80

 

 

Fuck You Later

 

by Michael Conn

 

I had kicked off my shoes and was savoring a quiet moment in my latest office, a dump, worse than the last one, with my feet propped on my desk. My Louis XIV desk. A survivor from the glory days before my racketeering conviction. My George III armoire, another survivor, solid mahogany, stood against bricks and mortar wallpaper, between a painted-shut window and a matching yellow door that wouldn't quite close. I had a new phone number so I had a week or two before my creditors started dunning me again. My secretary, Mimi, who made me pay her daily in cash, was out to lunch. I eased a cocktail napkin out of an old Tiffany's box, taking care to not touch the autograph that sprawled across it, and draped it on my thigh. Raising a crystal tumbler, I said, "Here’s to checking your guns at the pearly gates, Big Guy," and tossed down two fingers of scotch that was younger than my socks.

I was pouring myself another two fingers when my phone rang.

"Yeah," I sighed into the receiver.

"You didn’t hear this from me." It was my buddy Erlanger, a reporter for the Arizona Republic.

"Course not," I said. “But make it quick," casting a glance at the autographed napkin. "I’m in mourning for Hunter Weatherly."

"Our usual deal--"

"Our usual deal is our usual deal."

"No," he said. "Not this time. I want half."

I stood the bottle gingerly on my desk.

"And if you screw this up or even think about stiffing me," he said, "I know about your double-dip on the Seven Springs property."

My mouth dropped open. That double-dip was a sweet deal that, although it had resurrected my stone dead cash flow, could land me in an orange jumpsuit again. I swung my chair, putting my back to the warped-open door, ran a hand over my scalp, squeezed the rat-tail of hair at the back of my head.

"I take it I have your attention," Erlanger said.

"And my deepest affection."

"And your balls. Don’t forget your balls. Never for one second should you forget your balls."

His unemotional tone clenched my throat. Yeah, we were pals, but he was still raw over a bit of ancient history between us. "I’m listening," I croaked, reaching back for my glass.

"Look up a Montana holding company called the Rio Dinero Recreational Improvement Patrons."

"What is it?"

"You’ll be on your way to finding that out when you remember who owns a ranch in Montana. It shouldn’t be too hard for you. He’s hanging on the wall behind that gaudy desk of yours."

I looked up at the poster for Hang with the Truth, my gaze climbing past flaring chaps and cocked hips and a blazing six-gun to the most handsome, honest, clean-cut face that ever graced the silver screen. Hunter Weatherly, in his final starring role. Global box office icon, friend to heads of state, golfing buddy to three presidents. I'd seen every one of his thirty-seven films more times than I could remember. It was tough to accept he was dead.

"Are you with me?" Erlanger asked.

"Why are you being so Chinese about this?"

"Because I can’t be involved. Not directly. But you’re going to make us both very rich. And best of all you’ll be bringing the world down around Phil Blassingame’s ears."

"Blassingame!" I fairly shouted. "What’s that prick son-of-a-bitch crook motherfucker got to do with Hunter Weath?" I looked down at the autographed napkin. "Oh, fuck me."

"Meet me at Seven Springs," Erlanger said. "One hour, and don't be late." A click, then a dial tone. I cradled the phone as though it were a Faberge egg.

***

I didn't see Erlanger at first, his white Subaru was parked way at the back of my property, along a dry stream bed, which pissed me off because my car didn't have the ground clearance to traverse three hundred yards of scruff, and I had to walk it. Me and the belly I'd put on eating prison food and staying clear of the goons in the exercise yard. Paused at the culvert, hands in my pockets, I scanned my double-dip: desert nothingness, forty acres, flat as a pancake (I hadn't sold a single lot but I had high hopes). It had rained hard that morning, and a cheery sun was peering above a retreating thunderhead, leaving the sweet-dirt scent so peculiar to desert life. The terrain, like concrete, had shrugged the water away. I commenced a casual stroll, trying as best I could to make it look like it was my idea to be there, bruising the shine on my last good pair of alligator loafers.

"You're late," Erlanger said as I neared him. He was in shirtsleeves and a bolo tie, him and his pinched nugget of a face, looking me up and down in my aging though still snappy Armani suit. I hung my head, of course. He did have me by the balls.

He was eager to show me what he called a "brazen coup de grâce," which I took to mean somebody got royally fucked, quickly laying out a checkerboard of aerial photos and photocopied documents on his Subaru's bleached white hood. I leaned my hands on the still warm fender, studied the photos, the faxes, listening to him fill in the blanks. His research as always was thorough; a number of things made it curious.

Thirteen properties near Hatch, New Mexico, the dusty cow town where Hunter Weatherly had been born, had fallen to foreclosure in the past six years. Farms, ranches, private homes. The owners had been responsible borrowers, never falling behind on their payments, until each of them had been visited by unexplained tragedy: Crops died on the vine, cattle succumbed to infections. In one case state engineers repaired an earthen dam that hadn't needed repairing, and two days later it crumbled, drowning two hundred acres of tomatoes (the state claimed it had no record of its engineers having done the repair). It was especially curious that all thirteen properties had been seized by one bank, Bandoleer Bank & Trust, which then sold them without public notice or auction to the Rio Dinero Recreational Improvement Patrons--Red-Rip, Erlanger called it. Viewed from the air, the properties formed an almost continuous parcel, nestled at the foot of Lightening Butte, a barren mesa of federal land that looked like God had sawed a mountain off at its ankles.

