Normally, I would display here the first chapter of a new book, but in this instance the first chapter is such a stand-alone entity all by itself that it is appearing as a short story in the May  Playboy. So what I suggest is, you borrow a May Playboy from the nearest convent, read the story, and then read chapters two and three right here. After that, you’ll have to make your own decisions. (Chapter 1 is such a stand-alone that you could just read chapters two and three and never miss it. But why not get the full experience?) Herewith, I have a little Bad News for you. ~DEW
May didn’t like to be critical, but she just had the feeling sometimes that John didn’t really want a nest egg, or a financial cushion, or freedom from money worries, or even next month’s rent. She felt somehow that John needed that prod of urgency, that sense of desperation, that sick knowledge that he was once again dead flat, stony, beanless broke, to get him out of bed at night, to get him to go out there and bring home the bacon. And the pork chops, and the ham steak, and maybe the butcher’s van as well.
Oh, he made money sometimes, though not often. But it never got a chance to bum a hole in his pocket, because it burned through his fingers first. He’d go with a couple of his cronies out to the track, where obviously the horses were smarter than he was, because they weren’t betting on him, were they? John could still remember, as he sometimes told her, that one exciting day when he’d almost broke even; just the memory of it, years later, could bring a hint of color to his cheeks.
And then there were the friends he’d loan money to. If he had it, they could have it, and the kind of people they were, they’d take his two hundred dollars and go directly to jail.
So it was no surprise to May, this morning, that John’s great triumph last night, over in New Jersey, was that he’d escaped. Not with the loot he’d gone over there for, of course; just with himself.
“Hundreds of them,” he told her. “More uniforms than a convention of marching bands, and I walked right outta there. I almost got them to give me a note to tell you how come I missed dinner.”
“But you missed the swag,” she pointed out.
“Oh, the cameras,” he said. They were having breakfast — black coffee and half a grapefruit for her, cornflakes and milk and sugar in a ratio of 1:1:1 for him — so there were pauses in the conversation while he chewed and she swallowed. After the next pause, he said, “See, the thing is, May, by then I was a guy buying eyeglasses. If I try to walk out with fourteen cameras, it doesn’t go with the image.”
“Of course not,” she said. She didn’t say that was the reason she held on to her cashier job at Safeway supermarket, a job she was going to have to leave here for in a few minutes, because what was the point? He’d only feel bad, and it was so rare that John felt good, she couldn’t bring herself to spoil it. He’d gone out last night to raise some ready and he’d come back empty-handed, but the triumph was, he’d come back. Fine. She said, “Andy called last night.”
Andy Kelp was a not unmixed blessing in their lives, reflected in the way John immediately lowered his head closer to his bowl, shoveled in a whole lot of cornflakes and milk and sugar, and only then said, “Nrrr?”
“He said he had a little project,” she told him, “simple and easy.”
“Ne-er,” John said.
“Well, you never know, John, be fair.”
“He’s coming over this morning,” she said, “to tell you all about it.”
“What time?” he asked, as though considering two escapes in twenty-four hours, and a third voice said, “Morning. Hi, May, is there extra coffee?”
“I made enough, because you were coming over,” May said, and Andy Kelp, a sharp-featured, bright-eyed fellow in a black windbreaker — because it was October outside — crossed over to the stove, where the coffeepot simmered. May told his moving form, “I just told John you called.”
John said, “Andy, you still don’t use the doorbell.”
“I’ve heard your doorbell, John,” Andy told him, bringing his coffee over to join them at the kitchen table. “It’s an awful sound, it’s a nasty buzz. It’s like one of those sounds they describe on Car Talk, why would you want to start your day listening to a nasty noise like that?”
Complaining to May, John said, “He uses our apartment door to practice his housebreaking on. And the building door.”
“You gotta keep those muscles exercised,” Andy said.
May said, “I don’t know, John, I don’t mind it anymore, especially if he calls ahead, like today, so there won’t be any, you know, embarrassment. It’s almost like having a pet.”
John looked Andy over, as though considering him as a pet: Keep him, or have him put to sleep?
After a minute, Andy decided to hide behind his coffee cup awhile, and then to clear his throat a lot, and then to say, “Did May tell you I had us a little job?”
