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WHEN THE DOORBELL RANG, Kelp was seated at the kitchen table, reading a recent safe manufacturers catalog, enjoying the full-color illustrations. He knew Anne Marie was somewhere else in the apartment, and figured the doorbell was for her anyway, because it was probably her friend Jim Green, come to talk about new identities. So he finished reading a burglar-proof paragraph, smiling faintly to himself, then closed the catalog and was getting to his feet when Anne Marie called, Andy?

On my way.

In the living room, Anne Marie smiled and said, Andy Kelp, this is Jim Green.

Whadaya say? Kelp said, and stuck out his hand.

How do you do, Jim Green said. He had a gentle voice, a mild manner, a small smile, a soft handshake.

Looking Green over, Kelp decided he wasnt impressed. Anne Marie had been going on about how this was some kind of man of mystery or something, nobody knows his real name, hes the spooks spook, whatever. To Kelp, he just seemed like some average joe. Maybe even more average than most.

Anne Marie tells me, Green was saying, with a toothy smile in Anne Maries direction, you and some pals are looking for new paper.

Thats it, Kelp agreed. You know, it doesnt have to hold up forever, only a few months.

Still smiling, Green shook both his head and a hand, saying, No, excuse me, Andy, it doesnt work that way.

It doesnt?

Anne Marie said, Why dont we sit? Jim, get you some coffee? A drink?

Nothing right now, Anne Marie, Green told her, and Kelp again found himself wondering what impressed her so much about this guy. Anyway, they sat, and Green said, An identity isnt the same as like a counterfeit passport or something like that. An identity isnt really even something you carry around with you. Mostly, its a new you we put into the files.

Okay, Kelp said.

So it isnt a question, Green went on, how long is this thing good for. Its good forever, unless you burn it. It wont burn itself. You get a new identity, its always there waiting for you, it happens someday you can no longer go on being who you were before.

Sounds good, Kelp said.

And, Green said, as with most things that sound good, it also sounds expensive.

Thats why, Kelp said, I was hoping for something maybe shorter term, because that might not be so expensive.

Green nodded, frowning a little. Then he grinned at Anne Marie and said, You come up with a cute one this time, Anne Marie.

I know, she said, grinning back.

I tell you what, Anne Marie, Green said, maybe I will take a cup of coffee.

Sure, she said, rising. That was black no sugar, right?

What a memory, Green said.

Kelp said, Anne Marie, while youre pouring, I might accept a beer.


She went away, and Green leaned back on the sofa and said, What can you tell me about what you need this for?

I can tell you a lot, Kelp said, since Anne Marie says youre solid.

And I say the same for her. So what are we looking at?

Four guys, Kelp told him, have to get employed by a guy thats under federal court observation and bankruptcy and ongoing investigations and all of this.

Youre going to work for this guy?

Its the only way to get to where he is, and get what we want.

Interesting, Green said.

Because of this guys situation, Kelp said, he cant hire anybody with a record.

I can see that.

Because of our situation, we cant apply.

What you need, Green said, is identities without felonies.

You got it.

Let me think about this. Green nodded to himself, while Kelps mind wandered. Then Green nodded more emphatically. I suspect, he said, what were also talking about here is short money up front, and a guaranteed big killing after its all over.

Well, Kelp said, there are no guarantees.

Green looked surprised. Really? Usually, theres guarantees.

Well, Kelp said, it isnt guaranteed to not work.

Okay. Green seemed to like to nod; he did some more of it, then said, Did you know Howard?

Ive known some Howards, Kelp admitted. You thinking of any one of them in particular?

Anne Maries husband.

Oh, he was Howard? No, he cleared out two days before we met.

He was a jerk, Green said. I only met him a couple times, but it only took a couple times.

Yeah, I understand that.

He was a jerk like her father, the Honorable, that I knew a lot better. If you never met Howard, then you never met the father, either, because he was dead by then.

Youre right.

Theres women like that, Green said. They start out with a jerk for a father, they go find one just like him, get married. Some do it over and over, keep finding the same exact kind of jerk.

Doesnt sound like fun, Kelp said.

I was wondering, you see, Green said, if Anne Marie would turn out like that.

Kelp grinned. I think she changed her MO, he said.

I think so, too. Shell be back in a minute, so let me ask you. Is it okay we talk business in front of her?

