A Nasty Piece of Work

A Novel

Robert Littell

Thomas Dunne Books

One
 
 
 
Some things you get right the first time. With me it was cutting fuses to booby-trap Kalashnikovs being shipped to footloose Islamic warriors looking for a convenient jihad. It was making a brush pass with a cutout in the souk of Peshawar. Other things, no matter how many times you do them, you don’t do them better. Which I suppose explains why I still can’t make sunny-sides up without breaking the yolk. Which is why I refuse to leave messages at the sound of the beep. Which is why I wear my father’s trusty stem-winding Bulova instead of one of those newfangled motion-powered watches. Which is why I put off wrestling with the IRS’s 1040 until the divorced French Canadian lady accountant in Las Cruces comes by to hold my hand. My pet hate this week is balancing the monthly statement I get from the Las Cruces Savings and Loan over on Interstate 25. I have this recurrent fantasy that this craze for plastic with built-in credit lines and buy-now, pay-later schemes is this year’s skirt length, that consenting adults are bound to wise up and come home to the crisp comfort of cold cash. I once made the mistake of sharing this fantasy with my lady accountant but she only rolled over in my bed and treated me to a short course on how credit greases the economic skids. At which point I trotted out the Will Rogers chestnut I’d come across in the Albuquerque Times Herald and squirreled away for just such an occasion, something about how an economist’s opinion is likely to be as good as anyone’s. What could France-Marie say except “touché.” True to form, she managed to pronounce it with a French Canadian accent.
The other thing on my hit list, as long as I’m on the subject, is flushing out septic tanks. If you live in a mobile home, which I do, it’s something you have got to deal with eventually. I’d put it off so long there was this distinctly unpleasant sloshing down in the bowels of the Once in a Blue Moon every time someone went to the john. Made it hard to fall asleep, made it harder to stay asleep after you fell asleep when the lady accountant from Las Cruces slept over. So I’d finally gotten around to connecting the hose to the park’s sewage line and, using an adjustable wrench I’d borrowed from a neighbor five mobile homes down, started up my spanking-new self-priming pump. When the sump gurgled empty, I closed the line and unhooked it. Crawling out from under my mobile home, I cut across half a dozen yards to return the wrench, then came back by the street side to retrieve Friday’s Albuquerque Times Herald, along with the fistful of ads stuffed into my mailbox. I was checking out the headline—something about Republican senators defending the construction of a missile shield to protect America from an attack the Russians were unlikely to launch—when I noticed the footprints in the sand. Someone had come down the walkway between the street and my front door. They were light prints set on the surface of the sand path, as if the person responsible for making them was featherweight, with the turned-out profile that suggested a ballet dancer’s way of walking. Coming up to the Once in a Blue Moon, I batted away a kamikaze flight of insects and squinted into the brutal New Mexican sun and found myself staring at a very shapely pair of naked ankles.
I saluted the ankles respectfully. “You must be Friday,” I said.
The voice attached to the ankles turned out to be a throaty contralto that sounded as if it had surfed through several hours of scales. “Why Friday?” she asked.
I must have shrugged, which is what I usually do when I make a joke that goes over somebody’s head. “That’s how Robinson Crusoe came across the visitor on his island—he found footprints in the sand on the beach. Called his visitor Friday because of the day of the week this happened. Today’s a Friday. Robinson Crusoe? Daniel Defoe? Ring a bell?”
She favored me with the faintest of smiles devoid of any residue of joy. “You can call me Friday if it tickles you. I’m looking for a Mr. Lemuel Gunn.”
I was still wearing my septic-pumping finery, a decrepit pair of once-white mechanic’s overalls which, to make matters worse, had shrunk in the wash. I shifted my weight from foot to foot a bit more clumsily than I would have liked. I’ve been told I have good moves when it comes to what in polite circles is called hand-to-hand combat but women somehow bring out the elbows in me. I blinked away more of the sunlight and began to make her out. The barefoot contessa was pushing thirty from the wrong side and tall for a female of the species, at least five-ten in her deliciously bare feet. Two rowboat-sized flat-soled sandals dangled from a forefinger; a bulky silver astronaut-fabric knapsack hung off one gorgeous shoulder. She had prominent cheekbones, a slight offset to an otherwise presentable nose, a gap between two front teeth, faint worry lines around her eyes and mouth. Her eyes were seaweed green and deep-set and solemn and blinked about as often as those of the Sphinx. Her lips were straight out of a Scott Fitzgerald novel, oval and moist and slightly parted in permanent perplexity. Everything, as Mr. Yul Brynner used to tell us six nights a week and Saturday matinees, is a puzzlement. Her hair was short and straight and dark and tucked back behind her ears. She wasn’t wearing makeup, at least none that I could spot. There wasn’t a ring on a finger, a bracelet on a wrist, a necklace on the neck she had swiped from a swan. Take me as I am, she seemed to be saying. Minimum packaging, just enough so she wouldn’t be arrested for indecent exposure, though on second glance she was even pushing the legal limits on that. She was wearing a wispy knee-length skirt with a pleasant flowery print, and a butter-colored sleeveless blouse that left a sliver of midriff exposed. Both the skirt and blouse seemed to respond to a current of air, a whisper of wind I couldn’t feel on my skin. This private breeze of hers plastered the skirt against a long supple thigh, and the blouse against the torso enough to make out several very spare ribs and the outline of a single nipple.