“Breaking and entering?” John asked. “Like you do here?”
“Now, John,” May said.
“No, nothing like that,” Andy told him. “It’s just a little digging. It’s hardly even illegal.”
“Digging?” John swallowed some of his own coffee, to have his mouth absolutely clear as he said, “You want me to dig ditches, is that what this is?”
“Well, it’s kind of a ditch, I guess,” Andy said, “but not exactly.”
“What is it exactly?”
“A grave,” Andy said.
“No,” said May.
John said, “Grave robbing? Andy, I’m a robber, I’m not a grave robber.”
“It’s not grave robbing,” Andy said, “it’s more, you know, switching.”
“Switching,” John said, while May just sat there, saucer-eyed, looking at Andy Kelp, her grapefruit and her job at Safeway both forgotten. She didn’t like graves, and she certainly didn’t like the thought of people digging in graves.
Meanwhile, Andy explained a little more, saying, “See, what it is, out in that big cemetery out in Queens, one of them out there, there’s this grave. Kind of an old grave, guy’s been in there quite a while.”
“I don’t think I wanna hear about this,” John said, and May nodded in silent agreement.
“We’re not gonna look at him, John,” Andy said.
“Well, I’m not.”
“We don’t open the box at all,” Andy assured him. “We dig down to it, we pull it outta there, we put it in the van.”
“We got a van.”
“It’s the employer’s van.”
“We got an employer.”
“I’ll get to that,” Andy promised. “What we do, we go out there with this van, and there’s already a coffin in it.”
“I bet this coffin is full,” John said.
“You got it,” Andy told him. “Absolutely. This guy was already dug up out west someplace, and whatever they had to do to fix him up for whatever this is —”
“Whatever what is?” John asked.
“The scam, what’s going down.”
“And?” John asked. “What is this scam? What’s going down?”
“Well, I’m not in the loop on that,” Andy said. “We’re dealing with a real pro here, John, and he does this on a need-to-know basis, and that’s something we don’t need to know.”
“I don’t need to know any of it,” John told him.
But by now, May had gotten over her first shock and disgust, and she did want to know. She said, “Andy, what is this? You dig a coffin out of a grave and put another coffin down in there instead?”
“That’s it,” Andy agreed.
John said, “So, what is it? These guys look alike?”
“They do now,” Andy said.
May decided not to follow that thought. Instead, she said, “Andy, what are you and John supposed to do? Just do the digging and that’s it?”
“And the filling in again,” Andy told her. “And put the other coffin in the van, and I guess it goes back out west, or wherever.”
May said, “And nobody opens any of these coffins.”
Andy said, “Not while I’m around.”
John said, “Why us? Why me? Why you?”
Andy explained, “He needs people in our kinda business, you know, on the bent, that’ll keep their mouths shut and not ask any questions or show up to the party wearing a wire, and then maybe he’ll have another job somewhere down the line.”
May said, “Well, at least it would be healthful.”
John looked at her in disbelief. “Healthful? Hanging around a graveyard?”
“Out in the air,” she said. “Getting some exercise. You don’t get enough exercise.”
“I don’t want enough exercise,” he said.
Andy said, “He’ll pay us a gee apiece.”
Pleased, May said, “There you are, John! It’s your cameras!”
Alert, Andy said, “Cameras?”
“He had to leave them behind,” May explained.
“The point is,” John said, “I escaped.” Then, obviously preferring to change the subject, he said, “Who is this employer guy?”
“I met him on the Internet,” Andy said.
“Oh boy,” John said.
“No, come on, he’s okay,” Andy insisted. “As soon as he understood the situation, he stopped scamming me. That second.”
“And offered me the job.”
“And what’s this peach’s name?” John asked.
Andy said, “Fitzroy Guilderpost.”
Ftzroy Guilderpost said, “So we have the shovels?” “In the van,” Irwin said.
“In the van,” Irwin said.
“And the Mace? The pistol? The duct tape?”
“In the van. In the van. In the van,” Irwin said. “And so’s the tarpaulin and the rope and the canvas strap.”
“In other words, what you’re saying,” Guilderpost summed up, “is that everything is in the van.”
“Except you,” Irwin said.
Little Feather said, “Shouldn’t you boys get moving?”
