Hutch sighed. Half a century goes by in what seems like a year. Don’t waste an hour in boredom, son, or wishing for tomorrow.
I do my best to keep myself occupied, I assured him.
Sitting up straighter in the chair, he said, I’m sorry to say no one has come looking for you.
I’m delighted to hear it.
I would have given a stirring performance, one for the ages. Acting is a marvelous profession, son. If you can spend enough time playing other people, you don’t have to think too much about your own character and motivations.
To save my skin, I had to be someone else tonight. I called myself Harry Lime.
That takes chutzpah. You’re no Orson Welles, young man.
I wouldn’t disagree, sir.
I almost landed the lead in The Third Man. But I can’t begrudge Joseph Cotten getting it. He was superb.
I sat on the footstool. Mr. Hutchison—
Call me Hutch. Everyone does.
Yes, sir. Well, as you know, I didn’t arrive on this job with many clothes—
Leaning forward in his armchair, eyes alight, he interrupted: We’ll go to a thrift shop tomorrow! I’ve been afire with the idea since we talked about it earlier.
Well, gee, what I was about to say is…I’m going upstairs to change into a clean sweatshirt. And I’m in such a hurry, I was kind of hoping it wouldn’t be too much of an inconvenience if I asked you to dispose of my clothing.
He understood but didn’t want to understand. What a peculiar request.
I have to leave tonight, sir.
But why? He held up one hand that, in the day, held Deborah Kerr. Yes, I see. Big guy with a chin beard, then a redheaded guy who does or does not have bad teeth. So am I to assume that your differences with them could not be resolved?
Not entirely, sir.
Now you’re going on the lam.
Once, I was on the lam myself.
I said, With Henry Fonda in relentless pursuit.
Relentless in his relaxed way. I think it would have been better if Henry shot me down.
But you were innocent.
Yes, but sometimes the innocent die, and audiences occasionally like a tragedy. He frowned. Son, you came here with one suitcase, and you’re leaving with just the clothes on your back.
I prefer to travel light.
Just be certain to wear pants.
I intend to, sir.
Call me Hutch. Everyone does. These thrift-shop clothes of yours…do they come with an obligation?
I’m not sure I follow.
When one buys clothing in a thrift shop and is done with it, is one contractually obligated to pass the clothing on to someone poorer than oneself?
Oh, no, sir. You can just throw them in the trash.
That’s easy, then. I thought there might be some protocol that I would want to honor, if you had committed to it. He pulled aside the chenille throw on his lap and prepared to get up from the chair.
I said, One more thing, and I regret having to ask.
He looked crestfallen. You want to take the rest of the cookies you made today.
No, no. Those are yours.
Oh, good. Splendid. Lovely.
Sir, I was wondering if I could borrow one of the cars.
Of course. You’re a superb driver.
I can’t risk trying to leave town by bus or train.
They’ll be watching public transport.
Precisely. If I could drive your car to Santa Barbara, I could leave it with your nephew there, and maybe he could arrange to get it back to you.
His brow creased with worry. But what will you do then?
Make it up as I go along. It works for me.
No, sir. It’s adventurous but not grim. I got up from the footstool. I’d better change sweatshirts and get moving.
Each of his long legs seemed to have two knee joints as he unfolded them and got to his feet. I shall meet you in the kitchen with the car keys.
Oh, I said, and a flashlight? I’ll need a flashlight. That’s it. I won’t keep asking for stuff.
One needs a good flashlight on the lam. No problem.
Upstairs in my room, I realized that I would also be leaving a collection of Sinatra biographies. I suspected that I would not need them anymore.
In the bathroom, I stripped to the waist, washed my upper body, face, and hands, careful not to disturb the taped wound on my side. I put on a fresh T-shirt and a sweatshirt that did not have a word on either the chest or the back.
When I went down to the kitchen, a flashlight and the keys to the Mercedes were on the kitchen island.
Sir, I can’t take the Mercedes.
It is much better cover than the Explorer. They might expect a young man such as yourself, in sneakers and a sweatshirt, on the lam, to split town in an Explorer, but never in a Mercedes.
I’d rather have the Explorer.
I refuse to give you the keys to the Explorer. The Mercedes is better cover. And I am the director for once.
