Suicide Squeeze
Chapter 11~13

 Victor Gischler

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They left the inflatable dinghy on the riverbank and parted ways. Neither Conner nor Jenny had the energy to pretend anything special had happened between them. Conner had the Electric Jenny's registration tucked into his pants pocket. He'd exchange it for the rest of his repo fee. Maybe Jenny got some kind of satisfaction from stealing her ex-husband's boat out from under him.
Jenny was sour and unhappy and mad at the world, and Conner already had enough of that to go around. She was a little bit sad and a lot pathetic, and that made Conner hope things would turn around for her, but not so much that he wanted to get into her up to his eyeballs.
The sun was just yawning and stretching over the horizon when Conner parked the Plymouth, shuffled into his apartment, and fell on his bed. Sleep mugged him, pulled him down into his pillow with his clothes on. He dreamed about bullets and blondes and drowning in the dark.
Conner pried his eyes open at noon, showered, drank four cups of black coffee, and swallowed three aspirin. If he'd had health insurance, he'd have gone to the emergency room. His ribs blazed, roared pain whenever he turned or bent over. He prodded his side, took deep, experimental breaths. He didn't think anything vital had been punctured.
The day was hot and bright, and the sun glittered on the bay like a picture postcard. Conner's Plymouth sailed over the bridge into Mobile and he found Derrick James's shop and parked. He folded the Electric Jenny's registration and shoved it in the front pocket of his khaki shorts. He hoped showing James the boat's location on a river chart would be good enough. He didn't feel like paddling back out there and bringing the boat back by sea.
As Conner approached the shop, he noticed the police cars. The front door stood open. Inside, three uniformed cops poked around. He went back to the office, found another cop standing over James's dead body.
James sprawled on the floor, arms awkwardly beneath his own body, legs twisted, with the knees pointing at one another, mouth slack, eyes glassy and lifeless. A pool of blood the size of a pizza spread from his head.
The cop noticed Conner standing in the doorway. "Hey, you can't come in here." He seemed young and nervous. He herded Conner out of the office, whipped out a pen and notepad. "Don't step on anything, for Christ's sake. The crime scene guys will go nuts."
"What's your name? What are you doing here?"
Conner hesitated only a second. He told the officer James had hired him to repossess the boat, but he didn't say anything about Folger or the scene with the Japanese killers. The cop wrote Conner's name and address on the notepad.
A young girl burst into the shop. She looked panicked. Conner recognized her as the girl who worked the register for James. "What's going on?" She rushed toward the young cop. "Oh, my God! Is Mr. James okay? Has something happened?"
"Crap." The cop moved to intercept the girl. She started crying and shaking, grabbing hold of the cop's arm.
Conner slipped back into James's office. He was careful not to touch anything. The office looked like it had been searched recklessly. One drawer of the filing cabinet stood open. Conner craned his neck, looked without touching. The drawer was marked F-J. An empty space in the front of the drawer. The Folger file. It was missing. James's murder had something to do with Teddy Folger and the boat.
He looked over his shoulder. The young cop looked distressed, the girl sobbing on his shoulder.
Conner realized he was being a bit selfish, but he couldn't help thinking he obviously wasn't going to get paid for repossessing the Jenny. All that work. He'd been beaten up, even shot at. To come away empty-handed...
He flipped open James's humidor, grabbed a fistful of cigars, and shut it again. He stuffed the cigars into his pocket, left the office, walked past the cop and the still-weeping girl.
"Can I go now?"
"Uh... sure." The cop waved the notepad at him. "We have your information. A detective might come see you. If we have any more questions."
"Fine," said Conner, who couldn't think of a single question he wanted to answer.
He was known as Toshi X, the Kyoto Destroyer. His job description included cruelty and death, punishment and pain. He was as hard and thin as a blade, long Elvis sideburns, alert eyes that blazed with eager violence. He loved his job, and his job was to make everyone sorry.
And his growing contempt for Billy Moto was becoming harder to conceal.
Toshi had been happy to receive Cousin Ahira's phone call. In Toshi's opinion, it had been a mistake for Ahira to retire from the Yakuza, but now his cousin was showing signs of his former self. Ahira had become soft and weak playing at businessman. Toshi despised weakness. He despised Moto.
"It goes without saying that the incident at the river was bungled badly," Moto said. "If I'd been there, Mr. Kurisaka might have his card now. Your rogue tactics are inappropriate and inefficient." Moto paced the hotel suite as he talked.
Toshi wasn't listening. Instead, he mused how he would go about killing Moto. He imagined Moto's pencil neck in his tight grip, a short, sharp jerk, the sound of snapping bone. This made Toshi smile.
"Is something funny?" Moto asked.
