Authors: Stephen King
Mr. Speck said are you sure you want to do this Benjy? and I said yes, but I wasn't. I don't think your sure of anything when you are seventeen and a half although you might pretend so as not to look like a total dub.
Anyway we went in and I talked to Staff Sergeant Walton Fleck.
He asked me why I wanted to be a Marine and I said to serve my country, although the real reason was to get out of Speck House and out of Tennessee and start a life that didn't seem so sad. Glen and Ronnie were gone and Donnie was right when he said only the paint remains.
Next Staff Sergeant Fleck asked me if I thought I was tough enough to be a Marine and I said yes even though I wasn't sure of that either. Then he asked me if I thought I could kill a man in a combat situation and I said yes.
Mr. Speck said can I talk to you for a minute, Sergeant, and Sergeant Fleck said he could. They sent me outside and Mr. Speck sat down across the desk and started talking. I could have told the sergeant what happened with my mother's bad boyfriend, but I guess it was better to hear it from a “responsible adult.” With all I have been through, back then and since, I have to wonder if there is such a thing.
After awhile they called me back inside and I wrote out what happened in the space marked Personal Information. Then I signed in four places, bearing down hard like the sarge told me to. When I was done he told me to be all present and accounted for on Monday. He said sometimes young men had to wait months for processing but I came at the right time. He said on Monday I would take my ASVAB test and my physical with the other “new fish.” ASVAB is an aptitude test that helps them (the Marines) figure out how much you can do and how smart you are.
He asked if I had any tattoos and I said no. He asked if I wore eyeglasses some of the time and I said no. There were other things he said, like bring your Social Security card and if you wear an earring take it out. Then he said (I thought this was funny but kept a straight face) to be sure and wear undershorts. I said okay. He said if there's anything wrong with you that you didn't write down, you better tell me now and save yourself a trip. I said there wasn't.
Sergeant Fleck shook my hand and said if you've got a mind to
hooraw you better hooraw this weekend because come Monday when you take that test you are going to be Mr. Taking Care of Business. I said okay. He said never mind that, let me hear you say yes Staff Sergeant Fleck. So I said that and he shook my hand and said it was good to meet me. “And you too sir,” he said to Mr. Speck.
Going back, Mr. Speck said he talked tough but I don't believe he ever killed anyone like you did, Benjy. He just didn't have that look about him.
By then Ronnie had been gone (in her 7-league boots) for 4 or 5 months, but before she went she let me make out with her in the Demo Derby. That was great, but when I wanted to go farther she laughed and push me away and said your too young but I wanted to give you something to remember me by. I said I would remember, and I do. I don't think you ever forget the first girl who gives you real kisses. She told me
Billy stops there, looking over the laptop and out the window. Robin told him that when she finally lit somewhere, she would write the Stepeneks so her friends from the House of Everlasting Paint could write back to her. She told Billy to do the same thing when he left.
“I'm guessing it won't be long before you're on your way,” she said that day as they sat in the smashed Mercedes. She had let him unbutton her shirtâthat much she had allowedâand she was buttoning it up again as she spoke, hiding all that glory inside. “But your idea about feeding yourself to the war machineâ¦ you need to rethink that, Billy. You're too young to die.” She kissed the tip of his nose. “And too pretty.”
Billy starts to write this, only omitting that he had had the hardest, most painful, and most wonderful erection of his life
during that all-too-short necking session, when his David Lockridge phone bings with a text. It's from Ken Hoff.
I have something for you. Probably it's time for you to take it.
And because he's probably right about that, Billy texts back
I'll come by your house.
No, no, and no. Hoff at his house? Next door to the Ackermans, with whose kids Billy plays Monopoly on the weekends? Hoff will bring the rifle wrapped in a blanket, of course he will, as if anyone with half a brain and a single eye wouldn't know what was inside.
, he texts.
Walmart. The Garden Center parking lot. 7:30 2nite.
