sonia kept the motor running when joe got out of the car.
the street was dark and deserted.
most of the snow had melted but a light rain was falling through the fog.
joe crossed the street to the little store on the corner.
if the store had a name it was too faded to make out in the dark. signs in the window announced - beer - sandwiches - lottery. a larger more boldly printed sign said “ big drawing tuesday”.
joe opened the door and walked in. a little old man was seated behind the counter reading a comic book.
joe showed the old man his gun. “give me all your money.”
“no money, sir.”
“you must have some money.”
“no sir, security service just come by. you first customer come by since.”
“no, sir.” the old man shrugged. “ beside, security only take few dollars. most people pay with card. you look like smart feller, you know that. buy energy drink, buy candy bar, buy beef jerky, pay with card.”
“take what you like, sir,” the old man continued imperturbably. “take energy drink, take potato chips, take big game ticket, but no money.”
the old man put his comic book own on the counter. joe thought he saw the old man start to reach under the counter.
joe shot the old man in the chest.
then he heard a car outside in the street.
when joe got out the door, he saw officer riley coming toward him with his gun drawn.
joe raised his own gun. out of the corner of his eye, he saw his own car still in position and the motor running with sonia behind the wheel.
dead game, that girl, joe thought. but it was the last thought he ever had as the slugs from officer riley’s gun ripped through his guts.
another squad car pulled up, with its lights flashing, and parked behind sonia, cutting off her escape.
callahan got out of the second squad car and approached sonia.
sonia rolled her window down. “my uncle is - “
“we know who you are, miss,” said callahan. “we will make sure you get home safely. you just stay away from guys like joe b from now on, you hear me.”
a rookie cop had accompanied callahan and he drove sonia away.
callahan walked over to where riley was standing over joe’s body.
“joe b.,” said riley. “he had big plans.”
“yeah,” callahan laughed. “he was going to be the new emperor of crime.”
“a smart guy,” said riley.
“he was a smart guy, all right,” callahan agreed. “a real smart guy.”
billy waited as johnny, mary, and frankie came up the road..
as they got nearer he knew right away that johnny was number one, mary was number two, and frankie was number three.
the trio approached billy the way three dogs might approach some small furry creature of a kind they had never encountered before.
“hello,” billy said. his voice didn’t shake, which surprised him.
“hello yourself,” johnny answered.
mary and frankie came closer, and the three formed a semicircle around billy. he still had his back to the hill.
“what are those things?” billy asked, pointing to the shoe shine kit slung on mary’s back.
johnny looked at the kit, surprised by billy’s question. after staring at billy for a few seconds to give him the message that his question was idiotic, he said, “it’s a shoe shine kit, what did you think it was?”
“i never saw one before,” billy admitted.
that all laughed. “i guess you never shined shoes,” mary sneered.
“um - sure i have - “ billy stammered. “i mean - “
“you mean what?” johnny demanded.
“i mean i never shined anybody else’s shoes,” said billy. he thought that was a good answer.
“do you shine your own?” mary asked.
“sometimes?” mary raised her eyebrow. “who shines them the other times?”
“my governess,” said billy. as soon as he said it, he knew it was the wrong answer.
“what’s a governess?” frankie spoke for the first time.
“a shoe shine kit with wings,” said mary, and frankie and johnny laughed.
“maybe you could use a shine right now,” johnny said to billy. “those nice brown shoes look a little scuffed up.”
“i don’t think so,” billy answered.
“i think you do. you got any money on you?’
“i think you do,” said johnny, coming closer to billy.
billy tried to turn to run back up the hill, but johnny and mary each grabbed one of his arms.
“look in his pockets,” johnny told frankie.
frankie put his hands in johnny’s pockets, but all he found was a little pack of kleenex.
“no money, huh?” johnny looked billy in the eyes. “what, your butler and your chauffeur carry your money for you? you’re rich, aren’t you? live in a big house with a hundred butlers and maids.”
“do you play doctor and nurse with the maids?” frankie asked.
“shut up!” mary said, and smacked frankie on the side of the head.
