The day before Gordon Mitchell was going to kill his wife, dreams of the life awaiting him tickled his mind like silent, playful caresses. He held the silence close, then, slowly, allowed in the sound of waves slipping onto the sand. He closed his eyes and could see the sun fat and orange and low in the sky, just dipping its oval in the water of the horizon. No Wanda. No worries. Never have to think twice about bills, about buying a round of drinks for your pals, about making a big—
“Down payment?” The chunky guy’s eyes were almost bulging out of his glasses. “The ad in the paper said ‘No down payment.’ What kind of a scam you running here?”
Gordon came back down from the clouds, remembering now where he was and who he was talking to: He was at Major Dale’s RV World in Elkhart, Indiana—recreational vehicle capital of the world! And he was talking to a major burr in his saddle.
Of course, Gordon had been in this situation hundreds, quite possibly thousands of times in his fifteen years at Dale’s. But just in case, he switched off his autopilot and assumed the controls of his well-oiled pitch machine.
“Okay to call you Dan?” he asked his beefy quarry.
Chunky Dan gave a half-shrug. “Whatever. The ad said ‘No down payment.’”
“Why is that important to you, Dan?” He casually leaned up against the side of the mini-home’s cab, forcing Dan to look at the beautiful machine he was nickel-and-diming himself away from. “A thousand dollars to drive home in this doesn’t sound like much to me.”
“Principle means something here.”
Gordon leaned forward. “Principal, like money?”
“No, principle, like the bigger picture.”
He leaned back. “Look, Dan, I want to sell you this mini-home. You want to buy it. All I need is a thousand bucks cash and you got it. What’s it gonna take to do this? It’s Friday afternoon, quarter to six—fifteen minutes and I’m gone for the weekend.”
Dan chewed his lip.
Runway up ahead, Gordon thought with a smile. Bring ’er in easy. “You mean to tell me your wife’s gonna be happy about not having this baby out tomorrow, all for a lousy grand?”
“How do I know it’s worth it?”
A bigger smile spread across Gordon’s face. Ask a salesman How do I know it’s worth it and get ready for the show. “Rambling RVs are the best-built, most reliable coaches in the world, Dan. We take pride on doing things the best, things that the average customer—hell, even the sharpest customer, like you, Dan—wouldn’t think about. Watch this.”
Wagging a finger at his chunky customer, Gordon stepped over to the next row of vehicles, the giant bus-like Vacationeers, and tugged on the metal tubing holding the huge side mirror in place. Then he grabbed on and lifted his bulk off the ground, hanging a little over two hundred pounds on the tubing and bouncing on it a little for good measure. “Tell me that’s not fine workmanship,” Gordon said as he let himself back onto the asphalt and came back next to Dan. “Huh? Tell me.”
“Yeah, it’s fine. Lemme talk to your sales manager.”
“You got him,” Gordon said, still smiling but feeling a little turbulence in this landing.
“Then I want to see Major Dale. You guys said there was no goddamn down payment.”
Mayday! “Look—Dan. How much we talking about for this baby?”
“You said seventeen.” Mr. Principle was looking interested.
“Make it twelve. Just give me a thousand dollars. Today.”
Dan looked like a kid walking into a surprise birthday party, only with five thousand bucks sitting amidst all the streamers and balloons instead of a cake. “Really? You serious?”
“We aim to please,” Gordon said. And knocking five g’s off the price is guaranteed to hit the mark, knock it dead. Dead. His thoughts turned to Wanda again, and a peaceful smile spread over his face.
Dan swung out a bank envelope, something Gordon had seen more times than a farmer’s seen shit. “Got it right here. Don’t we have some paperwork or something?”
Gordon looked at his watch, although he knew exactly what time it was, down to the second. “Do you really want to fill out forms right now or drive off in your new RV?” He took the cash, felt its silky beauty in his hands for a moment, checked to see none of the other employees of Major Dale’s was looking, and slipped the wad into his shirt pocket. “Come back Monday and take care of that stuff, okay?” He wouldn’t be there Monday, of course, or Tuesday, or ever again.
“You bet I will,” Dan said with a wide grin, and shook Gordon’s hand. “Thank you so much. No hard feelings about the down payment thing?”
“Forget about it.”
The grin got wider, which hardly seemed possible, and that was that. Dan took the keys, got the fifth-wheel hitched to his pickup, and was gone.
Gordon beamed as he slipped the cash into his wallet. Perfect three-point landing. Maybe the last one of his high-flying career on the RV lot, for tomorrow, he had to get out of Dodge if he hoped to avoid a hanging.
Hanging. Death again. It made him think of Wanda, his wife, and that warmed his heart. He whistled softly as he strolled back to the deluxe manufactured housing office to formally list Chunky Dan’s Mayan-Berry–colored mini-home as being out on a test drive for the weekend—
His cell phone chirped. “Janey, I thought you were gonna call earli—”
“Janey? Expecting someone else?” Wanda barked through the ether. “Don’t tell me—the little chippie’s a customer.”
“What is it, Wanda? Finishing up here.”
“Well, I just talked to my sister. She’s letting us stay over at her place during the trip.”
Gordon reminded himself he was on a cell phone. “It’s not a trip. We have business to take care of, remember? There’s a very wealthy person waiting for this RV in New Mexico, and we wouldn’t want to be late, right?”
“Wealthy person? What are you talking about? I thought this was the weekend we were taking the cash and—”
“Jesus, we’re on a cell phone here.”
“Well, we’ve got to stop sometime, Gordon. It’s a twenty-six-hour drive.”
“We’ll find a motel.”
“We’re staying at my sister’s. It’s halfway there.”
“Ron Mitchell,” the loudspeaker outside the dealership boomed. “One-one.”
“Gotta go,” Gordon said. “That whole job thing.”
“My sister’s,” she said again. “It’s not up for discussion—”
He pressed a button and shut her up. Before he could even take a step toward the office, the phone chirped at him again.
He swept it up and shouted into it, “Goddamnit, Wanda—”
“Wanda? Were you expecting someone else?” the small voice on the line, younger and smoother than his wife’s, strained to yell.
