The message from the Justice Cooperative was almost anticlimactic when it came.
THE BEST TIME FOR YOUR ACTION APPEARS TO BE THIS COMING FRIDAY. ARRANGE TO BE OUT OF THE CITY BUT NEARBY. YOU WILL BE PROVIDED WITH A CAR TO RETURN TO THE CITY. CALL THE NUMBER BELOW ON WEDNESDAY EVENING BETWEEN 7 AND 7:15 PM WITH THE NAME OF THE MOTEL WHERE YOU WILL BE STAYING. YOU WILL BE CONTACTED THERE AFTER YOUR ARRIVAL.
Judith seemed reluctant but offered no argument. She opened the evening paper and leafed through the entertainment section.
“Here's an ad for a country music concert next Saturday at a campground north of town. The map shows it's about 40 miles away. We can get tickets at the gate.”
“Yeah. Looks like a good lineup of performers. Some of the top names'll be there.” Wonder if I'll be able to enjoy it.
He made several calls and finally found a motel near the campground that still had a room available.
Friday evening was frantic. Tom felt as though he had no time to think. He and Judith arrived home about the same time. They grabbed the suitcases they'd packed the night before, and headed out of town on the northbound Interstate. An hour later they were at the motel, having stopped only to pick up some hamburgers at a McDonald's. Judith started to eat hers. Tom was intentionally holding his for later.
Shortly after they reached the motel, the phone in their room rang. The caller was short and to the point.
“I have a message for Mr. Collins's brother. There is a car at the end of the motel building, with temporary tags.” He gave the license number. “The key is under the floor mat. Be at telephone number ten by eight PM. Call this number for additional instructions.” Frantically, Tom pawed through the drawer in the nightstand, found a pad of paper and a pencil, and wrote down the number. The caller continued. “In any case, have the car back to your motel by three AM. Leave the key where you found it.” There was a click as the caller hung up.
Eight PM! That's just over an hour from now. I'll have to burn up the road to get there. It took almost that long to get here.
He found the car with no problem. His heart sank as he walked around it and looked at it. It's a junker. Looks like it won't even make the trip back to the city. The only thing that looks good on it is the tires. How do they expect me to get there in an hour in this thing?
He packed the gun, the silencer, and a kit of tools he'd prepared, under the front seat.
To his surprise, the car's appearance belied its behavior.
Hey! The engine runs as smooth as one of my machines at the plant. And the brakes work fine, with no squealing. He drove over a speed bump in the motel parking lot. And the shocks're in good shape. Somebody must've jacked up the body and put a whole new car under it.
Telephone number ten was a pay phone in a strip mall in a quiet neighborhood across town from his house. He checked in on arrival.
“This is Mr. Collins's brother. I was told to call this number.”
“Your party is still at home. He regularly goes to location number three on Friday evenings. If he follows his usual pattern, he will be leaving within the next fifteen minutes. Stand by for further instructions.”
Tom turned on the map light in the car and scanned the computer printout. It was printed on onionskin paper, and was difficult to read under the best of circumstances. In the dim light he could hardly make it out. Finally he found what he was looking for.
Location number three. That's the Sunset Bar and Grill.
He checked the location on a city map, and plotted a route from where he was.
Should take me about five minutes to get there.
He had hardly finished locating the spot when the phone rang.
“I have a message for Mr. Collins's brother. Your party has just left his house. Stand by for further information.”
Tom paced in front of the phone, then decided that might attract attention, and returned to the car to wait. After what seemed line an eternity, the phone rang again.
“Your party has definitely arrived at location number three. He is driving a gray Ford Escort with license plates BJ4291. You can meet him there in the parking lot as he leaves.”
Tom drove to the Sunset Bar and Grill. The neon sign in front made it easy to spot. He cruised the parking lot until he found Bartlett's car. He then pulled into a parking place in a darkened area that gave him a view of both Bartlett's car and the front door.
