EDITOR'S NOTE: Wimpole Street Gazette is proud to introduce our first serialized novel, the mysteryDESERT HOUSE by ROMEY KEYS. Every two weeks we will be adding a chapter, so stay tuned.
CHAPTER 11: INCIDENT IN PALM SPRINGS
Then there was the money thing. It started Monday of the second week. Josh arrived at the house with one of those wide, salesman cases he carried legal documents in. He had to lean slightly into the weight of the case as he carried it to the house. Frank had heard the Lincoln and was watching from a window. Josh came in with his usual slightly distracted air. He smiled a general good morning to everyone and headed straight back to Ryan’s office. He entered and the door closed. After about an hour with Ryan, Josh came looking for Frank.
“Josh. How are things?”
“Not so good Frank, not so good.”
“Let’s go into the study for a minute.” Frank led the way. Josh made sure the door was closed and no one was outside the windows. Then he came back to stand beside the pool table. He casually picked up the cue ball and began rolling it around on the table, bouncing it off the sides. The ball kept coming close the unbroken triangle of balls, but never touched it. Above the fireplace, the coyote watched quietly.
“We have a problem of sorts with Ryan’s case, a recurring situation actually. We have a witness, a self-identified witness, to an act that occurred some years ago.” Frank could hear the quotation marks around witness. “Who’s been making demands for money.”
“Ryan’s is being blackmailed.”
“Not quite, not quite.” Frank watched his eyes flick as he weighted options. “I just delivered a large sum of money to Ryan as part of a payment to this ‘witness’.”
“What is this person a witness to?”
“To Ryan’s behavior.”
“Favorable or unfavorable?”
“I don’t have to pay favorable witnesses,” Josh lied. “Frank, the less you know about the details of this the better. But let’s say it’s something like that. Something that could do great damage to Ryan’s reputation.”
“I have to look out for Seacole in this. We have licenses. Anything that could lead to charges of criminal conduct against me . . .”
“If you or Seacole incurred any risks from any actions undertaken to protect Ryan, all of his resources would be committed to setting that right. I just want to explain that Ryan may need to meet with this person or his representatives. If that happens I’d want you to go with him.”
“This could be a mildly dangerous situation.”
“Mildly dangerous?” said Frank. “Who are we going to meet and what does ‘mildly dangerous’ translate into in the real world?”
“I’m putting too fine a point on it. You would be guarding the payment. I would expect you to go armed. And that you would handle all security for the meeting just as you do for Ryan’s other social and professional engagements. These people are emotionally unstable.”
“So they aren’t going to try to shoot anyone? Or take the money and not give Ryan what’s he’s paying for? You say this has been going on for a while. What happened, Josh? Who did Ryan kill?”
There was a sharp clack. The cue ball sent another ball off on a course toward the side rail. Frank stopped the cue ball and sent it rolling back to Josh.
“No, no, no.” Josh waved his hand and shook his head to make it even more impossible an event. He picked up the cue ball and placed it in front of the broken rack. Turning his back on the table, Josh walked away from the logical green felt. He settled into one of the big armchairs across from Frank.
“You want me to talk to the people we’re meeting with and arrange a safe meet?”
“I can do that.” Josh visibly relaxed.
“Ryan’s in there now hoping you’d say that and take over this exchange. I don’t mean to say he isn’t capable of attempting this on his own.”
“Something best avoided.”
“We agree on that.”
“Who are these blackmailers?”
“They’re not blackmailers Frank; they are people Ryan was associated with in his wilder, younger days. They are associates from the past who’ve never shifted completely into the present. Now they’re looking to Ryan for a small stake to set them up for their retirement. A claim partially based on payment of some old debts incurred over the years.”
“Well that’s clear.”
“We’re all tied by legal language, Frank.”
“You must know that’s one of the oldest scams. If they score once they’ll keep coming back.”
“Well, we have to discourage that.” Josh stood up. “We have to make them happy with the money they get and make them see that no more is coming.”
