A Novel

Chapter 19: Tilt

Hospital discharged Floyd Hotchkiss Saturday morning (August 29, 1987). Floyd silently consented to the fiction that Durney was his guardian. If by "consent" you mean going along with that which you have no power to stop.

Durney brought him to a small house, supposedly adjacent to Dureny's own home. Durney pointed it out to him from the car, "And that's where my wife and me live."

Durney pushed Floyd, in his wheelchair, through the front door, which opened directly onto a carpeted family room. A nurse greeted them as they entered the house. Or she was dressed as a nurse anyway. She helped Durney push Floyd's wheelchair over the thick pile carpeting. Over the floor.

Durney said, referring to the nurse, apparently, "This is Carol. She'll be taking care of you while you get better."

"You mean while I'm your prisoner."

The nurse, smiling, with bland—almost blank—solicitude, said "Now that's no way to talk. You're here to get better." They pushed Floyd into a bedroom, then moved him out of the wheelchair and into a bed.

The bedroom was sparsely furnished: a television console with cable box and remote control, a nightstand, and a table lamp. On the wall hung a framed print Floyd had seen many times before in old people's homes, of a bearded old man praying before a loaf of bread. No telephone.

Carol the nurse gave Floyd a walkie-talkie, though he could barely hold it, and said "Now I'll be just across the street, so whenever you need something, you just buzz me on this walkie-talkie, and I'll be right over."

She changed his dressings. She checked his temperature. She left.

Floyd fell asleep, into a deep sleep, another deep sleep.

Sometimes he woke, and sometimes when he woke he thought about the things he had done. He remembered and reflected. He supposedly had raped somebody—that's what had landed him in all this trouble. He didn't think he had raped anyone, or at least not her. Hell, he had done far worse and even then it wasn't rape. He had, for example, once met a girl at a Tastee-Freeze, and the girl was hot for him, and she invited him back to her house. "My parents are gone for the weekend", she said. They went back to her house and they fucked. She had said, "I want you to make love to me," so he did. She was completely naked and she looked good. He hadn't raped her, but he guessed that what he did do was a far sight worse: he duct-taped her hands to the headboard, and then he stripped the blanket off her body. He took his belt and bound her legs together. Then he robbed the house and skipped town. He felt bad about that, about leaving her there for her parents to find, buck naked and strapped to the bed, surrounded by her princess pink, lace fringed pillows.

So when this stupid slut he met in some bar—yeah, now he was remembering—claimed he raped her, he didn't have too much damned sympathy for her, and now her hick dad thought he was gonna do something about it. The fuck he was.

He tried to reconstruct, in his mind, the path by which he had ended up here, a prisoner, in some hick's house. He guessed it was inevitable he would get to thinking along those lines. There was nothing to do, trapped in this bed, in this room with nothing but cable and a framed print of a painting of an old bearded man praying over a loaf of bread. The medicine he was on, whatever it was, had done things to his mind, opened up channels, channels to memories...

How had he ended up here, wherever "here" was?

All his memories flowed backward toward the source. The memories all went in reverse, spooling and spooling out...until:

Ah, yes, there it was, there he was, just beginning his sophomore year of high school, at a friday night football game, hanging out on the black cindered race track behind the bleachers, with the other losers who didn't really care about the game but who came to them anyway because there wasn't much else for a fifteen year old to do. He was a dork. He was throwing rocks at girls, at their feet. The rocks kicked up cinder dust onto the girls' clothes. They squealed like they didn't like it, but they liked the attention or else they'd go away, and they never did go away. They'd just stand there in their group swearing at him.

There was a guy watching him. At first he thought the guy would make fun of him. The guy looked pretty cool. The guy was smoking cigarettes. The guy was old enough to smoke without being told to stop. Floyd didn't think the guy was from around there. Maybe the guy was with the visiting team.

Floyd threw a rock at the guy's feet. The guy just smirked, as if to say, "is that all you've got?"

Floyd said, "Hey."

The guy said, "Hey."

Floyd said, "You with the away team?"

The guy said, "Yeah, I suppose that's one way of putting it."

"What do you mean by that?"

"It means I'm with the away team, but not this away team."

Floyd said, "Okay, whatever."

"Guess that means you're with the home team," the guy said, somewhat mockingly.

"Well this is my school, if that's what you mean."

The guy affirmed, "That's what I mean."

The group of girls walked away, like a herd. They walked past Floyd and the guy, who were still standing about ten feet apart.

The guy asked, "Don't you ever get bored around here?"

"What kind of question is that?"

"If I were bored, I'd leave."

"Yeah, well you're probably old enough to, aren't you."

"What, and you aren't or something?"

"What do you think? You think I would be here if I were old enough not to have to be?"

"And yet you are."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"You're old enough not to have to be here."


"How old are you? Fifteen? You could walk right out that gate and never come back."

"Oh could I now?"

