A Novel

Chapter 21: Rubout

Two days later » Wednesday » September 2, 1987 » nighttime » Blondie's home » Blondie was watching the ten o'clock newscast, as she almost always did, before going to bed, alone. She would come home from the motel, throw her purse on a bench beside the front door, make herself a Manhattan, light a cigarette, and watch the news, alone. Always alone now.

She lived in the home her parents built. She and her sister grew up there; her sister, mother, and father all died there. It was far too large for one person, but she didn't know how she could ever leave it now: it had become filled with four lifetimes of furniture and furnishings and personal effects; one would need another four lifetimes to remove it all. And, of course, it was filled with four lifetimes of memories, but she heedlessly regarded those as unsubstantial things. She regarded those memories as unsubstantial things because her sanity depended upon the idea that they were nothing that she couldn't easily turn her back on. But the memories had become like the river and the creeks and the canal and the lakes, after days of ceaseless rain, when they flood their banks: the flood looks harmless enough—its pools and its eddies—but it will eventually suck you under if you ignore it for too long or if you ignore it in the wrong place and the wrong time. Such were her memories: a river that had crested its floodbank.

The newscast had almost ended. Her doorbell rang, which startled her because people rarely made unannounced visits after eight, and ten o'clock was just wrong. Wrong in a bad way. As in: if this were urgent, why not telephone? She walked to her father's study, to the desk there, and removed a snub-nosed revolver from the top desk drawer. She swung the cylinder out of its frame. She checked the chambers. She then left the study. She concealed the loaded gun beneath a newspaper on a lamp stand, about six feet from the front door.

At the front door, she discovered that the porch light wasn't working. Her late night caller must have unscrewed the light bulb. She went back to the lamp stand. She turned off the lamp. She returned to the front door; she pulled it open, just wide enough for her to see through: she saw, just barely, the shaded figure of a portly man. She was able to make him immediately: Mr. Esquire-Man, the man who had been speaking to the police on Monday, the man who had checked into the motel on Friday, and about whom she had been so suspicious. The man who always seemed to be lurking about the motel. Even in darkness it was not a figure she was likely to forget.

She asked, "Who's there?"

Mr. Esquire-Man said, "I have a message from Delaney, a message for Floyd."

"I don't know anyone by that name, either of them."

She began to close the door, but Mr. Esquire-Man forced it open with his shoulder and his weight, throwing her backward, almost onto the floor.

She regained her balance, but in doing so felt her age—the weakness of her reflexes—and her vulnerability.

Mr. Esquire-Man pulled a .45 semiautomatic from a shoulder holster, pointed it at her, and kicked the front door shut with the sole of his right shoe. The only light in the room came from the television set, which gave his face a liquid, shape-shifting quality, as it was strafed with moving light and shadow. In this partial darkness, his face looked like mercury, like a hallucination.

Emphasizing his gun with a shake of his arm, he said, "Put your hands where I can see 'em, bitch."

She put her hands in front of her, slowly backing away from him, toward the lamp stand, where her gun lay concealed.

"In the air," he insisted. His voice was aggressive, and she felt certain that he had come to kill her. But then, as he stood there not doing anything, she began to reassess the situation: why was he waiting if his purpose really was to rub her out. Looking into his face, she wondered. Clearly he had been sent by somebody—Delaney. Clearly Delaney had sent him to do something, but it was as though whatever he had been sent to do wasn't nearly as nasty a business as he'd have preferred, as though he'd like it if she didn't cooperate so that he would have cause to vent his viciousness, like a frothing-at-the-mouth mad dog straining against its leash. "I said put 'em in the air, cunt."

She guessed she had his number; she guessed he hadn't been sent to kill her. She rolled her eyes, and dismissively responded, "I'm not putting my hands up, for Christ's sake. What do you think I'm gonna do—attack you with an emery board? What do you want? I'm assuming if you'd come here to kill me, I'd already be dead."

"Where is Floyd hiding?"

