It was the rib-shack delivery wagon that set alarm bells ringing inside my head. The pick-up was fitted with a glass-fiber shell and had been treated to a customized paint job - black with tongues of orange flames rising from the sills. Nothing unusual in that, but it had made a delivery at the Cronin's house, and for the four years that I had known them, my neighbors had been committed Vegans. He was a retired flight steward, and claimed that thirty years of airline food would have made a vegetarian out of Colonel Sanders. His wife, tiny as a sparrow, had followed her husband's lead. Folks who refuse to wear leather on their feet do not suddenly develop a craving for a rack of honey-roasted.
My partner, Andy Kove, had instilled in me the need for constant vigilance, to be forever on the lookout for anything that was just little out of the ordinary. Stay alert had been Andy's refrain for the nine months we had worked together. I had thought him a little paranoid; now I wasn't so sure. In ominous mood I climbed the stairs, my insides as empty as a drum, to a side bedroom and made myself comfortable in a cane armchair set back against the inner wall. From the shadows I had a clear view of the Cronin house.
The phone rang twice in the first hour, but I let it ring. A car had cruised slowly past the house a couple of times, though the woman driver didn't glance over. After three hours, my patience was rewarded. Two men dressed in slacks and sport shirts, bent low and hugging the hibiscus hedge, darted through the Cronin's rear yard. Ten minutes later, two other men left by the same route.
I went downstairs and, having already made up my mind about what I had to do went about it calmly and methodically. As I had suspected, my house was being staked out. How long they had been there? I had no way of knowing, nor did it really matter. They were there now and that was all that counted.
I carried all that I would need into the kitchen, away from prying eyes, and carefully arranged it on the table next to the ice-box. Reaching above the stove, I clicked on the extractor and turned the dial to maximum. Not being a smoker, the only gas lighter I could lay my hands on was the one for the stove. I sat down next to the table and positioned a metal waste bin in front of me, then lifted a bunch of dollar bills from the stack on the table, fanning them out like a hand of cards. Five of a kind. Five Federal Reserve C-notes.
The lighter's battery was weak and took a couple of tries before shooting out a blue flame. Holding the corner of the first hundred-dollar bill to the naked flame, I watched, fascinated, as the flame ate along the paper, igniting the others in turn. Setting the lighter aside, I plucked another five bills from the pile and lit them from the dying flames of the first five. I dropped the burning remnants into the metal bin. As the leaves of white ash floated gently down, a ghostly Benjamin Franklin stared back at me.
It would take time I knew, but I wasn't expected anywhere and it was not a job to be rushed. I made some mental calculations. At two thousand dollars a minute, it would take ten minutes to burn twenty grand. One hour for one hundred and twenty thousand. Eight hours and twenty minutes for a million. It would be well into the following day before I finished. Would I be given that much time? How long before my watchers grew tired of eating out of foil trays and made their move?
Three years later.
On the Sunday morning of my release from Lake Butler State Penitentiary, I was handed two bits of paper: the address of a Miami halfway house for ex-cons and a warrant for the bus ride to take me there. I tore up both and tossed the pieces in a trashcan as soon as the gates had closed behind me. Three years of the Florida Department of Corrections accommodation was enough. No thank you, as far as Steve Stricker was concerned, they could stick their hospitality.
Floyd Benedict s convertible was parked across the road and my friend was leaning against it. The hood was down and the sun up.
Floyd pushed himself off the trunk and threw a half-smoked cigarette into the gutter. He was black as coal, six-six, and as thin as a rifle pull-through. He looked at me and his worn face lit up in a huge grin.
"What's been keepin' you?"