"If I were a gambling man," I thought as I turned the ignition key, "I would wager that your basket holds something far different from the crow you claim is in there."
To which I imagined his reply: "There's but one in this car who speaks falsehood."
Of course I probably said something more like, "There's no crow in that basket." And he said something more like, "You want to bet? Or are you calling me a liar? Just take me to Eddie."
I had just dialed my cell phone when I saw my passenger exit the pickup point, the basket in hand. I hung up before connection, and I slipped the phone into my inside jacket pocket before whistling for him to come over. The snow had just turned from the powdery mist that barely stuck to the hood before dripping away into bigger drops and off the car in a slow stream to flakes almost the size of quarters. I was familiar with that rapid of a change in snow, and I knew also what the roads would become within the hour. The sun was setting. Well, what sun there was on a bleak day such as this one.
I was hoping the ice would set in quicker. It would make my job so much easier. I had to get rid of the car and soon. I thrust my hand into the oversized front left pocket of my wool-blend coat just to make sure that the other package was secure. I coughed so that he wouldn't hear the paper rustling.
"So, you don't bet, huh?"
"What makes you say that?" For a second, I thought maybe I had spoken what was on my mind.
He grunted something inaudible with Eddie's name thrown in at the end, and I was about to ask him to repeat it when I decided that getting too personal with the kid was out of the question. Relationships like this one were always short lived, and I was too tired to invest any feelings in him. He fidgeted in his own pockets and noticed I was checking him out. "What? Oh." He quieted for a moment and then started in again.
"Say you were a gambler. Say, like that Mr. Wilson character everyone's looking for."
"You mean looking out for."
"Yeah, whatever. Looking out for." My companion brushed the name aside as if it were a mere insect that could be exterminated with a large shoe or a day-old newspaper. Something you wouldn't waste today's comics page on. But Wilson was on the rise and a real threat to the entire organization. Or so some thought, and I knew. Yes, that I knew.
"Just hy-po-thetical for the moment. You're a gambler."
"I'm a gam-bler." My mockery of his pronunciation barely registered on his radar screen, and I decided not to push him. I was curious as to where he was going. Not with this cockamamie gibberish, but his story. Why he was in the car.
"Look, just hy-po . . . just for fun, you're a gambler. Let's bet on something arbitrary."
The traffic light two blocks ahead flashed yellow and then red in rapid succession. We eased to a stop, but not before I turned the wheel slightly to the right as I braked. We kept going forward then skipped to the right. The ice began solidifying on the pavement, but remained a little slushy. My passenger leaned to the left and forward till the seatbelt snapped back and halted his progress.
"Take this traffic light." He droned on, sounding greatly like a hiccup that wouldn't go away. "Let's bet on how many cars go through the left turn."
"Counting the freaks who run it?" I asked mostly to see if he was paying attention or if he just liked hearing the sound of his own voice.
"Yeah, those too. How many?"
"I don't know." I tried to sound stupid, but it felt difficult.
"No, come on, guess. It'll be fun. Hurry, it's about to turn."
Nine. "Um, four."
"Hundred says it's nine, including two freaks." He chuckled and glanced over to see if I were looking, probably wondering if he won any points over on me with his freak reference.
"Look, I'm just here to drive."
"Okay, okay. Just for fun." He shifted the basket, turning it so that the hinged part of the lid faced me. He popped the clasp and opened the lid, shoving his hand into the basket with the dexterity of a baseball mitt. Warning lights flashed briefly in my mind, not knowing what really was inside. I could have stabbed him right then. Gutted him like a steer before he could look up. But I was curious, so my left hand remained as steady by my side as my right one on the steering wheel. Besides, the last thing I wanted was a bloody trail. He grinned and put what he grabbed onto the dash.
Ben Franklin smiled back. I wasn't used to those stakes, but I knew I lost even before the light turned. I knew that traffic light intimately.
"Hah. I told you so." He snatched the hundred off the dash. "That one was for fun. The next will cost you. Say, you are a gambler, aren't you?"