A hand went over his eyes. “Janey. Sorry. That bitch has me crazy.”
“Well, you won’t have to worry about her much longer.” Gordon could feel her smiling all the way from Las Cruces.
“Cell phone, honey,” he said. “I’m a bit rushed, sweetie—what’s up?”
“Just wanted to hear your voice, Ronny. Oh, and I got my ticket with the money you sent.”
“Fantastic. That makes life easier. I’ll call you on the road, okay?”
“I’ll be waiting, sugar.”
“Love you, babe.”
“Oooh, love you,” she purred. “Oh, and Ronny? If you ever call me Wanda again, you know I’ll rip your fucking throat out, right?”
“Perfectly understandable, baby,” he said, and cut the connection.
The loudspeaker sounded again. “Ron Mitchell, one-one. One-one. Now.”
He winced. Five minutes left before he could escape and he gets a one-one. Which meant Dale wanted to see him. And that couldn’t be good.
As he himself liked to say, Gordon “Ron” Mitchell had been a lot of things to a lot of people, many of whom shaped him in their own images, which suited him just fine. He was the football star, the backseat Valentino, whatever—people looked at him and fit him into categories, categories which usually translated into meaning he was what they wanted to be. As a child, he was friends to almost everyone except the skinny, nerdy kids he felt could do nothing for him, the kids that as eight-year-olds went crazy for Sputnik and flying-saucer movies while he was more interested in girls (even then—Christ) and work, at that tender age odd jobs that didn’t pay much but still facilitated relations with the girls.
Of course, he didn’t even know what to do with girls back then. But he found out soon enough.
What he found out was that girls responded to talk. Action, sure, they liked strong, silent types as well. But what they really liked was being swept off their feet by a silver-tongued devil that made them feel like they were on top of the world.
The nerds taught him that. How, he never told anybody, but he remembered the day he learned talk could get him into or out of anything. Gordon and his buddy Leon were getting ready to traumatize this geek— you know, stuff him in his locker or stick him in the trunk of a car or something—when the kid said to Gordon, “Hey, I bet you could beat the shit out of Leon, huh?”
Gordon stopped, a grin half-cocked on his face, and sized up his pal. “Hell, yes,” he said.
“The fuck you could,” Leon said, smiling himself but dead serious, and he gave Gordon a playful little shove.
Gordon shoved back, and before he or Leon knew what was happening, they were slugging each other, knocked down on the floor of the hallway. The nerd was gone and forgotten—until later, when Gordon sat him down and listened to every word he said. Because if words worked that well on two toughs getting ready to pound someone, imagine how well it would work on some pretty little thing.
He never acknowledged the geeks in front of anybody, naturally, but he knew from then on that their ability to talk circles around anyone, their verbal slickness, their mental smoothness—transplanted into his body, these made up the skeleton key to any door he might care to open, and certainly to those of girls and money.
In high school, he discovered “Ron” worked better than “Gordon,” even though he couldn’t stand the sound of “Ron” (and he would never tell his sainted mother, who gave him his name, that he would so carelessly replace it). Ron Mitchell had no interest in football until he noticed talk alone wasn’t doing it anymore—he needed some stature, and playing tailback at Elkhart Memorial gave it to him in spades.
Then came Wanda.
Gorgeous, not too smart, entranced by Gordon’s considerable charms. They met in his sophomore year at Indiana University in Bloomington and married four months later.
He had no junior year at Bloomington. He moved his new bride back up to Elkhart and, after ten years driving semis and getting laid in some of the prettiest spots in North America, started selling RVs at her uncle’s lot. Her uncle, a decorated veteran of the Korean War, was Major Dale.
* * *
“Paged me, Dale?” Gordon asked as he half-knocked on the door. Major Dale, stroking his white moustache as he gazed out onto the shimmering concrete of the sales lot, motioned for Gordon to sit. This didn’t bode well for getting out of there in a hurry. “The lot’s looking a little light,”Dale said.
The tongue-twister hung Gordon up for a moment; then he got what Dale was saying. “End of the week. You know, plenty of deliveries.”
“We’re missing vehicles, Gordy. I want to know where they are.”
Smooth, Gordon told himself. Think silk, good Scotch, white skin … “Jeez, Dale, you know how I am with paperwork when the weekend’s here. Have that for you Monday, no problem.”
“Today. I want to know where every vehicle is today.”
Gordon could feel sweat beads pulsing on his forehead. He looked at the clock: ten after six. He had to meet Morihita at seven-thirty and not a minute later. The Japanese were bitches for punctuality. “Test drives. Couple of those.”
“Fine. Write them down with the deliveries. Whenever you’re done, I’ll be here. I’m always here, you know that. Sixty-eight years old and you don’t see me running off around the country, taking it easy,” Dale said with a pronounced sniff.
It was amusing how a businessman as successful as Major Dale could have so much contempt for one of his core customer bases, retirees. They plunked down cash for new RVs—Class A’s, none of this fifth-wheel stuff for them—like there was no tomorrow. Of course, for the Methuselahs they got in there, there probably weren’t too many tomorrows left.
Silk, skin, Scotch. Smooth. “Look, Dale, I want to give you those numbers, and I will. But you know I’ve got that delivery to make, the Vacationeer down to New Mexico tonight—leaving in a couple of hours,” he said, looking at his watch for effect. “Back Tuesday, though. Wanda’s coming with me—we’re making a little vaca … trip of it.” Gordon knew Dale hated his people, especially his nephew-in-law, taking vacations. “See what I mean?”
“We’ve got a floor-plan checker from Rambling coming in here tomorrow—we’re gonna be closed a Saturday, our biggest day of the week—to make sure everything’s kosher. He’ll freeze us if it isn’t. I’m sorry, Gordy, I need those figures, all of ’em, tonight, before you leave.”
Dizziness swept over Gordon. If he missed meeting Morihita, he wouldn’t get his traveling money. If he didn’t get his traveling money, there was no point even going down to New Mexico. And if he didn’t get down to New Mexico—then over the border—he would be in jail by the end of the week, as soon as the floor-plan checker noticed a dozen VINs didn’t match up with the vehicles on the lot. Then Wanda, who had thrown in with him to cash in and get away from it all, would have no choice but to turn witness on her husband to save herself from going down. It was the risk he took enlisting Wanda as protection against her uncle’s suspicions—Dale’s little Wanda would never do anything like this—until he could get her alone and get her dead.