“They aren’t going to be happy about that.”
“Then take whatever steps you need to take. We have deep pockets and close mouths.”
“What steps I do take will be legal, Josh.” Frank thinking how did I let him try to catch me like that. We have deep pockets and close mouths. Yeah, I’ll bet you do. “Is this what I was hired for?”
“The arrangements behind your hiring were anything other than those stated to you. You are here to provide security for Ryan. This is something unexpected but not unusual.”
“There are all sorts of people in the music industry Frank. There’s a lot of money on the table and money attracts parasites and scavengers. And you need people to help grease the wheels and they like to be tipped for their efforts. And there’s entertainment ‘people must be amused’ and the entertainers want some more money. You’re following me okay?”
“Good. You might be surprised how much of my work is spent doing things like this. Every law school should have a course, Bagman 101.”
“But this time was totally unexpected?”
Josh gave Frank his serious look. “Yes, totally unexpected. And if you are ever questioned about this by anyone in an official or unofficial capacity I want you to tell them that. Tell them that you were approached suddenly by Ryan in the course of your daily duties . . .”
“Yes. Ryan asked you, and you felt you had no choice.”
Frank had a vision of himself standing in a courtroom with Ryan. He and Ryan were pointing fingers at each other. Josh was not anywhere in his vision. Frank decided he’d better call Seacole before he got in any deeper.
“I think you should go and talk over the rest with Ryan.”
Frank took the long walk back to Ryan’s office to find out what Ryan was waiting to tell him.
“We have to go to the bank,” said Ryan. He was standing at his desk.
“So Josh told you. I have to pick up some money. And take it to someone. We’ll have to drive into town.”
“I’ll bring my gun along with me if you want.”
“It won’t be a lot of money. But there’s more money we’ll be taking up to L.A. Sit down. I should tell you about this.”
He didn’t. He sat down in the chair behind the desk. Then he got up out of the chair. Then he ran his hand through his hair while he turned in a half circle. Then he exhaled a big breath and screwed up his face. Frank stood and waited for him to finish going through his little avoidance behavior.
“I have to make a delivery to someone.” He sat down again and opened the center desk drawer. “You know, you do something wrong and it just won’t let you go. It keeps growing and growing.” Ryan took a 9 by 10 inch brown manila envelope out of the drawer and put it on the desktop. Then he opened another drawer in the desk and started taking out bundles of hundreds clipped together with big paper clips. He started taking the clips off and building bigger bundles. Ryan searched around in the desk until he found a plastic bag of large rubber bands. He ripped the bag open and dumped a pile of them onto the desk.
“Bear with me a minute,” Ryan said. Then he began to count money into stacks on the desk. The smaller bundles were in amounts of nine and eight thousand dollars. He made piles of hundreds, then he made piles of fifties, and then he made piles of twenties. "One thousand, two thousand", he was making stacks. Go through it all. Start over. Build five thousand dollar stacks. Still too many stacks. Then go back and build ten thousand dollar stacks. Start over. Frank watched it, keeping count. It took a while but eventually he had $100,000 on the desk.
“That’s not going to fit in the envelope,” Frank said.
Ryan spent some time trying to prove him wrong. He eventually gave up. “Do you want me to get a bag for it?”
“Let me try a gym bag.”
“Everyone uses gym bags. You use a gym bag; you’ll look like a guy carrying money around in a gym bag. Do you have an attaché case?”
“I don’t have an attaché case. I’ve got a . . .”
“Then get a paper bag.”
“It’ll look like garbage or groceries.”
“And we’ll look like two guys walking around the desert with groceries.”
“Or garbage.” Ryan started to giggle. Then he stopped suddenly. “Frank you have no idea how scared I am. I won’t go to jail and I won’t lose everything. I made a fucking mistake. Well it’s done. There’s nothing I can do to correct it. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay more than it was worth. It was a mistake, not a murder.”