Kelp shrugged. Saves me repeating everything after you leave.

Okay, Green said. He did the nodding thing some more. Let me explain the problem, he said, and Anne Marie came back in, with Greens coffee and Kelps beer and a glass of pale stuff for herself, all on a little tray. Thanks, Green said, and Kelp pointed at the glass of pale stuff. Whats that?

Apple juice, she said, and went back to her chair.

Right, Kelp said. Thats one of your Midwest things.

She said, Jim, do you know why I picked this guy up?

Green said, You picked him up?


I helped, Kelp said.

Ignoring that, Anne Marie told Green, He didnt put anything in his bourbon.

Ahh, Green said.

I put an ice cube, Kelp said.

First man I ever met didnt want everything he drank to taste like Royal Crown Cola. Giving Kelp a fond look, she said, You told me straight bourbon wouldnt make me drunk unless I had one of those funny chemistries.

Kelp nodded. Yeah, but you didnt believe me.

No, of course not. But I liked you telling me. Women like a man who puts in the effort to attract her attention. Lies, inflates his part, acts cool. Women dont believe all the strutting around, but they like it, its a compliment to them that he drags out his bag of tricks, just for her.

It was Kelps turn to show a fond look. You had a couple tricks in the bag, too, you know.

I thought you were worth it.

They smiled at each other, and Jim Green cleared his throat and said, Uh, Im still here, you know.

They looked at him. Oh, hi, Jim, Kelp said. How you doin?


I forgot all about you over there.

Dont worry about it, Jim said. Happens all the time. Turning to Anne Marie, he said, I was just about to explain to Andy the problem.

Im sorry theres a problem, she said.

Well, there would be, he said, and said to Kelp, The identities I create are very tricky, and you need to find just the right little cranny in the system, and theres not a lot of them. So I cant use up four of themin fact, not even one of themfor short money in front. Not even for a guy that I see is the right guy for Anne Marie.

Well, Kelp said, it was a long shot. Thanks, anyway.

Anne Marie said, Jim? You cant help? I was sure you could help.

Anne Marie, I dont help, Green said. I do a professional job, and I get paid for it.

Kelp said, Anne Marie, hes right. It was nice of him to come over here and listen, and if there was something he could do, you know hed do it.

I been thinking, Green said, sitting here, looking at you two, sorry I couldnt do what you want. I been thinking, and what I do have, I have the people that I worked with already, I know everything about who they are now because I made them who they are now.

Anne Marie said, What about them?

Well, Green said, every once in a while, not often, somebody stops being who I made them for one reason or another, inheritance, a general amnesty, death of an enemy. People go back to being who they started out as, maybe temporary, maybe forever. Now, I never done this before, I never even thought of doing it, but those identities are already in place, and I can get back at them again.

Kelp said, You mean, we borrow them?

Thats exactly it, Green said. Now, you borrow, you could be borrowing trouble. I want you to know that. Im not in touch with the people, just the identities, so for all I know somebody may suddenly have to go back to being Joe Blow all over again, and there you are, the cuckoo in his nest. The photo on his passport; you. The fingerprint on his top-secret clearance; yours. And who he gets mad at is you, not me, for hacking into his identity, and some of these people have no sense of humor at all.

I can see that, Kelp said.

Another possibility, Green said, as long as were considering whats the worst that could happen here, somebody else maybe cracked the new identity. The actual guys gone back to who he used to be, and when the assassination team arrives, who they find is you.

Ugh, Anne Marie said.

Kelp said, What are the odds, do you think?

Small, Green said, or I wouldnt make the offer. Very very small, but possible. Like what you were telling me before, no guarantees. But you only want the identity for a month or two.

Maybe even less, Kelp said. I hope even less.

I could see what I could do, Green said. But first I got to meet your three friends, and take their pictures, and do stuff like that. Would you all like to come up to Connecticut?

We prefer to stay in the five boroughs, if we can, Kelp said. But youre the one doing the favor, so its up to you.

Come to think of it, Green said, I probably couldnt fit all four of you in the trunk anyway. So could we think of a place here in town? Id prefer someplace private within someplace public, if you could think of anything like that.

Theres a bar I happen to know, Kelp said, that I think youll like.

| The Road to Ruin | c