The drizzle felt good on Nolan’s face. The night air was chill, though not enough to freeze the drizzle, and the light, icy sting of it on his skin kept him alert as he waited.
He was sitting on a bench in the parklike strip of ground that separated the Mississippi River from the four-lane highway running along it. The highway connected the Siamese-twin cities of Davenport and Bettendorf, whose collective reflection on the river’s choppy surface vied for attention with that of Rock Island and Moline on the other side.
Across the highway was where Werner lived.
Werner’s home was a white, high-faced two-story structure, nearly a mansion, complete with row of six pillars. Already bathed in light by the heavily traveled and streetlamp-lined four-lane, the house was lit on right and left by two spotlights set on either side of its huge, sloping lawn, which banked down gradually to the highway’s edge. Even through the heavy mist, the whiteness of the overlit house made a stark contrast against the moonless night around it.
Typical Werner logic, Nolan thought, picking a place like that one: status plus prestige equals respectability.
Nolan had been waiting just less than an hour. His side of the road was darker, and the constant traffic flow and hazy weather seemed likely to obscure him from anybody who might be on watch over at Werner’s. He hadn’t seen any watchdogs yet, but he knew one would show sooner or later—a Werner-style watchdog, two-legged-with-gun variety.
He smoked cigarette number one off the first pack of the evening, second of the day. He was pleased when the drizzle didn’t put it out. Just as he was getting number two going, he spotted Werner’s man.
The watchdog came around from the back, walking slowly around the house, probing the thick shrubbery on both sides of it with a long-shafted yellow-beam flash. He was slow and methodical with his search, and after the shrubs had been checked, he headed for the paved driveway to the left of the house. He stood at the far end of the drive and let the flash run down over it, then walked toward the back of the house again.
Probably a garage back there, Nolan thought, the drive leading around to it.
Three minutes later the watchdog reappeared at the right of the house and began to move slowly over the sprawling lawn, crisscrossing it half a dozen times before angling down on the highway’s edge. He stood there for a moment in the light of a streetlamp, and Nolan got a look at him.
Not overly big, just a medium-sized guy, wearing a hip-length black brushed leather coat, open in front to reveal a dark conservative suit, complete with thick-knotted striped tie. The man didn’t look particularly menacing, but Nolan knew he’d probably been chosen for just that reason.
Subtle muscle. Typical Werner.
Nolan’s hand in his jacket pocket squeezed down around the rough handle of the .38. He put on a smile and stood up from the bench. Stepping out into the stream of traffic, sidestepping cars, Nolan called out to the watchdog.
"Hey! Hey buddy . . ."
The watchdog had turned to walk away, and Nolan met him about a third of the way up the sloping lawn.
"Say, I think I’ve gotten myself lost. You couldn’t give me some directions, could you?"
The watchdog had a bored, bland face that didn’t register much change between glad, sad, and indifferent, although Nolan could read it well enough to rule out glad. The hand with the flash came up and filled Nolan’s face with yellow light.
Nolan squirmed and held his free hand up defensively to shield his eyes, but he kept the smile plastered on. "Look, friend, I don’t want to bother you or anything, I’m just a stranger here and got my bearings fouled up and thought maybe you could . . ."
"This isn’t an information bureau," the watchdog said. "What this is is private property. So just turn your ass around and go back across the street and take off. Any direction’ll do."
The flash blinked off, and Nolan could tell he’d been dismissed.
Nolan gave him a bewildered-tourist grin, shrugged his shoulders and began to turn away. Before the turn was complete, Nolan swung the gun in hand out of his pocket and smacked the .38 flat across the watchdog’s left temple. The watchdog’s eyes did a slot-machine roll and Nolan caught him before he went down. Nolan drunk-walked the limp figure up the remainder of the lawn, carefully avoiding the glare of the spotlights, and took him over to the left side of the house, dumping him between two clumps of hedge. He checked the man’s pockets for keys but found none. He did find a 9mm in a shoulder sling, and tossed the gun into the darkness.
Subtle moves were fine for Werner and company, but right now Nolan hadn’t the time or energy for them. The watchdog would be out for half an hour or more; plenty of time. He glanced out toward the highway, which by now seemed far away, and decided that there wouldn’t be any threat from some public-spirited motorist stopping to question his handling of the watchdog situation. Thank God for mist and apathy.
He walked around the house in search of an unlocked window, trying not to let his out-in-the-open sloppiness with the watchdog bother him. He just didn’t seem to have the patience to work things out smoothly these days. Making a mental promise to tighten himself up again, he tried the last of the windows.
