Shoot It Again
This page formatted 2007 Blackmask Online.
Ragged red streak crawling up the sand to where she was spread-legged on her belly... as if staring over the top of the sand dune. Dull-dark and bright red blood on the strong legs, the bathing suit. I was quite sorry Lu was dead.
For a very long time I looked up at her solid thighs—the only direction in which I could look. So many men had known those legs, although not a one of us had really known her body or.... I heard these little dry coughs, like animal barks
Oh God, dogs attacking us? Turning my head was a great effort, so I pushed it back into the sand far as possible, tried rolling my head from side to side, looking for the dogs.
I saw blood splashes all over the sandy hollow... hell of a large stain under me. The red blotches... like one of my non-objective paintings. DEATH SCENE—obvious and corny title. But dying certainly is damn objective, the most objective thing....
The animal grunts came from above me... at the top of the dune. Pressing my head deep into the sand, rolling my eyes upward, I watched her lips move—it didn't seem possible she wasn't dead. Calling to her, I didn't hear my voice. Lu just kept staring intently ahead, making these weird barking sounds. Digging with my elbows, I started moving up the dune toward her....
then the fire broke out in my guts again.
A very long time later—the sky was now a much truer blue—I found myself next to Lu. I tried not seeing the bloody breast covered with sticky sand...
looking for all the world like a giant hamburger with bread crumbs, ready for frying. Her face had the falling-apart-look, as when she needed a shot. Full of taut lines... aged... harsh. But her eyes were bright, alive. With sand sticking to her thick red lips, Lu was making these muted grunts.
Talking made me shoot into space again. When I came to, I touched her shoulder with my bloody finger. God, her skin was cold! She didn't look at me: her eyes fixed... ahead.
Digging in the sand with my right elbow...
then... jacking myself up with the left elbow—I flopped over on my side... only soaring a little. My can... legs... didn't move, no longer seemed a part of me.
My face now so near hers.
I felt the motion of air with each mumbled squeal Lu made. Stink of death already on her breath, the stale odor of dying. Were the barks that so-called...
“Honey... Lu.... hon...” I had to rest and float around, each banal word a ton of effort.
Coming to, following her burning eyes staring hard toward the ocean—I saw it. Below us, below the dune... on the beach... this beautiful...
I awoke feeling “wrong.”
For a brace of weeks I'd been full of a restless depression. I'd had these bottom-of-the-barrel feelings before, God knows, but only when things were going badly. Now, I should have been in high: I was painting well, had a few bucks—the result of seducing a dizzy school teacher into buying one of my water colors. I also had Sydney, even if I didn't quite understand my feelings about Syd.
But I was so jumpy I could hardly hold a brush.
At the moment it wasn't merely any blue mood —I was badly hungover. I couldn't recall having ever been so stupid-drunk as last night. Plus—the foggy idea I'd also smoked a few sticks of tea. I wasn't sure what I'd done.
I wasn't positive of a damn thing except I was half-alive on a sunny Tuesday morning. I saw the ultramarine blue Mediterranean through the window, and by the height of the sun it had to be around nine a.m. On a cockeyed chair before the open window, shorts, socks, and a pink sport shirt were drying. My sloppy clothes. I've always been a slob, now I dressed that way deliberately—figured it gave me an air of manliness.
I'd made a dozen attempts to paint the view from my window—they all came out like these $9.98 “original oils” in department store bargain basements. Of course, for me that wasn't bad—compared to the abstract crap I used to pass off as painting. The drying laundry, my “sneaky blanchis-sere” as Sydney called it, in front of the window... perhaps this was the earthy touch to add character to the standard scene? A gimmick to... It suddenly hit me that somewhere along the line I'd lost Sydney last night. I wasn't certain I was ready to give Syd the brush.
Sydney is a rather scrawny Australian gal, the sort who's good fun for a few nights—although we'd been banging it for... God, it was almost two months now. Her folks had given her a “holiday” on the Riviera as a college graduation present. I could recall playing boule with Syd at the Casino —growing bored with her and all the other characters making like bit roles from a horrid movie as they worked out “systems” of beating the wheel, on paper. Some even nervously sucking long cigarette holders or cold cigars... all taking it so damn big with 20-franc chips—a fat 5c! Syd had won a tiny pile of chips betting on red and black, and was rather pleased with herself.
Because it had been my thirty-ninth birthday the day before—an historic event utterly known only to myself: I hadn't even received a card from any of my ex-wives, it would have frightened me if I had—I took one of Syd's chips and played 3. The old rubber ball dropped into the 3 slot. We now had 160 francs. To her horror I let the chips ride. 3 won again. I still let the pile remain on 3. Syd said nervously, “I say Clay, so much ruddy money... Are you going mad, old chap?”
“Stop it, all we can lose is our original 20 francs.
When 3 turned up again—all the characters looking at me as if I had a pipe line to heaven—following my hunch, I shifted the chips to 9, something over 10,000 francs, or a 100 new francs. 9 came up on time and we walked out with about $165.
Rolling over on my hot bed, I stared put at the sea and sky, remembering many rhums and sickening Pernods, followed by a wild ride on Syd's scooter. She drove and I sat behind, my hands aware of the gentle muscles of her long stomach under the thin dress as I held on to her. Once she had called back, “Clay, you ass, stop playing with me before I explode, drive off the blooming road!”
I'd howled with delight. Yet, it wasn't anything —I could move Syd anytime I wanted to. I'd been doing that to women over since I was fourteen. The big deal was that Syd turned my passion on— of late that had been so hard to do it was worrying the hell out of me... a little.
Deciding it would be bad luck not to blow every franc I'd won, we stopped at many bars. We'd eaten lobsters at one of the swank tourist joints near the port. Then were racing down a number of narrow, steep streets—probably Villefranche—I dimly recalled handsome U.S. sailors on the sidewalk wisecracking as we scooted by. Syd was thrilled... so was I and...
But now, closing my eyes, Syd vanished from the picture... there was this big blonde—truly tremendous and naked... kind of nudes the old masters painted. The blonde had shoulders and thighs large as those of a tackle I once roomed with— the guy later became a TV wrestling clown. In my mind, the blonde had a tough, craggy face like his, too.
Fear gripped me: was I really dreaming of men now? I'd known so many musclemen who were queer... No, this was a fantastic woman: blonde, large, ugly, with nipples the size of roses and a bosom beyond measurement. The bosom part reassured me... somewhat. She had to be a woman.
I sat up and yawned—the picture vanished. My head was okay; I wasn't hanging too much. The wrist watch on the dirty table said it was 9:17 a.m. The watch was a wedding gift, even if I couldn't recall from which of my many in-laws. Seemed odd I could feel this rested after less than four hours of shut-eye. Squirming to another cool part of the sagging bed, I debated going to the W.C., then stretched out again... seeing my easel standing next to the window, the mess of paints on the busted chair doubling as a table, the cracked, dusty-white walls.
I'd slept in cheap hotels all over Europe. Coarse linen, dim bulbs, bad plumbing, harsh toilet paper —when there was any. God, that a simple thing like toilet tissue should become a big deal in my lousy life! You could shove the Cote D'Azur, Paris was a phony sales pitch—what a moth-eaten country France was! Italy, the Greek isles, Spain, the whole goddamn broken-down Europe was mangy, preoccupied with their stinking past because they couldn't afford anything new or modern or... Still, no one had dragged or invited me over, I'd come under my own steam.
Fifteen months? Eighteen months ago? It had been long enough to raise and shave two full beards. I'd come to Europe because I'd believed all “artists” came here during some point in their career. Paris had been an absolute drag, but here in the South of France I'd truly learned to appreciate color, actually became fascinated by technique. I'd been painting damn well and enjoying it. In the States I'd been a cocky bastard, loudly blowing my own horn... perhaps because I'd actually been unsure of my talent. But here, relearning the fundamentals and understanding them, after all these years, utterly amazed to find a kind of primitive beauty bidden in my brush, had been deeply satisfying and truly exciting... Until it wore off. It was strange, really painting for the first time in my life, plenty of women to support me... yet it hadn't lasted.
I stared at my laundry drying on the chair. The money stretched farther here, if you went in for franc pinching. And old buddy, when you start scrimping on one fifth of a penny, you're living real low on any hog.
Closing my eyes to try for more sleep, I wondered what had become of Syd (I wished she didn't have this damned man's name) last night? There's a steady stream of lonely American and English broads floating around Europe. Between twenty-five and thirty, they save like crazy for their “great adventure”—dreaming it will end with romance, marriage, a Prince Charming with a villa, at least sex, and whatever else babes of thirty dream about. The USA gals very soon learn it ain't so—the dollar no longer what it was in 1949 or '50. I don't know what the British gals hope to find. But after the first disillusioned and lonely weeks, they are all happy to settle for any pair of pants, pay his way in a pitiful, last ditch effort to save the whole trip from being a dud.
Skinny Sydney was younger—about twenty-three —and while not loaded, she had a scooter, plus a sense of humor. We would lay on the beach, watching the French dames parading around in brief bikinis as if the rump was their own private invention—certain they were breaking things up with each quiver. My trouble was, lately, bikinis bored me.
Some flies began a racing course above my bed. Scratching my can good, I jumped out of the sack, astonished to find my “wash” completely dry. Blinking out the window I saw a blind woman and a one-armed man selling lottery tickets on opposite corners. Leaning farther out—the legless man in his cart was peddling tickets down the street.
I suddenly realized it had to be Wednesday, the day of the weekly lottery drawing. On the mawkish assumption God compensates their deformity by giving them luck, people purchased chances from the mutilated, and on Wednesday—the last day, the maimed were out hawking tickets all day.
No wonder I felt rested—I'd slept around the damn clock!
I shaved and dressed quickly, found less than four hundred francs on me. But I had sixty dollars in travelers checks from the still-life the Chicago teacher had bought. Since the sight of it would be a reminder of the loss of her stale virginity, was it now on her apartment wall or hidden in a closet? Probably in a closet—she was a jerky lollipop. Sixty bucks, have to start hustling again, unless Hank had sold one of my things... hadn't been around to his Galeries D'Azure in ten days. My feelings about exquisite Hank worried me...
But I was far too starved for any self-analysis. Taking my passport from the pocket of my old suitcase, I rushed off. Madame—sitting behind the hotel desk, yellowed teeth a collection of miniature tombstones—mumbled something about using her hot water for laundry. I walked by—sorry she knew English and I understood French. Old bag had her nerve, sneaking into my room while I was sleeping —seeing my “wash” on the chair. I was damn well fed up with all flea-bag hotels, pensions, and their grubby owners.
The day was hot and dry, the sort of weather which used to excite me when I first came to Nice from the raw cold of Paris. Stopping for coffee, I laced it with a rhum. Buying an orange and a hunk of wonderful rough bread, I finished my breakfast walking to the nearest cambio. I'd changed checks here once before and the nervous creature behind the counter nodded as I signed a twenty-dollar American Express check, took my passport from its plastic bag. The cambio man counted out the francs, opened my passport.
We both reached for the money on the counter— his bony mitt won. Jerking the francs away, he pointed toward my passport, sharp, sallow face full of suspicion, told me in French, “This is not yours.”
“What?” I packed up the open passport. Okay, it was impossible but the passport photo was of a young guy with a sandy crewcut topping a silly, weak puss. A face I'd never seen before. The name was Robert Parks and Washington, D. C. stated he had been born twenty-three years ago in California, resided in New York City. Turning the page the rubber stamp read he had entered France exactly nine weeks before.
It was all so unreal, I had to be in a nightmare. Staring at the plastic bag, I stupidly felt of it—the same old bag I always carried my passport in—had this faded cake ad on it. On first landing at Le Havre I'd bought a bag of cookies, kept the bag to protect my passport. I shook myself several times, but this wasn't any dream.
What the devil was I doing with another man's passport? Far more important—where was mine? I've been both hungry and flat broke in Europe, but neither gave me the sickening, naked feeling of being without my passport.
The cambio character said, “I will call the police.”
“No, no. There's some... mix-up. I'll handle it.” Yanking my travelers check from the other side of the counter, I stepped outside. For a lost moment I didn't know what to do. I could walk into Nice, cash the check at the American Express office without a passport. Certainly Hank would cash it... I was so dazed I had to keep telling myself the money wasn't important: where was my passport? I examined the passport again, studying the stingy signature, the photo, all the details. I'd heard there once was a market for stolen USA passports, but that vanished years ago with the other post-war rackets. Since this one had been issued less than three months ago—if it was a passport theft, what was the point of leaving a good one with me?
While I was trying to shake my sleepy brains awake, a flic in white pith helmet, blue uniform, the little toy-like white nightstick hanging from his belt, came up—walking fast. A short cop with a belly. The bastard cambio guy had phoned the police.
Now the cambio joker was outside his shop, saying something in rapid French to the cop, thin hands gesturing. The flic motioned for us to step back into the money exchange store. I stood there: the cop growled like a movie tough, “Monsieur—inside!”
Walking in I told him in my best French, “Really, this is nothing but a slight mix-up. I have a friend's passport. That is all. No money has been lost by the store, no reason for this fuss.”
After examining the passport, the flic said I'd have to go—with him. “Why?” I asked: I've always had a fear of police red tape, and now... without a passport, in a foreign land. “Listen, I took a pal's passport by mistake. That a crime?”
The pudgy policeman grabbed my shoulder. I have a phobia about being touched. When I pulled back, the flic raised his toy nightstick. I started to boil. “What's all this? Have you gone crazy, officer?”
“We are looking for Monsieur Robert Parks. Where is he?”
“Well, I... that is... I don't know.”
“So! You said he was your friend... Come along!” He pushed me toward the door. Maybe he punched my shoulder.
I side-stepped. There was this arc of pure white as the club cracked the side of my curly noggin. Okay, it sure wasn't any toy. Staggering a few steps, I saw all kinds of bright lights exploding before my eyes—brilliant clean colors in weird patterns I longed to put on canvas. Then my head was buzzing, but I wasn't hurt.
Despite my burly size, or perhaps because of it, I hadn't been in even a bar fight for over a dozen years. But when the cop raised his club again, I stepped inside the swing and belted his wide jaw. The shock of the blow flashed up to my shoulder. It felt great! As the flic crumpled to the floor, the cambio man started to yell. A clean poke on the side of his pointed chin silenced him. Picking up the passport, I walked out of the shop—feeling better than I had in months.
But the sun-heat made me snap out of it—the good feeling fled. I was in great shape—carrying the passport of a wanted man and socking a French cop!
What possible use could the wanted Mr. Parks make of my passport, unless he changed my photo for Ms? Not only was it a job calling for great skills, but since I held his passport, he couldn't even do that. Far more puzzling, how did his passport get into my suitcase?
Although our State Department advises carrying your passport around at all times, it's far too clumsy for a hip pocket, and who wears a coat in the summer? Except when traveling, I always parked mine in my suitcase. Nor do I take friends to my room— for one thing it's such a wretched dump: for another—I haven't any real friends. Except for Sydney, I hadn't bothered with gals lately. True, I did take Syd to the room a few weeks ago, to do a nude of her... A few weeks—I couldn't recall exactly when I'd last used my passport.
I walked back to the hotel—it seemed like a safe idea. There was little chance the cambio man knew where I lived. I had at least five minutes before the flic could pull himself together, while checking my name against the hotel registrations at the central police station would take hours.
Madame was still in her surly mood, mumbling about my washing. A horrid purple pin in her over-bright pinkish hair made her look like a rotten carrot. In my room I carefully went through my bag—not much of a job as I pride myself on traveling light. My passport wasn't there. Returning to the small and gloomy lobby, I showed madame Parks' passport photo. “Have you ever seen this man before?”
Making a production of putting on her gold frame glasses, madame shook her head, muttered about the cost of coal for the hot water I'd used. Didn't I understand the fly-specked sign on the door; strictly forbidding washing?
“What were you doing in my room while I was sleeping?
“I?” She slapped her soggy bosom. “I never enter a room, monsieur, unless it is empty and...”
“Stop it, how did you know about the laundry, then?”
Madame snickered, giving me a full view of her mossy choppers, little eyes bright. “I talk of the big sewer. From a paying guest—some washing of clothes I expect. I am aware this is not the Hotel Ruhl. But her, she must wash the wine stain with my hot water) A girl in your room, even a sewer, is your business. But right in my kitchen she stirs up the stove, adding coal, and dries her dress...”
“Wait a minute,” I managed to cut in, not sure I was getting her French correctly, “what girl?”
Shrugging thin shoulders, madame gave me a cunning glance. “I never ask trash for a name. Blonde, large as a cow, two cows. I thought you had better taste, even in tarts.”
“I brought a... this blonde to my room yesterday?” I asked, not believing it.
Madame actually leered. “About six in the morning, perhaps it was nearer five a.m.—I was still in my bed, you came in, badly drunk. The blonde garbage is almost carrying you, and you are hardly a small one, monsieur. Like all cheap girls, she is making much noise. She put you to bed and in your basin washed the spot on her dress. Nude, without a trace of shame, this sewer then boldly marched into my kitchen, dried the dress over my stove. Naturally, I got out of my bed, but the brazen pig is so powerfully built, I am afraid to tell her of the rules, of my coal. With one hand she might have broken me in half.”
“Did! the... eh... blonde, mention her name?” As I mouthed the words I realized how silly they sounded.
Madame drew herself up, scratched the stringy wig atop her pin-head. “To me? I am above talking to such a sewer!”
I was too confused to remind her of the local gossip which whispered she had purchased the ratty hotel after years of being a brothel straw boss. “Listen, can you cash a travelers check for me?”
“Tonight, perhaps.” She pulled back her black dress, peered down into her breasts. “Now I have but a few francs. The thieves around here would steal a poor woman's honor and...”
Leaving, I watched an air liner circling to land at the nearby Nice airport, as I walked Avenue de la Californie toward the Promenade, keeping an eye out for cops. No wonder my dream of the giant blonde had been so realistic! But who the devil was she? Why had she taken my passport when she noticed it in my room...? Noticed— hell she had to dig into my bag to see it! Except for feeling good that even while crocked I'd wanted a girl... I was more confused than ever. The first order of business was to find the nameless blonde, large enough to carry two-hundred-twenty-pound me. Syd might remember where we'd been Monday night—possibly the blonde's name.
Actually blondie wasn't at the top of my fist—avoiding the cops had priority. Being a hustler, always skating on the brink of the law, my smacking a flic had been too, too, stupid. Risky strolling the Promenade, especially this end—deserted in the mornings. By now the police would certainly have an alarm out for me, or however they worked such matters in France. Syd's pension might be staked out... but how could they possibly know she was my girlfriend? Besides, on a hot morning like this, she'd be sunning herself at a plage.
Jumping down onto the rocky beach, I stripped to the swim trunks I wore in place of underwear. Folding my slacks and shirt in a sloppy bundle, I walked the hard beach, trusting I looked like one of the many bathers and sun-hounds.
It was a long hike: I should have been able to think, but my mind was a spinning blank. One minor thing bothered me, almost as much as the loss of my passport—I wanted to cash that travelers check. Having been stony so damn often, I think best with eating money in my pockets. Passing some of the fancier plages, as I neared the Ruhl I considered jumping up on the boardwalk, stopping at the American Express. Or crossing the pretty Jardin Albert 1 to the gallery. Hank knew everything, could tell me what to do. Plus, it gave me a lift to see my work on display. But the park, or the crowded Promenade would have many cops around.
Walking along the now crowded beach, I finally had one piece of decent luck. Except for the English who are always here, tourists seem to hit Nice in waves. The city was now full of heavyset Hollanders and among all this beef, I saw Sydney's slender figure in a red tank suit, stretched out on her loud green beach mat. For a moment I stopped to “case” the rocky beach—in my best amateur manner, not sure what I should be looking for.
Then I went over and casually sat beside her, blowing gently on her light brown hair. Opening her eyes—far too large for the plain little face—Syd sat up quickly. “Well, well, if it isn't the baggy Yank! Must say you have your bloody nerve—talking to me again!”
“Syd, skip the small talk. I'm in a king-size jam and need...”
“So, it's small talk I am for you! Well, you are in a ruddy jam with me ducky, you can be sure! Getting falling-down-drunk and leaving me in Villefranche to... God knows what, while off you went with that blonde beast! Then, you dare add insult to possible injury by not even seeing or calling me all day yesterday. I could have been killed in an accident, raped, or... anything could have happened to me—for all you cared!” The words broke as the thin lips began to tremble.
I took her hand—she wrenched it away. “Syd, honey, I was out cold all yesterday, never left my bed or...”
“I bet! Was the blonde pig that hot! Did you have a sweating time with her!”
“Syd, calm down and please listen to me. I'm in a rush and it's damn important I locate this blonde Amazon to...”
“Then you are having an affair with her! You and I... at least I deserve the common courtesy of being told..!”
“Syd, Syd, this isn't...” I stiffened as a policeman passed up on the Promenade behind us. He didn't seem to be looking for anybody in... or did they already have me spotted, were waiting to close in? The flic strolled on and I tried to relax. Smiling at Sydney, I was about to explain about the passport but didn't—she was a sweet girl and there wasn't any point involving her in my mess. Also: she was a sweet girl with a big mouth.
Nervously brushing her long hair with one hand, Syd asked, “What's wrong with you, Clay? I say, for a second you looked faint.”
“Syd, without any more melodramatics, tell me the blonde's name, where I met her.”
“You cheeky bastard, what kind of a line are you handing me? Next you'll be demanding I give you a leg-up on the blonde lump. Come off it!”
I glanced about impatiently. I was wasting time with Syd and time was something I suddenly had little of. Pushing her down on the mat with my left hand—as she started to struggle—I slipped my other hand beneath the top of her red suit, cupped a tiny breast. Turning a furious pink under her slight tan, Syd whispered harshly, “How dare you? Clayton Biner... how dare... We're on the beach!”
But the nipple hardened: the furious blushing wasn't all anger. Curiously enough, for a moment her very thin helplessness filled me with mild desire. I told her, “Shut up and listen. I didn't sleep with the blonde, nor do I want to. May sound like jazz, but you're the only girl I've wanted... for a long time. That's the truth and...”
“Clay, you mean that? Oh Clay, my God, I'm such a bag of bones, homely as sin.”
“Honey, remember the nude I tried—you said I'd glorified you? Well, that's how beautiful you look to me—I was really painting what I saw in my mind.” Actually, some of the hot air was true.
“Clay, Clay... this isn't some of your blooming big talk? I... Clay, do you want to go to my room?”