He had to beat the Rambling floor-plan checker. He had to buy time. “Tell you what, Dale. I want to get everything in order and you want everything in order, so we’re on the same page here. The Rambling guy isn’t gonna freeze a dealership of this size—”
“The hell he isn’t. I need it tonight, Gordy. Or is there some reason you don’t want the numbers known?”
His hair stood on end. This was impossible. Gordon had covered his tracks. Unless Wanda had said something to her uncle—that bitch! When he finally got her where he wanted her—
“The checker, name’s Johnson, has already stopped by, Gordy. He found some discrepancies. Big ones.” Dale cleared his throat. “Now, I know how you are with paperwork and letting folks have long test drives, and so does he, so he agreed not to freeze us until he does another check tomorrow. We’re getting a break. See why I need this tonight?”
Gordon ignored the attempt to reason; Dale wasn’t half the salesman he was. “What about the delivery? A touring Class A, two hundred eighty thousand and change. You wanna just let the sale go?”
“Gordon! What’s got into you? Of course not. I’ve got another salesman to deliver the vehicle—Timothy.”
“Timothy?” Gordon said, eyes bugging. “Not Tim, right? It’s Timothy.”
“He’s a good kid. He can get the coach down to New Mexico and get all the papers signed. It’s not that hard, Gordon.”
“Greenhorn. Guy’s a greenhorn.” Gordon scoffed as well as he could with all of the blood draining from his vital systems. “He can’t shut this sale.”
Major Dale leaned forward in his huge chair, the oiled leather squeaking incongruously. “You are going to stay here until every vehicle that is supposed to be on this lot is accounted for. Call in every one of your extended test drives. Get every scrap of paperwork from every sale you’ve made in the past month. Account for all of the cash from the Japanese sales. I am going home. You will do it—tonight.”
Gordon looked at the clock. Six-thirty. He had an hour until Morihita, cash, freedom—if he made it. One hour. “Mind if I grab dinner?”
Dale nodded. Bye, Dale! Gordon’s heart soared.
Then his wife’s uncle said, “Take Timothy with you. I want you back here.”
And with that, any opportunity for further smooth talking was lost.
* * *
Anger and frustration fried his brain. Months planning this out, nearly a year, the triple crown of lots of cash, Wanda deader than eight-tracks, and a new life away from hawking RVs to Mr. and Mrs. Methuselah every day dancing before him, and pow! The one month he picks, Rambling calls the dealership to the carpet hours before he’s gone.
All that, and he’s stuck with Jonny Quest the tenderfoot salesman, part of the new breed mostly seen at the manufacturer lots: Clean-cut, service-oriented, looking toward management in the company. Christ.
As they drove in silence to dinner in Gordon’s customized converted van—made in Elkhart, van conversion capital of the world!—he noticed that Timothy was lustily admiring the conversion work, especially the audio system. This could be an opening, he saw. Everybody’s got an opening. He jumped in.
“Like it? Four thousand bucks for the whole job.”
“Gee! I love stuff like this,” Timothy said as he took it in.
Gee? Did the kid actually say gee, as in gee whiz golly willickers? “Um … look, Timothy, you sure you know how to handle a Class A? Like a bus, you know?”
“Oh, sure. My pop was a trucker. I’ve handled the big rigs before. You don’t think I can do it, Mr. Mitchell?”
“Call me Ron,” Gordon said automatically, although he actually would have preferred the little dork call him Mr. Mitchell, get the pecking order well-established. “Far as handling it goes, I’m sure you’d do just fine, Timothy. But maybe I want to take it down to New Mexico. Talking motivation here.”
“I don’t follow you, Mr. Mitch—Ron.”
Gordon fired up the bullshit props on his finely crafted mental P-38. He loved the hum of his mind’s engines as he zeroed in on a target, be it a sale, a lay, whatever. “I want to drive the RV down, son. It’s my twenty-fifth with the wife. Wanna take her on a little trip.”
“The Major must have his reasons for keeping you here, right?”
Got that right. “Old men like Dale don’t need to keep young wives happy, Timothy. Young ones do.”
“I don’t follow you, Mr. Mitchell.”
Gordon shook his head and realized that hell, to the tenderfoot, he probably looked older than Moses. “Talking about me. I need to take the coach, get me?”
Timothy pondered this for a moment, seeming to weigh the implications of everything Gordon had said and what effect it might have on his brand-new career if anything went awry. Then he looked around the cabin of the van, checking out the teakwood trim, the color TV, the Rockford Fosgate unit, the sunken speakers, the power amps, the cherry rose carpeting on the floor and walls, even the Chevrolet key ring hanging from the ignition.
“You gonna help me out, Timothy?”
“Gosh, Ron,” he said in his Dennis-the-Menace lilt, “what’s it worth to ya?”
Gordon’s lips curled into a toothy smile. Wasn’t gonna take the van with him anyway.
Major Dale did not go home after talking to Gordon, instead calling his wife and telling her to hold dinner until he called again. Then he swiveled in his finely upholstered leather chair to face the sales lot and the Mediterranean Aqua Vacationeer, over a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of cruising luxury that was scheduled to go down to New Mexico tomorrow with Timothy now instead of Gordon.
When he saw Timothy pull up—hey, wasn’t that Gordon’s van?—and climb into the Vacationeer, he almost turned his back to the window and told his wife to go ahead and heat up whatever the hell she planned on making.
But then he saw Gordon climb out of the van and skulk into a Coyote Tan Class A Luxliner Junior, driving it right off the lot after Timothy in the Vacationeer.
He picked up the phone but not to call his wife. He followed the series of voice-mail instructions made by the phone system of the Elkhart Police Department.
Finally a human answered and Dale said, “Yes, Detective Gann, it’s me. It turns out you were right all along.”
