|| Home :: Robert Fitton :: Thrillers :: Framed|
" Hello, Hiss. I'm ready to tell you about the murders now. It may take awhile, but I'm trapped."
Hiss froze the tape on the little screen. He checked the opened Federal Express box for a return address. The plastic video case was cracked open on his office table and he had only just inserted the unlabeled tape. A disheveled Gordon Butts, his yellow striped tie draped over his wrinkled white shirt, and his dark thinning hair pushed straight back, sat on the wood floor of an empty apartment. Under half the opened Venetian blinds and a dull metal radiator, a gray answering machine flashed red with messages.
Butts strained to keep his dark eye slits open. Hiss had not seen him in a couple of months and thought Butts looked ill. In his shaky right hand Butts gripped a silver microphone, probably connected to the video camera, and in his other hand, he pinched a smoldering cigarette. Hiss believed Butts had gotten away with murder. He again pushed the play button and Butts' image became alive.
" I walked into Walter Thornton's second floor office in August, 1986. I had done a lot of selling and was what you might call a top gun, but never sold plumbing supplies. Thornton was a big guy and kind of clumsy. He had a buck-toothed smile, worked long hours and made more money than he knew about. He made you feel you were important. Same type of deal you do every day in sales, except Walter Thorn-ton's attitude was genuine.
He poured me a tall glass of water, popped in ice cubes and wanted to know whom I'd sold to and what kind of track record I had. If I hadn't listen to my friend Tom Cowles I wouldn't be in the trouble I'm in now. Tom moonlighted as an auditor and accountant and heard about the Thornton job through the grapevine. When Tom wrote Walter Thornton's name and number on a napkin over beer one night, I thought I'd have a chance to make some more money. I was selling good, but not getting rich. I was twenty-five years old, ambitious and ready to advance my career.
Take a good look at me now. I haven't slept. I'm losing weight and will be dead soon. They're all gone now, Hiss. They did this to me. They all framed me.
Walter Thornton listened real close as I polished up a lackluster job, selling machine tools and parts to small shops all over New Jersey. I had the job since I got out of the service in the early eighties. What I didn't tell him is how I blew up at the son of a bitch who called himself a sales manager, the little Napoleon, Norman Slavitz. I didn't tell Walter Thornton how I got myself fired.
In his Long Island warehouse, Walter Thornton had a birch paneled second floor office with a cushioned white rug. A TV and VCR, probably for sales meetings, sat on a glossy conference table near the front window span. The place reeked of cheap cologne.
I studied the two rows of plumbing and heating supply books filling wall shelves behind his desk. He sat in his high backed, leather chair and stroked his chin as I crafted my story. It was odd, Hiss, as I sipped on the water, I felt as if I already had the job and didn't need to detail sales quotas, budgets, and figures. Walter Thornton nodded, occasion-ally pushed the remaining strands of straw hair over his rounded head. He would look at me with those sad cow eyes, shaking his jowls as he nodded and scratched notes on a yellow pad.
I wondered, as I sat there, why I had spent three years busting my hump in a job that paid next to nothing and was going nowhere. That's probably why I lost it with Slavtiz. Oh, I added some fiction to my account, but you don't get sent to jail for lying at a job interview. I took Walter Thornton all the way in just half an hour. He stood behind his wide polished wooden desk, placed his oversized hands on the blotter and said. " I want you to work for me, Butts. You're the type of man I need in my organization."
Being self- assured and cocky, I reclined in the soft chair and pressed my lips for a few seconds before looking back at him. " I'll have to think about it, Mr. Thorn-ton," I said. Even though I needed the job and was broke.
Stunned, Walter Thornton looked at me twice in quick successive glances and started talking about paying me more salary than I made at Crowley Fastener and Machine Parts. I let him sweat. And he did sweat. He seemed very nervous and breathed in short bursts as he spoke. But I had him thinking the best salesman on the East Coast was sitting back with legs crossed, debating whether to accept his job offer. He excused himself for a moment and walked into a private bathroom. Through the cracked door I saw him remove a brass small case and press something under his tongue. Walter Thornton had heart problems.