"Not at all," Toshi said. "Do go on." He reclined easily in the overstuffed chair. His Yakuza sidekick Itchi sat on the sofa across the room. Itchi had ruined his black suit in the river and now wore shorts and a T-shirt purchased at a local gift shop while the suit was at the cleaners. The T-shirt was bright blue and bore the slogan My friends went to Pensacola, Florida, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt. For some reason, Toshi thought the garment hilarious.
"Mr. Kurisaka will want a progress report soon, and I'm not optimistic about his reaction," Moto said.
"And who is to blame?" Toshi asked. "It is your tentative, milk-water approach that has failed to yield results. You mince about, ask subtle questions, consult with the insurance woman. For what?"
"We need information."
"We are wasting time," Toshi said.
Moto's face reddened. The man's barely controlled rage amused Toshi. Perhaps he could provoke Moto into a physical confrontation. He welcomed an excuse to spill Moto's blood, damage his smug self-assurance. Toshi was an impatient man and loathed waiting for Moto to finesse the situation. Toshi failed to understand why his cousin found Moto useful. In the old days, Kurisaka would not have tolerated such weakness. Toshi decided to make it his business to show his cousin the light.
Toshi's methods were more direct. More satisfying. Find someone and squeeze them until they talked. But whom to squeeze? Toshi hated to admit it, but Moto was right about one thing. They needed information.
Toshi stood, signaled Itchi to do the same. "We'll leave you to wait by the phone. Who knows? Perhaps the Becker woman will call with useful information after all, but it has been three days. I warn you. I will not sit idle for much longer. Mr. Kurisaka wants the DiMaggio card. If you can't get it for him your way, then I'll get it mine."
Toshi and Itchi left the hotel suite, Moto steaming and frustrated behind them.
Something was going on.
Joellen Becker had a sixth sense, an instinct. It had failed her often, got her kicked out of the NSA in fact, but it was a pick-at-a-scab feeling that just wouldn't go away.
She'd chased down leads, tried to ferret out where Folger was hiding himself. She'd narrowed the possibilities, but Folger wasn't holed up with his ex-wife. His house was empty and up for sale. She'd broken in through the back door, searched. Nothing and nobody. Several other leads also turned out to be a bust.
Joellen had discovered Folger owned a sailboat, one big enough to live on full-time, but when she'd found the slip at the marina the boat wasn't there. She got ahold of the boat's registration number and performed an Internet search to see if the boat triggered any red flags in the Coast Guard database. Nothing. With the registration she was able to follow the trail to Derrick James. James didn't have a lot of useful information, but he had coughed up a name.
Conner Samson.
The name wasn't much to go on. Samson was a repo man James had hired to take back the boat. A nobody. But that hit-'n'-miss instinct said she needed to find the guy and talk to him. Samson was a loose end floating around out there, and Joellen wanted to tie it up and move on.
She looked at her watch. She was due to call Moto but decided to put it off. She didn't want to admit she'd been temporarily stymied. He'd just have to keep for a while.
Joellen poured herself another white wine, paced circles around her house the way she did when mulling jumbled ideas that refused to gel. Through the living room, into the bedroom, back through to the kitchen. She noticed, not for the first time, how spartan her apartment was. No pictures on the wall, furniture uninteresting and functional. She had never allowed herself to feel anywhere was permanent. Had never been fully satisfied anywhere. No reason to stay where she was; no reason to go somewhere new.
After Father's death and her resignation from the NSA, she had run out of family and had been run out of her career.
She was thirty-six years old, and her own life didn't interest her. The insurance company was a waste of her time and talents. Now she had a goal. Something worthy of her, something that would make life interesting again.
She hoped.
Conner awoke, blinked, remembered he was unhappy and hungover and tried to go back to sleep. Sleep told him to fuck off. He rolled out of bed, groaned. His apartment smelled like throw up and cigars.
He shuffled into the bathroom, saw the puddle of vomit. He'd missed the toilet by a good foot. He'd clean it up later when his head stopped pounding. His toe nudged the empty vodka bottle. Memory crept back slowly. He'd been up all night trying to forget the two thousand dollars he owed Rocky Big.
With no money from the boat repo and rent looming, Conner had placed a thousand-dollar bet on the Red Sox, who blew a three-run lead in the ninth. He'd gone double or nothing on the Mets and lost that bet too. He was flat broke. The refrigerator was empty, and he was out of ideas. He went into the kitchen, looked in his cupboard for coffee.
He was out of coffee.
In the living room, he sank into the couch and pulled the phone into his lap, looked at it a long time.
Tyranny would lend him money. If he asked.
The thought of her made his sour stomach churn, and asking for money would only highlight his loserness.
He dialed the number.
"It's me," Conner said.
