Under the Radar

Quarry's Ex: Exclusive Excerpt

Bestseller Max Allan Collins returns with QUARRY’S EX, an all-new adventure of his longest-running series character, the ruthless hitman known as Quarry.

Set in the 1980s, QUARRY’S EX tells the long-awaited story of Quarry’s first encounter with his ex-wife since discovering her cheating on him upon his return from military service in Vietnam. His murder of her lover was the act that set him off on the path toward becoming one of America’s most in-demand killers for hire. When he runs into her in QUARRY’S EX, she’s married again – to a movie director who’s been marked for murder by a rival hitman.

Max Allan Collins is the award-winning author of Road to Perdition, the graphic novel that inspired the Oscar-winning movie starring Paul Newman and Tom Hanks. Collins first wrote about Quarry in 1976, and since then the character has appeared in ten books and The Last Lullaby, a feature film starring Tom Sizemore.

Titan Books has given UTR an exclusive excerpt. Click through to read about Quarry's service in the Marines and his return from Vietnam.

You’re probably wondering how a nice guy like me could end up killing people for money. A lot of nice guys, particularly young ones, start out their adult lives killing people for money. It’s called being a soldier. In my day, it was also called getting drafted, although with a lottery number breathing down my neck, I enlisted and managed to get into the Marines.

I understand plenty of guys who came back from World War Two spent their post-war years being seriously screwed up, nightmares, drinking, smacking wives and kiddies around, among other diversions. But at least those lucky bastards had a war that meant something. My war – maybe you’ve heard of it...Vietnam? – was a fucked-up bunch of nonsense and the only thing I learned from it was how to kill without giving much of a shit. Maybe I would have turned out different if I’d settled comfortably back into civilian life with the beautiful California girl I’d married before I shipped over. But it didn’t work out that way.

I was eighteen and fresh off the farm. Well, not really – fresh off the tract-house middle-class Midwestern assembly line, the kind of bland background that makes Leave It to Beaver look like a documentary. So when I got thrown into boot camp at Camp Pendleton, I was putty in the hands of a D.I., whose purpose in life was to wipe out any individuality and make us good little killing machines for God and country.

On a weekend pass, I met Joni at Gazzari’s on the Sunset Strip. She was a typical, fresh-faced mini-skirted California girl – not the beach bunny type, more the leggy Cher variety, with dark brown hair straight to her shoulders, and big brown eyes that seemed startling against blue eye shadow. She was about five eight but seemed even taller, though she didn’t wear heels – it was just the shortness of the minis she wore, making her legs go on forever.

She started coming down to visit me at San Diego, whenever I had liberty, and if I had leave, I’d go up and see her. She owned a little house in La Mirada and we would bunker in and drink beer and eat pizza, and listen to music, Beatles, Turtles, Association, watch Star Trek on TV, and fuck like guppies.

Other times, we went to Disneyland and to Grauman’s Chinese and the Santa Monica Pier, the California girl humoring the corn-fed hick with touristy junk, and we did the kind of things young lovers do that in the movies require a montage and syrupy music....Happy together....

I seemed to be able to make her laugh, and she was quiet but very sweet. She would stroke my face a lot. We talked about family, a little – how my mother had died of cancer two years ago, and my father had recently remarried, a woman I didn’t like much, a stone bitch but I wouldn’t have said that then. Joni was from a large family and they didn’t have much and her factory-worker father had been abusive (which I thought meant he hit her, but much later it occurred to me he’d been fucking her).

Frankly most of it is a blur. When I met Joni, I was a near virgin – I’d been with one girl in high school, my senior year – and the heady sex included things I’d heard about but never expected to experience...I said “heady” sex – get it? All of those memories exist in snippets, a parade of still photos interspersed with little movies of sweetness here and sensuality there, as if the films playing in my mind were scratchy old drive-in prints, kind of grainy with missing frames and garbled sound.

I remember only two conversations in some detail. One we had at a drive-in outside La Mirada (she had a little blue Marlin, a pretty slick number for a Rambler) where I was doing my best not to make a mess of a chili dog, and she was having just fries, which was the way girls dieted back then.

“I envy you,” she said.

“What for?”

“You had a normal life. You had a loving family.”

“Not really. Lonely being an only child. My mom was nice but she was sick all the time. And my dad barely spoke to me.”

“Why?”

