Checking the vintage electric clock for the umpteenth time, Lyle thinks:
The best part of the job, other than the money, is the anonymity. The worst part is the waiting, tolerable only because Eddie is punctual.
Usually. At half past nine, he is thirty minutes late. The clock, like the rest of the cabin, is embalmed in the 1970s; Formica counters, faux wooden paneled cabinets; even a shag rug in the living room. Every time Lyle walks through the front door, he expects to see one of Charlie’s Angels lounging on the sagging leather sofa. He never tells this to Eddie, because Eddie has no imagination and ridicules those who do.
Lyle checks on dinner. The omelet was ready at nine, and Eddie’s lateness forced Lyle to shove the pan to the back burner. By now, the improvised concoction had solidified into something resembling yellow snot. Lyle lights another Kool and stares out of the ice-crusted window of the galley kitchen.
With the full moon reflecting off the snow, the view is clear; pine trees that stretch into dark infinity. Just looking at the vista makes his bones ache with cold and Lyle is glad that tonight is his last view of this corner of the Adirondack Mountains. He wishes he could have convinced Eddie to rent a decent motel room instead of this relic of a cabin. Lyle is a native of Brooklyn and the silence, when the wind dies down, plays on his nerves.
At the sound of an engine rumbling, he stubs out his cigarette. Growing louder, the noise is followed by amber light shining through the windows, the dust on the glass damping its power.
Lyle limps to the window. The limp is courtesy of a drunken snowmobile crash two years ago that left him with a broken hip that never healed properly.
Eddie’s Ford Explorer crunches to a stop in the inlet Lyle had shoveled out of the two-foot snow bank that lines the road. Eddie climbs out, his puffy winter jacket making him look like the Michelin Man. He opens the trunk and yanks out a black duffel bag.
Then another. Lyle feels an uneasy lurch in his stomach. He watches with growing fear as Eddie shoulders the bags and wades in the direction of the wood shed. He sways side to side like a ship suddenly unmoored in a storm.
Five minutes later, Eddie throws the front door open, the icy Adirondack wind swirling snowflakes around him. He stomps snow off his boots and hangs his parka next to the woodstove.
“Is it too much to ask for you to shovel the driveway? What have you been doing, filing your nails?”
“Nice to see you, too,” Lyle says and hurries to the kitchen to set the table.
He shovels most of the omelet onto Eddie’s plate, leaving himself only a few forkfuls. His appetite is gone.
The bags. There has to be a logical explanation. In this business, there always is, even if you don’t understand it.
“You’d think that after two years of doing this, you’d learn how to cook more than just eggs and canned food,” Eddie says.
“If you had picked up steaks from Price Chopper like I asked you to, we’d have a proper meal,” Lyle said.
Eddie grumbles, which means he is conceding.
“Any trouble at the border?” Lyle asks, lighting another cigarette.
“No trouble at all.” Eddie sops up the remainder of the eggs with a piece of bread in a way that never fails to irritate Lyle.
“You didn’t tell me the drop was bigger than usual,” Lyle says.
Eddie fans smoke from his face.
Eddie says nothing and stares into his water glass as if expecting to find tea leaves in it.
“How’s your Mom doing?” Lyle says.
“How much is the operation going to cost? Last time you said–”
“I just drove three hours, two in a blizzard. Can we save it ’til tomorrow?” Eddie says, looking away. “Bring out the bottle of Maker’s Mark instead.”
Lyle stacks the dirty plates and takes two of the cleanest glasses from the cupboard.
At midnight Lyle lies awake on the sofa, and listens to Eddie snore in the bedroom. It’s a simple partnership. They share everything. The money. The risk, by alternating on the border crossings. One drives to the drop, the other waits in a motel, or a rented cabin; never the same one. They always pay in cash and never cross the border at the same point within six months and never with the same passports. They are always polite to strangers, but not overly friendly and give no reason for anyone to remember them. They abhor violence, and in appearance, they are interchangeable with a million other middle-aged white men.
They always deliver on time and collect their five thousand dollars apiece.
They never cheat Marcel, because to do so would be biting the hand that feeds them their mediocre existence.
Lyle throws off his covers and is immediately chilled, even through his long johns. Shivering, he slips on his jeans, steps into his snow pants and zips himself into his down parka.