Syd tried to sit up but I held her down. I took my hand from under her suit and she kissed my wrist. “I want to, Syd, but I can't—now. Have you any money? Can you cash a check for me?”
“That's it! Sweet talk me to...!”
“Syd, I'm in a jam. Have you any money...?”
“Hear the man, and the way you were throwing francs around the other night like a rich brat! Didn't you pass your beloved American Express shrine on your way here, full of rich Yanks? Ditch me and then come begging for a handout like a bloke...”
Jumping to my feet, I picked up her beach bag. “Christ, have you any francs or not?”
“No! Ask your Noel, in that strip-tease joint where she labors!”
The Amazon finally had a name—Noel. I squatted beside Syd once more. “Honey, this isn't what you think,” I said, one of my hands exploring the towels and creams in her bag until I found the purse: she only had a few coins. “The... eh... jam I'm in—I either lost my travelers checks, or was robbed. That's why...”
“Then you did go to bed with Noel! She rolled you!”
“Oh for—I don't sleep with every babe I meet. The trite line sounded sillier than asking madame the blonde's name.
“You try your bloody best to!” She touched her hair again. “Come over to the pension. I've some money in my dresser.”
“Hon, I haven't time. Where does Noel work? Where did we first see her?”
“You dare ask me that? Leaving me alone in that filthy bar, in my cups, while you took off for Monte Carlo in her car. True, I only have a scooter but...” The tears came. She turned over and wept into the beach mat, small shoulders trembling.
I stroked the scrawny neck. “I only want to see if I dropped the checks... Where is this bar, honey?”
“Some place in... Villefranche,” she sobbed. “Syd, do you know an American named Robert Parks?”
She kept bawling into her beach mat. I patted the soft brown hair—unfortunately her best feature —which only seemed to increase the water works. Slapping her little behind, for no reason, I walked on down the beach, wondering how I could reach Villefranche.
I could walk, but that would take a few hours and an American walking the road might arouse some cop's curiosity. The train and bus stations would be watched... I glanced at the Mediterranee, my eyes attracted by the very blue and clean green patches of water. A young couple pedaled by, working their legs in lazy rhythm as they leaned back on the canvas seats and held hands, the pontooned little boat riding the gentle swell.
I could rent a pedalo—Villefranche was but around the next cape—perhaps two miles by sea. But I'd need at least five hundred francs for that—more to rent one of the clumsy double-ended boats in the harbor with their ancient engines.
The beach ends in the steep rocks beneath the Chateau—a tourist attraction park high above the breakwater and the harbor. Dressing, I hopped up on the Promenade, searching for police vans and motorcycle cops. A flashy new white Chevy—looking Cadillac—large among the compact European cars—whizzed by. Quickly walking down to the port and the first traffic light, I bought a French paper, sat on a bench. Holding the paper close to my face, as if terribly near-sighted, was a corny disguise. It took a long twenty minutes before what I wanted stopped for the red light, and my nerves were dancing by then.
A snappy, low-slung, black Mercedes-Benz roadster with U.S. ARMED FORCES IN GERMANY license plates—the horse-faced driver was young and slight—an officer type. Most important, he was alone. Stepping off the curb I asked, “Mac, any chance of a lift to Villefranche?”
“Why sure. On the way to Italy, ain't it?” he answered, with a twang only a couple months out of Kansas, or some other midwest state. “Hop in. Going to San Remo myself.”
As he gave the sleek car gas, the leather seat warm against my thin slacks, he told me, “You dress like a Frenchie. But soon as you spoke, knew you was from the States. Tourist?”
“Yeah. I was here during the war, always wanted to come back for another look-see. Are you a lieutenant?”
“Heck no, just a lousy sergeant, stationed in Berlin. Got me another year to go over here.” He laughed. “It ain't too hard to take.”
When he laughed I realized he was only a kid, nineteen or twenty. “You must be the world's champion crap shooter,” I told him, wondering if I could ask him to cash a check.
“Me? A...?” The puzzled look fled his long face as he laughed again. “You mean this sharp heap—nope, I'm paying it off out of my salary. Ain't nothing else to do with the dough. Got me a real good buy on this and before I return Stateside, I'll sell it. Like money in the bank, I say, but better— can't ride a bankbook. Said you were here during the war—heck, you don't look that old.”
“Old? I'm not talking about World War One, sonny.”
“Me neither. Probably no vets still alive from that shindig,” the dumb punk said. I'm kind of touchy about my age, so I kept my trap shut, didn't mention cashing the check—the fresh thing probably wouldn't have done it anyway. When he slowed up at Villefranche, I thanked him and leaped out. He called back, “Glad to oblige an old soldier, Pops.”
Being a regular port of call for the U.S. Navy, Villefranche is a mixture of a quaint old fishing village plus a number of flashy bars. Walking downhill toward the harbor, I passed several joints proudly advertising “strip tease.” In a country where stage nudity has long been a common sight, I could never understand the popularity of the strip, but every club had one or more peel artists.
Finding Noel was almost too simple. Outside a basement dive called Jazz-Shocker were the usual asinine photos of bare babes, all posing as if they had a stick up their rears. Seeing Noel's picture was reliving my dream. Her gross face and exaggerated curves served as comic relief for the standard slim figures of the other teasers. Walking down a few steps, I rattled a gate closing off the staircase. The gloomy inside of the club seemed small, upside-down chairs on the tables a forest of varnished wood. The walls were splashes of various colors, all of them positively gaudy. The bartender was busy-busy—doing something like watering the bottles.
Not a thing about the stupid place rang any memory bells. The barkeep called out in French that they didn't open until nine p.m. I said, in English, I wanted to find Noel. Coming over to his side of the gate, he handed me some shoe polish—in broken English—about the Jazz-Shocker having this strict policy of never giving the addresses of their entertainers.
I told him to pull it down over his head and call it curls.
The lids above his tired eyes seemed permanently puffed, and the big head was shaved. As he chattered on in poor English, the little eyes took stock of me like twin cash registers: weighing my sloppy clothes against the fact I was an American, speculating on how much I might pay for Noel's address. I'd gladly offered him every franc on me—which wouldn't have made him yawn.
I went into a song and dance about the blonde being my personal friend—the bartender couldn't have cared less. In fact, his eyes seemed to say he doubted I wanted a girlfriend. A little rattled, on the spur of a dumb moment, I tried a change-up pitch. “Look, Noel will want to see me. Just phone her that Robert Parks is here.”
He tied hard not to react but there was a new alertness in the beady eyes. With a hammy grin he said, “Monsieur, I about to go for lunch—as friend I take you to Mademoiselle Noel. I can no say she be home, or wish to see you. But I take you.”
In less than a minute we were walking down the narrow twisting stairs they insist are streets in Villefranche—toward the harbor: a dull-grey U.S. destroyer anchored out in the bay. I was aware my newly-found “friend” was careful to walk at my side, never in front of me... or was it my imagination? In the sunlight he seemed far more muscular than I'd thought. The slightly-flattened nose, puffed eyes, hinted he could have been a pug years ago.
Syd had mentioned Monte Carlo and somehow I thought we were heading for a garage and a car; but we turned into a dead-end street of ancient houses, then into the oldest of these. The street was strangely empty—at noon people are usually out buying their charcuterie for lunch. We marched up four flights of worn stone steps and his being behind me all the time didn't stop the uneasy feeling building inside my puffing guts. Still, he looked about forty-five—and I was not only a half-dozen years younger, but had seventy pounds and a foot in height on him... seventy slightly-flabby pounds, it was true.
Reaching the top floor, bullet-head knocked on the lone door, then turning abruptly—came at me, hands set for a Judo chop. I once had a wrong notion abstracts with a sporting event motif might sell, read Judo books as part of my research. My bartender-buddy had probably never read a single such book—he was a pro. Blocking his left, I threw a right... felt the back of my head leave the launching pad.
I came to in a room full of ridiculous, old-fashioned, plush furniture. Ridiculous because the clumsy junk looked new. My curly head was still soaring—this was the day to get my thick noggin whipped—when it finally settled back on my sore neck, I was able to get the two men into focus. One was my “friend,” the other looked so much like the B-movie conception of a gangster, I could have grinned—under other circumstances. He also was short, but with an attractive bull neck and barrel chest. The swarthy, over-handsome face held strong features, brittle eyes, and gold teeth in a wide mouth. The glistening black hair, with the right touch of silver-grey at the sides, was well acquainted with a brush and oil. The heavy neck was circled by a thin gold chain, a thicker one about his powerful wrist. He was a sun-hound, skin a deeper tan than mine. The creased dark-blue silk slacks, white, Italian-styled sport shirt, the high-heeled shoes—all casual and very expensive. A small automatic in a pigskin hip holster completed the picture—even if that wasn't casual.
They were going over my wallet, thin book of travelers checks, and Robert Parks' passport. Moving on the stone floor, I shook my dizzy head. “Get up, fat bastard!” the gangster said, in English, with the proper throaty growl in his husky voice. “Where you get this passport?”
“As you're obviously not Robert Parks, what business is it of...?” The gangster sent a vicious kick at my side. Rolling out of the way, I tried not to scream, “I found it in my bag!”
“In my room...!”
The two of them held a whispered French conference. I stood up, staggering a bit. I heard the name of the big blonde—Noel—several times, and the word police came through once.
Gangster-type stepped toward me. “Fat boy, I want some goddamn level talk from you! What's your name? Who are you? How come this passport was in your suitcase? Parks your friend?”
I rubbed the back of my neck to give me thinking time—a foolish gesture: I nearly passed out with pain. Perhaps it was the pain: I became brave, decided to stop being the frightened cluck, do a little shoulder-talking myself to these runts. “Suppose you tell me what this is all about?” I asked, loudly. “I don't stand for being pushed around by a couple of two-bits slobs who think...”
Swarthy started for me, so did the bartender—chopping hands spread like a crab's. I kept my back to the wall. The bit in Judo is the surprise element—I'd had my share of surprises for the day. Turning slightly to face the bartender, I feinted with my left hand as I kicked him on the knee. Yelling, he sat down, hard. I then crossed what I thought was a nifty right to the side of the gangster's face, expected him to drop. Merely grunting, he hit me with a left hook any number of heavyweights would have been damned proud of.
Floating down a well of whiteness, I thought: This is also my day to tangle with pros! For a long time I seemed to be swimming hard and painfully in soupy brightness, a vast, creamy-white ocean—then night came on fast.
When I opened my eyes I was on the floor of a cell-like room, the only light being the sun streaming through a small, square opening high on one rough wall. I closed my eyes again to stop the throbbing in my sore head and jaw. Opening them seconds later, I made out dirty clothes piled on a chair, worn copies of Life, the Paris edition of the N. Y. Herald-Tribune on the stone floor next to an army cot.
Mr. Robert Parks was sitting cross-legged on the cot, wearing only torn and badly-soiled shorts—pimples and sores all over his broom-handle arms. A wispy, reddish beard outlined this thin face—looking pale and sickly, the eyes watery blue blurs, sharp nose dripping. Parks looked worse than his passport photo. For a moment we stared at each other with mutual suspicion.
Digging under the lumpy cot mattress, he pulled out my passport. Opening it, he cackled in an utterly silly voice, “Why... of course! It's you! You're Clayton Biner...!” He waved the passport at me. “Old man, you didn't come alone?”
I tried to talk but my numb jaw refused to work. Gangster-type could wallop! I'd taken three head beatings in less than that many hours.
Rubbing the silky hair on his chin, Robert Parks went on in the same childishly shrill voice, “Oh man, I thought you'd dig... was positive you'd bring the police. Instead... now... here you are... like me. Man, you duded out... on me!”
His wash-eyes began to tear as he grinned, showing neat, dirty teeth. Then Parks rocked back and forth on the stinking cot, full of low, intimate laughter... absolutely insane giggles.
After several false starts I managed to stand. Except for a distant ringing in my dome, I felt okay. Grabbing a chicken shoulder, I jerked Parks to his feet—he didn't weigh in at much over 115 pounds—although he seemed six feet tall—each bone, tiny muscle, vein of his pitiful chest and scrawny neck showing, as in a medical illustration. “What's the big laugh?” I asked, my mouth and lips finally coming alive. “What the hell are you doing with my passport?”
The watery, vague eyes didn't even see me as I yanked the green booklet out of his limp hand, feeling a true sense of relief at having my passport back. I spent a second thumbing through it with my free hand—all was in order, including my bloated-face evil passport photo.
“Come on, laughing boy, what's this about?” I snapped, shaking him again. Up close he had this unwashed stink.
Flinging one skeleton arm at the sunlight coming down from the wall opening like a stage spot, Parks shrilled, “What is this all about? Man, why not go for the larger question—what is life all about? Gaze at the sun's staircase. Often I crawl up that golden gangplank, escape this filth—soar out into a new world of dazzling colors and fuzzy warmth. As Tennyson said, 'Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'... Gleams that untraveled world, whose margin fades... Forever and forever when I move.' Old Tenny bugs me, because man, it really is forever and...”
I shook him hard. “Come on, cut the stupid chatter! What the hell is your story, Parks?”
Blinking many times, tears started down his hollow cheeks. “My story? Haven't you heard? I'm Robert Parks, the junkie poet!”
“The news shatters me! Stupid, what's going on here? What did I step into?”
“I'm the talent chump, the new Sandburg, the modern Thomas Hood. 'Talent is that which is in mans power: genius is that in whose power a man is.' James Russell Lowell. I...”
I shook him until his bones rattled. “Stop making school boy quotes! What's happening here?”
As if talking to himself, Parks said, “I came to Europe to study that elusive passion called art—poetry, the art of communication... and now I'm carrying the world's largest monkey on my back. My Christ, what a buggy term, what horrible imagery—I cart the whole damn zoo on my poor back! Thomas Grey so perfectly stated, 'The paths of glory lead but to the grave.' Trouble today—our poets are snobs, don't dig the wisdom of the old masters or the...”
“Cut the lecture, you foolish bastard!” I slapped him: not much of a slap but his nose began to bleed and he crumpled in my arms. His blood was such a faint, pastel pink—I almost threw up in horror.
I let him fall on the cot. Watery eyes, running nose, pasty skin, sores on his arms—he wasn't kidding about being on dope. Okay, that was his private little red wagon, he could pull it any direction he wished- How did my passport fold into his nightmare? Far more important: how was I to get by the goons outside, ever shake this trap?
I tried the door, as if doubting it would be locked. One of these ancient, solid doors, built when a man's home was truly his castle. I couldn't even rattle it. Pushing Parks and the cot out of the way, I stood on the chair. The opening was about a foot square in the thick wall. Squinting against the sun, I saw the destroyer anchored in the harbor. Getting up on my toes for a moment, I had a better view—of nothing. We were on the top floor of an old, balcony-less building. If it was possible to climb out—and I couldn't even get my fat head through the window—I'd face a sheer drop of at least a hundred feet.
Coming down off my toes, I rested, the sea breeze sweeping through the opening cooling me off—a little. One thing was for certain—I'd never be missed. No one would bother looking for me, nor report me missing. Even Syd didn't have any idea where I could be. The only out was to tangle with gangster-boy and the Judo barkeep—I wasn't sure I could take another pasting. But if I could talk to them, explain I didn't know which end was up in this deal, the old innocent bystander who...
I heard dragging sounds outside the room. The heavy door creaked open—big blondie was flung into the room, bouncing hard on the stone floor, as the door slammed shut fast. They'd worked her over. The meaty face, never pretty, was bruised, one eye already swollen shut and turning a Mars Red.
Noel lay on the floor, whimpering and moaning. Glancing down at Parks, still out cold on the cot, I crossed to an old pipe and faucet sticking up from the floor in one corner. Noel was wearing a white and blue flare-skirt, thin white sleeveless blouse fighting her great breasts. Tearing a hunk of the ripped skirt—seeing much heavy thigh, I wet and ran the damp rag over her face. The good eye slowly blinked at me. In slow, hysterical French, she said, “Fool! We thought you would surely come with the police—now we all die!”
“Take it from the top. Why should I bring the police?”
“They are going to kill him.” She nodded her over-blonde head toward Parks. “He's a childish man, but I want no part of murder. When he is not high with the drug, Roberto clearly understands his situation, offered me five thousand dollars to help him escape. Since I work in the club, we thought a good plan was to switch passports with another American. We assumed you would remember the club, go to your Consulate, then bring the police. With a little work, the police could follow the trail from the club to here. But—you had to come alone!”
“Why didn't you go directly to the gendarmes? Why bring me in this?”
Sitting up, Noel felt her smooth belly, melon breasts, then waved her fingers and toes—as if taking inventory. “And end up in jail, myself? Or be dead, if any of the gang escaped the police? His passport was all we had to work with, and this way —no one was to know it was me: Roberto agreed once the police came, in private, he would urge them to let me off. With the money I could return to my home in Corsica. Now—all is lost! You don't know these swine, they will murder us without a second's hesitation.”
“Noel, I think I caught all your French, but let's have it again. What gang, and why do they want to knock off Parks?”
“The gang used to deal in the black-market, run a brothel, other bad things. Now all that is finished. Roberto, my silly poet, came to the club two months ago, very drunk. He tried a shot of heroin— for what you call kicks. Many idiots do that, and Georges merely gives them sugar water, which is just as well, you understand. But the following day, when Roberto was still in the club, drinking, he made the mistake of boasting of his wealth—he had over eight thousand dollars in travelers checks, and a letter of credit for ten thousand dollars more. So they see the checks and keep Roberto drunk—in a few days the habit is forced on the poet—strong. They hold Roberto prisoner here and sell him the junk, cashing his checks as he signs them—in Tangiers. Now he has but five hundred dollars left in the checks—when that is finito, they will kill him with an overdose. I do not know if they were able to use the letter of credit, even in Tangiers, but eight thousand dollars—forty thousand new francs —is a big haul these days.”
“Aren't you a member of the... gang?” I asked suspiciously.
“I am nothing. I merely work in the club. My job is to take care of Roberto's... other wants.” Her good eye grew misty. “It is not much, and I do not mind, nor have I any choice. I must do anything they say or I will be badly hurt—this is the kind of pig-men they are. To them I am not even a woman, only for laughs, the fat girl clown. But when I knew of the murder they have in mind... I tell Roberto and we figured out this plan. But it failed.”
“Some plan!” I mumbled, wishing my head would cease ringing so I might think. With a plan like that, I wondered if she was on the stuff, too. I didn't see any marks on her arms or legs. “Noel, the one who looks like a gangster...”
“Georges, if he's the one with the fascinating face, he...”
“I sit on something with a better face,” she sneered, the one eye blazing at me. “There is nothing fascinating about a killer!”
“Look, suppose you started hollering—when Georges comes in I'll jump him, try for his gun? Once I get the gun, perhaps we can force him to let us go.” As I said the words I realized it wasn't much of a plan, either.
Noel shook her pumpkin head, the dancing hair nearly blinding me. “There are others—we should never reach the street alive. No, it is hopeless, we three are done. Monsieur, pray they at least will have the decency to murder us without torture...” She suddenly raised her hands, as if protecting her inflated bosom. “These are the lowest of swine, you have no idea what beasts they can be or...”
“And I don't intend to find out,” I cut in, talking in English to myself. For a long time I sat on the cold floor beside her, trying to force my alleged brains to turn up something—mostly wondering over and over how in the devil I ever got involved in this. Because I got lucky at the Casino and went on a binge with Syd—I was going to end up a corpse!
Noel pulled a compact from a skirt pocket, saw her bruised puss, started to silently weep once more. Perhaps a half hour passed—it seemed like the rest of my life—before Parks came around. Running a hand over his thin nose, he examined the dried blood which came away in red crumbs on his palm. Oddly enough, his eyes seemed almost normal now, sunk deep in his stupid head.
When he finally saw us, he said, “You hit Noel! I'll...
She shook her head sadly. I said, “Oh, stop it.”
“Biner, I dreamt you were here, and now it isn't a dream. I know it's far too late to say this, but I am sorry to involve you.”
“Write that on a postal card to Georges—maybe he'll believe you! Parks, what do the French police want you for?”
“They want... me?”
I told him what the flic had said upon seeing his passport in the cambio shop. Parks scratched his ragged red hair. “Beats me, unless my lawyer—not having heard from me in months—looked into the matter and found I was cashing checks like crazy. He's the executor of Dad's estate and poor Mama probably suspects I'm in trouble—again. One thing Georges overlooked—my not writing even a card all this time. My lawyer could have asked the French authorities to look for me... Biner, any chance of this cop you socked, finding you... us?”
“Nobody knows or cares where the hell I am. Have you ever tried to escape?”
Parks sighed. “But naturally! For several hours between shots, I'm perfectly okay. The soaring wears off within fifteen or twenty minutes after the actual fix. Of course in another half-dozen hours from now I'll need a shot... I've been taking so much that... oh my God how I'll need one! What I'm trying to explain, in my normal hours I think only of blowing this joint. Not a chance. Milton wrote of escape, 'The... ”
“What's below the window up there?”
“Waterfront street, never too crowded. I know what you're thinking: I've tried standing on the chair and waving my arm, or part of my shirt, until I was exhausted. Nobody noticed. I once wrote FREE ALGERIA on a rag with Noel's eyebrow pencil—hoping it would bring the fuzz. Wind carried it away. You see, the damned mistral is always blowing in from the sea. One reason I'm in my shorts—I waved my pants out the window, first lighting the cuffs. Sole result: filling this lousy cell with smoke until I choked, then a beating from Georges.”
“How about writing on the magazine, throwing it out?”
“Told you, I've tried everything. Directly below there's like nothing, only rocks and rubbish. You'd have to throw an object at least three hundred feet straight out for it to land on the street. Main difficulty, even if you could toss that far, can't put your head through the opening, see what you're doing. The... Man, I suppose you've got the message as to what they have in store for all of us... now?”
“As I said, my sincere apologies for bringing you into...”
“Aw, shut up!” I grunted, watching Noel—still on the floor—carefully powdering the bruises on her tremendous face. What a time for vanity to... I grabbed the compact mirror from her thick hand. Jumping on the chair again, I put my arm through the opening, held the mirror at an angle outside the wall.
Parks got off his cot. “Man, you're the cleverest— I never thought of a mirror. Think you can signal the warship in the harbor?”
I shook my head, wishing the fool would stop all this would-be hip talk. Via the mirror I at least had a view of the area below us. Directly back of the house were rocks and piles of old trash, then a narrow cobblestone street with a few empty push carts. On the other side of the street more rocks and the water. Two men were fishing from the rocks. I shouted at them.
