Lee Rossman shut off the lights as he exited the reception area of his office in the New Century Building. Locking the door behind him, he walked down the carpeted hall toward the elevator. The faint sounds of Mexican pop music drifted into the hall from the open door of the title-company office a few steps ahead. As he stepped around the cleaning cart that protruded into the hall, he glanced inside but didn’t see anyone. He would have said hello. He was comfortable with Hispanics from his years in Houston, and he mixed easily with people who came from nothing, as he had.
The elevator, smooth and almost silent, delivered him to the basement parking garage. The click of his leather soles on the concrete floor echoed in the silent garage. There were only eight or nine cars left. He recognized a midnight-blue Lexus, a dark green Jaguar, and a silver Audi that seemed to be there when he arrived every morning around seven and were still there when he left, twelve or fourteen hours later. As he walked toward his BMW 7 series in parking spot 96, he glanced at his watch: 9:25.
He often thought of what his father had told him, his father who quit high school to work the oil fields for a buck-and-a-half an hour: “You got time or you got money. Nobody got both.”
He tossed his wool topcoat onto the passenger seat and started the BMW, the running lights throwing two white circles on the grey concrete wall, just below “Rossman Mining” painted in maroon letters four inches high. He had been so successful for so many years he no longer thought about how far he had come in his forty-five-year career.
Lee Rossman eased the car toward the exit, tripping the mechanism for the steel gate, which clanged and shuddered as it rose. He saw the blue light flash and heard the buzzer sound out on the sidewalk as he steered the car onto Main Street. Red and green Christmas decorations on the light poles swayed in the wind. After dark here in central Montana, when the gusts picked up, the squat old brick and stone commercial buildings provided intermittent windbreak; but when he crossed each side street he heard a muffled whoosh and felt his heavy BMW tilt for a moment as the wind barreled through the tiny commercial center of Rawlings.
He drove six blocks, past the holiday lights and decorations on the stores and offices, now closed for the night. He passed a handful of people huddled in their heavy coats, hunched over in the frigid night air. A digital sign on the bank display read 3 degrees. The movie theatre, its bright bulbs illuminating the lobby posters and the V-shaped white marquee extending out over the sidewalk, offered the only attraction in the frozen purple night.
Lee Rossman turned left on Harrison and drove slowly toward the grittier section of downtown, where the storefronts cowered behind steel accordion gates. He slowed down as he approached Johnny’s Lounge and put on his blinker. Above the gouged, dirty wooden door, the bar’s name was spelled out in cursive letters, garish blue and red neon. To the left of the name was a huge neon top hat; to the right, a giant cocktail glass, tilted slightly.
From the door emerged a tall, thin young guy wearing matching denim jeans and jacket and a white cowboy hat. He pulled a cigarette from his jacket pocket and, cupping his hands, lit it with a butane lighter.
Sizing up the young man’s clothing, Lee Rossman concluded he wouldn’t be walking, certainly not more than a few steps. The young man moved slowly and deliberately, concentrating as each boot hit the sidewalk, as if he were rehearsing walking a straight line in case the police stopped him. Rossman scanned the line of parked cars and pickups, trying to guess which one belonged to the young man, before settling on a new black F-150, its sides streaked with mud.
The young man stepped off the curb, momentarily losing his balance, and steadied himself on the hood of the black pickup. Lee Rossman smiled as the roughneck walked over to the driver’s door and struggled to retrieve his keys from the pocket of his tight jeans. He was out on the town in his new denim and his new truck.
Rossman pulled up behind the truck and waited while its big block engine turned over. The pickup shook and let out a rumble, and the young man steered out of the parking spot slowly and drove off.
Rossman carefully parked his BMW in the empty spot thirty feet from the entrance to Johnny’s Lounge. He let the engine idle for a few moments, his fingers gripping the heated, leather-wrapped steering wheel. Warm air blasted from the vents on either side of the wheel, filling the cabin. He felt the warmth from the leather seat penetrating his wool slacks, which were designed in London and tailored in Hong Kong but never intended to be worn in Rawlings, Montana, in late November.
What did it mean, Lee Rossman thought, that he was summoned here? At nine-thirty on a Sunday night?