He waits, watching the dots as Hoff composes his reply. If he thinks the meeting place is negotiable, he's in for a surprise. But when the response comes back, it's brief:
Billy shuts down his laptop without even finishing the last sentence. He's done for the day. Hoff poisoned the well, he thinks. Only he knows better. Hoff is just Hoff and can't help himself. The real poison is the gun. This thing is getting close.
At 7:25 Billy parks his David Lockridge Toyota in the Garden Center section of Walmart's giant parking lot. Five minutes later, at 7:30 on the dot, he gets a text.
Can't see you, too many cars, get out and give me a wave.
Billy gets out and waves, as if spotting a friend. A vintage cherry-red Mustang convertibleâa Ken Hoff car if ever there was oneâdrives down one of the lanes and pulls in next to Billy's humbler vehicle. Hoff gets out. He looks better than the last time Billy saw him, and there's no alcohol on his breath. Which is a good thing, considering his cargo. He's wearing a polo shirt (with a logo on it,
naturally), pressed chinos, and loafers. He's got a fresh haircut. Yet the essential Ken Hoff is still there, Billy thinks. The man's expensive cologne doesn't mask the smell of anxiety. He's not cut out for the heavy stuff, and bringing a gun to a hired killer is pretty damn heavy.
The rifle isn't wrapped in a blanket after all and Billy is willing to give him points for that. What Hoff hauls out of the Mustang's trunk is a tartan golf bag with four club heads sticking out. They gleam in the day's fading light.
Billy takes the bag and puts it in his own trunk. “Anything else?”
Hoff shuffles his tasseled loafers. Then he says, “Maybe, yeah. Can we talk for a minute?”
Because it might be prudent to know what's on Hoff's mind, Billy opens the passenger door of the Toyota and gestures for Hoff to get in. Hoff does. Billy goes around and sits behind the wheel.
“I just want to ask you to tell Nick that I'm okay. Can you do that?”
“Okay about what?”
“About everything. That.” He hoists a thumb behind him, meaning the golf bag in the trunk. “Just make sure he knows I'm a stand-up guy.”
You've seen too many movies, Billy thinks.
“Tell him it's all good. Some of the people I owe money to are happy. Once you do your job, they'll all be happy. Tell him we all part friends and everybody goes their way. If I'm ever asked, I know nothing about nothing. You're just some writer I rented space to in one of my buildings.”
No, Billy thinks, you didn't rent space to me, you rented it to my agent, and George Russo is actually Giorgio Piglielli, aka Georgie Pigs, a known associate of Nikolai Majarian. You're the link and you know it, which is why we're having this conversation. You still think you can probably skate after the deal goes down. You have a right to think that, I guess, because skating is what you do. Trouble
is, I don't think you could skate far after ten hours in an interrogation room with cops tag-teaming you. Maybe not even five, if they dangled a deal in front of you. I think you'd crack like an egg.
“Listen a minute.” Billy tries to sound kind, but hopefully in a straight-from-the-shoulder way: just two guys in a Toyota having a no-bullshit talk. Is it really the job of Billy Summers to keep this man-shaped annoyance in line? Wasn't he just supposed to be the mechanic, the one who can disappear like Houdini after the deal is done? That was always the deal before, but for two millionâ¦
Meanwhile, Hoff is looking at him eagerly. Needing that reassurance, that soothing syrup. It should have been George giving it, George is good at this stuff, but Georgie Pigs isn't here.
“I know this isn't your usual thingâ”
“No! It's not!”
“âand I know you're nervous, but this isn't a movie star or a politician or the Pope of Rome we're talking about. This is a bad guy.”
Like you, Hoff's face says, and why not? That Billy won a pink flamingo for a cute little girl with ribbons in her hair doesn't matter. It's not what they call an extenuating circumstance.
Billy turns to face the other man squarely. “Ken, I need to ask you something. Don't take it personally.”
“You're not wearing a wire or anything, are you?”
Hoff's shocked expression is all the answer Billy needs, and he cuts the man's confused gabble of protests short.
“Okay, fine, I believe you. I just had to ask. Now listen up. Nobody is going to set up a task force on this one. There's not going to be a big investigation. They'll ask you a few questions, they'll look for my agent and find out he's a ghost who fooled you with some good papers, and that will be it.” Balls it will. “Do you know what they'll say? Not for the newspapers or TV, but among themselves?”