Pushing up from the fender, I stretched my back, craned my neck around. I lifted one of the aerial photos: Lightening Butte, the purloined properties, Hatch. It looked like a land swindle, smelled like a land swindle, and had Blassingame's modus operandi all over it. My man Erlanger had been tracking it since almost day one, without a word about it to me. The guy was a bulldog. But his time was running out.

"The fat lady sings in four days," I told him.

"Which gives you three and a half," he snapped.

Hunter Weatherly was going to be buried on Lightening Butte, four days hence, the Monday of Memorial Day Weekend. It had been all over the news for the last twenty-four hours. George W. Bush had declared Weatherly a national treasure, and he'd deeded Lightening Butte to Weatherly's estate by way of a signing statement, a signing statement being how a president passes pretty much anything he wants into law without having to run it by Congress. The funeral was going to be nationally televised. And at the end of what I imagined would be a stirring eulogy, the executor of Weatherly's estate was going to announce what had not been all over the news. What had been a closely held secret for a very long time: plans to build a theme park, Weatherly World, on private land that bordered Lightening Butte, land that Blassingame, via Red-Rip, had been buying up at bargain prices, the worth of which next Monday would skyrocket in a heartbeat.

The hell of it was, Erlanger couldn't connect Blassingame to the swindle, to the unexplained calamities that had forced the thirteen landowners to default. It was making him nuts. It was making me nuts, and I wasn't the one who'd done all the research. But it was a Blassingame scheme, no doubt about it, we could almost feel our fingers clutching his throat. And Erlanger was determined to see him pay for his sins. If he couldn't put him in prison, he was going to do the next best thing.

"He isn't gonna squirm out of this one," he seethed through his square little teeth.

It wasn't my style, but I high-fived him anyway.

Blassingame had one vulnerability: he was the governor of New Mexico. He was susceptible to scandal, answerable to the court of public opinion. And so were his thugs, his co-conspirators: Eduardo Benitez, the former CEO of Bandoleer Bank & Trust, was a U.S. senator; Joshua Blick, a former lobbyist for the coal industry, was undersecretary of the interior in the Bush administration. My assignment, should I decide to accept it, and you bet your ass I did, was to run a bluff on Blassingame before the funeral next Monday and blackmail the piss out of him. Spook him into cutting Erlanger and me in on the deal. I was gonna be a one-man sting operation. Redford and Newman all rolled into one.

"And don’t call me," Erlanger said as we shook hands on it, "unless its from a payphone. If you can’t find me, leave a one-word text on my cell-phone: crater. Got it? Crater. And don't call the office for any reason." His boss at the paper was a longtime crony of Blassingame's.

His finger poked my chest. "You savvy?"

"Yeah," I said. "Payphones. No messages."

***

I had met Blassingame back in 1987, shortly after I'd bombed out of Arizona State University, the best party school in the country. I'd thought about enlisting in the navy to learn a trade, see the world. I'd thought about selling cars. I didn't know what I wanted to do. In the meantime I was caddying at Saguaro Grande Golf & Tennis Club, the cushiest private course in Arizona. I was a natural at it. I didn't know shit about golf, the aspects of it that mavens of the game prattled on about like it was rocket science. But I had an instinct for knowing when to speak--which in the company of gloating, cigar chomping captains of commerce was rarely--and when to just watch and listen. They slapped me on the back a lot, saying things like You're a promising kid, an up and comer. They seemed to take my economy of words as wisdom. The Saturday of my second week I got hooked to Blassingame's foursome, me and a big Navajo dude and two old duffers in their forties. The swells with Blassingame were two Scottsdale city councilmen and the president of the Arizona Teachers' State Credit Union. They dressed like drunken rainbows and all four of them cheated on their scores.

It was in tall grass to the left of the eighth fairway that Blassingame and I got chummy. He was blocked from the green by a stand of trees and his only options were to chip the ball back onto the fairway or take a penalty stroke and move his ball to a better lie. Or he could stand there staring off at the emerald green countryside as if the ball were nowhere in sight. Which is what he did.

"I'll bet your tips aren't all that great," he said with his back to me. "I know most of the members here and they aren't the type to fully appreciate a resourceful caddy. You know what I mean?"

Well. I knew what he meant. I'd seen him toe his ball to better lies, I'd seem him kick his ball out of a bunker, I'd seen him drop a ball when he couldn't find the one he'd hit, and yell, "Here it is." I walked over to the edge of the fairway, checked to be sure his three pals weren't watching us, then I let a Titleist 4 roll down my khaki pant leg.

"Here it is," I hollered.

