It had been a long time since I’d had any trouble sleeping.
Not since the fucking shelling was keeping me awake, a lifetime or two ago. I’m not by nature an insomniac. You might think killing people for a living would give you some bad nights. Truth is, guys in the killing biz? Just aren’t the type to be bothered.
I was no exception. I’d hadn’t gone into retirement because my conscience was bothering me. I retired because I had enough money put away to live comfortably without working, so I did. And for a while that retirement had gone well. I’d invested a little and was living off the gravy; I’d even been married for a while, which had worked out fine.
For a while.
Currently I was deposited in an A-frame cottage with a deck onto the frozen expanse of Sylvan Lake, somewhere in Minnesota, only it’s not called Sylvan Lake and maybe it’s not Minnesota, either. I was staying at the only resort on this side of the lake, Sylvan Lodge, but I was not a guest — I ran the place. Or, anyway, did when it wasn’t off-season.
Once upon a time I had owned a resort in Wisconsin not unlike this — not near the acreage, of course, and not near the occupancy; but I had owned the place, whereas here I was just the manager.
Of course I didn’t have anything to complain about. I was lucky to have the job. When I ran into Gary Petersen in Milwaukee, where he was attending a convention and I was making a one-night stopover to remove some emergency funds from several bank deposit boxes, I was at the loosest of loose ends. The name I’d lived under for over a decade was unusable; my past had caught up with me, back at Paradise Lake, where everything went to hell in an instant: my straight business yanked from under me, my wife (who’d had not a clue of my prior existence) murdered in her sleep.
Gary, however, had recognized me in the hotel bar and called out a name I hadn’t used since the early ’7Os: my real one.
"Jack!" he said, only that wasn’t the name. For the purposes of this narrative, however, we’ll say my real name is Jack Keller.
"Gary," I said, surprised by the warmth creeping into my voice. "You son of a bitch...you’re still alive."
Gary was a huge man — six six, weighing in at somewhere between three hundred pounds and a ton; his face was masked in a bristly brown beard, his skull exposed by hair loss, his dark eyes bright, his smile friendly, in a goofy, almost child-like way.
"Thanks to you, asshole," he said.
We’d been in Vietnam together.
"What the hell have you been doing all these years, Jack?"
"Mostly killing people." He boomed a laugh. "Yeah, right!"
"Don’t believe me, then."
I was, incidentally, pretty drunk. I don’t drink often, but I’d been through the mill lately.
"Are you crying, Jack?"
"Fuck no," I said.
But I was.
Gary slipped his arm around my shoulder; it was like getting cuddled by God. "Bro — what’s the deal? What shit have you been through?"
"They killed my wife," I said, and blubbered drunkenly into his shoulder.
"Jesus, Jack — who...?"
"Fucking assholes...fucking assholes...."
We went to his suite. He was supposed to play poker with some buddies but he called it off.
I was very drunk and very morose and Gary was, at one time anyway, my closest friend, and during the most desperate of days.
I told him everything.
I told him how after I got back from Nam, I found my wife — my first wife — shacked up with some guy, some fucking auto mechanic, who was working under a car when I kicked the jack out. The jury let me off, but I was finished in my hometown, and I drifted until the Broker found me. The Broker, who gave me the name Quarry, was the conduit through whom the murder-for-hire contracts came, and, what? Ten years later the Broker was dead, by my hand, and I was out of the killing business and took my savings and went to Paradise Lake in Wisconsin, where eventually I met a pleasant, attractive, not terribly bright woman and she and I were in the lodge business until the past came looking for me, and suddenly she was dead, and I was without a life or even identity. I had managed to kill the fuckers responsible for my wife’s killing — political assholes, not wiseguys — but otherwise I had nothing. Nothing left but some money stashed away, that I was now retrieving.
I told Gary all this, through the night, in considerably more detail though probably even less coherently, although coherently enough that when I woke up the next morning, where Gary had laid me out on the extra bed, I knew I’d told him too much.
