The phone at the house rang just after breakfast. Megan was wiping down the stove counter, while Andy worked on the last few bites of pancakes. He’d already polished off the sausage and half a bottle of Donald Duck Orange Juice and would probably keep eating if she just put more food out there.
The phone rang and they both stopped.
Megan walked over to the kitchen phone. She still had a landline, which seemed more and more useless all the time, but the rate was so cheap.
“Hello,” she said as Andy watched her.
The voice on the other end of the phone said, “Good morning, Mrs. Collins. My name is Skip McAllister. We met yesterday?”
She laughed nervously. That was one way of putting it.
“Yes, I do remember. Good morning. How are you feeling?”
“Better,” he told her. “In fact, I’m getting out of the hospital this afternoon and will be going home shortly.”
“Really?” Megan said. She had a hard time believing that.
Andy looked at her, as if to ask, “Is that him?” She nodded quickly.
The voice on the other end said, “I wanted to thank you and your grandson for your help yesterday. I got myself into quite a pickle.” He laughed.
Surely, Megan thought, even that sounded peculiar to him. The man had rolled a car down the side of a mountain and had a heart attack. He was lucky to be breathing.
“We were happy to help,” she said.
“Well, yes,” he said. “As I said, I wanted to thank the both of you. Do you think the two of you could return to where we met yesterday?”
“That’s the place,” he answered abruptly.
She thought it was weird that he didn’t want her to say it.
“Can we say 1 o’clock?” He asked.
“We’ll be there,” she said.
“Thanks,” he said. “Just make sure everybody can make it, alright?”
He meant the money and the phone, she knew.
“Alright, then. See you shortly,” he said. “Have a good rest of your morning.”
Then he hung up.
Megan put the phone down and sighed. That was the strangest, tensest phone call she’d ever taken. It felt like she was talking to Hannibal Lector or a vacuum cleaner salesman.
“What did he want?” Andy blurted.
“The money, obviously,” Megan said and sat down at the small, kitchen table. “And you know what? I’m relieved. The sooner we are clear of that suitcase, the better. Last night was awful. I didn’t sleep but maybe an hour or two and I don’t think you did either.”
Andy looked toward his plate. He was disappointed.
“It’s for the best,” she said. “We don’t want to be mixed up in whatever it is he’s mixed up in.”
“We’re supposed to get it back to him after lunch,” she said. “We’ll take it back to the gas station, along with his phone and that will be the end of it.”
“OK,” he said, glumly. “Grandma,” Andy added. “Can we just look inside the case? I know we’ve got to give it back, but can we just look at the money, one more time? I don’t know when I’m ever going to see that much money again in my life.”
Megan nodded. It was a small request.
After Andy had gone to bed, Megan had moved the briefcase three more times. She’d moved it from the linen closet to the oven to finally, just under the couch in the living room. It seemed so obvious as to be an unlikely choice.
That had been her thinking last night, at around two in the morning. Now, it seemed kind of childish and stupid –not that it mattered. They were getting rid of the money and could get on with their lives.
“Come on, it’s in the living room,” she said. “We can’t keep it, but we can play for a while. How’s that?”
When Kelly didn’t pick up the phone, Ryan figured something had gone wrong.
“Oh, no,” he said and put the car in reverse.
Ryan drove around the side of the building and up the road to just where he could see Rose’s house. Parked directly in front of the porch was Rose’s Subaru.
“Oh, this is bad,” Ryan said. “This is bad.”
He pulled up next to the mailbox and looked at his phone.
If it turned out the money belonged to drug lords or the mob or the FBI, he would say that he’d called Kelly about coming to work.
“On a Sunday?” He thought. Nobody was going to buy that.
He shouldn’t have called.
Ryan rolled down the window and looked toward the house, listening for the rapid pop, pop, pop of automatic gunfire.
Instead, the front door swung open and Kelly came spilling out, limping hard, but almost running. Rose followed behind. She had a stick or a mop handle in her hands and she was swinging it wildly at Kelly.
Ryan could hear Kelly shouting. He was calling his name.
Ryan put the car in gear, eased back out onto the road and stomped the gas pedal.
Rose followed Kelly for about two good swings with her broom before she got so winded that she needed to go sit down. It didn’t matter. Kelly kept running.
She thought she saw a beat-up Ford Focus at the entrance to her drive –Ryan Seacrest’s car –and Kelly had called out Ryan’s name as he ran. He was still shouting it and help as he made his way off her property.
Rose watched him go.
Briefly, she thought about calling the police, but she doubted that would end well for any of them. Those two idiots would raise questions, which Rose thought she could answer, but didn’t want to have to try.
It was better to that those two skulked away.
Besides, she could work with this.
Kelly had dropped two things on his run. He’d dropped his gun, which was unloaded, and he’d dropped his cell phone. The gun wasn’t as nice as the one she was holding for the guy from last night, but she didn’t have to give it back.
The cellphone, Kelly knew, had Ryan’s number in it.
The way she looked at it, Ryan and Kelly had just gifted her with pizza every day for life. That seemed like a pretty good consolation prize in all of this –along with never having to set eyes on either of those two ever again.