“He was on the road a lot. In his day, he’d been a real jock. I lettered in swimming, but that wasn’t football. I read books. I liked movies. We got along okay, I guess. But maybe I wasn’t macho enough for him.”

“And now you’re a Marine!”

“He was a Marine, too.”

“So you thought that would impress him? Make him really think you’re a man?”

“Don’t make fun, Joni.”

“Am I wrong?”

“No.”

She dipped a fry into the tiny ketchup cup on the drive-in tray next to her (she was behind the wheel – her car, after all).

“I still say you’re lucky,” she said. “Everybody thinks it’s glamorous out here. It’s not. It’s all spread out and you live in your own little world and you never go anywhere or get anywhere.”

“You get around.” I meant that in the Beach Boys sense – like, she had a car – and not that she was fast in any other way.

“I get around now.” She meant the car, too. “But until I was old enough to move out and make something of myself, I lived in a smaller world than you ever did, back in Idaho.”

“Ohio.”

“Wherever.” She nibbled another red-tipped fry. “We shopped and ate and went to movies all in about a six-block radius. Never went anywhere else. That includes school. I teased you about being a typical tourist, Jack, didn’t I?”

Jack was my name then. First name. You won’t get a last one out of me – not a real one. And Quarry isn’t it.

“Yeah,” I said, “you ribbed me pretty good.”

“Well, guess what – I never went to Disneyland before. I never saw a movie on Grauman’s big screen. I never ate cotton candy or rode the carousel at Santa Monica. Not till...” Funny pause. “...till you came along.”

Now, years later, I know why she paused. I’ll fill you in, when the time comes.

Another night, possibly that same week, she drove us to a stretch of beach where, at uneven intervals, yellow-orange fires glowed and sparked against the deep blue of the night and deeper blue of the ocean. These were bonfires with kids gathered around and the scene of much partying – beer, dope, sex. All the stuff that you figured happened in those Beach Party movies after the cameras stopped rolling.

We found a nice bed of sand between some big rocks and laid out a blanket. We’d been there before, three or four times; our place, our spot. Neither one of us was into dope but we had a six-pack of Coors. It was one of those warm California nights Leslie Gore sang about, even the wind off the lazy waves was warm. No humidity, though. California was another planet, too....

I loved her so fucking much. She was very beautiful, twenty-two and older than me, darkly tan except where the bikini had protected skin so shockingly white that the dark curls of her pubic triangle screamed for attention. She would lay on her back and those long slender legs would part and glistening pink would beckon and I’d be balls deep before she could finish her initial gasp. Her long legs would pump, like both our hearts, and her head would roll back and her eyes go half-lidded, and almost cross, and each time I’d thrust, her small pert breasts would thrust, too, their long erect points like little scolding fingers, naughty, naughty....

“Marry me,” I said, when we’d finished, but still inside her.

“Oh yes,” she said breathlessly. “Oh, Jack – yes.”

So I’d married her.

From Vietnam, I wrote her love letters on a daily basis for a while, and she did the same with me, until my world got darker and it was all I could do to maybe once a week and then once a month crawl out of that hole into temporary sunshine to write something to the girl waiting for me, the girl who was the only reason not to give in to despair and either walk into a bullet or go AWOL and maybe get sent stateside to the brig or better yet frag a moronic officer and get sent home to a firing squad or just stick around and maybe join the hardcore Corps who were slamming heroin to escape for now or maybe escape for good. Me, who didn’t even accept a toke when a doobie was passed, suddenly I was thinking heroin was an option.

Finally I had stopped feeling, which when they made me a sniper was a necessity. If you viewed your target as a flesh-and-blood human, you might upset your balance. You had to understand, in war, that if you weren’t manning the gun shooting this poor bastard, somebody else would be there with a finger on the trigger. So what was the difference? In war, all soldiers are dead men. Sooner you get that, the better off you are. Thinking of yourself as alive only put yourself at risk – you could get killed that way.

We all knew: You are dead until you are sent home, at which time you will maybe get to be alive again.

I came home a day early. The letters from Joni had become more and more sporadic, just as had mine, but hers were at least loving and encouraging whereas mine were frankly terse and straining to be something akin to pleasant, since hopeful was out of the question. By the end of my tour, I had probably killed thirty men. And I was fine with that. Because I hadn’t really killed them, had I? The war designated them dead long before I came on the scene.

