Statement No. 005:
Three bodies and I donít know how many spent shells. The fireworks started, everything went to hell, and I kind of lost track. I was too busy scrambling clear, diving out of the way. The count didn't matter so much anyway, just that last, most important slug.
I expect Iíll never lay eyes on Mr. North again. Or even hear of him. I never even got a solid line on his racket. That speech of his was a pip. But if there's any truth in it, any at allójust think over the backing involved. You think about the apparent longevity of The Society. The caliber of men involved, such as Mr. North. It plants a seed in the back of your head to keep you up nights. It ties one more knot in that noose that hangs over our daily lives. It flat out keeps you guessing. Guessing and doubting. Sure.
Letís face itóyou know going in youíll never ID these birds. You know it just as well as I do. Comb all the police blotters in every precinct coast to coast from now until doomsday. You'll come up empty. No mug shots. No prints. But go ahead. Put out the word. Put out your feelers on the street. Iím telling you, it's like sucking wind in a vacuum bottle. I know it and you know it. Even your Aunt Sylvia knows it, for Chrissake.
But youíll ignore all that and forge ahead wearing the old blinders, right? Yeah, the hell with the way things really are. Letís make believe the department actually has something to investigate. What say we pretend that my yarn will give you all the leads you need to round up North and any confederates he has left. Letís waste each otherís time because due process is bigger than all of us, is the savior of all us.
Sure, Iíll give you my account. Why not? Even a wild goose chase can make a good story. It began with the wire, see? The yellow slip arrived a little before ten o'clock. That was Tuesday morning, June second. I'd just wrapped a job, filing the paperwork, when the boy dances in. I signed for the cable and the kid cuts out.
The telegram originated in San Francisco, and that meant zip to me. It read plain and spare, like most telegrams do, bordering on the obscure if you weren't in the loopóI wasnít.
"KEEN INTEREST IN YOUR SERVICES STOP. WISH TO MEET RE CRITICAL AND PRIVATE BUSINESS MATTER STOP. WILL BE IN AT 3 PM FRIDAY JUNE 5 TO DISCUSS STOP. URGENT AND CONFIDENTIAL STOP. MR NORTH END MESSAGE."
Simple as it read, that telegram gave me pause. Whoíd cable me from clear across the country? Thatís assuming the sender didnít call it in from another locale. Why bother sending a wire at all? Why not pick up the telephone? Why three days in advance?
Iím not the professorial type when it comes to telegrams. Sure, Iíve sent plenty of cables, but I never made it a habit. I bet thereís a whole department of G-men down in Washington. Analyzing, charting, cross-referencing. Making a goddamn science out of it. All Iím saying is that this one gave me the itch. And what really stood out was this: you recall ever seeing a sign-off that dropped the given name? There it was, in black and white: "Mr. North." It stood out like Sparkplug at Pimlico. I wondered, thatís all. Simply wondered. I wondered if I was the only private eye in the city who received that telegram. Sure.
The whole set-up rubbed me the wrong way. It just plain felt wrong, but what are you going do with that? I tossed the wire on top of the in-basket overflow.
Wound up a slow week. In between cases. Very in between. On Thursday I skipped the office altogether. I checked in with my service a couple times during the day. They logged a single call in the afternoon. Iíd won a free dance lesson. I took a pass.
Friday, June fifth rolled around and I hadnít given the telegram a thought. Then my eyes fell on the yellow slip in the basket. I read it over and gave it some thought. Then a bit more. Maybe it wouldnít have proved such a distraction if Iíd been on a job. It's tough to say. What I do know is that it got me going. The curiosity grew like a wild vine. Two o'clock found me at my desk waiting out the final hour. The telegram worked, all right. I'll admit it. I was suckered. And I knew it.
The solid rapping on the door sounded at three o'clock on the nose. The frosted, glass panel revealed a dark silhouette. A tall one. Tall and still. I called out to come ahead.
My gentleman guest entered. Could have been a gentleman, the way he conducted himself. His body glided with a smooth quality, a kind of distinction, if you know what I mean. You could call it polished or suave, all right, not like he picked it up, but like he came into the world that way. He was a natural.
