I didn't realize it had been this long since I posted a chapter. The noose tightens.
It'd been six weeks since Woodson moved into the apartment above the department store. He hadn't gotten to know anyone in the building, but of the three other tenants he was friendliest to JoAnne. She worked as the weekend manager at the store. He sometimes saw her in the hallway as he was leaving for his Saturday morning meeting with Birkman.
Good Morning Mister Woodson, she would say, often while she was still checking her hair in the mirror at the top of the stairs.
Morning, Ma'am. She's smile at him in the reflection before stuffing her comb or compact into her little bag and rushing down to work.
He'd have to wait in Birkman's outer office. Sometimes for an hour. After he was invited inside and his eyes adjusted to the intolerably bright light streaming in from the window walls, he'd pass the old man a single slip of paper detailing his daughter's activities. Birkman's thick lidded eyes jumped from line to line, a wheeze escaping his throat at the end.
"We were able to break up the last meeting with the girlfriend, that's the second to last item," Woodson said, lighting one of the cigarettes he'd taken from the case on the desk. "Think maybe she's the connection to the pills we found."
"And who is we?" He always asked this, but Woodson's answer was always the same.
"My associate. It's better if I don't use names."
He was meeting Tony that night. They passed information through a safety deposit box at the bank - Birkman had set it up for him but it was a risk he had to take. Tony's note said he had important news. Woodson had decided to keep this out of the report until he knew more.
He ran into JoAnn as he was leaving his apartment again to go meet Tony. She seemed startled as she stepped into the hallway from downstairs.
"Oh, I'm sorry Mister Woosdon," she said, her fingers peeling off a baby blue glove on her left hand. The other glove was already crumpled in her jacket pocket. "Didn't expect to see you out so late."
"Long day?" he asked. She had been crying. It was nine o'clock and the store had been closed for three hours.
"Inventory," she said. She unlocked her door without appearing rushed. "Goodnight."
Tony wanted to meet at The Blue Ribbon which was a supper club on Interior Road that had really good perch. Woodson preferred to do business in the open anyway, so this suited him.
He recognized him by the gray hat with a glossy duck feather sticking out of the brim at a smooth angle that he said he'd be wearing. He was in the corner of the bar where the lights from the dining room didn't quite reach, his right cheek and hand illuminated by a red glow from the candle smoking on his table.
The glow dyed his drink darkly, the sip remaining drained in a slow gulp. He seemed a little wobbly but he straightened in his stool as Woodson approached.
"What do you have for me?" He didn't raise his hand to meet Tony's offering, nor did he sit. His eyes went limp over the man's face and drooped to the knot in his silver tie. His throat was billowing as he withheld whatever feelings Woodson had riled in him.
"Impatient, aren't we Jerry?" Tony let his hand return to his empty glass.
"That's not my name."
"Come on," he said, shrugging without expression. "I'm not gonna salute if that's what you're waiting for."
Woodson tucked his coat under the table and waved two fingers at the cocktail waitress. Her name was Regina and she knew what he wanted.
"Okay, but make it quick because it isn't a good idea to make people think we're chummy."
"Fine. But you've got to buy me another drink."
Woodson tolerated him for a few minutes as Regina brought new glasses. He wouldn't drink until Tony had said what he had to say.
"Looks like our girl is stepping out on us," he said, leaning closer. "There's someone else who's been tailing her. Watching her. I think they know each other because they've been meeting at the park by the hill. Cover of darkness and all that."
Tony smiled and the tip of his tongue slipped out of his mouth to touch his upper lip. "Can't know that. Not without getting closer. I know that he drives a dark green Oldsmobile with tinted windows. Waits outside Birkman's apartment until she's left for work in the morning. I think he knows I'm around because he always gives me the slip before resuming tail, but I know he catches her again after she's done at the office, because that car is on her by the time she's back home again." He paused to sip his drink and clear his throat. "It's after she's gone out, to that dealer's house, or the club in Milwaukee, that they go to meet. For fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. It's happened twice: yesterday and the day before. I thought you should know."
"You're right." A numb curl had ensnared Woodson's lungs. He drank before he was ready. One more. "And afterwards?"
"She races home. Runs into the apartment, slamming the door behind her like she's running from something. Late to work the last two days because of it. Sunglasses and heavy make-up."
"Yup." Tony leaned back and tucked the tips of his fingers in his belt. "What do you think?"
Woodson had produced his wallet.
"I think that's enough."
Tony eyed the bills and the black pores of his nostrils flared.
"So I'm off it then? You didn't hire me."
"But I'm giving you a better offer. Take a hike. Forget everything you saw. Everything you just told me."
Tony had frozen in place, jaw tightened and pulsing, but his eyes never left the wad of bills.
As Woodson drove back his knuckles had caught the whip of numbness slashing out from his insides. Mister Birkman had been right. Something terrible was about to happen. Was happening now. He drove by Megan's apartment and saw her car was gone. Was she at the park? Out with the boyfriend? He went inside - a set of tools he kept in the glove compartment allowed for this - and searched everything. He tore it apart in a way that no shred of his dissection could be detected. There were some more pills in her dresser, but that was all. He saw himself in the mirror of the vanity and his heart stopped for a moment, not recognizing himself. A necklace hung from the ornamental frame. A silver chain with a locket. He opened it, and closed it again quickly. He looked at himself once more in the mirror.
He left. He didn't have much time.