“What do you mean, what does he know? I told you, everything!” Stanley exclaimed, rubbing his hands together and walking slowly in a tight circle around the shop floor.
“Will you settle down? Just stop for a minute and tell me what he said.”
“He knows! He asked me how the business was going!”
Leo reached out and grabbed his partner to get him to stop moving. “What did he say exactly?”
“I told you! He asked how the business was going!”
Leo rubbed a hand across his face, realizing that Stanley might be just a little bit unstable after all. “That’s all he said Stanley?”
“Yes! That’s all he needed to say.”
“You don’t suppose he might have been asking about your clock business?” Leo asked.
“Why? What?” Stanley replied, and then he stopped, a dumbfounded look on his face. “Well, I mean, maybe, but why would he ask me that?”
“Maybe he was just wondering about it, or making small talk, or who knows why. Did he mention the shop, or me, or anything about jewelry?”
By now Stanley’s face was bright red and his eyes were averted, staring down at the rugged wooden floor of his shop. “No, nothing else. Just like I said, he asked how business was. But…”
“Nothing,” Stanley muttered back, his face getting even more red. Leo reached out his hand again and shook the other man’s shoulder.
“Look at me friend, I think maybe you have something to tell me. What did you say after he asked you that?”
There was a long pause and Leo knew he was not going to like the answer, but he needed it nonetheless. He shook Stanley’s shoulder roughly and asked him again what he had said to his father.
“It, well, I thought he was on to us, you know. I thought he knew about all of it. I was just afraid, I didn’t know what to say.”
“But you did say something, so what was it?”
“I told him that it wasn’t my idea, that I was just doing the work, making the pieces but not selling them. He was confused, starting asking me questions, and I, well, I just ran out of the place and over here.”
Leo stayed silent but his grip on Stanley’s shoulder increased, until his partner started to squirm under the pressure. Finally he let go.
“Damn, damn, damn! You stupid foolish dumb,” was a far as he got before he decided that berating Stanley was not going to be very useful. He needed to figure out what to do next. Collapsing back into the chair where he had been reading the newspaper, Leo sighed deeply and returned to silence, staring blankly down at the floor. Five minutes later he looked back up.
“That’s all you said? Absolutely nothing else?”
“Nothing else, I swear, nothing.”
“Ok, so now you are going to go back home and figure out just what exactly he might be thinking about what you said, and what he might be doing about it.”
There was about ten more minutes of protesting from Stanley but in the end he went and then met Leo the next day. It turned out that his father was mostly confused and figured his son was having some kind of a fit, after which a long lecture on the effects of fire-gilding followed, and then it was dropped. Ben Bittenhopper had mentioned through that he was going to be, “taking a stroll around,” to see what some of the new businesses were up to in town. Leo knew that did not bode well, but things were less serious than they might have been. As a safeguard he decided to shut the store for ten days, taking off into the nearby countryside for what he considered was a well deserved break. When he returned Stanley confidently reported that his father had not mentioned the episode at all and had indeed toured the new businesses in town, returning only with some concerns about there being too many mercantile establishments. Feeling he was in the clear at least for a little bit longer, Leo reopened L&S and they were back in business.
A profitable three weeks followed and Leo was walking down the street behind his business on October 5th, on his way to eat lunch in a small park he liked, when he was brought to a dead stop. Across the street, walking next to a short, blonde-haired woman, was Robert Lester.
Leo took a few moments, following the couple with his eyes as he tried to convince himself that he was wrong. After all the time he had spent looking for the man it was hard to believe that they had just walked past each other on a public street. The man never looked back but it did not matter. By the time he stepped off again toward the park, Leo was pretty well convinced that he had found the man he had come to look for in Bakersfield. He was, however, not certain on how he wanted to proceed, weighing the need to get the “rat” issue resolved against Lester’s threat against him. He thought about that as he ate, and for a whole day afterward, and then decided he was going to face the situation head on, just like he had originally planned. He would go out and find Lester and talk to him and get this whole thing straightened out regardless of if it put his safety in jeopardy. Knowing from his previous attempts that locating him through public records was futile, Leo took to spending one to two hours a day on that street behind his shop, just watching and hoping for a repeat appearance. It finally came four days later, the man’s slight limp and arms that swung too much as he walked reconfirming Leo’s belief it was Lester, and he ran across to confront the man.
The man took three more steps before stopping, slowing turning around but reaching inside his jacket as he did so.
“Hold on, hold on, it’s just me after all, you remember don’t ya?” Leo said.
“You bet I know who you are,” the olive-skinned man replied, “and I got a score to settle that’s up on the board right now. I plan to cash it in.” Leo could see the gun, held just under the man’s jacket, free of its holster but still out of sight of the few others walking near them.
“You don’t need to do anything like that Robert, really, this is all a big misunderstanding, it really is. I came here to find you, to straighten it up. Let’s just talk for a few minutes, ok?”
Lester motioned his head back up the street in the direction of the park. “Sure, we can talk if that’s what you want. It’ll be much better to be in a secluded place anyhow. After you then.”
Without looking back, but with his heart beating rapidly in his chest, Leo walked toward the park, his former partner a few steps behind him with one hand still nonchalantly inside of his jacket.
…to be continued