My mystery man closed the door behind him, pivoted my way, and removed his hat. "Good afternoon," he said. His words carried the thickest Russian accent this side of the Urals. "I thank you for receiving me."
I kept to my chair behind the desk, told him to take a seat. He nodded, graciously, approached the desk, and chose the chair on his right. He sat straight as a plumb line, but he made it appear relaxed.
Those eyesóthe most striking thing about him. Set off from a lean, clean-shaven face. Light gray, baby-blues they were, ringed by a crown of short and precise eyelashes. That gaze at once arrested and imposed. My caller had the makings of a regular Svengali.
Iíll tell you the queer thing. Here was this debonair gent before me, like I said, but the way he dressed? Completely against the grain. From his heavy, cloth work shirt to the dungarees, the outfit screamed "workman." From the suspenders over his shoulders down to the cap held in his hand. One of those caps you might see on a ranch hand or a baseball player.
He glanced down at himself then back at me, amused. "My appearance does not meet your approval."
"You donít add up. You enter a room like royalty, but youíre decked out to go ditch digging. And Iím sure youíd just hate to ruin that beautiful manicure."
"You have failed to mention my accent."
"Forgive me. It's the Russian-est Russian accent I ever heard."
"Perhaps the reputation is true. I have been informed you are a man of shrewd perception." He grinned as he said that.
"Shrewd? I like that. Shrewd, sure. Iíll have to put that on my business card."
"There is also wide agreement that you are decidedly insubordinate."
"Thatís true, that's true. But itís got nothing to do with my personality, see. Sometimes my line of work calls for it."
"I trust you received my telegram."
"Thatís why Iím here. Mr. North, is it?"
"Yes, you may call me that."
"I figured as much. What can I do for you, Mr. North?"
"I need you to perform a service for me."
I watched him while I pulled out a cigarette. He watched me watching. I struck a match, lit up, and waved out the flame. "What do you have in mind? Smoke?"
"No, thank you. I require you to act as my agent and accept three deliveries."
"Yes. You will receive three messengers."
"This doesnít have anything to do with Dickens, does it?"
"I will need you to safeguard these deliveries."
"Are they bigger than a breadbox? And for exactly how long?"
"Perhaps as small as a business envelope. No larger than a small parcel. I expect to conclude my business within one week. Do you have any way to protect such items?"
"I see youíre eyeballing the safe in the corner."
"It appears quite formidable."
"It sure weighs enough."
"It appears very old."
"Came to me by accident. Itís the old manís safe. Maybe you passed the jewelry store on the street, two doors down. The owner kept his office up here, on this floor. When the old man passed away, his boys decided to close the office. I took the safe off their hands. That saved them the cost and annoyance of lugging it somewhere else."
"Good. Do you have room to accommodate my deliveries?"
"I may have to stow my lunch elsewhere, but I can probably swing it."
"Let me get this straight. Youíre asking me to receive three parcels on your behalf, and put them in safekeeping for one week."
"But youíre not asking me to store anything like smuggled goods, or act as a go-between for you and your fence, or anything else nefarious or otherwise not on the up and up?"
"Ta ta ta. Nothing of the sort, I assure you. Your position will not be compromised in the least." Mr. North smiled like he'd just won on a bluff.
That got us through the easy part. The tough part was ironing out the details. It was tough because there weren't any. My fee presented no difficulty. After that, it got downright murky.
Regarding the contents of the three deliveries, North insisted there would be no need to worry my pretty, little head. Just confirm they arrived intact, and lock them away. Nothing more, nothing less. In any case, per North, their substance would prove meaningless to me. Once all the surprise packages arrived, should Mr. North be contacted? Where should the parcels be brought? Neither action would be necessary, he said. The deliveries should remain in the safe and that's all there was to it. Mr. North said he'd know when they arrived. Mr. North would personally oversee all the necessary arrangements.
I knew it meant spinning my wheels, but I kept pressing. "You donít need to know when each one arrives?"
"I will know."
"So youíll know when Iíve got all three."
"Yes, I will know."
"Uh-huh. How exactly will you know theyíre all here?"
"I will know."
"Iím to do nothing about it."
"That is correctónothing."
"As simple as that?"
"Yes, as simple as that."
