Suicide Squeeze
Chapter 22~23

 Victor Gischler

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Becker puffed her cigarette, knew she now had Samson's attention. Almost everyone understood threats and money. The threats might become necessary later. Hopefully not.
"Let's talk in the other room," she suggested. "It stinks in here."
Samson nodded, backed into the living room, keeping an eye on her. He was so wary. Again she sized him up. She could see the indecision and caution in his posture. He was acutely aware of his own ineptitude, a man smart enough to know he was in over his head. She made him nervous. Then again, Joellen Becker made a lot of people nervous. They'd taught her that at the Agency, how to make a man squirm with a cold stare. How to intimidate with a glance.
She followed him out, sat on the sofa, stubbed out her cigarette in a candy dish full of Hershey's Kisses. Conner stood there, waited for her to get on with it.
"I'm going to level with you," she said.
"It's a pretty good story. You might want to get comfortable."
"I'm good." Conner remained standing.
"You know what Teddy Folger did for a living, right?"
Conner said, "I know he owned a plaza and ran a comic-book store. It burned."
"I work for the insurance company that paid the claim after the fire," Becker said. "Folger reported that something very valuable had burned in the fire. It didn't burn. He collected the money but still has this thing hidden."
"That's why you said it was something that doesn't belong to him," Conner said. "Okay. So what was it?"
"A one-of-a-kind, autographed baseball card."
"This is about a baseball card? Are you shitting me?"
"I don't have time to shit anybody, Samson."
Conner asked, "So what happens now?"
"I've searched Folger's house and this bungalow. No dice. If he was planning to skip the country, I'm thinking he has the card aboard the Electric Jenny. Show me where the boat is, and you'll get paid."
"Of course," Becker said. "As soon as I deliver the card to my employer, he'll give me the money, and I'll give it to you."
"A few days."
She watched Samson turn the offer over in his head. He knew where the boat was, she was sure of it. What he was doing here in Folger's bungalow wasn't much of a mystery either. She'd told him Folger had something worth money.
"What card is it?" he asked.
"I told you, a baseball card."
"I mean, who's on it? The player."
"Joe DiMaggio."
Samson bit his lower lip, shook his head. "What's it worth?"
She thought about telling him the truth, but only for a split second. He'd needle her for more money if he knew its real value. Samson wouldn't settle for the two thousand. But he knew the card must be worth something. Why else go to all this trouble? "It's autographed, and that makes it worth a lot. Twenty thousand."
"For a baseball card? Now I know you're shitting me."
She drew the automatic from her shoulder holster, pointed it at Conner's leg. "If you say that again, I'll shoot you in the kneecap."
Conner gulped. "Right. Sorry."
"Listen, I don't know why a kid's baseball card should be worth that kind of money, and I don't care." She put the gun down on the coffee table, shook another Virginia Slim out of the pack, and lit it. "These hard-core collectors are crazy. They can get obsessed. But if some rich nerd wants to fork out for a slice of cardboard, it's fine with me. You want a 10 percent finder's fee or not? Two thousand bucks."
Conner rubbed the back of his neck. He looked nervous and unhappy. "If I know where the boat is-and I'm not saying I do-but if I do, I'll go fifty-fifty with you."
Becker blew out a long stream of smoke, shook her head, and rubbed her temples like she was weary. Let Samson think he was playing hardball, wearing her down. Finally, she nodded. "Okay, Samson, you win. Fifty-fifty. But only if we find the card. Otherwise, no deal. You go your way, and I'll go mine."
"I still have your phone number," he said. "Let me poke around. I'll call you."
"How soon?"
"Very soon," Conner said.
"Don't fuck with me on this, Samson. I'll make you hurt."
"I'll bet you say that to all the boys."
Becker said, "If I don't get a call from you tomorrow, I'll stomp you so hard, you'll think that kick in the chops I gave you yesterday was foreplay."
Conner said good-bye and left by the front door.
