Cliff Blaylock felt good. He felt so good that he burst aloud with song as he walked quickly across the parking lot. "Way out west they have a name for water, wind, and fire!" Or was it earth, and wind, and fire? Damn it, he could never recall more than a line or two of the songs he really loved.
It was almost dark. The big suburban hotel was situated in a clearing within a densely wooded area in northern New Jersey. The regional coin and stamp show had drawn a big crowd. He had been forced to park at the far end of the parking lot abutting the woods.
Blaylock walked more swiftly as he approached his car. In his left hand he carried a tooled leather briefcase containing a collection of vintage gold coins. Also, deep in a pocket inside the case was his latest acquisition, a piece he had wanted all his years as a collector. He sighed heavily as he thought about handing over seventy-eight thousand dollars for a single U.S. cent, a 1793 Chain cent, known as the AMERI. The cent, in mint state, was one of a kind.
Sandy, a perfectly wonderful wife by almost any standard, never really understood his compulsion to collect rare coins. He regarded the purchase of the AMERI only secondarily as an investment. To him it was a piece of history, part of the first batch of coins ever to leave the first mint in Philadelphia. Fortunately his success in life allowed him such extravagance. There was a good chance that George Washington himself had touched that coin. Sandy would humor him. She would probably glance at the AMERI, shake her head, smile, and return quickly to her own task of the moment.
He reached his BMW, parked next to a big beige van, the only two vehicles now left in that dark area. Cliff Blaylock reached into his pocket to activate the remote door opener. Just as he heard the thump of the door lock, the door of the van opened and a tall, wide-shouldered man stepped out. Blaylock froze as the man steadied a handgun on the top of his BMW
The man's voice came from behind a ski mask. "Now, slow and easy like, put that fancy briefcase on top of the car and slide it over here."
Blaylock hesitated. Another man jumped from the van and circled the BMW He shoved Blaylock against his car, wrested the briefcase away and slid it over the roof of the car to his partner. That instant bought Blaylock enough time to reach into his own jacket and grip a small revolver. He twisted and fired point blank, twice into the chest of the man behind him, and then slumped to the ground with him as the wounded man fell. Blaylock scrambled along the ground trying to position himself for a shot at the fallen man's armed companion on the other side of the car.
He was too late. The van screeched into motion and accelerated across the parking lot. Blaylock stood up, then looked down at the man on the ground, now lying with one leg under the BMW He bent over and ripped the ski mask from the prone figure. Blood was running from his mouth. Then he moaned and moved to sit up.
"Mr. Blaylock ... what did you do that for?" The man tried to say more, but then slumped back down, motionless.
Blaylock stared at the man who knew his name, and then gasped. It was Willis McCord, the young man who lived next door to him. He had just shot his neighbor, a boy he had known all his life. He dragged Willis from under the BMW, glanced around, and saw no one in the fast growing darkness. He was almost a hundred yards from the hotel building. He knelt over the now motionless body. He tried unsuccessfully to feel a pulse. There was none. Blood had pooled in the area from where he had dragged him. Trembling, he stood up. "My God! I've killed Willis McCord," he whispered into the darkness.
Blaylock looked in the direction the van had turned. There was virtually no traffic on this Sunday night. He climbed into the BMW, took another quick look around, and then sped out of the lot. The road ahead was empty. Now, still shaking and sweating profusely, he roared down road after road in the rural area looking for the van. All he could remember was that it was probably beige, had a shiny luggage rack on top and a tire mounted on the back.
After awhile he reached Chestnut Ridge, which abutted an entrance to the Garden State Parkway. He toyed with the idea of getting on the Parkway, but then realized that it was hopeless. He decided to drive back to his house in Stag Creek. He could feel the hair standing on his neck. There was a good possibility that the man in the beige van knew who he was and what he had done.
Cliff Blaylock pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and mopped his brow. He was now driving slowly. He thought of going immediately to the police and telling them everything. He even turned down Stag Creek Road toward the police station, but passed it by when he got there. Nothing would bring back Willis McCord.
He drove home. The house was dark. Sandy was playing bridge this evening. She would be home late.
He went inside and into his den, where he sat in darkness for a long time. For the first time, he thought of the AMERI and his small collection of gold coins. The man in the van now had a tidy little fortune. He had it all to himself. There would be no need to split it with Willis McCord.