We were a team, after that, he laid a fifty on me two or three times a week for eighteen holes. As Christmas was nearing I was expecting a monster tip. What he offered me instead was a job. He was only ten years older than me, and rich, and I wanted to be just like him. I worked for him on my days off, picking up his dry cleaning, driving his son to kindergarten, balancing his wife's checkbook, dropping off permits at construction sites, answering the phones while he was fucking his secretary at lunch. I paid my dues. I kissed his ass. He started teaching me his version of the real estate business, leading me into the baby steps of a felonious life: I exchanged envelopes with fidgety city employees in shadowy parking garages. I chauffeured bank executives to liaisons with hookers at The Biltmore Hotel. Blassingame told me I was the brother he never had (later I learned he had a brother in Michigan who despised him). By summer I was working for him full time.

Scottsdale back then was a sleepy little tourist trap, a warren of turquoise shops, silversmiths, and poster galleries. And the eyesore of strip malls and condos the town is today is Blassingame's legacy. He bought commercial property at foreclosure auctions where he was the only bidder the bankers invited. He got zoning laws revised at "public hearings" that hadn't been attended by the public. Modest homes and historic casitas that stood in the way of his matchbox housing developments were conveniently condemned by the city or caught fire or both. If excavation unearthed tribal artifacts, as it often did--pottery, jewelry, the occasional intact skeleton--those artifacts left with a man who had appeared on the scene as if by providence, calling himself a curator. Plumbing and wiring was bought from salvage yards. Building permits and inspection certificates materialized even though no city inspector had shown up to inspect. "The Life," Blassingame called it. And I was in the thick of it, soon making fistfuls of money, getting flush at the maestro's knee.

Twelve years later, while Fate was preparing to shit in my hat, I was his chief financial officer, running a business that had expanded to three offices in Scottsdale and forty-six employees, leaving Blassingame free to cut backroom deals over dinners and drinks and rounds of golf. I didn't notice when The Arizona Republic started running a series of articles on municipal corruption by a young reporter named Erlanger. I was busy paying a grand a week in alimony to my first wife (who was living in colonial splendor in Belize with a swarthy fuck named Ignacio), while my second wife was investing in Saks and Lord & Taylor (when she wasn't off banging Odo, her Zen master), and our daughter was attending a four-grand-a-year pre-school. I had a bit of a coke habit, too. I also didn't notice when two city councilmen formed a committee to look into Erlanger's allegations. I did however notice when that same committee, some of them newly minted members of the Saguaro Grande Golf & Tennis Club, painted wings and a halo on Blassingame and pointed their sanctimonious fingers at me.

I drew a six-year racketeering jolt, and got paroled after eighteen months.

I was broke, wiped out, toasted. The lawyer, the fines, the restitution, the ex-wives (my second had sued for alimony and child support while I was dodging inmate affections in the shower room). What I did have was credit, although I had to drive up to Flagstaff to find a banker who didn't know I'd done time. I bought a house, a fixer-upper, hired out the renovations, sold it for a tidy profit. Did that again. And again and again. I was making barely more than what I had to pay out to my exes, but it wasn't long before the local bankers fell in love with my relative success and started cutting loose with lines of credit and other unsecured loans, and stuffing my wallet with credit cards. I formed a corporation, Greenwell Development. I rented a big stucco house in Paradise Valley, and leased a screaming yellow Ferrari.

I even sold a house to Erlanger. Him and his cute little wife. We'd met by chance when a real estate agent brought them through the place.

It turned out Erlanger had always believed I'd been set up to take a fall by Blassingame. And because the owner of his paper (who went marlin fishing in Los Cabos twice a year with Blassingame) hadn't let him follow through and publish the whole truth, he'd been carrying a grudge for the past three years. He could be a royal pain in the ass, sometimes, like he had a chip on his shoulder that he kept as a pet. But his was a chip that I shared, and how could I not like a guy who believed in me? I tipped him off to rumors in the real estate game, and if it led him to something newsworthy he gave me a finder's fee. No big deal, fifty here, a hundred there. And his wife thought I was a hoot. Once in a while he'd bring me a home buyer, and if the sale went through I slipped him five percent of my net. A couple times a month I got him out for eighteen holes, and they had me over for dinner pretty much every Sunday.

One night while his wife was visiting her mother, I took him out on the town. I was in high spirits until we strolled into Casa Virgilio, my favorite Phoenix restaurant. Blassingame was sitting at the table that for eleven years had been my table. On his right was a barrel of a guy (whom I later learned was the CEO of Bandoleer Bank & Trust, the future Senator Benitez), with a toupee that sat on his head like brown sod. On his left was a twerp with a Mr. Rogers haircut (Joshua Blick, I later learned, the undersecretary of the interior). I would've made a scene then and there, called the manager over and demanded my table, but seated across from Blassingame, square jawed, blue-eyed, with Neptunian silver hair, seventy-four years old but a nonetheless shimmering presence, sat none other than Hunter Weatherly. I could've melted into my shoes. Thirty-seven films, four Oscars, seven Golden Globes, and a Lifetime Achievement Award. I asked for his autograph. He said, "You bet yer boots." Whipping a felt-tip pen out of his breast pocket, he signed his cocktail napkin.

