The dirty white pickup truck rambled into Collinsport, Maine, at 20 miles over the speed limit and farting black smoke. From the rolled down window one could see a cigarette and accompanying arm clad in a rust colored jacket, and one could hear loud—a stretch of the imagination might call it singing—and accompanying music on the radio:
'Cause little Willy, Willy won't go home
But you can't push Willy ‘round—Willy won't go!
Try tellin' everybody but, oh no,(
Little Willy, Willy won't—go home (1)
The screeching brakes startled a haggard housewife on the sidewalk. She was pushing a baby carriage while trying to carry groceries with two small children in tow. Willie Loomis stuck his head out the window.
“Hey, lady!” he called to her. “Where’s Popham Street? Can’t find it on this damn map.”
The woman’s first instinct was to ignore him and keep walking, but her five-year-old daughter ran up to the truck.
“I know that street! My friend, Jessica, lives there. She goes to the same school with—“
“Polly, come back here!” Her mother grabbed her by the arm. The little girl yelled to the truck driver as she was being hauled back to the sidewalk, “You turn that way at the corner, then go down that street and then the one after that—!” The little family hurried away.
On Popham Street Willie located the boarding house and moved in, as per Jason’s instructions. He used Elizabeth Stoddard of Collinwood as a reference to get in the door. The proprietors, a fat old man and his fat old wife, looked suspiciously at the scruffy stranger, wanting to know where he was from, what he was doing in town, and how on earth he would know someone like Mrs. Stoddard. They were also displeased when Willie gave them only six dollars down payment on the week’s rent and used the telephone.
Willie called his partner, making arrangements to meet later at some bar. He then got settled in his tidy little room and treated himself to a long overdue shower and shave.
When he came downstairs, Mr. and Mrs. Landlord were sitting down to supper with two other lodgers. Willie was famished, and the meatloaf and mashed potatoes smelled damn appealing, but grumpy old cow informed Willie that meals were provided only to tenants whose rents were paid in advance. The young man assured them that he was getting cash tonight and excused himself to get a drink of water from the kitchen. There he helped himself to an apple and a handful of change from a jar on the counter.
The autumn sun was setting as Willie approached a waterfront tavern called the Blue Whale, taking in the familiar sights, sounds and smells of a harbor. Most docks looked the same, and he and Jason had put in at ports all over the world. Of course, there were no tramp steam vessels in this dinky dive, just fishing rigs and tugboats. If the Irishman’s new deal fell through, maybe they could ship out again. That wouldn’t be so bad.
Willie sat at the bar and counted out enough dimes, nickels and pennies to pay for a beer. He could nurse it until Jason showed up to buy more booze and, he hoped, some dinner. Bob the bartender gave him a weary, disgusted look and silently delivered his brew; he was nothing like his buddy Bob from Capri Lounge in the old neighborhood. At least the guy hadn’t carded him. All his forged documentation was confiscated at his last known address, when he was a guest of the North Carolina penal system.
Willie turned around to check out local talent among the other patrons. Not bad for a hick town; Collinsport had some fine looking women, and he could go for some female companionship. Seaman Loomis was used to some long stretches onboard ship, but four months in prison had been torture. There were no single girls there, though—just couples.
For the moment, however, putting cash in hand was a priority. Once he had dough in his pocket, the rest would take care of itself. So Willie scanned the room for a mark who might be willing to donate his wallet. There was a bearded, middle-aged dude at the bar yakking at two old guys, some men with dates sitting at tables eating and drinking, and a couple with delusions of dexterity on the dance floor. Except for one suit, they were all working class stiffs and not worth the effort.
He observed the big man in a suit—upright-citizen type courting a lovely girl with long brown hair. Lucky bastard. Willie had to get that guy to stand up in order to make the hit, so a diversion was in order.
Willie stuck out his foot, nearly tripping an old coot on his way to the restroom. He jumped off his stool, grabbing an empty beer bottle by the neck with one hand, and the startled gentleman by the lapel with his other.
“Hey, watch where you’re going, asshole!” Willie shouted. That worked. Big Man was on his feet to break up the scuffle. He pried the bottle from Willie’s raised hand as the boy nimbly reached for the inside of the guy’s suit jacket. Suddenly, he was grabbed from behind and pulled away.
“There you are!” Jason secured his arm around Willie’s shoulder. “Now, don’t go losin’ your temper like that.” The Irishman flashed his blarney smile at the other two men. “The lad didn’t mean anythin’ by it. Let me buy you both a drink.” he cooed.
“Your friend better watch himself, McGuire,” warned the big man, adjusting his shirt cuff, “or I’ll do it for him.” Willie sneered at Mr. Upright Citizen and was about to accept the challenge when Jason pushed him aside and spoke confidentially to the others.
“Please forgive my friend; he’s havin’ a rough time of it. Just learned today that his dear sister is not well and needs a rather serious operation.” Jason shook his head sadly and continued in an even softer tone. “I’m afraid it looks bleak.”
Willie picked up on the story because those were the rules. “What? What’d you hear?” He turned Jason around. “Is it about . . . ?”
