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About the Author
Richard Stark was one of the many pseudonyms of Donald E. Westlake (1933–2008), a prolific author of crime fiction. In 1993, the Mystery Writers of America bestowed the society’s highest honor on Westlake, naming him a Grand Master.
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A Parker Novel
By Richard Stark
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1997 Richard Stark
All rights reserved.
When the car stopped rolling, Parker kicked out the rest of the windshield and crawled through onto the wrinkled hood, Glock first. He slid to the left, around the tree that had made the Seville finally jolt to a stop, and listened. The siren receded, far upslope. These woods held a shocked silence, after the crash; every animal ear in a hundred yards was as alert as Parker's.
Nobody came down the hill, following the scar through the trees. There was just the one car in pursuit up there, federal agents of some kind, probably trying right now to make radio contact with the rest of their crew, and still chasing the truck with the rockets, figuring they'd come back to the wrecked car later.
Later was good enough for Parker. He eased around the tree and bent to move down the less battered right side of the Seville, where he'd been seated next to the driver. The glass from that window was gone; he looked in at Howell at the wheel, and Howell looked back, his eyes scared, but his mouth twisted in what was supposed to be an ironic grin. "They clamped me," he said, and shook his head.
Parker looked at him. The firewall and steering column and door had all folded in on him, like he was the jelly in the doughnut. He'd live, but it would take two acetylene torches four hours to cut him out of there. "You're fucked," Parker told him.
"I thought I was," Howell said.
Parker moved on and tried to open the rear door, which still had its glass, but it was jammed. He smashed out the window with the barrel of the Glock, reached in, grabbed the workout bag by the handle, and pulled it out through the new hole. Bag in left hand, Glock in right, he moved over again to look in at Howell, and Howell hadn't moved. He was still looking out, at Parker. Howell was mostly bald, and his head was streaked with bleeding cuts and hobnailed with hard drops of sweat. He breathed through his open mouth, and kept looking at Parker. His legs and torso and left arm were clamped, but his right arm was free. His pistol was on the seat by his right hip. He could reach it, but he left it there, and looked at Parker, and breathed through his open mouth, and more blood and more sweat oozed out onto his bald head.
Parker hefted the bag, and the Glock. Howell shook his head. "Come on, Parker," he said. "You know me better than that."
Parker considered him. He didn't like to leave a loose end behind, sometimes they followed you, they showed up later when you were trying to think about something else. He moved the Glock slighly, rested the barrel on the open window.
Howell said, "You know me, Parker."
"And you know me."
"Not anymore." Howell smiled, showing blood-lined teeth, and said, "This crash knocked my memory loose. I don't even know who I am, anymore. It's all gone."
"They'll try to make it worth your while, bargain you down."
"Not worth my while," Howell said. "Not with you out there. I'll catch up on my reading."
Parker thought about it. He knew Howell, he trusted him on the job, they'd watch each other's back, they'd give each other a straight count when the jackpot was in. But for the long haul?
Howell nodded at the bag. "Have a beer on me," he suggested.
Parker nodded, and made up his mind. "See you in twenty years," he said, and turned away, to head downslope.
"I'll be rested," Howell called after him.CHAPTER 2
It was a house on a lake called Colliver Pond, seventy miles from New York, a deep rural corner where New York and New Jersey and Pennsylvania meet. A narrow blacktop road skirted the lake, among the pines, and the house, gray stone and brown shingle, squatted quiet and inconspicuous between road and shore. Now, in April, the trees not yet fully leafed out, the clapboard houses on both sides could clearly be seen, each of them less than fifty feet away, but it didn't matter; they were empty. This was mostly a resort community, lower-level white-collar, people who came here three months every summer and left their "cottages" unoccupied the rest of the year. Only fifteen percent of the houses around the lake were lived in full-time, and most of those were over on the other side, in the lee of the mountain, out of the winter wind.
For Parker, it was ideal. A place to stay, to lie low when nothing was going on, a "home" as people called it, and no neighbors. In the summer, when the clerks came out to swim and fish and boat, Parker and Claire went somewhere else.
Late afternoon, amber lights warm in the windows. Parker turned in at the driveway, at the wheel of a red Subaru, two days and three cars since the Seville had gone off that mountain road and he'd left Howell behind. The Subaru was a mace, a safe car, not in any cop's computer, so long as nobody looked too closely at the paperwork and the serial numbers. Parker steered it down the drive through the trees and shrubbery that took the place of the lawn here, and ahead of him the left side door of the double attached garage slid upward; so Claire had seen him coming. He drove in and got out of the car as the door slid down, and Claire was in the yellow-lit rectangle of doorway to the kitchen. "Welcome home, Mr. Lynch," she said.