“i don’t have any butlers and maids,” billy insisted. he pulled away from johnny’s and mary’s grasp. they let him go.
“no?” johnny raised an eyebrow.
“just a governess.”
“just a governess,” johnny repeated, and they all laughed again.
“let’s get out of here,” said mary. “we’re wasting time.”
they started away.
“wait!” billy called after them.
“what now?” johnny turned back to him.
“can i go with you?”
johnny laughed. “you mean just tag along?” he glanced at the others. “sure, why not?”
“what’s your name?” mary asked billy.
“i bet they call you william.”
they started off down the road, walking fast. billy had a hard time keeping up with them, and they did not speak to him, or to each other, until they reached the town, which consisted of a single square with about eight buildings.
there were no people in the streets.
“look at this hick town,” said frankie. “i knew there’d be nothing here.”
“let’s look around,” johnny told him. “any bars?”
”mickey said the town was dry,” mary reminded him.
”there’s a drugstore over there,” said johnny. “the next best thing.”
they headed over to the drugstore, with billy bringing up the rear.
there was a narrow alley between the drugstore and a barber shop.
a bum was lying in the alley, asleep.
johnny and mary began going through the bum’s pockets.
frankie grabbed the bewildered billy and stood him beside him so that the two of them blocked the alley from anybody passing by - not that anybody was.
“nothing,” said johnny. he stood up.
“let’s take his shoes,” said frankie.
“why would you do that?” billy asked. “can you get any money for them?”
“no, stupid, just for fun,” frankie told him.
“we aren’t taking his shoes,” said johnny. ”or even his hat. let’s get out of here.”
they walked down to the other end of the alley.
“maybe this isn’t the town,” said mary. “maybe there’s another town down the road.”
they looked across a vacant lot and down the road leading out of town.
but there was no sign of another town on the horizon, just a range of low hills.
despite doctor frank’s apparent age, and the fact that he was carrying his heavy black leather bag - which ray had offered to carry for him - ray was having a hard time keeping up with him as they made their way through the snow back to the abandoned building where red was waiting with the corpse of cindy.
the wind was blowing in their faces. and blowing the snow in drifts on the streets and sidewalks.
a light was showing in the basement window of a building.
there was a faded poster on the wall above the lit window. doctor frank stopped to look at it and ray stopped beside him.
the poster announced: “one week only - the international singing sensation - sleepy barlow - returned from her triumphant tour of the continent”.
the poster exhibited a barely legible picture of a young woman in a strapless gown singing into a standup microphone.
ray was not sure where “the continent” that sleepy barlow had returned from was.
“sleepy barlow!” exclaimed doctor frank. “she puts on a great show!” he peered closer at the small print. “looks like this is the last night she’s here. we have to see this!”
“but - “ ray protested, “what about cindy? we have to save cindy.”
“she’ll be all right,” replied doctor frank. “or not. i can either save her or i can’t. come on, let’s catch the show.”
ray did not know what to do. “isn’t it a matter of life and death?”
“maybe, but i can either save her or i can’t.“
there was a guard rail in front of the lit window, and below it was a door that seemed to lead into the basement . a short flight of steps led down to the door and the doctor started carefully descending them.
“maybe i should go on ahead and tell red you are coming,” ray said.
“suit yourself.” the doctor continued down the steps.
but, thought ray, could the doctor find his own way to the abandoned building? did he know where it was? ray decided to stick with him, at least for a while.
the door opened when the doctor tried the handle, and ray followed him inside, into a passage with an open door at the end of it. light spilled from the door, and they headed for it.
a small sign on the wall beside the door said “elite cafe” and below it was another poster like the one outside, advertising the appearance of sleepy barlow.
ray followed the doctor inside the elite cafe. he saw a small bar with three stools but no bartender and a tiny stage with a standup microphone like the one on the poster. there was no sign of a band or any room for one.
there were four small tables on the floor, but the only person visible at them was a young woman that ray assumed must be sleepy barlow.
the young woman turned to them and as they got closer ray saw that she looked exactly like cindy and red - their twin, or triplet, except that she had shoulder length black hair. she was wearing the strapless gown from the poster but had a sweater over her shoulders.
she did not seem suprised to see doctor frank, or to notice ray at all.
