I got back to my hotel at around four; it was starting to rain, and the month was May.
I looked at myself as I passed the big mirror in the main hall as I proceeded to the staircase, and I had to admit that I looked all right, except for a cauliflower ear, the left one, not my best side. Legacy of a quick and brutal career as a boxer, cut short by a total lack of interest or talent in that field. Hanging round the boxers’ gyms and listening to them talk – that’s when I changed fields. Listening in on people and spying on their activities appealed to me. I was a rat.
I didn’t think I was a rat any longer, but I knew – the way some women know they’re going to turn bad someday – that bad karma you thought you’d got rid of was very much still in possession of at least part of your soul. You think you’ve wiped out the cockroaches in your house, but they come back – maybe at night, when you’re sleeping, and you wake suddenly to the sound of their creaking mandibles.
Back in my room – it wasn’t much of a room, a desk, a sink, a bed, a standup lamp with a tear in its shade in the shape of Texas, and a flashing neon sign outside my window that at night suffused the room in a reddish glow – I sat down and turned on the radio. That’s right, there was a radio in the wall, and I turned it on looking for news of Al Mapes.
I was excited. I envisioned a big manhunt. Cops fanning out in all directions, motorcycle sirens screaming, pandemonium on the streets of San Fransisco. My wife used to tell me – before she left me for a Fuller Brush salesman – that I was just like a cute little boy of ten. I’ll have more to say about that, later.
Right now, I was hearing a baseball game from Wrigley Field, no less, between two bush league teams whose names will forever remain anonymous in my mind, and I was about to switch to another station when the broadcast from the stadium was cut off:
We interrupt this program for a special bulletin from KFAC, Los Angeles. As broadcast earlier, an inmate from San Quentin has escaped. Police in San Fransisco are on high alert, and an all-points-bulletin has been issued; all exits out of the city have been sealed off and roadblocks established at the Golden Gate Bridge, and all other tunnels and bridges in and out of the city. Residents in the area have been advised to say indoors and to lock their doors: Al Mapes is considered armed and dangerous. Now back to our regularly scheduled program, from Wrigley Field.
I switched it off.
A small mirror above the washbasin revealed a wan face, dull and pale, with a forehead lined with the telltale signs of worry and lack of sleep. The stubble of the beard didn’t help. At thirty six I thought I looked an even forty. I was slightly balding, starting from the pate, right in the middle, which was fortunate as I didn’t have to worry about a toupee: most people saw me from the front.
I turned away, somewhat disgusted at the deterioration in my appearance. I knew the reason, it wasn’t hard to find. The process had had its inception on the day Rebecca left me, with a note attached to our meager little bulletin board: Can’t take it anymore. My involvement with the Great Brinks Robbery, two years before, in which I had played a small role helping the Boston cops locate the armored vehicle, had been the spark. I’d been up to my ears in it, and I had hardly seen my wife. It was an ongoing investigation, the money hadn’t been found and the vehicle had been cut to pieces by oxyacetylene torches. It was hardly surprising that she had thrown herself at the first man who showed any interest in her, and the fact that he was a Fuller Brush salesman had turned it into a comedy. I’d had to endure the jibes of neighbors and friends for weeks afterwards.
Boston was behind me now. I ordered a grilled cheese and a coffee from the kitchen, turned on the radio again, thinking I might keep abreast of the manhunt in San Francisco. I wanted to talk to Mapes, but was he going to survive? Where would he go? Where could he hide?
I went down to the bar, around six, catching part of the cocktail hour. I sat down on the stool, lit a Lucky Strike and settled in to enjoy a Bock beer.
“You look like your could use a boost, mister,” the bartender said to me.
I blew smoke in his face, because I felt mean.
He stared at me, unaffected.
“Gimme a Bock,” I said.
He brought me a Bock, the bottle and the glass, half-filled and frothing nicely.
“You hear about the escaped convict?”
“No,” I lied.
“They caught ‘im!”
I must have suddenly looked interested.
“Yeah, he was hidin’ out at the Presidio.”
“Alive?” I asked.
It looked to me as if I’d have to travel to San Francisco if I was going to interview Mapes. I didn’t know if I’d get anything out of him, and he had no reason to talk. He was the guy supposed to tell Yvonne where the money was. But if the cops hadn’t prized it our of him, what chance did I have?
I put Mapes on the back burner, seeing as he wasn’t going anywhere soon. I had the key given to me by Sheldon still in my pocket. It was ordinary enough, the kind that opens lockers at the bus station.
I went outside and jumped into a cab. “Greyhound bus station,” I snapped at the driver.
I got out at 6th and Los Angeles Street, right at the corner.
The bus station was not that busy. I noted safety deposit boxes along one wall, in a recess. I checked the number on the tag, and headed straight for that locker. I turned the key with a sense of anticipation, and dread at the same time, I wasn’t sure why; the feeling had hit me at the very moment I approached the row of boxes. For a brief second I waited, as if for something to spring out at me when I opened the box.
I craned my neck to see behind me, I had a peculiar feeling of being watched. I wasn’t being rational, but I had misread the sensation: it wasn’t fear, it was excitement.
No-one was watching me. I smiled to myself and inserted the stubby little key into the lock and twisted; it came open. I peered inside. It was quite dark in this part of the enclave, the light bulb burned out, so I couldn’t see much. As if plunging my arm into a snake’s pit, I reached for something bulky lying flat on the bottom. It was an envelope, a big manila one. I took it out, still glancing around to make sure my eyes weren’t deceiving me, and again there was no-one. I thanked whatever gods were responsible for that, and stuffed it inside my coat pocket. And left.
The corner of 6th and L.A. was busy, though. A red streetcar rumbled by, bell clanging as an old Ford coupe convertible with two kids in it cut in front of it to make a left turn. It was a blond boy behind the wheel, a sweet little girl beside him who could have been Lana Turner for all I knew, waving her bare arms in the air and laughing hysterically. The motorman was smiling while he kept up his ringing. The Ford roared off.
This sure wasn’t Boston, I reminded myself, and took a cab and went back to my hotel.
I tore open the package and the first thing I saw was a sheet of writing paper folded in two. But it was the other contents of the envelope that bore the bulk, and as I felt around, I knew it could only be money. A lot of it. I didn’t wait to read the letter, I tore open the second envelope and there it was. All kinds of denominations of used bills fluttered then poured out like a minor deluge, onto my bed.
How much was there, I didn’t know and I wasn’t about to count it. I grabbed several armloads of it and carried it to the dresser and shoved them into a drawer. Only then did I allow myself to read the note.
It wasn’t much, but it was signed Joy, Yvonne’s friend. And addressed to Al Mapes. It looked like I was getting to the bottom of something.
To Be Continued