He shut down the engine and held his palms over the heat vents. He looked up as two girls in their mid-twenties approached the heavy wooden door to Johnny’s Lounge. They were wearing thick down jackets, blue jeans with rhinestones on the back pockets, and cowboy boots with two-inch heels. One of the girls pulled at the door, then flashed a big smile as a beefy guy, obscured by the shadows inside the bar, helped them pull it open.
Lee Rossman didn’t recognize these girls, but he knew they were at Johnny’s for the first shift. Until about midnight, there was live music from a country band that had both a male and a female singer and therefore could play any of the popular songs on the two country radio stations in town. Some of the girls on the first shift were there for the line dancing, some for the free drinks from any of a couple of dozen guys who walked in with two or three crisp hundred-dollar bills in their jeans pockets and left without a penny. After midnight—after the girls in denim and cowboy boots had selected their guys and left—another set of girls started to work the pole on the platform behind the bar, and the professionals in tight skirts started to work the guys who hadn’t come for the line dancing.
He got out of the BMW and slipped into his topcoat. He slid his hands deep into the coat pockets and walked toward the bar. The battered door opened, and a couple stepped out into the frigid air. Lee Rossman felt the vibration from the bass guitar. He heard the crack of the snare drum, as sharp as a gunshot, and the metallic tinkling of women’s voices competing with the amplified music. He felt the humidity coming off the young bodies inside and smelled the spilled beer and the cheap, sweet perfume mingled with sweat.
Lee Rossman said “Excuse me” as the young couple, laughing and oblivious to the old man in the charcoal wool topcoat, stumbled into him. He kept walking, past the window with the big neon Coors sign, toward the spot where he had been instructed to appear. He turned into the alley that ran along the wall of Johnny’s Lounge. He walked toward the floodlight mounted above two heavy steel basement doors in the pavement. He stood there, as he had been directed.
It took him some time to make out the objects in the alley outside the cone of light in which he stood. The moon was hidden behind fast-rushing clouds, and there were no other lights to push back the darkness. On one side of the steel doors were a dozen empty beer kegs lined up alongside the concrete-block wall. On the other side was a stack of three wooden shipping pallets and a big green dumpster on wheels, with trash and cardboard boxes propping open its lid. Across the alley was a three-story brick building, probably a hundred years old, with ornamental stone-framed windows now bricked in, a vestige of a time when the alley was a through street.
Lee Rossman felt the cold penetrating the soles of his shoes. He glanced down at his feet. The alley, its surface rippled, broken, and patched in various shades of grey and black, was covered with dirty ice, crushed paper beer cups, broken glass, cigarette butts, and condom wrappers. Off to the side he saw a frozen starburst of vomit. He caught a faint smell of urine.
He stood there, under the light in the alley next to Johnny’s Lounge, waiting as he had been instructed. He glanced to his right when he heard footsteps.
They looked at each other for a long moment. “Why here?” Lee Rossman said.
His killer did not respond.
“You owe me an explanation,” Rossman said.
The killer paused. “You don’t want to talk about what we owe each other.”
“What do you want?” he said.
“I want your answer.”
“I considered what you said.”
“And are you done considering?”
“Yes.” His tone was strong but full of regret. “I am.”
“What is your decision?”
“My answer is no. I will not do it.”
His killer was silent.
“I’m going to go now,” Lee Rossman said. “I expect that you will not mention this to me again. Ever.” He started to turn.
“You know it’s the only way.”
He stopped and turned to face his killer. “There’s always another way.”
“I’m afraid you’ve made the wrong decision.” His killer walked toward him.
Lee Rossman did not realize what was happening when the killer pushed aside his open topcoat. Only when he felt the knife slide into his abdomen and the pain radiate out in all directions like electric charges did he understand.
His eyes were open wide in disbelief. His knees began to buckle, and he sank to the pavement, his head hitting hard and coming to rest near a patch of ice in which a candy wrapper was frozen.
The killer bent down and reached into Lee Rossman’s suit jacket pocket and removed his wallet, then lifted the velvet cuff of the victim’s topcoat sleeve, unbuckled the clasp on his heavy gold watch, slipped it off his wrist, and let his arm fall to the pavement. Lee Rossman appeared to be breathing, but his skin was beginning to pale and his eyes were glassy and unfocused. The killer turned to walk away, then stopped and returned and, pushing Rossman’s topcoat and suit jacket aside, lowered the zipper on his impeccably tailored black wool slacks.
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