Tom casually lowered the paper he was pretending to read. He reached for the sack of popcorn sitting on the park bench beside him. He lobbed some popcorn toward a squirrel that had boldly approached him. The squirrel darted away, halted, then started grabbing up the kernels. Tom raised the paper again and pretended to be reading it while he watched over its top.
For nearly two weeks, the mail from the Justice Cooperative had been coming regularly. Every second or third day, Tom was patrolling a series of blocks to check on red and green ribbons. Two days ago, there was another piece of advertising from a store they couldn't find in the Yellow Pages. Tom expected it to be another list of blocks to check. It was something new.
THERE IS A ROOMING HOUSE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE 2200 BLOCK OF SYCAMORE AVE., BETWEEN PARKVIEW AND WOODLAND. THERE IS A SMALL PARK ACROSS SYCAMORE, FACING THE ROOMING HOUSE. THE NIGHT AFTER NEXT, BE IN THAT PARK FROM 7 PM TO 8 PM. BE PREPARED TO LOOK AS THOUGH YOU ARE SIMPLY RELAXING IN THE PARK.
WATCH THE ROOMING HOUSE FRONT DOOR. YOU ARE LOOKING FOR A HEAVY-SET MAN 5'8” TALL, WEIGHT 190 POUNDS, THINNING BROWN HAIR. A PICTURE OF HIM IS ENCLOSED WITH THIS MESSAGE. IF YOU SEE HIM LEAVE THE ROOMING HOUSE, GO TO THE PAY PHONE AT THE INTERSECTION OF PARKVIEW AND SYCAMORE. DON'T GO SO QUICKLY THAT IT'S APPARENT YOU WERE WAITING FOR HIM, BUT DON'T DELAY EITHER. CALL THE NUMBER AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS PAGE. IF HE TAKES A BUS, GIVE THE MESSAGE “THE LETTER HAS BEEN SENT.” IF HE GETS INTO A CAR, GIVE THE MESSAGE “THE PACKAGE HAS BEEN SENT. IT'S IN A (COLOR OF THE CAR) WRAPPER.” THEN RETURN HOME. BE SURE TO ARRIVE AT THE PARK EXACTLY AT 7 AND LEAVE EXACTLY AT 8 IF YOU DON’T SEE HIM.
MEMORIZE THE PICTURE, THEN BURN THIS MESSAGE AND THE PICTURE.
“I wonder why they're so particular about when I arrive and leave,” he’d said.
“Probably so you don't see who was watching before you're supposed to get there, and who'll be watching after you leave,” Judith had responded. “After all, you don't want anyone to spot you, either.”
Tom glanced at his watch. It showed half past seven. It's into August already. It's getting dark earlier now. In another month there won't be much light at this hour. I don't know how I'd do any watching then. I hope the Justice Cooperative gets me fixed up before then.
He threw some more popcorn at the squirrel that had again approached the bench. The squirrel kept a wary eye on him as it grabbed the popcorn in its paws and ate it. It was soon joined by another squirrel. Tom threw some more popcorn at them, then picked up the paper. He opened it and again pretended to read as he looked over it, towards the rooming house.
The front door of the rooming house opened. He tried not to show he'd noticed, but watched carefully. An elderly woman came out and went down the front steps, holding the railing in one hand and a cane in the other. She hobbled up the sidewalk, evidently heading for the carryout store on the corner. Tom returned to gazing over the top of the paper.
After a while, the elderly woman came out of the carryout store. Her left arm clutched a brown paper bag, about the right size to hold a wine bottle, against her side. She hobbled down the sidewalk, reached the front steps of the rooming house, and leaned against the railing as she climbed up. She transferred the cane to her left hand and opened the door, then went inside.
A short time later Tom caught sight of the door opening across the street. A man poked his head out, looked both ways, and started down the steps. That's him! The guy I'm looking for. Same face, same haircut. Now what's he doing?
The man paused at the foot of the stairs, then walked directly to the curb. He started watching to his left. A car approached, slowed, and halted in front of him. He got in, and the car accelerated away.
Okay, I've got to report that.
Tom picked up the sack of popcorn, emptied the few remaining kernels into his hand, and tossed them out toward the squirrels. He wadded up the bag, dropped it into a trash barrel, and slowly ambled toward the pay phone.
He punched in the number for the Justice Cooperative. A voice repeated the number he'd called. He delivered his message. There was a click at the other end. He hung up the handset. He turned and walked towards his car.
The TV sitcom was ending. Tom picked up the remote and switched channels, to get the 11:00 o'clock news. The commercial ended, and the studio news desk appeared on the screen. The two anchors, a man and a woman, spoke alternately. “At the top of the news, the latest on the Mideast crisis. We'll hear from the UN ambassador."
“And a local killing has police baffled. More after this.”
Another commercial, then the news desk reappeared. The woman spoke. “The American ambassador to the UN today urged that a peace-keeping force be placed between the disputing parties on the Golan Heights.”
The news desk was replaced by a clip of the ambassador, with some sound bites that must have been the highlights of his speech.
As Tom listened, the thought came to him, Do you suppose there's a school they send these diplomats to, so they can learn to talk in long sentences without saying anything? How else do they get so good at it?
The male anchor spoke up. “And on the local scene, a man has been killed in what police suspect is a gang slaying. The deceased had a long criminal record, with several convictions for violent crimes.” The picture showed a man lying on the ground, his shirt soaked with blood.
“My God! That's him!”
“That's who?” Judith said as she looked up from her book.
“That's the guy I was watching for this evening. The one at the rooming house. When he came out and got into a car, I called the Justice Cooperative. They must have alerted somebody who was laying for him.
“My God! That means I fingered him! I set him up to be killed. If the cops track down the killer, they're going to find me!”
“Yes, and this probably isn't the last killing you'll have a hand in. I told you, once you’re in the conspiracy, you’re as guilty as all the rest. The police'll call you an accessory to murder.”
“But it isn't murder, Judy. It's an execution. You heard what the announcer said. He'd been convicted of violent crimes. And then he'd been turned loose again. He should've been locked up for good after the first conviction. Then he wouldn't have done anything more.”
“You can call it an execution, but the police will call it murder. I know we don't have any choice, Tom. The government won't defend us, so we have to defend ourselves. But I'm still scared.”
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