“hello, doc, you’re looking well.”
“as are you, my dear.” doctor frank put his bag on the floor and took a seat across from sleepy. ray hesitated, but sat down between them. sleepy continued to take no notice of him.
“it’s not very nice outside,” sleepy addressed the doctor. “i was wondering if anybody would show up.”
“i just happened to be passing by,” the doctor told her. “ this is ray, by the way. he is an old friend of red’s. and cindy’s.”
sleepy did not seem to be interested or impressed by this, but she did say, “hi, ray.”
“hello,” ray answered.
“of course, you don’t have to perform just for us,” the doctor continued. “if nobody else shows up.”
“oh no, no!” for the first time sleepy showed a little animation. “the show must go on! you’re an old timer, doc, you know that.”
sleepy looked back at the bar and the stage. “blackie should drag his miserable carcass out here pretty soon and you can get something to drink. the show starts in five minutes. anything particular you want me to start with?” she asked doctor frank.
“what seems to be the matter, sir devilish?” jordan, the countess’s faithful butler intoned. “but come in, sir, come in, let me assist you, get you out of this nasty wind. looks like rain, sir, we wouldn’t want you to get wet.“
sir devilish keene was round and red-faced, with a waxed mustache and a gold-tipped cane that he flourished without fear or favor. at jordan’s signal, a footman sprang out of the shadows and helped him assist the heavy old man into the foyer.
“the matter? the matter? “ sir devilish sputtered. “where’s that girl? where’s that damned girl?”
“girl?” jordan enquired. “what girl?”
“the driver! the damned insolent little trollop of a limousine driver! didn’t want to help me in! made a damned fuss about helping me - a sick old man with a cane and her passenger - into the house!”
“ah - well, you are safely here now, sir, and in good hands, in good hands. here, sit down, sit down. would you like a wheeled chair, sir?
“a wheeled chair! do i look like a damned cripple? none of your damned wheeled chairs!”
the butler and the footman lowered sir devilish into a chair. “where is the countess?” he demanded.
“a good question, sir devilish. i am sure she will be here to greet you and the other guests - but especially you - shortly.”
“hmph.” sir devilish continued to scowl as he settled into his chair.
“would you like a drink, sir devilish?” jordan asked.
“of course i would like a drink! do i look some kind of damned teetotaling methodist woman? brandy and water, if you please. and none of your damned ice.”
“of course, sir devilish.”
sonia and joe had been watching all this, and overhearing most of it.
“am i going to have to be introduced to him?” joe asked.
“no, it might be best to stay away from him, “ sonia murmured.
joe and sonia moved away, back into the depths of the house.
“no sign of mister madison,” joe noted.
sonia shrugged. “i am sure he will be here. be patient.”
they entered a room with a large fireplace.
joe noticed the back of a head visible over the back of an armchair in front of the fireplace. on the head was a red skullcap.
“oh, there's the cardinal,” said sonia.
“another famous detective, right?”
“yes, but a much nicer one. let me introduce you. “ sonia added in a lower voice, “we don’t want to avoid all the detectives.”
but before sonia and joe could approach the cardinal, they heard loud voices in the room behind them.
they turned and saw the ubiquitous cleve.
“some kind of announcement in the blue room, “ cleve drawled. “they want all the guests to assemble there.”
sonia glanced at joe. “then i suppose we may as well hear what they have to say.”
sonia and joe followed cleve.
“probably another murder,” cleve sighed. “i always say they are tempting fate by inviting all these damned detectives.”
“oh,” sonia answered with an attempt at a smile, “it is probably just that the countess does not feel well.”
but when they entered the blue room, they found a pale, trembling jordan standing in the center of it. a stern-faced sir devilish keene stood beside him, leaning on his cane.
