I closed my eyes and saw the face of the man I would kill. Back at the Howard Johnson’s, in the restroom, the Broker had showed me the photograph and asked me if I wanted to take it with me; I said no, just let me look at it for a minute. Now, ten minutes later, I thought of the face: a soft fleshy oval with a fat Jewish nose sticking out of it.
I opened my eyes and saw the complex of brown brick buildings up ahead. The main building was a pair of long two-stories that joined a central tower. From where I was walking I could just make out the words "Quad City Airport" on the tower. The afternoon was just trailing into dusk and they hadn’t turned on the lights yet.
Before I’d started across the grassy field between the Howard Johnson’s and the airport, the group of buildings with the several hangars looked good-size, no O’Hare, but good-size. By the time I approached the parking lot, the place looked smaller, as if I’d been walking toward a scale model. Tiny gardens of red and white and purple flowers were stuck here and there around the parking lot, lip service paid to nature in the midst of bricks and cement and jet fumes. The flowers didn’t belong here, and neither did I; I wanted to be in a T-shirt instead of a suit, and I wanted to be relaxing in the sun somewhere instead of on a job.
Especially this job, this pain-in-the-ass job.
Going in I almost got my briefcase knocked out of my hand as two guys in dark suits came rushing out the front door like their luggage had bombs inside and they were the Bomb Squad. Which was airport-typical: half the people in a hurry rushing around acting important; half the people in no hurry strolling around acting important. Assholes.
Inside was wine-color marble and blue-green plaster. There was a sweep to the way the building was put together that probably seemed futuristic in 1950. Now it was a fucking dinosaur. Like that elevator stuck in the middle of everything, housed in a cylinder with a staircase curved around, the cylinder covered in garish red plastic that had bubbled in places.
The first thing I did was check the downstairs cans. They were all pretty big (four stalls—three pay and a free) but even with the airport in a kind of lull right now, it was clear none of them would do. Then I climbed the staircase that circled the elevator and before I got started in on the upstairs cans, I saw him.
There was a priest and a young couple in their twenties and a soldier and a sailor and two old ladies and a businessman, all sitting around the indoor observation deck on the black-cushioned seats, looking out the big picture window at the runway. He was the priest.
All in black, of course, except for the white clerical collar. And a gray putty face, gray except for where some burst veins roadmapped his nose. He was wearing a black toupee that looked like one. He had on dark sunglasses.
A priest. With that Jewish nose and sunglasses at dusk, no less, he’s going to pass for a priest. With some guys you might just as well stand to the side and wait for them to kill themselves, they’re that stupid.
He didn’t catch me looking at him so I went on ahead and checked out the cans on this floor. I took in both halls that branched off the central tower building and found a can apiece and a lot of empty offices. One hall had activity in the end office, so I settled for the can down the other, completely deserted hall. That was fine because it was the best in the building, the other one on this floor being like the downstairs johns, big and designed with airport cattle in mind. Mine was for the paid help, with a single free one-seater but lots of room to stand and smoke. Also, every other can in the airport had a push door with no lock; this one had a firmly closing door with locking knob.
I went back downstairs without even glancing at the priest. I walked to the Hertz desk and asked the pretty blonde who did I see about luggage lockers. She said they’re just around the corner, sir, and I said, no, who’s in charge of them. She smiled and picked up her phone and dialed and a moment later a young guy in a blue blazer asked if he could help and I told him what I wanted and he said fine and took some money from me. We went to where two walls of bright steel luggage lockers faced each other tight and I put my briefcase in one of the compartments and he marked down the locker number and asked for a name and I gave him one. He said thanks and I said thanks and he went away.
With him gone, I reopened the locker, snapped the briefcase open and got out the pair of gray gloves and slipped them on. From the briefcase I took my folded raincoat, which I draped over my arm, and the nine-millimeter silenced automatic, which I gripped in my right hand, the draped raincoat covering my whole right forearm and hand. I shut the briefcase and sealed it back up in the locker.
Upstairs I walked over to the priest and sat next to him. He was looking out at the big silver jet, a 737 trimmed in United Airlines red-white-and-blue. The sky was slate-color with big brushstrokes of orange cloud. I wondered if he could see all that in those goddamn sunglasses.
"Father," I said.
The priest turned and looked at me. He got a little smile going and nodded and looked away.
Oh, he was nobody’s dummy this one, a real college graduate. He was well aware that his role as priest called for acknowledging the respects of the faithful. Brother.