He found himself sobbing uncontrollably whenever his thoughts returned to Willis. The kid next door was everyone's favorite kid. He had often told Sandy that if ever they would have a son, it would be nice to have a kid like Willis. He couldn't shake the enormity of what had happened from his mind. He sat still now for a long time. Maybe he would go to the police in the morning and explain the whole thing when he was rested. Better yet, he would write it down, exactly how it all happened, and make sure it was all correct. He shook his head. But nothing would bring back Willis.
He sat in the darkness for about an hour before getting up and switching on a light in the den. He walked to the bathroom and looked in the mirror and then washed his face in cold water. What would he tell Sandy? Or, should he tell Sandy? Could life go on and have him never mention the subject to anyone? Obviously not.
He was distracted by the sound of car doors slamming outside. Returning to the living room, he could see the white and red flashing lights spinning in the McCords' driveway next door. A tightness returned to his throat as he looked through the window. Two police cars sat in the McCords' circular driveway. He could make out the figures of three officers walking toward the door. The McCords were in for the shock of their life.
He gulped and then walked back into the den to wait for Sandy. This wasn't a bad dream. It would never go away. He had shot and killed Willis McCord.
He slumped into a recliner in the den, watching the reflection of the flashing lights on the wall in front of him. The two policecars were soon joined by a third. God damn that guy with the gun! If it hadn't been for him, he would have never fired his own. Still, he didn't feel that he had panicked. He reasoned it was a shoot-or-get-shot situation. Yes, he thought, I'd better write it all down.
He sat staring at the wall ahead of him until he heard the key turn in the lock of his own front door. That would be Sandy, home from the bridge club.
"Sandy, I'm here in the den." He steeled himself to appear normal. Sandy could read him like a book, but he would rather face her with the tragic story later if he could, much later.
"Cliff, what's going on at the McCords' house? There are police cars all over the place."
"I ... don't know. I just noticed them a few minutes ago. Maybe they heard a prowler or something." He walked over to the window and stood next to Sandy, looking at the police cars. "How was the old bridge game?" He noticed a slight waver in his voice.
"Dolores and I absolutely slaughtered them. In fact it turned into quite a cat fight. You, my dear, would have been greatly amused." Sandy put her arms around him and hugged him. "Cliff, we are so lucky. We had to listen to all of Marnie's problems. She and Sam are on the rocks. On top of all that, she kept making stupid bids until Alice completely lost her cool. I think I'll put the bridge club on hold for awhile." She kissed him, and then changed the subject.
"How was the coin show? Did you buy the AMERI?"
Cliff pulled away from her, trying to compose himself. Lying to Sandy was a difficult thing to do. "Oh, yes!" he replied, trying to feign enthusiasm. "I ... I bought it at my price."
"Good! Now you will be fit to live with." Sandy was distracted by another flashing light outside. "Oh, look, another police car. What can be going on?"
Cliff stood watching with her at the window, grateful for thedim light. He could feel his eyes becoming moist again. "I ... I don't know. I guess you'll find out all about it from Adrienne in the morning." Adrienne McCord had a much closer relationship with Sandy than he had with Alex. Alex traveled a lot, but Sandy and Adrienne had become close neighbors over the years. "Sandy, I'm beat, I think I'll turn in if you don't mind."
"Oh, really? I'd think you'd be all excited, wanting to celebrate the crazy old AMERI." She kissed him intensely, trying to provoke a response.
He nodded his head toward the McCords' driveway. "I guess I'm a little nervous. I wonder what in the hell is going on over there."
Sandy stared at the flashing lights and shook her head. "I've never seen anything like that before. I'll call Adrienne in the morning. I hope it's nothing about Willis. I don't see his red Corvette anywhere."
Cliff just shook his head slowly, fearful of speaking. He could feel himself start to shake at her mention of Willis.
In bed, Cliff feigned sleep as he lay turned away from Sandy, staring out the window. Their bedroom was on the opposite side of the house from the McCords, but as his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, he could see the faintly pulsating reflection of the flashing lights on the tall trees. He thought of the missing AMERI for the first time since Sandy's casual mention of it. It seemed of such small importance now. He would have to file a theft report with the police. Did he dare? He would have to think very carefully about what he would tell them.
Again he started to sweat as he stared out the window, and fought the impulse to get out of bed, drive to the police station, and tell the whole story Bob Tucker came to mind. He was the only lawyer he knew well. He made up his mind to call him in the morning and tell him about the whole thing. Yes! That was what he would do. He would call Bob Tucker after he wrote it all down.