“Barbara, they’re here.” Charlie turned from the window, scrubbing his palms together.
She came from the kitchen, patting at her graying hair. “I’m ready. Just a little nervous.”
“Of course you are. Moving out of the house you’ve lived in since we married forty years ago.” He winked at her.
Her smile was a grimace. “If you say so, Charlie.”
A crowd of men appeared at the front storm door. Charlie opened it wide, glancing past them at the van by the curb. The name Quality Movers filled the side panel. “Welcome, gentlemen. Come in and make yourselves at home.”
They filed in, five of them, linebacker types, broad and hard, except for the one who was tall and lanky like an aging basketball player. He leaned to shake hands.
“Mr. and Mrs. Patterson, I’m Griff and this is my crew. He reeled off names the Pattersons immediately forgot. “So. You want to move today?”
“If you’ll do all the work.” Charlie indicated the living room with a sweep of his arm. “I think the deal is, you’ll do the packing and hauling and we’ll do the paying.”
Griff flashed a smile. “That’s the way it works. Spud, make us some boxes. The rest of you get the handcarts and quilts out of the van and start wrapping pictures. Be sure to double-wrap that big screen TV.” He turned back to Charlie. “You got a lot of nice things here.” He flipped pages on a clipboard. “This says we take it all to a storage unit outfit on Forty-ninth Street.”
“Right. Me and the wife—“ Here Charlie put an arm around her back and quick-hugged her. “—we’re taking a trip around the world in our very own little yacht.”
“Wow. What a kick that would be. Careful!” The warning was aimed at one of the crew, who’d misjudged the width of the doorway with a dining room chair.
“We’ll be in the kitchen if you need us.” Charlie herded Barbara through the increasing chaos and shut the swinging door behind them. Motioning her to the far end of the breakfast bar, he drew her close to whisper. “We should keep an eye on these fellas. Don’t want any valuables disappearing into pockets.”
“Quality Movers had a four-star rating on Angie’s List,” she whispered back.
They both chuckled.
The crew worked fast, systematically, and without pilfering a thing that Charlie could see. When the house was more than halfway picked clean, around noon, Charlie’s cell phone buzzed.
“Yes. Who’s this?”
“Nate at Quality Movers. Did our truck come this morning?”
“Sure. They’ve been real troopers.”
“Good. I’m having trouble reaching Jimmy. His phone must be off. Could you let me talk to him for a minute?”
Charlie waved the cell and addressed the house in general. “Hey, which one of you is Jimmy? Nate at Quality for you.”
No one reacted.
“Doesn’t seem to be—” Charlie was saying when Griff hurried over.
“Sleeping at the wheel. My last name’s Jimmy,” Griff said, taking the phone. “Yeah?” He stood listening, frowning, hand on hip. “‘Kay,” was all he said before disconnecting. “Okay, boys,” he shouted. “We gotta go. We have to finish this another time.”
“What? You’re only half done,” Charlie protested. “You can’t leave now.”
“Sorry, Mr. Patterson. Emergency back at the office.”
“No! This isn’t right. We’ve got a contract!” Charlie blustered.
Griff snatched up a pile of quilts. “We’ve loaded all the big stuff. We’ll send a smaller van for the rest. The office will bill you. Come on, guys, chop chop.”
The five of them grabbed dollies and headed for the van like it was the end zone. Seconds later the Pattersons stood in their depleted house, listening to a fast-moving truck’s gear changes fade away.
“Whew,” Charlie said.
The Quality van slowed a fraction before breezing past a stop sign.
“Take it easy, Web,” Griff said. “Don’t break our stuff.”
The man in the middle, baby-faced Dirk, spoke up in his surprisingly soprano voice. “They’re calling the cops.”
“I don’t think so.” Griff ducked a little to check the outside mirror. Spud and Alec were following them in Spud’s beater Chevy, elbows out the windows like it was a family outing.
“What did Quality want?” Web asked.
“I didn’t pay attention. I’m thinking how I wouldn’t sound like Jimmy no matter what I said. Better git while the gitting’s good. We got all the best stuff anyways.”
“So go to the warehouse?”
“Right. We stick to the plan. Unload, reload into our truck, drive it to our friendly Fences-R-Us, be done and richer by this time tomorrow.” Griff slapped the dashboard and grinned at Dirk.
Who frowned and said, “Why aren’t the Pattersons calling the cops?”
“Because Mr. and Mrs. Patterson are not Mr. and Mrs. Patterson.”
Web laughed. “What the hell?”
“I recognized him from way back. Doing time at Fremont Correctional. He didn’t seem to suss me, but I remember his beady eyes and shiny bald head.”
“You’re sure,” Web said.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m sure.”
“What was he in for?”
“I don’t know. Credit card fraud? Yeah, that sounds right.”
“I don’t get it,” Dirk persisted. “What’s an ex-con doing in Mr. Patterson’s house?”
“Okay, it’s like this. That was—ummm—Chuck Somebody and his girlfriend or mother or something. They found this house, see. Verified the owners are out of town. Called Quality to set up what Quality thinks is a legitimate move, to a storage unit. Quality does all the work. Chuck and his old lady fence the pickings and disappear."
“Why those dirty crooks,” Dirk exclaimed, and Web snorted.
“Meanwhile,” Griff went on. “Meanwhile, we’re hijacking a Quality van, got the real moving guys tied up in the warehouse—“
“We’ll let them go like usual,” Dirk interrupted. “That’s why we blindfolded them. Right?”
“Oh sure.” Griff bounced in his seat. “We out-conned the conman,” he crowed. ”Our sixth successful moving job,” he added, tapping Dirk’s knee with his fist.
An hour later, the van and Chevy pulled into the warehouse and the metal door clanged shut behind them. High fives all around. Amid much joking and cussing, the unloading commenced, quickly and efficiently. Until the place suddenly filled with police with guns drawn.
In the ensuing confusion, Griff was outraged to see a familiar face. The fake Mr. Patterson stood talking with the plain clothes cop in charge. He had his hands in his pockets instead of in handcuffs, laughing at something the other man said.
“Hey you. Chuck or whatever your name is!” Griff yelled. “Guys, that—that—Patterson’s an ex-con. A conman--running a scam! You should be arresting him.”
The uniform patting Griff down snarled, “Quit your belly-aching. We nabbed you fair and square.”
“But that damned Patterson,” Griff spat. “I did time with him at FCF—Fremont—in the late eighties, I think it was.”
“No kidding? Watch your head.” He was helped none too gently into the back of a patrol car.
Later, alone with a young, overweight cop on the ride downtown, Griff still fumed. “How’d you know about us—about me?” he asked the back of the driver’s head.
The officer eyed him in the rearview mirror. “Oh, we know you, Clifford Ray Weeks. We’ve been tailing you for a month. One of the last jobs you pulled, the homeowner ID’d you from the mugshot book.”
Griff/Clifford chewed on that for a while. Then he blurted, “Why the phone call? You know, asking for Jimmy?”
“We didn’t want to hang around all day waiting for you to fill the van. Thought we’d goose you into getting on with it.”
“Okay. Okay, so why in the hell didn’t you bust that Patterson guy?”
The cop snickered.
Aggrieved, Griff glared out the side window for a minute. Then, if he hadn’t been cuffed behind his back, he’d have slapped himself on the forehead. “Damn! He was a guard.”