An excerpt of A Nasty Piece of Work by Robert Littell, featuring a former CIA agent turned freelance bounty hunter (available November 19, 2013).
Former CIA agent Lemuel Gunn left the battlefield of Afghanistan for early retirement in the desert of New Mexico, where he works as a private investigator from the creature comforts, such as they are, of a mobile home.
Into his life comes Ornella Neppi, a thirty-something woman making a hash out of her uncle’s bail bonds business. The source of her troubles, Emilio Gava, was arrested for buying cocaine. Ornella has reason to believe he is planning to jump bail. Unless she can find him, her uncle is going to be $125,000 out of pocket.
For $95-a-day plus expenses (not to mention the pleasure of her company), Gunn agrees to help Ornella track the wayward suspect down. Curiously, no photographs of Gava seem to exist. Once Gunn begins his manhunt, he starts to wonder whether Gava himself existed in the first place.
Some things you get right the first time. With me it was cutting fuses to booby-trap Kalashnikovs being shipped to footloose Islamic warriors looking for a convenient jihad. It was making a brush pass with a cutout in the souk of Peshawar. Other things, no matter how many times you do them, you don’t do them better. Which I suppose explains why I still can’t make sunny-sides up without breaking the yolk. Which is why I refuse to leave messages at the sound of the beep. Which is why I wear my father’s trusty stem-winding Bulova instead of one of those newfangled motion-powered watches. Which is why I put off wrestling with the IRS’s 1040 until the divorced French Canadian lady accountant in Las Cruces comes by to hold my hand. My pet hate this week is balancing the monthly statement I get from the Las Cruces Savings and Loan over on Interstate 25. I have this recurrent fantasy that this craze for plastic with built-in credit lines and buy-now, pay-later schemes is this year’s skirt length, that consenting adults are bound to wise up and come home to the crisp comfort of cold cash. I once made the mistake of sharing this fantasy with my lady accountant but she only rolled over in my bed and treated me to a short course on how credit greases the economic skids. At which point I trotted out the Will Rogers chestnut I’d come across in the Albuquerque Times Herald and squirreled away for just such an occasion, something about how an economist’s opinion is likely to be as good as anyone’s. What could France-Marie say except “touché.” True to form, she managed to pronounce it with a French Canadian accent.
The other thing on my hit list, as long as I’m on the subject, is flushing out septic tanks. If you live in a mobile home, which I do, it’s something you have got to deal with eventually. I’d put it off so long there was this distinctly unpleasant sloshing down in the bowels of the Once in a Blue Moon every time someone went to the john. Made it hard to fall asleep, made it harder to stay asleep after you fell asleep when the lady accountant from Las Cruces slept over. So I’d finally gotten around to connecting the hose to the park’s sewage line and, using an adjustable wrench I’d borrowed from a neighbor five mobile homes down, started up my spanking-new self-priming pump. When the sump gurgled empty, I closed the line and unhooked it. Crawling out from under my mobile home, I cut across half a dozen yards to return the wrench, then came back by the street side to retrieve Friday’s Albuquerque Times Herald, along with the fistful of ads stuffed into my mailbox. I was checking out the headline—something about Republican senators defending the construction of a missile shield to protect America from an attack the Russians were unlikely to launch—when I noticed the footprints in the sand. Someone had come down the walkway between the street and my front door. They were light prints set on the surface of the sand path, as if the person responsible for making them was featherweight, with the turned-out profile that suggested a ballet dancer’s way of walking. Coming up to the Once in a Blue Moon, I batted away a kamikaze flight of insects and squinted into the brutal New Mexican sun and found myself staring at a very shapely pair of naked ankles.
I saluted the ankles respectfully. “You must be Friday,” I said.
The voice attached to the ankles turned out to be a throaty contralto that sounded as if it had surfed through several hours of scales. “Why Friday?” she asked.
I must have shrugged, which is what I usually do when I make a joke that goes over somebody’s head. “That’s how Robinson Crusoe came across the visitor on his island—he found footprints in the sand on the beach. Called his visitor Friday because of the day of the week this happened. Today’s a Friday. Robinson Crusoe? Daniel Defoe? Ring a bell?”