Gordon always thought it was hilarious that the Japs would come ten thousand miles, fly for fourteen hours, to see America and the first place they had to go was Elkhart, Indiana, to pick up their RV. Of course, every other place in the country would look better after seeing Indiana first.
He swung the Luxliner into the Ramada Inn lot, taking up thirty feet of the fire lane as he let off the brake to that satisfying hiss. He brought up his watch: Seven-thirty on the dot.
But no Morihita.
He wriggled down to make himself comfortable in the captain’s chair and counted his traveling money in his head. Two thousand from earlier in the day, plus the grand from Chunky Dan—and now the Japs would come through as they had for the past month, getting ready for the big summer traveling season by slapping down big bucks to “rent” giant coaches. Really, they were buying the RVs and selling them back as used after a summer of sightseeing, ’cause what the hell did the Japs need a coach for back in Tokyo or whatever? And really renting one would get you a second-rate vehicle for the same amount as buying a brand-new one and selling it back. This was Gordon’s grand plan, and it was working fine. Six coaches at just about three hundred grand apiece, and now this little beauty to Morihita for eighty—
A rap at the window lifted Gordon out of his seat. “Mr. Mitchell?”
Mistuh Mitchurr? Gordon almost laughed. Fucking Japs.
He popped the door open and swung down, hand extended for immediate shaking. “Mr. Morihita, please call me Ron. Ready for the summer of a lifetime?” he said, slapping the side of the coach.
Morihita looked starched even in his red polo shirt and khaki slacks, but a smile broke across his stern features as he scanned the Luxliner. “This is the vehicle we spoke about?”
“That’s right—the Rambling Luxliner Junior. All the luxury and convenience of the Luxliner, but—as you requested—even easier to handle than our six-axle original Luxliner.” Gordon could recite all of the pluses of the Junior over the original in his sleep, then turn around and list the pluses of the original over the Junior. All he had to do was keep talking. “Eighty thousand dollars is quite the bargain for this, but I do like to cater to my Japanese friends.”
“Very good,” Morihita said, and pulled out his checkbook. “My family and I are looking forward to seeing the United—”
“Wait!” Gordon stepped forward, speaking before Morihita’s pen could touch the paper. “Cash only on these transactions, Mr. Morihita, please. Remember, that was part of the deal for the sales-return policy we discussed. My apologies.”
Morihita stiffened, then slid the checkbook into his back slacks pocket. “It is very difficult to bring that much currency into the United States, Mr. Mitchell.”
“Ron. Yes, I know, but—”
“Ron Mitchell, what if I told you I did not have that much currency, because it would require declaration through United States Customs Department?”
He was pulling the Customs routine? Everything swayed for a second, stopping just in time for Gordon to keep himself from falling over. He could feel pinpricks of sweat on his face, his arms, his back. It would be so easy for Dale to check Customs records for cash brought into the States, and it would be so easy to track that right down to the missing coaches …
Nonchalantly, Gordon made a slight bow to his customer. Slight, but unmistakable. Then he said, “Mr. Morihita, I would ask why you did not bring thousand-dollar bills, which your company can transfer to accounts in the U.S. through internal documentation. This would save you from having to declare the money, sir.”
Morihita’s lips pursed, and he nodded sternly at Gordon. And then he laughed, sweeping out an envelope fat with bills. “You are a very smart salesman, Mr. Mitchell. Count this—you will find eighty of those thousand-dollar bills.”
Gordon counted. He found them. “You’re good to go, Mr. Morihita. I got the faxed contracts back at the office, so there’s nothing more to do except hop on that horse and ride,” he said, and with a hearty cowboy smile gripped Morihita’s hand and shook.
The Jap smiled too, and gave him a little bow of his own. Gordon chuckled, and hoped Morihita could at least see the rest of Indiana before the police took back the coach. Timothy pulled up in the Vacationeer, and Gordon hopped in and rode west, into the sunset.
Gordon dropped Timothy back at the lot, then popped across town and just sat in the Vacationeer, listening to the ten-CD system, grinning through narrowed eyes.
There had been some obstacles shoved in his way at the last minute, but, like the former football player he was, he finessed his way through what he could, then dropped his shoulder and rammed through the rest. Even though Morihita had given him the huge bills, useless for traveling money, he still had three grand in smaller denominations for trip expenses.
Time to celebrate.
He pulled the thirty-five-foot Vacationeer across six parking spaces of the Kitty Klub, Elkhart’s premier strip club and one Gordon knew … well, intimately. This was his last night in the United States, his last chance to down a few and get laid, show what he was made of. After all, the giant bills weren’t totally useless.
“Ever seen anything like this?” he asked the brunette, who called herself “Angie”—the chick had a name from a Stones song, that had to be a good omen. She came and sat on his lap, taking a look at the green piece of paper with a one and three zeros in each corner and Grover Cleveland right in the middle.
“Is that for real?” Her eyes went to the money but her arms stayed wrapped around him. She was firm. God, was she firm. “A million-dollar bill?”
“Thousand.” His prick was rising up against her firm, firm thighs as she sat on his lap. “Just a thousand dollars.”
“That’s still a lot,” Angie said, and whipped off her top just like that, bouncing her tan (and firm) breasts in Gordon’s face. They were so close he could smell his boozy breath bouncing off of them. “You ever seen anything like these?”
He had seen breasts like them in that they were bulbous and nippled, but never any so … magnificent. “Can I touch?”
“I don’t think my boyfriend would like that.”
“He likes you sitting on men’s laps with your tits in their faces?”
“I’m mostly a dancer,” she said, not answering the question. But that word hung in the air like a promise: Mostly. “I got bills to pay.”
Gordon wiggled the Cleveland. “And I’m here to help you pay ’em.” She put her tan, firm breast in his fingers. Better than a handshake.
