The Brewster.”
“Jason’s not here.”
“The fuck? He was supposed to be waiting.”
“Yeah, last time I saw him he was talking to some cops. Looked like narcs to me.” He hung up, then picked up again and waited for a dial tone, then started filling the thing with quarters. He punched in the number from memory, having burned the paper he’d written it down on.
“Yo, Crumdog’s phone.”
“This ain’t Crumdog. I answer his phone for him. The fuck is this?”
“This is Lancer. Pooty was supposed to tell Crumdog I was calling.”
There was a silence of fifteen or twenty seconds, and then a hoarse voice came on. “Yeah?”
“Pooty tell you I was calling?”
“Don’t know anybody named Pooty.”
“I did some work for Pooty a while back, got some charges dropped and it didn’t cost him a cent. Now he’s doing me a favor.”
“Might have heard about that.”
“He didn’t tell you Lancer was going to be in touch?”
“He might have mentioned something.”
“Look, I got something I’d like to unload. Pooty thought you might be glad to get it.”
“Pooty thinks a lot of things don’t necessarily jibe with reality.”
“Should I go somewhere else, then?”
“I didn’t say that. Fuck. All right, if it’s what Pooty Tang says it is, and I’m not saying I believe that, then we could do some business. You send someone and I’ll send someone and we’ll have them meet halfway. How far you at from Topeka?”
“Topeka? I’m on the West Coast.”
“Shit. All right, I don’t want a civilian crossing the whole fucking country with product.”
“I heartily agree.”
“Yeah. My man’ll meet yours in Needles, know it?”
“I know it, but why don’t we meet, you and me?”
“Jesus fucking Christ, you’re making me wonder if you’re too fucking green to do business with. You’re talking on a burner, right?”
“Where’d you find one of those? Fuck it, don’t matter. Get yourself a burner next time you wanna talk.”
“I’ll have my man in Needles tomorrow night.”
“What the fuck ever, ‘Lancer.’ Just know that if you fuck me over I will learn your real name and the Devil’s Hammers will make your slow death the fucking party of the decade.”
“Your reputation precedes you, Crumdog.”
Crumdog gave him the name and address of a suitable motel in Needles and hung up. Pulling out of the parking lot, Rigby saw Jason the Tweaker across the street hopping up and down on his left leg and exhibiting such childlike delight he almost regretted what he’d told the Brewster. But he consoled himself with the knowledge that Jason’s greed had cost him an extra ninety bucks at a moment when he could scarce afford to negotiate, and he didn’t think about him again the whole way back to Ventura.
Heading up the 5, Rigby gunned it. He was saved. Stony Flynn, a former client who owed him a few favors and knew that his finances were shaky, had let him know that if he could procure two hundred grand in cash, there was an accountant in La Jolla with a desperate need to get rid of a great deal of purloined coke, worth a great deal more than the asking price. Stony hadn’t meant to suggest that Rigby do the buying and selling himself, just thought he might supply the seed money and take a cut, but he underestimated both Rigby’s taste for risk and the depth of his current financial woes. Another former client, a serial arsonist named Pooty Tang (known in court documents as Desmond Tutwiler), had a connection with the Devil’s Hammers motorcycle club of Topeka, Kansas, and for a thousand-dollar bribe had arranged the introduction.
That afternoon, Rigby had met with the accountant in Carlsbad to make the exchange. He turned out to be a perspiration-soaked man with a tiny head in proportion to his body and a birdlike way of jerking his head around to check for threats. At the end of the meeting, he’d left the bar carrying the brand-new attaché Rigby had bought to hold the money and gone out to an old red Ford Focus and driven away. Neither knew the other’s name.
And now there was two hundred thousand dollars’ worth of uncut powder in the spare tire compartment, ready to convert into maybe half a million dollars without so much as cutting it. He couldn’t wait to tell Paula. Of course, there was no need for her to know the details. Hell, she didn’t know half of what had gone wrong in the last year and a half anyway. He’d managed to keep that from her; all she needed to know was that they were solvent again and weren’t going to lose the house. He wasn’t always a perfect husband, but when things got down and dirty, he always came through for her.
She was half an hour early for a ten o’clock meeting with a client in an old house on Thompson, converted into a coffee shop with a wavy wooden floor and surly staff. With a black coffee and a Danish before her, she was optimistic about the prospect of catching up on some work emails when she looked up and, to her horror, saw Beth Warden striding toward her table. Shit.