“We’ll get through this. Let me take the lead and I’ll get us through this. I’ll try to control the damage. But there are things you will have to deal with.” Frank was getting that tight, butterfly feeling he always got before a fight. Truth be told, a good face to face meeting with the bad guys was just what he needed now.
They left through the side door and walked toward the garage.
“Josh said you should carry the money.”
“I’ll carry it. Josh is too . . . I don’t think it matters. It doesn’t matter to me. I should be the one to take the risk in this.
“It should matter. Somebody might ask you about this someday.”
“I could just lie. I’m trying to avoid lying these days. After I came out of rehab last time, I made a decision to live and to change my life. I know everyone does that coming out of rehab, but I drew a line in my life. I drew a line in my life and said ‘If I’m going to earn a place in Cleveland, I’ll never short change myself or my music again. I was just doing shitty work. I wasn’t, couldn’t focus. But I got away with it.
“You were selling a lot of records.”
“Yeah, that was going good too. But I wasn’t content in my life.”
Frank punched in a code on the pad by the garage door, and then used the remote to open the door. The lights came on automatically and the four cars were there gleaming, the motorcycles against the back wall, and at the far end the jet skis on their trailer. Ryan was headed toward the new Lincoln.
“Let’s take the Chrysler,” Frank said. “Put the bag in the trunk.”
“I can hold it.”
“If the police stop us, we don’t want them to notice it. They won’t look in the trunk unless they have cause. If they ask us to step out of the car you might do something silly, like taking the bag with you. Or, they’d go through the car.”
“We could put groceries on top of the money.”
“That would be hiding it. They’d have probable cause to hold us if they found that.”
“But if they look into the trunk . . .”
“If they go that far we’re done anyway.”
“What would they arrest us for?”
“Drug trafficking is what they’d hold us on.”
“I don’t even use drugs. I certainly don’t have drugs in the car.”
“Not using, trafficking. Two guys, one with a record of drug arrest, parked in the desert in an expensive car, with 100K in a plain brown bag and a gun tends to make the police wonder about their motive for being there.”
“I was just taking my money out for a drive officer.”
“The Police don’t have a sense of humor,” Frank put the money in the trunk. Then he opened the door and got in behind the wheel. Frank was carrying the Sig Sauer in a shoulder holster so he could get to it while seated in the car. He adjusted the seat and mirror, and then took a few seconds to center himself. He noticed that Ryan was watching him.
“I wish I could be as in control as you are.”
“It’s the job.”
“You remind me of Joel McCrae in Ride the High Country. I’ve got it on DVD. You’ve got to watch it when we get back.”
“The man with a gun come to set things right.” Laughing, Frank pulled the big Chrysler out of the garage and up to the road. He paused and looked at Ryan.
The big car took off, throwing gravel, and headed down the road.
“Do you think there’s a Zen to driving?” Frank said.
“Zen?” said Ryan, taken by surprise. The car was still accelerating. Frank lowered his window so he could hear the wind roaring past. Instead of the rush of cool air, it was as if he had opened an oven door. He closed the window.
“So what are you being blackmailed about?”
“I said that I went to the house to call 911 to get help.”
“So you called from the house and then went back.”
“No? So what did you do?”
“I was in shock.” The answer sounded like Ryan had prepared it ahead of time.
“Have you told this to anyone other than Josh?”
“Good. Don’t. Can you trust Josh?”
“Of course I trust him. He’s my lawyer. Why would I have a lawyer I don’t trust?”
Frank didn’t answer.
“Just drive the car.”
“Look Ryan, I’m your protection and all I’m trying to do is protect you.”
“I appreciate it.”