* * *
The rest of Angie was just as firm and tan, the impossibly skinny strips of white where her bathing suit once lay against her just serving to enhance the effect. She was duly impressed with the Vacationeer, as it was one hell of an impressive machine, if Gordon did say so himself. Starting from the front, it had a dashboard like the cockpit of a 747, a nineteen-inch remote-control color television between two full-swivel captain’s chairs, a full-size sofa (available in over two hundred stain-resistant fabrics) and recliner, central roof-ducted air conditioning, full overlay cabinetry (available in three distinctive hardwoods), full-size bathroom with marble countertop and full shower, kitchen area with microwave, gas stove and oven, a dining room with seating for four, tons of “basement” storage space, and the pièce de résistance—a huge bedroom with thirteen-inch TV, beveled mirrors, security safe, and more storage located underneath a full queen-size bed, the final thing Angie was impressed with as Gordon laid her down and started peeling her already slight clothing off of her.
Firm. Young and firm. To Wanda as day is to the dead of night.
Dead! He chuckled to himself.
She kissed him; it was a good kiss, full of interest and creativity. Gordon appreciated that and returned it with gusto. Her legs were spread up against his slacks and he liked that, too.
“Ron,” Angie said as she started unbuttoning his shirt, “I’ve really never seen one of those dollars before. It’s really real, right? Not that I’m doing this for the money.”
Right. “Don’t worry, sweetheart, it’s real. You can’t just spend it, though—”
“What?” Her legs slammed together like the covers of a book.
“Wait! Gotta take it to a bank and let ’em exchange it for hundreds, that’s all. Took it out of circulation, honey, that’s all. Take it easy. It’s good money.” He eased her legs back apart and nestled himself between them.
“Well, why do you have one?”
“Got more than one, sweetheart.”
She unbuttoned him faster. “Okay, but why?”
“See, I sell these beauties,” he said, motioning at the gorgeous surroundings. This one would take three hundred of those bills you got there.”
“Thirty thousand dollars? Wow!”
“Whatever,” he said, but dumb, beautiful women got his blood going. He was aching for this little sweetie. “Point is, I deal in big, big amounts of cash. In fact, goin’ down to New Mexico tomorrow to get my hands on a huge stash.” Jesus—why was he telling her all this? Why did he have to blab to these chicks?
His pants were yanked off by Angie, who was now visibly excited. Oh yeah, that’s why. “I’ll come with you,” she said as she slid his jockeys down and off, leaving his member standing proudly, like the flagpole in front of Fort Knox.
“Ooh, can’t, honey, sorry.” And he was. “Gotta take the wife—”
He slapped his hand over his mouth. Fort Knox’s flagpole began to fly more at half-mast. Time stood still. Angie stared at him with an expression of growing bemusement. “Wife, huh?”
“Got a boyfriend yourself, don’t ya?” He said in a “we’re all in this together” tone, not accusatory. Never make a sale that way.
“I sure do, Ron,” she said, and took him into her hands. “Got another one of those million-dollar bills, don’t ya?”
He sure did.
Ecstasy. His last night on earth, his last night as a married man enjoying the fruits of another woman, his last night as a working stiff, couldn’t have been better spent than in the arms of Angie, although her questions about the money … and then his wife … and then New Mexico lasted throughout the evening.
One day he would have to learn to keep his mouth shut around women, keep his damn trap shut and save himself a lot of trouble, but as long as the rewards of having a woman listen rapt to you and the costs so relatively small, he didn’t know when that lesson would really be worth bothering with.
Wanda Polska Mitchell started wearing makeup when she was seven years old. She got into her mother’s makeup case and became enthralled with the many colors, the different textures, the exotic names (Desert Bloom, Irish Rose) for different shades of pink and lavender, the way her mom would delicately apply just a bit of each to create a unique look for her father’s return home. Less is more, her mother would say when it came to makeup.
Her dad would come home, drop his case on the chair by the front door, and hold Wanda’s mom’s shoulders in his hands, drinking her in. “Aren’t you beautiful?” he would say, every day the same words, and give her a big kiss, smearing even the little bit of “wonderful war paint,” as he called it, but it didn’t matter at that point. The effect had been created. Her mother had succeeded again.
Of course, when dad didn’t come home one day, or the next, or the next, Wanda knew it wasn’t just a business trip because her mother didn’t constantly cry during those, didn’t stop putting on her wonderful makeup even though dad wouldn’t be walking through the door for a few days.
After a few weeks, Wanda and her little sister, Peg, learned the truth from her mother: “Your father’s left us for his receptionist, for that made-up hussy.”
Wanda didn’t know what a “receptionist” was, nor a “hussy,” but she knew what “made-up” was. It meant his receptionist was more beautiful than Wanda or her mom—wore more makeup than did her mother, and was consequently that much more desirable.
It was a lesson well learned.
Wanda Polska started dipping into her mother’s makeup case and coming out looking like a million bucks, right from the start. She had an intuitive knack for matching colors, textures, styles. She could just look at a fashion magazine and know how to apply every bit. Even if she did have a tendency to apply the makeup a little thick, more like an artist does to a canvas than a woman usually does to her face, the overall effects were still nothing short of stunning.
She did her mother from the time they moved from Elkhart to Bloomington (when she was seven, when her dad left) to the time she left to go back to Elkhart with her new husband, the dashing and promising Gordon “Ron” Mitchell. Her mother cried at the wedding, but her makeup stayed perfect. Wanda was a genius with mascara and eye shadow, everyone said in the ’60s and early ’70s, when more was better. She worked as a cosmetologist and beauty consultant, had lots of clients who were all very pleased and took her advice to heart, only applying the war paint (now Gordon called it that) a good deal less generously at home than Wanda did at the salon.
That was more than ten years ago, after Gordon started selling RVs at her uncle’s lot but before he became a big shot there. Before the other women, before the drinking with the other salesmen, before Wanda gave up and became a childless housewife. The good times.
Now, maybe the good times were back. Gordon’s little scam (not so little, really—he could end up put away for a long time; hell, they both could) had socked away over a million dollars in the past month. So what if it was from her uncle? She never cared much for him anyway, and the feeling was mutual, she knew.
Over a million dollars. Splitting it with him fifty-fifty (her price for flying the cash down to New Mexico and stuffing it in that safety deposit box for Gord’s contact to launder), she could finally get free of him and start her own life, her own salon even. Bring whatever family she wanted near down to South America.
Of course, Gordon would take his half and spend it on cheap bimbos (or not-so-cheap ones) and booze, like he had always spent their money. Which reminded her that she had one more job to do before she sent him packing in Mexico.