Rose sat for a minute, let her heart calm down a bit, let the baby in her belly settle down, then she lit a cigarette and took a break. Then she collected what she’d come for, closed her front door and drove on to work.
She was going to be late, but that didn’t bother her. Nothing really bothered her right now.
Megan almost jumped out of her skin when the kitchen phone went off again. What now, she wondered.
“Just stay here,” she told Andy and got up from the coffee table.
The two of them had been counting out the money and then fanning it like they were high rollers playing Monopoly.
“Hello,” she said.
“Hey, Mom. It’s me.”
Megan relaxed. She’d almost forgot that she had a daughter.
“Good morning, sweetheart. How was your date?”
“It went OK,” Katherine said. “He took me out to a late dinner and we caught a movie. It was all very PG-13.”
Megan laughed in spite of herself.
“You mean Andy?” She asked.
“He wants to be called Dre now,” Katherine said. “I told you that. I’m sure he told you that, too.”
“He might have mentioned it,” Megan said. “I’m calling Grandmother’s privilege. I’ve always called him Andy. If he gets to be some big gangsta rap singer, no matter what he calls himself, he’s still going to be Andy to me.”
“You will have to take that up with his record label, I’m sure.”
“I look forward to it.”
“How is he?”
“He’s fine. We just finished breakfast a little while ago,” she said. “We’re playing a game in the living room now.”
“Nice,” Katherine said. “Look, I slept in a little later than I planned and I need to get some groceries for the house. Would it be OK if I picked Andy, I mean Dre, up later on today –like maybe after lunch?”
“Sweetheart, don’t worry about it. I think I’m going to take Andy out for a while. Maybe we’ll catch a movie or something. How about I drop him off at your place this afternoon?”
“Mom, that would be great. You don’t mind?”
“No, it works out that way, I think.”
It really did.
“You’re the best,” Katherine told her. “I love you. See you soon.”
“I love you, too, sweetheart.”
There was a modest hiccup at the hospital, which would have been avoidable if Skip had recalled that the attending physician was Dr. Suresh. He’d been on call the previous night but wasn’t actually the correct person to work around.
This had slowed Derek down slightly, but everything had all been taken care of. Begrudgingly, Charleston Area Medical Center had been convinced to release Skip to be taken to the Cleveland Clinic, where he was supposed to undergo more tests, treatment, whatever.
The specifics were dry and dull, as far as Skip was concerned. Once he concluded this idiotic business in West Virginia, he intended to have his Harvard trained personal physician send him on to the appropriate specialist.
Skip still hadn’t decided what he would tell his wife, but he realized that call was coming soon.
He and Betsy made a pact long ago never to keep things from each other, even unpleasant things. They fudged the rule a little for the sake of domestic tranquility. Skip had no doubt that she’d been somewhat aware of the troubles surrounding their boys for at least a little while before mentioning it to him, and he had never gone into great detail about the killings, even though she seemed to like it.
He saved that kind of thing for anniversaries and getaway weekends –pillow talk.
By late morning, he’d been moved from his hospital room to an ambulance with Ohio plates. He was loaded into the vehicle and they drove about 15 miles to a hotel and casino. The ambulance drivers took him in through a side door and then up to the top floor of the hotel by elevator.
The door to his room was open and a hard-eyed, hatchet-faced man was waiting to welcome him. The man dismissed the ambulance attendants with a quick handshake and a couple of hundred dollars peeled off a thick roll.
They left, and he closed the door behind them.
“Obviously, Derek sent me,” the man said. “You can call me Al.”
“Is that your real name?” Skip asked.
The harsh-looking man shrugged and said, “Why wouldn’t it be?”
As the man assessed Skip’s situation, Skip assessed who he was dealing with. Al wore khakis and a polo shirt, but his shoes were high end leather, so was his belt. His aftershave was expensive, and his accent was pure Atlantic City.
Skip took him to be mob, which didn’t bother him. They were good Republicans and while they’re business sometimes veered into some areas Skip normally found distasteful, they were reliable partners for small, short-term projects, like this one.
“You don’t look so good, buddy,” Al told him. “Derek gave me some idea that you had some errands to run before heading back to the land of sunshine and wildfires, but are you sure you’re up for it?”
“It was only a minor heart attack,” Skip said and slipped the I.V. needle out of his arm. The ambulance drivers had already unplugged him from the heart monitor. “The car accident was much worse, I think. It bunged up my shoulder, and I really liked the Cadillac.”
The man smiled. “Can’t go wrong with American made.”
Slowly, Skip sat up. He was sore. His entire body felt like it was bruised.
“Help me with this rail, please,” he asked Al. “I need to get dressed. You brought clothes?”
Al nodded and found the locking mechanism on the bed.
“The best we could do was Walmart, under the circumstances,” Al said. “But we picked up a couple of options for you, some different colors and some additional sizes. You never know what you’re going to get from that place.”
Skip nodded and then swung his feet around. He felt a little weak but could sit up.
