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39

FLIP MET HIS NEW co-conspirators at his office-gym, a deep narrow storefront in a suburban mall between nowhere and nothing. Almost all of his contacts with his clients were in their own residences or, occasionally, offices, but every once in a while it was necessary to provide a place for the sessions, as when a clients marriage had ended with more than the usual fallout and flak, and it would be some time before he would have his own exercise mat again. Also, Flip needed his own gym, to keep himself in peak condition. Therefore, Flips Hustle House, which consisted of an ordinary office in front, a gym almost as extensive as Monroe Halls behind it, and a smallish changing room and shower behind that, all at the rear of this Meandering Bypaths Mall, tucked away where only the most determined could find it.

Which included this new group of five. Although, as Flip had noticed from the very beginning, they werent a group of five after all, were they? They were a group of two, a pair of snotty silver-spoon-in-the-mouth sorts, supplemented by a group of three, baggy out-of-shape heart-attack-to-come working stiffs. It was amazing, Flip reflected, as he watched his new team troop into the office, how Monroe Hall could bring disparate people together.

The snot called Mark seemed to be the spokesman. Once they were all seated, either comfortably on one of the three chairs or uncomfortably on the floor, Mark said, Let me put our cards on the table, which, in Flips experience, meant wool was now headed toward ones eyes. We have reasons, Mark went on, to feel that Monroe Hall owes us something.

So do we! announced the sack of guts introduced as Ace.

Mark nodded at him patiently, as though hed learned a long time ago to make the nodding patiently at Ace an automatic reaction to the sound of the mans voice. I was including you in us, he said.

Mac, the brains of the sagging team, said, Ace, were all in this together.

At the moment, Flip thought, and watched and listened.

Mark, the interruption over, went back to laying his cards on the table. Weve studied Monroe Halls estate, he said, all of us, with a glance at Ace, for some time. His defenses unfortunately are excellent.

Flip nodded. All that money can buy, he said.

Os, the usually quiet one, growled. It was an actual growl, the sort of thing that usually emanates from something on a leash. While Flip looked at him in some surprise, Mark patted Oss kneeOs was chaired, Mark floored near himand said, Yes, Os, we know, some of that money is ours.

And some, the jack-in-the-box, Ace, also on the floor, put in, belongs to the ACWFFA.

Agreed, Mark told him, leaving Flip in the dark, and turned back to say, We had all noticed that the only person in this wide world with unquestioned access to that compound, apart from Halls wife, is yourself.

He needs a personal trainer, Flip explained. Stuck in that place, he gets no exercise at all.

We studied you, Mark said. I admit it. We even broke in and entered your house.

Flip stared in astonishment. This was cards on the table. Trying to think what might be in his house of an embarrassing nature that they might have stumbled across, he said, You did?

Finding nothing of use, Mark said, to Flips great relief. The same with your car.

My car?

That Subaru. We wondered how many people we could hide in it, or one like it. Possibly have one of us disguise himself as you, hide others in the vehicle

No, no, Flip said, and had to smile, looking at them. Im sorry, I dont mean to be rude, but I really dont think a one of you could disguise yourself as me, not for a second.

There were these problems, Mark agreed. They appeared to be insurmountable. But then, my friends and I He paused here, surprisingly, to smile in amiable fashion toward the flab called Mac, and to say, Particularly my friend Mac.

It was all of us, Mac assured him.

In any event, Mark said, it occurred to us that, since Monroe Hall famously alienates everyone who comes within even the slightest contact with him, why wouldnt he have alienated you?

Why, indeed? said Flip, furious all over again, thinking grimly of the three hundred forty-seven dollars hed just this afternoon mailed to the feds. What he did to me, the no-muscle-tone son of a bitch, he said, is turn me in to the IRS.

The IRS? They were all astonished, but none more so than Os, who said, Forgive me, but what about you could possibly interest the IRS?

My money, Flip said simply. Theres nothing too small for those people to go after, now that were at war.

War? More general astonishment, this time summed up by Buddy: What war?

Now Flip too was astonished. What? he said. Dont you know theres a war on?

They didnt. So involved were they in their own concerns that an entire war had slipped beneath their radar.

Mark, as though questioning this wars pedigree and bona fides, said, What war is this?

Theyre calling it, Flip said, Project Everlasting Watchfulness and Prosperity Under God.

Mac said, Thats the name of the war?

Apparently, Flip said, they worked it out with focus groups and ad agencies and everything, and that was the name that sold best.

That isnt how they used to name wars, Mark protested. They used to name wars with some gravitas to them. The Civil War. The French and Indian War.

The Thirty Years War, suggested Mac.

The Napoleonic Wars, Buddy offered.

The War of Jenkins Ear, Os tossed in.

Well, all right, Mark conceded, they werent always mature and dignified, but mostly they were.

Say it again, Ace urged Flip.

Project Everlasting Watchfulness and Prosperity Under God.

It sounds, Buddy mused, like one of those religious tracts they put in your screen door.

They did the most up-to-date branding, Flip assured him. Its all very modern.

Os said, Sos carpal tunnel syndrome.

Mark said, Never mind this war and these namings. Gazing intently, openly, honestly at Flip, he said, We have come to see if your entree to Halls property, plus our manpower and motivation, might help us get our hands on the bastard.

Flip said, What do you want to do with him? He wasnt sure he was ready to go along with murder, but felt at least he should hear them out.

It was Os who answered: We want his money.

Our money, Buddy said.

Mark said, The idea is, we get him off that compound. We get him to a computer, possibly that one there on your desk.

I dont think so, Flip said.

Somewhere, Mark agreed. We force him to access his offshore accounts, and transfer large pieces of his money to us, to our friends here, and now to you. Once the transfer is complete and irreversible, and once we have our alibis in place, just in case he recognizes some of us through the masks well naturally wear, well release him, considerably poorer.

And serve him right, Buddy said.

Flip said, Mmm, I dont know.

The money transfer? Mark shrugged. Trust me, I know how to make those work.

No, Flip said, Im talking about getting him out of there. I dont know how many of you I could even get into the place, but to then get all of us and a trussed-up Monroe Hall back out again, I just dont

And then he saw it. His eyes opened wide, and so did his mouth. He gazed at a vision in the middle distance. Flabby Mac said, You got something, I saw it hit you.

Mark said, I saw it, too. Between the eyes.

Horses, breathed Flip.

They all frowned at him. Buddy, dubious as could be, said, Horses?

Hes got a couple horses, Flip told them, but his trainer quit. He doesnt know how to ride, and he wants to learn.

Ace said, What good does

Mark said, Let him tell us, Ace, and Ace looked surprised at the interruption and on the brink of being offended when Mac quietly said, Okay, Ace, and Ace subsided.

So then Flip said, Twice he asked me if I knew a horse-riding trainer, but I dont. But now I could.

Os said, Flip, thats very nice, but that electric fence is too high. Even if you knew how to ride, you couldnt jump that fence.

Im not talking about jumping any fences, Flip told him. Think about horses. How do they get anywhere? Do they walk? Never. Horses ride!

Mac said, Say, youre right.

Weve all seen them, Flip said, the horse carriers, the trailers, high solid sides, you can never see into them, except a horses tail at the window at the back.

And one of these days, Mac said, if I get your meaning, Flip, that horses tail is going to be Monroe Hall.


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