Wynter reckoned he had twenty-four hours before they came looking for him. That’s how long it would take for them to find out there wasn’t a report, wasn’t a mine and wasn’t any silver. That’s when the Kontakis brothers would realize their hundred thousand dollars had vanished. That’s when they’d start tearing Chicago apart looking for a French Canadian named Bourdin.
They’d never find him.
He didn’t exist.
Wynter had disposed of Bourdin’s fake passport and driving license in a dumpster headed for the incinerator and had reverted to being an Englishman, a role he much preferred. He was now intent on disappearing. That’s why he was travelling by bus across the Mid-West.
Greyhound buses got left behind in the twentieth century’s rush for speed. They survived as transport for the poor, and, like the poor, everyone knows they’re there yet no one really sees them. For the duration of their journey people that ride buses insulate themselves behind their belongings. Bags, newspapers, headphones, radios and candy wrappers are piled up around them like the walls of a medieval castle. With all these barriers, conversation is difficult and more sleeping than talking gets done on long journeys. Leave on Monday, arrive a thousand miles later on Wednesday, and by the time the bus pulls out fellow travelers won’t recollect what you looked like and the driver can’t remember your name. For those three days you may as well have disappeared from the face of the earth.
Wynter’s grubby white T shirt, jeans and battered leather jacket didn’t draw any attention but his accent caused the driver to raise an eyebrow. When he explained he was English, the driver just nodded and carried on chewing gum. Settling into a seat near the back of the bus, Wynter got his head down and tried to get some sleep. When he awoke they had left the sprawling Chicago suburbs and were speeding south through the Illinois countryside.
Wynter closed his eyes again and smiled. He cast his mind back over the last few weeks. He had good reason to be pleased with himself. The set-up had gone smoothly. He had shown just enough disinterest to make it sound intriguing. He’d always believed in backing off once you’ve hinted at the proposition. Don’t try the hard sell. If they’re interested they’ll follow. If not, you haven’t wasted too much time. His smile still lingered when he re-opened his eyes and gazed over the unchanging sea of wheat. Kansas City was getting closer, but more importantly Chicago was a few miles further behind.
No-one could accuse the Kontakis brothers of being pleasant. Mike ran a down-market bar and two strip joints while brother Milo looked after a few arcades of slot machines. When you stepped into the semi-darkness of their strip clubs you left whatever law you thought protected you at the door. Fights were normal and broken bones not unusual. Mike proudly displayed a row of teeth that he’d knocked out of quarrelsome customers behind the bar of one of the strip joints. One of these customers was the reason Wynter had been in Chicago.
It wasn’t so much his jaw that Mike Kontakis had broken, though that was painful enough: it was Henry Concannon’s pride that Kontakis had hurt. He had sworn revenge every day of the two months his jaw was wired up. When he’d recovered sufficiently, Henry contacted Wynter in the usual way, and three months after he had been thrown out of Mike Kontakis’ bar, Henry was sitting in a diner discussing the options over coffee with Wynter. After examining the problem from every angle, and taking into account the psychology of the Kontakis brothers, they had agreed to work the mining scam.
Reading and sleeping seemed the only things worth doing on a bus journey. Wynter had tried watching the countryside but came to the conclusion that the Great Plains had to be where God took a nap between creating the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains. Wynter pushed his hair back off his face and turned his head to the window. The corn-colored monotony of the landscape spread endlessly out in front of him, and if the bus was making progress it wasn’t noticeable. Only when he looked down at the road was he aware that they were moving at a steady sixty miles per hour.
Every time Milo Kontakis asked about the deal, Wynter changed the subject. Same thing with Mike - except Mike wouldn’t let it go. Mike Kontakis had taken the bait. It was with a wonderfully measured reluctance that Wynter had slowly laid out the proposition. Wynter had learnt to be careful with descriptions - the investment was in thousands, returns always in millions. Large sums excited and unbalanced people. They also interfered with the normal thought process, causing the target to focus on the money he stood to make rather than the sum he stood to lose.
Wynter yawned, tried to stretch and decided his body wasn’t designed to undergo long distance bus travel. Standing just over six feet tall and weighing a hundred and eighty pounds, he was a squeeze-fit in most seats. Rubbing his legs to restore the circulation, Wynter made the decision to find a hotel in Kansas City for the night. Perhaps he had been over-ambitious thinking he could make Omaha in one day. Five hundred miles from Chicago was far enough. The Greyhound Company had served its purpose - the Kontakis brothers would never believe the sophisticated Bourdin had left by bus.