Anyway, I showed up in La Mirada at the little white stucco house (no picket fence) on La Flor Drive. I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like if that side door had been locked (the front was). I felt odd, because I’d been away going on two years and was not the same guy, even if I was back in civvies; but the sunshine and the smell of flowers did make me feel alive. Not a walking dead man. Which was nice.

Anyway, I went in to surprise Joni, just sort of crept in, sneaky bastard, not yelling her name or any honey-I’m-home shit. I wanted to enter a room and she would be sitting in a comfy chair listening to our song (“No Fair at All”) or maybe at the kitchen table writing me a loving letter, or possibly taking a bubble bath, and in all those instances, her big brown eyes would get even bigger and she would beam and be in my arms and, before you know it, I’d be in her. You think a lot about such things when you are overseas and a walking dead man.

I know you’re way ahead of me. You wouldn’t have bothered looking in every other room first, before trying the bedroom. And maybe I knew before I opened that door. Hell, I did know. The sounds of heavy breathing and bed springs provided a little clue.

She was facing me with big brown eyes, all right, and they did get bigger, though since she was on all fours on the bed, getting it from behind, I’d have to say it’s surprising her eyes had the capacity to get bigger. Maybe he wasn’t in her backdoor. Maybe it was just rear entry. That’s a detail I didn’t explore.

I didn’t know the guy. He had what we call a farmer’s tan back in Ohio, although the paleness of his flesh was blocked out by a lot of hair. Real hairy-chested bastard, about thirty-five I’d say – really old, I thought at the time, old enough to be her father. Now I know my math was way off, but that’s one of the things that popped into my head.

If I’d had a gun on me, I’d have killed them both. In that position, one bullet could have done trick – a shot through her open mouth could have penetrated his chest, too, and it would have been your classic two-birds-with-one-stone parlay.

Jack!” she said.

I said nothing.

Also, the guy said nothing – he just looked confused and irritated, pausing in his pumping, his hands on the bikini-white of her ass. I would have preferred that he look embarrassed or maybe scared. I couldn’t even be sure he knew who I was. I mean, we’d never met. And I didn’t see my picture on her bedside table.

I just turned and got out of there. She was screaming my name but not following me or anything. Far as I know his dick was still in her when I slammed the door and shut off the sound.

This was in the afternoon, and I didn’t call her that night. Actually, I never called her at all. I knew of a girlfriend of hers, who had kind of liked me when Joni and I had been dating, and from her I found out the guy’s name was Williams (I’ve forgotten his first name) and that he worked as a mechanic at a garage a couple blocks from Joni’s house. A house I had mistakenly thought of as “our” house.

When I’d shown up unannounced and a day early, the only car in Joni’s drive had been her Marlin. So I figured the guy must have walked over from work, or maybe got picked up by her, but anyway it struck me as odd that a mechanic wouldn’t drive his own goddamn car over when he dropped by to fuck my wife.

I decided to discuss this, and other topics, with him the next day. I felt I’d cooled down enough to have a nice rational conversation with the guy. Explain that I was Joni’s husband, back from Nam, and that I understood people had needs and I was going to try to work things out with her, and would appreciate it if he would back off. In my defense, while I thought I was rational, I was really in a sleep-deprived state – I’d slept not at all on the plane home, and had spent all last night wide awake in my motel room, killing her a dozen ways but finally deciding to be an adult about this.

Why the mechanic’s car hadn’t been at Joni’s became immediately apparent when I went to his crummy little house and found him on his back under a sporty vehicle that most of his money probably went into, jacked up with its back wheels off. His “baby.” Working on its rear end. Kind of like he’d been working on my wife’s rear end.

He looked up at me from under there, upper lip curling in contempt – now he knew who I was. Apparently Joni had got around to filling him in.

Before I could say a word, he said, “I got nothing to say to you, bunghole.”

“Fine,” I said.

And kicked out the fucking jack.

 

So that got me arrested. A couple of things saved my ass.

For one, my actions had clearly not been premeditated – I made this point in a perhaps not subtle way, telling the cops at the scene, “If I’d planned to kill the prick, I’d have brought a gun along.”

For another, a bunch of things soon emerged about Joni that I hadn’t known. Turned out I was her third husband. And not just any kind of third husband – her third serviceman-serving-in-Vietnam husband.

Remember that pause when she was telling me how she’d never seen the California tourist spots till...I came along? Two of “me” had come along before I had.

When she said she’d left home and made something of herself, it hadn’t been by going to work – it had been by marrying naive young schmucks like me who were about to go over to Vietnam and get dead. She was no polygamist, understand – she married us one at a time, and had been twice a widow.