He was handing me the napkin when Blassingame took his shot. "Toby here," he told Weatherly, "singlehandedly cleaned up our little town."

"Is that right," Weatherly said, eying me with admiration.

"Yep," Blassingame sneered. "Sent himself to prison."

His two cronies erupted in laughter.

I cocked my arm to my chest, ready to backhand Blick flat out of his chair and fling myself past him to rip out Blassingame's lungs, but Erlanger grabbed hold of my collar and yanked me back, almost pulling me off my feet. When I spun on him he got right in my face with an urgent whisper: "You're on parole, smarten up. They call a cop, you're up the river."

He towed me to a corner booth. I was trembling when we sat down. I listened as he tried to calm me, he was hunched on his elbows, yakking away about shit like no one gets away with crooked forever and revenge was a dish best served cold. He sounded like a fortune cookie. I smiled and nodded, smiled and nodded, but I didn't want any part in what sounded like an awfully long range plan, and I told him so. I knew what I had to do. What I needed to do. I was gonna go head-to-head with Blassingame. I was gonna beat him at his own game, run his business into the ground. I was gonna drive my revenge so far up his ass there wouldn't be enough plastic surgeons in the entire desert southwest to sew his cheeks back together.

Suffice it to say, I don't look back on fondly on what transpired from that putz of an idea. Blassingame's tentacles were everywhere.

Construction permits and title searches got held up for months at a time by every city functionary Blassingame and I had ever bribed. Lumber yards stopped extending me credit, with no explanations offered, and ran days late with deliveries I had paid for with cash. Property taxes went up on land I'd bought the week before. Electrical and plumbing contractors stopped returning my calls. The building trades union filed grievances against me for infractions I hadn't committed. The only reason I survived was that, after three years of this shit, Blassingame moved to New Mexico and left his dimwitted brother-in-law in charge of yanking my dick.

And then Erlanger went south on me. Jeez. Like I didn't have enough problems. The house I'd sold him was falling apart--his words, not mine--a few glitches involving the plumbing and electrical and the foundation and the roof. His wife was nagging him to sue me. She started calling me in the middle of the night just to scream girlish obscenities at me: You're dog poop on a plate. You're as crooked as chest hair (she was a deacon in their church). I borrowed the money to buy them out of the house, a damn nice gesture if you ask me. It took thirty grand in repairs and a five grand bribe to the warranty inspector to get the place back on the market. And then it sat for a year before I sold it for fourteen grand less than I had into it. And the thanks I got was Erlanger blamed me when his wife walked out on him.

By then I had turned to my double-dip: a Savings & Loan guy I'd been holding in reserve. He wrote me a $200,000 loan using the Seven Springs property as collateral, knowing the property already had a first and second mortgage against it, in return for a ten percent kickback. It kept me afloat for two more years, but before long I couldn't roll projects over fast enough to keep pace with my debt load, and I was soon sinking under an inverted pyramid of credit that ran thirteen grand in monthly interest alone. My cards were maxed-out – all twelve of them – my Ferrari and I were playing hide-and-seek with Exotica Leasing, I'd moved out under cover of night on three consecutive landlords, who were still chasing me for back rent. And what cash I had left was in a manila envelope in the safe in my dump of an office, a two-room cubbyhole next to a coin-operated laundry in a barrio south of downtown Phoenix.

You can imagine what was coursing through my brain, pounding in my clenched fist of a heart, the image of Blassingame writhing in his thong on a bed of cactus, as I was driving back from my meeting with Erlanger at my property in Seven Springs.

***

At my office, I crossed my ankles on my desk (shoes off, of course), and phoned the office of Vincent Fijo, the mayor of Hatch. He answered the phone himself. Small town. On my map the black dot that marked the town's location, thirty miles north of the Mexican border, looked like an ant had spit tobacco on the page. I told him I was a freelance reporter, gathering background for a feature about Weatherly's childhood, and asked him if he'd meet me the next morning for breakfast. "Gosh yes," he replied. Gosh? "By golly, that's swell," I told him. I must have interrupted him watching an old Spencer Tracy movie. We agreed on seven-thirty, and hung up.

Then I phoned Blassingame, the seven-headed shit bag hiding behind The Great Seal of New Mexico. His secretary refused to put me through--the governor was a busy man, she'd be pleased to take my name and number, and someone would get back to me. "Okay," I said. "Tell him Toby Greenwell called, regarding the Rio Dinero Recreational Improvement Patrons. It’s a one-man company registered in Montana, as I’m sure your boss is aware. And tell old P.T. I said howdy." She said she didn't know anyone named P.T., and I wondered how long she'd worked there, how long she'd lived in New Mexico, for that matter. His campaign slogan had been: Philip Thorne Blassingame, a name you can trust.

"Just think of P.T. Barnum," I told her. "They're one in the same."