"I told you I don't know any Floyd—"

"Do not fuck with me lady," he fiercely interjected. He seemed to savor every threat he was able to make against her. Surely, in lieu of any actual license to kill her, he had to settle for words instead.

Even if he didn't have permission to kill her, she had no doubt but that he was a very dangerous, sadistic man. He might not kill her, but there was far worse he could do. She tried hard not to become frightened, not to lose her poise. Fear would be her undoing if she succumbed to it. In a state of fear, she would not be able to act, to survive. First, tell him something. Make it plausible. "Alright, alright. He's in Elmville. He's hiding out. I have the address. In my desk. Do you want it?"

"What the fuck do you think?"

"Do you want to get it yourself? Or do you want me to get it for you?"

"You get it. But move slowly. Nothing fast or I blow your ugly face off. Or better yet, I poleaxe your pussy with the barrel of this gun, squeeze my trigger, and blow your uterus through your goddamned brain." Then, pointing to a portrait of her father, he asked, "That your husband? How'd he like to have his face covered with your shriveled up old brain and uterus?" He laughed filthily at his own joke. "Get the address."

"I'll need to turn a lamp on first," she said, indicating with her head the lamp on the stand behind her, where her own gun lay concealed beneath a newspaper.

"Nothing tricky. Why'd you turn it off to begin with? The lights were on when I rang the doorbell."

"I might ask you the same question, about the porch light."

"Yeah, you might, and I might blow your goddamned head off."

During this exchange, she had managed to backed as far as the lamp stand. Now she put her hands in the air: "Okay, I'm going to turn the light on now." As she pivoted toward the lamp stand, she pretended to see somebody on the staircase, and cried out "Rose, no—"

Straight flush: the man turned to the staircase, turned his whole body, just long enough for Blondie to grab her own gun and fire three rounds into him. The first bullet knocked him on his back, and probably killed him too. Bullets two and three were for good measure, and because she enjoyed feeling all that hell-raising power blasting forth from the gun in her hands. Bits of brain oozed from a crack in his skull. She wanted to blow his own goddamned ugly face off, but she knew she had already reached the limit of plausible self-defense, and she didn't want to make any more trouble for Durney. Every time Durney had to square a rap, it cost him something: a favor in return, or more palm grease for either Sherriff or the State's Attorney.

She dropped her gun to the floor and beheld the body lying before her, blood seeping out from it onto the thickly-varnished wood floor.

He had fallen for it—one of the oldest dodges in the book. But she had seen it before, how a man's most basic instincts could be his undoing. In this case, his instinct to survive. What might somebody achieve who could overcome instinct? She wondered what Fernando would have done, if he would have turned to anticipate a threat from behind, or if he would have held steady.

Her neighbors, hearing the gunfire, would probably have called the police already, so she quickly searched the man's pockets—intending to destroy anything that might be useful to the police, and to keep anything that might be useful to her and Durney. If only she could get to his motel room before the police, but that was impossible. Finding nothing at all in his pockets, she called Shady Rest: "It's Blondie. I need to speak with Durney."

"Durney ain't here tonight.

"What about Ora?"

"Not him either."

She didn't trust anybody else enough. She slammed down the telephone and called Durney at his home. No answer. She opened the telephone book and found Ora Thomas's number. She dialed it.

He answered, sleepy.

"Ora. It's Blondie. No time for questions. Get to the Ranch House and toss room nine." Again she slammed the telephone down, and this time dialed 911, to report the intruder, but the police had already arrived.

What worried her more than the police was Delaney's likely response, once he discovered that his latest goon had not only failed, but had been killed to boot. Delaney was raising the stakes very quickly—she wondered how Durney was faring on his end. At this point, she was out much farther on a limb than he. She believed the time had come to cut her losses and turn Floyd over. If she cooperated with Delaney, she might still get something out of him, and at the same time save Durney from sinking his entire outfit over this kid's dangerous scheme. She felt bad about crumbing the deal, and she liked Floyd, in a motherly sort of way, but he had become a bigger problem than he could possibly be worth, and now she wished he were dead, in a motherly sort of way.