She favored me with the faintest of smiles devoid of any residue of joy. “You can call me Friday if it tickles you. I’m looking for a Mr. Lemuel Gunn.”
I was still wearing my septic-pumping finery, a decrepit pair of once-white mechanic’s overalls which, to make matters worse, had shrunk in the wash. I shifted my weight from foot to foot a bit more clumsily than I would have liked. I’ve been told I have good moves when it comes to what in polite circles is called hand-to-hand combat but women somehow bring out the elbows in me. I blinked away more of the sunlight and began to make her out. The barefoot contessa was pushing thirty from the wrong side and tall for a female of the species, at least five-ten in her deliciously bare feet. Two rowboat-sized flat-soled sandals dangled from a forefinger; a bulky silver astronaut-fabric knapsack hung off one gorgeous shoulder. She had prominent cheekbones, a slight offset to an otherwise presentable nose, a gap between two front teeth, faint worry lines around her eyes and mouth. Her eyes were seaweed green and deep-set and solemn and blinked about as often as those of the Sphinx. Her lips were straight out of a Scott Fitzgerald novel, oval and moist and slightly parted in permanent perplexity. Everything, as Mr. Yul Brynner used to tell us six nights a week and Saturday matinees, is a puzzlement. Her hair was short and straight and dark and tucked back behind her ears. She wasn’t wearing makeup, at least none that I could spot. There wasn’t a ring on a finger, a bracelet on a wrist, a necklace on the neck she had swiped from a swan. Take me as I am, she seemed to be saying. Minimum packaging, just enough so she wouldn’t be arrested for indecent exposure, though on second glance she was even pushing the legal limits on that. She was wearing a wispy knee-length skirt with a pleasant flowery print, and a butter-colored sleeveless blouse that left a sliver of midriff exposed. Both the skirt and blouse seemed to respond to a current of air, a whisper of wind I couldn’t feel on my skin. This private breeze of hers plastered the skirt against a long supple thigh, and the blouse against the torso enough to make out several very spare ribs and the outline of a single nipple.
My luck, it was pointing straight at me.
In my bankrupt state—I’m talking emotions, not savings and loan; my relationship with the lady accountant from Las Cruces was going nowhere fast—she seemed like the proverbial breath of fresh air, stirring a memory of passions past. I’d had two or three unpleasant episodes with women in the fourteen months since my discharge. Once I hadn’t been able to finish what I’d started, which was a new and frightening experience for me. Now, for the first time in a long time, I relished the pleasure of imagining the body under the cloth draped over it. For the first time in a long time I felt I’d have no trouble rising to the occasion.
She suffered my once-over in silence, then shook her head impatiently. “So do you or don’t you?” she asked. “Answer to the name of Lemuel Gunn?”
I heard myself reach for the glib response and hated myself for it. “Sorry, sweetheart, but I gave at the office.”
“No offense intended but you don’t look like someone who’s ever seen the inside of an office.”
The conversation had gotten off on the wrong foot and she knew it. Trying to set it right, she summoned from the depths of a clearly distressed soul what could have passed for a grin if it hadn’t been me the grinee. Lemuel Gunn, the seeing-eye sleuth, nothing escapes his penetrating gaze. Who else, confronting a glorious barefoot contessa he’d never seen before, would notice that she didn’t paint her toenails? Didn’t bite them either.
“What’s your line, Friday?”
“In a month of Sundays you’d never guess.”
Without batting an eye she watched me inspect her chest. I wasn’t looking for campaign ribbons. “You’re not thin enough to be one of those high-fashion models, you’re not thick enough to be a lady wrestler. I give up.”
“I’m a bail bondsman. My name’s Neppi. Ornella Neppi.”
I flashed one of my aw-shucks smirks, which have a good track record in situations like this. “If the job description ends in ‘man,’ you’re lying through a set of very pearly teeth.”
“No. Hey. Really. Actually, I’m only a sometime bail bondsman. I’m sitting in for my uncle in Las Cruces who’s convalescing from an ulcer operation. He didn’t want the competition to get a foot in the courthouse door, so he got me to hold the fort.”