Parks called up, “No use. I've stood up there and screamed myself hoarse—the wind blowing the words back down my throat. If you know Morse code, why not try signaling the destroyer?”
Holding the mirror gently, I jumped off the chair. “I don't know any code—do you?”
“How soon will Georges come in here? I understand you... eh... give him a check every day, when...”
“Already had our little transaction for today. Tonight, I'll need another... transaction.”
“If he thought I was killing you, would he come in now?”
“Man, you're sopping over with happy talk!”
“Dammit, Parks, I'm not making small conversation! If you started yelling, would that bring Georges in here?”
“I guess so—I'm still worth $530 to him—the last of my checks. We play our daily haggle scene: he knows I need a fix and I know if I signed all my checks at once—be autographing my death warrant. Don't say it, Biner... I tried a mistake in spelling when countersigning the travelers check. All it got me was a licking. Georges is a rough cat with his fists.”
“Why did you sign any of the checks?”
Parks gave me a sad, tolerant smile. “Clayton, you're clicking your gums from way out in nowheres. When that time arrives—I have to have a shot! Worst form of torture ever devised—everything from your soul to bowels screws tight. Sometimes, I try to enjoy it—pure pain can also be the most rare of sensations—I read someplace. But when I'm hurting, nothing remains in the world, no 'if,' 'but,' or rational delights: the sum of the universe is neatly reduced to getting that shot. Even though I have a big habit, haven't had it long, so if I can only reach a drug hospital, think I have a good chance of kicking it and...”
I had no time or need for a narcotics lecture from this silly slob. Going to the water pipe as Parks kept on yakking, impressed by his own conversation, I tried bending the old pipe loose. It was only about a half inch in diameter, but nothing gave. Noel stood up and put her two hundred plus girlish pounds behind me—together we broke off a wicked hunk of lead pipe. A small gusher came from the broken end in the floor.
Holding the pipe by the faucet end for a firm grip, I cut off Parks' monologue with: “Start yelling for help. When Georges comes in, I'll stiffen him with this pipe, take his gun. Aiming with Noel's mirror, I think I can fire from the window—attract the attention of fishermen on the other side of the road.”
“You mean shoot them?”
“Shoot around 'em. Beside, a slug from a small automatic won't have power to do more than nick 'em, from this distance. Also, I'm hardly that good a marksman. The idea is—once they know I'm using them for a target—they'll call the cops.”
We'd been talking English, but Noel added in French, “No good, the others heard the sound of fighting, they rush in—finish us.”
I nodded. “That's your job, big honey. The second I clout Georges, you're to slam the door and lock it. These old doors are rugged, so let's pray they haven't an extra key, can't break in until the police arrive—if they ever come.”
Parks shook his little head. “A far-fetched plan which only...”
“When it comes to stupid plans, your idea of having Noel switch passports wins the title! We haven't much time, they may not bother with your last few checks now, knock us off any minute. Start yelling... before I give you something to really scream about!”
“I suppose it's better than having no plan,” Parks said, crossing the wet floor to the door. 'The water is delightfully cool. Lord, I haven't had a bath in ages.”
“Cut the chatter and yell! Noel—flat against the wall, ready to pull out the key, lock the door,” I told them, getting a good grip on the pipe, sweating at the thought I might be about to kill somebody.
Robert Parks put his thin lips on top of the key hole, called for help—the shrill voice carrying through the house. After awhile we heard steps rushing up the hallway outside. Motioning for Parks to move out of the way—back on his cot—I suddenly wondered what I'd do if two of the goons showed.
A man's rough voice asked, in English, “What hell going in there?”
“He's... choking me,” Park wailed.
The door opened and Georges came dashing in, little automatic out. Things happened fast, as in an old time slapstick movie... only the custard pie was missing.
Swinging the lead pipe like a baseball bat, I stepped toward Georges—skidded on the watery floor—missed. Gangster-type fired at me, the bark of the little gun thundering like a cannon as the bullet ricocheted from wall to wall. Still sliding, my feet went out from under me, my backside hit the floor with a thud which forced me to let go of the pipe. Dazed by the prat fall, I watched Georges stop to take careful aim at my head—Parks started toward him, but Noel suddenly hurled herself at the thug, flattening him. Skinny Parks yanked the key out of the door, strained to shut and lock it.
Rolling over in the water with a splash, I grabbed Georges' wrist—trying not only for the gun, but also to keep it from getting wet. Still groggy from the blonde's body-block, Georges wrestled with me. As I realized he was a pro wrestler too, getting better as his head cleared—Noel found the pipe, gave Georges a sickening whack on the side of his pretty face. She started to tee off for another swing when Parks jumped her hand, hanging like a terrier.
Taking the gun, I stood up, told Noel to stop it. Georges' face seemed out of shape and before I could wonder if he was dead—Noel let out a hell of a scream, sat in the water holding her bloody shoulder. The ricocheting slug had hit her.
Parks and I helped Noel to the cot. It was nasty, but still only a flesh wound. Tearing off more of Noel's skirt, I asked Robert, “Can you make one of those Boy Scout things—a tourniquet?”
“I can try—using the key. Man, you're in the red, too.”'
Following his thin, pointing finger, I saw blood on one side of my wet blue slacks—a pinkish spot slowly spreading like a water color wash. Cursing my stupidity, I picked parts of the compact mirror from my hip pocket. Half of the mirror, a hunk a few ragged inches long, was still intact.
Standing on the chair, I told Parks to let me know if Georges started moving, stuck my gun hand out the opening, held the mirror above my head with my left hand—a la the circus trick shot. Georges had fired once, should be five bullets left. Turning I studied the view below, in the mirror; a kid with a large plastic ball colored watermelon red was watching the fishermen—as his attractive mama motioned for him to walk on.
Waiting for the boy to move, I heard sounds in the hallway, blows on the door. The brat still stood next to one of the fishermen. Mama came over and slapped the kid's fanny. Dropping the plastic ball, he jumped up and down, crying—I guess. The fisherman held an ear, said something to the woman.
Mama and the kid disappeared from my ragged mirror view, leaving the brightly colored ball. Aiming at the blue water directly next to the nearest fisherman, I fired. The sound of the shot was ear-splitting, within the wall opening, the breeze blowing this strong stench of acrid gun powder back at me. Absolutely nothing happened below.
Parks asked, “Any luck?”
I didn't bother to answer, tried aiming a little higher, not certain what the hell I was doing: vague fire patterns from army days flashed through my buzzing head. I fired the next shot over the fisherman's head—to allow for the trajectory arc I thought the slug made as it fell.
Still nothing, nor did the fisherman seem to notice a damn thing. With three shells left, I had the foolish feeling I was merely wasting precious bullets. Lowering my arm, I took a deep breath, fired directly at the fisherman's back. The plastic ball near him exploded. Jumping, he glanced around, even up toward our window. The yelling brat appeared in my busted mirror again, along with mama waving her fist at Izaac Walton.
“Parks! Matches, a hunk of paper, or a rag—toute suite!”
Noel said there was a lighter in her pocket—Parks handed it up to me, along with the rest of her skirt. Once a stripper, always a stripper—it seemed. Carefully laying the gun on the bottom of the opening, I lit the cloth, hung it out the window.
For a long second the fisherman, now joined by his pal, kept staring down at the busted ball, arguing with mama—everybody waving their hands. As the flames started to lick my fingers, one of the men finally looked up. Then they all were pointing up at our opening. Dropping the flaming skirt, I stuck the gun out, waved it. They probably couldn't see it was a gun from down there—I fired a shot in the air. They were still looking our way, but no reaction. I fired the last bullet at the legs of one of the fishermen.
It didn't hit him, but they all saw the orange flame of the shot. Mama hugged the bawling kid, the men shook fists up at me. I kept waving the tiny automatic, holding it by the trigger guard so more of the gun was visible. A small crowd gathered.
Sticking my arm out far as possible, I heaved the gun at them, then kept waving my empty hand in a come-on gesture. A man left the crowd for the junkyard back of the house, but I couldn't see if he found the gun.
I asked Noel for her lipstick, tried writing S.O.S. on the wall outside, under the opening... but my arm was so weary I dropped the damn lipstick. I climbed down off the chair.
Half-naked Noel was on the cot, reminding me of a beaten pug gone to lard—holding the clumsy tourniquet around her thick left shoulder. Parks was standing in the floor water, ridiculously thin and pale in soiled shorts as he concentrated on wiggling his toes. Georges was on his back and alive, bright red foam breaking on the heavy lips. The hall racket was going full blast—at least three men trying to bust down the door, calling Georges' name in French, English, and Spanish.
Over a sickly grin, Parks asked, “Could they be insurance salesmen breaking the door to sell us a life policy, Biner?”
I watched the door shudder as they began charging it with some heavy object. A couple of shots were fired, but movies and TV to the contrary, it's difficult as hell to shoot a lock open. Standing on the chair again, I held up the ragged mirror for an outside view—the road and rocks were empty of people, only the colorful smudge remains of the plastic ball in sight.
Robert Parks must have read my mind as I stepped down. Shrugging his scarecrow shoulders he said, “Oh well, I doubt if I would have made the grade as a major league poet anyhow.”
My noggin was hurting again from the beatings. “Who cares what you...1” The balance of the angry words died in my dry mouth. There was a sudden, heavy silence outside our door... the feeling of men crouching there... followed by shots farther down the hallway. A high scream of pain in front of the door, footsteps in scrambled flight, more thick silence—then the sound of many and new steps.
Touching Parks with her wide foot, Noel said, “The flics! Roberto, do not fail me, go back on your promise!”
He nodded, touched her garish-yellow hair in a kind of caress, pale eyes on the door.
In the hall, a man shouted in French, “We are the police—open at once!”
I glanced at Noel and Parks: we all had the same thought—was this a trick? We sat without making a sound. Minutes later came this splintering crash as the old door burst open: six sweaty cops in their silly blue shirts and white helmets stood there—guns drawn. They were such a lovely sight I blew a fat kiss at them... without thinking, and was so relieved I couldn't bother worrying about it.
Noel watched them with suspicious eyes, while Parks let out a shrill, childish giggle.
The next couple of hours were one crazy blur of myriad and patient explanations on our part to the cops: to some pompous police sergeant; once more over lightly to higher police brass; then to a doctor. I doubted if anybody believed our story.
Finally we were taken downstairs, through the morbid crowd any action attracts, to a police station. Noel and Parks went from there in an ambulance while I told our tale again. About this time a clean-cut type with the standard crewcut grey hair, appeared. He was from the U.S. Consulate— I think. I had to tell him our story and then for a short time I was alone. I dozed off on a bench only to be shaken awake by a huffy French police bigwig announcing I could get the clean clothes I'd requested.
I couldn't recall requesting anything, but rode back to my hotel in what passed for a French squad car—a panel truck with sing-song horn working as a siren. The two burly cops at my side made madame upset, but on the way back to the station house I felt slightly better in my 'other' suit—another pair of worn slacks and a cleaner sport shirt. Passing the American Express on the Promenade, I asked my beefy guards if I could stop—still wanted to cash my damn checks.
They said okay, to my surprise, and marching in we made a scene for the tourists to write about on their postal cards. Explaining why the checks were damp, at long last I cashed the check, in fact cashed all I had. I also picked up my mail—a New York gallery had sold one of my paintings, enclosed a check for $156. Although the most important gallery I'd ever sold, the good news didn't start any bells of joy ringing in my weary dome.
At the police station a team of French reporters and photographers asked hundreds of questions, most of their French too fast for me. Noel was around and we posed for pictures. Robert Parks came in. Dressed and shaved he didn't look too bad, although his eyes had that way-out, watery, expression again. Getting me aside, he said, “Biner, I have to ask one last favor. I understand you've been padded down here in Nice for many months —do you know any of the American colony cats here?”
“After a fashion. Why?”
“I've managed to get two seats on the New York plane, departing Nice at ten p.m. From the Big Apple a chartered plane will fly me directly to Uncle Sam's drug hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. Since the bastards forced such a heavy habit on me, around two a.m. I'll need a shot. I've been able to buy some ersatz junk—Pethidine—which may carry me through. However, I must have somebody with me in case I flip. Hiring a French male nurse means visa red-tape, perhaps another day, and I want to be in ole Kentuck by tomorrow, shedding my monkey. I...”
“What happened to Noel?”
“Shook her completely off the hook. Used my letter of credit to give her the loot I promised. The chick is flying home to Corsica right this second. Really, a remarkable babe, in her way—nice to hit on, too. Biner, the point is this: Do you know any American male who might want to return to the States a few weeks early—with me, tonight? I'll gladly pay his fare, make it worth his...”
Parks looked stunned. “Oh man, no! You've done too much. I've put you through the wringer, can't possibly repay for what you've done...”
“Oh Parks, shut up—I'm not thinking of you. I want to go home.” The second I uttered those last five words, the mental fog I'd been drifting in for weeks, lifted. Feeling positively relaxed, I realized what had been wrong with me—when I could call a lovely country like France moth-eaten, I'd long had it. It simply was time I went home.
“You make me sound like a drag. I've already caused you...”
“I'm going. That's settled. Ill meet you at the airport—nine-thirty p.m.”
“I'll pay for your time, Biner.”
Shaking my head, I pulled out the gallery check. “You're talking to a selling artist, Parks. Just pay my fare—I'll cash in my open boat ticket in the States.”
His blank eyes took on a slightly puzzled look. Biner... Mister Biner, are you sure you want to go?”
“Lord, you're the real big brother.”
“Balls. I'm doing it for... me.”
When I was left alone again for another few minutes, feeling quite cheerful—sort of like I'd finally got from under—the All-American clean-cut came in, scowling a bit. He told me, “Biner, quite rightly the French take a rather dim view of your striking one of their police officers. They insist that if you hadn't bolted the cambio shop, they would have found Parks without all the shooting. I doubt it, and I tried to explain the... eh... tense circumstances under which you took a poke at the officer. However... they've given you forty-eight hours in which to leave the country. I'm sorry. Go to Italy, across the border, stay in Vintimille. I shall try my best to... What are you grinning about? This is hardly a joking matter.”
Suddenly I was laughing, real solid old-fashioned laughter... first time I'd laughed this way in years. When I was able to talk, I said, “Thanks for giving it the old try, but tell the French they're about forty hours late—I'm flying back with Parks tonight.”
“You understand the French only have authority to force you to leave here, you don't have to return to the States?”
I merely nodded because he seemed so upset. There was no way I could make him know how much I had to go back to the States, to that nameless and formless place called... home. I asked, “Am I free to leave now? I've things to do in the few hours I've left in Nice.”
“You can leave any time. I have my car downstairs, can I drive you to your hotel?”
“Sure can,” I said, giving him Sydney's address.
The castle had a high white tower... white turrets... snow white, horse-white. Once read up on castles... call this the Teutonic type... Only real castle I ever saw... the monstrosity at Avignon. The old papal palace. Over-sweet nougat candy they sell in Avignon.
The white tower was beautiful in the last rays of the sun. On one side of the castle a woman sat on a beach chair, reading a newspaper. On the other side, a little boy...
The whimpering barks in my ear... noise of sea gulls? I studied Lu's face... the tense, pasty coloring. Staring hard at the white top of the castle as she tried to call out... the barking sounds... sand clinging to her lips... sand in her throat.
Was she calling for her beloved 'boy?' Or...for... help? Couldn't have help... now. Not with the two stiffs... behind us. Never... never... never... explain them to the police.
I told Lu to shut up, looked at the marvelous white castle. Odd... no blood down there. Tide must be only coming in now... Nuts to time and tide... I couldn't wait for... them.
Lu kept grunting. Raising my left hand... slowly... high as I could...let it fall on her black hair. Where it wasn't matted with blood... still so soft. Lu didn't even feel my hand, glance at me. Gathering my strength... another noise, a jet was flying high over us... I pressed Lu's face into the sand. Pressing firmly... gently... Until the animal grunts stopped..
The effort was too much... I had to leave... soar after the jet.
Through the lace curtains I watched the lights going on in an apartment across the street. Syd's room was large and not too badly furnished—the English have a knack for finding decent and inexpensive lodgings. It was growing dark—and late.
Turning to reach for my watch, my hand fell across Syd's flat rump. Stroking the smooth skin, I felt fine. For this last sheet-exercise with Sydney I'd been as eager as a schoolboy, gone at her with passion which had startled me. Even if I kept thinking of the time—wanted to see Henri at his gallery before I left. But feeling sexually pooped, I knew —for sure—I only wanted to see Hank about my paintings—strictly business.
The room was comfortably quiet except for Syd weeping softly. Stroking her hips I thought of all the truly beautiful girls I'd slept with; the models, my second wife—Amy—with a better figure than any stage beauty—yet none of them had turned me on like scrawny Syd. Rolling her over, kissing her face—salty and messy with tears—I felt her trembling under me as she put her arms around my neck. Kissing again, her tongue trying to part my lips, I reached for my watch on the table. It was six-forty-five p.m. I started to get up but she clung to me. I sat Syd on my lap. She cried harder. Patting her lean belly, I told her, “Stop it, honey. I don't like to see you crying.”
“Clay, I can't help it. Does this have to be the end?”
“All things end—sooner or later,” I said, smartly.
“In a lousy three hours you'll be out of my life forever; I won't have it! I bloody well won't!”
“Aw Syd, we've had a great time, why spoil it?”
“This has been more than a 'great time' for me —Clay, you know that. I don't want it 'spoiled' by being over! I'm not being some sticky virgin gushing over her first man... it's been far more—for both of us.”
“Syd, what good is this kind of talk? No matter what you mean to me—I still have to go back to the States. I'm only marking time here.”
“Clay, go wherever you wish, but take me! Clay dear, please, marry me or don't marry me, but take me with you! Look, I was a bit windy... about being on a holiday as a college graduation present. I really did graduate—a London business school, and when my first position folded—I took all my savings and came here. But...”
Bending down to rub my nose against her breasts, I mumbled, “Syd, really, I have to make a plane... soon.”
“Do hear me out, Clayton. You want to shake Nice, fine. I'm a good secretary, can always find work, support us both. Don't you see, darling, you'll be able to paint and I'll work; in London, the States, or in Australia. I was telling you the truth about my land, Clay, I swear it. I own five thousand acres. Australia is a place of opportunity and frontiers. Once we save enough to build a house on the land, then we have a go at raising sheep, drilling for oil, farming...”
For a moment with my face still pressed against her childish breast, I seriously considered it. It would be something to never look at a paint brush or canvas again, starting all over in a new field... like... whatever you did on five thousand wild acres.
Placing both her hands on my fat face, she pulled my head up to her eye level. “Clay, oh you're not even listening!”
“Sure I was. We'd have a goal in life—work and save for the house. Once that's built, we tackle the land, working together. Maybe we'll hit it rich and maybe we won't, but we'll be together all the time... be happy. Isn't that what you were trying to tell me?”
“Yes, yes... oh yes!” It came out like a sex-moan. “Clay, don't you want that?”
“Oh, I do. It's a great little dream... and like all dreams, turns to crap when you wake up.”
Syd opened her eyes wide. “What a blooming nasty thing to say! We can try it... Can't we, Clay?”
I shook my head. “Honey, it wouldn't work. Face it, I don't know which end of a shovel is shove. Be different if I had a little money to vaseline our way, but—starting on a shoe string only ends with being tied in knots—if you'll pardon the lousy simile.”
“I'll sell my scooter, bring enough for my passage to America. I heard English secretaries are in great demand there. I'll...”
I closed her jabbering mouth with a soft kiss. “Syd, Syd, I'm not getting through—I'd be no damn good for you. I've been a bum all my life, plus now... I'm washed-out, jaded... feel old.
“Old? You were a bloody jack-hammer just now. A lovely pile driver tearing me apart with pleasure!”
Glancing at my watch again as I kissed her, I gently slapped her behind—dropped her on the bed. “Hon, I hate sounding like a soap opera, but I am all wrong for you. Maybe we're a big deal in bed, now, but I... Hell, in time you'll want kids, a home, a... I really don't know what I want. That's the most honest statement I've ever made. Syd dear, I've known too many women, was a bastard to them all... I'm trying not to hurt you because I do care for you and...”
“Only care,' Clay?”
“Yeah, care, I've never been able to love.” Standing, I went to the wash basin in the corner of her room, cleaned up. I dressed as she sat on the bed, watching me—plain face all full of grief. She jumped off the bed. “I'll dress, go with you.”
“I... I have a few things to do, business matters. I'll be rushing around.”
“I'll call for you at your place, drive you to the airport.”
“Syd, never get my easel and things on your scooter.”
“Don't you want me to see you again, Clay?”
Something about the pathetic tone of her voice, the beaten way she stood there, aroused a kind of desire within me. “Now stop the dramatics, hon, of course I do. You be at the airport at nine-fifteen, or I'll beat you. Syd, believe me, if I thought we could make it, I wouldn't hesitate. If anything works out for me in the States, I'll get in touch with you.”
“Where can I write you, in New York City?”
“See hon, that's exactly how rootless I am—what I've been trying to say to you. I don't know—now —where I'll be tomorrow. Look, you'll still be in Nice for at least another week, moment I have any kind of address, I'll wire you. Now let me get on my horse, so we'll have a few minutes at the airport tonight.”
Walking me to the door for a final hard kiss, I held her tightly and whispered, “Syd, you don't know how good you've been for me. So damn good.”
“Lightning struck whenever you touched me, Clay,” she said, starting to cry again.
On that cliche I patted her behind and went out. The family who owned the pension were eating supper and they all nodded happily at me as I passed the kitchen, opened the front door.
I was hungry myself, but had to see Henri before he closed. I stopped at a bakery for bread sticks. The dumpy woman behind the counter glanced at me, then held up a copy of Nice-Matin she'd been reading—pointed to a picture of Noel and myself on the front page. Excited, she started to ask me about the thugs, but I explained I was in a hurry. I bought a copy of the paper at a corner stand, walked toward Henri's gallery eating the bread and trying to read the story.
I finally shoved the paper in my back pocket, aware of a mounting eagerness within me at the thought of seeing Henri. I kept telling myself it had to be part of my excitement at leaving—and wasn't certain I believed that.