I was feeling cocky when I hung up the phone, and I knew that was a mistake. I was getting ahead of myself. If prison had taught me anything it was patience. To expect nothing except what happened while it was happening. I leaned back, crossed my ankles. Breathe, I told myself, closing my eyes, my hands flat on my thighs,  just. . . breathe. My thoughts drifted to my daughter, Annie. She and her carnal, amoral, backstabbing mother had moved to Connecticut. I'd fallen behind on my child support and alimony and hadn't been allowed to speak to Annie in months. In my head I was seated in a front row, center, watching her ballet recital.

My intercom buzzed. My secretary Mimi, a rosy round redhead in hopeful black Spandex, cooed, "Yore never gonna believe who’s on the line for you, Pumpkin."

"Try me."

"The governor of New Mexico--in person."

I looked at my watch. Twelve minutes had passed. Gotcha, asshole. I drew a deep breath, blew it out slowly, snatched up the phone. "Greenwell, here," I sang. "How can I help y--"

"What a remarkable and pleasant surprise," came Blassingame’s lanolin voice. "Toby Greenwell. You old kidder. I’ll be darned. How are things cooking down there in the Valley of the Sun, Buddy?"

"Scottsdale’s percolating just fine, P.T. Even without you here to stoke the fire."

"I don’t go by that moniker, anymore, Toby. You’d sure be doing me a favor if you’d remember that."

The aw-shucks delivery was still there, and no doubt all the devious guile that had lurked behind it. But he sounded more suave now, as though so comfortably disguised as the Wizard of Oz he no longer needed a curtain.

"I can manage that, Phil," I said. "Say, old partner, I’ve run across a sweet deal that’s coming out of Montana, aimed at a little hamlet in your state by the name of Hatch. I thought I’d better send up a flare for you."

"By sweet, I take it you mean it could greatly benefit my constituents."

"Could be." Through my window, I could just make out an upper corner of the federal courthouse, eight blocks away. "Depends on your point of view."

"Well, heck. There’s not much down there but a handful of struggling ranches and chili farms. Almost any honest deal would be sweet for those good folks. They’re a proud and resilient bunch, but even the best of 'em is just getting by. I think I can assure you they’d appreciate anything kosher and wholesome that might give their local economy a boost--and by gum, so would I."

"I’m glad to hear you say that. I'm gonna swing down there and check it out myself. Just to make sure everything's kosher, you understand. I'm having breakfast tomorrow with Vincent Fijo."

"Hey, that's great. Fijo's a good man."

"Met him, have you?"

"Listen, why don’t you stop up and see me first. I’ll buy you breakfast. My cook whips up a whale of a tamale. I’ll have my pilot fly down and pick you up. He can wing you down to Hatch after that, and then home. Say. . . eight o’clock tomorrow morning?"

"No can do. I’m driving to Hatch tonight. It's another four hours up to Santa Fe. How about lunch?"

"Breakfast works better for me."

"Jeez, that's too bad," I said. "I'll have to pass."

Silence on the line. Then, "Alright. Twelve-thirty. Ask anybody where the mansion is when you hit town."

Keep coming, suck-hound. "One-thirty," I said. "Or we’ll have to do it some other day."

A pause, then, "One-thirty," he grumbled, sounding wonderfully stony. "I look forward to it."

"Always a pleasure," I said.

"Ciao, then."

Ciao? Talk about earrings on a pig. His favorite sign off used to be Fuck you later.

***

I walked into the only café in Hatch, a cozy little dive with brick walls and a high tin ceiling about a century thick with white paint, where Vincent Fijo was waiting for me in a corner booth. Hefty, with a shock of salt and pepper curls, he eyed me warily as I sat down. After some niceties about the picture perfect weather I didn't bother keeping up the pretense that I was a reporter. He'd no doubt been tipped off about me, and I didn't much care. I talked up a storm about baseball and American Idol and the latest episode of Lost, and how my huevos carnitos, the house special, was as good as any I'd ever had. Not the brightest bulb on the marquee, Fijo kept glancing out the long picture window behind me, as if someone were out there holding up flash cards. I pretended not to notice. If someone were watching us all the better. Fijo was my ruse, my feint. I had business in Hatch but it wasn't with him.

After paying the check, I shook his dead fish of a hand, and left him sitting at the table with the same befuddled look he had started out with.

Outside I paused at my Ferrari for a look around. Downtown was a block long, its macadam road lined on both sides by crumbled adobe storefronts, some of them vacant. The town itself, what I'd seen of it on my way in, was flirting with blight, a surround of low-slung casitas with patchy lawns, and sun-bleached pickups in their driveways. It was hard to imagine that in three days there'd be satellite vans and camera crews swarming the place. Driving out of town, I caught the freeway northbound, whistling Bob Seger's Turn the Page. When I was sure no one was following me, I u-turned at the next gap in the median and doubled-back to the parking lot of Lupe's Motor Lodge, where I met up with Sylvia Dougan, a waif of a retired bookkeeper with her hair in a bun and a cigarillo tucked behind her ear who was the local notary public. She was a chatty old bird, tickled to get her fifty dollar fee up front. I followed her rickety Oldsmobile to the farm of Chili Guevara.

