Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.

Francis Bacon

Tác giả: Sidney Sheldon
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Biên tập: Bach Ly Bang
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Language: English
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Chapter 13
ndre Gillian was in the kitchen making preparations for spaghetti alla carbonara, a large Italian salad, and a pear torte when he heard a loud, ominous popping sound, and a moment later the comfortable hum of the central air conditioner trailed off into silence.
Andre stamped his foot and said, "Merde! Not the night of the game."
He hurried to the utility closet where the breaker box was located and flicked the electrical switches, one by one. Nothing happened.
Oh, Mr. Pope was going to be furious. Simply furious! Andre knew how much his employer looked forward to his weekly Friday-night poker game. It was a tradition that had been going on for years, and it was always with the same elite group of players. Without air-conditioning, the house would be unbearable. Simply unbearable! New Orleans in September was only for the uncivilized. Even after the sun went down, there was no relief from the heat and humidity.
Andre returned to the kitchen and consulted the kitchen clock. Four o'clock. The guests would be arriving at 8:00. Andre thought about telephoning Mr. Pope and telling him the problem, but then he remembered that the lawyer had said he was going to be tied up in court all day. The dear man was so busy. He needed his relaxation. And now this!
Andre took a small black telephone book from a kitchen drawer, looked up a number, and dialed.
After three rings, a metallic voice intoned, "You have reached the Eskimo Air-Conditioning Service. Our technicians are not available at this time. If you will leave your name and number and a brief message, we will get back to you as soon as possible. Please wait for the beep."
Foutre! Only in America were you forced to hold a conversation with a machine.
A shrill, annoying beep sounded in Andre's ear. He spoke into the mouthpiece: "This is the residence of Monsieur Perry Pope, Forty-two Charles Street. Our air-conditioning has ceased to function. You must send someone here as quickly as possible. Vite!"
He slammed down the receiver.!!!Of course no one was available. Air-conditioning was probably going off all over this dreadful city. It was impossible for air conditioners to cope with the damnable heat and humidity. Well, someone had better come soon.
Mr. Pope had a temper. A nasty temper.
In the three years Andre Gillian had worked as a cook for the attorney, he had learned how influential his employer was. It was amazing. All that brilliance in one so young. Perry Pope knew simply everybody. When he snapped his fingers, people jumped.
It seemed to Andre Gillian that the house was already feeling warmer. Ça va chier dur. If something is not done quickly, the shit's going to hit the fan.
As Andre went back to cutting paper-thin slices of salami and provolone cheese for the salad, he could not shake the terrible feeling that the evening was fated to be a disaster.
When the doorbell rang thirty minutes later, Andre's clothes were soaked with perspiration, and the kitchen was like an oven. Gillian hurried to open the back door.
Two workmen in overalls stood in the doorway, carrying toolboxes. One of them was a tall black man. His companion was white, several inches shorter, with a sleepy, bored look on his face. In the rear driveway stood their service truck.
"Gotta problem with your air-conditioning?" the black man asked.
"Oui! Thank heaven you're here. You've just got to get it working right away. There'll be guests arriving soon."
The black man walked over to the oven, sniffed the baking torte, and said, "Smells good."
"Please!" Gillian urged. "Do something!"
"Let's take a look in the furnace room," the short man said. "Where is it?"
"This way."
Andre hurried them down a corridor to a utility room, where the air-conditioning unit stood.
"This is a good unit, Ralph," the black man said to his companion.
"Yeah, Al. They don't make 'em like this anymore."
"Then for heaven's sake why isn't it working?" Gillian demanded.
They both turned to stare at him.
"We just got here," Ralph said reprovingly. He knelt down and opened a small door at the bottom of the unit, took out a flashlight, got down on his stomach, and peered inside. After a moment, he rose to his feet. "The problem's not here."
"Where is it, then?" Andre asked.
"Must be a short in one of the outlets. Probably shorted out the whole system. How many air-conditioning vents do you have?"
"Each room has one. Let's see. That must be at least nine."
"That's probably the problem. Transduction overload. Let's go take a look."
The three of them trooped back down the hall. As they passed the living room, Al said, "This is sure a beautiful place Mr. Pope has got here."
The living room was exquisitely furnished, filled with signed antiques worth a fortune. The floors were covered with muted-colored Persian rugs. To the left of the living room was a large, formal dining room, and to the right a den, with a large green baize-covered gaming table in the center. In one corner of the room was a round table, already set up for supper. The two servicemen walked into the den, and Al shone his flashlight into the air-conditioning vent high on the wall.
"Hmm," he muttered. He looked up at the ceiling over the card table. "What's above this room?"
"The attic."
"Let's take a look."
The workmen followed Andre up to the attic, a long, low-ceilinged room, dusty and spattered with cobwebs.
Al walked over to an electrical box set in the wall. He inspected the tangle of wires. "Ha!"
"Did you find something?" Andre asked anxiously.
"Condenser problem. It's the humidity. We musta had a hundred calls this week. It's shorted out. We'll have to replace the condenser."