Hank Dupri was about the most sophisticated person I'd ever known, and God knows I'd seen enough clowns trying for that title. Physically he was short and slim for his sixty years, with a sharp, handsome face, waxed moustache, and a monks ring of perfectly white and deliciously soft hair on his tanned bald head. His clothes were always in modest taste, immaculate, and his entire appearance added up to a man wise enough to never take the world seriously. Hank had a vast knowledge of art, was a highly respected critic—all over the Continent. I started hanging around him because I seemed to amuse him... and a critic and gallery owner of Hank's stature could make an artist's reputation. I kept seeing him because he made me understand painting, showed me what to look for in the masters. For example, he once spent the best part of a rainy afternoon showing me the similarity between a Picasso work and that of the 17th century Dutch artist, Vermeer. It was a terrific eye-opener for me to see how Picasso had demonstrated Vermeer could be translated into abstract terms. Not only gave me a tremendous lift, but courage to study technique. Once Hank cracked the door there seemed nothing to fear; it was all clear and reasonable... minus the gassy fog the clucks try to smother 'art' in.
If I amused Hank, he was a fascinating character himself. A beach and sun hound, a bum heart kept him from swimming, but he claimed to have swum from Nice to Monte Carlo in his youth. He had Foreign Legion medals, lived in the Far East, once worked in Hollywood as an 'adviser' to a star who found buying the works of Miro, and Dufy, brought him far more publicity than posing with his horses and six-guns. Speaking many languages, Hank hinted at having slept with the most beautiful screen beauties in Hollywood, Joinville, and Rome. He said one of his sons was an engineer on a top secret project deep in the Sahari, while there was a plaque on a side street near the Nice flower market where Henri's daughter had been shot by the Nazis. Hank considered it an ironical jest to have outlived his wife, who'd been a health nut. At present he was sharing the villa of a rajah's wife—strictly a platonic relationship since she was much older than Hank but full of deep and witty conversation—and once a month Hank had three young girls spend the day in his apartment.
Granted I only believed half of this, I enjoyed being in his company, hearing him talk. Only... lately I found myself trying to paw him, had this desire to hug him.
His Galeries D'Azur was a corner shop, open on three sides—at night he rolled down metal shutters. He had some cheap oils in the front, for the tourist trade, and the deeper you went into the store, the better the paintings. Mine were about halfway in the shop. I'd seen a small Chagall, even a Braque on display, and despite the wave of stolen paintings in Venice and Saint-Tropez, Hank didn't seem to worry about being robbed. He also had a counter of ceramics from Vallauris—good stuff: and—reflecting the sole corny flaw in Hank's taste—hideous, cheap, made-in-Japan ash trays, plus large and horrible glass cat figurines.
The metal shutters were down, disappointing and surprising me—between six and nine p.m. generally was a good time for the tourist trade. Although it was a fairly large gallery, Hank never had help, even dusted himself. I once offered to work part-time but he wasn't interested.
Standing on the corner for a moment, combing my hair as I wondered how I'd see him before I left... I saw Hank parking his ancient Citroen. He looked quite charming in sharp grey slacks, open white knitted shirt with a wildly colored shot-silk scarf boldly knotted around his strong neck. As I walked toward him, Hank smiled warmly, took a copy of the paper from the car. “Clayton, what a nice coincidence! I've come from your poor excuse for a hotel, looking for you.” He pointed the folded newspaper at me. “Never thought you the hero type. Wanted to have a talk before you leave tonight. Shame, those stinking bureaucrats ordered you out of the country.”
“It's okay. Suddenly realized I've been over here too long,” I said, resisting the desire to shake—touch—his slim hand.
“I agree with you.”
I didn't know what that was supposed to mean. “Hank, I came by to talk about my water colors. If you're willing, keep them on display here. I'll let you know my address in the States, of course, in case you luck up on a buyer.”
He nodded. “I expect to be in Paris next month, was thinking of placing some of your work in a gallery there run by a friend, perhaps doing an article on you.”
“Really, Hank?” In my excitement I grabbed his hand, squeezed it.
“We must talk—Care to take a ride, Clayton?”
“I'm starved, have supper with me.”
“Our talk isn't for a restaurant. Since you delight in savage sandwiches, I'll take you to a quiet place where the roast beef is tender, the beer properly chilled.”
“Okay, if it isn't far. I haven't much time.” I was rattled. Intimate talk... what was he trying to tell me?
Placing his arm around my shoulder, Hank said, “I'll have you back within the hour.”
“Let's go.” If Hank cared... the hell with returning to the States!
We drove up toward St. Roch, passing the dull palaces where Queen Victoria and other crowned heads sweated out the summers in the old days. Stopping at a remote and drab cafe, Hank took a corner table—away from the few customers, ordered sandwiches and beers. The roast beef was delicious and thick, with a sharp relish; the Austrian beer—dark and creamy. Lighting a small Dutch cigar, Hank told me, “We'll talk in English. This is a working man's cafe, I doubt if anybody understands English.”
“You sound so melodramatic,” I said coyly, feeling contented—with the food, having him near.
“Perhaps we are about to play out a real melodrama, cops and robbers stuff,” Hank said softly, tired eyes examining me. He had a number of delicate wrinkles around his neat lips. “Clayton, are you interested in making a sizable chunk of money?”
“Hank, are you for true?”
“Please! Your colloquial American sayings border the idiotic. Yes, I am for... true!”
“How much?” I felt some regret but mostly relief—that he wasn't treating me as a fruit—on hearing this was to be a business talk. “What's the deal?”
“Enough money to live comfortably on for—five years. Or, at the rate you're existing now, it could last the rest of your days. I can't tell you the details, unless you first agree to come in.”
“Sounds like a con talk. Why all the mystery?”
“Con? You mean... confidence man? Forget it, Clayton! Finish eating and I'll drive you back to town.” His handsome face was dark with anger.
“Cool it, Hank. How can I decide when I haven't the faintest idea of what I'm to do?”
“Merely decide to make more money than you've ever seen! You invest nothing, although there may be an element of risk.”
“Risk? Doing what?”
“Can't you understand—if I explain things to you, there's no backing out or... Let me put it this way: the risk involved is small compared to the risk if you refuse—once you know the details.”
“Well... I have to think... about whatever this is,” I said, confused.
“I've misjudged you,” Hank said, impatiently, puffing hard on his cigar. “Forget the whole thing... I was merely joking...”
“How did you misjudge me?” Staring at me hard, he said coldly, “I was certain you'd sell your soul—forgive the trite phrase—for a fat buck.”
I was so upset I couldn't eat. “You've got a hell of a high opinion of me. Henri, I thought we were friends?”
“We are, or I wouldn't be risking my life talking to you. Clayton, the world is full of hustlers, everybody has larceny in them—it's the intelligent man who admits it, isn't afraid to take it from there. I'm also in this for the fast franc. Honesty means facing up to life. Clayton, you're a snot-nose.”
“Thanks!” His eyes seemed to be grinning at me —although the thin mouth was a stern line—as if enjoying my hurt. The hell of it was: I knew I felt the way many of my girls must have—when I was brushing them off.
“A snot-nose kid is cute, or merely annoying, but to find a forty-year-old...”
“I'm only thirty-nine, louse!”
“Biner, you're a tramp. A painting bum is no better than any other kind of tramp. In your case, there's not even the excuse of talent. You've been a pimp with a brush, a small time...”
“You're blowing hard—for a smug old man with a bad ticker!” I cut in, showing him the check from the New York City gallery. “Even if you can't, they sold one of my abstracts! You've heard of this gallery—big time.”
Hank laughed in my face. “Clayton, remember who you're talking to! I can sell a piece of used toilet paper if it's framed right! One sale doesn't prove a goddamn thing.”
“I thought you liked my work? Hung it halfway back in your shop, so...”
“I didn't bring you here to discuss art. You've learned a little technique, have a nice feeling for color. Right now you're a primitive—but you'll never be another Grandma Moses, believe me! Best you can ever become is a bad commercial artist who... Clayton, since you've never done an honest lick of work in your life, don't act goddamn offended when I offer you a chance to turn a large trick!”
“As a gallery owner, living off the talents of others, you shouldn't knock pimping! And Hank, what the devil do you know of honest work? You think a season as second tackle on a pro football team was a piece of soggy cake? Sure, I left it because modeling was easier money, and if I've tried making it as an artist, so what? Just you damn well remember I've always been a working artist! I've kept producing, good or bad, working hard at my... Hank, as of this second you represent nothing but a sharp pain in my can!”
His charming smile turned gentle again as he held up a slim hand. “Arguing will not get us anyplace. Clayton, I offered you a good proposition and all you do is start playing things coy.”
“You've been beating around a fat bush, what did you expect me to say?”
“To shout yes at the chance to make quiet money, ask what it's all about later!” He started to stand. “Come, I shall drive you back.”
“Easy, Hank, old boy; I never said I wasn't interested. It's... How come you never mentioned this... eh... great deal before, during all the months I've known you? When I'm rushing to go home, after a hell of a rugged day, you pop off with a hazy offer.”
“Hazy?” Hank stared at me again, eyes angry. “You haven't been listening to me carefully: told you I'm risking my life talking about this! That's the kind of deal this can be—I can say no more. Are you interested or not? Yes or no!”
“Interested,” I mumbled, certain he was putting on some kind of act—his cracks about my work still steaming me.
“You clearly understand, once I tell you the details, there's no backing out—whether you like the deal or not? They'll see to that.”
Hank placed his palms flat on the metal table, shrugged. “Frankly, I don't know. But 'they' won't hesitate at murder. Be absolutely certain you want in, Clayton.”
I started eating again, and talking. “One second you're nagging, insulting me because I didn't jump through the hoop. Now, you seem to be discouraging me. Talk about playing it coy...!”
“Merely reminding you there's no turning back.”
“Okay. I'm in.”
“I'm in... in... in,” I told him, hamming it up, a trifle bored with his silly games.
Hank motioned for the waiter. “Finish your sandwich in the car, while I tell you the details.”
When I was sitting on the front seat, stuffing my fat trap with the last of the roast beef, Hank reached for a package on the rear seat. Unwrapping it, he held up one of the big, ugly glass cats he sold. “Clayton, tonight you will take such a cat back to New York City. Tomorrow you register at a certain hotel. Within a few hours a man calls for the statue. He will pay you fifty thousand dollars, take the cat with him. That's it.”
Brushing crumbs from my face, I waited for the punch line to this sorry gag. “Fifty big bills for carrying one of these crummy cats? What's it made of, gold?”
“The modern day gold, Clayton... inside the cat will be seven kilos of the purest heroin.”
“... so many people enter the USA, or any other country, it's a physical impossibility for Customs to thoroughly check everybody. When they do bag a smuggler, it's the result of a tip-off, the reward for informing. Most smugglers work on a small scale, making regular trips—word gets around and they're caught. We're only doing it once—one big haul. Few people are in on our deal—no chance of anybody blowing the whistle. I myself don't know who's the top man, and no one can know you're the courier—I hadn't picked you until an hour ago, when I read you were being deported. There's no reason for you to be suspected: you'll have a bill of sale, dated last month, showing you bought the cat at a small shop in Cagnes, for 72 NF. The statue is perfect, cloudy crystal with the inside mirrored —to all appearances a solid piece of cheap crystal. In New York you go to the Hotel Tran, on West 46th Street, register and wait...”
“Not under my right name!” I cut in, hoping my voice didn't shake. Sitting beside Henri on the front seat of his car, I felt numb—unreal. I'd done many petty and lousy things, but never anything outright criminal... like this.
Hank's slim fingers drummed impatiently on the steering wheel. “This must be as uncomplicated as possible. What name will you use?”
“Collins. Stanley Collins.”
“All right, you are now Stanley Collins—an ordinary name. You register and simply wait in your room—not more than a few hours, but wait there. Whoever calls to see you, will merely ask for a cat statue, hand you an envelope with your money in it; you give him the cat. That's the end of the matter, as far as you're concerned. Your job is to be sure the statuette is neither lost nor broken in transit.”
“But... what do I do with it at Customs?” I asked, feeling like a spectator listening to my own voice.
Henri smiled. “Clayton, again you're not listening to me: you are to do absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. You'll declare the cat, of course, along with a few cheap ash trays, perfume—the usual tourist junk. I'll give you everything, including the necessary bills of sale. Far as the weight and craftsmanship goes, you have nothing to worry about. And there can't be any informer—that's the beauty of the plan. Various criminal elements here, and undoubtedly the French authorities, know a quantity of heroin has been brought Into France over the past year. They don't know where it has been stored—and, most important, how it will leave the country! As I told you, this is a one shot deal—a big score—and no one with a criminal record is connected with this—here. There is one other element of risk—a tiny risk if you keep your fat mouth shut —should it become known you were carrying the junk, other... eh... crooks... in the States might try to hijack it. However there is little chance of that, you'll have delivered the cat and be through with your end in a matter of hours. I can assure you this has been a long time in the planning, and whoever is in charge has waited patiently for the right man, the right opportunity.”
If my guts were in a knot, the food I'd eaten— lead; to my surprise I heard myself ask calmly, “Isn't this a lot of cabbage to pay for a simple operation like carrying a statue into the States?”
“You have no idea how big this deal is, Clayton. Heroin comes eighty-seven per cent pure, and worth about three thousand dollars per kilo at its source. In other words, to start with, you will be carrying twenty-one thousand dollars' worth of heroin. In the States the value leaps to about seventy thousand dollars, but whoever is handling this has the organization to carry through the distribution: when the heroin is diluted and peddled, it's final price will be about three million dollars! So what you are being paid, and even my share... is relatively small change.”
If still shaking with fear, the thought I was about to put my meathooks on anything worth three million bucks was staggering. Hand read my mind. Patting my knee he said in his precise English, “Clayton, please don't try to be 'clever.' You're being well paid and any double-cross would certainly result in your death. While I think you're a bit of the fool, I wouldn't have approached you if I considered you stupid.”
Under my numbness I was angry at the way he kept calling me a fool. “Just to be sure I'm getting that well founded picture, how can you be certain I won't inform?”
“For several reasons. Your cut for informing would only be a thousand or two. Secondly, while but a few people are in the deal, at this stage—obviously a large and efficient organization is behind it: you wouldn't five long enough to spend your first Judas dollar. Thirdly—and this indeed makes you the ideal courier—you've been involved in a dope case with a Monsieur Parks. Should you inform I doubt the U.S. government would believe your story—far too much of a coincidence you're being innocently dragged into two dope cases within twenty-four hours. The net result is you'd certainly do time, never leave jail alive. Now, I'll drive you back to my shop, pick up the real cat.”
I shivered as he started the Citroen. Hank's hand was still on my knee. “Frightened?”
I started to say no, then nodded.
“You are lucky—I've been involved in this for a... your period of fear will last but a day. I know what else you must be thinking—dope is dirty business. How often I've wished it was precious stones, gold, anything but this cursed junk! Still, remember this; every fast buck, lira, mark, or franc has dirt on it. I can only assure you that your biggest danger is yourself—not a word or smallest hint of this to anyone.”
“If that's the greatest danger, I'm safe.”
“As of this second, no one but myself knows you are the courier, and nobody else will know until minutes before your plane is due to land in Idlewild. Nor will it matter if New York City is fogged in, the plane forced to land at... say, Washington. Stanley Collins is to remain at the Hotel Tran until contacted. Is that clear, Clayton?”
“Yeah. But now that I'm in, one more condition,” I told him, the tension in my belly relaxing. “Since you're in a position to help my painting career, don't forget bringing my work to your buddy in Paris, the write-up in the papers.”
Hank nodded his tanned head. “I promise to do what I can. Needless to add, you are never to mention this to anybody when it is finished, and it also would be stupid to attempt any sort of blackmail on me. Always remember, it would be nothing for 'them' to have you killed.”
“Just do what you can for me,” I told him. He squeezed my knee but my thoughts were so full of three million dollars, I barely was aware of his hand.
Stopping at the gallery, Hank picked a cat from his stock which didn't look any different than the other statues. Hefting the ugly figurine—it weighed about thirty-five pounds—I told him, “Doesn't seem heavier than the cat in the back of the car.”
“Clayton, two hands for beginners,” he said, gently placing it on the counter. “As I told you, it's perfect in every detail. I won't talk about the best laid plans of men and mice... but the only way this deal can sour win* be due to some minor hitch we couldn't have foreseen... such as you dropping this while horsing around.”
“I'll be careful.”
“Be damn careful, with your big hands and bigger mouth. Now, here are a few bottles of cheap perfume, some ash tray souvenirs—sales slips for everything, each slip carefully wrinkled and aged. You'll breeze through Customs, you're under the one-hundred dollar duty-free limit.” Hank held out his hand. “I won't see you again, Clayton. You'll probably be watched by 'them,' for all I know—we both are at this second. Just act normal.”
Shaking his hand, glancing at my water colors on exhibit, I picked up the cat, told Hank, “Guess I should thank you for this... opportunity.”
“Thank me if you wish... when it's all over... if we're still alive.”
“Aren't we moody, now? Minutes ago you were full of we-can't-fail-cheer.”
Toying nervously with his wild scarf, Hank said in French, “He who handles dynamite must expect death. I have this advantage: with my blocked heart veins, death is never far from my mind or... I am an ass, there's no reason for such talk—I'm positive this will not fail! Clayton be careful, but above all—act normal: you're merely bring home some cheap souvenirs.”
“Don't worry.” I felt slightly giddy—holding three million bucks' worth of anything is a hell of a boot.
Hank said sadly, “I'd worry less if you were more frightened. Bravado is another way of spelling stupidity.”
“I'm plenty scared and worried, but on top of it all the way.”
He stared at me for a long moment, then slapped my back. “It may sound blasphemous but—God's speed, Clayton.”
Hank wrapped the cat in newspaper and I left the gallery with the statue cradled in my arms. It was minutes before eight and I wanted to phone Syd, tell her not to see me at the airport. She was now my hole ace—Australia would be a perfect hideout—if I double-crossed 'them.' I wasn't seriously considering it, three million bucks was far too much action for me to try alone... but the idea was lingering around the back of my mind.
Walking toward Rue du France, I thought of Hank's stress on my acting normal... certainly not having any girl see me off wouldn't be normal. Even if Hank knew about Syd, he probably thought she was merely another female sucker I was working. And the only way I could persuade Syd to stay away from the airport would be to see her now: if I was being followed—I couldn't chance calling 'their' attention to Syd.
Her coming to the airport, the tearful farewell, would be in character, nothing anybody would remember... And in a few days Syd would leave Nice, be in London.
I waited on Rue de France for the airport bus, which stopped within a street of my hotel. It gave me a charge to sit in the half-empty bus with more money in my arms than the entire city of Nice saw in a week, or months. But I wasn't merely daydreaming—I was watching the various gift shops along the street. Out near Avenue de Californie there are a few starving ceramic shops full of cheap tourist stuff... and in one window I saw, finally— another cat like the one in my arms.
Reaching my stop, I seemed to be alone. Walking quickly to the hotel, I told madame I was leaving and paid my bill. She hadn't read about me in the paper, still mumbled about her lousy hot water as she counted my francs. Going to my room I started packing, taking my easel-sketch box apart, telling myself if this deal went through I'd burn the damn thing up—even though I once paid seventy-five dollars for it. I wrapped my paintings, throwing out a lot of unfinished and lousy stuff. The cat was standing—almost carelessly, most of the newspaper torn off—on the floor beside my bed. After a few minutes, madame came in to see what I was taking—as I knew she would. I told her, “I'm in a hurry to leave and there is something I forgot to buy. Is the porter's son around?”
“I do not know. You cross the back yard to his rooms, if you wish to find out: he lives behind the shoe repair shop on the next street... Ah, what a beautiful and lucky cat!” She rushed over to put her crooked hands on the junkie cat.
“Careful, it's heavy,” I said, taking it from her. Why lucky?”
“I've seen many such cats, although never this big. They are said to be a copy of a cat on an Egyptian tomb, perhaps the beautiful Cleopatra's, considered a good luck omen. You take this to the States, Monsieur Biner?”
“Yeah, for bookends, but I need another. I don't have time so I thought the boy might buy me one. I know a shop which sells them, not far from here.”
“I can not leave my desk, or I would see if the boy...”
“Thank you, Madame, but I am in a hurry,” I said, glancing at my watch. I still had over thirty minutes. “I'll find him.” Taking the cat I went out the dingy kitchen door, crossed the dark patch of ground and garbage they called a yard. The sky was starting to fill with stars and I thought how wonderful—I'd soon be up there in the plane... and how absolutely silly it would be if I stumbled, spilled three million bucks' worth of junk on the real junk in this tiny yard. If there was a 'they' behind all this, and there had to be, I could be found face down in some other yard.
I walked with great care.
The boy was having supper but stopped when I showed him the cat, told him the address of the shop, and 100 new francs. I impressed upon him that if the store was closed, he was the find the owner's flat—undoubtedly in the rear of the shop— and explain it was a rush sale.
“I will bring it to your hotel room, monsieur.”
“No, I'll wait here.” I gave him a hammy wink. “Madame is raising the devil about the state of my room, the paint stains—it will be easier for me to wait here. Now hurry.”
“I take my bike.”
When the boy left, I talked to the porter for a moment, then giving him a tip, said I'd better go to my room after all and finish packing, to tell the lad to bring the cat up there.
Crossing the filthy yard again, holding my cat statue like a lover, I thought I'd been clever. If the hotel was being watched, 'they' couldn't possibly know of my visiting the boy on this other street. On returning and finding me gone, he would certainly come to my room via the yard—unseen by anyone watching outside.
Finishing my little packing, I was trying to smooth out my one jacket, when madame broke her heart by offering to iron it. I told her the coat would only be wrinkled again on the plane, but the way she kept eyeing the cat so much, gave me the jitters: I let her take the coat to her kitchen.
The boy returned with the other cat statue and thirty-one new francs. He was breathing hard, really a sturdy, well-built thirteen-year-old youngster. Giving him a large tip, I had him get me a cab. I wrapped the new cat in newspaper, rolled it inside an old sleeping bag I'd brought from the States with tie jazzy idea of walking through Europe.
Saying goodbye to madame, who suddenly put on a tearful act, actually tried to kiss me, I reached the airport at nine-fifteen. Parks was already there, along with two reporters. My luggage was overweight and the clerk insisted the cat could not be considered hand luggage. I had to call Robert over to pay for the extra weight. Pointing to the cat, he asked, “Man, you actually taking this glass monstrosity home? I was anxious to see some of your work, but if your taste runs to this—I don't know.”
“Stop the shellack, it's merely a good luck omen.”
“The newsmen want a picture of us waving goodbye. Corny as hell but... you think all this will be in the States papers? I hope to hell not. Figure if I play ball with the press here, make like it's all nothing, the whole mess will cool sooner.”
