Out on the Rim

Ross Thomas; Introduction by Donald E. Westlake

Minotaur Books

Out on the Rim
CHAPTER 1
At three in the afternoon they summoned Booth Stallings, the terrorism expert, to the library in the foundation's seven-story building just east of Dupont Circle on Massachusetts Avenue and fired him over a glass of fairly good Spanish sherry. It was the Ides of March, which fell on a Saturday in 1986, and exactly two months after Booth Stallings' sixtieth birthday.
The firing was done without any qualms that Stallings could detect by Douglas House, the foundation's thirty-five-year-old executive director. House did it politely, of course, with no trace of acrimony, and with about the same amount of regret he might use if calling the Washington Post circulation department to put a vacation stop on his home delivery.
It was the foundation's fifty-one-year-old chairman, Frank Tomguy, who administered the pro forma ego massage while wearing an apologetic, even deferential air and one of his $1,100 three-piece suits. Tomguy went on and on about severe budgetary restrictions and then turned to the quality of Booth Stallings' work, which he swore had been brilliant. No question. Absolutely, totally brilliant.
Tomguy's massage completed, Douglas House spoke of money. There would be three months' severance pay in lieu of notice and thefoundation would keep Stallings' health insurance in force for six months. There was no talk of pension because the terrorism expert had been with the foundation only eighteen months, although that was three months longer than he had ever stuck with any other job.
As the dry talk continued, Stallings lost interest and let his eyes wander around the black walnut paneled library, presumably for the last time. He eventually noticed the lengthening silence. Now that they've canned you so nicely and apologized so handsomely, you're expected to say something appropriate. So he said the only thing that came to mind. "I used to live here, you know."
It wasn't what Douglas House had expected and he shifted uneasily in his leather wingback chair, as if apprehensive that Stallings had launched into some kind of sentimental, even mawkish goodbye. But Tomguy, the chairman, seemed to know better. He smiled and asked the obvious question. "Where's here, Booth?"
"Right here," Stallings said with a small encompassing gesture. "Before the foundation built this place in--what? seventy-two?--there used to be a big old four-story red sandstone mansion that got cut up into apartments during the war." He glanced at Douglas House. "World War II." House nodded.
"I rented the third floor one in February of sixty-one," Stallings went on. "Partly because I could walk to work and partly because of the address--1776 Massachusetts Avenue." His lips stretched into what may or may not have been a small smile. "A patriot's address."
Tomguy cleared his throat. "That walk was to the White House then, wasn't it, Booth? And you were back from Africa or some such."
"I was just back from Stanleyville and the walk was to the old Executive Office Building, which wasn't the White House then and still isn't."
"Heady times, those," Douglas House said, apparently just to be saying something.
Stallings examined House briefly, not blaming the executive director for having been ten years old in 1961. "Ancient history," he saidand turned back to Tomguy. "What happens to my Angola survey?"
Tomguy had a square and too honest pink face and not very much gray-blond hair whose sparseness he wisely made no attempt to conceal. From behind rimless bifocals, a pair of wet brown eyes, slightly popped, stared out at the world's perfidy, as if in chronic amazement. Still, it was a face to inspire confidence, what with its stairstep chin, purselike mouth and an aggressive Roman nose that was altogether reassuring. A perfect banker's face, Stallings thought, if only it could dissemble successfully, which it seemed incapable of doing.
The question about the Angola survey made Tomguy turn to the executive director for guidance. With a slight smile that could have meant anything, Douglas House gazed steadily at Stallings who prepared himself for the inevitable evasions.
"We ran it by some people downtown," House said, the smile still in place, the gray eyes indifferent.
Stallings returned the smile. "Did you now? What people? The Georgetown boys? The folks in the Building? Maybe some of the Langley laddies? Did everybody love it?"
"They all thought it could use a bit of restructuring."
"That means they don't mind my calling Savimbi brilliant, but they'd just as soon I didn't call him a brilliant back-slid Maoist crook, which they damn well know he is."
Tomguy, the prudent conciliator, offered soothing noises. It's still scheduled for summer publication, Booth. Our lead item."
"Restructured though."
"Edited," House said.
Stallings shrugged and rose. "Then take my name off it." He gave the handsome library another last glance. "Thanks for the drink."
Tomguy rose quickly, right hand outstretched. Stallings took it without hesitation. "Sorry it had to wind up like this, Booth."
"Are you?" Stallings said. "I'm not."
He nodded at the still seated Douglas House, turned and headed for the door, a tall lanky man who used a kind of gliding lope for awalk. He wore a thatch of short ragged gray hair that hugged his head like an old cap. Under it the world was presented with a face so seamed and weathered that many looked twice, not sure whether it was ugly or handsome and, finding it neither, settled on different.
After Booth Stallings had gone, Tomguy watched silently as House rose, went to the telephone and punched a local number from memory. It rang only once before being answered. "It's done," House said into the phone. "He just left." House listened to either a question or a comment, replied, "Right," hung up and turned to Tomguy.
"They're all extremely grateful," House said. "I'm quoting."
Tomguy nodded, his expression sour. "They fucking well better be."
 