"Oh, my God! Will it take long?"
"Naw. We got a new condenser out in the truck."
"Please hurry," Andre begged them. "Mr. Pope is going to be home soon."
"You leave everything to us," Al said.
Back in the kitchen, Andre confided, "I must finish preparing my salad dressing. Can you find your way back up to the attic?"
Al raised a hand: "No sweat, pal. You just go on about your business, and we'll go on about ours."
"Oh, thank you. Thank you."
Andre watched the men go out to the truck and return with two large canvas bags. "If you need anything," he told them, "just call me."
"You betcha!"
The workmen went up the stairs, and Andre returned to his kitchen.
When Ralph and Al reached the attic, they opened their canvas bags and removed a small folding camp chair, a drill with a steel bit, a tray of sandwiches, two cans of beer, a pair of 12 by 40 Zeiss binoculars for viewing distant objects in a dim light, and two live hamsters that had been injected with three quarters of a milligram of acetyl promazine.
The two men went to work.
"Ol Ernestine is gonna be proud of me," Al chortled as they started.
o O o
In the beginning, Al had stubbornly resisted the idea.
"You must be outta your mind, woman. I ain't gonna fuck around with no Perry Pope. That dude'll come down on my ass so hard I'll never see daylight again."
"You don't gotta worry about him. He won't never be botherin' no one again."
They were naked on the water bed in Ernestine's apartment.
"What you gettin' out of this deal, anyway, honey" Al demanded.
"He's a prick."
"Hey, baby, the world's full of pricks, but you don't spend your life goin' around cuttin' off their balls."
"All right. I'm doin' it for a friend."
"That's right."
Al liked Tracy. They had all had dinner together the day she got out of prison.
"She's a classy dame," Al admitted. "But why we stickin' our necks out for her?"
"Because if we don't he'p her, she's gonna have to settle for someone who ain't half as good as you, and if she gets caught, they'll cart her ass right back to the joint."
Al sat up in bed and looked at Ernestine curiously. "Does it mean that much to you, baby?"
"Yeah, hon."
She would never be able to make him understand it, but the truth was simply that Ernestine could not stand the thought of Tracy back in prison at the mercy of Big Bertha. It was not only Tracy whom Ernestine was concerned about: It was herself. She had made herself Tracy's protector, and if Big Bertha got her hands on her, it would be a defeat for Ernestine.
So all she said now was, "Yeah. It means a lot to me, honey. You gonna, do it?"
"I damn sure can't do it alone," Al grumbled.
And Ernestine knew she had won. She started nibbling her way down his long, lean body. And she murmured, "Wasn't ole Ralph due to be released a few days ago...?"
o O o
It was 6:30 before the two men returned to Andre's kitchen, grimy with sweat and dust.
"Is it fixed?" Andre asked anxiously.
"It was a real bitch," Al informed him. "You see, what you got here is a condenser with an AC/DC cutoff that---"
"Never mind that," Andre interrupted impatiently. "Did you fix it?"
"Yeah. It's all set. In five minutes we'll have it goin' again as good as new."
"Formidable! If you'll just leave your bill on the kitchen table---"
Ralph shook his head. "Don't worry about it. The company'll bill you."
"Bless you both.!!!Au 'voir."
Andre watched the two men leave by the back door, carrying their canvas bags. Out of his sight, they walked around to the yard and opened the casing that housed the outside condenser of the air-conditioning unit. Ralph held the flashlight while Al reconnected the wires he had loosened a couple hours earlier. The air-conditioning unit immediately sprang into life.
Al copied down the telephone number on the service tag attached to the condenser. When he telephoned the number a short time later and reached the recorded voice of the Eskimo Air-Conditioning Company, Al said, "This is Perry Pope's residence at Forty-two Charles Street. Our air-conditioning is workin' fine now. Don't bother to send anyone. Have a nice day."
o O o
The weekly Friday-night poker game at Perry Pope's house was an event to which all the players eagerly looked forward. It was always the same carefully selected group: Anthony Orsatti, Joe Romano, Judge Henry Lawrence, an alderman, a state senator, and of course their host. The stakes were high, the food was great, and the company was raw power.
Perry Pope was in his bedroom changing into white silk slacks and matching sport shirt. He hummed happily, thinking of the evening ahead. He had been on a winning streak lately.!!!In fact, my whole life is just one big winning streak, he thought.
If anyone needed a legal favor in New Orleans, Perry Pope was the attorney to see. His power came from his connections with the Orsatti Family. He was known as The Arranger, and could fix anything from a traffic ticket to a drug-dealing charge to a murder rap. Life was good.
When Anthony Orsatti arrived, he brought a guest with him. "Joe Romano won't be playin' anymore," Orsatti announced. "You all know Inspector Newhouse."
The men shook hands all around.
"Drinks are on the sideboard, gentlemen," Perry Pope said.
"We'll have supper later. Why don't we start a little action going?"
The men took their accustomed chairs around the green felt table in the den. Orsatti pointed to Joe Romano's vacant chair and said to Inspector Newhouse, "That'll be your seat from now on, Mel."