“Paula,” Beth said, her voice an octave higher than normal. “It’s been forever.”
She stood and forced a smile and accepted Beth’s embrace, kissed her on the cheek and sat back down. “Just getting caught up on some business,” she said.
Beth sat down as though she hadn’t heard and took a sip of her drink. “How is everything?”
This loathsome woman controls a significant portion of your finances, and now is not the time to throw scalding coffee in her treacherous face or to stab her hand with your pastry fork, she told herself. That day will come in the fullness of time.
“Everything’s great,” she said, confident that the pleasant expression on her face read as genuine. Paula was nothing if not a consummate saleswoman. She looked down at her tablet and her phone and gestured. “I’ve got quite a bit to get through before my client gets here.”
“The kids are running me ragged lately, between school and extracurriculars,” Beth said, as though Paula had asked. “Hey, was Danny ever in the Boy Scouts?”
The woman could not take a hint. “He was for a while, through St. Anthony. He gave it up in middle school.” Her phone rang, the vibrations making it dance on the table, and even though it was her boss, to whom she didn’t want to speak, she picked up. “Germaine, hi, you were on my call list this morning.” Until Beth had arrived, she hadn’t told a lie all day.
“Funny, seemed like you were avoiding me.”
“No, it’s just been a crazy week. I’m just about to meet with a client and going through some messages, you know how you get behind.” She gave Beth a sidelong glance.
“That’s why I’m calling, I can’t find the last of the paperwork on the Murray house. Did you get it filed?”
“Shit. This afternoon. Just as soon as I’m done with Dora Kenton. Before lunch.”
“Okay, kid. I’ve never known you to let these things slide.”
Once she hung up, she made a show of checking her emails rather than addressing Beth.
“You sure lead a busy life, Paula. I don’t know how you do it.” She reached across the table and put her hand on Paula’s. “By the way, I’m starting a memorial scholarship at Third Presbyterian in Britt’s name. I hope I can count on you for a thousand.”
A thousand! Good God, the balls on the woman. “You’ll have to ask Rigby, he makes all the decisions about those kinds of things.”
“That doesn’t sound like you, Paula, not very modern.”
“Division of labor. Do you want me to have him call you, or do you just want to wait until you run into him?” Paula said this with her most ingenuous smile, as though she didn’t know that Rigby and Beth met at least two or three times a week, mostly in the dark.
“Oh, I can call him, that’s fine,” she said.
Beth didn’t shut up or stand until the client arrived. Paula then spent forty-five minutes going through listings they might tour, and out of the thirty they discussed came up with a short list of only five. Afterward, driving down Thompson, she mulled over the possibility of confiding in Germaine. They’d been friends for years, and the burden of not having anyone to tell her real troubles to was wearing her down slowly. No doubt part of her sales slump was connected to it. But to admit to Germaine the kind of debt they were in, how close they were to losing the house, the fact that Rigby’s practice was down to a single client, that might actually make things worse. Instead of empathy for an old friend and protégée’s plight, she might feel contempt and anger for being put into a situation where one of her top agents was getting foreclosed on. And Germaine had never liked Rigby, always made it quite clear that she saw through the charm right down to the lying, cheating bastard underneath. For years Paula had tried subtly to change her opinion, but over time she’d come to realize that the old girl was dead-on about her husband’s character.
And now Rigby had some sort of cockamamie bullshit scheme, whose details he refused to share, that he claimed was going to pull the fat out of the fire and save the house. She didn’t want to hear what Germaine would certainly have to say about that.
Halfway to the office she drove past a bus bench with her own beaming face on it. Why couldn’t she live up to that stupid head shot? She pulled over to the curb and took her phone out of her purse.
Fuck it, I can tell Keith. Why not?
“Keith? Are you free this afternoon?”
“Got a lesson at one-thirty, I could meet you at three.”
The boyish enthusiasm in his voice thrilled her. The hell with Germaine, and the hell with Rigby. She was going to get laid and forget about all of it that afternoon.
Stained amber like the rest of the room’s fixtures by decades of nicotine, an ancient beige window unit rattled and wheezed, pouring out tepid air that smelled of mildew, and its cycling on and off didn’t seem to correspond to any actual changes in the room’s temperature. Billy hadn’t ever been to Needles before, and he hadn’t expected it to be near this hot at the end of April. Past a hundred degrees before noon, the little guy who checked him in said, peering over drugstore reading glasses. Billy suspected the man had just pocketed the ninety dollars cash he’d given him, since he never saw the man fill out any paperwork.