Thatís the kind of flack I ran into, and North gave me all the time I wanted to consider his non-answers. He remained perfectly at ease in that regal posture of his. Like he had all the time in the world. I fired up another cigarette.
"When will you be back, exactly?"
"Within one weekís time. I will make arrangements."
"How will I know your arrangements?"
"You will be informed."
"What if I need to contact you? How do I get in touch?"
"What if something comes up?"
"Take care of it."
"What if Iím called out of town?"
"What if thereís a fire?"
"I suggest you telephone the fire department."
"So itís like that, is it?
The more I asked, the less I got, and the more Northís regal grin got on my nerves. In this racket, Iím used to being broadsided. Sometimes my line of work calls for it. But this felt like stumbling blindfolded into a mineshaft. It didnít roil North any. He played it smooth as silk, all the way. But the biggest play of all he saved for the big exit. That proved the topper.
North lingered before the door. He faced the exit and said, "There is one final matter. This I must make absolutely clear. There must be no mistaking this." He hesitated and brought a long finger to his lips. "I fear I have you at a disadvantage," he continued, still with his back to me. "You have a reputation. You are known. Your work is a matter of record with clients, the police, and with the newspapers. On the other hand, I am the great unknown. Of me you know nothing, so it is imperative that you fully grasp the gravity of my business. I must be fully satisfied in this respect."
North paused, turned to face me, that imposing, gray-blue stare working overtime. "Do not tell anyone anything about me. Mention nothing to anyone about our preparations." He put up a long, slender hand. "I am fully aware that this should, of course, go without saying, that confidentiality is a matter of professional ethics in your industry. I know this. So, you must appreciate, it is not from a matter of ignorance or disrespect that I mention it." He bent forward. "I simply need it understood, comprehensively, that anyone who interferes in my business affairs will be dealt the most severe reprisal."
For the moment I let it pass. I made North a present of my best poker face.
"If, under these circumstances, you prefer to cancel our arrangement, I will, regretfully, respect your decision. But you must tell me now."
"Youíre not threatening me, are you Mr. North?"
"I do not threaten. I inform."
"Iím informing you of my position."
Fancy talk, all right. A sideways threat, all right. But, like I said, it was a slow week. I nodded. "Fair enough, Mr. North. I get you."
"Good!" Northís head tipped slightly in my direction. He pivoted smoothly and slipped out the door.
Iíve had my share of odd meetings, but talk about taking the cake. This ranked right up there, kit and caboodle. One of the queerest arrangements Iíd ever taken part in. Almost as screwy as the guy you're tailing coming up to you and asking for directions. In my time Iíve heard plenty of threats, but none quite exactly like North's. None nearly so eloquent. No, I had to figure you didnít toy with Mr. North. Not more than once. And not for long.
I waited for North to catch the elevator. The clang of the iron grate slid open and shut, the bang and hum kicked in as the machine lurched and began its descent. I hopped up, cracked the door, and made sure the coast was clear. I strode briskly to the rear exit and quick-stepped it down the fire escape. I wheeled around the building, down the alley, and spotted my target. My client hailed a Checker cab, aimed south on Clark Street. I trotted back to my coupe parked in the alley.
Traffic proved a snap to navigate. I gave the Checker a half-block lead until we hit North Avenue. The taxi pulled up to a curbside newsstand. I passed the Checker and parked it by a fire hydrant. North stepped out, paid for a daily, and returned to the cab. He stood for a moment, lingering by the passenger door, glancing at the rag in his hand. Maybe the headline was a honeyóa wide grin stretched across his pan. His long form stooped into the back seat. The Checker swung onto Clark Street.
I tailed the hack through sluggish traffic. The Checker had managed as much as a block up on me, twice, but most of the time I kept her within view. After we reached the Loop, the driver grabbed a spot in the Greyhound station taxi line. The coupe fit the corner tow zone just fine. I fired up a smoke and kept watch in the side mirror. The Checker sat tight. No action. I smoked the cigarette all the way down, flicked the butt in the curb, and stepped out of the coupe.
I waltzed toward the Checker with my brim pulled low. Nearing the hack, I made out the empty back seat. I spun on my heels, checked up and down the storefronts. I didn't know how, but North had flown the coop. I rapped on the front passenger window. The hack reached over and rolled down the glass.