My luck, it was pointing straight at me.
In my bankrupt state—I’m talking emotions, not savings and loan; my relationship with the lady accountant from Las Cruces was going nowhere fast—she seemed like the proverbial breath of fresh air, stirring a memory of passions past. I’d had two or three unpleasant episodes with women in the fourteen months since my discharge. Once I hadn’t been able to finish what I’d started, which was a new and frightening experience for me. Now, for the first time in a long time, I relished the pleasure of imagining the body under the cloth draped over it. For the first time in a long time I felt I’d have no trouble rising to the occasion.
She suffered my once-over in silence, then shook her head impatiently. “So do you or don’t you?” she asked. “Answer to the name of Lemuel Gunn?”
I heard myself reach for the glib response and hated myself for it. “Sorry, sweetheart, but I gave at the office.”
“No offense intended but you don’t look like someone who’s ever seen the inside of an office.”
The conversation had gotten off on the wrong foot and she knew it. Trying to set it right, she summoned from the depths of a clearly distressed soul what could have passed for a grin if it hadn’t been me the grinee. Lemuel Gunn, the seeing-eye sleuth, nothing escapes his penetrating gaze. Who else, confronting a glorious barefoot contessa he’d never seen before, would notice that she didn’t paint her toenails? Didn’t bite them either.
“What’s your line, Friday?”
“In a month of Sundays you’d never guess.”
Without batting an eye she watched me inspect her chest. I wasn’t looking for campaign ribbons. “You’re not thin enough to be one of those high-fashion models, you’re not thick enough to be a lady wrestler. I give up.”
“I’m a bail bondsman. My name’s Neppi. Ornella Neppi.”
I flashed one of my aw-shucks smirks, which have a good track record in situations like this. “If the job description ends in ‘man,’ you’re lying through a set of very pearly teeth.”
“No. Hey. Really. Actually, I’m only a sometime bail bondsman. I’m sitting in for my uncle in Las Cruces who’s convalescing from an ulcer operation. He didn’t want the competition to get a foot in the courthouse door, so he got me to hold the fort.”
The sun was wiltingly hot. I nodded toward the screen door of the mobile home. She looked at it, then back at me, trying to figure out if my intentions were honorable. (Didn’t know how she could figure this out if I couldn’t.) She must have reached a conclusion because she tossed a shoulder in one of those “What do I have to lose?” gestures that women own the patent to. I climbed the steps ahead of her and held the door open. Turning sideways, she passed so close to me going in I had to suck in my chest to avoid contact with her chest. (Maybe that’s what “honorable” meant.) As the screen door flapped closed behind us, I scooped up a pair of khaki trousers and a T-shirt and several magazines and an empty container that had once played host to a six-pack and tossed them out of sight behind two potted plants, one of which was dead, one of which was dying. Friday deposited her silver astronaut-fabric knapsack on the deck and settled onto the curved yellow couch, then crossed her long shapely legs, tucking the unbitten toes of her left foot behind her right ankle, spread-eagling her arms along the back of the couch in a way that pushed her breasts into the fabric of her blouse. I turned up the air-conditioning a notch and ducked into the galley to fetch two bottles of cold Mexican Modelo. I padded back carrying a tray and set it down on the deck.
“You forgot the church key,” she said.
“Don’t need a church key,” I said. I pried the two metal caps off with my fingertips—it was a trick I’d picked up in the badlands of Pakistan from local tribesmen who scraped their fingertips on coarse rocks until they were calloused and then opened beer bottles with their thumbs and forefingers to impress the NGO nurses. I filled two mugs with cracked ice, iced the inside of the glasses before spilling out the ice, then fussily filled the mugs with beer, careful to pour without forming a head. I handed one of the mugs to Ornella Neppi,
“I used to drink Guinness stout imported from Ireland,” I remarked, settling onto the wooden trunk across from her, “but I can’t seem to find it anymore. Can’t find a lot of things anymore. Sometimes I think it’s me, sometimes I think it’s a national affliction. We seem to be settling for less these days—less beef in hamburgers, less service in restaurants, less plot in motion pictures, less grammar in sentences, less love in marriages.” I hiked my glass. “To bail and to bonding, Friday. Cheers.”
She looked away quickly and gnawed on her lower lip. Whatever ache she was repressing made her look like one of those brittle, cracked Wedgwood teacups my mother brought off the shelf for important guests. It struck me that my visitor was hanging on by her fingertips, though I couldn’t figure out to what. It struck me that without the ache, she would have been too beautiful to be accessible.