When he returned to his office, I upped the stakes. " Listen, Mr. Thornton," I said. " I really want to work for you, but frankly I don't know what kind of a future I'd have here. Is your business growing or just flat?"
" Growing, Butts. Growing. We don't just sell supplies. We sell contracts. Heating and air conditioning contracts. I have another warehouse in central Jersey. I don't think you know where I live. Do you know where I live?"
" No, sir" I lied, but I knew where he lived. When Tom told me about the job, I had driven my clunker near the gates of his Tanglewood mansion on Long Island. You couldn't even see past the ivy walls from your car. But I got out. I propped myself up and gazed across the most extensive grounds I had ever seen. They must have had more guys than the Yankee Stadium grounds crew keeping the place looking good. I wanted a part of it. Maybe I'd just take the pool house. I needed to break out of that dump at where I'd been living at The Bryant in Crane's Beach in for three years. " Where do you live, Mr. Thornton?"
" Have you ever heard of Tanglewood, Mr. Butts?"
" No, sir," I answered, playing dumb because I knew I had this fish hooked and was about to reel him in.
" Tanglewood, Mr. Butts, is an exclusive community on Long Island. Very private and very wealthy. I am a wealthy man. I can't even tell you what I'm worth. I'll leave that for my wife to figure out."
I had seen the wife, Hiss. She had been by the pool that day I climbed over the top and peered across the grounds. She was at least ten years younger than Walter Thornton. Back then she had short auburn hair and wore a bright green string bikini. I wouldn't call her a looker, but I don't take my eyes of any woman walking around nearly bare ass. I thought she was flat chested, but didn't mind her taking off her top when she stretched out on the pool lounger.
" Connie, my wife, she does the books. Always has since I took over the business from my father."
I could see the rest coming. This guy had no kids. He was probably looking for someone to take under his wing. " Sounds like your father worked hard to build the business."
" You bet your ass he did."
I wasn't thinking of my ass right then, having wished I scaled the wall a few weeks back and slithered my way to his wife lying on her stomach next to the pool. " You know, people just don't understand that it's hard work that brings results. Things don't come to you on a silver platter."
" That's exactly right. And when my father died-"
" How did he die, Mr. Thornton?"
" Heart attack. Massive."
" I'm sorry."
" No, no," he said, motioning with his hands. " It happened real quick. Dad felt no pain."
" Sometimes that's the best way to go," I said.
Walter Thornton had deep feelings for his father, but I really didn't give a damn. I wanted the job. I wanted a chance to leave Crane's Beach and aspire to the Tanglewood lifestyle. " Listen, Gordon. I want you to work for me. You can start on Monday. I'll bring you through New Jersey myself. Give me a chance to get out of this prison and meet some of my old accounts."
I looked at him and nodded, but I had to wonder just how much time he spent in this office; his prison. Like the little puppy dog running up to his master after a long days work, I stood and my hand was enveloped by his larger mitt. " Mr. Thornton, I would be honored to work for Thornton Plumbing and Supply."
Disasters have small beginnings. My routine soon consisted of a week long trek up and down the New Jersey coast, conning local suppliers, plumbers, and contractors into using Thornton Plumbing and Supply. I wined and dined, bullied and intimidated this group of hard working, conniving sleazes, who used my kind of tactics to land their own jobs and contracts. The routine was the same. I'd start in southern New Jersey and work my way back toward New York. From my years on the road, I knew the cities, the bars and the women along the way. I used to brag about my exploits to my naive friend, Tom Cowles. Most people along the way were surprised to see me back after I was fired by Norman Slavitz. One part of me wanted to cross his path again and rub it in about my new job. But why risk Slavitz calling Walter Thornton and telling him the truth?