Ken Hoff shakes his head. His eyes never leave Billy's.
“They'll say it was a gang killing or a revenge thing and
whoever did it saved the city the cost of a trial. They'll look for me, they won't find me, and the case will go in the open-unsolved file. They'll say good riddance to bad rubbish. Got it?”
“Well, when you put it that wayâ¦”
“I do. I do put it that way. Now go home. Let me take care of the rest.”
Ken Hoff suddenly moves toward him, and for a moment Billy thinks the man is going to slug him. Instead, Hoff gives him a hug. He looks better tonight, but his breath tells a different story. It doesn't stink of booze, but it stinks.
Billy suffers the hug, bad breath and all. He even hugs back a little. Then he tells Hoff to go on, for God's sake. Hoff gets out of the car, which is a relief (a
relief), but then leans back in. He's smiling, and this smile looks real, as if it comes from the man inside. Apparently there is one.
“I know something about you.”
“What's that, Ken?”
“That text you sent me. You didn't write
. You wrote capital
. And just now you didn't say
themselves, you said
. You're not as dumb as you like to make out, are you?”
“I'm smart enough to know that you'll be fine if you keep it simple. You have no idea where I got the rifle and no clue what I was planning to do with it. End of story.”
“Okay. One other thing. A heads-up, like. You know Cody?”
Sure he does. The town where they went to the little shitpot of a carnival. At first Billy thinks Hoff's going to tell him that he was noticed there, because of his shooting. It's a paranoid thought, but before a job paranoia is just the way to be.
“Yes. It's not far from where I'm living.”
“Right. On the day this thing goes down, there's going to be a diversion in Cody.”
The only diversion Billy knows about are the flashpots, one in
the alley behind the Sunspot CafÃ©, the other someplace close to the courthouse. Cody is
from the courthouse, and Nick never would have told this moke about the flashpots, anyway.
“What kind of diversion?”
“A fire. Maybe a warehouse, there are a lot of them out that way. It'll happen before your guyâ¦ your targetâ¦ gets to the courthouse. I don't know how long before. I just thought you'd like to know, in case you get a bulletin on your phone or computer or whatever.”
“Okay, thanks. And now it's time for you to beat it.”
Hoff gives him a thumbs-up and returns to his rich-boy car. Billy waits until he's gone and then heads back to Evergreen Street, driving carefully, aware that he's carrying a high-powered rifle in the trunk.
A warehouse fire in Cody? Really? Does Nick know? Billy doesn't think so, Nick would have told him about anything that might knock him off his rhythm. But
knows. The question is whether or not he, Billy, tells Nick or Giorgio about this unexpected wrinkle. He thinks he'll keep it to himself. Ponder it in his heart, like Mary pondering the birth of baby Jesus.
He told Hoff to keep it simple. Except how simple can you keep it when, after three or four hours in that little interrogation room, the cops start asking you how you paid off all the creditors who were baying at your heels? By then they'd be calling him Ken instead of Mr. Hoff, because that's what they do when they smell blood. Where did the money come from, Ken? Did a rich uncle die, Ken? There's still time to get out from under this. Is there something you'd like to tell us, Ken?
Billy finds himself wondering about the golf bag and the clubs that are inside it along with the gun. Is it Hoff's bag? If it is, has he thought to wipe the club heads, in case his fingerprints are on them? Better not to think about it. Hoff has made his bed.
But isn't that also true of Billy? He keeps thinking about Nick's
escape plan. It's too good to be true, which is why Billy decided not to use it, and without letting Nick know. Because, heyâif you're going to get rid of the guy who brokered the deal and supplied the gun, why not get rid of the man who used the gun? Billy doesn't want to believe that Nick would do that, but he recognizes one incontrovertible fact: not wanting to believe stuff is how Ken Hoff got into a situation he's almost certainly never going to get out of.
And whose idea was a warehouse fire in Cody on the day of the assassination? Not Nick's, not Hoff's. So who?