"Father," I said, and I let him see I was wearing gloves in August. His eyes figured it out.
"Oh God," he said. Prayer-soft.
"Let’s go to the can."
"All I want’s what you have. Nothing else is going to happen."
"Stay calm, now, don’t say anything...okay. Okay. You settled down?"
He shivered once. Then he nodded.
"Okay," I said. "We’ll walk to the can and we’ll talk about it. Now get up. Now."
He stood and I stood and I took his arm. We walked in front of the young couple and I said excuse me and smiled and they smiled back. I ushered him down the hall of empty offices and into the can.
I locked the door.
He ran ahead and opened up the stall and puked in the stool, with the speed and ease of a runner passing a baton in a relay.
When he was through, I said, "Flush it and come out here."
The whole damn room stank, now. Like the job itself stank. All I could think was, this isn’t what I do, this isn’t my style. What am I, some kind of shakedown artist? That goddamn Broker’s going to pay for this breach of contract. I work a certain kind of job, and shit like this isn’t part of it.
I said, "Where?"
He was shaking; his cheeks were trying to crawl off his face.
I repeated myself.
He said nothing. He did nothing. He looked at me out of glazed eyes and just stood there.
"Look," I said. "Nobody’s going to do anything to you if you’re sensible. You took something from some people and they want it back. Return what you took, and you can catch your plane as long as from now on you stay away from these people and theirs. It’s that simple. Hell, you’ll just be out a job you’re out anyway."
He said, "Please."
"Stay cool, now. Look at it this way: you’re in possession of a valuable commodity. Hand that commodity over to me and you can walk out of here. An even swap."
He patted his cheeks and tried to coax them to stay. His face over the clerical collar turned from ash gray to reddish gray. He was thinking about crying.
"Look," I said, "I don’t like to hurt people. I’m not into that at all. Why don’t you just cooperate?"
"It’s in my baggage."
"I don’t believe you."
"I tell you it’s in my baggage."
"I don’t believe you, I don’t believe you’d let this off your person."
"I don’t care what you believe, it’s in my baggage, I checked my baggage already and it’s already been taken out to the plane."
"If you’re telling the truth..."
"If you’re telling the truth, get out your rosary."
"I said I’m not into hurting people. I’m not. It won’t hurt, Father, it’ll just be black. All of a sudden. Real black."
"But, please, please, listen to me, I checked the bags... the stuff’s in my bags and that’s the truth, I’m sorry, Christ knows I’d give it to you and be done but I’m sorry."
I let the automatic peek out from under the draped raincoat. "Is that still the truth?"
He closed his eyes and shook his head no.
"Where?" I said.
He started to take off his coat.
I brought the gun up and said, "Watch it, Father!"
"No, no! Wait!" He eased out of the coat and handed it toward me. Offered it. "It’s the coat. The lining. In the lining."
"Get it out of the lining."
"You, you said you’d let me catch my plane. I’m gonna miss my plane."
"Maybe. Get it out of the lining."
"It’s sewn in, uh, under, I mean..."
"Rip it out."
He did. He tugged free the lining and reached inside the gutted coat and pulled out two plastic bags, stapled at their tops, a lump of white powder in each.
Inside my head, I shit my pants.
Okay, Broker. Is this what you got me into? Okay. He gave me the bags and I slipped them in my suitcoat pocket.
"What now?" he said.
"Throw that lining away," I said.
He balled it up and shoved it into the canister for used paper towels. I motioned to him to put the coat back on and he did.
"Well?" he said.
"You can go," I said. "But not till I’m gone. I’m going to have to knock you out."
"My, my plane! You said...but now I’ll miss my plane..."
"You’re under the gun and you worry about your plane. Christ. Just be thankful you’re getting out of this with your ass in one piece."
"Please, I’ll wait in here, I can wait ten minutes and still make it."
I rubbed my chin. "Suppose I could tie you up and by the time you got loose I’d be gone..."
"Sure, sure, you could do that! Here, I’ll untie my shoelaces, you can use that to tie me."
"No, never mind," I said. "I got some rope in my pocket."
"Oh. Oh well, fine."
"First you get in that stall there."
"It stinks in there."
"That’s because you puked." Christ, this guy.
He opened the stall.
"Put the seat down," I said.
"Now sit." He did.
"Put your hands together."
As he was doing that, I shot him in the chest.
Copyright © 1976 by Max Allan Collins.