"You want the first cab in line, Mac."
I leaned in. "What happened to your fare?"
"What fare, Mac?"
"The fare you picked up on north Clark Street."
The driver shrugged his shoulders.
"You stopped at the newsstand at Clark and North."
"You got me, Mac. I don't know what you're talking about."
I straightened up and swept the sidewalk. Moms with kids in tow, businessmen and briefcases, college joes lugging grips and duffle bags. No North to be had, in any direction.
I bent down to the cab. A neatly folded newspaper lay on the back seat. It looked untouched. The cabbie's pan wore an expression as blank as a pillowcase. I noted a five-spot stuck in the visor above him.
I chewed it over, the whole dizzy affair. It annoyed me and it amused me. North's game was anybody's guess. I had no line on the mug whatsoever. He'd left me as empty as an abandoned taxi, sure. I'd been stuck but good. Call me bothered, bewitched and etcetera.
Bang! Sure enough, I got the first delivery Monday morning. A little after nine. A flat, nine by twelve, plain manila envelope. Sealed, of course. Brought in by an older egg, done up in complete messenger uniform right down to the white gloves. He wore the messenger cap low on the forehead. His Chester Conklin mustache masked the bottom third of his face. He made for a tall fellowóit struck me you donít often see birds his age that tall. I signed his pad, he handed me the parcel, and he bowed to me with a tip of the shiny black rim of the cap.
I locked the door after him and took the delivery straight to the safe. Youíve seen the type of strongbox before. The length and height of a small bureau or credenza. All a deep, lusterless black. On the inside, one half set up in into shelves and cubbyholes. The other half wide open. I kept one small file of documents in itómost of the safe sat as empty as Comiskey Park in January. I used the top for a bookshelf.
I dialed the tumbler right, left, right, I released the silver handle, I heaved wide the heavy door. I balanced the envelope in my hand. Damn light. Couldnít have contained more than a few sheets of paper. The packaging itself probably outweighed the contents. The outside of the envelope appeared as plain as plain gets. No extra markings on it. Just the address label, made out to my office. No return address, save for one word: South. That's it. I slipped the packet onto a shelf, shoved the door closed, jammed down the handle, and spun the tumbler. One down. Two to go.
The next day I read the paper front to back without interruption. No deliveries. No callers. I closed shop at five o'clock.
Wednesday started out just as quiet. I filled the morning digesting The Daily News. I debated whether to skip out for lunch. The set-up got to me, spooked me, so I went out for lunch after all, though I didnít feel terribly hungry.
Minnie Murphy dropped by the office late. Minnie did time for the employment agency down the hall, City-Wide Secretarial. When jobs thinned out, like during summers and holidays, some of the regular girls camped out at the office hoping to cop an assignment on the fly. A sweet enough kid in her early twenties, Minnie displayed all the sunny innocence and pep that goes with her age. Sometimes a little too much pep. She also nurtured a romanticized idea of the whole private eye game. She enjoyed pumping me about recent cases, and I always played it cagey. She made a cute distraction for the eyes, though, and I was primed for a distraction.
Minnie and I were shooting the breeze going on about four when the second delivery showed. A heavy, tall mug strode in with a small bundle under his arm. He reminded me of the toughs who drove for transfer companies. His leather cap appeared a size too small and leaned awkwardly on his head. The gut of the denim shirt hung a ways over his belt. He also sported denim pants and leather work gloves. He placed the parcel on the desk, a package wrapped up in plain, brown paper, tied once around with white string. My office address had been scrawled by hand in bold, block letters in the center of the bundle. In the upper left corner read the word, East. Nothing else on the package. The agentís stained kisser gnawed at a chaw of tobacco as he handed me a clipboard. My eye ran down and across the rows of companies, addresses and piece counts. Most, but not all, had signatures. I spotted my office address listed on line ten.
"Number ten," the agent said in a low, tired drawl.
I signed the log on line ten and handed back the list. His wrists were surprisingly thin for such a big guy. The man swung about and strode out of the office.
Minnieís big, brown eyes chased back and forth between me and the bundle. I read her mind as easy as reading a headline in Varietyóshe practically buzzed with curiosity, so I cut her off fast. No, I confirmed, the Chinese laundry delivered my shirts yesterday.