“So I’ll drink to bail,” she finally agreed. What she said next seemed to float on a sigh. “To tell the truth, I’m less enthusiastic about the bonding part. Cheers.”
Out in the park a long mobile home pulled by a truck with a throaty diesel engine chugged past in the direction of the interstate. “Okay, I’ll bite—what do you do when you’re not bail bonding, Friday?” I started kneading one of the metal beer caps between my fingers, turning the rim in toward the middle.
“Does Suzari Marionettes ring a bell? I can see it doesn’t. No reason it should. That’s me, Suzari Marionettes. That’s my puppet company. I studied puppeteering in Italy and Japan when I was younger and organized this road company—we do schools, we do summer camps, we do private birthday parties, we do kids’ TV when we luck in. I dress in black and work the puppets from behind with sticks. The repertoire includes Pinocchio and Rumpelstilzchen. So I don’t suppose you’re familiar with Rumpelstilzchen. He’s the dwarf who spins flax into gold in exchange for the maiden’s first-born child.”
“Sounds like a depressing story.”
She watched me working the beer cap between my fingers. “Unlike real life, it has a happy ending, Mr. Gunn.”
“You manage to live off this puppeteering?”
“Almost but not quite. To make ends meet, I also do miming gigs at birthday parties.” She kicked at the astronaut-fabric knapsack. “It’s filled with wigs and funny eyeglasses and false noses for my various mime acts.” She nodded toward the beer cap, which had been crushed into something resembling a ball. “Your fingers must be incredibly strong to do that.”
I handed her the beer cap. “It isn’t strength. It’s anger.”
She hefted it in the palm of her hand. “What are you angry about—something you’ve done?”
I shook my head once. “Something I didn’t stop others from doing.”
“You care to be more specific?”
“No.”
“Mind if I keep this? It’ll remind me of the power of anger.”
“Be my guest.”
She dropped the beer cap into the silver knapsack, tucked her toes back behind her ankle and, screwing up her face, chewed on the inside of her cheek, uncertain how to proceed. Meeting new people, deciding who you want to be with them, is never easy. The gentleman in me decided to help her over the stumbling block. “Knock off the Mr. Gunn. Call me Lemuel.”
She tried it on for size. “Lemuel.”
I reached over and offered a paw. She unhooked her ankle and leaned forward and took my hand in hers. Her palm was cool, her grip firm. For the space of a suddenly endless instant the thing she was hanging on to with her fingertips was me. I can’t honestly say I minded.
“You work real fast,” she murmured.
“Life is short,” I told her. “The challenge is to make it sweet.” I hung on to her hand long enough for the moment to turn awkward. The depths of her seaweed green eyes were alert, as if a warning buzzer had gone off in her head. She slipped her hand free of mine with the casual ease of someone who had perfected the fine art of keeping a space between herself and the male of the species, and doing it with minimum injury to his ego.
“Fact is, Lemuel, I’m in a jam.”
In a sense, she was ahead of the game but this was neither the time nor the place to educate her. We’re all in a jam, all the time, we’re just too dumb to know it. We need to take our cue from the drug dealers in Hoboken who, when they reach twenty, go to the local undertaker and prepay their funeral because they don’t expect to live to thirty. “Why me?” I asked.
“So here’s the deal: I can’t afford the services of one of those big-city detectives who charge by the hour and pad their expense accounts. I went to the police but they laughed me out of the station house. They have other things to do besides hunt down people who jump bail for relatively minor crimes, and the state is glad to add the bail money to its coffers. I heard on my grapevine that you sometimes take cases on spec…”
“What else did your grapevine tell you?”
“That you look young but talk old. That you’d been a brainy homicide detective in New Jersey before the CIA talked you into becoming some kind of spy. That you never run off at the mouth about it. That you were sent packing without a pension after an incident in Afghanistan that never made it into the newspapers. That you took the fall for following orders you couldn’t prove had been given. That you were a troublemaker in a war that had enough trouble without you. That you came out west and went into the business of detecting in order to live in the style to which you wanted to become accustomed. That you’re street-smart and tough and lucky and don’t discourage easily. That what you do, you do well, what you don’t do well, you don’t do. Which is another way of saying you don’t buy into the notion that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”
“That’s one hell of a list.”
“I have a last but not least: that you charge satisfied customers ninety-five dollars a day and unsatisfied customers zero. That nobody can recall an unsatisfied customer.”
“Can you attach a number to your problem?”
“I bet $125,000 of my uncle’s nest egg this guy wouldn’t jump bail. I worry that I’m losing the bet. I feel real awful about it.”
“Just out of curiosity, you want to identify your grapevine?”
She flashed another one of those apologetic half-smiles. “Hey, I’d better not. If I tell you, you might send me packing. That’s what my grapevine said. She said you were peeved at her for being too available. She said, psychologically speaking, you wore starched collars and liked ladies who liked men who opened doors for them. She said you’d been born into the wrong century.”

 
Copyright © 2013 by Robert Littell