He paid the extra weight charges and the clerk took my bags, the easel and canvases. I held on to the real cat, placing it on a bench—while I posed with Parks—feeling rather smug at being so damn off-hand with millions.
Syd came in looking like hell; eyes red—face pale and drawn. Glancing around—casually—I couldn't see anybody especially paying any attention to us. Walking over to Syd, I pulled her down onto a seat, sat beside her—the cat carefully on the floor between my big feet. Squeezing her hand, I said loudly, “Baby, how sweet—you came to see me off!”
“What?” Syd asked, on the verge of tears. “Are you daft, lugging this bloody glass horror with you?”
“This—I have an aunt who unfortunately judges gifts by size.” Still keeping a big grin on my puss, I whispered, “Listen to me, Syd: received a wire from the States—some wealthy art patron is crazy about my stuff.”
“Come on, smile. Honey, you're not getting my message: if things work out, I may sell a few thousand dollars' worth of paintings!”
“Of course I'm happy for you... Clay, I've been so sick at the thought of your leaving.”
“Get will, you skinny dope, with this money we may go to Australia, see what cooks on your land!”
Her small face came awake—slowly. “Oh God! Clay, this isn't more of your bloody talk, is it? I couldn't take it if...”
“Syd, if I swing the deal fast, I may wire you at your pension here before the week is out! If not, I'll write you in London, care of the American Express.”
Syd looked bewildered. “Clay, you do mean this?”
“Of course. A few hours ago, before the wire, well—I didn't think we could make it because I was stony, couldn't put up my share. Now it's a new deck of cards—with the happy ending due on the next deal.”
She took my hand, kissed it, began to weep gently. “You do love me!” Syd mumbled, almost to herself.
Pulling my hand away, I told her, “Stop it, honey, I hate public scenes. The score is—some rich cat (I had to grin) who's pee'd off at a modern art museum for not placing him on their board of directors, —plans to open his own. He's buying up paintings—secretly—if it gets out the other museums might put the screws on artists not to sell to him. All very complicated. The point is, with all the artists and Americans around Nice, don't talk about the deal, not a word about the... eh... money, my contacting you, our going to Australia. It's such an unexpected break, I wouldn't want anything to spoil it.”
“Not a peep from me, darling,” Syd said, reaching for my hand again. “Time your talent was recognized, the blasted critic bastards!” She sighed. “Darling, how I wish we had time to go to my room!”
“We haven't and everything depends on your playing it cool,” I said, wondering how all this nonsense I was spouting could make any sense to her. “A week or two, at the most, and we'll be set for life...” I saw Parks coming our way. “Remember now, mum's the word.”
I introduced her to Parks and even clean-cut type from the U.S. consulate was on hand. Parks and I went to the boarding gate. I certainly looked a character, my wavy hair needing a haircut, sloppy clothes, holding the silly cat statue as if it was a loving cup I'd won... but I merely grinned at the other passengers: I could afford to look this way now—I was the richest joker in line.
We were traveling first class: waving at Syd as I boarded the front of the jet, I wondered how many of 'them' were also watching me. Once we were seated, I insisted on holding the cat between my feet, which amused Parks. He looked absolutely normal, including his eyes, and while the plane taxied to the end of the runway and the cool babe in the chic hostess uniform gave us a practiced smile—made sure we fastened our safety belts... Parks again went into the routine of thanking me for coming, offered to pay me. In the grand manner of the newly rich, I told him to forget it.
I always sweat out take-offs, and I suddenly had a hunch this was the outside event—the damn jet would crash and so would my last chance of leaving the rut which was strangling me! And how many other people were also sweating out my takeoff?
But we left in a smooth rush, a brief glimpse of the lights on the Promenade before turning out to sea to gain altitude. We unlocked our seat belts and Parks lit a cigarette. The hostess came around with champagne which Parks refused, but I had a drink of the fizz, relaxed—a little. An hour later we had a compact, if lush, supper, including steak and lobster. Parks ate as if he hadn't seen food before, while I forced myself to put it away. Robert talked about his writing, the little literary magazine he'd hoped to start in Italy—probably to publish his own poems—finally talked himself asleep.
Trying to be casual I studied the other passengers, wondering if one of 'them' was tailing me. All the first class cabin people looked exactly that—plump tourists, business types.
I must have dozed off: I awoke suddenly—thighs cramped from hugging the hard head of the cat. Parks was breathing heavily, saliva bubbling at the corners of his thin mouth, which curved downward in pain. The silly face was very pale. We still had three hours flying time.
Standing to stretch my legs, I sat down again quickly—afraid the plane might hit an air pocket, the cat would tumble to the floor and break. Staring at the cat's face sticking up between my knees —the bright eyes seeming to stare back at me—I thought of New York City. Would it be possible—and safe—to give whoever contacted me the wrong cat? He might break open the statue to be sure he had the right one before paying off—in which case my pay would be a bullet. Picking up the cat, I examined it carefully—again—couldn't find any mark or coloring which stamped it as different from the other one in my luggage.
Of course what was worrying the hell out of me in the double-cross line, was the cute thought I might be paid off with a slug in any event. It would be a simple way of saving 'them' fifty big bills, plus making sure I never talked. Or if Stanley Collins was flung out of a hotel window, who would know or care whether it was suicide or not? Still, taking 'their' view, murder was messy and why screw three million bucks for a lousy fifty grand? But I couldn't dismiss the idea—the second cat might well be my guarantee I wouldn't be rooked or...
Robert suddenly bent over as* if about to vomit, beads of sweat on his forehead, eyes glassy, hands pressed to his flat belly. Stupidly, I asked, “What's wrong?”
“A fiery cramp... in my guts!” Parks gasped.
Reaching into his pocket, I took out a box of the ersatz junk. Parks shook his head. “No, man... I'll never be able... get anything... down.”
The stewardess came over to ask if she could help—did we want any airsick pills? I told her we could manage and Parks motioned he wanted to go to the john. We stood, and holding him with one hand, I reached for the cat with the other mitt. Robert snarled, “Goddamn it, man, can't you forget that dumb toy for a lousy moment!”
I could have cracked that the 'toy' contained what he wanted most out of life at the moment. Those passengers still awake were watching us and I realized it would look odd if I made too much of a fuss over the cat.
Leaving the statue against the back of my seat, I walked Parks into the head. For a long time he leaned over the commode, trying to throw up. Opening the door, I glanced down the aisle—saw the tips of the pointed glass ears sticking above my seat. Closing the door, I asked, “Sure you can't swallow these pills?”
Shaking his head, he looked sicker than ever. “Parks, we have to get them inside you fast—suppose I crush a couple in a cup of water and you drink 'em down?”
Making a retching sound, he frantically opened his collar and tie, eyes popping. All that happened was he began sweating more than ever, mouth open like a fish sucking air. Straightening up, he leaned against the wall, glaring at me wildly.
I was feeling sick myself—three million bucks alone on my seat outside. I gave him a slight poke in his belly. Parks doubled up, vomited a horrible mess the color of yellow ochre. I put five of the pills in a paper cup of water and when he stood up again, panting, I told him, “Drink this and keep it down.”
He shook his head.
“Drink it!” Placing the paper cup to his lips, I pushed his teeth apart with my fingers and he drank. For a second Parks seemed okay, then started to throw up once more. Clamping a hand over his little mouth, I growled, “Damnit, keep it down!”
Although he twisted as if choking, eyes strained to leave their sockets, I kept my palm over his mouth. Finally, he swallowed and I took my hand away. Parks fell against the wall as life returned to his chalk-pale skin. After a moment he smiled, said, “Thanks, old life-saver.” Then he rested for several minutes while I washed up, ran a comb through my hair.
Parks washed his face. “Take a few more of them,” I said, making another goof-ball cocktail.
He drank this slowly, fixed his tie and shirt, brushed his sandy hair with his fingers. It was amazing how quickly he'd recovered. “I'm fine now. Best I take a pill every half hour, or the monkey will bug me.”
“Okay. Can you make it to our seats?”
“Dryden had the junkie in mind when he wrote, “Ill habits gather by unseen degrees...”
“You're pack to par—let's go.” Stepping out of the john my heart flipped—I didn't see the glass ears I Rushing down the aisle like a lumbering idiot —I found the figurine had slipped to one side of the seat. It occurred to me I'd been a dummy, 'somebody' could have easily substituted another cat—although this looked like the cat. When Parks lost himself in a magazine, I used my nail file to scratch a tiny # inside the cat's right ear.
I started worrying again: how I'd handle the pay-off man... plus new thoughts—suppose Hank had crossed me? If the cat was empty it would be assumed I'd crossed 'them,' and 'they' would certainly kill me. Could I switch cats, claim Hank had done it? Although it's supposed to be as easy to steal a million as to swipe a dime, I didn't know enough about crime methods.
My head began to ache. The main idea was to protect myself against any possibility of a double X on 'their' part. The best thing I could do now was rest—be able to think clearly when 'der tag' came.
The balance of the flight was a snap—Robert took a pill every half hour and except for being nervous, seemed his usual stupid self. I managed to doze off for minutes at a time, the cat always in my hands.
No sooner did we step off the plane at Idlewild— in the middle of the night—when a lawyer named Mac Wyckoff ran out to greet Parks. Wyckoff was a short man, with a distinguished face; in fact, somehow he looked like a lawyer. Parks introduced me and Wyckoff shook my hand abruptly, told Parks his mother was too upset to come to the airport. As his lawyer led him away, Robert called back I must look him up when he was released from the hospital.
Since this was before the Customs and other officials reached us, I was impressed. I didn't see Parks when the rest of us went through Customs. I was amazed and proud I wasn't the least bit nervous as the Customs agent poked through my things. I showed him the bills of sale, and of course in my declaration, I'd listed both cats, plus the souvenirs Hank had given me. When he came to my paintings, the Customs man merely grunted, “You an artist?”
I said yes, trying to figure if it was a form of negative criticism.
Within an hour after I'd landed, I was in a Manhattan-bound cab, without the slightest idea where I was going to stay. On reaching 59th and 3rd Avenue, I paid the taxi off, looking like a real greenhorn with the Custom seals half falling from my shabby bundles. Hailing another cab, I had him drive me to an office building on West 26th Street, where I'd once worked as a summer office boy.
The street was absolutely deserted at that hour of the night, as I expected it to be. Paying the hackie, I carried my stuff into a dark doorway and waited. If I was being tailed, 'they' would stick out like that famous sore thumb on this empty business street.
A half hour passed with not a soul showing, not even a car went through the block. I tried to remember friends I could bunk with, but I'd been out of the country too long for that. Finally, moving my stuff from doorway to doorway, I reached 9th Avenue and took a cab to the old Hotel Talbert on East 10th Street. Registering under my right name, I rented a room without a bath, locked the door, and placing both cats carefully under the bed, fell off into a hell of a sound sleep without bothering to undress.
Awaking before eight a.m., feeling rested, clearheaded: I wondered if I should have gone directly to the Hotel Tran. I decided not to chance crossing 'them.' Only a fool is greedy... and I didn't know how to get rid of the stuff on my own.
Leaving my hotel with both cats under my arms, New York City looked hot and dirty, as though I'd never been away. If I was paid off this morning, I'd be on a Nice plane by evening. Walking toward Third Avenue a passing guy asked, “How much you peddling them figurines for, buddy? They hot?”
I realized in my shabby, wrinkled clothes I didn't look far above the winos floating around this area— which used to be the tail-end of the Bowery before Third Avenue became swank. In a pawn shop I bought an old suitcase strong enough to hold both cats, for eight bucks. Separating the statues with a couple of N. Y. Times so they wouldn't rattle and chip against each other, I stopped at a stool joint for breakfast. Paying the tab, I had $11.75 left, not counting my gallery check, and the boat ticket in my room.
Riding a cab to the Hotel Tran I had this definite feeling of walking into a trap. Hank had picked this hotel, it probably was the hangout for 'them.' But there wasn't any way of finishing the deal without meeting my contact. I kept selling myself the pitch 'they' wouldn't risk a three million dollar deal with the minor matter of rooking and/or killing me.
The Hotel Tran was a surprise—while one of Time Square's dowdy hotels, it seemed more of a family place with permanent-type guests instead of the ratty transients you find in midtown dives. The old lobby was well-kept, the desk clerk the conservative, mousey kind found in better hotels. But when I registered as Stanley Collins, the little bastard glanced at me coldly and despite my suitcase, demanded a night's rent in advance. I paid $8.50 as the middle-aged elevator-operator took me up to room 302, giving me an odd look when he picked up the heavy suitcase.
The room was small and neat, hotel phone, wash basin, shower, but no toilet. The only window faced the brick side of an office building. Combing my hair, I unpacked the cats—placing the phony one on the dresser. I wanted to see the contact man before he saw me. Exactly what good that would do, I didn't know—except by sizing him up first, I'd know whether to show myself or not. I could sit in the lobby, see whomever asked for me—but hardly while holding the real cat.
Taking the cat, I studied the empty hallway. The John was around a turn, out of sight of my room. Might do as a last resort—what I really needed was room 305, directly across the hall. Even if I had the money, no way I could rent the room, say, under another name or...
The door of 305 opened. A short, over-dressed woman with dyed copper-colored hair, walked out, headed for the elevator. Blindfolded I knew her type: met too damn many here and abroad. Near forty, divorced from hubby number two or three, usually with modest alimony but never enough for raising real hell... and desperately on the make. When she stepped into the elevator I crossed to her door—didn't hear a thing: she lived alone. As copper-hair hadn't carried a purse or bag, she'd return soon.
Things were breaking for me: I could stay in 305 without renting it.
There was an ashtray, a box of wooden matches on my dresser, hotel stationery in the drawer. I burnt a couple of matches from end to end, waited inside my door. About ten minutes later I heard the elevator stop, the sound of high heels. Leaving the cat on my bed, I opened the door, started a fast sketch of copper hair's face. She had ordinary features, the slack lines of a lush around her over-painted eyes, the weak mouth.
Carrying a newspaper, she paid no attention to me, but unlocking her door she turned, asked, “What the devil are you doing?” It was a dull voice, without anger.
I put on a startled act. “Oh, excuse me. I was so enchanted with the delicate lines of your nose, simply had to get them down on paper.”
“My nose?” She touched it, as if discovering she had one. “Never thought of that as my best feature.” She took a deep breath to show me her best features. She had a soggy bosom, large for her slim figure, obviously wore a good bra under the thin summer dress.
“You have a marvelous nose line, in a classic face.”
“You an artist?” she asked, coming over to look at the sketch. She used perfume by the quart.
“I've been working abroad for several years, portrait commissions.” I held out the sketch. Even with the crumbling matchstick and glossy paper, I had a rough, photographic likeness of her.
“Say, you're great.”
I examined the sketch—sadly. Hank was so right —in time I might be a fifth-rate commercial artist. “I'd love to do a complete sketch of your exquisite face.”
“Always consider my shape better than my face. Couple years ago on the Cape, a painter guy saw me in a swim suit, wanted me to model. My stuffy old husband didn't go for the deal.”
“You're stacked fore and aft, but your face—the delicate lines of a flower in bloom,” I said, slopping hard, wondering what other hungry artist had pitched her a line. “When you have free time, I'd very much like to add your face to my notebook— for a mural when I return to my studio in San Remo.”
“I'm free now. We went to London once, and didn't even get over to Paris. My business-business hubby.”
“I'd love to sketch you now, but unhappily my room is in the rear and the light...”
“I've a front room. I'm Mrs. Arlene Price.”
“Dandy Collins,” I said, over my charm grin. A crappy name helps a snow job.
“Dandy?” She giggled.
I shrugged. “Been explaining that handle all my life. Dad and his sense of humor. Can we start immediately? Noon light is the very best.”
“Sure, Dandy. I don't have a date until three.” She unlocked her door. “Dandy—really have dandy hair—oh those waves. You're a big guy for an artist, but when I first saw your... clothes, I just knew you were an intellectual.”
“You've a keen mind,” I said, glancing around the room, pressing against her in the doorway. By the mild disorder of things, she was a long time resident.
“Dandy, you are a giant. I don't come to your broad shoulders.”
“Sweetest things come in cute little packages,” I cornballed as she gave me her stupid giggle again. “Need some paper—be right back.”
Taking more paper, burnt matches, the cat, and leaving my door half-open, I returned to 305. Seeing the cat, Arlene gushed, “Oh my, what a big pussy,” followed by a double-meaning giggle.
“A good luck charm from Egypt Always keep it around when I work.”
“Some large charm,” she said, starting to close the door.
“Please leave the door open a little,” I said, carefully placing the cat on her unmade bed.
Giving me an astonished if searching glance, Arlene said, “Thank you. You are a gentleman.”
“Don't be too sure. I'm expecting a phone call—in my room. Let's see... sit by the window, where the sun will highlight your delicate facial planes.”
“You bet. Dandy—oh, I buy that cute name—would a Scotch relax us both?”
Five drinks later I heard her sad story, kissed her several times, she was peeling her dress so I could sketch her breasts... when my phone rang. Taking the cat, I raced across the hall, answered the phone on the second ring. A brittle male voice said, “Mr. Collins, this is the desk. A Mr. Smith is here to see you. Shall I send him up?”
Hanging up, I moved the false cat on the dresser so it could be seen immediately upon entering the room. Leaving my door cracked, I ran back to 305 with the real statue, closed her door to a slit, and watched the hall.
“Hey, Candy-Dandy, look at this fine stuff.”
I turned to see Arlene in the nude near the window. I'd been wrong about the bra, she really had firm salt and pepper shakers, with the rest of her more meaty than I'd expected. As she started toward me, I told her, “Stay there, honey—strike a pose and relax. I'll be with you in a second.”
“Anything big Dandy-daddy wishes,” she said, reaching for the Scotch bottle on the dresser. “I'll strike a pose and strike a few other things you'll like...”
“Shut up, beautiful. I'm getting into a painting mood,” I said, hearing the elevator stop. Peering through the crack in the door I saw a trim fellow in a seersucker suit, sharp straw hat, white shirt and baby blue tie... head for my room. If his face lacked any special toughness, he looked like a joker who could handle himself. Knocking once—lightly —he gently pushed the door open, calling, “Collins?” Seeing the phony cat, he went directly to the dresser. I felt high with relief, the guy didn't act like a thug... in minutes I'd be richer than...
As I started to leave the room, two younger men appeared in the hallway, near the stairs. One was very tall, the other a runt. The tall, skinny one wore cheap, flashy clothes; long face and lantern jaw, the hard eyes. The short man was absolutely nondescript in looks and clothing. Walking fast and silently, on reaching the open door of my room the tall one calmly pulled out a pistol with a very long barrel—I realized it was a silencer—and fired. There was a 'ping' sound and seersucker fell across the dresser, an ugly red stain blossoming on his back, before he slipped to the floor.
The runt sort of shook his right arm and a horrible knife seemed to spring into his hand. They stepped into the room—the tall guy pointing his gun around quickly, while the little man took the cat from the dresser. The taller man kicked the closet door open, as Shorty bent down and yanked a white envelope from the inside pocket of the dead man.
Then they both walked rapidly out of the room to the stairs, the runty one hugging the cat.
All this took about—five seconds.
I had two reactions. I couldn't believe a man had been killed in so few seconds, without the smallest warning or chance. I almost expected seersucker to jump to his feet, take a bow. The second, and far stronger reaction was—to get the hell out of the hotel before they found it was the wrong cat, returned to ruthlessly murder me with another 'ping' shot.
But I was too damn scared to move. My guts seemed to have turned into heavy lead, bolted to my legs, nailed to the floor...
“Hey, Dandy, whatcha at that door crack for?”
Jumping, I turned to see Arlene doing a bump and grind, holding a bath towel over her belly, lips a coy and drunken smile. “Always felt I'd make a sensational burly-cue queen, a...”
Mutt and Jeff certainly wouldn't open the cat on the stairs, more likely they'd take it to some office, or a car. If the car was parked near, they could be back within minutes...
“Regular Swiss movement, hey Dandy? Hotter than hot, a...”
As Arlene danced toward me I snatched the towel from her hand, bundled the cat in it, ran along the hall, and down the steps—walked as fast as I could without attracting attention through the lobby—out into the crowded, lunch-hour street.
Walking East—for no reason—I kept glancing around until I was dizzy, trying to spot the tall goon. Crossing 5th Avenue I slowed down: I was not only safe in a crowd but probably the two killers had no idea what I looked like. They must have known seersucker was going to meet me, tailed him. If they knew about me, they would have come directly to the room—before seersucker. There was only one link to me—the damn cat. That wasn't a link, but a regular chain—a noose! Soon seersucker's body would be found and while the cops might have a tough time tracing Stanley Collins, Arlene would certainly tell them about the 'artist' with the big 'pussy,' and once that hit the fan—pronounced newspapers—the Idlewild Customs man would remember me and the two glass cats. Also, my prints were certainly all over the damn room.
But it wasn't the law worrying me so much. I was not only scared of the horrible tall clown and his 'ping' gun... but what would 'they'—the syndicate—think now? Their contact man killed, money missing, and me long gone too!
Walking down to 42nd Street where the crowds were thicker—always on the lookout for the tall thug's blank face above the passing people—I had two things to do quickly: get rid of the cat, make a transatlantic call to Hank—ask who I should contact now.
In one of these drugstores which have become small department stores, I purchased a plastic pillow cover and a cheap hammer. Attache cases were too expensive, so I settled for a little blue duffel bag.
I used the last pay toilet in the Grand Central Station men's room. Flushing it to cover the noise, I busted the cat's ear with the hammer. The dumb ear had to hit the floor with a loud tinkle of glass. In a booth down the line somebody laughed, called out, “Jack:, you really need a dose of mineral oil.”
Another clown said, “He needs A.A. First I ever heard of a secret John guzzler.”
“Funny, funny, you uncouth bastards,” I said. “Broke a ten-buck bottle of medicine on dropping my pants.”
“I bet,” the last comedian snapped.
I didn't bother answering—saw only more glass where the ear had been. Waiting a good, sweating ten minutes, hearing men coming and going, I flushed the commode again, hammered at the spot the ear had fallen from. A large crack appeared, and when I removed a big sliver of glass... there it was: flour-like powder. Opening the plastic pillow case I carefully poured over sixteen pounds of pure heroin into it—banged the cat a couple of times so as not to leave a few grand in dust—zippered the case shut. Placing the plastic sack inside the duffel bag, I stuffed Arlene's towel on top of it.... had the most innocent-looking three million bucks ever seen!