The sun was wiltingly hot. I nodded toward the screen door of the mobile home. She looked at it, then back at me, trying to figure out if my intentions were honorable. (Didn’t know how she could figure this out if I couldn’t.) She must have reached a conclusion because she tossed a shoulder in one of those “What do I have to lose?” gestures that women own the patent to. I climbed the steps ahead of her and held the door open. Turning sideways, she passed so close to me going in I had to suck in my chest to avoid contact with her chest. (Maybe that’s what “honorable” meant.) As the screen door flapped closed behind us, I scooped up a pair of khaki trousers and a T-shirt and several magazines and an empty container that had once played host to a six-pack and tossed them out of sight behind two potted plants, one of which was dead, one of which was dying. Friday deposited her silver astronaut-fabric knapsack on the deck and settled onto the curved yellow couch, then crossed her long shapely legs, tucking the unbitten toes of her left foot behind her right ankle, spread-eagling her arms along the back of the couch in a way that pushed her breasts into the fabric of her blouse. I turned up the air-conditioning a notch and ducked into the galley to fetch two bottles of cold Mexican Modelo. I padded back carrying a tray and set it down on the deck.
“You forgot the church key,” she said.
“Don’t need a church key,” I said. I pried the two metal caps off with my fingertips—it was a trick I’d picked up in the badlands of Pakistan from local tribesmen who scraped their fingertips on coarse rocks until they were calloused and then opened beer bottles with their thumbs and forefingers to impress the NGO nurses. I filled two mugs with cracked ice, iced the inside of the glasses before spilling out the ice, then fussily filled the mugs with beer, careful to pour without forming a head. I handed one of the mugs to Ornella Neppi,
“I used to drink Guinness stout imported from Ireland,” I remarked, settling onto the wooden trunk across from her, “but I can’t seem to find it anymore. Can’t find a lot of things anymore. Sometimes I think it’s me, sometimes I think it’s a national affliction. We seem to be settling for less these days—less beef in hamburgers, less service in restaurants, less plot in motion pictures, less grammar in sentences, less love in marriages.” I hiked my glass. “To bail and to bonding, Friday. Cheers.”
She looked away quickly and gnawed on her lower lip. Whatever ache she was repressing made her look like one of those brittle, cracked Wedgwood teacups my mother brought off the shelf for important guests. It struck me that my visitor was hanging on by her fingertips, though I couldn’t figure out to what. It struck me that without the ache, she would have been too beautiful to be accessible.
“So I’ll drink to bail,” she finally agreed. What she said next seemed to float on a sigh. “To tell the truth, I’m less enthusiastic about the bonding part. Cheers.”
Out in the park a long mobile home pulled by a truck with a throaty diesel engine chugged past in the direction of the interstate. “Okay, I’ll bite—what do you do when you’re not bail bonding, Friday?” I started kneading one of the metal beer caps between my fingers, turning the rim in toward the middle.
“Does Suzari Marionettes ring a bell? I can see it doesn’t. No reason it should. That’s me, Suzari Marionettes. That’s my puppet company. I studied puppeteering in Italy and Japan when I was younger and organized this road company—we do schools, we do summer camps, we do private birthday parties, we do kids’ TV when we luck in. I dress in black and work the puppets from behind with sticks. The repertoire includes Pinocchio and Rumpelstilzchen. So I don’t suppose you’re familiar with Rumpelstilzchen. He’s the dwarf who spins flax into gold in exchange for the maiden’s first-born child.”
“Sounds like a depressing story.”
She watched me working the beer cap between my fingers. “Unlike real life, it has a happy ending, Mr. Gunn.”
“You manage to live off this puppeteering?”
“Almost but not quite. To make ends meet, I also do miming gigs at birthday parties.” She kicked at the astronaut-fabric knapsack. “It’s filled with wigs and funny eyeglasses and false noses for my various mime acts.” She nodded toward the beer cap, which had been crushed into something resembling a ball. “Your fingers must be incredibly strong to do that.”