Hutch pointed to a plastic-wrapped package also on the kitchen island. The label said PORK RIND, and the plastic was still crusted with frost from the freezer.
I want you to have that, he said.
Gee, sir, I do love pork rind, but I’m not going to have any cooking facilities for a while.
Pork rind is merely my code, so I’ll know what’s in the package. If it said beef tongue, then it would contain entirely twenties. If it said sweetbreads, it would contain a mix of half twenties and half hundreds.
Money? Oh, no. No, no, no. I can’t accept that.
I have bank accounts, of course, but I don’t entirely trust banks, you see. When I was nine years old, a lot of banks failed.
I have money, I assured him. I’ve saved some of my pay.
That’s not enough to go on the lam. You need to be flush when you go on the lam, as I learned the hard way.
But that’s too much, way too much.
How would you know? Maybe pork rind is my code for a brick of one-dollar bills.
What is it your code for, sir?
None of your damn business.
He produced a pink hostess-gift bag decorated with yellow birds flying with curls of blue ribbon in their beaks. He put the package of so-called pork rind in the bag and held it out to me by the two braided gold-cord handles.
I waved it away. Really. Really, I can’t.
His face darkened with disapproval, tightened with authority, thrust forward with the expectation of obedience. His voice was that of the heroic captain demanding of his men more than they think they are capable of giving. He raised his free hand in a bony fist for emphasis.
Soldier, you are going to take this, and you are going to do the right thing with it, and I will brook no debate, accept no excuse. Is that perfectly clear?
Annamaria said that people gave her money. I doubted that any of them had forced it upon her with an implied threat of violence.
This is very generous, sir.
He broke character and grinned. Take, take. Don’t be silly. It’s Nibbles’s money, anyway.
Nibbles the swashbuckling rabbit.
He just keeps earning royalties that I don’t know what to do with.
Accepting the hostess-gift bag, I said, If I ever have kids, sir, each of them will have his own full set of Nibbles’s adventures.
As I put the flashlight in the bag with the frozen money and picked up the keys to the Mercedes, Hutch said, Through dinner and everything this evening, how many times do you think I sanitized my hands with Purell?
Well, you had the chicken enchiladas, and though you like the taste of chicken, it makes you nervous because of all the salmonella and E. coli stories in the press. So I’d say…twenty times?
With an unmistakable note of pride, he said, Five.
Five, he repeated.
That’s really something, sir.
Isn’t it? Having touched money, even wrapped in plastic and frozen, I’m half desperate to Purell my hands right now, but I’m not going to.
You’re not going cold turkey, are you?
No, no. I’ll wean myself from it as best I can. I had a brother who was a he**in addict and went cold turkey. It was ghastly.
Yes, sir. The young Anthony Perkins.
The experience so shattered him that later he wore his mother’s clothes and stabbed people. I shall minimize my use of Purell but not risk such a fate as his.
He smiled and so did I.
Take care of yourself, son.
I will, sir. You, too.
I started toward the door.
He said, We had some fun this past month, didn’t we?
Yes, sir. We sure did.
Good. Very good. That’s how I feel. I hoped you did.
The world is often dark these days, sir. But not in here, in this house. It was a pleasure to work for you. To know you.
As I opened the door, he said, Son?
Again I looked back.
He said, Maybe…a hug?
I put down the hostess-gift bag and returned to him. His height and the strong presence that he projected in life, as he had on the screen, disguised his frailty.
When he could, he said, You know that son I lost in the war?
You mean Jamie, the son you never had.
That’s the one. Well, if I had married someone named Corrina and if we’d had a son named Jamie and if I had lost him in the war, I now kind of know how that would have felt.
He had surprised me in many ways. Now I surprised myself by being unable to reply.
At the door again, after picking up the bag of money, I was able to say, I’ll do my best to come back one day, sir.
Everyone calls me Hutch.
Yes, sir. I’ll do my best to come back, and when I do, we’ll go to a thrift shop.
He bit his lip and nodded. Well. All right, then. I’m going to have a cookie now.
Have one for me.
Splendid. Yes. I will indeed. I’ll have two.
I stepped outside and closed the door.
Not immediately able to proceed, I stood there, inexpressibly grateful that my life, for all its terrors, is so filled with moments of grace.