Al steadied him and said, “Take it easy, buddy.”
“I’m grateful Derek was able to get you down here so quickly. I wasn’t sure if my requests were even possible, under the circumstances.”
Derek collected the bilious gray shopping bag from the hotel bed and put it next to Skip.
“On that, you caught a break,” the mobster said. “I was in the area, in Pittsburgh and caught a helicopter down this way. Only took about an hour. I actually had to wait around a little for the ambulance guys.”
Ignoring modesty, Skip slipped out of the hospital gown, dropped it to the floor and began looking through the bag for something to wear. He chose a plain, black t-shirt and a pair of blue track pants with white stripes down the leg.
“Help me stand,” he told Al.
Without batting an eye at the other man’s nudity, the thug helped Skip get unsteadily to his feet. He helped Skip dress, which neither of them liked, but was a necessity.
After he had his clothes, Al moved the hospital bed out of the way and Skip sat down on the hotel bed.
He felt tired, just from that. It was going to be a long day.
From the bag, he also retrieved the hooded sweatshirt.
“I’m going to need your help with the socks,” Skip said, apologetically.
Al nodded. It wasn’t a problem.
Skip rested for a couple of minutes and then stood up to look at himself in the hotel room mirror. The look wasn’t particularly flattering. The cheap clothes fit, but only the crudest sense. The cloth covered his body but made him look like a bloated lump.
Good enough, he thought. He would rectify the costuming at a later point, maybe after he returned home.
He did not like the other thing he saw in the mirror –his face. He looked pale and damp. Dark circles ringed his bloodshot eyes.
“I look like a corpse,” he muttered.
“I seen better looking corpses, if I’m honest,” Al said. “Look, Derek said to take care of you and Derek is good people. If you want, just give me the list of errands. You stay here, watch ESPN or something, and I’ll take care of everything. No problem.”
It was a generous offer, but Skip declined.
“I’m afraid this needs a more personal touch,” he said. “Now, I need something else. Can you find a restaurant or coffee shop in this place and get me a skinny, decaf latte?”
“Decaf?” Al made a face.
Skip nodded. “Doctor’s orders, same with the skinny. Lose weight and cut back on the stress. The caffeine isn’t good for me, apparently.”
“Shoot me now,” Al said and started toward the door. “You want I should stay gone about 15 to 20 minutes, right?”
“That should be about right,” Skip said. “Also, bring me a pastry, something with fruit.”
“What about the skinny and the doctor’s orders?”
“We have to live, don’t we?”
Al smiled. “That we do.” He closed the door behind him and left Skip to make his calls.
First, he called his wife, apologized for not checking in last night and explained that there’d been some complications.
“I was in an accident,” he said. “Some minor injuries on my part.”
This was true. The doctor had referred to the heart attack as mild, which suited the term “minor.” He was sore. His shoulder had been wrenched, and he was a little battered, but he was able to stand on his own two feet.
“Unfortunately, the car is a loss.”
This wasn’t a big deal. They carried full coverage.
“I’m so sorry,” Betsy said. “Is there anything I can do?”
“Not really, sweetheart. I’m planning on ending my trip early, obviously. I mean to fly back in another day or so.”
“You’ll have Doctor Bennet check you out when you get home, won’t you?”
“Absolutely,” he promised.
Skip asked about the boys, but she evaded the question, except to say they were fine. That meant they weren’t, but that they could talk about it later.
“I don’t think that my plans are going to work out here,” he told her. “When I get off the phone with you, I’m going to make some more calls. I just doesn’t feel like the kind of job I want to do, but there’s a silver lining. I think I can still get some work out of this that suits my conscience better.”
Betsy was silent for a moment as she considered.
“If you’re sure,” she said, “I leave that up to you. I will support you whatever you choose to do.”
“It’s for the best,” he told her. “We can talk more about it later.”
“Well, OK. Come home to me as soon as you can.”
“I love you, sweetheart.”
“I love you, too, honey.”
Then Skip called Benjamin Gardner at home. He wasn’t sure if he’d get him, but the hippie millionaire picked up on the second ring.
“Mr. Gardner, sorry to disturb you.”
“No, no, that’s alright. How are you? I’d heard you’d had an accident.”
“A serious one, yes,” he said. “The car is a total loss and the doctor is appalled that I’m up and about. Obviously, our circumstances have changed. I feel like we should talk about that, this afternoon, if you have the time.”
“Certainly,” Gardner said. “Should I come to the hospital?”
“No, nothing like that,” Skip laughed. What a silly idea. He’d rather shoot himself in the knee than entertain that man as a guest, even in a hospital room. “I can come to you, if that’s acceptable,” Skip said.
“Sure, sure,” the man said. “If you’re sure. I’m glad you’re OK. I was worried, you know.”
Of course, you were, Skip thought.
“I do appreciate your concern,” he said. “We can talk more this afternoon. Shall we say 2:30 at your home again?”
“That will be fine.”
“Thank-you,” Skip said. “See you then.”
He hung up the phone and then placed one more call, the one that would make this entire trip worthwhile.