He was asleep, too. Like me, he was in the same clothes we’d worn to that bar; like me, he smelled of booze, only he also reeked of cigarette smoke. I reeked a little, too, but it was Gary’s smoke: I never picked up the habit. Bad for you.
He looked like a big dead animal, except for his barrel-like chest heaving with breath. I looked at this man — like me, he was somewhere near or past fifty, not the kids we’d been before the war made us worse than just men.
I still had liquor in me, but I was sober now. Too deadly fucking sober. I studied my best-friend-of-long-ago and wondered if I had to kill him.
I was standing over him, staring down at him, mulling that over, when his eyes opened suddenly, like a timer turning on the lights in a house to fend off burglars. He smiled a little, then it faded, his eyes narrowed, and he said, "Morning, Jack."
"You’ve got that look."
"What look is that?"
"The cold one. The one I first saw a long time ago."
I swallowed and took my eyes off him. Sat on the edge of the bed across from him and rubbed my eyes with the heels of my hands.
He plopped down across from me with those big paws on his big knees and said, "How the hell d’you manage it?"
"Hauling my fat ass onto that Medivac."
I grunted a laugh. "The same way a little mother lifts a Buick off her big baby."
"In my case, you lifted the Buick onto the baby. Let me buy you breakfast."
In the hotel coffee shop, he said, "Funny...what you told me last night...about the business you used to be in?"
I sipped my coffee; I didn’t look at him — didn’t show him my eyes. "Yeah?"
"I’m in the same game."
Now I looked at him; I winced with disbelief. "What...?"
He corrected my initial thought. "The tourist game, I mean. I run a lodge near Brainerd."
"That’s what this convention is. Northern Resort Owners Association."
"I heard of it," I said, nodding. "Never bothered to join, myself."
Not by nature much of a joiner.
"I’m a past president," he said, obviously proud of that. “Anyway, I run a place called Sylvan Lodge. My third and current, and I swear to God everlasting wife, Ruth Ann? Maybe I mentioned her last night? Anyway, Ruthie inherited it from her late parents, God rest their hardworking Republican souls."
None of this came as a surprise to me. Grizzly bear Gary had always drawn women like a great big magnet — usually good-looking little women who wanted a father figure, Papa Bear variety. Even in Bangkok on R & R, Gary never had to pay for pussy, as we used to delicately phrase it.
"I’m happy for you," I said. "I always figured you’d manage to marry for money."
"My ass! I really love Ruth Ann. You should see the knockers on the child."
"A touching testimonial if I ever heard one. Listen...about that bullshit I was spouting last night..."
His dark eyes became slits, the smile in his brushy face disappeared. "We’ll never speak of that again. Understood? Never."
He reached out and squeezed my forearm.
I sighed and smiled tightly and nodded, relieved. Killing Gary would have been no fun at all.
He continued, though. "My sorry fat ass wouldn’t even be on this planet, if it wasn’t for you. I owe you big time."
"Bullshit," I said, but not very convincingly.
"I’ve had a good life, at least the last ten years or so, since I met Ruthie. You’ve been swimming in Shit River long enough. Let me help you out."
"Actually, I want you to help me."
Gary’s business was such a thriving one that he had recently invested in a second lodge, one across the way from his Gull Lake resort. He had quickly discovered he couldn’t run both places himself, at least not "without running my fat ass off." He offered me the job of managing Sylvan.
"We’ll start you at 5OK, with free housing. You can make a tidy buck with damn near no overhead, and you can tap into at least one of your marketable skills, and at the same time be out of the way. Keep as low a profile as you like. You don’t even have to deal with the tourists, to speak of — we have a social director for that. You just keep the boat afloat. Okay?"
"Okay," I said, and we shook hands.
Goddamn I was glad I hadn’t killed him....
Copyright © 2006 by Max Allan Collins.