In Palm Springs, Frank parked in a lot close to the bank. He and Ryan exited the car and began moving through the heat. They passed some tables a restaurant had spilled out onto the sidewalk. A large group at one of the tables turned one by one to watch them pass. Frank had seen people recognize Ryan before. Only these people had another reason to recognize him. Caught in their postures and now frozen by the object of their attention. The bunch of them looking like an ad for Brooks Brothers’ new casual line for resorts. All big-boned, Nordic blondes, hair bleached almost white, dressed in white and pastels. Their clothes looking crisp and new despite the heat, they fit in perfectly with the rest of the Palm Springs crowd. A man in a pink and white striped shirt stood up and stared at Ryan. Frank recognized the man and the woman seated beside him at the table. He was the man who drove by him in the Maserati after he had chased the intruder off several nights ago. The man and woman in the car had stopped and watched him and then gone on. Ryan looked straight ahead and kept walking. The man smashed the martini glass in his hand on the sidewalk. Conversation among the diners stopped. Frank swept his gaze across the table, trying to remember them all.
“Someone doesn’t like you,” Frank said to Ryan, who kept looking straight ahead and walking.
“That’s Stanislaus Sohn and the Sohn family. Let’s get to the bank and get out of here. God every time I come into this damn town I run into one of them.”
Frank looked back and saw the man in the pink-striped shirt bulling his way through the tables toward the planters surrounding the restaurant tables. Other people were up now and pulling at him. All right, thought Frank, we’re going to get into something. Where is the best place to let it happen? I don’t want to meet them in the parking lot. I want it somewhere I can move easily, can’t get backed-up against anything. Here on the sidewalk. Get some witnesses who might be on our side, but no room to maneuver. Somewhere with a building I can put at our back.
Frank and Ryan went into the air-conditioned cool of the bank. Frank kept his eye on the door and let Ryan handle the arrangements for the money. Ryan huddled with the bank manager at his desk discussing the wisdom of taking out that much money in cash. Ryan trying to be too calm assured the manager that no one had been kidnapped. Then they went through the paperwork, assuring all the correct government reporting would get done. The manager pressing Ryan to let one of the bank guards accompany them to the car. Ryan finally gave in and he and Frank left the bank with a uniformed guard.
The made their way back through the heat to the car. The bright sun light seemed a physical substance they had to move through. Frank saw them in the lot before Ryan did. Two of the Sohns were waiting in the parking lot. Both men were big, blonde, with thick blonde hair on their arms and bleached out blue eyes. Both had Wayfarers hanging from their shirt pockets. The smell of sweat and anger was coming off them. The big one’s face was flushed with drink. He had the look of a life-time hard drinker. The big one looked out of shape, too many double martinis at the club. The younger one, in a pale yellow polo shirt, just looked nasty. Frank didn’t intend to let them get anything organized. He grabbed Ryan’s arm to stop him and moved to the front.
Frank glanced right and left and didn’t see any other threats. Two of the Sohn women from the same blonde, Brooks Brothers ad stood off at the edge of the lot with their arms crossed looking death at Ryan. Frank ignored them.
“Mr. Sohn, nobody wants any trouble,” said the guard. Frank cut the guard off.
“Can we help you gentlemen?” he said, making it sound like a challenge.
“Son of a bitch killer,” said the pale yellow. The man in the pink striped shirt didn’t say anything. He just put his head down and charged unsteadily right at them. Frank side stepped, set himself, and sunk his right fist into the man’s gut. Pink shirt kept going like a puppet with its strings cut, crumpling to the ground. That should do for you, thought Frank.
“Hey, quit it. Both of you. Now.” The guard was pushing to the front, torn between stopping the fight and protecting the money.
The young man took an amateur’s boxing stance and came shuffling forward.
“Come on guys,” yelled the guard.
The kid jabbed at Frank. Frank let the blows bounce off his hands. The boy threw another quick jab, Frank grabbed his wrist, pulling him forward and off balance and sent him sprawling into a car. The kid almost went down, caught himself, and came back at Frank. Frank blocked a wild right and hit the kid three times as hard as he could in the body. The kid dropped to his knees, holding himself up with both arms.
“How do you like . . .” Ryan was getting wound up.
“Get in the car Ryan.”
“Just gloating a little.”
“Gloat in the car.”