I handed her the beer cap. “It isn’t strength. It’s anger.”
She hefted it in the palm of her hand. “What are you angry about—something you’ve done?”
I shook my head once. “Something I didn’t stop others from doing.”
“You care to be more specific?”
“Mind if I keep this? It’ll remind me of the power of anger.”
“Be my guest.”
She dropped the beer cap into the silver knapsack, tucked her toes back behind her ankle and, screwing up her face, chewed on the inside of her cheek, uncertain how to proceed. Meeting new people, deciding who you want to be with them, is never easy. The gentleman in me decided to help her over the stumbling block. “Knock off the Mr. Gunn. Call me Lemuel.”
She tried it on for size. “Lemuel.”
I reached over and offered a paw. She unhooked her ankle and leaned forward and took my hand in hers. Her palm was cool, her grip firm. For the space of a suddenly endless instant the thing she was hanging on to with her fingertips was me. I can’t honestly say I minded.
“You work real fast,” she murmured.
“Life is short,” I told her. “The challenge is to make it sweet.” I hung on to her hand long enough for the moment to turn awkward. The depths of her seaweed green eyes were alert, as if a warning buzzer had gone off in her head. She slipped her hand free of mine with the casual ease of someone who had perfected the fine art of keeping a space between herself and the male of the species, and doing it with minimum injury to his ego.
“Fact is, Lemuel, I’m in a jam.”
In a sense, she was ahead of the game but this was neither the time nor the place to educate her. We’re all in a jam, all the time, we’re just too dumb to know it. We need to take our cue from the drug dealers in Hoboken who, when they reach twenty, go to the local undertaker and prepay their funeral because they don’t expect to live to thirty. “Why me?” I asked.
“So here’s the deal: I can’t afford the services of one of those big-city detectives who charge by the hour and pad their expense accounts. I went to the police but they laughed me out of the station house. They have other things to do besides hunt down people who jump bail for relatively minor crimes, and the state is glad to add the bail money to its coffers. I heard on my grapevine that you sometimes take cases on spec…”
“What else did your grapevine tell you?”
“That you look young but talk old. That you’d been a brainy homicide detective in New Jersey before the CIA talked you into becoming some kind of spy. That you never run off at the mouth about it. That you were sent packing without a pension after an incident in Afghanistan that never made it into the newspapers. That you took the fall for following orders you couldn’t prove had been given. That you were a troublemaker in a war that had enough trouble without you. That you came out west and went into the business of detecting in order to live in the style to which you wanted to become accustomed. That you’re street-smart and tough and lucky and don’t discourage easily. That what you do, you do well, what you don’t do well, you don’t do. Which is another way of saying you don’t buy into the notion that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”
“That’s one hell of a list.”
“I have a last but not least: that you charge satisfied customers ninety-five dollars a day and unsatisfied customers zero. That nobody can recall an unsatisfied customer.”
“Can you attach a number to your problem?”
“I bet $125,000 of my uncle’s nest egg this guy wouldn’t jump bail. I worry that I’m losing the bet. I feel real awful about it.”
“Just out of curiosity, you want to identify your grapevine?”
She flashed another one of those apologetic half-smiles. “Hey, I’d better not. If I tell you, you might send me packing. That’s what my grapevine said. She said you were peeved at her for being too available. She said, psychologically speaking, you wore starched collars and liked ladies who liked men who opened doors for them. She said you’d been born into the wrong century.”
Friday’s story, the reason she had turned up at the door of my mobile home, came out in disjointed bits, which I took to mean it hadn’t been memorized. Here are the bits, jointed: Ten days before, the police in Las Cruces had apprehended a white male name of Emilio Gava on drug charges. Seems as if police undercover agents had caught him buying cocaine in a bar. After his arrest, Gava was allowed to make a phone call from the jailhouse. At the arraignment next morning, an out-of-state lawyer in a three-piece suit turned up to defend him. Friday described the lawyer, who went by the name of R. Russell Fontenrose, as unattractive a male as she’d ever set eyes on. He spurned an offer to plea bargain and pleaded his client not guilty even though he’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar, as the saying goes. The judge, miffed to see a fancy-pants lawyer at the bar, set a high bail—$125,000. At which point a woman Friday took to be Gava’s lady friend turned up with a deed to a condominium in East of Eden Gardens.