 
Booth Stallings sat on his favorite bench at the north end of Dupont Circle, sipping from a half-pint of Smirnoff 80 proof that came disguised in the de rigueur brown paper sack. One bench over, a pretty young mother took yet another apprehensive look at him and quickly stuck her twin eighteen-month-old sons back down into their elaborate top-of-the-line stroller where they would ride home facing each other.
Stallings tried a reassuring smile that was obviously a failure because the mother shot him another black look, gave the stroller a shove and hurried away. The forward-facing twin started to bawl. The backward-facing one burbled merrily and waved at Stallings who toasted him with the half-pint of vodka. He had another sip and tucked the bottle down into a pocket of the eight-year-old suede jacket he had bought cheaply in Istanbul.
It was then that Stallings noticed the weather and the time. It had grown chilly and was almost dusk, which presented the problem of what he should do with the Saturday night that stretched out before him like a slice of infinity.
Stallings' choices were limited. He could spend the evening alone with a book or a bottle in his sublet apartment on ConnecticutAvenue across from the zoo, or he could drop in uninvited, unexpected and possibly unwelcome on either his Georgetown daughter or the one who lived in Cleveland Park.
In Georgetown the food promised to be fancier but the dinner guests (six at least on Saturday night) would spend the evening handicapping the 1988 presidential race, divining signs and portents from the same printed entrails that each had studied during the past week in the Post and the Times and whatever else they had happened to read.
Booth Stallings, child of the Depression, had never really much cared who was President after Roosevelt died. He had voted only once, and that was back in 1948 when, at twenty-two, he lightheartedly had marked his ballot for Henry Agard Wallace. Whenever he thought of it now, which was seldom, he congratulated himself on the youthful folly.
Stallings had a final sip from the vodka bottle, rose from the bench and went in search of a pay phone, having decided to call his Cleveland Park daughter. He found a bank of pay phones near the Peoples Drugstore on the southwest arc of Dupont Circle. Using the only one that hadn't been ravaged, he called the thirty-three-year-old Lydia who had married Howard Mott shortly before he left the Justice Department in 1980 to specialize in the defense of wealthy white-collar criminals. Mott liked to describe his practice as a growth industry. After two slow years, Mott was growing wealthy himself.
When Stallings' Cleveland Park daughter answered the phone, he said, "What's for dinner?"
Lydia Mott gasped. "Oh my God, it's all over town!"
"What?"
"You got fired. You drunk yet?"
"Not yet, and all over town means Joanna, right?" Joanna was Stallings' thirty-five-year-old Georgetown daughter. She had married a car wax heir whose wealth and political leanings had won him anappointment to the upper reaches of the State Department. Stallings sometimes thought of his son-in-law as Neal the Know-nothing.
"She's called three times," Lydia Mott said.
"What for?"
"Because she made this tentative dinner date for you. It's about a job and he wants you to have dinner with him around seven-thirty at the Montpelier Room in the Madison and, Jesus, that'll set him back a few bucks, won't it?"
"Lydia," a patient Stallings said. "Who's he?"
"Right. That is kind of pertinent. Well, it's one Harry Crites."
"The poet."
"Poet?"
"He gets published."
"Yeah, but what does he do?"
Stallings hesitated. "I'm not quite sure. Anymore."
"I see. One of those. Well, you want me to call Joanna and have her say when he calls back that you'll meet him there at seven-thirty?"
Stallings again hesitated, debating the rewards of a Saturday night in the company of Harry Crites. The internal debate went on until his daughter grew impatient and said, "Well?"
"Sorry," Stallings said. "I was just trying to parse that last sentence of yours. But okay. Call Joanna and tell her yes."
There was a brief silence until his daughter said, "Look, Pappy. If you don't want to eat with the poet, why don't you come out and have lamb stew with us and listen to some of Howie's real-life dirty stories?"
"What a solace and comfort you are in these pre-Alzheimer years."
"No thanks, huh? Okay. How come they fired you?"
Stallings started to shrug, but stopped when he realized she couldn't see it. "Budgetary restrictions, they said."
"Budgetary? With all those millions?"
"I'll call you," Stallings said.
"Tomorrow."
"Okay. Tomorrow."
Booth Stallings hung up the pay phone, crossed to one of the drugstore's lighted windows, and used its reflection to examine what he was wearing: the old suede Istanbul jacket; the too wide black and brown tie he remembered buying in Bologna; a tan shirt from Marks and Spencer in London that he thought of as his thousand-miler, having once heard an old-time traveling salesman describe a similar shirt as such; and the gray flannel pants he couldn't remember buying at all, but whose deep pleats suggested they hadn't been bought in the States. As for shoes, Stallings knew without looking that he was wearing what he always wore: cheap brown loafers that he bought by the half-dozen, discarding each pair as it wore out.
Still, it was an outfit that would get him into the Madison. And it was certainly adequate for dining with Harry Crites who had worn an aging blue suit with shiny elbows and a glistening seat when Stallings had first met him twenty-five years ago. Thirty minutes after they met, Crites had borrowed $35 to make an HFC payment that was a month overdue.
As he turned in search of a cruising taxi, Stallings tried to remember if Harry Crites had ever repaid the $35, and finally decided that he hadn't.
Copyright © 1987 by Ross E. Thomas, Inc. Introduction copyright © 2003 by Donald E. Westlake.