“Excuse us, gentlemen,” Jason latched himself once more to the young man’s shoulder as Willie wiped his sleeve across his face and hung in head in despair. “Come along, son, let’s sit at a table and we’ll talk.” The Irishman retreated, taking his troubled companion with him. “Good evening, Miss Winters!” He called over to big man’s date across the room as they traveled to the other side of the bar.
“Let go ‘a me,” Willie shook him off as Jason pushed him into a chair. “Whadja do that for?”
Jason motioned for the bartender and in a jovial voice ordered a round of drinks, then continued to the boy in a warning tone that did not match the smile on his face. “Now, listen up, mate. This is a small town where everybody knows everybody else, so there’s goin’ to be a different set of rules here—and you need to follow them. That was Burke Devlin you almost pinched back there. I don’t recommend you offend the likes of him.”
Willie watched Mr. Devlin who had returned to his dinner companion. “Big Man’s starin’ at me; well, I can stare right back.”
“Who’s that Good-Evening-Miss-Winters? Ya know her?”
Jason grabbed his arm. “Turn around. She’s from Collinwood and you are to steer clear,” he hissed, pointing doggedly at the boy to emphasize the statement.
Willie turned back to the table. “Get your fuckin’ finger outta my face, will ya?”
“Then listen to me: You’ll be keepin’ your sticky fingers to yourself; there’ll be no cons and no griftin’. We need to keep our noses clean for the duration of this visit.”
“But Jason, I’m broke. I spent all my dough to get here and slept in my truck for four days.” Willie grabbed a handful of peanuts from the bowl on the table. “And what took you so long? I been here for over an hour, and there was nothin’ to do.”
“I was havin’ dinner at Collinwood.”
“Yeah, well, I hope you brought me a doggy bag; I’m starvin.’”
“It’s not a restaurant, ‘tis Liz Stoddard’s estate where I’m stayin’.” Willie gave him a look. “Oh, stop it; I’ll buy you some grub, and here—here’s some cash to get by.” Jason pulled out his wallet and handed his partner a ten dollar bill.
“It’s twenty-five bucks a week at that hole in the wall ya sent me to, and if I don’t pay up, they won’t feed me.”
Jason reluctantly fished out another five. “Give them this on deposit. I’ll get more to you soon.” The bartender delivered two beers. Jason ordered an oyster po’boy sandwich for his friend.
“How come I can’t stay with you at that big fancy house? You got some goods on your Miz Lizzy friend, right? So, just tell her she’s gotta let me stay too.”
“Things are a bit precarious at present.”
Willie popped more peanuts in his mouth. “Should I pretend to know what that means?”
“It means you wait ‘till the time is right. Good things come to those who wait, lad, and this woman is rich. We can take her for a bundle.”
“What kinda dirt ya got on this old broad?”
Jason didn’t think of her as old or broad. Younger than he, she was. True, she was not the knockout he remembered from 18 years ago, but Elizabeth still possessed many fine assets, both personal and financial.
“Never you mind; you needn’t be concerned with that.” Willie slumped in his chair; Jason was keeping secrets again. “Look, we have to play our cards very carefully or this whole deal could go south.”
“Yeah, like Panama.”
“Belay that. We don’t talk about Panama.”
Willie could understand his partner’s scowl. For years, Panama had been Jason’s dream for the big score that would secure their fortune for rest of their lives, and it got kicked right out from under them. They were ripped off, hunted by gangsters and forced to run for their lives. Back in the states, Willie disappeared by going to prison for using stolen credit cards. Jason disappeared into a crippling depression from which it took months to recover.
Elizabeth Collins Stoddard was their last chance. Many years ago the woman had paid Jason to keep some big, dark secret and never return. But, that’s the thing about blackmailers: they’re never satisfied and they never completely go away.
After Willie’s meal and another round of beer, Jason and his buddy left the bar and headed for his shiny black Cadillac. It wasn’t really his car—it was Mrs. Stoddard’s—but he felt free to borrow it whenever he pleased. The Irishman opened the trunk and retrieved Willie’s old duffle bag, which he had saved for him since the day his mate was arrested down south.
Willie hoisted the bag over his shoulder. “Man, am I glad to get this back. I been carryin’ my stuff around in plastic bags, like some bum.”
Jason smiled. “You stay out of trouble, now, and sit tight. If all goes well, this could be over in a few days, and we’ll be on Easy Street.”
“Gotta be better than Popham Street.”
Willie looked at Jason for a moment. The duffle slipped to the ground as he, with an outpouring of uncharacteristic emotion, hugged his partner, his mentor, his best friend.
“I missed you, Jason,” he said into the man’s trench coat. “I’m glad we didn’t split up. I wouldn’t know what else to do.”
Then the boy abruptly released him, turned and ran to his truck, threw the duffle bag in the back and climbed into the cab.
Jason smiled sentimentally as he watched Willie speed off into the night in a cloud of backfire smoke. As the Irishman reached for the car keys, he realized his wallet was missing.