Suicide Squeeze
Chapter 27~28

 Victor Gischler

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A dull shred of daylight remained when Randy dropped Conner at his Plymouth. The whole ride back, Conner thought about the Joe DiMaggio card, where it might be. It hadn't been aboard the Jenny, in the binder with the rest of Folger's collection.
There were a few things Conner wanted to see for himself.
He drove to Folger's torched strip mall on Davis Highway. The place was a muddy, scorched mess, halfhearted, yellow police tape draped around the scene. It looked a shambles, but not particularly hazardous. He parked on the side in the shadows, stepped over the police tape.
There was still something of a roof left in places, held up by ash-black beams. Conner couldn't immediately tell which store was which, but he found a half-burned, life-size cardboard stand-up of Spider-Man and figured he'd found the comic-book shop.
Conner poked through the rubble, but there wasn't much left to see. Burned and melted shelves and display cases. He estimated where the cash register might have been and started kicking through the ash. It was dirty work, and Conner felt suddenly like he was wasting his time. But he quickly found the outline of a panel in the floor. It was caked with grime and ash, and he had to work it back and forth to slide the panel back.
He had the vague notion that he'd check the safe tonight, simply see if he could find the thing, and if it was undamaged, he would come back the next day with some heavy equipment and drill it out.
Conner felt simultaneously excited and silly. Secret safes were the nonsense of Nancy Drew treasure hunts.
He finally worked the panel all the way back. The safe underneath was unscorched, and presumably whatever might be inside was still undamaged. Conner had mulled the possibilities, thought it possible Folger had left the DiMaggio card in the hidden safe with plans to come back and pick it up later. Conner didn't know much about safes but figured a good one should survive a fire. He examined its surface, a combination lock and a handle. He reached out, turned the handle.
It was open.
The elation of his good luck quickly segued into discouragement with the realization nothing of value would be within. Otherwise, Folger would have locked it. He might as well have a look. Conner didn't currently have any better ideas.
He reached in, came out with a copy of X-Men. A yellow Post-it note stuck to the plastic covering said #172 First Byrne. Conner had no idea if this was significant. He put his hand back in the safe. The sum total contents consisted of four Star Wars action figures (Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and something called a Jawa) all in the original packaging, a Rubik's Cube (unsolved), a videotape labeled Space: 1999 Bloopers, and a red lace brassiere.
No DiMaggio card.
"Damn." But he wasn't really surprised.
It had been difficult enough to find a thirty-six-foot sailboat. Something as small as a baseball card could be hidden in any of a million places. He reconsidered Jenny Folger. Conner had to admit, without her he'd never have found the sailboat. After all, she'd been married to the guy, knew his habits. If he told her about the card, got her thinking, she might be able to come up with something useful. He toyed with the idea of calling her, but decided the long, quiet drive across the Bay Bridge might help him think.
He pointed the Plymouth toward Mobile.
Conner arrived at Jenny's complex. He didn't immediately go up to her apartment, sat in the car a moment, leaning on the steering wheel. There had been something mildly disappointing and fatigued about their parting. He'd honestly not expected nor wished to see her again and assumed she felt the same way.
Conner would try to keep it all business. Jenny Folger would understand that, appreciate it. There was a mercenary quality about her, nothing cruel, but something born of necessity and survival. He'd appeal to her righteous sense of greed and revenge, and maybe she'd know something useful about Teddy's prize baseball card just as she'd known about the sailboat.
He took a deep breath, went to her door.
When he knocked, the door creaked open, darkness within.
"Jenny?" He pushed the door open the rest of the way, took a tentative step inside. "It's Conner."
No answer.
It happened sometimes. People leave in a hurry, late for work or a date, and they forget to lock the door. Leave it wide open sometimes. Even as Conner thought this, he knew on a gut level that this wasn't one of those times, that he wouldn't find anything but bad news in Jenny Folger's apartment.
He found her in the bathroom.
She lay faceup, blond hair down over her face. Her right arm and leg hung over the side of the tub. She wore matching green bra and panties. She was so obviously dead. Conner looked at her from the doorway, unwilling to move closer. He didn't want to see what had happened, couldn't stomach a slit throat or a bullet hole or a caved-in skull, whatever had done her in.
With the life gone out of her, she suddenly seemed older, skin rubbery and fake-looking like the other bodies he'd seen recently. Too many bodies.
Who's next? Me?
Conner recalled their sudden sex in the cheap riverfront motel. She'd been so heated and animated and desperate. It seemed impossible that this was all that was left of her.
He left the apartment. Closed the door.
Toshi stood at the bow of the small, rented speedboat. Itchi piloted. The boat motored slowly along the shore, the night deep and dark, stars fuzzy behind low clouds. Toshi fished around with a handheld spotlight.
After ten minutes of violent coaxing, the Folger woman had offered precise directions to where Conner Samson had hidden the sailboat. She'd eagerly spilled the information, hoping it would purchase her life. No sale.
To Toshi, one patch of steaming swamp looked much like another, so he and Itchi had been searching for nearly two hours.
A glint of white among the cypress.
Toshi swung the spotlight back like a pistol, aimed down a narrow inlet that at first seemed too small to accommodate a large sailboat. "Back up. Turn us around."
They swung the speedboat into the inlet, and the Electric Jenny's stern hove into view. Toshi ordered Itchi to cut the engine. They drifted in silence toward the Jenny, bumped the hull gently. They leapt aboard with lethal grace, intending to move through the boat quickly, subduing Samson or whoever else might be aboard.
Nobody was home.
Toshi ordered the boat searched. When Itchi couldn't find the DiMaggio card, Toshi flipped open his switchblade, tore into the cushions and the bedding. No sign of the card.