With that, she finished up her nap and got to work.
* * *
Two hours later, Wanda pulled the zipper closed on her fourth and final suitcase. Gordon walked in, looking surprisingly alert and sharp considering the drinking and probable screwing she knew he was doing until ten at night.
“I have more belongings than bags,” she said, and crossed her arms.
“Leave some belongings, then,” Gordon said, and proceeded to grab his own packed suitcases. “Don’t care what you bring anyway.”
“Be happy, Wanda. This time tomorrow, we’re millionaires. Buy new stuff.”
He let out a sigh and put his own suitcases down. He was counting the minutes until she drew her last breath. “We’ve had ten months to plan this, dear. You saying you couldn’t have gotten more bags before now?”
“I need more room. I don’t have any of my cosmetology materials, none of my teaching stuff. I’ve got to bring it, Gordon—I want to start up my own business again.”
“That junk’s fifteen years out-of-date, maybe more! We’ll buy more. Besides, Venezuelan women wear their war paint a little different than Americans. Lighter, for one.”
“I get more bags or I’m not going.”
Jesus! If anything, she had gotten more obstinate over the past year, as freedom approached. Like she wanted to get her last digs in before she died or something. In any case, he wasn’t going to have her getting goofy on him.
He dumped his suitcases open on the floor. Clothes, aftershave, shoes in a heap. And on top of it, a bag, now spilled open, of thousand-dollar bills.
“That ain’t the Racing Form,” Wanda said with her trademark sneer, one reserved just for him. “Is there something you want to share with me?”
“Something you wanna share with me?” Gordon spat back. “Got one last sale in last night. Tell you about it later.”
She trudged over to him, arms still crossed. “Now.”
Just twenty or so more hours, he reminded himself. He could put up with it for twenty-five years, he could put up with it for one more day. “What do you want? Made one last sale tonight, to another Jap. Eighty grand, cash money. I was gonna tell you.”
“My half. Now.” The woman could bark orders. She stuck her hand out.
He slapped the bag in her hand. “You hold onto it. Gesture of goodwill.”
As he kicked as much of his stuff as he could into just one suitcase to leave the rest of them for Wanda, she began counting the bills one by one, finishing at seventy-eight. “There’s two missing.”
Gordon didn’t know what to say. His silver tongue had tarnished to the point of uselessness with Wanda years ago.
“Was she cute?”
“Firm,” Gordon said, giving up.
“Two thousand dollars’ worth of firm? You spend two thousand on a goddamn hooker?”
He waved his hands at her. “Listen, this money’s to grease the wheels for the trip. We get pulled over, some hick cop with a bug up his ass—two thousand bucks is nothing compared to what we got coming, get me? But it is enough to startle somebody into leaving us alone.”
“You didn’t spend two thousand to get some slut to leave you alone, Gordon.”
He stopped then and dropped his chin to his chest, turning all solemn on her. “Leaving all that behind now, sweetheart. Last time, I swear to God.”
Not terribly original, but the best he could do on the spot. When he sneaked a glance at her, however, he could tell right away she wasn’t buying it.
“You know, one time I’d like to—” Wanda started, then stopped short as the doorbell rang. Someone was there. Someone who was not supposed to be there was there.
Quickly, Wanda hid the money as Gordon zipped downstairs, noticing they could still work as a team when they had to.
Lieutenant Detective Douglas Gann had been with the Elkhart, Indiana, Police Department for two years, since his graduation from the academy after graduate school. He had been assigned to the Mitchell case when he got a call three weeks earlier from Major Dale himself, owner of Major Dale’s RV World. (“Major Dale’s makes Major Deals,” the ad went.)
Dale knew who was stealing RVs from his lot and even knew how he was doing it. What he couldn’t understand, he told Gann, was why his sales manager, Gordon Mitchell, was doing it. The man made eighty thousand dollars a year at least, sometimes more! The boy’s wife—Dale’s niece—was, at forty-three, still a slim and beautiful woman. And Mitchell could look forward to being part-owner of the lot someday!
Major Dale told the detective all of this out of confusion and feelings of betrayal and despair. Gann understood that well enough. He had seen men with perfectly good jobs, even great ones; nice wives, even perfect ones; and promising futures, even sparkling ones, give it all up for what they saw as one big score, or what they saw as a better woman, or what they saw as a more worry-free future.
Gann didn’t know if Gordon Mitchell had another woman on the side or if he needed the money for gambling debts or what, but he did know that after Dale’s call the night before telling him Mitchell was heading to New Mexico with his wife in tow, he knew Wanda Mitchell’s life was in serious danger.
He’d seen it before. A wife is a dangerous witness to leave behind, so the husband would plan a trip somewhere, turn on the romance, then kill the poor woman before skipping the country. He had definitely seen it before, especially in cases where, as Major Dale had told him on the phone, the magic had been gone for some time.
Poor Wanda probably didn’t even know what her husband was mixed up in.
Lieutenant Detective Douglas Gann noted the beautiful bus-sized motor home parked on the street as he walked up to the house and rang the doorbell. He’d seen all this before.
* * *
“Help you?” Gordon asked with a smile, his head barely poking out of the cracked door.
Gann flashed his badge. “Detective Doug Gann, Elkhart Police. Taking a trip?”
“Sell RVs. That’s a delivery.”
“Almost midnight—seems kinda late to be heading out on a trip. Are you going on a trip, Mr. Mitchell?” Gann asked, smiling to himself that he was using Mitchell’s name without the poor bastard knowing how he knew it.
“Delivering the coach. Can I help you with something, Detective?”
“You haven’t answered me. Are you taking a trip or not?”
“Why? Listen, you know my name, you obviously know what delivering a coach is. What do you want?”
“Is your wife home, Mr. Mitchell? Or is she out delivering a coach?”
Gordon cocked his head at Gann and took a slow drag on his cigarette. “Home.”
“I need to speak to her.”