Removing my coat, I wrapped the hammer and the remains of the glass cat in that, slung the bag over my shoulder, and walked out. Except for the crude bundle under my arm, I looked the part of a sweaty joker going or coming from a beach. Glancing about constantly to be as certain as I knew how to be—that no one was tailing me, I rode the subway to South Ferry. Standing on the stern of the Staten Island ferry, with a sigh of sheer relief I opened my coat... quietly dropped the ugly cat to the bottom of New York's harbor.
Having a cup of coffee in the Staten Island ferry terminal left me down to my last fifty-five cents. Hating to do it—although there wasn't any time for pride—I found Amy's new address in the Queens phone book. It would be lousy to beg her for a favor. We'd had mother-in-law trouble: Amy found me in the sack with her mama. I'd merely been trying to con the old babe into buying us a station wagon, or some such major item. I could understand Amy blowing her gasket, but on another level I was helping my rich mother-in-law lose her neurotic frustration—she'd been widowed when Amy was ten.
On the ferry back to Manhattan, watching a passing ocean finer with desperate longing, I had a better idea: I'd go directly to the art gallery.
Surely they'd cash their own check, and I had my passport for identification.
Leaving the subway at 59th and Lexington Avenue, I never went near the gallery. The evening papers were already out—with a snap of seersucker bleeding all over the floor of room 302. The picture caption briefly stated:
“Al Foster, thirty-seven, a known criminal, was found shot to death this morning in the room of a Stanley Collins, at the Hotel Tran. Police are seeking a mysterious heavy suitcase...”
Reading the paper, I rode the subway back to Grand Central, changed for a Queens train. Foster, who lived in the West 70's, had a record of ten arrests—including one for armed robbery and assault—but only one conviction—he'd done time as a youngster for stealing a gum vending machine. The news story said the police were searching for a Stanley Collins, who had checked into the hotel room a few hours before the shooting. Only an empty suitcase was found in the room...
Amy lived in a standard middle-class neighborhood of institutional-looking solid apartment houses. It was a few minutes past four p.m.... little chance of her new hubby being home. And if I could get some money from her within the next half hour, I'd be able to phone Hank in Nice before he shut his shop.
A husky little boy—who had to be at least eight—opened the door when I rang, gave me a buck-tooth smile as he asked, “What are you selling, mister?”
“Mother home, sonny?” It gives you an odd feeling when your child calls you 'mister.' Even if Clark had only been two when Amy divorced me, I was amazed he didn't know I was his old man: his face and hair were so much a copy of mine—he looked as if I'd spit him out.
A baby cried someplace within the over-decorated apartment as Amy called out, “Who is it, Clark?” I didn't know Amy had another kid. “A big man to see you, mommy.”
“I told you to always ask a person's name...” Amy said, coming into the foyer, doing a dumb double-take upon seeing me.
She'd put on a few pounds but it only helped her good figure, while her face still had all its startling beauty: she'd always been so damn sure of the power of her looks, used it like a club. Patting the boy's head—he had my soft, curly hair—Amy told him, “Son, go take care of Frances.”
“I want to stay and talk to the man, mama.”
“You look after your baby sister before I report you to your Cub Scoutmaster!” Amy snapped. The second the boy left, she stepped in front of me— barring the doorway like a mother-hen protecting her brood—announced, “Get out of here, Clayton, before I slam the door on your ugly face!”
“Relax.” I put one of my size thirteens against the door. “I didn't come to make a scene. I'm in a mild jam and...”
“That's the only time you'd ever think of coming around, naturally! I've told Fred what a slimy bastard you are—in detail! Clark thinks Fred is his father, so if Fred finds you here he'll break your thick head!
“The boy looks fine. Only be a few seconds, Amy. I happened to be around here and...”
“How much do you want?”
“Come on, I'm not here for a handout. I've recently returned to the States and am leaving for... South America, tonight. I have this...” I pulled the gallery check from my wallet. “You can see it's okay, even you must have heard of this gallery. I've been selling a lot of my stuff lately, have a one-man show in Paris shortly...”
“I couldn't care less!” Amy said, taking the check, reading it.
“Of course. I was on my way to the airport and... having been out of the country, I don't know anybody who might cash this. I thought of you.”
“I don't have anything like $156 with me. I've about $45 in the house. You can have that, and get out!” She flung the check at me.
Picking it up, I asked, “Got a pen? Ill endorse it.”
“I don't want your filthy check! I'll give you the money and you leave at once, before Fred comes!”
“Get the $45 and a pen, Amy. Use the balance of the check to buy something for Clark and...”
“I will not!”
“... and don't say a mumbling word about where it came from. Make it snappy, honey, or I'll wait for Fred, ask him to cash it. I mean that.”
Amy stared at me for a moment, blue eyes full of the icy fury I remembered so well. “All right! But you stay right here, don't try to come into the apartment, or I swear to God I'll scream for the police!”
“Lord, you're the same silly, melodramatic bitch you always were,” I said sweetly.
Amy left to return seconds later with her purse and a pen. She gave me four tens and a five. Signing the check, I handed it to her casually. “Goodbye, hon.”
“Don't ever come back, Clay!”
“But darling, what was there ever worth coming back for?”
“You dirty unwashed louse!”
“Frigid bit...!” Clark and a tiny naked girl of about fifteen months suddenly stuck their cute heads around the corner. They made a startling pair: the boy looking like me, the girl a copy of Amy. “Thank you for your time, madame. I'm sorry you're not interested in ordering rugs. Perhaps next season. Good day.” I cocked my thumb in a pistol motion at the boy, as I walked toward the elevator, heard him giggle. Then my son shouted, “Bang! Bang! I kill you...!” as Amy slammed the door.
Downstairs I walked several blocks before phoning Nice from a drugstore booth, practically taking all the man's silver. The druggist was open-mouth impressed and I wondered if I was stupidly leaving a trail for the police—I actually didn't wish to involve Amy in anything.
About fourteen dollars and some ten minutes later the call went through: Hank's gallery didn't answer. I couldn't remember his home address—he slept around so damn much—but while I still had an open wire, I had the call switched to Syd's pension, person-to-person. I'd tell her to see Hank, have him call me back at this number at a certain hour tomorrow.
Syd's voice sounded so thin and unreal—long, long distance—as she asked, “Clay, on your way back here? Oh darling, did things work out for us?”
“I haven't been here long enough to see... anybody, yet. Listen to me Syd: you remember that art gallery across from the park, the Jardin Albert 1, where my water colors are on...?”
“Darling,” she cut in, “the police have been here asking some blasted questions about you. The silly blokes simply must have known you boarded a plane last night, yet they kept asking as if you were responsible for Monsieur Dupre's death. That's the same art gallery, I mean his...?”
“Hank... Henri Dupre is dead?”
“Brutally beaten to death during the night—found him in Mont-Boron, outside Nice. Big item in the bloody papers here.”
“But—what did the police want me for?”
“Exactly what I kept telling the ruddy bureaucrats—you had to be half across the Atlantic when the killing took place. Clay, forget that, what did you phone to tell me?”
“What could the French police possibly...? Syd, honey, I only phoned to say this may take more time than I first thought, and... eh... I didn't want you to worry.”
“Sweet, sweet, Clay darling! Now I know you love me!” Over the phone her voice sounded like a mechanical doll's.
“Yeah. In case I am delayed, why you go on to London, and I'll write you there. Goodnight, Syd.”
“Good, good night, my lover!” Syd made a kissing noise—a kind of animal squeal—as I hung up.
In a sweaty daze, I squared away the overtime charges with the operator, the coins dropping like a slot machine jackpot—in reverse. How could the French cops have connected me with Hank? Or had the flics been shadowing me all the time, after I was ordered to leave France?
The hell with the flics, I was in Queens now! But no wonder the 'ping' man and his runty partner had been on hand to kill Al Foster! Somebody —another 'they'—had tortured poor Hank until he spilled the details. Syd had said Dupre had been 'brutally beaten'... why couldn't his bad heart have stopped, saved him all that nightmare of pain?
One thing was now clear, when the tall man with the silencer had been looking around the hotel room, the closet, he'd been hunting for me. Either they had followed Foster to me, or they were waiting until he arrived, figuring on getting the fifty grand and the dope. But Hank had said he'd picked me as the courier on the spur of the moment, wouldn't let anybody else, even the contact here, know until my plane was about to land at Idlewild. How the devil did Foster know where to contact me, then? Hank was dead hours before the plane reached the States. This was supposed to be an informer-proof plan; or had I literally let the cat out of the bag, caused Hank's death? I certainly hadn't talked, but Parks saw the cat, so did Syd, madame, the porter's son... But how could they have possibly known what the cat held? That was the 'beauty' of the plan, I was merely bringing home souvenirs... like a glass cat.
Leaving thedrugstore I moved about aimlessly, my head aching. I hadn't the slightest idea where to go, what to do. I had less than thirty bucks on me. True, I was carrying three millions around...
I swung the little blue duffel bag over my shoulder. I ought to have Robert Parks recite The Ancient Mariner. The damn junkies talked about a monkey on their stupid backs... I had a seven kilo albatross around my fat neck—strangling me.
I opened my eyes to blink at the tower, now flecked with gold shadow from the sinking sun. Tall tower... the final jest for me... that phallus symbol slop? My sex castle...? Nutty talk. Lovely contrast, gold and white of the tower against the dirty grey of the rest of the castle. Call the color of sand, burnt sienna... or...? Doesn't matter, never did—for me, really.
The little boy stood up. Man's castle... no, no, the boy and his castle of 'boy.' Lu said cocaine was 'girl'... hit you like an orgasm. My newly found store of.... stupid knowledge.
White, white tower in the sun. Crazy road for a poppy to travel. Gorgeous poppy with your innocent coloring... and belly full of evil opium. Oh God, is beauty really the other face of evil? My God...? My God... am I about to see You? So much to forgive... Forgive?
Closing my eyes I listened to the relaxing music of the waves. Kept opening my eyes every few seconds—to be sure I could. Lu, face down in the sand beside me. Dead face down. Poor Lu.... Good Lu.... in our weird way, did we find love? Love—I'm a maudlin slob... dying next to a dead whore. What more fitting headstone for me?
The sand in her dark hair seemed like maggots. I glanced down at the deep white of the tower. The White Tower hamburger joints in New York... her torn breast like hamburger. Ugly tower!
Crazy last thoughts... crazy... crazy world I'm leaving. Bon Voyage, bastard world.
No more voyages for me. Still, this... the castle... the sun... the blue of the sky... the sea. Cemetery with a view.
Riding the subway again gave me a slight sense of security. It wasn't only the protection of the crowd—being on the go always was my tonic. There wasn't any Robert Parks in the phone books, but I found a listing for his lawyer, Maxwell Wyckoff. On the off-chance he hadn't been hospitalized yet, I wanted to see Robert: I needed money—eating and room rent dough. I'd given up on the idea of moving to Europe: soon as the police learned I was Stanley Collins, all ships and planes would be checked. Hell, now I couldn't ever return to my hotel room, cash in my open boat ticket.
Later for Europe—and poor Syd.
There was another reason for seeing Parks: only one way I could contact the syndicate—or even Mr. Ping, if he'd stand still long enough to listen to a proposition before silently blasting away—was via a junkie. A user could put me in touch with his pusher, who could do the take-me-to-your-leader routine until I reached somebody big enough to buy what I had in my duffel bag. Robert was the sole hophead I knew and there was a strong possibility he'd been snowing me over in Villefranche, had been on the junk here. Certainly —if he wasn't in a hospital—Parks would have made some sort of dope contact by now: his habit would have forced him to.
Sitting in the reception room of his Wall Street office, I glanced at a fascinating copy of the Law Journal. Wyckoff didn't even ask me into his office —he came out to the reception foyer. “Yes, Mr. Biner?” he asked, a look of distaste on his round face. He shaved too often—the area under his double chin was blotchy.
“I've misplaced Robert's address and he isn't fisted in any phone book or...”
“Young Parks entered a private hospital yesterday. He can't be visited for several weeks.”
“What hospital? Lexington?”
“I'm not at liberty to divulge that. What is it you want, Biner?”
“Can you give me his mother's address?”
“I'll have to know exactly what you wish to see her about, first.”
“Well... when Robert asked me to be his nurse on the trip home, he agreed to pay me. In the excitement of my sudden leaving, I didn't bother to ask for my... pay, and then, at Idlewild, you took him away abruptly. It happens that the sale of one of my pictures, which I was counting on, hasn't come through and I can use the...”
Wyckoff walked over, pressed the elevator button. “Mr. Biner, unless you leave immediately, I shall be forced to call the police. Blackmail is an ugly...
“Blackmail?” I cut in, boiling. “I want the money he promised me! Returning to the States so suddenly has upset my plans.”
“Biner, you're either crazy or stupidly brave to have come here. There's one aspect of Robert's mess which has never been satisfactorily explained to me, nor to his mother. Robert went abroad a clean, sensitive youngster—within a matter of weeks he returns a dope addict, his life wrecked. While I am aware you allegedly rescued him from the clutches of hoodlums, I also am aware Robert would never have mixed with such lice if he hadn't met the wrong type of people abroad. I feel certain some... uh... Beatnik, like yourself, put him on the narcotic path. Now, you come around asking for money, which smacks of blackmail.” The elevator door slid open behind him. He jerked a fat thumb at it.
Furious, I yelled, “Is this the thanks I get for risking my life to rescue him from a mess—in which he involved me! I never saw Robert in my life until he arranged to have my passport stolen! Have me arrested—I'll sue the hell out of you!”
“I accept that risk. Now, either you leave this second, never attempt to contact Mrs. Parks or myself again, or I shall phone the police. The choice is yours.”
Really feeling like a whipped cur, I stepped into the damn elevator, punched the main floor button.
Walking uptown, still sweating with anger, I didn't know what to do. I needed a room, a place in which to lay low for a while, to think... and I had less than thirty bucks in my pocket. Passing a cheap bar north of Canal Street, I felt sick with hunger. Buying a late paper I went into the bar, took a roast beef sandwich from the food counter over to the bar, ordered a beer. The bartender was an antique with the map of Ireland on his pale, veined puss.
Eating the sandwich, I glanced through the paper—nothing new on the killing, no mention of my name. When I ordered a second brew, the barkeep said, “Sure a scorcher today. I see you've been to the beach. Many people in swimming?”
“Yeah.” It was nearly six p.m. and the bar was empty except for a wino at the other end, staring up at the old movie on the ceiling TV, as he munched pretzels and nursed a drink.
The bartender thought making small talk was part of his job. Placing a beer in front of me he said, “Mister, I notice by your tan you're no stranger to the beach. Don't see many folks taking care of their health these days. I say folks have lost faith in each other, in God. What do you say, mister?”
“What? I say you're a 100% right,” I mumbled, my mind a whirling blank. I dropped a dollar on the bar. “Give me a straight bourbon chaser.”
Two women came in, sat at a table near the door. The bartender made no move to serve them. Both wore cheap, long-sleeved print dresses, looked in their late twenties. The younger had a swarthy face, chunky figure. The other dog was scrawny all over. Quickly casing the bar, the women talked to each other in a gossipy whisper.
Drinking the whiskey slowly, hoping it would relax my brains enough to let me think, I felt depressed as could be. “See you know how to drink, mister,” my gabby bartender said. “I swear, nobody even knows how to get an honest toot on any more. Great saints, all they do now is throw the stuff down their throat, become vomiting drunk. Main trouble with our world, no longer any honest values.”
“Aha.” In the dirty mirror running behind the bar I saw the chunky bimbo turn, look my way. It was hardly a compliment—against the wino I was obviously the best catch. She had a weird face—the make-up put on in hard, definite lines.
Turning to see what I was watching in the mirror, the barkeep snorted, “Of course you know the kind of women they are?”
I nodded again, wishing he'd shut up, wanting to be alone, thinking hard. The whiskey warmed my belly, and that was all it did.
“Mister, in my work I seen whores, honest women in their own way. Misfortune forced them to peddle their hips, but at least in the old days they accepted their fate, gave a man what he paid for. Whores today, like Lucille over there—ain't misfortune which makes them take to the street: they do it to support their needle. A habit...”
“Wait a minute...”
“... a habit they could break with any true will power. But with the crooked values of today, who knows of will power? Docs say smoking causes cancer but the companies advertise more than...”
“Hold it: the stocky one is a junkie?” I managed to cut in.
“Indeed she is. The new curse of the poor and the damned, dope. Opium ruined the mighty Chinese nation hundreds of years ago. Same is happening to us today. I see young punks who...”
My brain slowed down as he chattered on. I turned and looked directly at this Lucille, put on a small act. “You sure she's really a dope addict, bartender?”
The map of Ireland broke into a snort-laugh. “Been hooked for over a year. Three cap gal.”
“Cap? What's a cap?” I asked, playing along like a straight man.
“Fix, a shot of dope. Means she needs three capsules of the stuff a day. Lucille's an educated one too, could be a nice sort.”
“But she looks so... healthy,” I said, to be certain. “I thought they were all sickly, nervous?”
“Mister, you haven't been around. Just as well— the Devil's playground is overcrowded as always. Notice she's wearing a long-sleeved dress in all this heat? Arm is full of dark marks where she shoots the evil into her soul. Looks okay now, probably had her shots. But see them when they're in need of a fix—they look like death eating a cracker. I...”
“What's her drink?”
“Scotch and milk. I...”
“Take one over to her table, please. Give the mutt with her whatever she laps up, too.”
The map of Ireland rubbed his rummy nose, very disappointed in me. He made two drinks, waited until I'd paid for them, before waddling over to their table. When the girls turned to glance at me, I motioned for Lucille to come over. Instead, she coldly shook her head, turned her back to me as she sipped the Scotch. I strolled over to the table and she said in a warm voice, “Listen, don't ever snap your fingers at me like calling a pet pooch. I keep thing on an even level—a business level.”
“Fair enough,” I said, finally sitting at their table: I didn't want to get hooked for any more drinks.
Her scrawny friend showed a row of dirty teeth as she said, “Me, I don't mind being finger-snapped.”
“Maybe some other time, dearie,” I told her, turning to Lucille. Despite the bad make-up job, she had wonderful eyelashes, like fine feathers, and her facial structure at close-up was full, unusually strong. “If you're open for business, let's go.”
She gave me a cold look, then grinned, all her face getting into the act. “Got yourself hot and excited out at the beach, buster? Going by your tan, you must live on the beach—be hot all the time.”
I stood. This Lucille sat for a moment, then slowly got up and stretched, really a feline gesture. Taking her purse, she said, “See you, Bea. Come on, eager, I'll take the starch out of your pants.”
Reaching the street she said, “Since we're in business, it's fifteen bucks.”
-"I'm interested in the rest of the night.”
“Well now, that's the kind of executive talk I like to hear. A whole night costs sixty bucks.”
Shrugging, I took her arm. “Where we heading for?”
“I have my own pad—for all night Johns. My name's Lucille.”
We turned into a side street and pulling her arm away, she pointed to a small tenement on the other side of the block. “See that house over there? Red one, next to the stinking grocery shop? Apartment 2F—which cleverly stands for the front apartment, second floor. I'll walk ahead. Wait a few minutes, then walk right in, like you belonged. Okay, Tony?”
Examining the dusty window of a shoddy liquor store for a few minutes, I wondered if I was about to be mugged—decided I had to chance it. Crossing the street I casually walked into a narrow hallway smelling of stale foods, up wooden stairs, and in the dim light made out a crudely lettered 2F. Lucille opened the door before I knocked, wearing a dirty negligee. I stepped into a living room/kitchen, plainly furnished—including, to my smug surprise, a full bookcase, and a cheaply reproduced Degas print on one wall. In the other room I saw the large bed, open door to a tiny bathroom.
I rested my duffel bag on the table; Lucille came over and kissed the side of my cheek, awkwardly pressing her body against me. I grabbed the sleeves of her negligee as she whispered, “The money, Tony, sweet.”
Pushing the robe up her arms, I saw the main vein in her left arm an angry purple, surrounded by faint scars and skin bruises. Pulling her arm away, she said, “Come on now, Tony—some green stuff.”
Holding her left wrist I asked, “On junk, Lucille?”
She yanked her wrist savagely away, right hand caressing my hips, the sullen face alarmed. “Cop?”
Staring up at me with bold dark eyes, she shrugged. “You're big... but not cop-beefy. You're not packing a gun and I never saw a dick with hair pretty as yours. You a user, too?”
“No.” Pulling a chair over, I sat down, blocking the door.
She suddenly giggled. “What's the matter, no hot hurry-hurry to bed now?” Turning on a table radio she began dancing, the robe billowing out to show solid thighs. Lucille moved with heavyweight grace. “Tony, I must have the money in front. You understand?”
“Relax. I've a business proposition for you...”
“Fat stuff, what the hell you think you're pulling? I want my sixty bucks—now!” Her badly painted face was an angry mask.
“Get me a saucer and stop the lip. I may give you a hundred times sixty dollars.”
“A saucer? If you think you can con me into a freebee...”
“Get it and shut your goddamn mouth!”
While she did a hippy walk to the sink, took a saucer from the shelf above it, I dug down into the duffel bag, under the towel. Opening the plastic pillow case, I removed a pinch of heroin. Dropping the white powder on the white saucer she held out, I zipped the bag shut, punched the towel firmly on top of it. Lucille's big eyes traveled from the plate to my duffel bag. “Great God, that full of horse?”
Taking a single grain on her red pinky nail, she shoved it up her nose and sniffed. For a number of long seconds nothing happened: then her face flushed, the inside of the nostril turned a raw red, Lucille sighed with complete happiness. Putting the plate on the table she grabbed my hand, held the two fingers I'd pinched the dope with under her nose—whole body shaking.
When I yanked my fingers away, she gasped, “Strong... oooh strong! Tony, honey! Honey, I'll be so good to you... in a moment. Don't dare waste this!”
She raced to the bathroom, returned with a shaving mirror, a razor blade, and two pill boxes. Sitting at the table with all the concentration of a dedicated scientist, she pulled a long white pill from one of the boxes, delicately shaved the pill with the razor blade—the tiny shavings falling on the mirror.
“Quinine,” she mumbled.
With the edge of the razor, Lucille took coarse white powder from the other box (milk sugar I later learned), added it to the quinine on the mirror. Lucille began chopping up the minute grains with the razor—added the pinch of dope to the mixture, carefully herding it off the saucer with her razor. Then putting her big nose on the plate—like a miniature vacuum cleaner—her chunky body trembling with each sniff. As she started chopping at the white mixture again, I asked, “Why the mirror bit?”