A big guy, Chili, with gentle eyes and a little wisp of a wife. The four of us sat at the worn oak table in their kitchen. A seventh generation chili farmer, working land his ancestors had cleared, Chili could no longer get seed loans from Bandoleer Bank & Trust. After thirty years of dutiful patronage they'd cut him off in April and filed a smearing report with the credit bureaus, which he was still battling to get removed. Without a loan he'd had enough cash to plant only a third of his field, which wouldn't raise enough crops to break even. He was buying diesel and fertilizer and paying his water bill with a credit card. It felt oddly relaxing to sit there with two people who put so much stock in a simple life. Their two-burner stove, their droning refrigerator. They seemed determined and yet at peace with their troubles. I felt a bit like an avenging angel, although the wings were as bad fit on me as a halo would've been. The scent of Chili's chilies spiced a warm, easy breeze as they walked Sylvia and me out to our cars. Chili's wife's handshake was as firm as his own.

Next stop was the alfalfa farm of Hector Gomez. Hector took me on a walking tour of his outbuildings. His wife came out bringing us lemonade. Two nights earlier his barn and pump-house had burned to the ground, while he and his wife, roused from sleep, watched helplessly from their back porch. An all-volunteer fire department had arrived in time to stand around and commiserate. His John Deere tractor laid tipped on its side, like a dying elephant; the fire had exploded its gas tank. The huge pump that sent water to his three hundred acres stood amid the scorched rubble like a bombed out Sherman tank. His insurance company, suspecting arson, wasn't willing to part with a dime until and unless its investigator, who was yet to show up and investigate, cleared Hector of blame. I asked if there had been any lightening that night. Hector shook his head. His wife looked at me with something akin to wonder. "The stars," she said, "looked close enough to touch."

Heading north again toward Santa Fe, a steady but gradual climb through a high desert in staggering bloom, a genial sort of warmth seemed just beyond my grasp, like when the checkout clerk at the supermarket gets me to smile.

***

The governor's mansion in Santa Fe was a rambling ranch-style house that took up most of a hilltop overlooking the city. An ancient guy with leathery skin and a full head of bristly silver hair greeted me at the door in a white waistcoat. Inside, an ape in a three piece suit patted me down. Looking for a wire, I assumed. Ran his hand right up under my nuts. Then the old guy walked me along an echoing center hallway, lined on both sides by lit-up oil portraits. At the hall's end, massive double doors opened onto a dining room with a high ceiling and a panoramic window that looked out at a twice-life-size statue of a Native American chief in full headgear. "The governor will be with you shortly," the old guy said, pulling out a side chair at a long glimmering rosewood table. Ignoring the proffered chair I pulled out the chair at the head of the table, and sat down.

Ten minutes later Blassingame strolled in, trailed by a young Hispanic kid, a valet in a white shirt and black bowtie. I was taken a little aback by how deftly he had polished his act. His crewcut of old was now a Dracula hairdo. The sport coats and Hawaiian shirts that had been his daily uniform had given way to a navy blue suit and a red power tie. He looked almost honest. An American flag pin glimmered on his lapel. From his welcoming smile I saw he'd had his teeth capped.

"Look at you," he said walking toward me, his hands out as if he were about to lift up and twirl a little girl.

"I'm a sight for sore eyes," I said, but I didn't stand up, didn't offer him my hand.

"Ha! I love this guy," he told the valet who was standing just behind and aside him. "Bring him a glass of our finest New Mexico Merlot."

When the valet was gone, Blassingame's grin turned reptilian. "You're in my chair," he said.

"Think of it as the driver's seat," I replied. With my foot I nudged out the chair catty-corner from me. "You can ride shotgun."

"Why not," he said, sitting down. "Word has it you're broke."

I shrugged. "I have a few options floating."

He draped his arm over the back of the chair. "I never had a chance to ask you. How was prison?"

"Inspirational. You should try taking it up the ass some time. It puts you on your toes and keeps you there."

"It's a shame you left so soon."

I said nothing, holding his steady gaze.

The valet brought my wine, followed by a guy with two silver domes on a tray. Steam lifted away with the domes, lunch was served: tamales on a bed of rice in tomatillo sauce. The valets went standing side by side along a near wall, which meant we wouldn't be talking business for a while. Blassingame got to spewing canned bullshit at me as if I'd driven up there to hear him rehearse his State of the State address, jabbering away about election reform and environmental stewardship. Yeah, right. Like he recycles.

When the table was cleared and the valets gone, I said, "Do you get summer monsoons up here like we do in Arizona?"

"Cut the shit. You've got five minutes."

"I don't need half that," I said. "Weatherly World."

I'd expected him to wince. Only his conspirators knew the park's name. But his expression went nonchalant.

"I've got the whole fucking encyclopedia on you," I told him. "Thirteen reversals of fortune, thirteen foreclosures, thirteen sales to Red-Rip."