Frank took the money from the guard and handed it to Ryan. The guard was trying to decide whether to stop them from leaving or help the Sohns.
“The police will know where to find us if these men want to lodge a complaint. We will be in contact with them to file a complaint against our attackers,” said Frank. “Tell the Sohns never wear pastels to a fight.” He got in the car beside Ryan. “That’s the most fun I’ve had in weeks,” said Frank.
“Who are these people we’re going to meet today?”
“Friends of mine.”
“I’ve heard that friends shit. Who exactly are they?”
“Dave Keller and his girlfriend. And his brother. Dave was a percussionist I used. He was at the house the day of the accident.”
“What does he know?”
“Not yet, Frank.”
Frank stared out at the dark road cutting through the sun bleached desert before them. “Who is the girlfriend?”
“Naomi. You met her the first day at the house.”
Frank braked hard pulling over to the side of the road, the car skidding on the gravel. He got out, stepping into the heat, walking away from the car back down the road staring off into the desert.
“Dumb son of a bitch.” He stood and looked down the road. “Right in the damn house.”
He looked straight out into the desert then, quickly walked back to the car, got in slamming the door and floored it. The big Chrysler leapt forward, fishtailing, and then built speed on the asphalt.
“Thanks for telling me,” he said to Ryan.
“You’re pissed off.” Ryan seemed honestly surprised by Frank’s reaction. “I’m sorry. I’ve been trying to keep things pretty tight.”
“That is too fucking tight.”
They reached the turn off. Frank slowed down taking the unpaved desert road slowly. Nothing seemed to move out in the landscape.
“Who is going to be there?”
Frank could see a blue Honda parked by the abandoned building before he turned off the highway. It looked like it had just been washed and detailed. Everything else around it was either rusted or bleached out or barely standing. But the Honda looked good. Only it was empty. There was no one standing in the shade of the porch, the only surviving piece of the roof. Frank slowed as he pulled off the gravel road, letting the car lose speed as it met the incline up to the house.
“Don’t worry,” said Ryan. “It’ll just be Dave and maybe his brother. I just need Dave to tell me I’m safe.”
“If that’s who’s waiting up there.”
Frank liked the way things were developing less and less, the closer they got. He stopped the car with fifty yards to go. He and Ryan sat quietly in the air conditioning. Then someone stepped out of the deep shadow thrown by the house wall and stood looking down the hill at them. Frank turned off the ignition.
“That’s Dave,” said Ryan.
“Stay in the car until I signal you, Ryan”
Frank got out. He felt like he had stepped into a sea of heat. What breeze there was did nothing to help. He could feel his shirt drying out. Could anything live in this heat, Frank wondered? He looked up the incline at Dave and began to walk up the hill, bearing to the right.
“Yo.” Dave called to him.
“So you’re Dave.”
“Yeah. Just come straight up and tell Ryan. . .”
“Who’s with you?” Frank continued to circle the building.
Frank saw a bit of white at the corner of the building. Then a man peeped around the corner.
“Stop playing games. Come out and go stand by your friend or Ryan goes home with the money.”
“Hey, I’m Dave’s brother. I’m just waiting on him.”
“I’d prefer you waited out with your brother, where I can see you.”
The brother threw his arms up in the air and came out of the shade. “Just trying to find some shelter out of the heat.”
Frank continued walking around the house. Calling the wreck a house was an act of charity. Walls had collapsed or had lost all their siding and were reduced to framing, the windows were broken out. He still could see the two men standing out front. He came up on the last remaining portion that still stood in the bright sunlight. Naomi was balancing on a red three-legged chair holding a black and white golf umbrella over her head.
“Hello,” she said.
“You came prepared.”
“I go crazy in this heat, Frank.”
“Out front,” said Frank, “Ryan’s got the money.”
“I’m trying to stay out of the sun. Can’t I just sit here why you guys finish things up?”
“I think you should come out and take part Naomi. You’ve been in the shade enough. Time to go into the heat.”