She said, "Something important?"
"Are you working a case?"
"Arenít they all, kid?"
"You know who it's from?"
"It's from a client."
"A matter of life or death?"
"Nothing quite so melodramatic."
"So spill it!"
"Thereís nothing to spill."
"Youíre not going to tell me about it, are you?"
"I should mind my own beeswax."
"That's right, sugar."
"And I should take a powder, shouldnít I?"
"If you ever need to dictate anythingó"
"Iíll call for no one but you, angel."
Minnie smiled, winked, and bugged out. I listened to the sound of her giggle as her heels clacked down the hall. I shut my office door and locked it. The parcel felt near empty in my hand. I crossed over to the safe, contemplated the bundle, got nowhere fast. I dialed the tumbler, yanked the handle, and pulled on the door. I compared the address labels on both pieces. A different hand addressed each label. One abbreviated "street" and the other wrote it out. That big discovery told me a lot of nothing. I deposited the packets, shut the door, flipped the handle, spun the tumbler. Two down. One to go.
Thursday was a washout. No delivery, no action, blanksville. Friday was Thursday all over again. I gave the safe a long, tired glare before I locked up, some time after five. I headed to Barney's Market Club on Randolph. I dropped into Barney's every week or two for a hunk of red meat. I recommend their Roast Prime Rib of Beef Au Jus. That night I was digging into a Broiled Butt Steak when someone nosed in from behind.
"Excuse me, Senator. Someone dropped this off for you."
A tapered, manicured hand held out a number ten envelope. I put down my cutlery, took the letter, and just about tore into it. I froze mid-chew when I caught the word in the upper left corner: West.
I spun about in my seat, but the waiter or messenger or whoever had evaporated. I tucked the envelope in my inside jacket pocket and went back to work on the steak. On my way home I stopped by the office to lock up the third delivery.
A sealed message awaited me Monday morning, June fifteenóthis missive from North crawled under my office door. The typed note informed me that North and his compatriots planned to wrap up their business that evening, at the stroke of midnight, in my office. The three surprise packages would, of course, be required.
I'm used to working odd times in this racket. After hours the building gets quieter than City Hall in August. The retail shops on the street level close up for the night by seven. The insurance offices on the third floor lock up at five. So do the outfits on my floor, the second. The vacant, silent halls feel evacuated, like somebody's put out the word to clear out and stay out. North wanted to play invisible man, all right.
I lit only the desk lamp. The ceiling globe remained dark and the blinds closed. I tilted back in my office chair and checked my watch: half an hour to go. I fired up a cigarette and kept my eye on the thread of light streaming through the dooróIíd left it cracked two inches.
North turned up at quarter to. His darkened silhouette hung in the doorway and cast a lean shadow. He must have seen me clear enough. Iím guessing he was scoping out the room. Iíll guess even further than that. I'm willing to bet he already knew the building was deader than the pyramids. I'll bet he knew my office was clean, too.
North's rich voice inquired from the darkness, "The packages?"
"In the safe."
"Good." North glided into the room, leaving the door as he found it. "My colleagues will arrive directly."
North sported a full suit and tie. In the dim glow of the desk lamp, Iíd say it was a light, linen fabric. Top-drawer linen, of course.
"I see you dressed for the occasion."
One corner of North's mouth curled slyly. "The time for charades nears its conclusion."
That declaration carried some oomph to it, but I let it go.
North said, "I expect you are filled with immense curiosity."
"Brimming with it," I replied. "I find you and this whole set-up curious beyond the pale."
"Prepare yourself to witness a most astonishing evening."
"Astonishing. Imagine that."
"Though I fear you will be left with more questions than answers."
"Is that right? You, afraid?"
"As an outsider, you are in a most rare and privileged position."
"And me without my diary."
I watched North's flat expression as I lit up a cigarette. He watched me watch. He said nothing else. That was fine with me, and I took his cue.
North's associates filed in just before midnight: Mr. South, Mr. East and Mr. West. I guess Mr. South-By-Southwest got held up. North invited them to take seats while he closed the office door. Mr. South and Mr. East took up positions on the small sofa against the same wall as the safe. The third board member, Mr. West, claimed a client chair in front of the desk.
