A Novel

Chapter 17: The Day Mr. Esquire-Man Came to Town

The following morning » Thursday, August 27, 1987 » the Ranch House » back office » Blondie at her desk smoking a cigarette while simultaneously removing Fantasy Winter Rose nail polish with a Cutex-soaked cotton ball (the Fantasy Winter Rose had disappointed) and talking on the telephone to Durney.

Durney wanted Floyd Hotchkiss's backpack. "I need that backpack Blondie. As proof. The kid won't bite if I can't prove I have it."

"How does he think you even know about the backpack if you don't have it."

"He doesn't know what to think. His memory's fucked. His mind's on the panic rack right now. I guess from when I sloughed him. That and all the pain shit he's on. I don't know. For whatever reason, or no reason at all, he doesn't believe I have the backpack and he's hinky on that damned backpack, and so are you and I'm beginning to wonder why you are too."

"Oh for Christ's sake, Durney. You should be able to pull this without the backpack. I already gave you everything you need. Just have the kid call the telephone number at seven o'clock by Sunday at the latest. The kid knows what to do—he practically spelled it out for me the other day—and he knows he can't do it without the information we have. He remembers; he's just messing with you. If he's asking to see the backpack then he remembers. This kid's a shitter, and he's shitting you. Now, if he really can shake this guy down, then it won't matter at this point whether he has the book or not. Just remember: do not give him the telephone number. You do the dialing. He digs in and demands to see the backpack, then I can get you a Polaroid or something, but that's not gonna be necessary. The kid thinks he's tough, and talks it too, but he's callow, and he's started something he knows he can't really finish, and if he doesn't know it, he'll find out real quick. He's lucky he fell into our hands."

Durney demurred. Durney made excuses. Durney was on edge.

"I'm disappointed, Durney. I remember a time there was nothing you couldn't do; you could've whistled and this kid would've jumped. You do still know how to use the butt end of a gun, don't you? Or has this many years living with your wife—"

"Goddamn you, Blondie—"

"Goddamn you, Durney. After everything I've—"

"Fine, fine. You know I didn't mean anything. I'm just frustrated. And yes maybe a little worried. There's an angle here. Hidden maybe. I can feel it but I can't see it. I'm worried that maybe you aren't seein' it either. I just want to see what's in that bag. I feel as though I'm driving midnight without any headlights."

"Trust me on this one. I've seen what's in it, and it won't mean anything to you. Let it stay hidden. The kid's a cinch, but you're right: we don't know what we're dealing with on the other end. The guy, Delaney I mean, the guy he wants to blackmail. But just set it up like any other frammis, and we should be fine. I do know one thing, though, and that's that there aren't any clues in the bag. Just let the bag stay hidden for now. If we really need it, then fine, I'll have it for you at a moment's notice. But trust me on this one. I trusted you, even when I shouldn't have. Trust me on this."

Blondie hung up the telephone.

She felt uneasy. She was starting to have an odd feeling about the whole scheme. She was starting to worry they could lose control of it real fast, or that maybe they were never in control to begin with.

She hadn't ever felt that way before. Durney practically owned the county, except the tiny slice he had given to Todd Menocken, as a concession. But this, this situation, this kid, this man:

→The kid, Floyd Hotchkiss, appeared, almost out of thin air.

→Floyd Hotchkiss had a plan to blackmail Durney.

When Blondie had telephoned Durney, to tell him they should take over Floyd's shakedown, she thought Floyd was just some punk kid, and the man was probably an easy mark, like just about every other man she ever met. But then:

→Fernando Pedrosa turned up, looking for Floyd, and Fernando was an entirely different kettle of fish, and Fernando obviously worked for Delaney, and Delaney began to seem as if maybe he wasn't such an easy mark after all.

→Delaney, the mark, the target: he took on an entirely different aspect—still unknown, but now loaded with a more threatening quality. More threatening because more familiar, more recognizable, in a bad, bad way: he was a man with at least three people working for him: Floyd Hotchkiss, Fernando Pedrosa, and somebody named "Joe". Each imbued with an urgency and secretiveness and pomposity that she only ever knew to be combined in one type, the criminal type.

Why, she wondered, had she failed to recognize it immediately?

[See Document Insert 17-001.]

She walked out to the reception desk. As she approached the lobby, she heard Art speaking quietly, but with slithering delectation, to another man. The two men abruptly ended the conversation when Blondie entered the lobby. Art stood behind the reception desk. The other man stood opposite Art, on the other side of the counter.

Art began shuffling through papers. He behaved awkwardly, like a schoolboy caught passing notes in class. He quickly and silently completed the paperwork for the man's room.

The other man, in contrast, seemed completely untroubled by Blondie's entrance, almost as if he had anticipated it. He was a porcine man in his mid-forties, over-weight, but not fat. He looked as if he could be a traveling salesman who had eaten too many meals at greasy spoons. He wore an ugly, brown business suit, and she could see his car, a Lincoln Continental, through the lobby door. Though she sensed something secretive and conspiratorial in his bearing, he openly stared at her, staring her almost out of countenance, before finally acknowledging her presence with an oily nod of the head. He made her feel unsettled and even a little unsafe. Was it his greasy hair, or the way his corpulence had almost exhausted the capacity of his suit to contain it? He almost seemed to be licking his chops, all hungry-like. It had been years, decades really, since any man had looked at her that way, as if she were a patty of cheap ground-chuck sizzling away on the hot gridiron of a Weber grill.