"I tried to call you," Tyranny said. "Yesterday. Or maybe the day before. Don't you have an answering machine?"
Conner looked at the short table at his elbow. A perfect square in the dust marked the absent answering machine. "Sometimes I forget to turn it on."
"What are you doing tomorrow night?"
"You tell me."
She laughed, a tinkling sound like a wind chime. "Dan is throwing a reception for Jasper Dybek. You know who that is, don't you?"
"Short stop for the Dodgers?"
She tsked. "He's only the hottest new contemporary artist there is. He lives in SoHo, but he's touring a few universities. He's on his way to Tulane, but he's stopping here because Dan knows him personally. We're going to show some of his work here at the house. Dan's even hired a caterer."
"Old Professor Dan is one important dude."
"Don't be sarcastic," she said. "This could be very important for me."
"Is that why you married Professor Dan? Because he's good for your career?" Conner grabbed for the words as they left his mouth, tried to reel them back in, but they'd already flown, sprinted the phone line into Tyranny's ear. "Sorry."
She was silent a second. "My marriage isn't any of your business. It's complicated."
"Look, I didn't call to have a fight. I wanted to invite you to the reception. I wanted to see you."
"Yeah, that sounds like big fun. Then all of your art friends can explain the pretty pictures to the dumb jock." He couldn't help himself. The conversation was a runaway train heading for a school bus parked on the tracks. He couldn't make it stop, maybe didn't want to. "A little too snobby for me."
A longer silence this time. "It's black tie, so you'll need a tux. Show up or fuck off. It's all the same to me." She hung up.
Conner slammed the receiver down, jerked the cord out of the jack, and hurled the phone across the room. It slammed against the wall, shattered into five plastic pieces. He balled his fists into his eyes, fought down a wave of nausea. He curled into a ball on the couch, tried to hide from the sunlight and the sound of his heartbeat pounding between his temples.
And he still needed two thousand bucks.
Tyranny Jones looked at the phone, expecting Conner to ring back immediately. He didn't.
Stubborn fucking asshole.
She felt the familiar rush in the blood, the roar in her ears surging. She clenched and unclenched her fists. Violence and sex and rage all boiled together inside her. She had a problem. She knew it. She wasn't normal. Knowing it and making it stop were a million light-years apart.
"You okay?"
She started, looked up into Dan's face suddenly in the doorway. Her husband. "What?"
He searched her face, eyes piercing and blue. "Who was that on the phone?"
"Nobody." She unclenched her fists, realized how she must look, red-faced. Eyes wild. She pulled the plug on her rage, let it drain, offered Dan a weak smile. "It was nobody."
He nodded. "Sure. Okay." He returned the smile, a message: It's okay if you don't tell me. Dan's teeth were white and straight. He was older, gray at the temples. Anchorman handsome.
Tyranny would never leave Dan. Couldn't. Their agreement was too good, too necessary for her. He knew about her. Knew she didn't always have control. Special needs. Dan only insisted he never hear about it and that she go to therapy. He wouldn't pry, she wouldn't tell, and they'd pretend to be a regular married couple. Once in a while there was a crack in the façade, a slip in the playacting. Dan wouldn't push it, but Tyranny could tell he knew something, suspected. He'd asked about the phone call.
It was because Conner made her so crazy-no, not crazy. Dr. Goldblatt had warned her against words like that, even in jest. But it was so easy with the other men. She popped them like Valium, got what she needed, and forgot about them. She didn't wear them on her face like she did with Conner, and Dan could see the difference.
Something would have to be done.
Conner showered. Hot water helped a little.
The couch cushions and the Plymouth 's glove compartment produced $1.43 in loose change. Conner walked the block to the convenience store and returned with a large coffee in a styrofoam cup. He used it to wash down four aspirin, then spent an hour putting his phone back together with a roll of masking tape.
He called Odeski, begged for work, said he would repossess anything from anybody. The gruff Slav said to quit bothering him.
He picked the phone up three times, intending to call Tyranny with gushing, eager apologies, but it seemed hopeless. Life seemed gray and useless and some kind of bad joke on him. All his second chances had been used up, and he didn't deserve pity or charity or a break from anyone he knew. Rocky Big would send Fat Otis to ask just exactly when he would be getting his two thousand dollars, and that would be the final defeat. Even his friendship with Otis wouldn't save him forever. This is it, God. If you have a trick up your sleeve, some kind of last-minute mercy. Anything at all. Now's the time.
A loud knock at the door.
That was fast. Praise Jesus.
Conner opened the door, looked into the face of a stern, handsome woman wearing a beige pantsuit. Her eyes were hidden by dark, sleek sunglasses. She had an air of authority that kept Conner from acting on his gut instinct, which was to slam the door in her face.