She stood up and the chair fell over. She picked her bag up from the cement slab and walked back through the house to the other side. Frank stood looking around. There was the chair and the remains of a table. Condoms and rifle brass and broken beer bottles lay about the cement. Holes had been shot in the walls. There was a lot of graffiti, a few gang tags. Frank continued his walk around the house. He had gone a few steps when he stopped and came back. Carefully, he looked around the base of the walls and under the table, then he looked up at the remains of the roof. There it was. The checkered butt of a gun projected just slightly out from a two by four. It looked like a heavy frame revolver. Frank left it where it was. He turned and finished his walk around the house. Ryan was standing half way up the hill holding the bag of money.
“It was getting hot in the car.”
“It’s hot out here,” said Frank.
Naomi was standing under her umbrella.
“Is that the money?” said Dave’s brother, walking toward Ryan.
“Where’s the phone, Dave? I want it now.”
“Show me the money, man,” said Dave.
“Yeah, show us the money.” Dave’s brother was standing slightly back watching and laughing. “Make ‘em give you the money first, Dave.”
Ryan stepped forward and put the bag on the ground. Dave immediately knelt down and started emptying the bag out onto the ground.
“It’s every cent you wanted. Now where’s the phone?”
“Naomi,” called Dave. Naomi had been hanging back from the small group around the money. She reached into the large purse and brought out a plastic bag with a stack of pictures in it. She came forward to hand the bag to Dave, but Ryan grabbed it first. He went at the bag like a starving man goes at a sandwich. He opened the seal and took out the photos. Turning his back on everyone, he started walking away as he looked through the stack.
“So we’re all happy now?” Asked Frank.
“There’s a problem isn’t there Naomi,” said Dave’s brother.
“And what’s the problem Dave?” Frank said. “Let me guess. The money isn’t enough.”
Naomi suddenly spoke up. “I don’t think it’s enough. I think now that there’s jail involved it’s not enough.”
Standing under her umbrella, with her hand bag Naomi looked like an angry circus performer. “It’s not just bad publicity. It may not be as bad as O. J., but it’s not just Lindsay Lohan having an accident on Sunset.”
Ryan finally heard them. He stopped looking at the pictures and, clutching the bag, started back.
“You want more? You want more? Here take my damn Rolex you want more.” Ryan yanked the watch off and threw it at Naomi. “Take the 300. Give him the keys,” Ryan gestured to Frank. Everyone looked at Frank. Frank looked right back at them. “Give him the keys,” said Ryan.
Frank smiled at Ryan and did nothing.
The heat worked on them, standing there beside a dead lake and an abandoned, wrecked house. The heat pushed things to the limit.
“Get back in the car Ryan. We’re leaving.”
“What about my money?” yelled Naomi.
“Your money?” said Ryan. “You agreed Naomi.”
“I’m taking it back. I want more.” The circus acrobat had lost her high wire and her elephant and was a little pissed off. “I want my money.”
“We’ll be in touch,” said Frank. He walked over to Ryan and gently took him by the arm. “Come on. Don’t say anything more. Let’s go.”
“Shit.” Ryan spun around in a circle. For a moment he looked like he was going to throw a tantrum. Then he stopped and stared at Naomi. He raised the bag in his fist, pointing it at her. “This is not what we agreed on.”
“Well it’s what I want,” she shouted back at him.
“Come on,” said Frank, guiding him back to the car. After a few steps, Ryan yanked his arm away from Frank’s grasp. He walked on his own, kicking rocks out of his way with his Ostrich skin boots as he went.
Dave’s brother knelt down and began counting the money that Dave had already counted. They were both laughing. Naomi stood watch sullenly.
ROMEY KEYS was born at home in Lanham, Maryland in 1947. The doctor delivered him between breaks to catch a boxing match on the radio. He has a Ph.D. in English Literature. He taught at UCLA for eight years. Now he's a Documentation Specialist for hire.