“Just dotting our eyes, Little Feather,” Guilderpost assured her. “Crossing our tees.”
“Before you start tilding your ens,” Little Feather told him, “maybe you oughta get moving.”
“I love these little glimpses of your education, Little Feather,” Guilderpost told her, and patted her leathery cheek, not too hard.
The three conspirators were gathered here, just before midnight, in a motel room on Long Island, just over the border from New York City, not far from Kennedy Airport. They’d been here two days, in three consecutive but nonconnecting rooms, of which this was Guilderpost’s. It was still as neat as when he’d first entered it, or even neater, since he’d more perfectly aligned the phone and its pad on the bedside table. The only evidence of his occupancy, other than himself, was the slightly ajar ThinkPad on the round table beneath the swag lamp; the ThinkPad glowed quietly to itself down in there, thinking its own slow thoughts.
By contrast, Irwin’s room next door, within half an hour of their arrival, had begun to look like a men’s shop after the explosion, and Little Feather’s room, one beyond, while comparatively neat, was, nevertheless, piled high with her possessions, her clothing, her cosmetics, her exercise tapes.
Guilderpost had interposed Irwin between himself and Little Feather deliberately. It was his rule never to mix business with pleasure, and that went double when dealing with as attractive a package of rat poison as Little Feather.
The three were more than an odd couple; they were an odd trio. Little Feather, the former showgirl, Native American Indian, was beautiful in a chiseled-granite sort of way, as though her mother were Pocahontas and her father Mount Rushmore. Irwin Gabel, the disgraced university professor, was tall and bony and mostly shoulder blades and Adam’s apple, with an aggrieved and sneering look that used to work wonders in the classroom but was less useful in the world at large.
As for Guilderpost, the mastermind looked mostly like a mastermind: portly, dignified, white hair in waves above a distinguished pale forehead. He went in for three-piece suits, and was often the only person in a given state wearing a vest. He’d given up his mustache some years ago, when it turned gray, because it made him look like a child molester, which he certainly was not; however, he did look like a man who used to have a mustache, with some indefinable nakedness between the bottom of his fleshy nose and the top of his fleshy lip. He brushed this area from time to time with the side of his forefinger, exactly as though the mustache were still there.
Now he said, “No need to be overly hasty, Little Feather. The reason my operations invariably succeed is because I am an absolute stickler for detail.”
“Hurray,” Little Feather commented.
Irwin said, “What about the bozos? They gonna be as easy as the ones in Elko?”
“Easier,” Guilderpost assured him. “I’ve only met the one, of course, but he’s bringing a friend, and it isn’t hard to imagine what a friend of Mr. Andy Kelly’s will be.”
“Another bozo,” Irwin said.
“A couple of gonifs,” Guilderpost agreed. “Strong backs and weak minds. They do the heavy lifting, and then we’re done.”
Little Feather cleared her throat and said, “Tempus fugg-it.
Guilderpost smiled upon her. “Very well, Little Feather,” he said, “you’re undoubtedly right. Traffic into Manhattan can be uncertain, even at this hour. If Irwin is ready-”
“Been ready,” Irwin said.
“Yes, fine,” Guilderpost said. He would have preferred more subservient assistants, but where do you find them? Everybody’s got attitude. And in fact, Little Feather’s background was absolutely perfect for the part she was to play, and Irwin’s scientific knowledge was invaluable. So one took the rough, as it were, with the smooth.
All three left Guilderpost’s room, and he tested the knob to be certain the door was locked. The black Econoline van with dubious California plates waited in front of them. Irwin’s Plymouth Voyager with the equally dubious South Carolina plates, in which he would follow the van, stood next over, in front of Irwin’s room.
Little Feather nodded at them and said, “See you at breakfast.”
Irwin said, “You don’t want a report tonight?”
Guilderpost believed Irwin actually had designs on Little Feather, which just shows how recklessly advanced degrees are handed out these days.
Little Feather offered Irwin her version of a smile; a faint temporary crackling in the glaze. “There isn’t any doubt, is there?”
“None,” Guilderpost answered. “We’ll place grandpa where he can be of help, use and deal with these final assistants as we have the others, and then we’ll be off, at long last, to collect our reward.”
“Goody,” Little Feather said.
© Donald Westlake 2000