"What?" I saw him pointing at my chest.
"You're not wearing a seatbelt."
"That's quite a gamble."
"I was in a car wreck. The strap hurts my shoulder."
"A wreck. That's heavy. How'd it happen?"
"I'm a sucky driver. I lost my concentration." When it became obvious that he wasn't listening, I added, "Because the freak sitting next to me wouldn't shut up."
"Yah, so what made Eddie pick you for the job? He said he'd send his best man." He fidgeted with the basket, drawing it closer with one hand firm on its lid.
"Like I said, I'm just the driver. Eddie tells me to pick up Joe." I knew he had never met Eddie, but I was having fun. "You are Joe, right? We already established that." I paused to see if he would pick up my cue. And to see how far he'd take his lies.
"Yeah, Joe." He looked away. "That's me."
"Deliver Joe with the goods," I continued. "He says there should be a crow in his basket and don't ask questions. Drivers aren't supposed to know anything. That's part of the food chain." Tension rippled across his brow. I was pleased. But he knew more than his stupid looks suggested, so I tossed him some bait: "But why would anyone put a crow in a basket?"
"Look, Jim. . ."
"It's Sam. Didn't Eddie tell you who the pick up man was?" Amateur.
"Yes. I . . . forgot. Look, Sam. I'm gonna let you in on something." His eyes widened. His voice rose two octaves. "This is big. I mean like King Kong big. This crow in here," he tapped the lid and tried to sound like a magician conning the audience with his shtick. "This crow is one of three pieces. Valuable pieces. Top secret stuff that when combined . . ."
"will give the ability . . ."
"What? What?" He shook his head as if he were shaking off the last bits of a deep sleep.
"The food chain. Don't you understand the hierarchy of authority? I'm a driver. You're a courier. You don't know a thing, and I know twice as less. Got it?" I could see his outline sit up straight, leaning forward till his seatbelt locked him in place. I took the opportunity to test the brakes and the ice again. A gentle tap on the brake sent the car to the right, and Joe swung against the taught strap. The ice had firmed and the balding tires would multiply my chances when the time came. All I needed now was to know what and where my passenger could lead me to. Information from this plebe, I hoped, would be more useful than my last stop, although that one paid off in other dividends. I tightened the screws a little so that he would loosen his tongue. "You don't know Jack. But if you did, you'd be pretty dangerous about now. And valuable."
"That's what I'm talking about, Slim." His voice grew anxious, but I could hear the tension smooth out of his tone. "This food chain stuff is for the birds. I mean, who are they to have it all? Take this Wilson character."
"Oh, yeah. Him again, huh? And my name is Sam, not Slim."
He hesitated for a second, but his confused look was fleeting. "Exactly, him again. That guy takes major risks, but the payoffs he gets are sweeter than anything we could imagine. Only high stakes for his games. Word is he's gunning for all three of these . . . well, objects." This I wanted to hear. "He's got one already. This crow," he said as he patted the basket again. "This crow is number two. And for number three, I have good word where the rose is." He held the double z sound a little longer than my ears could stand. But he finally bought my full attention. I knew he was lying about part of it, anyway. The other part might hold true, however, so I let him continue babbling.
"Now if I could get the two Wilson doesn't have, then he'd have to come to me. See what I mean? Then I'd be the man of the moment." He clasped his hands together, leaned back, and cradled his neck. I could just see him thinking about being King Ring-a-Ding, sucking down margaritas somewhere down south on the east coast, having some babe peel his shrimp.
I pulled off the main road and eased up on the gas. It was completely dark now, but the headlights splattered the ground enough to reveal the winds of the road and the silhouettes of the trees encroaching the roadway. I swallowed twice, coughed, and then started to lay my hand on the table. "So, Pete. What's my role in your scheme?"
"Well, let me tell you . . ."
"I thought you said your name was Joe."