Art took a key from the key rack, and gave it to the man, saying "You'll be in room nine. Your parking space is marked nine too, and it's right in front of your room. Enjoy your stay, sir."

The man thanked him, and left the lobby.

Blondie asked, "What was that all about?"

"What was what all about?"

"You and that man acted strange when I came out of the back office."

"No, he was just a customer inquiring about a room."

"I felt like I had interrupted a private conversation."

"How could I be having a private conversation with a man I never met before?"

"Well why did it take him so long to register for a room? I saw his car pull up twenty minutes ago."

"He was just asking about the area."

"What did he want to know about it?"

"Well, he said he might be staying a while."

"For how long?"

"Jesus Blondie, what's with the third degree? I was just trying to be friendly to a customer. Is that against the rules?"

She repeated her question, "How long did he say he would be here?"

Art sighed, "He said he didn't know. He's visiting family in the area. His mother's sick or something and he didn't know how long he'd be staying, so he was wondering about some places to eat, drink, go bowling—that kind of thing."

"Eating, drinking, bowling, visiting his poor, sick mother, and, oh, also just happens to be shoulder-holstering a gat beneath his suit jacket."

"Since when do you care if a customer carries a gun?"

"Since never, but it doesn't go so well with his story, does it?" She picked up the man's registration card and examined it, reading aloud, "'Timothy Esquire-Man'? Jesus Christ, Art, are you out of your mind? What kind of god-damned name is that?"

"You said we ain't supposed to ask a lot of questions about what customers put on their registration forms—"

"Maybe so, but this takes the cake: Mr. Esquire-Man? You have fucking got to be kidding me."

"I don't know, Blondie. Maybe he just wants a little privacy. Since when did that become off limits here? You don't honestly think he's the first person to register here with a false name? What, should I have said, 'Could you please give us a fake name a little less obviously fake'?"

"Yes, actually. Or keep asking for a real name until he gets the idea that he needs to make a better one up."

Art said nothing. He just stared at her, with a bold hostility he had never before displayed. She never doubted that he hated her, but she had always thought him too cowardly to show it so openly. This change troubled her.

Her recent telephone conversation with Durney must have rattled her more than she had realized. She couldn't stop thinking about the Hotchkiss kid, and worrying that she might have involved herself and Durney in a scheme over which they could too easily lose control, and that losing control would be very dangerous.

Corrosive cold cream on a cracked old crone. . .

What was this gel in which unrelated events seemed to become connected? This Mr. Esquire-Man, for example: his apparition being almost certainly nothing more than a coincidence, but he was like a token dropped into this gel-like substance inside her mind, and had therefore become part of the conspiracy.

Only the completely honest, she thought, could afford the luxury of living free from the curse of suspiciousness. She knew well-enough that Art was plenty suspicious of her.

Still holding the man's registration card, she said "I thought Fernando Pedrosa, that Puerto Rican, was staying in nine?"

"He checked out Wednesday afternoon."

The stress was really getting to her, making her paranoid. Too many strange people acting strangely. Like Fernando. He had been looking for Floyd and Joe, two people he never saw before, and whose names he didn't even now. Then he checks out the very next day, despite having told her that he was planning a long stay. Despite not having found Floyd—of that much she was certain.

She had liked Fernando, but she also feared him a little. He was a hollow man. Not a shape without form, or a paralyzed force; not or a gesture without motion; but pure form, pure force, and pure motion. Not hollow like a scarecrow, but hollow like the horse in front of the motel: painted metal panel beside painted metal panel, welded together with the heat of a blow torch, a fire that creates by destroying. Hollow on the inside with a hard, iron edge on the out.

A hollow man was not a superficial man. The superficial man had a deformed, ravenous ego, which every action must serve to gratify, and which makes ever greater demands upon him. The superficial man's surface becomes depleted, soft, and doughy. Fernando was not a superficial man, but a hollow man. He was hard, articulated form, with the invulnerability of hollow men. One could irritate or please his surface personality, but never really reach his soul.

A little bit like Ora Thomas, she thought. Both Ora and Fernando had the reservedly stylish bearing of a person encased in armor. Both could be loving or cruel, as the situation demanded, and the act left no mark on them.

With Art just staring at her, she realized she had embarrassed herself with all her questions. Trying to turn the situation around, she teasingly said, "Well, aren't you ever curious about things Art? About people?"

"Sure, but he didn't seem very interesting to me. In fact, he couldn't have been less interesting. Just some boring guy from the city, probably, with a sick mother over in Hennepin or Lacon or someplace. I hope she stays sick a real long time, anyway, because we need the business."

"We don't need it that bad. We're already getting reservations for Pow-Wow Days. It's going to be an especially big crowd this year, on account of Senachwine's grave."