Claire had jokes, and that was one of them; they were all wasted on Parker. She'd known him as Lynch when they'd first met, so she liked to greet him with that name, because it showed they had a history. She wanted to believe they had a history, in both directions.
"Hello," he said, and crossed out of the garage, carrying the workout bag. He stopped in the doorway to kiss her, and in that move opened himself again to all the warmth he'd shut out since he'd gone away. The homecomings were always good, because they were a kind of coming back to life.
After the kiss, she smiled at him and took his hand and nodded at the workout bag: "Not the laundry," she suggested.
"A hundred forty thousand," he told her. "Supposed to be. I didn't count it yet."
"I like it that you save the fun parts for me," she said.
What she meant was, she didn't want any part of it at all, what happened when he was away. They'd met in the first place because her ex-brother-in-law, an idiot named Billy Lebatard, had involved her in a robbery at a coin convention that had gone very sour. At the end of it, Billy was dead, there was blood everywhere, and Parker had dragged Claire into safety at the last second. She'd been married once, earlier, to an airline pilot who'd died in a crash; with that, and the mess Billy'd made, she wanted no more. Once, a couple of hard-edged clowns had broken in here, but Parker had dealt with it, and now he and Claire were together most of the time, warming themselves at each other's fire, liking the calm. When Parker went away, as he sometimes did, she wanted to know nothing about it. She was willing, at the most, while he showered, to count the money and leave it in stacks on the coffee table in the living room for him to see when he came in, wearing a black robe and carrying a glass. She sat on the sofa without expression and said, "A hundred forty thousand exactly."
"Just like the paper said."
He sat on the sofa beside her and cocked his head. "The paper?"
"You haven't read any newspapers?"
"I've been moving."
"Before you went away," she said, "a man named Howell phoned you."
"A man named Howell is dead."
That surprised him. "Dead? How dead?"
"Injuries from an automobile accident. While escaping, the car he drove crashed down a mountainside. The other three people, and a small truck with anti-tank rockets, all escaped. Arrests are expected."
"They killed him," Parker said.
"Who killed him?"
"The law. Feds or local. Let me see the paper."
She got up and crossed to the refectory table near the stone fireplace, and brought back a day-old newspaper turned to the national news page. Handing it to him, sitting again beside him, she said, "Why would they kill him?"
"They were in a hurry," Parker told her. "They wanted names, they wanted to know where we'd be. Especially because they lost the rockets. Howell was hurt, but he wouldn't tell them anything. We talked about it before I left, and he said he wouldn't tell them anything, and I believed him, and it turns out I was right. And they were in such a hurry, they didn't wait to see how much he was wounded, maybe hurt inside, before they leaned on him, and he died."
"Poor Mr. Howell," she said.
"He wasn't really much of a reader anyway," Parker said, and turned to the newspaper, which told him several things he knew and nothing he didn't. Three rogue Marines had been trading with a terrorist group, selling them weapons stolen from a military depot. There was to be an exchange, rockets for cash. The two groups didn't know there were two other groups involved as well; the Feds, who'd got wind of the thefts at the depot and were trying to follow the trail, and the four professional thieves who showed up at the transfer point meaning to take everything from everybody. Which they did, at the cost of one of their own, a man named Marshall Howell. The Feds expected to round up the other three momentarily.
Parker put the paper down and said, "That's the end of it. The other two keep the rockets, sell them to somebody else. I keep this." And he nodded at the money.
Claire pointed at the newspaper. "That could have been you."
"It always could," he said. "So far, it isn't. I go away, and I come back."
She looked at him. "Every time?"
"Except the last time," he said.
She put her arms around him, touched her lips to the spot where the pulse beat in his throat. "Later," she said, "let's have a fire."CHAPTER 3
The best place to hide money is in somebody else's house. The morning after he got back, Parker filled seven Ziploc bags with ten thousand dollars each, put them in the pockets of his windbreaker, and went for a walk along the lakefront.
There were five houses along here he'd previously set up for himself, both as drops and as potential backup sites if trouble ever came too close. He'd made simple clean access to each house and prepared banks for himself in all of them. A false joist in a crawlspace; an extra ceiling in a closet; a new pocket in the wall behind a kitchen drawer. These people all liked their summer houses just the way they were, but it would pay them, though they didn't know it, to remodel.
He was gone not quite an hour, a householder taking a long casual walk along the lake in the thin spring sunlight, and when he got back to the house Claire said, "Mr. Howell called."
Parker looked at her, and waited.
She smiled slightly. "Mr. Marshall Howell."
"He left a number where you could call him."
He made a bark of laughter. "That must be some number," he said, and took off the windbreaker and read the phone number on the pad in the kitchen, then opened the phone book to see where that area code was. 518. Upstate New York, around Albany.
He used the kitchen phone to make the call, and after four rings a recorded woman's voice, sounding like somebody's secretary, announced the number he'd just dialed, then crisply said, "Please leave a name and number after the tone. Thank you."
