This time I was dressed to blend: sneakers and jeans, red baseball cap, a garish yellow Hawaiian number hanging open over a white T-shirt. I had thought of wearing shorts, but my legs were so white they glowed, which didn’t quite fit the image of a sun-worshipping Jersey boy, so jeans it was. When I reached my perch at Seventh Street on the Ocean City boardwalk, the sun was setting and the sky over the ocean was turning Kodachrome. I did a quick peruse. No Charlie, no goons who might have followed me, just the usual crowd swarming and laughing in the thick salt air, flirting and ignoring the flirts, whining, strolling, dripping soft ice cream onto their shoes. I thought some ice cream might fit my disguise.
I was standing in line at the Kohr Bros. Frozen Custard stand when I heard a hiss from the T-shirts in the store next door. Behind a scrim of shirts, I could spy the top of a round bald head, ugly plaid shorts, sandals over socks.
“I’ll have a small vanilla,” I said to the pretty Russian woman behind the stand. “And a large vanilla with rainbow sprinkles.”
With the ice creams in hand, I sauntered over to the T-shirt store and held out the large sprinkled cone. Through a collection of shirts and sweats, a hand reached out.
“Thanks,” said Charlie. “I love the custard.”
“Who doesn’t? You want to talk here?”
“I’ll meet you at the waterline in five minutes.”
“Just don’t spill your custard on the steps this time.”
I waited on the beach, breathing deep the salt air. A wide stone jetty was just ahead of me. The evening was breezy and clear, the sea glinted orange, the surf was angry. I stood at the crest of the sand, where the shoreline started slanting toward the sea, and watched the waves swell and froth before pounding themselves into oblivion. Quite a show. They ought to sell tickets. The fate of the universe in six-second tableaux. Appearing nightly. Try the veal, and don’t forget to tip your waitresses.
The beach was open to the left, closed in by a music pier on the right. In the reddening light, I could spot a few silhouettes climbing along the jetty or strolling across the sand. I kept track of them all, checking to see if any were a little too interested in anything I was doing. As usual I was being completely ignored, which was, as usual, fine by me. Especially when I was meeting with a client who was wanted by a bunch of gangsters, a hit man from Allentown, and the FBI all at once. I turned toward the boardwalk, spotted a giant toddler with an oversized head and splayed legs coming my way.
“You alone?” said Charlie Kalakos.
“Sadly, that’s my condition in the world.”
“Were you followed?”
“How do you know?”
“Because I drove slowly with one eye on my rearview mirror. Because I stopped on the side of the highway twice, and no one else stopped. Because I parked on Seventeenth and walked the ten blocks on back streets and spotted nothing. But I’m just a lawyer, Charlie, not a spy. My training is in torts, not tails. I’m doing my best.”
“Your best might get me capped. How’s my mom?”
“She’s fine. She’s even seemed to perk up a bit.”
“So am I heading home?”
“Before we talk about the negotiations, I’ve got some news for you. Remember you told me about your friends, and one of them was a Ralph?”
“He was shot in the head a few days ago.”
“Ralphie Meat? My God. How’d it happen? He get caught with someone’s wife?”
“It looks like a professional hit. The killer got inside his house, popped him in the leg, wrapped it up and asked him some questions before shooting him in the head.”
“Questions about what?”
“The questions were probably about you, Charlie. Right after our negotiation hit the papers, I got a visit from some of your old friends in the Warrick Brothers Gang. One of them said he was chasing you fifteen years ago, a hood named Fred.”
“That fat bastard still around?”
“In the flesh,” I said. “And he’s got some homunculus helping him out. He told me to give you a warning. Apparently they put some hit man on your tail, someone from Allentown.”
Suddenly Charlie’s head swiveled and his eyes widened.
“You know this guy from Allentown?”
“I saw him once,” said Charlie slowly. “An old bull with a flattop, cold eyes, and huge, gnarled hands. He was a soldier who was trained too good and learned he liked the killing.”
“What war? Vietnam?”
“Korea, from what I heard.”
“What, that makes him well over seventy.”
“You didn’t see them eyes, Victor.”
“He left a note as a warning. It read ‘Who’s next?’”
Charlie seemed to shrink at the words. I scanned what I could of the beach. Nothing out of the ordinary, the same uninterested runoff from the boardwalk, a group of kids at the far end of the jetty, laughing.
“Charlie, do you still want to come out of hiding?”
“I don’t know. You tell this to my mother?”
“About the threat, yeah, I did. About Ralph, I didn’t need to, it was front page in all the papers.”
“What did she say?”
“She didn’t want me to tell you. She says she’ll take care of you.”
“She show you her gun?”
“Yeah, she did.”
“Crazy old bat. She used to point that thing at my head when I acted up, scared the hell out of me.”
“Charlie, I’m not supposed to tell you this, but the way things are going, I think I have no choice. There’s some guy in town offering a lot of money for that painting. I can’t make a deal for you, you’d have to make it yourself, but he says he could give you enough to get lost for a good long time.”