"Um, that's my middle name. My friends call me Pete." He remained calm, but he began breathing through the mouth. Amateur.
"Hey Pete, Eddie didn't send me to pick up Joe."
"No?" I heard him try to swallow, but his throat was too dry.
"No. It was supposed to be some dude named Alex. Alex with a basket." I paused long enough to hear his breath hissing between his exposed teeth. "I see a basket, but you're no Alex."
The gun came out before I could continue. The glint in the dark suggested something large, so I kept my hand as steady as I could. My knife could have found his jugular before he took another breath, before he could even think of pulling the trigger. But his flustered story grew intriguing, so I decided to let him breathe a little longer. His half of the car reeked of tension, and I let him speak next.
"Ok. So I'm not Joe or Pete or Alex. But I'm the man with the heat and the basket, so shut up."
"I see. So what happened to the real guy? You've got the basket." I knew his answer would be a lie, because he had no clue. But I did.
"I killed him. Joe . . . Alex . . . whoever. I killed him and took the crow. I waited for him to come back and I took the crow. Right here, see?" He was pleading, it seemed, more for himself than for me, but somehow it was important to him that I buy something he said. Of course I didn't.
"So, were you just going to give it over to Eddie? Or keep it for yourself? Or maybe get it to Wilson? You aren't that whacked out, are you?
"No, no, no . . . I . . . I am Wilson. That's who I really am. Mr. Wilson."
"Really, I am. And I'm taking it all. The crow. The rose. The . . ."
"Pete? May I call you Pete?"
"Wilson . . . my name is. . ."
"Pete, it's obvious that you have some issues here. Maybe you're not paid enough. You need recognition. Boost the self esteem. But I'm a driver. Whoever you are, whatever your game is, I could care less. I'm just here to deliver you to Eddie. Now what's really in that basket? 'Cause if there's no crow in there, then Eddie'll be so fuming mad he'll make me drive the old lady around for a month before I get to go on a real job again. Did you ever stop to think about anyone else?" I let out half a sigh and added under my breath, "jerk."
The road curved, and I held the steering wheel tightly. Pete was too distracted to notice that we'd been in the car for almost an hour. Too distracted to see we were going nowhere in specific. At least we weren't. But I was.
"I . . . I . . ." "Come on, Pete. Put the gun away and let's talk this over. You must have some plan. Do you need my help?" I coughed twice while I rechecked the package in my left pocket. It was secure, and I had to make sure it stayed that way. I didn't know how long I could distract him, and I really wanted to know where the rose was. He said he knew where to find it.
The passenger seat remained quiet. Then Pete sprang to life, like a long distance runner bursting that last bit of energy through his muscles before the finish line. What did they call it? The kick. He kicked away: "Say, you've been talking a lot of crap tonight yourself. How do I know that you are who you say you are? How do I know you're Sam?"
"Come on, Pete. Would I lie to you? My name is Sam. Eddie sent me to pick you up. But then how would you know, since he didn't send for you?"
When he had no reply, I threw out my challenge: "If I were a gambling man, I would wager that your basket holds something far different from the crow you claim is in there."
"You still think I don't have the crow. What makes you think I'm bluffing?" He was getting cocky, almost daring me to call his hand. I'm sure he couldn't fathom that I truly knew anything about the crow's whereabouts.
"Let me tell you something, big boy. And hear me through before you answer. If you have the crow, why did you get in the car?" We entered the mouth of a covered bridge, its blackness swallowing the headlights just a few feet ahead of the car. The ice was thicker here, and I lost my bearings for a second as the car swerved. I struggled to maintain control, not over just the car but over Pete. Just a little longer. I gripped the steering wheel and let up on the gas. The car steadied as we exited the bridge, and I continued talking above his silence.
