“Your uncle is a good man.”
Shirley Avon sat with Tom outside the police station. “The worst of it—the killing, I mean—that was Sal.”
Tom stared at the ground.
“You’re too young to understand yet,” said Shirley, “and like Paul said, you never had much of a head for business. Sometimes you have to bend the rules a little bit. Sometimes you have to decide what’s right and wrong for you.”
An ant moved slowly and alone past his shoe, one of the last before winter.
“He’ll come through all right,” said Shirley. “In situations like this, they let you plea. He’ll be in some trouble, but he’ll tell them what he knows about Sal, and he’ll be home before you know it.”
The ant paused to inspect something too small for Tom’s eyes, started forward, doubled back again.
“And anyway, he wasn’t paying to have anything stolen. That was all done long ago. He was just helping to sell it. The damage was done, Tom, but there’s no reason we all can’t get on with our lives.”
Her nephew said nothing. Anxious, Shirley stood and began pacing, her first step clipping the insect. It balled up twitching and didn’t stop until Tom brought down his heel.
“Was this going on when Dad was alive?” Tom asked. “Did he know?”
Shirley dismissed the question with a wave. “It started much later, Tom, much later. It hasn’t gone on that long at all. You really should be more trusting.”
He left a few minutes later, his aunt still waiting for news. The police had questions. After they arrived at the store, Tom dazed and Sal unconscious on the ground, an ambulance was called. Tom had waited in jail cluelessly, asking about his uncle and being ignored. No one in authority said a word to him until a man came to his cell door with a key and let him out.
“Bail’s been posted,” said the officer. “You’re free to go home.”
Tom didn’t come out at first. “What about my friends? What about Ellen Cambry and Jon Remley?”
The officer shrugged. “No idea. But you can’t wait here for them.”
It wasn’t until a little while later that Tom found out their bail had been paid as well. It was a large sum of money laid down fast, before he’d even thought about phoning a lawyer. Whoever coughed up the bail had funds, an ear inside the police department, and a vested interest in Tom and his friends. Only one person fit the profile. He left his aunt alone and went home to wait.
In his apartment, he got out a pad of paper and a pencil.
A Kit to Deal With Unpleasant Truths, he wrote. Contents:
One fresh bar of soap
‘Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
Two packets of instant hot cocoa
‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ on VHS
One photograph of Mom
A medium-sized flamethrower
When his visitor arrived, Tom was staring at the page, wondering what, if anything, he’d left off the list. His visitor knocked three times, waited a beat, and then knocked again.
Tom put on his shoes and a gray suit jacket, the one with the Swiss army knife tucked into the breast pocket. Then he went down the stairs to greet his guest.
The man with the crooked moustache stood waiting, his black car idling by the curb.
“What took you so long?”
“If you’d like to come with me.”
Tom glanced up and down the street, half-expecting to see Valiss’s Toyota parked somewhere nearby, watching. “Yeah. Okay.”
The two men went down the walk and past the fence, Tom trailing. The man with the crooked moustache was a professional—nothing in his demeanor gave away the fact that the two of the men had met before, or that the last time Tom had ridden with him it was at gunpoint.
The man with the crooked moustache stopped by the car and opened the rear door. Tom shook his head.
“Think I’ll ride shotgun.”
The other man paused a moment, then closed the back door and opened the front. “You’re the boss,” he said.
Tom nodded. “That’ll happen when you’re the last man standing.”