The Fifth Quarter - Page 1

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  • I parked the heap around the corner from Keenan's house, sat in the dark for a moment, then turned off the key and got out. When I slammed the door, I could hear rust flaking off the rocker panels and dropping onto the street. It wasn't going to be like that much longer.

    The gun was in a bandolier holster and lay against my ribcage like a fist. It was Barney's.45, and I was glad of that. It lent the whole crazy business a touch of irony. Maybe even a sense of justice.

    Keenan's house was an architectural monstrosity spread over a quarter-acre of land, all slanting angles and steep-sloped roofs behind an iron fence. He'd left the gate unlocked, as I'd hoped. Earlier I'd seen him calling someone from the living room, and a hunch too strong to deny told me it had been either Jagger or the Sarge. Probably the Sarge. The waiting was over; this was my night.

    I walked to the driveway, staying close to the shrubbery and listening for any strange sound over the cutting whine of the January wind. There wasn't any. It was Friday night, and Keenan's sleep-in maid would be out having a jolly time at somebody's Tupperware party. Nobody home but that bastard Keenan. Waiting for the Sarge. Waiting -- although he didn't know it yet -- for me.

    The carport was open and I slipped inside. The ebony shadow of Keenan's Impala loomed. I tried the back door. The car was also open. Keenan wasn't cut out to be a villain, I reflected; he was much too trusting. I got in the car, sat down, and waited.

    Now I could hear the faint sound of jazz on the wind, very quiet, very good. Miles Davis, maybe. Keenan listening to Miles Davis and holding a gin fizz in one manicured hand. Nice for him.

    It was a long wait. The hands on my watch crawled from eight-thirty to nine to ten. Time for a lot of thinking. I mostly thought about Barney, and that wasn't strictly a matter of choice. I thought about how he looked in that small boat when I found him, staring up at me and making meaningless cawing noises. He'd been adrift for two days and looked like a boiled lobster. There was black blood encrusted across his midsection where he'd been shot.

    He'd steered toward the cottage as best he could, but still it had been mostly luck. Lucky he'd gotten there, lucky he could still talk for a little while. I'd had a fistful of sleeping pills ready if he couldn't talk. I didn't want him to suffer. Not unless there was a reason for it, anyway. As it turned out, there was. He had a story to tell, a real whopper, and he told me almost all of it.

    When he was dead, I went back to the boat and got his.45. It was hidden aft in a small compartment, wrapped in a waterproof pouch. Then I towed his boat out into deep water and sank it. If I could have put an epitaph over his head, it would have been the one about how there's a sucker born every minute. Most of them are pretty nice guys, too, I bet -- just like Barney. Instead, I started trying to find the men who capped him. It had taken six months to find Keenan and to ascertain that Sarge was, at least, somewhere close by, but I'm a persistent little pup, and here I was.

    At ten-twenty, headlights splashed up the curving driveway and I lay on the floor of the Impala. The newcomer drove into the carport, snuggling up close to Keenan's car. It sounded like one of the old Volkswagens. The little engine died and I could hear Sarge grunting softly as he fought his way out of the little car. The porch light went on, and the sound of the door clicking open came to me.

    Keenan: "Sarge! You're late! Come on in and have a drink."

    Sarge: "Scotch."

    I'd unrolled the window before. Now I stuck Barney's.45 through it, holding the stock with both hands. "Stand still," I said.

    The Sarge was halfway up the porch steps. Keenan, the perfect host, had come out and was looking down at him, waiting for him to come up so he could after-you him into the house. They were both perfect silhouettes in the light spilling through from inside. I doubted if they could see much of me in the dark, but they could see the gun. It was a big gun.

    "Who the hell are you?" Keenan asked.

    "Jerry Tarkanian," I said. "Move and I'll put a hole in you big enough to watch television through."

    "You sound like a punk," Sarge said. He didn't move, though.

    "Just don't move. That's all you've got to worry about." I opened the Impala's back door and got out carefully. The Sarge was staring at me over his shoulder and I could see the glitter of his little eyes. One hand was creeping up the lapel of his 1943-model double-breasted suit.

    "Oh, please," I said. "Get your f**king hands up, a**hole."

    The Sarge put his hands up. Keenan's already were.

    "Come down to the foot of the steps. Both of you."

    They came down, and out of the direct glare of the light I could see their faces. Keenan looked scared, but the Sarge might have been listening to a lecture on Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. He was probably the one who had jobbed Barney.

    "Face the wall and lean on it. Both of you."

    Keenan: "If you're after money..."

    I laughed. "Well, I was going to start off by offering you a cut-rate deal on Tupperware, work my way up to the big stuff gradually, but you saw through me. Yeah, I'm after money. Four hundred and eighty thousand dollars, actually. Buried on a little island off Bar Harbor called Carmen's Folly."

    Keenan jerked as if he'd been shot, but the Sarge's dipped-in-concrete face never twitched. He turned around and put his hands on the wall, leaning his weight on them. Keenan reluctantly followed suit. I frisked him first and got a stupid little.32 with a three-inch barrel. A gun like that, you could put the muzzle against a guy's head and still miss when you pulled the trigger. I threw it over my shoulder and heard it bounce off one of the cars. Sarge was clean -- and it was a relief to step away from him.

    "We're going into the house. You first, Keenan, then Sarge, then me. Without incident, okay?"

    We all trooped up the steps and into the kitchen. It was one of those germless chrome-and-tile jobs that looks like it was spit whole out of some mass-production womb in the Midwest somewhere, the work of hearty Methodist a**holes who all look like Mr. Goodwrench and smell like Cherry Blend tobacco. I doubt if it ever needed anything so vulgar as cleaning; Keenan probably just closed the doors and turned on the hidden sprinklers once a week.

    I paraded them through into the living room, another treat for the eyes. A pansy decorator who never got over his crush on Ernest Hemingway had apparently done it. There was a flagstone fireplace almost as big as an elevator car, a teak buffet table with a moosehead mounted above it, and a drinks cart stashed below a gunrack loaded with premium artillery. The stereo had turned itself off.

    I waved the gun at the couch. "One on each end."

    They sat, Keenan on the right, Sarge on the left. The Sarge looked even bigger sitting down. An ugly, dented scar twisted its way through his slightly overgrown crewcut. I put his weight at about two-thirty, and wondered why a man with the size and physical presence of Mike Tyson owned a Volkswagen.

    I grabbed an easy chair and dragged it over Keenan's quicksand-colored rug until it was in front and between them. I sat down and let the.45 rest on my thigh. Keenan stared at it like a bird stares at a snake. The Sarge, on the other hand, was staring at me like he was the snake and I was the bird. "Now what?" he asked.

    "Let's talk about maps and money," I said.

    "I don't know what you're talking about," Sarge said. "All I know is that little boys shouldn't play with guns."

    "How's Cappy MacFarland these days?" I asked casually.

    It didn't get jack shit from the Sarge, but Keenan popped his cork. "He knows. He knows!" The words shot out of him like bullets.