"Conner Samson?" She pushed the sunglasses to the end of her nose, regarded him over the lenses. The action made her look predatory, dangerous.
"Who's asking?"
Her mouth twitched, almost smiling. "Joellen Becker. I have some questions about Derrick James and Teddy Folger."
The cop at the crime scene had said somebody might be around to ask more questions. A detective. Great. You're a funny guy, Jesus. Conner formed and rejected several replies: Never heard of those people. I'm sorry, but I don't answer questions without my lawyer. I don't speak English. Finally, he said, "Okay. Come on in."
She entered the apartment, closed the door behind her, slipped her sunglasses into a shirt pocket. She scanned the room, eyes darting into every corner. She sniffed, wrinkled her nose. "Christ. Open a window, will you?"
She spoke to Conner, but her eyes finished scanning the room in the way cops look at everything. Conner told himself to stay cool. Rule number one: Keep your mouth shut until you know the score.
"I understand you were repossessing a sailboat for James," she said. "Folger's boat."
"You repossess a lot of boats."
"Just this morning I hot-wired the QE2," Conner said.
The corners of Becker's mouth twitched again. Her mouth might have been trying to smile or grimace. "I can't decide if you're funny or tiresome, Samson." She produced a folded piece of paper with a photo paper-clipped to it. She handed them to Samson. "The Electric Jenny, right?"
Conner took the picture, looked at it apparently without interest. "Right."
"I need some information, okay?"
"Am I under arrest? Last time I checked, repossessing boats wasn't a crime."
"I'm not the police, Samson."
Conner's brow furrowed. He reappraised the woman. She sure as hell acted like a cop. And the slight bulge under her jacket was probably a pistol. "Let's start over. Who are you, and what's this about?"
"I'm an insurance investigator," she said. "I talked to Derrick James, and he said he'd put you on to the boat repo."
"I couldn't find her," Conner said too quickly. "Sorry. Wish I could help."
"I'm looking for Folger, not necessarily the boat."
"Haven't seen him." Conner had seen him. Tied to a chair, eyes swollen, lips bleeding, a couple of Asian guys working him over. The memory made him wince. He couldn't look Becker in the eye, so he pretended to look harder at the picture of the boat. "I checked all the marinas. No sign of her or Teddy Folger." Conner looked at the paper to which the photograph of the boat was clipped. It was the insurance information from Allied Nautical, a fuzzy photocopy, the same exact page Samson had looked at, the same scribbling in Derrick James's handwriting up in the corner.
James was dead, the file missing from his office. And here was a woman who said she'd talked to James. Conner's stomach flip-flopped. He glanced again at the bulge under her jacket, licked his lips nervously. Maybe Joellen Becker had been the last person to see James alive.
"You okay?" she asked. "You look pale."
Conner cleared his throat. "Hungover."
She offered Conner a business card. "I can make it worth your while if you happen to remember something."
Conner stared at the card, didn't take it. "Uh-huh."
She said, "Best to try my cell phone. I always have it with me."
"Any time, day or night." She wiggled the business card like it was a crust of bread she was offering to a petting-zoo goat.
"Are you going to take this fucking card or not?"
"Excuse me just a moment, will you?" Conner said.
He left her standing there, went back to his bedroom, and slid open his closet door. He rummaged past old baseball cleats and his winter coat, found the Webley, the old British service revolver Fat Otis referred to as the antique. He held it tightly, his heart thumping madly. Easy does it, Samson. If she killed James, then she won't hesitate to kill again. Don't get cute. He didn't like guns, but he wanted to do this quickly and decisively. He took one more deep breath. Now go citizen's arrest her sorry ass.
Conner walked into the living room, the Webley leading the way. Becker saw him, raised an eyebrow.
She said, "Does Indiana Jones know you have his gun?"
"Don't move," Conner said.
"Or what?"
"What do you mean, or what? Or the usual. I'm pointing a big fucking gun at you."
"What's this about, Samson? We were getting along so well."
"You killed James," Conner said. "I saw his body. And the Folger file was missing, and now here you are with a page from that file."
"You're adding two plus two and getting five. Put the gun down."
"Lie on the floor and... uh... put your hands behind your head."
Becker laughed. "You watch too much NYPD Blue."
"You're not supposed to laugh at me. I'm holding a gun."
"What reaction did you want?"
"Fear and compliance," Conner said.
"Fat chance. Your revolver's not even loaded."
"What?" He brought the gun up to his face, looked down into the empty chambers. When was the last time he'd cleaned this thing?
When he was no longer pointing the gun at her, Becker spun, her leg flying out and knocking the gun from his hand. No time for him to react. She kicked again, clocked him on the jaw. His last thought before everything went black was Does everyone fucking know karate but me?