“Can you describe her?” I asked.
“I’m not good at describing people,” Friday said.
The lids closed over Friday’s eyes as she rummaged through her memory. “She was roughly my height and build, with blonde hair that fell in bangs across her forehead.”
“What about her eyes? Women always notice other women’s eyes.”
“The single time I saw her, which was in my uncle’s office after the arraignment, she was wearing dark sunglasses.” Friday was looking at me again. “Lemuel, what do you know about the intricacies of bail bonding?”
I had to admit what I knew could fit in a thimble.
“Okay. Here’s the short course. Bail bondsmen—that includes bail bondswomen—require collateral for any bond over $5,000. If the collateral is real estate, they require double the amount of bail in equity. Equity is the difference between what the property is worth and the mortgage against it. A defendant’s personal property is not eligible, but the deed was in the woman’s name, which was Jennifer Leffler. She produced tax statements showing the property was valued at $375,000 and free and clear of mortgage, that the state and local property taxes had been paid up for the year. She paid the fee for the bond in advance in cash. I posted bail. Emilio Gava and Jennifer Leffler climbed into a utility vehicle and drove off.”
“Sounds pretty cut-and-dried to me,” I said. “Where’s the problem?”
Friday rubbed the cold beer mug against her brow as if she was suppressing a migraine. “The trial is two weeks from today. Day before yesterday my uncle asked me if I’d checked out the deed with the county records office. I’m new at this—I’m embarrassed to say it hadn’t crossed my mind. My uncle gave me the name of the clerk to call.”
I saw where her story was going. “The deed turned out to be phony.”
“I dialed the home phone number Emilio Gava left with me. I got a recorded announcement saying the line had been disconnected. I drove out U.S. 70 to East of Eden Gardens to look at the condominium listed on the deed. According to the concierge, Gava rented the condo from its owner, an Albuquerque real estate investment company. The condo itself was in one of those new communities that seem to spring up overnight—”
“Replete with minimalls and minigolf and all-weather tennis courts. Been there. Seen ’em.”
“The Gava-Leffler condo was dark. They’ve obviously skipped out on the bail. Look, I know it’s a needle-in-a-haystack situation, but I thought you might give it your best shot…”
She let the thought trail off. I nodded at her beer mug. She nodded no. I thought about her problem, and mine. Here’s what I said: “The chances of tracking down a bail jumper in two weeks and bringing him back to court are slim.” Here’s what I didn’t say: I was having the usual cash flow problems, bills were piling up. With summer not far away, the air-conditioning unit in the Once in a Blue Moon could use reconditioning. My vintage Studebaker needed four retreads and a new suspension. The Afghan orphan I’d adopted, Kubra, was winding up her first year at a junior college in California that charged $5,500 a year tuition and another $2,500 for room and board. Then there was Friday herself, hunched forward on the couch, reaching down to absently massage the ankle of one naked foot. Touched by something in this cracked Wedgwood of a woman that was broken and needed mending, I heard myself say, “Why not?”
Her face brightened and I caught a glimpse of what she might look like without the weight of the world on her shoulders. “You’ll try?”
“I’m not guaranteeing results.”
She thrust a hand into her astronaut knapsack and came up with an item clipped from the back pages of the Las Cruces Star about the drug bust and the arraignment and release on bail of one Emilio Gava. In the article, he was described as a retired businessman. “Too bad they didn’t publish a photo,” I remarked.
“There was a Star photographer taking pictures on the courthouse steps,” Friday remembered, “but I guess they didn’t think Gava was a big enough fish to publish it.”