Mr. North threw the lock on the door, then approached the far end of the desk. He posed, as if standing at a podium, as though about to give a great oration. I couldnít help but notice that he faced all three directions at the same time.
Mr. West sat closest to North. Short, heavy set, pale. I'd peg him for forty-five years old. A wide-faced mug with pellets for eyes and a cork for a nose. His hands thrust deep into the lightweight trench wrapped tight. His mouth twitched to one side of his face. I didn't care for it. He probably wouldn't have cared that I didn't care.
Mr. South, the youngest chicken in the roost, occupied the far end of the couch. A man of about thirty years, he presented the All-American nondescript. South's the kind of jasper you could overlook in a crowd of one. Average build, simple face, crowned by a fedora with an oversized brim. I didn't see anything to mind in him. I didn't see anything to him at all.
To his left, Mr. East. Fifty and then some. A big man, a strong man. His glasses used the thickest lenses I've ever seen. Peering in his eyes was taking on an aquarium through a fog. Those tank lenses made him a tough read.
I glanced down at my wrist as I lit a smoke. My watch showed twelve oíclock, sharp.
"Gentlemen." Mr. North's eyes fell on all three men in turn. He smiled warmly, like a district attorney with a confession in his hip pocket. "As you know, The Society is counting down to its next evolutionary cycle. Every ten years we renew our pledge to The Society, its ruling council is realigned, and our sentinels are reassigned and replaced by a new guard. For more than nine years each of you has served admirably in protecting one of our critical reserves.
"The reserves are only one instrument within The Societyís financial structure, an organization of funding as varied as the members themselves. Over time The Societyís holdings have grown, methodically, beyond the crude and simple forms of shielded bank accounts and secreted safety deposit boxes. In the last several decades its holdings have increased threefold every year, diversifying into financial and business investment, underwriting, foreign trade, international loans. The Societyís wealth has outgrown and outpaced The Society's activities, overshadowing the founding principles of The Society itself!"
Mr. West hunched his shoulders and his lips quivered. Mr. East laced his large fingers together in his lap and rolled his thumbs. Mr. South kept still as an oil portrait. All eyes fixed on Mr. North like permanent glue.
"This is a crisis, gentlemen, as you all recognize. This is a crisis that strikes at the very core of The Society. The emergency has arrived in the form of The Societyís own subversion. The cause of The Society has become fatally, irreversibly flawed, and men such as we can no longer abide its policies and actions. That is why you three men, strangers before tonight, have come together."
Mr. East nodded in a jerky fashion.
"I have watched this change progress, and I have watched this change subvert leaders of The Society away from the cause. I have watched. I have waited. I have waited for you." He lowered his head and eyed his audience. "I have waited year after year for this evening to become possible, to bring you men together, men of just the right character, to do what needs to be done.
"My good comrades, you have been protecting the Fifth Reserve, safeguarding a stockpile with an estimated worth, I say estimated worth, of no less than five million dollars."
I choked back a whistle.
"The evolutionary cycle dictates the transfer of each stockpile to a new location under the assignment of new sentinels. Before that transpires, we will relocate the stockpile ourselves. For ourselves alone." North beamed at his colleagues.
South remained stone-like. West blinked behind his fish lenses. East fidgeted. They exchanged glances.
"Gentlemen," North raised his arms, "the time is at hand to bring together the three keys which will locate the reserve for us. We shall draft a plan for reaching, procuring and securing this reserve. In short, gentlemen, after nearly ten years of waiting for the right men, after years of waiting to bring you together, the opportunity is upon us. The time has come, my friends, to make ourselves exceedingly richóas the saying goes, rich beyond our wildest imaginations."
North's gaze bore into his three associates. He braced his arms and bent forward, his eyes hard and his tone as solemn as a death sentence: "If you will be kind enough to retrieve the packages."
I stubbed out my smoke, pushed back from the desk, and rose. I gazed upon the faces of that little circle. What a serious looking bunch. Crouching at the safe, I worked the tumbler, the handle, the door, grabbed the three parcels, and deposited them on the desk.
