Carol realizes how young the teacher is and that she is shattered, too. She feels she should try to comfort the woman, but how? "Can I get those things out of his locker?"
The teacher nods.
What passes for lawn in front of the seedy house is purple gray with Thursday-morning frost. Tad sits behind the wheel of a van, an aging Econoline with covered rear windows, listening to wacky morning radio. He's been keeping his distance from Rooster, who's up on the porch walking back and forth and smoking a cigarette.
An immaculate black Cutlass Supreme with smoked windows and custom t-top rolls up to the house. Out steps a stout man in a slightly shiny, several-hundred-dollar suit. He wears gold and sunglasses and has a bald head. He's Oscar Riggi. He's the man.
Rooster stops pacing.
Tad jumps out of the van and crosses through a cloud of Econoline exhaust. "Mr. Riggi, how you doin'?"
Tad kisses ass, but Rooster doesn't go for that. He knows he's not so easily replaced.
"Rooster. Tad. How are things? How's our package?"
"Everything's all fine and loaded, sir," Tad answers, looking involuntarily at the van and thinking instinctively of the carpet-lined cut in the floor. He pats the van's side.
Riggi looks through Tad as if he's an exhaust cloud. "Things went well, I trust, huh, Rooster?"
"Yeah, you can trust, Captain." Rooster flicks his cigarette butt in Tad's direction. Not at him, but in his direction. It's just far enough off so that Tad can't say anything.
Riggi climbs the few steps up to the porch and flips Rooster a fairly thick roll of small and medium bills rubberbanded together. Rooster thumbs it nonchalantly and tucks it away. Riggi cuffs him behind the head, not without affection.
"Hey, I can count on you, huh?"
"That's right, Oscar."
Tad comes up to join them, much larger than both men, yet feeble and intimidated in their presence. Without taking his eyes off Rooster, Riggi reaches into his jacket pocket and produces a packet of papers that he hands to Tad.
"There's the address of the other pickup. Instructions on what roads to take. Your destination is in there, too. Memorize it, write it in code, whatever, then destroy it. There's travel money in there also."
Tad stays with it, endeavors to look keen, on top of things. "Okay, okay."
"Call me every eight hours regardless of where you are. Got it? I want my phone ringing every eight hours."
"Where you gonna call me?"
"Wherever I'm at, eight hours."
Riggi gives a pinched smile, like he's tasting bad jelly. "You get the rest of your money when you're back."
Riggi nods and turns to him. "You're still here?"
Tad hustles into the van and drives off. Riggi turns back to Rooster. "You have breakfast yet?"
Fourteen Months Later
PAUL GABRIEL POURS a second bowl of cereal. He reaches in and
fishes out the prize. It's a rubber astronaut that dropped in water grows to
eight and a half times its original size. He puts it with the rest of the prizes
he's been saving for his son. There are more than a dozen now. Paul rubs a
circle at his temple with his fingertips. He's graying there. He's pale. Tired
Paul lowers his spoon. "Carol? Carol? Are you ready? We should get going." A moment later she enters the kitchen. Her outfit doesn't do much for her. No makeup; dark circles under her eyes. She crosses the kitchen, which is looking shabby. She pushes a sponge around the countertop and tosses it into a sink full of dishes. Carol stands next to Paul as he changes his mind about the cereal and pours it in the garbage. He has the sensation that he sees the two of them there, as if from above. They look shitty together, the house looks shitty, everything is shitty.
Published by Doubleday. Copyright © 2008 by Levien Works, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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