“Enough. High six figures at least. And you should also know that he’s approached a few other people about it, including Ralph before he was murdered and your old friend Joey Pride. They both seemed to think they deserved a piece of the price.”
“High six figures, huh? You think you can get more?”
“I know I could, but I have to advise you that the sale of stolen property is illegal.”
“You tell my mother?”
“No. I was afraid she’d point the gun at me.” I reached into my jacket, pulled out an envelope. “Here’s his card. Just so you know.”
“Are you advising that I sell to this guy and lam off?”
“I’m thinking that maybe Philadelphia isn’t the safest place for you right now.”
“What about witness protection? I thought you was going to make a deal.”
“That’s gotten a little complicated. I’m having a hard time making a deal with the government. The federal prosecutor I told you about, she’s still got a stick up her butt.”
“What the hell about?”
“I was hoping you could tell me.”
“I ain’t no proctologist.”
“She wants you to tell her everything about how you got the painting. No immunity and no protection unless you agree. She seems to have some ulterior motive behind her demands, and I think I know what it is.”
“You ever hear of a detective named Hathaway?”
“What does that bastard have to do with anything?”
“The fed is his daughter.”
“How do you know Hathaway?”
“He was sniffing around after the robbery. Asking about some girl what went missing about the time we took the painting.”
“A girl named Chantal Adair?”
“Who the hell remembers a name?”
“I do,” I said, and there must have been something in my voice, because Charlie backed up a bit. I took a breath to calm myself, checked the beach once again. The kids were still laughing. A couple of overweight joggers in baseball caps had just made their way around the music pier. A family grouping had formed at the ocean’s edge, the youngest throwing handfuls of sand into the sea.
“I’m going to show you a picture,” I said, pulling the shot of Chantal Adair from out of my jacket pocket. “Do you recognize her?”
He glanced at it, shook his head. “It’s too dark. I can’t see.”
“Tell me about Hathaway.”
“I don’t know,” said Charlie. “Some girl went missing, and Hathaway, he thought it was all connected to the robbery. Somehow he connected the robbery to us.”
“Any idea how?”
“Who knows? But the thing was, he couldn’t finger us for either charge, no matter how hard he looked. See, we never spent nothing, we never slipped up. Our lives didn’t change one bit.”
“No mink coats, no Cadillacs? How’d you pull that off?”
“It was easier than you think, seeing as we never got our cuts in the first place.”
“I don’t understand.”
“We got stiffed,” said Charlie.
I looked at Charlie’s silhouette, looked down the shoreline, trying to figure out what I was hearing. Joey had said something about the money disappearing, and now Charlie was talking about getting stiffed. The family was heading back for the boardwalk, the joggers were getting closer. Two men, one shaped like a pear, the other short and wider than a truck. Funny shapes to see in joggers. The moonlight glinted off their chains, and my head shook with the slap of recognition. Fred and Louie. Up with Hoods.
“Crap,” I said softly. “We have company.”
“Who?” said Charlie, his head swiveling. “What?”
“Turn and walk slowly toward the boardwalk like nothing is wrong.”
“Just do it, Charlie. Now.”
Charlie’s swiveling head stopped in the direction of the two joggers. He coolly let out a yelp and then, suave as could be, ran the hell away, toward the little path between the fences that led to the boardwalk. He was sprinting as fast as he could, which was not fast at all, arms and legs akimbo, like a cartoon character running in midair and going nowhere.
I caught up to Charlie Kalakos in a flash, grabbed hold of his arm, and started lugging him toward the stairway. The hoods were shouting as they ran for us, the seagulls were squawking, Charlie was whining.
“Stop pulling me. You’re going to tear off my arm.”
“How’d you get here?”
“Where is it?”
“You’re hurting my arm.”
“Where’s your car?”
When we reached the stairs, I pushed him ahead of me. I glanced back quickly. The hoods were about thirty yards away, sprinting toward us, sand flying behind them. I leaped up the wooden steps, two at a time, pulled Charlie up the last. At the boardwalk we charged into the crowd and then stopped, looked around.
“Here,” I said, grabbing Charlie and pulling him now to the right, away from Seventh. “This way.”
“My car’s that way,” he said.
“I know, but the crowd will be thickest in here.”
I was pulling him toward the Turkish arches of a small amusement park, with its carousel and roller coaster and great Ferris wheel rising over the boards. On the way I saw an overweight kid with a huge tub of caramel popcorn.
“You might not realize it,” I told the kid as I grabbed the tub smack out of his chubby hands and threw it as hard as I could, high in the air, over the crowd, toward the stairs, “but I’m doing you and your arteries a favor.”
The kid screamed like a siren, the popcorn spun out in a cloud.
An onslaught of seagulls descended upon the flying popcorn like a ravenous army, viciously pecking pedestrians and each other in their frantic quest for each loosed kernel. The two hoods from the beach, rushing up the stairs toward us, fell back when faced with the fluttering, vulturous cloud.
Charlie and I plunged into Gillian’s Wonderland Pier.