“See every grain on a mirror—can't lose none. Tony, this will be a bomb, maybe two of 'em! But I'm going to wait, those sniffs charged me just fine.”
Pulling wax paper from a roll in the kitchen, Lucille tilted the mirror so the fine powder fell on the paper, did the sniffing routine again with the white dust, and when she stopped trembling... folded the wax paper into a tiny 'deck,' which she hid in the bedroom. She quickly put the pill boxes, the razor, back in the bathroom, washed the mirror. Then standing in the bedroom doorway, Lucille blew a corny kiss my way, quickly dropped her robe.
Fleshy, but well proportioned and strong, the nipples on the moon breasts a most delicate shade of rose-red. With a sickening yelp of real joy, she came across the room... heavy-footed... jumped on my lap, placed my free hand on her breast. There was a sharp, and interesting, odor of perfume and sweat about her.
“Tony, I love your hair. Women would fight over a wave like yours.” She began unbuttoning my shirt. “Said I'll show you a whale of a time—always keep my word.”
“Why later? I see the sex heat in your eyes now.”
“Really?” I asked, almost interested until I realized it was a whore's standard sales pitch. “First, let me tell you the deal I have for...”
“We can talk later. As- the wiseman said, enjoy yourself—what else is there in life? Tony, I go for you—honest, I do.”
“You're the greatest, carrying a lifetime supply of Cloud 9 around like it's so much sand.” Lucille opened my shirt more, put her hand on my belt. “Honey, have you trouble below, like a complex?”
“What made you ask that?”
“Tony, I'm no Miss America but I'm stacked. When I put it down for free, guys don't hesitate.”
“You're very attractive, Lucille,” I said, squeezing her nipple and gently pushing her off my lap, “but let's stop playing it dumb: no woman's as beautiful as a bundle of quiet money.”
“Okay, maybe you know what you're doing.” She picked up her robe, slipped it on. Lighting a cigarette she sat opposite me, blew a corny cloud of smoke my way. “What's your deal? How much horse you got in there—where did you cop it?”
“Don't reach, honey—all that matters is I have it. A pound of pure stuff, get more whenever I want to. I need a buyer.”
“You think I'm big enough to handle the deal?”
“Talk sense, babe: I picked you because you look like an intelligent chick. Without asking any questions, I know you must get your stuff from a pusher —in turn, your pusher can reach somebody up the line big enough to buy all I can get. Naturally, this can't be shouted from the window. All I want you to do is—quietly put out a feeler, bring the right joker to me and you're in for ten per cent. Bring the wrong guy and you'll kick the habit—permanently!” I added, trying to put a growl in my voice. “We understand each other?”
Lucille nodded, eyes over-bright.
“Play it smart and you make five or ten grand. Cross me and you'll never live to be more than a few hours older!”
She smiled. “Tony, you're not a goon, stop playing the hard guy. It isn't necessary—I'm for money. I can't do a thing until eight p.m. Let's go to bed.”
“Why not start working on it now?”
“Because whenever I want to make a buy, I call this guy at eight and set it up.” She stood up and stretched, showing me all her solid curves. “I'm hungry. How about some supper? I'm an all-around gal, shaking a mean frying pan.”
“Okay. Any other... customers... come here?”
“No. Told you this is my own place, only for all night Johns.”
She had steaks and a salad in the refrigerator. While she broiled the meat, Lucille lectured on “organically grown” foods and the dangers of chemical preservatives. Using a blender, she made a weird, mushy drink of alfalfa and shelled sunflower seeds, yeast flakes, natural Lecithin granules, and raw carrots. I didn't ask how she jelled being a food nut with taking junk.
She set up a bridge table, complete with neatly folded napkins and a spotless table cloth. It was kicks to watch her eat; Lucille attacked the food with fierce delight, holding the steak in her hands and tearing at it with her teeth—thoroughly enjoying the meal. The steak was rare and tender, the salad and the mush not bad at all. I helped her wash the dishes and then we sat around listening to the radio, while she lectured on the evils of TV —how it was ruining the reading habit. We made a most domestic scene.
Lucille talked about herself, proudly mentioned she was a member of “two of the largest book clubs out—I'm well read, been through every best seller published in the last five years.” Then, rather pointedly, tried to pump me for information until I told her to cut it.
A few minutes before eight she put on the same sweaty dress, brushed her black hair. From the front window I had an angle view of the corner drugstore. I told her, “Make your phone call at the drugstore across the street. But don't try anything cute—it won't work.”
She came over and pressed against me. “Tony, how wrong can a guy be? I go for you.”
I patted her hips. “Don't go too far.”
The moment she left, I locked the door, raced to the window with a bad case of jitters. She walked leisurely across to the drugstore. Some teenage boys on a stoop whistled, made a few cracks, but Lucille didn't pay them the smallest attention. She was in the store for at least ten minutes and I had this strong hunch I ought to take off, was being trapped. When she finally came out, Lucille walked away from the house, out of sight! In a panic, I ran to the door, down to the street to see Lucille leaving a liquor shop, carrying a small paper bag. I raced back upstairs.
I pretended to be reading one of her books when she came in. She put a pint of gin on the table, started to undress. “This gin distilled from organically grown juniper berries?” I asked.
The dress over her face—she wiggled her naked hips at me.
“What's cooking on our deal?”
“My connection wasn't in. That's happened before. I left a message I had to see him first thing in the morning, to wait for my call...”
“Morning? Why can't you see him sooner?”
“He's busy. I'm not his only customer.” She stuck a very red tongue at me. “You wanted to spend the night with me.”
I grabbed her wrist. “What you handing me? When you need a fix, I know damn well you don't wait all night!”
“This guy ain't running a store! You buy in advance or you're in hell all night. Tony, tomorrow I'll see him for sure—he has contacts right to the top. Let go of my wrist, there's more exciting things on me to grab.”
I dropped her hand. I had no other move, or any other place to sleep. This was as good a 'hideout' as any.
Lucille returned to the crummy uniform—her dirty negligee—which easily removed any sex ideas I may have had. The unwashed robe reminded me of the great fear of sickness whores always gave me. Turning on the radio, she opened the gin, actually mixed it with a powder called Tiger's Milk. It didn't taste bad. I took one drink and let her finish the rest.
She went off on some slop about the gin reminding her of a time ”... Before I was on junk. I was going with this simple character. One night we drove down to a wild and deserted beach way out on Long Island—near Bridgehampton. Spooky beach, but kind of grand having it all to ourselves, with the sound of waves, salt spray—the rest of the scene. We built a fire of driftwood, cooked corn and hot dogs, and I nipped on a bottle of this same brand gin while he stood in the water to his ass, surf-casted. He didn't catch any fish, and he was your kind of jerk—didn't make love to me. Yet I've remembered that night. Maybe one of the best nights I ever had.”
“Stop talking about 'love' like a cliche machine.”
After a couple of drinks she started to read her latest book-of-the-month, day, or week. But she was becoming jumpy. Going into the bathroom— for some reason she left the door open. I watched her tie a rubber garter tightly over her left arm, heat up a 'cap' of heroin in a spoon with a match, slide the hypo needle into her arm, and finally— calmly squirt some blood down the sink, expertly clean the needle.
She did it in such an off-hand manner, it seemed the height of crude obscenity. I wished to heaven she'd at least shut the door... that I wasn't mixed up in this horrible mess... I stopped kidding myself: I could have gone to the police and didn't, so I was in—perhaps over my fat head—but in it.
Coming out of the bathroom Lucille stretched, dropped the negligee once more, rubbed her powerful breasts as she announced, “I feel so good I'm going to sleep. You can sit up all night, if you like, playing Little Lord Fauntleroy for...”
I slapped her mouth. Backing away, narrow eyes hot with anger, she said, “Don't ever lay a hand on me, Tony!”
I slapped her again, held her arms. “I won't, if you watch your big mouth. I'm offering you a good deal, don't need any cracks.”
She suddenly relaxed against me. “Okay, guess you're right.”
Turning abruptly, she went to the bathroom and washed her face, then fixed her bed, slipped in between the sheets and started reading again. Minus the make-up there really was a sort of harsh beauty to her face, the perfect eye-brows. I stood in the bedroom doorway for a moment. Looking up she asked coyly, “Like what you see?”
“Yeah. Your face is truly... beautiful.”
“Tony, you're a strange one.”
Making sure the front door was locked, I placed a chair under the knob, then went to the can and washed—drying myself with toilet paper. Lucille was sleeping when I came out. Undressing to my shorts, I tied the string of the duffel bag firmly around my right wrist, stretched out on the bed beside her—on top of the sheet—the bag and my hand resting on the floor. I was bushed.
Reaching up, I turned off the bed light. Lucille suddenly rubbed my chest, softly, “You've some tan, Tony, must really love the beach. Where do you go—Coney, Reis Park, Jones Beach?”
“Cote D'Azure,” I wanted to say, but merely patted her hand, told her to sleep. Within minutes she was snoring—a low, even and not entirely unpleasant sound. Without expecting to, I had a fairly good night's sleep myself, waking every few hours to lift the duffel bag tied to my right hand, listen to Lucille snore... then sink into a sound sleep.
I awoke at seven a.m. and took a fast shower. Afraid to use any of her towels, I dried myself with Arlene's hotel towel, stuffed it back into the duffel bag. When I came out Lucille was sitting up in bed, stretching, yawning—the sheet off, as if proving she slept in the raw. I wanted to sketch the chunky figure, was amazed she looked so rested—it had been at least ten hours since her last fix. “Any breakfast around?”
“In a moment, sir—Sir Wavy Hair.” She dashed to the can and ran a bath. A dozen minutes later she came out, in the same underthings she'd worn yesterday. “When do you make that phone call?”
“Too early now—after we eat,” she said, starting the coffee, putting a slew of sliced fruits and wheat germ in the blender, some sort of hard-tack crackers in the toaster.
The radio said it was going to be another muggy day. I eagerly ate the dizzy food, but wasn't able to match the savage delight with which Lucille tore into her breakfast. I helped her wash the few dishes, then she started to make-up her face, laying the stuff on with a heavy hand. When I asked why she used so much make-up, she astonished me by saying, “I find it very comforting. I read where a head doc said make-up gives one a sense of security —a mask to hide behind.” An educated, (outright) whore was novelty for me.
I saw her, from the window, cross to the drugstore, the same feeling of trapped panic welling up inside me. Sketching always calms my nerves and still watching the street, I ransacked the table drawer—looking for a pencil—my guts ready to burst with the tension.
I found a box of chalk and turning the frying pan over, tried roughing in the street scene below on the blackened pan bottom. The lines ended up a series of messy smudges—so much nothing—but I felt better. When I saw Lucille returning, the hippy walk, I ran water over the pan, left it in the sink.
She dropped the morning paper and a pack of butts on the table. “Hot out, already. My connection's coming right over.”
“What did you tell him?”
“That I had a chance of making a good buy on a big white car, wanted him to look at the motor. Have to be careful over the phone—but he understood.”
“When he comes, I'll do the talking.”
“Of course. It's your stuff, Tony.” Lighting a cigarette, she began straightening up the bed.
I glanced at the newspaper. It was on the fifth page, a short item about:
POLICE SEEKING FOOTBALL PLAYER-ARTIST
Clayton Biner, a one-time professional footfall player who became an abstract painter, was being sought today by the police for questioning in the hotel room slaying of hoodlum Al Foster yesterday. The police refused to say what connection Mr. Biner had with the shooting, except that they thought Biner might have been a tenant of the hotel. Mr. Biner does not have any criminal record.
Al Foster, a known criminal, was killed in the room of one Stanley Collins, who registered at the hotel a few hours before the shooting, and who has not been seen since...
Lucille asked, “Curly, what you sweating about?”
“The humidity,” I told her, turning to the sports pages, then casually dropping the paper on the table. My guts were in a tight knot. How had the police learned my real name so damn fast? Goodbye to Syd and her Australian land, the last chance for...
“Tony, are you in a trance? Didn't you hear what I said?”
Lucille grinned, the heavy lips truly inviting. “I was saying, if we get this settled, we both might go to the beach today. I haven't been swimming in years. Guess I could rent a suit. I like Jones Beach.”
“Good.” I was listening to steps in the hallway outside; steps of a man who walked carefully. My insides tightened harder at the sound of two mild knocks. Lucille made no move, and a split second later a key opened the door.
A young fellow—about thirty—stood there. He wasn't tall, perhaps on the trim side, wearing a neatly pressed but cheap linen suit, open grey sport shirt, crewcut dark hair. His face was sharp and mean, neither ugly nor unhandsome, eyes shrewd with a wiseguy expression. The face was so much pure rascal, it was attractive. He was very sure of himself, even the way he moved into the room, gently shut and locked the door, expressed confidence. The feeling of dread increased within me.
“This the pigeon, Lu?” His voice was a practiced toughness.
“Yes, the fellow I told you about, Gus.” Lucille sounded very nervous. “Tony, this is Gus.'
We nodded at each other and he grinned at me, licked his skinny lips, while his eyes raced to the duffel bag in my right hand. Sitting on the table, swinging his cheap Italian-styled shoes, Gus said, “Okay, big boy, let's see what you're peddling.”
She said, “It's pure, a real banger, Gus! I already scored.”
“I know you did, a free night for a free take-off, stupid tomato!” He suddenly smiled at me—Gus had the whitest teeth, was obviously quite proud of them. “Let's see how much you have, Tony, then we talk.”
“One pound of uncut heroin,” I said, suddenly getting the scene in focus—this was her pimp. I had a hopeless feeling of wasting time. “I want five grand for it. Since you don't look like you can raise five bucks, bring me somebody who flashes the long green and I'll show my wares.” I glanced at Lucille. “Thought you were going to get me your pusher? I don't need a pimp for...”
“Business manager,” Gus cut in, voice harder.
“Gus is my connection, gets my white stuff,” Lucille began.
“Shut your face, Lu! Big boy, let us all get straight: you're dealing with me. Lu's mine, so talk with me.”
“Gus, I think the whole bag is full of horse!” Lucille said.
“Too much chatter,” Gus said, flashing his choppers in a smile at me. “Tony, the bag.” He held out a slim hand.
I tried to grin coldly. “First let me see the sight of welcome green.”
“Sure.” He pulled a snub-nosed pistol out of his pocket. “How's the color of this? Lu told me you're a great talker, but don't try to outtalk a .321 Open the bag!”
I knew I'd been had, and I didn't give a goddamn. It was all such a helpless mess—me broke and carting around three million dollars without the slightest idea of how to cash it in. For a split second—perhaps it was a hangover from my months of dejection in Europe—I felt it would be best to let this pushing punk kill me. Of course, I wouldn't stand still for a beating or... Resigned, I tossed the bag on the table, mumbled, “Easy Gus, don't let that rod get too good to you. A gun shoots both ways.”
With his left hand, Gus pulled out the damp towel, then looked positively stupid on seeing the plastic case full of heroin... eyes actually strained to leave his skull as he zipped the pillow case open, put a fingertip full of the white powder on his tongue. Screwing up his thin face, he gasped, “Jeez, it is uncut!”
Lucille came over to gaze into the bag with all the respect of a person peeping at the Future. Gus pushed her away and the same anger swept her crude face as when I'd slapped her.
While he was busy with her, I reached for the bag, stepped next to the window. Gus spun around, pointed the gun at me. “Put the bag back! At the races I'm a lousy hunch player, but now... I've won me the biggest daily double with a hunch! Heard a rumor of a large shipment got screwed-up yesterday... here I have it! Put the bag on the table before you get hurt.”
“Stop waving that silly gun like it's a magic wand,” I said, wondering why I bothered—but the hope of three million, or even fifty grand dies slowly. “Told you a gun works both ways: if you knock me off—and you'll have to kill me to get this —then you'll have a murder rap hanging over your thick head... be the best heeled creep ever to sit in the chair.”
“I'm warning you, Tony, to...!”
“Oh, shut up. Keep the tough act and I'll toss the stuff out the window into the...”
“God, don't do that!” Lucille gasped.
I actually laughed at her. “I don't need you two small-timers. Let's say I... eh... stumbled across this junk-pot. If I can't sell it, all I do is hand it over to the police and I'm in the clear. But suppose we give it one more try, stop acting like angry bulldogs, talk a little sense? As the worn phrase goes, there's enough here for all of us. I need a path to the top men, to sell this at a fair price. I offered Lucille 10%. Since you're in now, I'll make you the same offer. I know this is worth about $70,000. Bring me anybody able to buy it, and you each get a 10% slice.”
Gus seemed to be listening intently as I talked; now he slipped me his practiced smile, said, “Fatty, you are a talker! Act like you're on the stuff yourself, although Lu says you ain't a weed-head. So, you're offering me a deal?'
“Yes, if you can produce the right buyer.”
“Fatty, you're forgetting—I'm aiming the Chairman Of The Board at you, the gun makes the final decision! But I'm willing to talk—a little. You ain't tossing that out the window, or blowing any whistle: I got you figured—you're this artist-football character the cops are looking for in the Al Foster gunning. Sure, you're the courier who brought the junk in. Run to the cops and they'll slap twenty years on you, if they don't rap you for the killing! Remember the airline hostess who claimed she didn't know she was bringing in H—thought it was powdered perfume: she got twenty years because she wouldn't say—or didn't know—who was behind the business. It was in all the papers. If you want twenty years, you're dumber than you look. Also I came here prepared, big boy.”
“For what?” I asked, resting the bag on the window sill.
“When Lu first phoned me last night, I thought she was high. But this morning, after she phoned again, I give them a feeler, and man were they all ears! What I mean is, I'm not playing a lone hand in a deal this big. Yeah, you must be the guy Foster was to meet. Well, courier, your job is finished, you ain't necessary no more! If they agree, and you don't cause me no trouble, I may give you a couple grand. I said, may! Man, you ought to be happy you're alive—you'd be with Foster if they'd seen you yesterday.”
I gulped as I said, “If you take over the courier job, you'll be dead on delivery, too.”
“Don't worry about little Gus, fatty. I'll make the sale but not like a dummy. Now don't go for stupid, make me hurt you—give me the bag! I'll see you get a few grand, even take care of you the way you want.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You're the biggest one I ever seen, but faggots come in all sizes. Ever take it into your head to make money?” Gus cackled with horrible laughter.
“You and me will have a swishing good time—I treat all my gals good. The bag!”
Gus stepped toward me, cocky grin on his stupid face, so sure of himself the gun was pointing toward the floor...
In college they had the football squad try out for track. For a couple of weeks I was a hammer thrower. Now, I was so blind-angry at his daring to call me a swish, I said, “Here's the bag!” Swinging the sixteen-pound bag by the string hard as I could, pivoting all my weight behind it....
... Gus walked into the arc, the duffel bag striking the side of his ratty face. His entire head seemed to fold over at an unreal angle, then he collapsed into a crumpling heap at my feet. Picking up the .32 with my left hand, I smashed it down into his pale face again and again.
Lucille grabbed my arm. “Tony! You're hitting a dead man! You broke his neck! Tony, you and I...”
With the bag still in my right hand, I punched her thick chin: she went sprawling on the floor, blood gushing from the nice lips. “If we get this settled... we both might go to the beach today...'“ I panted, trying to mimic her warm voice. “Whore! Lying bitch, setting me up from the jump!”
The words echoed in the room, seemed to strike my face—wake me up. Lucille was out cold: I was talking to an unconscious woman and a corpse. Shoving the towel back into the duffel bag, I ran out of the room, thundering down the wooden steps and onto the street... got the full impact of what I'd done. Painting bum, dope courier, wanted by the cops...
Now I was a murderer.
Killing Gus also killed my panic and indecision. Figuring I was safer off the streets, I boarded an uptown bus at the corner, my mind sure of one thing—I wasn't going to fry for the death of that dreadful, smirking, toothy, stupid pimp! Calling me a swish... well, his last thought must have been one of absolute shock!
I felt proud, almost virile, at having killed—no remorse. Best of all, I was thinking clearly. If small-time crooks like Gus knew about the attempted hijack at the Hotel Tran, it was safe to assume the police also knew, that they didn't want me for the killing of Al Foster, but only suspected I was smuggling dope. It would take the police time—since I'd been out of the country for almost two years—to get my picture and description. At least a day or more. In fact, I doubted if dizzy Arlene across the hall in 305 would admit I'd been sharing her room. Nor would Amy be anxious to come forward—so there wasn't anyone to give them a working description of me. True, once Gus was found and Lucille arrested, she could give a decent word picture of me.
I had to tear up my passport, destroy all evidence of Clayton Biner. Oh I could appreciate the ironical twist—it was the loss of my passport which started me in this mess. As plain Joe Blow I'd have about twenty-four hours in which to contact the syndicate. If I could only find a pipe-line to 'them,' the rest would be fairly simple—remembering Gus' pearls of wisdom I'd work out a deal where my services as a courier wouldn't be over until I safely had some loot. I wouldn't be hard to deal with— hell with fifty grand—I'd settle for... ten or fifteen thousand... enough to give me a few years cooling off time in Mexico or the West Indies. Yeah, I'd offer 'them' the greatest bargain ever seen.
If I still hadn't any real idea of how to do this, at least I'd lost my depressed mood, was ready to fight. I had one thread to the syndicate—Al Foster. Somebody at Foster's home address, perhaps his wife, would know his friends... give me a clue which would take me to the syndicate.
Okay; it wasn't much of a plan but I was done with my aimless wondering, fooling with cheap hustlers and whores. The original news story had given Foster's address on West 78th Street. I took the crosstown bus at 79th Street, sweating more than the day called for. At Broadway I walked down to 72nd Street and into the Automat for a sandwich and iced tea. In the men's room—not without a pang of deep regret—I tore up my passport and the few other pieces of identification on me, flushed them down the commode.
I rode a cab across 78th Street to the Drive. The late Al Foster had lived in an old and modest apartment house. Far as I could see, there weren't any detectives in sight. I walked back to the subway station at 72nd, found a group of dime public lockers. I sweated more at the thought of leaving three million bucks in a locker, but in case Foster's place was staked out, I couldn't risk being picked up with a duffel bag of junk on me.
At a barber shop I took a close haircut—although it hurt like hell to have my good hair end on the floor—manicure and shave. Next I bought a white shirt and conservative dark tie, changed in the men's room of a swank cafeteria on 73rd Street. (Hell, I was practically living in men's rooms I) But now I looked the part I was going to play, although my suit was badly wrinkled. Having less than twenty dollars, I had to stay with the old suit.