He sat on the bed, waiting for a knock on the door and looking over the knapsack as though someone were right there in the room with him waiting to steal it. It was just Billy, though, alone in the room, still tweaking a little bit from the night before and thinking about what he was going to do with the five thousand he was going to get when this business was all done with. Buy some dope, obviously, but maybe also a down payment on a ’78 Firebird Esprit he’d had his eye on. Or a deposit on a better apartment than he had so he could get Magda to move in with him. That shit about her living in Moorpark wasn’t flying anymore, he was tired of making the drive all the time, and she wouldn’t even set foot in his place anymore.
It was a real lucky break, Ernie setting him up with the lawyer. This was going to be the easiest five grand anybody ever made. Shit, the lawyer’d even given him two hundred in advance for gas, the motel and some food. He’d eaten dinner at Applebee’s, splurging on a T-bone steak with seasoned fries and three giant draft beers. He’d congratulated himself for his cunning when the waitress asked to see his ID and he’d handed her his fake one, which he still kept at the age of twenty-three for just such an occasion. The lawyer was going to be proud of him when he heard about it. No sir, I didn’t want anybody in Needles knowing my real name. He’d checked into the motel using the same driver’s license, though that squirrely clerk had given it only the most perfunctory of glances. Warren Evans was the name on the card, with an address in Long Beach, and Billy’s picture on it looked just like he imagined a Warren Evans would look, all serious and intense. It had cost him a hundred dollars when he was nineteen, from a guy who sold ID cameras and had a sideline making phony IDs for underage drinkers and other low-level miscreants.
He thought about what Magda was going to say when he pulled out the wad of bills and said here it is, baby, five thousand dollars cash, let’s go spend some of this shit. First thing he was going to do was take her out for a nice dinner. Lobster, maybe, at the Sportsman downtown.
He wanted to masturbate, but he didn’t know exactly when the guy was coming by, so it didn’t seem like a good idea unless he could rub one out real quick, and without any visual aids it might take a while. The TV didn’t even have premium channels, let alone Pay-Per-View smut, but he reasoned that when you were doing this kind of high-end shady business, you couldn’t do it at a Holiday Inn or a Red Roof. In any case, he didn’t want to do the handover sporting a boner.
It was ten forty-five when the knock finally came. Looking through the peephole, he saw a tall, lanky bald guy in leathers marked devil’s hammers topeka. The fringes of his hair had grown to a considerable length, matching the fringes of his leathers, and Billy opened up.
He stood in the doorway and Billy tried to think of some way to make sure he was the actual guy and not some joker out to rob him, not so much because he thought that might be the case but because he didn’t want to look like some corn-fed rube who didn’t know any better. But he couldn’t think of anything like that.
“Goddamn it, you gonna let me in or what?” the guy said.
“Sure,” Billy said, and he stepped aside to let him pass.
“I’m Billy,” he said once they were both inside with the door closed.
“I don’t want to know your fuckin’ name.”
“Oh. Well, here it is, anyway.” He opened up the briefcase, and the guy stuck a penknife into one of the packets and tasted the end of the blade with the tip of his pointy tongue.
“Yeah, seems all right to me, but I’m no expert. I’m going to have to take it to Barstow and let Crumdog have a taste. You got a problem with that?”
“Sergeant-at-Arms of the Devil’s Hammers. He says the shit’s what you say it is, I’ll be back in, like, two hours with your cash.”
The guy snapped the backpack closed, tucked it under his arm, gave him a happy little two-finger salute as he stepped outside, then hopped onto his hog and rode away. Billy felt pretty good. That was a lot of dope in that backpack, a lot more than he’d imagined, and it was exciting to be part of a big deal like this. He figured the lawyer might be using him from now on for more missions like this, might make him a trusted lieutenant or something. Now to sit back and wait for the guy to come back with the money.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Scott Phillips is a screenwriter, photographer and the author of seven novels and numerous short stories. His bestselling debut novel, The Ice Harvest, was a New York Times Notable Book and was adapted as a major motion picture starring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton. He won the California Book Award and was a finalist for the Edgar Award, the Hammett Prize, and the CWA Gold Dagger Award. Scott was born and raised in Wichita, Kansas, and lived for many years in France. He now lives with his wife and daughter in St. Louis, Missouri.