He slipped on plastic gloves, and pulled his equipment out from under the front seat. He unwrapped the gun, inserted the loaded magazine in the magazine well, racked the slide once, pulled it back slightly to verify there was a round in the chamber, then flipped on the safety. He then screwed the silencer to the front of the barrel. The whole thing went back under the seat. A police scanner he'd bought at Radio Shack went on the seat beside him. He then slouched down in the seat and prepared to wait.
The luminous numbers on the car clock advanced slowly, tediously, almost hypnotic in their regularity.
Suddenly his head snapped erect. Damn! I started to nod off to sleep. Can't have that. I'd miss him and have to do this all over. Wonder if listening to the radio would help. No, that might attract attention to the car. I got to make it look like the car's empty.
Nine o'clock came and went. So did ten o'clock. Tom rolled down the car window, hoping the cool evening air would help him stay awake.
Boy, if I had to do this in winter, it'd be miserable. Even in warm clothes I'd be freezing to death. Wonder how they manage it then?
Pressure in his bladder reminded him it had been a long time since he'd emptied it.
Oh-oh! I didn't think about that. Now what do I do? I sure can't go inside and use the men's room. I can't be seen here, not when I'm supposed to be forty miles north of town. And I can’t take a leak right here in the parking lot. That’s gross. Just have to hold it, I guess. Maybe it'll help keep me awake.
Eleven o'clock slowly came and passed. Each time the front door opened, he carefully scanned the faces of those leaving. None of them matched the photos he'd memorized.
He sure must have a lot of beer-drinkin' buddies in there, he's taking so long. Hey! What if he comes out with somebody? That'd mean witnesses. I can't very well shoot them just to keep them quiet. I guess that means letting him go and trying again.
Two men came out. Neither was Bartlett. Tom tracked them to their cars with his eyes, verifying that both left the parking lot.
A group of men came out, laughing and talking. It was hard to see their faces, but he finally verified that Bartlett wasn't among them.
They're sure taking their time about leaving. What'll I do if he comes out while they're still in the parking lot?
But they left individually, one car at a time.
The door opened. A man stood in the doorway, leaned on the doorframe, and then slowly, deliberately, started walking across the parking lot.
That's him! That's Bartlett!
Tom started the engine, but left the lights off. He was about to pull out of the parking space when a thought hit him.
Wait a minute! When I was thinking about this before, it was easy enough to say I didn't have any choice -- it was either kill Grubbs myself or kill some other crook in exchange for somebody else killing Grubbs. But I do have a choice. I can go shoot him, or I can just drive out of here and go home. No one's forcing me to go pull the trigger on him.
After all, I don't even know this guy. He's never done me any harm.
But if I do just drive away, I haven't solved my problem. Then I have to go after Grubbs, or wait for him to come after me. Or after Judy. Yeah, I have several choices. But none of them is any good. Killing this guy is a bad choice, but all the others are even worse.
Besides, I already know this guy deserves to be killed. It's a dirty shame that he was ever let out of jail.
He eased the car forward, then went down one row of cars and started back up another.
Got to get him on my side of the car. And I want to get to his car about the same time he does. But I don't want to attract his attention.
Bartlett swayed slightly as he walked between two rows of cars. He seemed to pay no attention to Tom's car as it crept forward.
Bartlett reached his car, leaned on the roof with his left hand, and fumbled at the door with his right. Tom pulled abreast of him, stopped, and rolled down the window.
Bartlett looked at Tom, turned to face him, and waved his arm.
“Hey, buddy. I dropped m'keys 'n' can't fin' 'em. C'n y' gimme some light?”
Through a dry throat, Tom croaked out “Sure.”
He brought up the gun and pointed it out the window, making sure the ejection port was still inside the car.
Bartlett's eyes suddenly widened. He thrust out his left hand, as though to stave off the bullet. His mouth opened, as though he was going to say something. Tom pulled the trigger.
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