No. Parker waited for the tone, then said, "Mr. Howell will phone at three o'clock," and hung up, and at three o'clock he stepped into the phone booth at the Mobil station out on the highway to New York, the only enclosed phone booth within eight miles, and dialed the number again.
One ring, and the man who answered sounded fat, middle-aged, wheezy. "Cathman," he said.
"Not Mr. Howell," Parker said.
A wheezy chuckle. "Not really possible," Cathman said. "That's Mr. Parker, isn't it?"
"I don't know anybody named Cathman," Parker said.
"We're meeting now, in a way," Cathman pointed out. "The fact is, Mr. Howell was going to be doing something for me, but he told me he had this other project with you first, and then we could get together to plan our own enterprise. Unfortunately, he didn't survive that earlier obligation."
Parker waited. Was he supposed to be responsible for this fellow's plans coming apart?
Cathman said, "I don't want to sound forward, Mr. Parker, but I believe you share much of the expertise I found so valuable in Mr. Howell."
"Possibly." If this was an entrapment call, it was the flakiest on record.
"I expect," Cathman said, "you're not particularly looking for work at the moment, since I believe your part of the activity just completed was rather more successful than our friend Howell's."
"Oh," Parker said. "You want me to take Howell's place."
"If," Cathman said. "If you're interested in further work in, well, not the same line. A similar line. If you'd prefer to rest, take time off, of course I'll understand. In that case, if you could recommend someone ..."
This fellow, whoever he was, was recruiting people for some sort of criminal undertaking over the telephone. Had Howell really taken this clown seriously? Or had Howell been interested in something else, that Cathman didn't realize? Parker said, "I don't make recommendations."
"But would you be— Well, would you care to meet? There are things, you understand, one doesn't say on the phone."
Well, he knew that much, though he didn't seem to understand the concept in its entirety. Parker said, "A meet. For you to tell me what Howell was going to do for you."
"Just so. You could come here, or if you prefer I could go to you. I'm not exactly sure where you are ..."
Good. Parker said, "Howell gave you this phone number?"
"His wife did. I presume she's his wife."
"I'll come to you," Parker decided, because Cathman sounded more dangerous than interesting. He had no sense of self-preservation, and he was walking around with knowledge that could hurt other people. If he turned out to have something interesting, Parker might go along with it, take Howell's place. If not, Parker might switch him off before his broadcasting interfered with anybody serious.
"Oh, fine," Cathman said. "We could do lunch, if you—"
"A meet," Parker said. "Your territory. Outside. A parking lot, a farmer's market, a city park."
"Oh, I know," Cathman said. "The perfect place. Amtrak comes up the Hudson. Could you take the train, from Penn Station? In New York."
"It's less than two hours up, the stop is called Rhinecliff. Wait, I have the schedule here. What would be a good day?"
"That's wonderful. All right, let me see. Yes, you take the train at three-fifty tomorrow afternoon, you'll get to Rhinecliff at five twenty-eight. I'll come down from Albany, my train gets there at four fifty-one, so I'll just wait on the platform. You'll find me, I'm heavyset, and I have about as much hair as our poor friend Howell, and I'll be wearing a gray topcoat. Oh, and probably a gray hat as well, so the baldness doesn't help, does it?"
"I'll find you," Parker said.CHAPTER 4
Amtrak was new, but the station at Rhinecliff was old, one end of it no longer in use, rusted remains of steel walkways and stairs looming upward against the sky like the ruins of an earlier civilization, which is what they were. At the still-working end of the platform, a long metal staircase climbed to a high enclosed structure that led above the tracks over to the old station building. The land here was steep, coming up from the river, leveling for the tracks, then continuing sharply upward.
A dozen people got off the train with Parker, and another two or three got on. He came down to the concrete last, the only passenger without luggage, and stood on the platform while the rest of them trudged up the stairs and the train jerked forward behind him. In his dark windbreaker and black chinos and heavy black shoes, he looked like some sort of skilled workman, freelancing, brought in by a contractor to do one specific job. Which he was.
The stairs were to his right, with the people slowly receding upward. Along the platform were three or four backless benches, and on one of them, down to the left, sat a dumpy man in a pearl-gray topcoat and hat, his back to the train now leaving as he gazed out and down at the river.
When the train was gone, Parker turned to look across the track at a chain-link fence, and a parking lot, and a steep hillside, and a curving steep street, and some old houses. One passenger, having climbed up this set of stairs, was now thudding down a second staircase over there, headed for the parking lot. He was rumpled, in his forties, wearing an anorak that was too heavy for this season, and carrying a thick heavy briefcase. He seemed to be muttering to himself.
Excerpted from Backflash by Richard Stark. Copyright © 1997 Richard Stark. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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