North came around to the client side and broke open the packages with great aplomb. He was aplomb, all right. His associates crept around him, cautiously, without a word. The quiet magnified each tear, each rustle of paper. I watched from my side of the desk as North produced three documents. They looked like maps to me. He lined them up, side by side, with the greatest care, pushing the wrapping to the side.
Each page played like a city grid as far as I could dope out. I spied notations of longitude and latitude, compass symbols, a key for measuring distance in kilometers. Two aspects of the docs threw me for a loop. All of the street names and other locations appeared to be penned in some mumbo jumbo foreign language. The characters ran cursive-like, heavily scrolled, accented by one or two dots. Three triangles created the other odd feature. Gold triangles with a circle in the center they were, one on each of the three sheets, pointed in three different directions.
North spoke without looking up. "I now require a ruler."
I fished out a ruler from the middle desk drawer and handed it over. We all leaned further over the papers. North adjusted the lamp to suit him, then centered the ruler over the first triangle. He drew a line against the ruler in red ink. He repositioned the straightedge across the second triangle and created a second line in red ink. He repeated the process for the third triangle. The procedure reeled us in, mesmerized us. We were hooked.
The four men stepped back from the desk. They pondered Northís handiwork, then leaned forward again in unison. You could see it clear as anything, the point where the three red lines intersected. Looked to me like X marks the spot.
"Gentlemen!" North proclaimed and overwhelmed the room. "We have it!"
Someone whispered, "Five million bucks," but I didn't catch who. North's three associates registered smug satisfaction on their smug faces.
I couldnít tell where the hell we were lookingóthe city, the country, let alone the continent. But Mr. East and Mr. South seemed well satisfied, their greedy lips warped into broad curves.
"Now, now," North spoke as he returned to the far side of the desk. "We have numerous arrangements before us. The undertaking, while simple in principle, will not be an easy one in the physical sense."
Mr. South and Mr. East bent in close to the maps. They scrutinized the red lines with the assistance of Southís index finger. I lit another cigarette, folded my arms, and considered the charts with one eye squinted.
Mr. West backed off from the desk a couple paces. "Donít put yourself out, North, arrangement-wise. Iíll take it from here." Mr. West held a long-barrel revolver. He must have had a special holster under his topcoat to secure a rig like that.
"Where'd you find that," I asked, "the circus?"
"You," looking at me, "put everything back in the large envelope. Be extra careful about it." His mouth spasm gave the words a peculiar twang.
"Everything?" I asked.
The end of the barrel flicked up twice, fast. I took that as a "yes." I cheated a look-see at North and the other two, then I did like West instructed. I gathered up the charts, deliberately and slowly. I moved awful slow. No one else budged. No one else made a peep. We all held our breath.
"Youíre no Mr. Speedy, are you?" West's pan broke out a nervous, ticking grin. The gun hand held steady. "All right, all right. Bring it hereó"
"I know," I said. "Extra careful."
I walked the long way around the desk, beyond North, around to the front, and stopped next to Mr. East.
"Give it here," West spat and ticked. He extended his free hand.
I made a flip of the wrist and flung the package toward West. It fluttered short and landed six inches from his feet.
West breathed deep, sighed big, and brought up the barrel in line with my eyes. He cocked the hammer. "Smart guy. Youíre the most expendable one of all."
"My good Mr. West." North held one hand to his chin. His head cocked to one side. He exhibited the calm of a contented camel. "We have all seen the maps. Each one of us knows the precise location of the cache. Do you intend to murder us all?"
"Sure," I said. "Heís played his hand. What choice has he got?"
West kept the rod trained at my head. His eyes darted between North and me, back and forth. South didnít shift one hair. East eased his right hand behind his back, beneath his jacket, ever so gradually. Something was going to break, all right, and I was first in line.
North asked, "Are you actually prepared to take the lives of four men?"
I said, "I don't think Mr. W.'s figured that far ahead. Whatís it to be, gunslinger?"
West shot me a puzzled squint, and that afforded East his opportunity.
That moment before all hell breaks loose is a funny thing. We've seen enough of them. Itís a snap of the fingers, that moment of great clarity, a frozen, tolling bell, an image as perfect as a still photograph, a sweep of the second hand you know is about to be lost forever. Then it cuts loose and busts wide open into chaotic whirlwind, a blur of motion and sound that your conscious mind canít keep time with, a swirling mayhem where actions can only play on the gut level, where everything happens at once, in a flash. Everything's pop goes the weasel.