Gordon Mitchell then gave Gann the most insincere smile he had ever seen. If this was the expression he used with his customers at Major Dale’s, it was a wonder the guy had ever had a job to steal from. “This about those parking tickets?” he asked with unconvincing jocularity. “I’ve told her a hundred times—”
“Please bring Mrs. Mitchell to the door, Mr. Mitchell.” Gann made no attempt at returning the smile Gordon was pitching at him, had no interest in buying whatever it was he was trying to sell. “Or may I come in?”
“I’ll bring her,” Gordon said, and shut the door in Gann’s face.
* * *
She started as the door swung open. “It’s the police,” Gordon said, out of breath from taking the stairs almost three at a time. “Wants to talk to you.”Wanda finished zipping up the last of the suitcases Gordon had dumped out for her. In one she had their dirty bedsheets; in another was all of their towels they didn’t use anymore, except for company; and the last was filled with nothing at all, just an empty zipped-up suitcase. She smiled at the pile of personal effects Gordon had been forced to leave behind in giving her his share of the luggage.
She had to admit she was surprised by this, and then maybe a bit worried. Had her role in this somehow come uncovered? She was the one who took the money down to the safety deposit box in New Mexico every time, after all—maybe she had been caught on surveillance cameras!
Or maybe her son-of-a-bitch husband had turned on her to get out of having to pay her share of the money. But that wouldn’t make any sense— he’d be out his money, too, and money was his prime motivating factor. She’d just be happy as long as Gordon was miserable. What with the trip approaching, it hadn’t been easy being happy lately.
But the detective was waiting, and no matter what nasty surprise might be in store, she had to go down and face him. “Let me just put a face on,” she said.
She watched Gordon roll his eyes at her. He was such an asshole.
* * *
Even though he was just in his late twenties, dark brown hair sometimes falling into his eyes and making him look like little more than a skinny kid of average height, Douglas Gann had seen all of this before. So he did exactly what he had done dozens, maybe hundreds of times in the past two years; he waited in a family’s sitting room for someone to come down and talk with him. He fiddled with picture frames. He noted layers of dust behind things. He resisted the urge to plunk a few random notes on the piano. But mostly, he planned what he was going to say. He had waited downstairs to arrest people before, had waited downstairs to tell families their son or daughter, sister or brother, husband or wife had died in accidents, murders, suicides.
But never had he come to urge someone not to go on a vacation.
This was a first. It was also the first time he felt he could use his position as a police detective to directly save someone’s life. It was a nice feeling, one he got all too seldom on this job.
He turned at the voice, a pleasant if flat female tone, and saw Mrs. Wanda Mitchell descending the stairs. For a forty-something woman, she was in good shape; she obviously spent time at the gym or doing stepercize or whatever. But her face … Something seemed wrong with her face. She looked like a Kabuki performer, or the Joker from Batman. She was wearing the heaviest makeup of any woman he had ever seen, and that included burn victims.
But the shock—that long-forgotten shock of connection—hit Gann, and hit him hard.
“Good—ah, good evening, Mrs. Mitchell, sorry to be calling so late. I’m Detective Doug Gann from the Elkhart Police. Is there somewhere private we can talk?”
“What about my husband?” Her mouth looked so odd to him as she talked. The funny thing to Gann was that she actually looked very inviting still, like she was using the cosmetics to somehow accentuate … Oh heck, Gann thought. I have no idea what I’m talking about.
“It has to be private, ma’am.”
“Is it about Gordon?”
“I’m afraid it is, ma’am.”
At that she smiled. And Gann could tell right away it wasn’t fake. He followed her into the sun room and closed the door behind them.
* * *
Gordon busied himself with shoving everything he could into the basement storage of the Vacationeer. He took no time to admire the workmanship of the gliding compartment doors, the coordinated color scheme of the riveted fiberglass sidewalls with the stylish acrylic patio awning. He didn’t think once of the interlocking, double-welded aluminum studs around the frame-mounted windows and doors or about the construction of the walls: one-piece high-gloss gel-coat fiberglass backed by an inch and a half of fiberglass insulation, a vapor barrier, three-quarters of an inch of bead-foam insulation, and a final layer of fine wood veneer paneling. All of this escaped his notice, although at any other time he might have stopped to savor their beauty.
Because his mind, in order not to freak out about Detective Gann’s surprise visit, was focused squarely on the plan. He had worked the plan out in such perfect detail, not leaving a single element to chance, that once he got on the road, it ran virtually no risk of failure. He had the exact route picked out to his destination, which was Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, the town named after that game show. He would deliver three hundred thousand dollars’ worth of recreational vehicle in exchange for the wonderful banking services provided by his contact in that cozy little tourist town. He had every stop along the way picked for maximum visibility for Wanda and himself—for just this contingency of a cop wondering what’s going on! He congratulated himself on that one.
He also had the exact spot where he would kill his darling wife of twenty-five long, wasted years picked out, and had had it picked out for ten months. The steepest drop off the most remote lookout on the road to T or C, as the locals called it. No one would find her body until he was ensconced snugly in Venezuela, collecting twenty percent on his full million and a half.
Again, the thought warmed him as he worked. He slid the hatches closed on the storage compartments (some of those bags had seemed pretty light) and gazed back at the house where Wanda was talking to Detective Needlenose, a house he would never see again.
A tiny yelp escaped his throat, but of joy or panic, he couldn’t say.
* * *
“No one’s gonna kill me, Mr. Gann. I can fend for myself.”
Gann shook his head. “Wanda, I’m afraid that’s not the case. I have seen this all before. Did you know anything about the thefts at your uncle’s RV lot?”
“Thefts? No, of course not,” she lied.
“Did you know your husband has purchased a single ticket to Caracas, Venezuela, from Mexico City? I have a friend who did me the favor of checking for any travel-related activity on Mr. Mitchell’s credit card. Gordon bought an airline ticket, a single ticket.”
This was news. “Just one?”
“He’s not taking you with him for the rest of his trip, Wanda. He’s visiting Venezuela alone.”
“I—I didn’t even know there was a rest of the trip,” she lied, at least remembering to do that as she reeled from what Gann was telling her. “Why would he buy one ticket? What’s in, um, Venezuela?”