Wynter had explained to Mike Kontakis that the mine hadn’t been doing too well for the last four or five years and word was it was thought to be worked out. Old man Stark had secretly commissioned a survey to see if the mine was viable. That report was now in and the contents were mind blowing. A new vein of silver had been located in a part of the mine difficult to reach, and the survey estimated that it was worth a conservative five hundred million dollars, probably much more. Wynter said Stark had kept this to himself and was busy trying to buy out the rest of the stockholders, telling everyone that the mine was worked out ... finished.
The bus pulled into bay twelve of the Kansas City Bus Station and the driver turned the engine off. Like most bus stations it looked sad and unloved. The rich didn’t know that it existed, and the poorer members of the community wished they didn’t either. It hadn’t seen a proper paint job in over twenty years, surviving on a lick of paint just when and where it was needed. Wynter stepped off the bus and waited as the driver retrieved his suitcases and parcel from the hold. He found a taxi and asked the Polish driver if he knew a moderately priced hotel. Wynter didn’t bother getting out of the car when they pulled up outside what appeared to be a run-down tenement building. The driver turned in his seat and smiled hopefully but Wynter shook his head. Obviously the driver hadn’t understood the word moderate; something had got lost in translation. Patiently Wynter explained that he was looking for a clean, comfortable hotel in a quiet, unobtrusive part of town. You know, he joked, the sort of place you’d take your mistress. The driver’s face broke into a large grin, and ten minutes later they drew up in a tree lined street opposite a large, well tended hotel and garden.
The driver kept grinning at Wynter as he took the two suitcases and parcel from the trunk. As he paid him, Wynter couldn’t make up his mind whether the driver thought he was meeting a woman here, or this was where the driver had spent passionate nights with his mistress. Either way Wynter got the feeling that between the two of them they were definitely a woman short.
Wynter had explained to Mike Kontakis that he knew old man Stark’s son, Joshua wanted to unload his fifteen per cent holding in the mine, and knew nothing about the new, rich vein of silver. Joshua and his old man had argued twenty years ago and hadn’t spoken since. Joshua now needed a hundred thousand dollars to pay off gambling debts in Vegas. He also needed it in a hurry or he faced the prospect of spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Wynter didn’t have the hundred thousand or he’d do the deal himself, but if Mike Kontakis could raise the money, Wynter would introduce him to Joshua ... for a small fee.
Greed and the thought of all that silver had proved too much for Mike, and he met Wynter early the next morning with a bag full of money. A suitably disguised Henry Concannon, acting the part of Joshua, turned up ten minutes late looking nervous and displaying a morbid fear of wheelchairs. Henry wasted no time in passing the share certificates over to Kontakis, and took the bag. While Henry nervously checked to see that all the money was there, Wynter quietly pocketed an envelope containing fifteen thousand dollars. Satisfied that everything was as it should be, Henry closed the bag, said goodbye and vanished.
Wynter warned Mike that the authorities would look upon what they had just done as insider trading. It could lead to twenty years in prison. Mike laughed. A dumb French Canadian warning him about the law must have sounded rich. It was a shame, really; the French had once been tough, good in a fight. They used to have an empire for chrissakes!
Henry and Wynter divided the one hundred and fifteen thousand dollars in the gentlemen’s washrooms of a nearby hotel, and an hour later Wynter was on the morning bus to Kansas City. He had no desire to wait around to see Mike Kontakis’ reaction when he found out that the mine not only didn’t contain a newly discovered vein of silver ... it didn’t exist. In fact, Mike Kontakis was now the owner of two thousand shares in a soft toy company. True, the two companies’ names were similar. So similar that all Henry had to do was change three letters with the aid of chemicals and ink. After a night’s work, the stock certificates in the toy company were transformed into that of a mining conglomerate. Still, Mike could look forward to receiving a cuddly toy dog for Christmas ... the company prided itself on that.
After a good night’s sleep and a shower, Wynter transformed himself from the down at heel loser who had ridden the bus into a casually dressed executive. He strolled out of the hotel and had breakfast in the diner down the street. Having serious doubts about his body’s ability able to cope with consecutive days of bus travel, Wynter asked the guy working the griddle about used car dealerships. Turned out that Kansas City did a brisk trade in pick-ups; no doubt due to the surrounding farming community.
Finishing his coffee, he took a leisurely walk around to a couple of used car lots. He found what he was looking for in Jim Reavis’s ‘Kansas City Pick-Up Centre’ - a three year old Ford. Wynter paid cash, drove off, and parked the pick-up outside the hotel. Emerging twenty minutes later, he loaded his two suitcases behind the seats and put the parcel into the passenger foot well, then set off towards Omaha on the first leg of his trip to the Cascade Mountains.
Wynter had never been to Oregon. It seemed as good a place as any to disappear.