Toshi had not really expected to find it. His feeling was that Samson had the card. Rather than search further, Toshi would much rather find Samson and make him tell where it was.
"Stay here," ordered Toshi. "Lie in wait for Samson in case he should return. You know what to do."
"It shall be done," Itchi said.
"Do not let him throw you off the boat this time," Toshi said.
Itchi reddened but kept silent.
"Remember to restrain yourself," Toshi said. "Samson will die soon enough, but we must make him talk first."
Joellen Becker had made half a bottle of Jack Daniel's disappear a little at a time with a shot glass shaped like a shotgun shell. The evening had started with her chewing through Folger's insurance file. She read and reread every line, looking for some hint. Anything. Did he have another property, an office someplace? A safety-deposit box? Folger had no friends, no living relatives. And Folger himself wasn't talking.
It was useless. Hell, maybe the card had burned with the shop. More likely, Joellen admitted to herself, she'd simply come up empty. She had not found the card, nor had she any leads where it might be. She hadn't found Folger in time to ask him any useful questions. Then she'd called Samson twenty-five times. No answer. He was a bust too. Useless. All useless.
She twirled her father's Old West-style six-shooters. She always brought them out when drinking, not often but once in a great while. The general had been a George Patton worshipper. The pistols were so corny, gleaming nickel, ivory handles, but Becker had to admire the craftsmanship. This is what washed-up spooks did, she imagined. Drink into oblivion, play with guns and wonder where everything went wrong.
She remembered that day she resigned from the NSA. It had been a bad day.
She stood at the foot of his bed, watched him while he slept, a cigarette dangling unlit from her lips. She would wait until he awoke. There was no hurry and nowhere to go.
Her father, the retired three-star army general, looked sallow and shrunken, dark circles around his hollow eyes, face pinched. The cancer had eaten its way through most of the major organs, spreading suddenly and rapidly and without mercy. In six short months, Joellen had watched him deflate, this man who'd once been like some ferocious god.
The television above her head blared a cable channel Western. She reached up, flipped it off.
The old man's eyes flickered open. "I was watching that." He produced the remote from beneath the bedcovers, turned the film back on. "It's John Wayne. The Searchers."
"At least turn it down."
He thumbed the remote again, cut the volume to almost nothing.
He shifted in bed, only slightly, but it looked like his bones would shatter, like they couldn't possibly support the weight of his slack skin. He grunted, moved his legs.
Joellen did not offer to help.
He finally found a comfortable position, sighed, exhausted, and closed his eyes. For a moment, Joellen thought he'd fallen back to sleep. But he opened his eyes again, and said, "I hear you got fired."
"I just came from the meeting," she said, plainly irritated. "How did you find out?"
"I still know people in this town," he said. "A few who still respect me enough to keep me in the loop."
"You already know, then." She shrugged. "There it is." She took the lighter out of her purse, almost lit her cigarette but remembered she was in a hospital. She put away the lighter, didn't know what to do with her hands.
"What will you do now?"
"Go someplace," she said. "Get my head together. Figure things out."
"I know someone at Langley," the general said. "And there's always consulting. I have a few names."
"I don't need any of your names, Father."
He frowned. "Don't you?"
A long pause, then he said, "I suppose you don't. Or, if you did, you wouldn't say."
"Fair enough." His eyes shifted to the small table under the window. "Your inheritance is over there." He closed his eyes again.
She went to the table, opened the highly polished wooden box. Two pistols inside, spotless, nickel six-shooters. In their hometown library, there was a picture of her father in Korea wearing the pistols. To the best of Joellen's knowledge, the revolvers had never been fired in combat. Her father was simply a ridiculous show-off.
"The brilliance of John Wayne in The Searchers," her father said, eyes still closed, "is that he clings to his quest even when it's obvious his quest is doomed. What else is there for him to do? He has come home in defeat, a Confederate who's refused to surrender his sword. He has no cause. What else can he do but invent a new one for himself?"
"What are you telling me, Father?"
He said, "I'm just telling you about a good film. His quest becomes his life." He opened his eyes, looked at his daughter. "Goals are nothing. That you pursue them is everything."
Somehow, Joellen doubted that was what John Ford had in mind.
"I'm leaving the house and the money to Eliot." Joellen's brother.
"It's yours," Joellen said. "Do as you wish." You rotten old bastard.
A thin, weak smile spread on his face. "I know what you're thinking."
"I'm thinking that you've complained for years about Eliot wasting his life as a painter and wasting your money studying in Paris and Rome where he was doing a lot more screwing and drinking than painting. So naturally you want to reward him with a big inheritance."
"You don't understand," he said. "Eliot doesn't stand a chance. The world would eat him alive. It's the only way."
"I know." She put her hand on the rail of the hospital bed, touched his thin arm with a finger.
"I'm going to die now," he said.
"I know."
"Don't leave, please." He put a frail hand over hers. "I might fall asleep again, but don't go. I don't know why, but I hate the thought that I'd die and nobody would be here. The doctor gives me fifty-fifty on lasting the night. I'm full of narcotics."
"I won't go anywhere."
"I'll see your mother soon," the general said.
"I like the pistols, Father. I'll keep them. If I move somewhere with a fireplace, I'll put them on the mantel."
"Do you remember that dog we had in Virginia? What was it? When you were a teenager. Some kind of terrier."
"It was a Jack Russell terrier," Joellen told him.
"Yes, I remember. That was a damn fine dog."
And five minutes later he was gone.
Joellen understood she was drunk, pushed the bottle away, and it tipped over, spilled the remainder of its contents across the table. She left the mess. To hell with it.
She pushed herself away from the table, stood on rubbery legs. She made it as far as the couch and fell asleep with her clothes on.