"That saddens me. Do I look sad?"

"You look like a payday to me. I want twenty percent of every dollar you turn. And I want it up front, before you and your goons divvy it up. Or else I go public. That would be today, Pal. All I have to do is pick up a phone."

He studied me for a moment. Then, "You know who that is?" jutting his thumb at the statue out the window. "Cochise. Smartest son-of-a-bitch who ever wore a headdress. Sometimes I sit out there just to feel his strength. Breathe it in. Soak it up. Know what I mean?"

"Yeah. I saw the movie. Didn't he end up living in a cave?"

"That was Geronimo," he said, leering at me with a million dollar grin. "Now there's a guy you could learn something from. Poor schmuck didn't know when to bluff and when to fold."

"Is your attorney general here?" I asked him. "I was hoping he'd join us."

He pushed his plate aside, folded his arms on the table, leaned at me. "I crushed you once, and that was when I was a private citizen. What do you think I could do to you now? You think I don't have every angle covered seven ways to Sunday? You think you can come up here and run a flip on me? You wanna hear me say it? Okay. We've known for six years that that land was gonna bring a king's ransom when Weatherly kicked off, and we've been goosing those rubes out of their homes and land the whole time. But you can't prove it. The only guy who could is dead. Kind of a Catch-22, wouldn't you say? Go ahead. Make your allegations. Take it public. You're just a bitter ex-con with a grudge. Who's gonna believe anything you say?"

I was loving this. I took a sip of Merlot, tipped back my head, gargled the wine, spit it back into the glass.

Then I looked him straight in the eyes. “Chili Guevara and Hector Gomez."

He held my gaze, but swallowed hard. It was my turn to gloat, watching him sit back pulling his palms across the table. He'd been squeezing those two farmers, working them into a financial bind, for the better part of a year, thinking he had plenty of time to force them to sell. But Weatherly's prostate cancer had been a tad more aggressive than his doctors had thought, setting the wheels of his last will and testament into motion, with its codicil for building the theme park. And at that moment, while Blassingame and I sat there locked in a stare-down, waiting to see who would blink first, Red-Rip's lawyer was in Fijo's office, waiting to close the last two deals that would make Red-Rip's property a continuous two thousand acre tract. Guevara was due at three o'clock and Gomez at four.

By my watch, it was ten past three.

"What about them?" Blassingame asked.

"They won't be showing up in Fijo's office," I said. "In fact, Guevara is exactly ten minutes late. I own their spreads. Bought 'em out from under you this morning."

"With what? Your good looks?"

"Pretty much."

He chuffed a laugh. "You wrote rubber checks."

"Golly," I said, rubbing my chin. "Maybe I did. Oh well, today's Saturday. My bank's closed on Saturdays. And with Monday a holiday, it won't open until Tuesday. By then those two nice old fellas will have so many fat offers coming in for their land they'll be all smiles when I tell them my checks are goose eggs."

He sprang up from his chair, glowering down at me, his eyes as black as if his pupils had bled into his irises.

I said, "I guess you'll be calling your man in Fijo's office. I'll wait here."

Marching away to confirm my story, he disappeared through the doors I'd come in through.

 He was gone so long that I got up to go look out the big floor-to-ceiling window, wondering if maybe he was on the veranda, meditating with the bronze Indian.

Cochise was a big fellow, twelve feet tall, gazing out over Santa Fe, a patch of clay-colored adobes that nestled at the foot of a mountain panorama. A single polka-dot cloud hung against a searing blue sky. Except for a few hotels, we could've been looking out over a pueblo of the chief's own era. I chuckled, wondering when was the last time I'd taken in a beautiful view without imagining what I could build there. It felt almost poetic. Peaceful. My next thought crept over me like a whisper out of bronze: what was the price of my honor, my dignity, my self-respect?

The echo of Blassingame's footfalls turned me around.

"So the student teaches the teacher," he said with a grin both shrewd and amused. "Okay. You got me. Fuck it. Let's do this thing."

I guess my instincts took over. We haggled over my percentage right there at the window, with the chief's back to us. Negotiation was a sport we were good at, it was like old times, except I was enjoying myself more than he was. I held firm at twenty percent, and he finally buckled. In the end we agreed, in fact he insisted, that I would drive down to Hatch immediately, smooth things over with Gomez and Guevara. He needed me to help his lawyer close the deal. A close that would earn me a ten grand bonus, paid in cash on the spot by his lawyer. We shook on it. He walked me to my car. Slapped me on the back. Partners again.

I had a four hour drive ahead of me. It seemed like plenty of time to push the shredded destinies of two honest, hardworking farmers out of my head.