East and West faced off. West swung around to aim and fire. East dropped to one knee while drawing out an automatic. North shoved South out of the line of fire, then lunged for me as I twisted and spun toward the other end of the desk. West should have had the drop on East, but East worked fast and smooth. I couldnít tell whoís shot came first. The blasts lit the dim room like instant lightning and the reports pounded our ears. West took one in the throat while his slug went wild and caught South in the foot.
North slung my arm with such force that I went tumbling backward over the desk. I caught my forehead on the center drawer. South stumbled in pain, knocking East to the ground. West reeled backwards, clutching his throat, and fired freely without aiming. East recovered, rolled over, and pumped shot after shot into West. South recovered himself, pulled a snub nose from a shoulder holster, and he squeezed more rounds into West. East spun around toward South ready to fire, but South kicked over a chair that tumbled onto Eastís arms. East couldnít free himself before South fired multiple shots at will, smashing two slugs into Eastís skull.
A matter of seconds. Sometimes that's all it takes for life and death to play out. It got quiet again. It felt hot. Gun smoke swirled like a gray fog that burned.
I hauled myself up, supported by the desk, used the back of my wrist to feel the small wound on my forehead. The scrape stung to the touch. I grimaced and felt the smashed cigarette that dangled from my mouth. North appeared untouched, standing tall and straight at the end of the desk.
West lay motionless, wedged against the couch, his clothing and body shredded into a mass of black and red pulp, like a storm of blood had rained across him. Eastís crumpled corpse butted up against the front of the desk. Scarlet streams oozed from the deep holes in his forehead and temple. The fish lenses had been thrown off, and a blank agony registered in his still eyes.
South propped himself against the overturned chair, just beyond East. He strained forward to nurse his foot, working to unlace his shoe with awkward delicacy. He winced with every breath.
Mr. North approached South from behind, lowered himself to one knee, and placed a hand on the manís shoulder. "Mr. South," he said softly, "You conducted yourself quite admirably."
South wrenched his head over his shoulder and forced a pained grin for North's benefit. He returned his attention to the bloody shoe.
"Amazing, is it not?" North murmured. "It is just as I warned you. The greed of men is like a vile plague. You have witnessed the virus of evil that is within all men. The seeds of man's own destruction. Even now you are weighing the fortunes of mistrust. You are at once shocked by the duplicity of your comrades, yet equally encouraged. You find two less shares to account for. Two less exposures. Your own fortunes have risen two-fifths in a mere matter of moments."
The hard click of a gun hammer stilled South's hands. North held the cold barrel against the base of South's skull.
"The money belongs only to The Society. No one else. I must inform you that you have risked your life to no end but your own."
Mr. Southís eyes narrowed. His lips uncurled and his mouth popped open and shut like a goldfish. He must have had something to sayóhe couldnít manage the words. He lowered his head and looked at the gat in his right hand. Smears of blood covered the tips of his left hand. The shoe propped half off his bleeding foot. Those were the last things the sentenced man saw. And there was nothing I could do.
"Mr. South, the cycle of evolution has begun."
Mr. North squeezed the trigger once, the cartridge burst and sang, and the shell cut through the base of South's skull like an axe through butter. Southís body flailed from the impact, slumped to the floor, his eyes squeezed shut. A tiny gurgling sound bubbled up from his throat. The life faded out of him as we watched.
North rose to his feet. He held the gun easy, its muzzle aimed low. He straightened his tie and cleared his throat. I noticed he wore a gold triangle tiepin. He gathered the papers with one hand, folded them, and slid them inside his linen jacket. He turned to me. I hadnít moved, leaning on the desk, supporting my weight on my hands. North removed the crushed stub from my mouth. He speared a cigarette from my shirt pocket and placed it between my lips. He struck a match and brought it to the end of the cigarette. He blew out the match and dropped it in the ashtray.
"That," Mr. North said, concludes my business."
* The photograph displayed at the top of this page was taken by Jack Delano as an employee of a federal government agency. For more information on the photograph, see http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/owi2001017518/PP/.