"Why not? That's what I did. Easiest thing I ever did too, and I had spent a year thinking it would be impossible. And you know the funny thing? The minute I decided, I never spent a second looking back; never spent a moment regretting it or worrying about it."

"Well I'd have to make a living wouldn't I?"

"I assume so."

"Well there you go: that's one reason I couldn't leave. Where would I work?"

The guy laughed. "You kill me, kid. You really do. Alright, alright, I admit: those are the same thoughts I had. But just stop and think about it a minute: you don't think there's work out there for you to do? And I'm not talking about work work. I'm talking about people who would pay you to do things for them. Easy things. Fun things. Away things. Things they can't be bothered to do themselves."

"You mean like being a servant?"

The guy smiled. Smug smile. Then he pulled a fat wad of cash from his pocket. Floyd walked closer to inspect. The guy ran his thumb through the cash—all hundreds—and said, "There's at least ten thousand dollars here. I got suitcases full of more in my car."

"It's fake."

"Think so? Tell you what: take one of these here c-notes—anyone you want," and he spread the bills into a fan. "Then, tomorrow you take that bill to the bank and see what they say about its authenticity. And then you can come back here next Friday and buy yourself a hotdog. Enjoyed the conversation kid," and he turned to leave.

Floyd said, "Wait a minute."

The guy stopped and turned back toward Floyd.

"You think this person you work for, you think he might have a job for me?"

"I know he does."

Floyd followed the guy to his car, a black Mercedes. Floyd opened the car door and smelled new leather. Floyd said to the guy, "My name is—"

"Your name is Floyd. Floyd Hotchkiss."

That made Floyd feel uneasy. He considered getting out of the car. He asked, "How did you know that?"

"The man I work for told me."

"Who is he? How did he—? How does he know who I am?"

"Look, kid, you're gonna have to stop asking so many stupid questions. That's rule number one."

The guy spoke with so much authority that Floyd simply accepted as truth the assertion that his question had been a stupid one.

The guy said, "And my name's Joe."

The drove into Los Angeles, to the train station. Joe parked his car in the parking garage. Then he put his keys into a locker inside the train station and then he put the locker key into a padded envelope and dropped the envelope into a mailbox. Joe bought two business class train tickets, and the took the train our of California.

Joe turned Floyd into something different, and fast. Joe roughed him up. Floyd was no longer the dork he had been when he first met Joe. Joe turned him into something he liked. He enjoyed looking at himself in the mirror now and seeing a different person. Within a week of meeting Joe, he lost his virginity; he got laid six times. And Joe wasn't creepy. Joe liked dames. Joe never tried to lay a finger on him. How wrong his parents were about not talking to strangers, about not getting into their cars. Getting into Joe's car had been the best thing...

As Floyd worked through this memory, he became sleepy. Looking at the picture of the old man praying made him feel sleepy. He fell back asleep.

Later that day, or maybe it was the next day—the light coming in through the window had the hazy glow of late summer sunset—Durney awakened Floyd. He stood above Floyd, holding two cordless telephones. Durney "You're about to speak with the man you were planin' to railroad. Let's get a few things straight before I hand it over to you. A quarter of whatever you take this guy for is mine, so figure that into your percentage. He doesn't need to know you're bedridden—we'll arrange the pickup."

Floyd felt weak and sleepy. The pain medications made his responses feel slow, made everything seem one-dimensional and fake. He said to Durney, "Sure thing; I bet you will. That how you make your money? Muscling in on other people's legwork?" His mouth was dry; his mind felt parched and brittle like thin colored glass, like some cheap thing you might win at a county fair.

Durney said, "You should be thanking me kid. You don't know how dangerous these shakedown games can get."

"I know plenty..."

"Yeah? Then do you know they almost never work? That's right. You should count your lucky stars that you have me behind you now, because I guarantee you could never have pulled this off on your own. If you hadn't fallen into my hands, you'd probably be dead already."

"But you can make it happen, huh? Nothin' but a chiseler. It's you who doesn't know danger. This guy could rub you out with a lick of his fingers..."

"You aren't very smart kid. Think about it. Why do you think you aren't in jail right now? Why do you think I'm not in jail? Why do you think the police do what I tell them to do? And the hospital and everyone else. I square the rap, see? Do like they do and don't do anything dumb. In fact, just do as you're told."

Floyd said, with resignation, "Fine, whatever. You cold cocked me, used your drag..." His mind began to drift away, back to the world of memory, a memory of this girl, from the early days, when he and Joe were living high and fine, before Delaney started them train-hopping, before the resentment began to congeal: "Where is she? Goddamned copperhearted twist with the blow-in, live wire, candy kid..."

Delaney smacked him upside the head. "Snap out of it, will ya."

"Okay, just get on with it. Let's get this thing over."

Durney began entering a number on the cordless telephone, "Say what you need to say, to put the squeeze on." He handed Floyd the second phone and a piece of paper, "And then give him these instructions. And remember: I'll be listening in on this phone here."

After a few rings, a man answered on the other end, "Hello?"