“They have no extradition treaty with the United States, Mrs. Mitchell. And—please excuse me for saying this—he is trying to escape prosecution, maybe for crimes he hasn’t even committed yet. That’s why I’m here to try to persuade you not to accompany him on this road trip—you’re not going as far as Gordon is, he’s going to make sure of that.”
A tiny, tiny smirk crossed Wanda’s lips, so small Gann might have mistaken it for a simple twitch if he had seen it. Son of a bitch wants a divorce, she thought with amazement. The insinuation the detective was making didn’t make a whole lot of sense—not one bit of Gordon’s plan would have been possible without her. The lot was her uncle’s. She shuttled the money down to that weird little town in New Mexico. She covered for him constantly. The idea that her husband would want to kill her—not just want her dead, which she guessed all spouses wished for their partners occasionally, but to actually want to kill her—skipped past her like a friend’s recipe suggestion for a dish to which she was deathly allergic. She gave it barely a first thought, let alone a second.
No, Wanda just let out a weary sigh and thought, The son of a bitch wants a divorce. He wants to leave me, after all I’ve done for him. It was the only reasonable thought—he was going to flee the country without her, let her face the music for what they together had done. What a guy.
“Your life is in danger. Let me take you into protective custody. You shouldn’t be traveling alone with Gordon Mitchell. He’s not the man you think he is.”
You mean he doesn’t screw around? she almost said, but thought the better of it. Best to have this young officer feeling like she herself thinks she’s in the model marriage. She was far from any suspicion that way. “It’s hard to believe, Doug. I love my husband. And he loves me. He must just think I want him to drop me off at my sister’s in Oklahoma City.”
“I know you love him, Wanda. If he’s on the up-and-up, great; the worst is that we will have inconvenienced you for nothing. I know you’re looking forward to this trip, but honestly, you could be in grave danger.”
Young or not, he talked like what she guessed a regular police detective would, she had to give him that. “I’m going on the trip,” she said at last.
Gann sighed. “I had hoped I wouldn’t have to use this,” he said, reaching into his coat pocket.
Her heart jumped. She was under arrest! Her! Goddamn Gordon robs, cheats, screws—she’s the faithful wife, and this is how things end up!
Gann took a folded piece of paper from his pocket and handed it to her. “It’s a subpoena for deposition in this case, Wanda. I’m afraid we’re going to have to have you come in and tell us anything you might know about the thefts at your uncle’s lot.”
“Next week,” he said, and added, “and I hate to say this, but—that’s only if you’re still alive, of course. I have good reason to believe your husband will try to hurt or kill you on this trip and make it look like an accident, try to eliminate you as a witness.”
“Kill me?” Wanda said with a laugh. “Why would you believe something like that? He’s never so much as raised a hand to me.”
Gann patted her on the shoulder. “Wanda, I know it’s hard to accept, but I’ve seen all of this before. This is how these things work,” he said, and added emphasis with a nod. “Now, are you sure there’s nothing you might know that Gordon wouldn’t want you telling us?”
If you only knew. She nodded, looking appropriately regretful.
He nodded as well. “Here’s my card. Please call me if you change your mind, even on the road. I’ll come. You have a cellular phone on that monster, right?”
“And fax, and satellite TV.”
“Great. I hope you enjoy them,” Gann said, but she could tell he wished she wouldn’t get near the coach at all. “Call me.”
“Thanks.” She hesitated. “Um, Detective—I have to ask: If you’re so sure he’s going to do something bad, or that he did something bad, why don’t you just arrest him?”
Gann cleared his throat. “Your uncle …”
“He won’t move forward unless you’ve got immunity to testify. Would you like immunity?” Gann said this very slowly, not looking her in the eye.
Wanda stared at the floor. For months she had dreamed of her and Gordon, on the beach, without the worries that had fucked up their marriage for so long. She wanted to make him pay for all the shit he had done to her, but there was still a chance to work things out, wasn’t there?
Finally she said, “I told you, Detective—I don’t know about any thefts.” Gann looked at her again and nodded. They rose and she showed him to the door, closing it behind him. She leaned up against it and let all of her air out.
Detective Gann seemed like an earnest and nice young guy. She had been attracted to him; it was obvious he had been attracted to her. But he was way off-base about everything—almost everything. He wouldn’t be much of a worry.
She had heard Gordon come back into the house and wondered if he had eavesdropped on any of the conversation. “Gord! A word with you!” she yelled up the stairs.
He wasn’t going to like this, and that was just fine. Lieutenant Detective Douglas Gann had just put a very powerful weapon in her hand, one she intended to use to its full squirm factor on her husband—soon to be her ex-husband? She’d rather be dead than go through the embarrassment of a divorce, be left like her mother was.
“Not so fast,” she said with a smile, and held up the subpoena. “It’s time to take another look at our arrangement.”
Detective Gann was thankful Class A touring motor homes were so darn big. If they weren’t, he wouldn’t have been able to climb up on the side of the RV opposite the house and slap a transmitter at the base of the Mitchells’ cellular antenna without anyone seeing a thing, under cover of the near-midnight darkness.
He stepped back, satisfied with his work. Whenever the Mitchells used their phone or fax—actually, as long as the cellular antenna was powered up, which was probably whenever the vehicle’s battery was charged, their global positioning system would send a signal that gave the coach’s location, a signal Gann could access and decipher with his new department-owned laptop. It was a system used mainly for tracking stolen cars—Gann was sure there was an on-demand system inside for the rich retirees who bought these things, maybe with a backup too that could be tracked with an access number known only to the owner and the Rambling company— but tracking the Mitchells seemed to Gann like the perfect use of a system meant to stop crime.
Gordon Mitchell would not get away with whatever it was he planned on doing. And Gann certainly was not about to let him kill his beautiful and charming wife.
“That’s right, jerk-off,” Wanda said. “Sixty-forty or I’m talking to the cops.”
“Don’t do this. We’re almost home-free.”
“Free? That’s a word you’re not going to know for a while if you don’t stop being so cheap.”
“Giving you nearly a million dollars already is cheap? Get a subpoena and you think you own me, Wanda? There’s nothing you can say that won’t point a finger back at you, babe.”