I pulled into a small seaside bar called Flips around ten one Wednesday night. I still drove my 1978 red Ford Torino, an oversized gas guzzler, an embarrassment now in cost efficient eighties. The car had heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer, so I couldn't kick. Besides, Walter Thornton had promised me a company car if I could double sales in the territory. I doubted I could. The competition was keen, but for some reason I walked on water as far as he was concerned. In a few months I could probably sweet-talk him into the car anyway. Walter Thornton was the type of guy who dreamed big, thought big and then accepted what came his way.
For some reason on that October night as I pushed open the heavy bar door, I thought of Connie Thornton the summer before. I stepped into the smoke fanned, dingy dive. I lit a cigarette and wondered why she felt it necessary to take off her top while sun bathing. She had her back to me and I thought for a long time what her front must have looked like.
I sat at the bar, glancing at the Monday night football game on an old nineteen inch set and ordered a beer. As I always do, Hiss, I scanned the bar and the booths beyond, looking for some local talent. Someone to shack up with for the night, but that probably doesn't surprise you. You seemed to do a thorough job seeing through my obvious character deficiencies.
I found what I was looking for in one of the booths near an intense pool game down the other end. She was small and cheap with curled, bleached hair. She guarded a diluted sweet drink, sat alone smoking and peaked out the side window. I know how to be inauspicious. You know that about me, too.
I left the bar and walked down to the pool game, pretending to be the world's aficionado on eight ball, all the while slowly backing toward this little thing in the booth. When I fell back, spilling my beer, she produced a quick chirp. I turned, looked embarrassed and focused on her mascara smeared blue eyes.
" I'm so sorry," I said, mopping up the beer with the table napkins.
When she said, " That's all right," I knew I had her. I won't detail what I did with her that night. All night. Something came out of it. Something setting everything else in motion. Something not occurring to me consciously at that time, but seething in my brain, fighting to burst out, and finally allowed to escape with Wanda Jenkins' suggestion.
We were in bed back at her place. I'm not sure what time it was. Near morning, I don't know. Not important. See, hours ago I had told her my usual story about being on the road and working at Thornton Plumbing and Supply. I'm listening to the waves licking the shore outside her apartment and in the darkness she said I could go to the top if I put the moves on Connie Thornton.
I was surprised this floozy, in the middle of nowhere would produce such a splendid and superb suggestion. She sat up in the dull light. I wanted to make love again when I saw her, but she rebuffed me this time. She told me what I needed to do was to get invited to Walter Thornton's house, preferably when he wasn't there. She knew how I had conned her in the bar and told me she some woman liked to be conned. It was part of a game I knew all too well.
But this was the ultimate challenge. Hiss. Go after Walter Thornton's wife, the bikini string, bare ass woman who like to shed her top by the pool. Somehow, the game appealed to me even more than furthering my career. Power crept in later, and when it did, any carnal feelings tight then were sublimated when I imagined for the first time in my life what it might be like to wield control over other men, clients, and employees.
" Wanda," I said. " Everyday I'm busting my ass through New Jersey trying to make quotas and shove plumbing supplies down somebody's throat. And I love doing it."
" I bet," she said, snuggling up to me again.
" But this ... I want this." I felt driven to go after this woman who lived in Tanglewood. I didn't care about Walter Thornton. He was in the office most nights anyway. The time was ripe for Connie Thornton. I didn't know anything about her, what she did or desired. I only knew I wanted to slide into her life.
" I knew you were ambitious when I saw you at the bar."
" Maybe." I would get into Connie's life carefully and methodically, even if she knew I only wanted to advance myself with her influence. I didn't care what she thought of me. Only that she might participate in my perverted game. And she would. I could feel it. I climbed on top of Wanda and kissed her again.
" You're a scum ball, Gordon," she said, pulling back the sheets.
" Yeah ..."
I was going to find Connie, track her down and know exactly where she dined, what she liked and didn't like. Form a profile on her as I would one of my accounts. She wouldn't be able to think a thought without me knowing about it first. And I'd take her, Hiss. I'd take her quick before she could think twice about it. So fast, she'd rue the day she didn't have Gordon Butts in her life.
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