***

With financial salvation almost in my grasp, knowing the right thing to do was a grueling form of misery. For two hundred miles, I couldn't shake the feeling that if I let Blassingame bilk those two farmers, if I took the cash and turned my back on those two proud men, with their simple ways, their rawboned wives, their heartfelt handshakes, the rest of my life, with its return to comfort and prosperity, would be like eating truffles with a toothache. I tried to imagine bulldozers crumpling their houses, caterpillars leveling their land, making way for Ferris wheels and Wild West shows and parking lots. Could I live with that? Yes. No. Had I come this far for the money or for something all the money in the world couldn't buy? Who the fuck was asking these questions? Thirty minutes north of Hatch, as I rocketed past the bizarrely named town of Truth Or Consequences--a goofy irony that mocks me to this day--I was still struggling to find the answer.

A mile north of the off ramp to Hatch, a dark blue sedan with crash bars on its grille rushed up in my rearview mirror. Roof-lights spinning like twin disco balls, grille lights flashing. A bullhorn blared, "You in the Ferrari, pull to the shoulder NOW!" just as a second cruiser shot by on my left and cut in front of me and a third one coming behind it pulled up alongside me, hemming me in like a rodeo bull. This wasn't a routine traffic stop. I knew that right away. It was an ambush. I veered to the shoulder, slowed to a stop, gritting my teeth. Seconds later a flat-bed truck came trundling down the off-ramp, the wrong way on a one-way ramp. A helicopter high above it with a gold shield on its door peeled away to the southern sky.

A jarhead state trooper, wearing a flat-brimmed blue hat that looked like it could slice through Kevlar, his hand resting on the butt of his pistol, ordered me out of my car, escorted me to his cruiser, frisked me, cuffed my hands behind me. "Randy," he growled, "hup!" as he palmed the top of my head, steering me down into the back seat. I didn't realize whom he was talking to until I was sharing caged space, cheek to jowl, with the brawniest Rottweiler I'd ever seen. His breath smelled of human flesh. Settling into the front seat the trooper informed me I had warrants out for my arrest for failure to appear in court on a few speeding tickets--well, okay, six. Seven. And thirty-seven unpaid parking violations. We pulled onto the freeway, Randy's aura warming my cheek, as a doofus in coveralls was loading my Ferrari onto the flatbed.

The hopeful thought occurred to me that maybe Blassingame wasn't behind this. That if he wasn't then I had a Get Out Of Jail Free card. A gubernatorial pardon. I could tell the trooper, "Get your dispatcher to call Governor Blassingame. I had lunch with Phil three hours ago. I'm on a special assignment at his personal request."

Was I that naive? No.

I wriggled along the back seat to the corner, with Randy matching me inch for inch, finding a nook for my cuffed hands, letting my head fall back to the seat. I closed my eyes. Breathe, I told myself. Just. . . breathe. All I had to do was post bail. Or maybe they'd let me just pay the tickets and the fines that had been tacked on. I had seven grand cash in my office safe. I knew Erlanger's phone numbers by heart. He could swing by my office and have me sprung in no time. Gomez and Guevara's signatures were on notarized bills of sale in my glove box. We had a deal, at least until I had to look those two farmers in the eye and decide: Would I revive the deal with Blassingame, grease the wheels for his lawyer? Would power and privilege triumph yet again over the little guy? Or would I tell the truth and live out the rest of my life as a hero, even if only to myself. The choices needled my scalp.

Breathe. Just. . . breathe.

Soon I was floating. No trooper, no Randy the Rottweiler. I was on a beach, an island somewhere all to myself. Waves gently lapping, a tropical breeze on my face, a native girl was sucking my dick.

A pothole or something jolted me out of my reverie.

We were whizzing through a parched moonscape on a black ribbon of dead straight road. No road signs, no nothing, the sky a sizzling white overcast. I'd assumed the trooper was taking me to jail in Las Cruces, the county seat. We'd been driving south, headed right at it, it was right on the Mexican border. . . Fuck me. Mexican jail. Rats the size of javalinas. Sadistic toothless guards trying to soap your ass in the shower. Could they do that to me? Had they done it? Hauled me across the border? No. No way. Yet my mind’s eye saw Blassingame, standing in a sun-baked plaza, wearing a tuxedo, a huge cigar caught in his Chicklet grin, pissing on a yellow Ferrari. I lunged forward, my hands cinched behind me, my nose hitting the grillwork that separated me from the front seat.

"Hey, officer. They do have phones where we’re going--right?" No reply. "Hey! Robo-Cop! Phones? I’m a U.S. citizen, you know. I got rights."

A steely gaze met me in the rearview mirror. I held the trooper's eyes, an old habit of never showing my fear, until they cut away without reply.

The cruiser slowed, gave a thump, accelerated, fishtailing a bit before catching a grip, the pavement had delivered us on to dirt road that growled beneath our tires. I spun around to see the horizon behind us obscured by a whirling cumulus of dust.


 

© Michael Conn studied Economics and Literature at Michigan State University. His stories have been published in The MacGuffin, The Sonora Review, The Wilderness House Review, The Whitefish Review, Moondance Magazine, and Pequin; an excerpt from his novel-in-progress was published in Carve Magazine. A two time finalist for the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Award for Short Fiction, he is currently the writer-in-residence at Opus House, an artists retreat in northern New Mexico.

Contact

Tell a friend:


Home