She got all the military bennies, including insurance and Christ knows what – but enough to buy a Marlin and a nice little house in La Mirada, even before yours truly had come along to sign over my pitiful paychecks to her.

Only, I’d double-crossed her – I lived. If you called this living.

Anyway, there was a lot of media coverage, strictly local, but a good deal of it. I should have got some jail time, manslaughter or something, but they didn’t even try me. The District Attorney wanted no part of it. At one point I sat across the desk from the guy, who wore a puzzled frown and a red bow tie. He was small and mustached and earnest, like a high school guidance counselor.

The D.A. asked, “Is it possible that when you walked up to him, Mr. Williams may have accidentally knocked that jack out himself?”

“Sure,” I said, and shrugged. What did that neighbor know, anyway? The one who’d been cutting his grass next door.

It came out that I’d won some medals, and that further complicated things. The editorial pages were already full of complaints from right-wing columnists who thought returning veterans were being mistreated. If they were really concerned about guys like me being mistreated, they shouldn’t have sent us the fuck over in the first place.

I told you before that I have never been a heavy drinker. But as I look back, I must admit I put it away pretty good for a while, after they cleared me of the murder. I got a little two-room apartment in a shitty section of L.A. and for several months sat around feeling sorry for myself, drinking rum and Coke and eating TV dinners and watching a little black-and-white TV and occasionally sprucing up enough to find a female to hate fuck.

My father tracked me down to the flophouse. We had a fairly pleasant conversation, and he said he sympathized with me, understood what I’d done, and regretted my present situation. But the punchline was that my stepmother was afraid of me now, and I was told in no uncertain terms not to come home.

Maybe Joni and I had something in common – maybe we were both looking for a father figure. The chief difference being she’d been looking for one to fuck her, like Williams, whereas I just needed a strong guiding hand. The Marine Corps wasn’t there to provide one, anymore.

Was that why the Broker’s approach had worked so well on me? He had tracked me down, too, imposing figure that he was – a broad-shouldered six two with prematurely white hair and a well-trimmed matching mustache, contrasting with his dark tan; handsome, his face younger than his demeanor, his eyes an icy blue. Tailored suit and a knowing half-smile – the type who used to appear in those “What kind of man reads Playboy?” ads.

He was Madison Avenue smooth, all the way, and had really done his homework. Knew about my wife and Williams and the publicity (even though he did not live in California). We sat at a scarred table in my crap pad and he politely accepted a rum and Coke in a Yogi Bear jelly jar and told me how badly I’d been treated, by my wife, by the media, by my family, by the law.

I thought the law had done fine by me, actually. And what did he know about my family, and how did he know it?

I am good at remembering conversations. I can even recall the nuances, right down to gestures and tone of voice, and I can report everything from the time of day to the weather, including the clothing worn...usually. But as you’ve seen, my memory of conversations with darling Joni is limited. And that first conversation with the Broker – arguably the most important of my life – is similarly vague in my mind.

I do distinctly remember him saying, “I have an unusual opportunity for you, Mr. ________.” He used my real name. “A money-making opportunity.”

He didn’t come right out and say, “Are you interested in killing for hire?” It wasn’t like I’d filled out a truck stop matchbook, answering a question like, Looking for Opportunities in the Murder Trade? Can you draw Winky?

No, but he did say something very similar to “How would you like to make real money at home doing what you did for almost no money overseas?”

There’s no question that he caught me at just the right moment. Maybe I would have pulled out of my tailspin some other way, had I been offered some other, more mainstream opportunity. Still, I knew – just like the Broker knew – that I had only one marketable skill.

I knew how to kill people.

And I knew how to do it dispassionately. Because I understood, when the Broker explained that the individuals I would be asked to remove were already tagged for death.

I believe he put it this way: “Essentially, they are walking around, marking time, until who they are and what they’ve done catches up with them. No one has earned the dubious distinction of being targeted for death without due cause.”

Broker made it sound like all of the targets were bad persons whose transgressions could not be addressed by the legal system. But that was a rationalization designed to draw me in. I soon understood that a given target might be a decent sort who stood in the way of another party’s selfish interests.

Anyway, none of it had anything to do with me. Someone with money enough to have another person killed had decided to do so, and that was that. The decision was made well before I got in the picture. My role was impersonal – they opened a drawer, stuck in their hand, and I was the weapon they pulled out.

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