"You're not the real courier, so you must have been there to steal the crow, not give it to Eddie. Surely if you got what you were looking for, you wouldn't just hop in and take it to him." I heard half a protest, but I stifled him quickly. "No, a guy like you would bargain with someone else. Maybe you are working as a free agent and are shooting for Eddie and Mr. Wilson to battle it out. With two of those objects, as you call them, that is if you really know where the rose is, you'd be one cool dude. Nobody'd mess with the likes of you. And you surely wouldn't be sitting next to me on your way to see Eddie. No, the goods weren't there when you killed Alex, so you had to follow the only trail you had. Me. Only what were you going to do when I got to Eddie's?"
I slowed my speech, trying to sound jittery, my breath vaporizing each syllable with a ghostly haze in the cold air. "Or were you going to dispose of me before then if I didn't have the goods either? Because someone else pinched them before you could and then I get whacked because you have to take your frustrations out on someone."
I paused. The silence sharpened the edge on whatever tension was eating away at Pete. The windshield wipers scraped away in slow motion. Vapor spread and vanished on both sides of the front seat.
"Now I'm not much of a gambling man myself, but my guess is that you have something or know something or else you wouldn't have taken this gamble. Getting in the car, that is."
I tapped the brakes to test the ice and to jostle Pete around a little. The gun still made me nervous, and I couldn't see where he was pointing. The ice was firm and slick. I sensed that the snow had deepened along side the road, thick and cushiony. Trees darkened the way ahead, blotting out most of the stars. But I still had a firm grip on the wheel, and our drive did not waver from the road I had chosen.
"So what's your flavor, Pete?"
"I. . . I . . ."
"I thought so. Let's make a real wager. None of this hundred-dollar stuff. If you win, I don't take you to Eddie. You walk away with the basket. If you lose, you give me the basket and tell all."
Pete moved around in his seat, probably finally thinking about what Eddie would do to him when we got there. Not that Eddie was ever at the end of this chosen road, but Pete didn't know that. What was he thinking about? Fingernails removed and then the fingers, for starters? Losing his tongue? Castration?
He didn't think long before he replied. "Ok, fine. What's the game?" There was a pause, and then he said the most honest thing of the evening: "Just don't take me to Eddie."
I was moved, slightly. What was this kid's deal anyway? He really didn't belong here. He was this close to scoring big, cashing in a major stack of chips, but he didn't know how bad he was messing up, either. But he had no intention of folding his hand, or else the gun would have made its way back into his pocket. Maybe he was toying with me and not the other way around. I edged the car to the left side of the road and pressed slightly on the gas.
"I bet you can't hit a tree with that gun while the car is moving."
"What kind of bet is that? How are we gonna know one way or the other? It's too dark and it's snowing."
"Don't you have ears, Petey? I think it'll be obvious. Just roll down your window first."
"Okay, but is that all?"
"And you won't cheat, saying it was the wind if I hit it?"
"No." I put my hand on the door handle. I heard his window crack open. The cold air in the car turned to a biting blast across my face. I could see his outline disappear through the open window.
"There's something I didn't tell you, Pete."
"Huh? I can't hear you."
"I was never in a car wreck. And I always wear my seatbelt."
"What?" He was yelling but still had his head out the window.
"I know there's no crow in that basket."
"Talk louder, I can't hear anything."
"You see, I killed Alex before you showed up." I thrust my hand into my left jacket pocket and clutched the package there.
"Wait," he screamed. "I'm about to shoot.
"I am a gambling man, and I took the crow." He didn't hear me. He was intent on hitting the tree. What tree I'll never know. But he shot anyway.
No sound echoed back. Just silence.
Pete slumped back in the car, not even bothering to roll his window back up. I didn't care. I just wanted him to cough up what he knew.
"Well. . ." I said.
The wind whipped through the car, sounding like a hurricane. Pete remained silent.
"Come on. You lost the bet. Fair and square."
"Look, I can't give you what's in here."
"Why not? You lost. Or are you a welcher?"
"No way, not me. It's because my employer would kill me. Just kill me."
"Oh, and who is your employer?"
He mumbled. I could hear him half sobbing next to me. Pathetic.
"Who is it?"