Stepping into Eddie’s footprints, he shuffles his way to the woodshed, feeling the burn in his hip and calves. The wood shed is protected by a heavy, rusting padlock. A break-in is a remote possibility, but old habits die hard. Eddie opens the padlock and pulls on the light bulb string. A vintage snowmobile, halfway covered with a tarp frozen stiff, sits next to a metal shelf containing paint cans, the paint dried up long ago. Two duffel bags sit side by side on the rusting bottom shelf, looking out-of-place in their black nylon newness.
With trembling hands, Lyle pulls one out and unzips it. He rifles through the expected vials of pills, everything from Viagra to blood pressure medication. A dozen vials of Ecstasy intended for New York City. Nothing like a little recession in the U.S. economy to grease the tracks of the Canada-U.S. pill train.
Relieved, (not even Eddie would be stupid enough to rip off Marcel), he unzips the other bag. Stares in disbelief at the rubber-banded rolls of hundred dollar bills which fill it to almost bursting. The last time he saw the money, he was counting and packing them before putting them in Eddie’s Explorer. It was early in the morning and there was no hint of the snowstorm that would rage through Western New York by early afternoon. Lyle was feeling optimistic; while birds chirped overhead, he was calculating how many more drops he had to do before buying the diner in Sarasota.
“Eddie, you stupid bastard,” he says out loud and the sound of his own voice sends icicles through his chest. The bag in front of him is replaced by another image. Three years ago, a courier double-crossed Marcel. Word around the campfire was that Marcel shot him in the stomach and watched him die. It took over an hour, according to some imaginative sources. Lyle always doubted the story; it was the kind of tale bored drug runners told each other on long nights. But tonight, the story seems as real as the wind that howls through the trees.
His mind shifts to damage-control mode. No one knows where they are. That’s on the plus side. The operation is so compartmentalized that no one has a complete picture of the chain. They have never even met Marcel, always communicating through a middleman. There’s only one thing to do. Return the money to Marcel with a plausible explanation. Hope that they lose only their jobs, not their lives. He curses Eddie for putting him in this spot. Without telling him. Then again, Lyle always knew Eddie’s impulsive behavior would sooner or later land them in the trouble. There was that restlessness which he always managed to contain, but just barely.
Before Lyle can ruminate any further, his paranoid ears pick up a low rumbling sound. A sound very different from the high-pitched whine of a snowmobile.
Pulling the light bulb string, Lyle backs out of the cabin and closes the door without locking it. Takes cover behind the woodpile, giving him a clear view of the driveway. For a strained minute he hears nothing but the cold wind and he thinks he had imagined the sound. One hears all kinds of sounds in the woods, most of them harmless.
A black Range Rover pulls up behind Eddie’s Explorer. Its headlights are off, but the sleek shape is unmistakable. For seconds, the only sound Lyle hears is his own heart racing. Then the doors of the Rover open as if obeying an inner command and three people step out. They are clearly visible in the moonlight, aided by the light above the front door, which is powerful enough to illuminate the top of the driveway. Two of the men are slender and broad in the shoulders of their long, black overcoats. The man who climbs out of the back is tall and heavy. Even if the light were able to illuminate his dark skin, the bowler hat hides his eyes completely.
One of his men gets on his knees by the back tire of the Explorer and pulls an object from the wheel well. He tosses it to Marcel, who looks at it briefly before pocketing it.
The gangster standing closest to him reaches inside his coat and extends his arm, as if pointing at something. The light above the door shatters, the wind instantly swallowing the sound of broken glass. Marcel claps. The shooter unscrews the silencer and pockets it.
Followed by his men, Marcel sets off toward the house. Frozen by the cold and fear, Lyle watches as the light goes on in the living room. Three minutes later, a gunshot. Then another. And another.
He retreats to the woodshed and shoulders the bags. Keeping the cabin in sight, he backs away, careful to step on ice to avoid leaving footprints.
The front door opens and one of Marcel’s men steps out. He heads straight for the woodshed.
Lyle doesn’t see the impressive speed with which the gangster wades through the snow, because by then Lyle is moving at an impressive speed himself. He does not feel the two heavy bags, nor does he feel his hip which normally aches with every step. He is running for his life and that fact silences all other concerns. In a distant corner of his mind, he knows that Route 55 is two miles away. With any luck, he’ll make it in an hour. And if he’s really lucky, he will make it before his hip gives out.