I walked her through her involvement with Emilio Gava and Jennifer Leffler a second time, jotting down weights and heights and ages and hair colors, jotting down places and dates and the names of judges and bailiffs and officers of the court. I copied the address of the Las Cruces condo that she’d gotten off the phony deed. I marked down the various addresses and phone numbers where Friday could be reached. Her uncle ran his bond company out of an office on the second floor of a 1930s brick building around the corner from the Las Cruces courthouse. Ornella Neppi herself had a place in a fifties garden apartment community on the edge of Doña Ana north of Las Cruces. Suzari Marionettes operated out of a secondhand Ford van and a PO box in Doña Ana.
I snapped my spiral notebook closed. Friday stood up. “Can I use the facilities, Lemuel?”
For the life of me I couldn’t imagine what facilities she was referring to. My confusion must have been draped across my face because she looked me in the eye and said, “So, hey, I need to pee.”
“Uh-huh. Sorry. I’m a bit thick at times.” I steered her to the bathroom at the back of the mobile home, then ducked into the bedroom to change into a pair of faded khaki slacks, a frayed but serviceable Fruit of the Loom and my running shoes without socks. I was collecting the empty beer mugs when Friday returned from the quote unquote facilities looking more delectable than a field of wild honeysuckle.
“This is quite a mobile home, Lemuel. You live in the lap of luxury. All the inlaid mahogany, all the Italian tiles—where’d you find it?”
“I bought it at a fire sale when one of those film studios in Hollywood went under. I suppose nobody wanted it because it was so big. They told me it was custom built in the thirties for Douglas Fairbanks Jr. when he was filming The Prisoner of Zenda on location. I think it was the first all-aluminum mobile home ever made, and a very fancy one at that. Which accounts, among other things, for what you call the facilities and I call the john.”
“You like living in a mobile home?’
“When you move into a suburb you’re surrounded by strangers. When you move into a mobile home park you’re living with family.”
I accompanied Friday outside and down the walkway to the road. “What is it about walking barefoot?” I asked.
“I love sand. I love earth. I love the earth. I’m frightened of leaving it. I’m superstitious about feeling the pull of gravity under my feet. It reminds me that I’m earthbound.”
I searched her face. She wasn’t making a joke. “That’s an unusual superstition,” I remarked.
“Oh, I have the usual ones, too. I’m superstitious about the number thirteen. I’m spooked by thirteen people eating at the same table, I won’t set foot on the thirteenth floor of a building even if it’s numbered fourteen, I won’t walk on a Thirteenth Avenue or drive on an interstate numbered thirteen or take a plane on the thirteenth day of the month.”
With the kind of suppleness one associates with cats, Friday slipped the sandals onto her feet, then angled her head and stared at me for a moment. “So I think I enjoyed meeting you, Lemuel,” she said finally.
“You’re not sure?”
There was a quick little shake of the head, a petulant curling of the Scott Fitzgerald underlip. “I’m not sure, no.” Suddenly a cloud flitted across her features and she was swallowing emotions. She looked like one of those modern females wrestling with the eternal problem of how to give yourself generously and keep part of yourself back in case the giving doesn’t work out. “So you never know who someone is the first time you meet them, do you, Lemuel? You only know who they want you to think they are.”
“That already tells you something important.” I cleared my throat. “I’ll call you.”
“Yes.” She frowned. “Okay. Call me.” She ducked into the beat-up Ford van parked in the shadow of a stand of Mexican pinyons and waved once through the open window as she drove off. I watched the Ford until it turned onto the interstate and was lost in the swarm of traffic. Why did I feel as if something important had happened? I retrieved the rake leaning against the tree and, turning back toward the Once in a Blue Moon, followed the prints of her naked feet down the pathway, raking the sand behind me as I went. It was a trick I’d picked up from an Israeli colleague in Peshawar—the Israelis raked the sand around their camp every night and then inspected the track for footprints first thing at first light.
Copyright © 2013 by Robert Littell.
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Robert Littell is the author of seventeen previous novels, most recently Young Philby, and the nonfiction book For the Future of Israel, written with Shimon Peres, president of Israel. He has been awarded both the English Gold Dagger and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for his fiction. His novel The Company was a New York Times bestseller and was adapted into a television miniseries. His novel Legends, currently being made into a television series by Twentieth Century Fox Television, will air on TNT. He makes his home in France.