Floyd could hear music and crowds of people talking and laughing. Everyone in the background sounded so happy, so free and happy. He guessed that Delaney must be in a busy bar. He said, "I'd like to speak with Delaney. Please. Mister Delaney Delaney."

"Who's this?"


"What's your name?"

"Enemy or friend, up to you."

"What's your name or I hang up this phone in five seconds?"

"Floyd. Joe must've told you about me."

"Where is he? Where's Joe?"

"Joe skipped. Said I ought to do the same, but I stumbled onto something when I got here."

"When you got where? Where are you?"

"Where you sent me. Just like always. It was all just like old times until I got here."

"What do you want? Are you calling for your next orders? You weren't where you were supposed ot be. Why didn't you call sooner?"

Floyd snickered, drunk-like, "I'm calling with your orders, fella."

"What do you mean? Don't you 'fella' me, because—. Are you high or something? My god, you're all lit up. You don't even know what you're talking about."

"That's right. Riding the waves. And ringing you up because I know some real bad stuff about you. Real fucking bad. Like I-don't-know-the-laws-of-this-state-but-you-would-at-the-very-least-go-to-jail-for-a-very-long-time bad. Like they-might-as-well-throw-away-the-key-'cause-you-wouldn't-never-come-back-out-alive bad."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"Your secrets, dude. Big ones and little ones. And funny thing is, I bet the little ones would cut you down just as fast as the big ones. Yeah, I bet they'd cut you down like a crowbar slammed into your fuckin' ankles."

"I don't even know what you're talking about."

"That's okay, 'cause what I'm talking about knows you. Or knew you. I know where the birds go to die, and why nobody ever finds them. I bet you never saw a dead cardinal in your whole goddamn life. I have. And if I can find them, then I can find you, or help the police find you."

"You're fucking crazy. If I went to jail, you'd go too."

"Maybe. Or maybe, seeing how I was only fifteen when you had me picked up, and I'm not even eighteen now, I might go someplace a whole lot less unpleasant than you go. I'm a minor; don't pretend you don't know. Joe told me why you like to hire minors."

"Look kid, I don't know what you think you're getting at, but I never had Joe pick you up, or any other minors. I don't even know who you are."

"I want seventy-five thousand dollars ."

"Seventy-five thousand dollars?"

"Seventy-five thousand dollars."

"In exchange for what?"

"My silence. I go back to my home and pretend like the past two years never happened. I never met you, never found out about you or your filthy business."

"You don't even know who I am. Go ahead: walk into a police department with whatever it is you think you got on me, and tell them they better arrest some man named 'Delaney'. This telephone number you called me on—it's a fucking payphone. The other telephone number Joe had belongs to a junkie who lets me use it in exchange for enough money to buy himself a whiz-bang. So go right ahead and do your worst: if they don't throw you in jail, then they'll put you in the looney-bin and let you play with squirrels."

"Sure, you were real careful. But there's a string of crimes happened, and I don't know what connects 'em, but it won't take the police very long to figure that out. And when they do, they'll have you. Everything else will just fall into place, like things usually do."

"Alright kid, let's pretend any of what you're saying is true, and I suppose you're tape recording this telephone call, but that's fine. Let's pretend. What would you want me to do?"

Listening in on the second phone, Durney pointed to the piece of paper he had given to Floyd. Floyd began to read from it, in a plodding voice, "Do you have a pencil and paper?"

No response.

Floyd continued, "Mail seventy-five-thousand dollars in cash to P.O. Box seven-five-four-seven-three, Peoria, Illinois, six-one-six-one-four. When I get the money, I'll leave a message for you on your answering service, and you'll never hear from me again. I'll give you two weeks for the money to arrive. If it doesn't, I'm going to the police."

"Alright kid, I'll play ball." Delaney hung up the telephone.

Durney took the telephone from Floyd, who said, "I thought you said you were so smart? Anyone knows he's gonna have somebody watching that post office box—wherever you said it is—watching it like a hawk, waiting for you to collect the money."

Durney said, "Yeah, and I thought you said you were smart. Nobody's gonna collect anything from that post office. There's a forward on that address. All the mail goes to another post office box in another town, but your pal Delaney ain't never gonna know about that. He can watch that Peoria post office box day and night, 'til kingdom comes, but he'll never see anyone collect anything."

With eyes half-closed, Floyd said, "Well then, I guess it's smooth sailing from here."

Durney said, "Why didn't you mention the Western Union directory?"

Floyd was beginning to doze back to sleep. He said, "I don't know why. Maybe 'cause I'm not sure you really even got it. Maybe because I don't know if Delaney even knows about it. It's enough he knows that Joe kept some kinda record."

"Yeah, well you were awfully vague about what you knew. Whatever it is that you do know must be pretty damned bad for him to cave so quickly. This shit better wash. If I thought I could beat it out of you, I would, but it looks like I'll just have to trust you, 'cause you don't seem too afraid of death right now."

Catalytic attack. Battle stars moving into position...search and destroy.