While one of the men opened fresh decks of cards, Pope began distributing poker chips. He explained to Inspector Newhouse, "The black chips are five dollars, red chips ten dollars, blue chips fifty dollars, white chips a hundred. Each man starts out buying five hundred dollars' worth of chips. We play table stakes, three raises, dealer's choice."
"Sounds good to me," the inspector said.
Anthony Orsatti was in a bad mood. "Come on. Let's get started." His voice was a strangled whisper. Not a good sign.
Perry Pope would have given a great deal to learn what had happened to Joe Romano, but the lawyer knew better than to bring up the subject. Orsatti would discuss it with him when he was ready.
Orsatti's thoughts were black:!!!I been like a father to Joe Romano. I trusted him, made him my chief lieutenant. And the son of a bitch stabbed me in the back. If that dizzy French dame hadn't telephoned, he might have gotten away with it, too. Well, he won't ever get away with nothin' again. Not where he is. If he's so clever, let him fuck around with the fish down there.
"Tony, are you in or out?"
Anthony Orsatti turned his attention back to the game. Huge sums of money had been won and lost at this table. It always upset Anthony Orsatti to lose, and it had nothing to do with money. He could not bear to be on the losing end of anything. He thought of himself as a natural-born winner. Only winners rose to his position in fife. For the last six weeks, Perry Pope had been on some kind of crazy winning streak, and tonight Anthony Orsatti was determined to break it.
Since they played dealer's choice, each dealer chose the game in which he felt the strongest. Hands were dealt for five-card stud, seven-card stud, low ball, draw poker--- but tonight, no matter which game was chosen, Anthony Orsatti kept finding himself on the losing end. He began to increase his bets, playing recklessly, trying to recoup his losses. By midnight when they stopped to have the meal Andre had prepared, Orsatti was out $50,000, with Perry Pope the big winner.
The food was delicious. Usually Orsatti enjoyed the free midnight snack, but this evening he was impatient to get back to the table.
"You're not eating, Tony," Perry Pope said.
"I'm not hungry." Orsatti reached for the silver coffee urn at his side, poured coffee into a Victoria-patterned Herend-china cup, and sat down at the poker table. He watched the others eat and wished they would hurry. He was impatient to win his money back. As he started to stir his coffee, a small particle fell into his cup. Distastefully, Orsatti removed the particle with a spoon and examined it. It appeared to be a piece of plaster. He looked up at the ceiling, and something hit him on the forehead. He suddenly became aware of a scurrying noise overhead.
"What the hell's goin' on upstairs?" Anthony Orsatti asked.
Perry Pope was in the middle of telling an anecdote to Inspector Newhouse. "I'm sorry, what did you say, Tony?"
The scurrying noise was more noticeable now. Bits of plaster began to trickle onto the green felt.
"It sounds to me like you have mice," the senator said.
"Not in this house." Perry Pope was indignant.
"Well, you sure as hell got somethin'," Orsatti growled. A larger piece of plaster fell on the green felt table.
"I'll have Andre take care of it," Pope said. "If we're finished eating, why don't we get back to the game?"
Anthony Orsatti was staring up at a small hole in the ceiling directly above his head. "Hold it. Let's go take a look up there."
"What for, Tony? Andre can---"
Orsatti had already risen and started for the stairway. The others looked at one another, then hurried after him.
"A squirrel probably got into the attic," Perry Pope guessed. "This time of year they're all over the place: Probably hiding his nuts for the winter." He laughed at his little joke.
When they reached the door to the attic, Orsatti pushed it open, and Perry Pope turned on the light. They caught a glimpse of two white hamsters frantically racing around the room.
"Jesus!" Perry Pope said. "I've got rats!"
Anthony Orsatti was not listening. He was staring at the room. In the middle of the attic was a camp chair with a packet of sandwiches on top of it and two open cans of beer. On the floor next to the chair was a pair of binoculars.
Orsatti walked over to them, picked up the objects one by one, and examined them. Then he got down on his knees on the dusty floor and moved the tiny wooden cylinder that concealed a peephole that had been drilled into the ceiling. Orsatti put his eye to the peephole. Directly beneath him the card table was clearly visible.
Perry Pope was standing in the middle of the attic, dumbfounded. "Who the hell put all this junk up here? I'm going to raise hell with Andre about this."
Orsatti rose slowly to his feet and brushed the dust from his trousers.
Perry Pope glanced down at the floor. "Look!" he exclaimed. "They left a goddamned hole in the ceiling. Workmen today aren't worth a shit."
He crouched down and took a look through the hole, and his face suddenly lost its color. He stood up and looked around, wildly, to find all the men staring at him.
"Hey!" Perry Pope said. "You don't think I---? Come on, fellas, this is me. I don't know anything about this. I wouldn't cheat you. My God, we're friends!" His hand flew to his mouth, and he began biting furiously at his cuticles.
Orsatti patted him on the arm. "Don't worry about it." His voice was almost inaudible.
Perry Pope kept gnawing desperately at the raw flesh of his right thumb.
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