THE SATCHEL CONTAINING THE FOUR BOMB TRIGGERS had grown so heavy that I needed all my strength and determination to carry it into the garage and stow it in the trunk of the Mercedes.
I zipped open the bag and, in the trunk light, found that it contained nothing more than I had put into it aboard the tugboat.
Relying on my psychic magnetism both to guide me through the fog without a major collision and to lead me to a pay phone, I drove away from Hutch’s place.
In these streets that seemed as mystic as they were misted, Hoss Shackett perhaps traveled in desperation and rage, either hoping to resuscitate the plan to incinerate four cities or preparing to flee justice, or seeking the monkey in the mechanism, the cause of his current misfortune.
The monkey, who had a highly active imagination, could not help worrying about the chief, because in his monkey heart he knew, just knew, that any encounter would not be with Hoss Shackett the Nice but with the Hoss Shackett who ate little kittens and picked his teeth with their bones.
The downside of psychic magnetism is that it occasionally leads me to a person whom I wish to avoid. This is because every effort that I make to block him from my thoughts is defeated by my constant worry that I will come face to face with him. And even if I succeed in pushing him from my conscious mind, the treacherous subconscious continues to fret about him. Then the object of my dread is either drawn to me—reverse psychic magnetism—or I to him, and often at just the wrong moment.
Therefore, to the exclusion of all else, I concentrated on finding a pay phone as I piloted the Mercedes. Pay phone, pay phone, pay phone.
Since cell phones have become ubiquitous, public pay phones have become more difficult to find. Someday the telephone will be a small voice-activated chip embedded just behind the jawbone and under the ear, and then cell phones will be as outmoded as the coin-operated variety that they have gradually but steadily replaced.
Those commentators who explain our world to us and who tell us how we should feel about it will call the embedded phone progress. And when someone from the government wishes to speak with you, they will always know where to reach you and, because of your implant’s transponder signature, where to find you.
This will go a long way toward encouraging the New Civility and toward discouraging the endless quarreling and tiresome debate that characterize our current society, which to so many impatient citizens seems old and tired. All that has been will be blown away, and you may be frightened sometimes by all the changes, but those who have the perspective and the ability to shape societal consensus are as sure as they have ever been about anything that, in the end, you will like your new world and feel that it is a paradise on earth, so just shut up already.
In the blinded night, wondering if eventually my fate would be much like Samson’s, whose eyes had been put out and who had been imprisoned in Gaza, I arrived by psychic magnetism and Mercedes in the parking lot of a convenience store, outside of which stood a pay phone.
Because I did not want these calls to be traced back to Birdie Hopkins’s cell, which would be big trouble for her, I went into the store, bought a bottle of aspirin and a Pepsi, and got change for the public phone.
After taking two aspirin, I tasked the information operator with finding me the numbers of the nearest FBI and Homeland Security field offices.
I called the FBI in Santa Cruz and told them about the nuclear weapons aboard the seagoing tugboat beached at the mouth of Hecate’s Canyon. I suggested that they immediately contact the Coast Guard to confirm that such a vessel had indeed run aground, and I warned them that Chief Hoss Shackett was among the people who had conspired to import those bombs.
The agent with whom I spoke was initially patient in the way that he would have been when listening to an earnest citizen discuss the necessity of all Earthlings wearing aluminum-foil skullcaps to prevent extraterrestrials from reading our thoughts.
As the telling details of my story accumulated, however, he became more involved. Then riveted. When the time arrived for me to hang up, he brought to bear all the tricks of psychology that a good agent knows, intent on keeping me on the line, teasing from me some detail that would lead to my identification, and convincing me that the bureau was prepared to reward me with a monument in Washington, my face on a postage stamp, and seventy-two virgins provided this side of Paradise.
I hung up and, in the fashion that I had divined my way to a pay phone, I proceeded to the church served by Reverend Charles Moran, who would never know that I had prevented him from killing his wife and committing suicide this very night.
The rectory was separated from the church by a courtyard in which gnarled and spiky abstract sculptures, apparently representing eternal truths, scared the crap out of me more than once as they loomed abruptly out of the fog.
I went around to the back of the church, to the corner occupied by the sacristy. The door was locked.