"Wilson. I work for Mr. Wilson. And there's no way I can give you the rose in this basket. He'll kill me and then he'll kill you. He'll find you 'cause he knows everything."
I knew that was Pete's trump card, but it didn't beat what I had in my hand. He told me what I wanted, and so he served his purpose. I wasn't the least concerned about who might find me after tonight.
"You're such an amateur."
Before he could react, I tapped the brakes, jerking him forward. Before he could level the gun, I stepped on the gas, sending him backward again. Before he could say a word, I let up on the accelerator, opened my car door, and jumped.
Within seconds I had stopped rolling, the snow bracing my fall. More snow crunched as the car left the road. The tree came next, crunching the car just as loudly. I waited for more sounds, but none came.
"Hey, Pete?" I whipped out my cell phone and waited for a signal. I could faintly hear the motor still running.
"Pete?" I reached the car in less than ten steps, moving with caution so as not to slip on the wet snow. The phone beeped, and I hit redial.
A small incline sloped from the edge of the curve where the car left the road. The vehicle had nose-dived and then flipped over, head first. The motor hummed, and the car was still in drive. The front wheels intermittently spit out bits of snow and ice.
The phone clicked after the third ring. "Hey, it's me. You'll never believe this one." The car roof had caved in half way, but Pete's window had enough opening left for me to reach through and touch him.
"Yeah. I got the goods. Alex didn't put up much of a fight. Clean cut. I'm somewhere up Hammond Pike, out in the middle of nowhere. We passed a covered bridge about ten minutes ago. Yeah, we . . . I'll tell you about that in a minute. Pick me up at that bridge. I think I can make it there in a half hour." Pete didn't move. I shook him. He still didn't move, but a faint sucking from his mouth let me know he was still breathing.
"The crow was right there where you said it would be. I didn't leave much of a mess, but you'd better make a clean sweep before the cops get wind. And debug the phones." I tried to pry the door, but it wouldn't budge.
"The most whacked out part, though, is what happened next. This guy I've never seen before comes out of nowhere while I'm sitting in the car after I pop Alex. Goes into the place and comes out with the basket. . . . No, with the basket. I already had the crow." I checked my pocket to make sure the package hadn't fallen out when I jumped.
"So I figured he's up to something. Like he might know Eddie or something, so I call him over and tell him I'm there to pick up Joe with the basket. . . . Yeah, I just made up some name. . . . So he gets in the car. . . . Yeah, right in. No questions." I fumbled around the front seat in the dark, wishing I had a flashlight or even a pack of matches.
"But I know he's lying because I have the crow. So I play around with him, waiting to see what he might know. Before I know it, he's talking about the rose and Wilson and the objects. So, I keep him talking, and he starts answering to all these names, Joe, Pete, even Wilson. . . . Yeah, Wilson. Can you believe it? And then I throw out the name Alex, and he pulls a gun. I mean, I don't even know where he came from and he doesn't know me, but here he is with a gun. But he was talking about the rose, so I kept at him. Meanwhile all I wanted to do was ditch the car like we always do. Yeah, slow down and jump." I went back to searching around Pete's body when the floor came up empty. His left hand was still clutching the basket. He groaned as I relieved him of possession.
"Here I figured that I'd done a good day's worth of work and was rewarded nicely with the crow. But then this kid gave me a bonus. Do you know what he had?" I flipped open the basket. Pete hadn't lied in the end about the rose. I removed the final piece of the puzzle.
"I have no clue where he got it, but he had the rose. . . . No kidding. He must have brought it with him and put it in the basket." The wind picked up and sliced coldly against my face.
"I had him all messed up, even though he had the gun. But I bluffed him into telling me about the rose. And then he says the most outlandish thing. Guess who he said he worked for. Wilson. Can you believe that? He said he worked for Wilson." I gently wrapped the rose in the same package as the crow.
"What an amateur," I said half into the phone and half to myself as I strode against the wind, walking to my pickup point. "As if he could ever work for me."