She sat, waited, finished her cigarette, and listened for Conner to start his car and drive away. She kept listening, but never heard anything. Had he walked? It didn't matter. Becker wouldn't be able to stall Billy Moto much longer. She needed Conner Samson to come up with something. Even if she paid him ten thousand dollars, she'd still be way ahead in the end. Ten thousand was chump change.
Or maybe she'd save ten grand and put a bullet into Conner Samson's brain.
Conner waited until he was out of Folger's canal, cranked the putt-putt motor, and returned to the Jenny.
With eager, shaking hands he flipped open the binder, looked for the DiMaggio card. Ten thousand dollars. Ten thousand dollars. Ten thousand dollars. A mantra of desperate hope. Fleetingly, he entertained the thought of going around Becker, collecting the whole twenty thousand for himself, but he wouldn't know how to go about it, and frankly Becker scared him stiff. No, Conner didn't have the stomach for a double cross. He'd take his ten G's and run.
He flipped every page, slowly reading the name of the ballplayer at the top or bottom of each card. Mickey Mantle, Joe Morgan, Catfish Hunter, Steve Garvey, Stan Musial, and on and on.
No DiMaggio.
He started over at the beginning, went through the binder again. Then he took out each card, turned it over in case one of the plastic pockets held an extra card or in case two cards were stuck together. He bent and twisted the binder itself in case there were secret pockets.
Then he hurled the binder across the cabin. "Goddammit!"
Conner sat, put his face in his hands. I should have known it wouldn't be that easy. He'd already mentally spent the ten thousand. He knew a man in Fort Walton Beach who'd make him false registration papers for the Jenny. He'd slap a new name on her, stock her, head to Mexico. Find a dark-eyed señorita to make him forget about Tyranny.
It would have been nice.
He stripped off his tuxedo, put out the lights, opened the portholes in the master sleeping cabin, and flopped into bed. He lay awake a few minutes thinking about the baseball card. He wanted to find it, wanted the money. Even with the gentle breeze off the water it was hot as hell, but sleep came quickly enough, the waves rocking the boat.
Conner dreamed. He was playing left field for the Yankees, but somehow everything seemed weird, the color faded, bleached, like he was in a home movie. The other guys on the team were all famous. Willie Mays came up and started talking to him. The wind kicked up, and Willie folded in half, fluttered. He was two-dimensional. All the other guys on the team were baseball cards. The wind gusted, lifted them up and out of the stadium.
The wind scooped up Conner too, lifted him without effort, as if he were without weight, like there was nothing to Conner at all.
He awoke early the next morning, threw on the tuxedo again, and motored the dinghy to his illegally parked Plymouth along the river. He had the binder of baseball cards with him. A couple of little ideas rolled around in his head, trying to become bigger. He jumped into the Plymouth and drove to his apartment.
After a shower and a shave, Conner traded his tux for a pair of jeans and a Flounder's Bar & Grill T-shirt. Nike sneakers. A Ping baseball cap. He felt almost human again.
Then he packed.
Conner was disappointed to find all the clothes he wanted to keep fit into one large tote bag. A baseball glove, the remaining Macanudo cigars, various personal items, and the Webley revolver filled another small backpack. While searching the dark depths of the closet, he found a box of.45 bullets and the metal rings that would allow them to fit into the ancient gun.
He stood in the middle of the apartment, spun a slow, full circle, taking in everything, the shabby furniture, dull walls, light fixtures filled with dead mosquitoes. How alarmingly easy to abandon this old life, leave everything in dust and ruin and the lingering stink of vomit. It was so easy, Conner wondered why he hadn't done it before.
He picked the tuxedo off the floor, went through the pockets. He found Randy Frankowski's Planet X business card, put it in his pocket, and dropped the tux back onto the floor. He went into the kitchen and fetched Joellen Becker's business card from the kitchen table.
Then he turned on the cell phone Rocky Big had given him, dialed the number. "Hello, Rocky? I'm coming to see you. I'm ready to settle up."