Well, there might be one open on the second floor, and a drainpipe was handy, but Nolan ruled that approach out: his side, while improved, was not yet in that kind of shape, and he was beginning to think it might never be.
He broke the glass in a window around the back of the house, seeing no need for caution since the neighboring houses on both sides were blocked by stone walls, and a large three-car garage obstructed the view from behind. A light was on in a window over the garage door, probably the watchdog’s quarters, explaining the absence of house keys in the man’s pockets. Nolan slipped his hand in through the glass-toothed opening in the window and unlocked it. Then he pushed it up and hauled himself slowly over and into the house. He caught his breath. The room he found himself in was dark; after stumbling into a few things, he decided it was a dining room. A trail of light beckoned him to the hall, where he followed the light to its source, the hairline opening of a door.
Nolan looked through the crack and saw a small, compact study, walled by books. Werner was sitting at his desk, reading.
Several years had passed since Nolan had last seen the man, but their passing had done little to Werner: he’d been in his early twenties for twenty-some years now. The only mark of tough years past apparent in his youthful face was a tight mouth, crow-footed at its corners. The almost girlish turned-up nose and short-cut hair, like a butch but lying down, overshadowed the firm-set mouth. His hair’s still jet-black color might or might not have come out of a bottle, though Nolan felt fairly certain that the dark tan was honest, probably acquired in Miami.
A rush of air hit the back of Nolan’s neck, and he started to turn, but an arm looped in under his chin and flexed tight against his Adam’s apple, choking off all sound. He felt the iron finger of a revolver prod his spine as he was dragged backward, away from the cracked door.
A whisper said, "Not one peep."
"That gun in your hand," the whisper said. "Take it by two fingers and let it drop nice and gentle into your left-hand coat pocket."
Nolan followed instructions.
"Now," the whisper continued, "let’s you and me turn around and walk back into the dining room, okay? Okay."
The watchdog kept his hold on Nolan’s throat and walked him along, each step measured. Once they were out of the hall and into the dining room, the grip on Nolan’s neck was lessened slightly, though the pressure of the gun was still insistent.
"Keep it quiet and you’ll get out of here with your ass," the watchdog whispered. "I’m only going easy on you because I don’t want my boss in there finding out I let somebody slip by me. A window with some busted glass I can explain, you in the house I can’t. So just keep it down."
They approached the broken window through which Nolan had entered, and the watchdog released him, shoving him against the wall by the window. Enough light came in the window for the two men to make their first good appraisal of each other.
Nolan had been right about the guy being tougher than he looked. The whole upper left side of his face was showing a dark blue bruise, and a still-flowing trickle of red crossed down from his temple over his cheek, but the man’s expression remained one of boredom, only now it was as though he were bored and maybe had a slight headache. He’d shed the leather topcoat, and his suit was a bit rumpled, although the striped tie was still firmly knotted and in place.
"Sonofabitch," the watchdog said, "an old man. I got taken down by an old man. Will you look at the gray hair. Sonofabitch."
Nolan said nothing.
The watchdog’s upper lip curled ever so slightly; Nolan took this to be a smile. "Let’s get back outside, and a younger man’ll show you how it’s done. . . . Come on, out the window."
The hand with the revolver gestured toward the open window, and Nolan grabbed for the wrist and slammed the hand down against the wooden sill, once, then again, and on the third time the fingers sprang open and the gun dropped out the window. Nolan smashed his fist into the man’s blackened temple, a blow with his whole body behind it. The hard little man crumpled and was out again.
Nolan leaned on the wall and gasped for breath. Half a minute went by and he was all right; his side was nagging him again, but he was all right.
He undid the watchdog’s shirt collar and untied the tie, then used it to lash the man’s slack wrists behind him and picked him up like a sack of grain and tossed him out the open window, where he landed in the hedge. Nolan figured he’d stay there a while longer this time around.
When he returned to the door of the study, Nolan peered in through the crack and saw Werner, undisturbed, still at his desk, reading. With the .38 in hand, Nolan drew back his foot and kicked the door open.
Werner dropped his book and sucked in air like a man going down for the third time. "Nolan . . ."
Nolan waved hello with the .38.
Werner shoved the book off to the side of his desk. "Uh . . . shut the door, will you, Nolan?"
Nolan did. He walked over to a chair in front of the desk, turned it backward, and sat down, looking straight at Werner and leveling the .38 at him.
"It’s good to see you, Nolan."
Nolan smiled. "Good to see you." He laid the gun down on the desk and stretched out his arm.
The two men shook hands.
Copyright © 1973, 1981 by Max Allan Collins.