“is everybody here?” jordan asked. “i am afraid i have some terrible news to impart - there has been a murder!”
“you do not say so,” muttered cleve, with a smirk.
“how awful!” cried a woman seated behind jordan. “the poor countess will be devastated!”
“i am afraid the countess is in no position to be devastated,” jordan replied sadly. “for you see - it is the countess herself who has been murdered.”
“no!” cried several guests.
“perhaps,” said a melodious voice behind joe, “it is some sort of accident.”
joe turned. a tall, hawk-faced man in the regalia of a cardinal stood in the doorway.
“i am afraid not, your excellency,” jordan addressed him, “unless there was some sort of accident that left her with her throat cut from ear to ear.”
wherever the gang stopped or hid out, it was always up to the three kids - mary, johnny, and frankie - to raise money for the day to day expenses like beer and cigarettes.
mickey was very strict about saving the bankroll to be just that - a bankroll, to plan and finance the next job with.
so the three kids had to raise money, wherever they were, sometimes by panhandling but mostly by shining shoes.
mickey and the others were very strict about their not stealing or doing anything illegal, which would attract the attention of the police and get them in trouble.
so, on the morning after the arrival in the hideout where they would hook up with roger and pull off the big score that would set them up for life, the three kids found themselves trudging down the road towards the town, with their shoe shine kits slung on their backs.
a light rain was falling.
as usual, frankie was walking slower than the others, and although they kept threatening to leave him behind, mary and johnny kept stopping and waitng for him to catch up.
johnny was talking big about how he was going to make just enough to go to a movie, and then quit for the day.
they might not even have a movie, said mary.
every town has a movie, said johnny.
i don’t know, it looked like a pretty small town.
they stopped again to wait for frankie to catch up.
they did not know that they were being watched.
mickey thought the hideout was completely secluded, but there was a house high up on the hill beside the road, almost hidden by the trees.
the house where billy lived with celeste-maria.
billy was going for a walk down the hill. but before he got to the bottom he had seen johnny, mary, and frankie straggling along, and stopped to watch them.
he wondered who they were and what they were doing and what the things on their backs were, as he had never before seen a shoe shine kit.
he wondered if he dared to speak to them, or if they would laugh at him and beat him up and maybe even kill him.
jordan, the countess’s faithful butler, recognized sonia, and sonia and joe entered and were ushered into the big house.
the countess was nowhere to be seen. a number of guests, some of whom joe recognized from the party at mr madison’s, were sitting around looking at newspapers or magazines or strange into space.
it was not a lively group.
sonia was greeted by a little old woman who was sitting on the edge of a sofa, knitting something - a shawl or sweater. the old woman herself was dressed in a plain gray dress a size too large for her.
“good evening, miss chuff, “ sonia responded. “miss chuff, this is my friend mr joseph b—————. joe, this is no other than the celebrated miss chuff.”
joe had never heard of the celebrated miss chuff, but he took the little claw she offered him. “a great honor,” he told her.
“you look like a serious young man,” miss chuff told joe.
“i try to be serious as i have to be,” he replied, with a smile.
“who was she?’” joe asked sonia, as they moved deeper into the house.
“she is one of the famous amateur detectives the countess likes to invite. didn’t i tell you that before?”
“miss chuff is here, and i think cardinal gogol and sir devilish keene will also be here.”
“does she expect somebody to be murdered?”
“she just likes to invite them.”
“i guess you can’t be too careful,” joe said. “look who’s here.”
sonia and joe were suddenly confronted with cleve, the rude individual they had encountered previously at mr madison’s.
“hello, cleve,” sonia greeted him. “you must remember joe.”
“of course!” cleve cried. “the filmmaker! i see we are looking a bit less rumpled tonight, sir,” he addressed joe.
“i was just telling joe how much the countess likes to invite her detectives to her gatherings.”
“ah! too bad they had so many films made about them already. eh! but i suppose there is always room for one more,” cleve laughed heartily,
suddenly there was the sound of a commotion at the front door. loud voices were raised.
“that sounds like sir devilish keene now,” said sonia.