With the locker key securely in my left sock, I walked over to the apartment house, studying the parked cars and few passing people: I didn't see anybody looking like a dick. The house was a walk-up, remodeled into small apartments some years ago, judging by the condition of the mail nestboxes.
Foster's name was there but I didn't have enough nerve to go directly to his apartment. I walked along a delivery alley to the super's place. Sweating like a pig, I knocked on his door. A little faded man wearing worn over-alls and an old work shirt opened the door. His pale face was narrow and pointed, thick glasses giving mild eyes an owlish expression, few grey hairs on top of his egghead. In what sounded like a Northern European accent he asked, “Yes, mister?”
Glancing over his head I looked into a cool and darkened apartment. Far as I could hear, he was alone. “I read in the papers about somebody in this house dying. I wonder if the apartment has been rented?”
“You mean Mr. Foster's place? It was a great shock. I always thought he was a tobacco salesman.”
“Of course if his wife is living here...
“He had no wife. Such a quiet man.” The soft eyes blinked up at me. “Are you a friend of his?”
“No. I merely read about him in the papers and well, you know how difficult it is finding a flat these days. I'll make it worth your while, Mr. —”
“Lund. I don't know about Mr. Foster's lease. Also, I don't handle the renting. I'll have to phone the agent. I don't take anything under the table, SO...
“How about five hundred dollars, Mr. Lund?”
He swallowed, Adam's apple dancing as if choking on a peach, pit, the magnified eyes blinking with surprise, or it could have been—fear. His pink tongue licked a faint moustache. “That's a lot of money, Mr....”
“Well, come in, Mr. Brown. Ill phone the agent.”
“I... eh... know I'm kind of breaking the law, by offering you money, Mr. Lund, so... can we talk someplace where we'll be alone?”
“Come in, Mr. Brown. I've been a lonely widower for years.”
“I didn't want to cause you any trouble,” I told him, stepping into the cool and dark little apartment, quite pleased with my acting ability.
I followed Lund into a damp living room which, aside from an old-fashioned round dining table and a few chairs, had a long low work bench holding two huge mossy-green fish tanks. The only light in the dim room came from the faint hallway bulb. “Raise tropical fish, Mr. Lund?” I asked, casually.
“No sir. For years I've been trying to cultivate pearls and now...”
“There's oysters in there?” I peered into one of the tanks. Through the foggy green water the bottom seemed covered with odd-shaped cobblestones. “These must be fresh water oysters, like they have in the Mississippi River.”
The pinched face brightened. “You know about them, sir?”
“I've read of fresh water pearls.”
“Few folks have. Always been a frugal man and long ago I read of the Japanese injecting sand into an oyster, growing pearls. The idea fascinated me. For years I spent a lot of money, put in much work, learning the feeding habits of oysters, the right water temperatures... oysters are such delicate creatures. Carted brackish water from the Hudson River up here five times a day... without any results. Six years ago I read of fresh water oysters forming pearls. Would you believe it, I even took a trip South to buy some?”
“You're a real hobby fan,” I said, cleverly.
“A hobby? More of a tragic dream.” Lund looked at his mossy tanks with pride. “The dream was to make my fortune with pearls. Now, when I have finally grown some small pearls, and in this batch may have large ones—cultivated pearls have become so cheap, it's hardly worth the work. It takes so much of my time and effort, but what else have I to do with my free time?”
“There's an easier way to make money, Mr. Lund: that five hundred I mentioned—even more if we're lucky.”
“Lucky?” In the dim, greenish light his eyes looked ghostly. Still, he didn't weigh much over one hundred pounds. “The agent rents...”
“Forget the agent. I really don't want to rent the apartment. Listen to me, Mr. Lund, I'm a writer for fact crime magazines. You've seen the mags on the stands—a blown-up rehash of actual crimes which have a sensational...”
“I read only the classics.”
“You're to be admired, Mr. Lund. The deal is this: I take a hot crime yarn—like the Foster shooting—dig up old pictures, a few puff facts, sell it to one of the mags. That's where your five hundred comes in. But, if it turns out Foster was an important gangster, why all this might end as a book, a motion picture sale, and your cut larger. All you have to do is tell me what you know about Foster —little things—any friends he might have had, girls, etc. No danger to you, I mean, you won't even be mentioned in the article, unless you want to see your name and picture in print. Of course I'll need to see Foster's apartment, take a few snaps, snoop around. Okay?”
“Mr. Brown, as I told the police, I don't know much about my tenants. Keep to myself and my oysters. I...”
“Mr. Lund, for letting me look at his apartment, a few pictures—and I assure you I won't take a thing—you make yourself five hundred dollars!”
“Well, I don't see any harm in that. The agent has the key to the apartment. I'll phone him now —tell him there's a leak up there. Office isn't far, he'll send it over with the office boy.”
“Fine. But remember, the bit about the article has to be kept between us.”
“I understand, sir. The phone is right in the other room. Just take me a second, Mr. Brown.”
He stepped across the hallway into what must have been the bedroom—it was too dark to see for sure—dialed a wall phone. Peering into one of the tanks, I touched the water with my finger—it was almost ice-cold. Lund called out. “Careful, mister. For eleven months now I keep the water free of any impurities and...”
“Don't worry, Mr. Lund.”
He began talking over the phone, voice so low I couldn't make out what he was saying, but I heard him mention “apartment” and “leak” a few times. I was examining a faded and corny photo of FDR framed on the wall near the hallway. There was a thick silence: Lund was listening and nodding his head. Then I heard him mutter, “Yes, Lieutenant, I phoned like you...”
I didn't wait to hear any more—the sly bastard was phoning the cops! I pulled one of the tanks off the bench—it hit the floor with a crash of glass, water, and his scummy pearl-raisers. With a shrill cry of horror, the janitor dropped the phone, ran to kneel among the oysters as I raced out of the place.
I headed down West End Avenue fast as I could, without running, sweating with fear. Expecting to hear the sad wail of a police siren any second, I crossed to Broadway and the subway. Opening the locker, I grabbed my duffel bag, ran down the steps to the platform. Taking off my coat, rolling up my shirt sleeves and opening the dumb tie, I leaned against a post, wiped my sweating face— and damn near fainted—a subway cop was smiling at me! This tall, young, freckled-puss cop came over, said, “Another lousy hot day. This summer's a dog. You have the right idea, heading for the beach. Reis Park?”
“Flatbush Avenue train be along next. Ride it to the last stop, then a bus to the beach. Working the subways in the summer is rugged. If I was off, be swimming myself.”
I mumbled something about just finishing work and when the train pulled in, I sat down, so frightened I didn't know what to do. Sitting on a beach didn't seem a bad idea—with my duffel bag and towel, I'd at least look the part. Would this young cop remember me, if the other police came asking? With my coat off, the duffel bag—might call that a form of disguise. At least I was on the move— the cops probably would be searching the 72nd Street area.
Sitting directly under a fan I cooled off a bit, tried to think. I needed eating and room money. Racking my mind for the names of any old friends I could touch, the address of my first wife... I gave it all up, merely sat there in a daze: be stupid seeing anybody who knew me—with the papers full of my name.
At Flatbush Avenue I got off, looking much like the other beach-bound jokers, but a bit uneasy at the number of queers around. It was a couple of minutes past noon when I came up and out on the sunny street, saw a long fine of people and kids waiting for the Reis Park bus. Standing in fine —I smelt this heavy perfume odor, turned to see Lucille smiling at me—with slightly puffed lips. She said, “Knowing you're a beach bug, figured I might find you here, Tony. I've been waiting over...”
I glanced around frantically, waiting for the police to close in. Taking my hand, Lucille said, “It's okay, Tony, I'm with you. Listen...” her voice dropped to a whisper... “I don't give a damn about you knocking off Gus. I didn't think he'd cross you like... Oh, why he it up: we were going to take you, but hon, that's over! I'll do anything you say, Tony, I swear it. Or I wouldn't be here now! Tony, you must believe me—I have to do what you want, you have the bag. Honey, we've nothing to worry about.”
“What... what did you do with... Gus?” I asked, whispering in a nightmare.
“Stuffed his body into a camphor bag. Nobody come to the apartment until next month, when the rent's due. Even if Gus starts to stink, he'll take time coming through the camphor bag. Look, we can get a room, I'll make money for us... we'll have a couple weeks to work out something. Tony, I'll never cross you again, believe me!”
I didn't believe her, kept looking around wildly, almost expecting to see Gus' smirking face. About a half a block away, over the heads of the other people, I sure saw somebody—Mr. Ping coming toward me.
I started walking in the opposite direction, pushing people out of my way. Lucille ran after me. “Tony, please! Please! For the love of God... don't leave me! I need... At least give me some...!”
I shook her hand off mine but she grabbed my shirt. I said, “Damn you, shut your face and let go of me! You brought the killers!”
“What?” She looked around.
“Mutt and Jeff down there!” I said, nodding toward Ping—and his runty buddy—who were pushing through the people waiting for the bus. I kept shoving down the street, even looking for a cop. Lucille ran after me, panting, “I don't know them! Tony, really, I don't!”
There wasn't time to argue, people were staring at us with cynical amusement. Reaching the other end of the block, I turned the corner, Lucille after me. It was a street of smaller stores, few people shopping in all the heat. I'd been a fool to run—people were my only shield from the silencer—the tall punk wouldn't dare use his gun in a crowd. There was no going back now, I half-ran down the street, Lucille's high heels clicking behind me. The damn duffel bag seemed to weigh a ton.
The stores stopped at the end of the block—then came a row of small apartment houses with even less people on the street. I stood there, not knowing what to do. Lucille was shoving her purse at me, panting, “Tony—take this.” I kept turning away from her. A small crowd of plump women shoppers stopped to stare at us—sure they were seeing a man-and-wife fight. Crowds... Digging into my coat pockets I finally found the piece of chalk. Kneeling on the hot sidewalk I feverishly began to sketch a copy of Goya's “Naked Maja, but actually getting down the way Lucille had looked in bed last night.
More people surrounded us, snickering at the breasts I was drawing. Through the fleshy forest of heavy bare legs and slacks I saw Ping and Shorty round the corner. I worked faster on the thick curves of the hips as the crowd grew. A high feminine voice said, “What gall—drawing a dirty picture right on the sidewalk!”
“He's good,” a mild voice added.
Ping's sharp slacks, the shoddy pants of his squat partner reached the edge of the crowd. When they came through the people, I'd put up a hell of a brawl, no matter... Sketching like mad, through the many legs I suddenly saw those of the two goons pull back, abruptly turn, walk away very rapidly.
Still on my hands and knees I watched them go —until a hand pushed my shoulder. I glanced up at blue pants, the red face of an old cop asking, “Whatcha think you're doing here, Mac?”
Standing, I brushed my hands against each other. Ping and his knife buddy were turning the far corner. Lucille was giggling down at the sketch. A man in the crowd said, “Hey, it's her—her!” Even with chalk and working fast, there was a certain lush, sensuous quality to the lines. All factors considered, it was probably one of the best things I'd ever done. Not that I was thinking about that as I said gaily, “Nothing officer. I had that sudden artistic urge—couldn't hold it down.”
He put his hot face next to mine. “You smell sober and I don't see you begging. Come on, folks, break it up. Too hot to crowd around.” He scowled at me. “You—you're on the wrong street, get around the corner with the rest of them Village nuts and fairies waiting for the beach bus. Move on—before I work up a sweat running you in—man your size drawing on the sidewalk!” He called to one of the storekeepers standing in the doorway of his shop: “Artie, get me a pail of water, I'll wash this pin-up off.”
Ping and Shorty were not to be seen as I slowly started walking back up the street—Lucille at my side. I stopped a cab and she got in with me, handed me her purse. She said, “Told you to take this.”
I had the cabbie drive downtown as I opened the purse—there was a roll of bills and the .32 which had belonged to Gus. The sight of the gun made me trust Lucille—a little.
She wiped her nose, which was starting to run, whispered, “Let's get to someplace where I can use... soon! I'm starting to get sick.”
“Take it easy. You ever see the long and short guys before?”
“Once. Now wait, don't get me wrong, Tony, only time I saw them was when I was leaving my place—couple hours ago. They were coming into the building. Only noticed them because they are so short and long. That's the truth. I didn't bring them or...”
“Okay, okay.” There was a twitch in her right cheek, under the eye, and her face seemed to be aging by the second, the lips turning a cracked, dry red. Gus had said something about giving 'them' a feeler—it was possible Ping and Shorty had come for Gus, found the door locked—figured the girl passing them on the stairs was Gus'... tailed her on the chance she'd bring them to me. It made as much sense as everything else I'd stepped into. Now, Ping and the runt knew what I looked like...
Passing a street of modern and ugly ranch houses, empty except for a few kids playing, I stopped the taxi. We walked through the street, turned a corner to another quiet block, over to a business street. I waited on the corner, to see if we were being followed.
Lucille begged, “Please, Tony, give me a sniff!”
“No. I'll give you some—soon.” I stopped another cab, and we drove downtown. Passing a cheap hotel, we left the cab at a movie house two blocks away. I bought two tickets and walked in with Lucille, turning as we reached the ticket-taker to make certain the taxi had driven off. In the darkness of the theatre, Lucille pressed her hands into her stomach, groaned, “Tony, I have the works in my bag... give me some stuff and in the ladies' room...”
“Too risky. Only be a few minutes more.”
“You have to!” I snapped, holding her arm firmly and walking out of the theatre. I registered at the flea-bag hotel as a Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Mason of Riverbays, rented a small room which was not only hot and stunk of strong insecticide, but on top of a record shop blaring out the same idiotic rock-and-roll song over and over. The moment the door closed, Lucille pulled a needle and bent spoon from her purse, reached for my blue duffel bag. Pushing her away, I opened it, let her take a very small pinch of the white powder. I had to help her down the hall to the John, couldn't bare to watch her make a fix. I returned to our stinking room, keeping the door open, an eye on the John. The gun in her bag was loaded and working. I slipped it into my back pocket. Counting Lucille's money—we had twenty-three dollars: I'd already spent seven of her bills for the room.
Minutes later she came down the hallway, actually looking fresh and bright. Locking the door, she bent over to kick off her high-heels. I watched the curve of solid hips under the dress. She said, “Now on, it's you and me, Tony.”
“Seems that way.”
“Tomorrow I'll find us a better pad.” She began to undress. “Honey, well make it just fine. I'll hustle us some money, and you have the bag of dreams. Plus, I go for you. Too bad you had to cut off all that swell, curly hair.”
She stood before me, naked and sweaty, symbolic of the farce and cruelty of sex the world over. The male always has to prove himself to the female, and I knew she was waiting—for me to prove Gus had been crazy calling me a swish. But the thought that I wasn't dependent upon her, her habit made her need me, in a sense forced her to prove herself to me... sent desire pounding through my body—my own type of cruel junk.
Throwing her on the bed, I tore off my clothes. Now that I was a murderer, there was little point in worrying about getting sick.
For the next five days Lucille and I settled into a convenient, and not entirely uncomfortable routine. We moved the following morning to another sleazy hotel in Brooklyn, still perfumed with sharp anti-bug odors, but the room was large and light, with a one-plate burner for cooking, and after the rock-and-roll racket of living over the record shop —seemed restfully quiet. Lucille made an arrangement with the lump-faced desk man, who was also the porter, and probably the owner, to turn a “few tricks” per day without having to walk the streets or solicit. As she happily explained, “Tony, all I have to do is knock off two guys a day—one for us and one for him. He'll send the tricks up, keep it quiet. It couldn't be better.”
But the desk man complained to me.; 'What's the matter with your broad? She's built to take it, and I can send her a dozen hot pants a day without attracting too much noise. No sense in her sitting on all that money.”
“She was in an accident, lost a lot of blood, has to rest up,” I told him, resisting the temptation to break his fat jaw.
Lucille seemed positively content. With ease and in a comparative few minutes she earned enough for our food, and a bottle, and of course I had 'stuff' to last her lifetime. Actually, she rarely left our room. Early in the morning I'd go out—never more than a block from the hotel—buy the papers, food, a bottle, and whatever paperback she wanted to read. We'd spend the rest of the day in the room, sleeping a lot, eating, drinking a good deal. At night, or whenever Lucille was with “clients,” I went up on the roof, to shadow-box and exercise —for some unknown reason.
I also worked-out often with Lucille. Being an untidy creature (her bra and panties were in worn shreds) she had this fetish about always being in the nude, ready with her corny, “As the wise man said, have fun: what else is there in life?” It was mostly clinical interest on my part, trying to decide if I really was arousing her, or if she was merely faking her passion. It's so damn much easier for the woman to fake it.
Although she still called me Tony, Lucille knew I was the artist the police were seeking and while she never mentioned it, we had some off-the-wall talks about art. I bought a cheap pad and a soft pencil, made dozens of sketches of every curve of her body, each feature in the wide face. She was a good model, rarely moving, but never very excited about the sketches. Of course I destroyed them the second they were finished. On Sunday, I made a collage with the colored comic pages and her nail polish—cutting out various shapes of colored paper, pasting them on a sheet of brown wrapping paper. I was trying to copy Nolde's Yellow and Red Sunflowers. The collage was a new form for me, a chance to use colors, and it all turned out pretty fair. When I showed it to Lucille she said. “The users call Sunday... death day: hard to get a fix. Tony, you ever exhibit in Washington Square? I went down last September to look at the pictures.”
“No real artist shows there.”
“I thought the pictures were good.”
I suddenly laughed, wondering why I was putting on an act now. “Sure, there's many damn fine artists showing there, along with the week-end dabblers. Tell you the truth, I never thought I was good enough to sell there, so I joined the sneerers.”
“You ever read Lust For Life? I got that as a free bonus when I joined the book club. That's about an artist and... You listening, Tony?”
Sometimes, half drunk, lazing around in bed with Lucille, I had a feeling of retirement: this effortless life would last forever. But whether or not I wanted it to continue, I was well aware of a number of definite reasons why our days were numbered.
Mr. Ping and Shorty certainly were still on their deadly hunt for the three million bucks of 'boy' I was carrying around. For this reason I was glad Lucille never left the hotel: in the efficient business set-up of organized crime it would only be a simple matter of checking minor employees to locate a free-lance prostitute.
Nor was I forgetting the police. Although there wasn't anything in the papers about Gus being found, and even my name and the Al Foster killing had drifted toward the back pages and then vanished... any day now the putrid odor which was Gus might escape the camphor bag tomb. Or in a few weeks the janitor would break in to evict Lucille. Once Gus's remains were found, a police dragnet would bag Lucille in short order.
Plus there was always the chance the police had my description by now, might collar me when I left the hotel for my brief shopping walks.
But there was a more important reason why it couldn't last—I didn't want it to! Being a pimp wasn't my idea of any last stop. Oh, I held no illusions about myself, knew the art world would never miss me, but before I'd fed my ego a number of excuses—half believed them. I was merely 'borrowing' money from women for the sake of my 'art.' Or, seducing a few dollars from a babe was cushioned by the rational that she needed the bed work, I was but giving her therapy. Or, it could be as simple as thinking she could well afford to part with a few hundred.
But now, minus any possible self-delusion, I was a pimp. For Lucille it was a job. Once she told me, “Don't act so damn fussy... Suppose you worked at cleaning cesspools, or collecting garbage—when you finished for the day, the dirty work angle would be forgotten. Think of it like that, Tony.”
The sordid aspect was far too real for me to kid myself. Once, waiting out in the hallway I heard Lucille scream: her 'client' had the perverted idea one of her nipples was a cigarette, was trying to light it. I had to bust in, throw the bed bug out.
I still had hopes of making enough money to return to painting on some clean beach—but faced this contradiction: it wasn't safe for Lucille to leave the hotel, yet she was my only possible contact with any dope ring. The one time she left the place, at my urging to see if she could recognize local users—make a contact... Lucille returned with a package of wheat germ and other crap she'd purchased in a health store. When I accused her of not trying, certain if she had needed a fix, she would have made a connection—somehow—Lucille answered it was impossible without returning to her old “turf,” the hangouts where she knew the pushers, and was known.
While this made sense, I also felt she was stalling —she was stealing from my bag: only a few ounces of the stuff but enough to make 'caps' and 'decks' to last her a long time. Except for the fear of Gus' corpse being found, Lucille had a fine thing going, didn't see any reason to risk ruining it by leaving the hotel.
I tried every means I knew to make her find a way of selling the damn heroin—even the charm pitch... daydreams about us going to Mexico or Haiti, where she would kick the habit, then we'd marry, have kids. But I wasn't a convincing enough liar, never got to her.
Actually I doubted Lucille really wanted to break her habit, despite becoming hysterical with self-pity at times, swearing up and down she loved me, that I was the only jasper to ever 'move' her... sexually. But at other times she wanted to turn me on, urging me to try a shot. “Tony, there's nothing in this dirty world as wonderful... as exciting... so different...”
I even told her of Nice's clean, rocky beach, the lush and sophisticated life of the Riviera... ended feeling more dirty and homesick for Nice myself. Every breath of the funky, insecticide hotel air made me remember the good air, the soft flower colors of the Cote D'Azur.
The seventh day we were at the hotel turned out so muggy I felt smothered in the dirt, simply had to get away. Although it was risky as hell, I couldn't stand it any more—decided to take a cab to the Long Island railroad station at Atlantic Avenue, spend the day at some quiet beach. Lucille thought I was nuts, but since I took the duffel bag with me, she went along.
We went out to Jones Beach, rented suits and towels, had lunch, and started walking along the beach. We reached an isolated spot not too near a few scattered summer houses, where we were able to sleep in the shade of a dune, even take a fast, nude, swim. It was a peaceful, wonderful afternoon, made me feel as if I was living again. Lucille got a bad bum and I had to rub her down with oil. Then she had to spoil things by giving herself a fix. It seemed to me she was “bombing” herself more frequently the last few days. Even though she was hidden by the ridge of the dune, I saw the spot where she'd cleaned the hypo needle of blood—a red smudge in the sand—which I washed away with sea water. It left me all the more determined to sell the junk for whatever I could safely get, somehow breakout from my state of stinking helplessness.
Returning to the heat and smell of the hotel early in the evening, the desk clerk—my partner in pimping—was highly indignant at Lucille having been gone all day. “Two Johns were back—that's where the real loot is, a steady trade of weekly repeaters—and where is your broad—putting her hips down on some sand instead of on her bed! Tony, I can tell you're new at this, wise up. Make her work! With your looks, go out more, break in another gal, get yourself a stable of hustlers.”
“Relax. She may be forced to lay... off... for a few days. Bad sunburn on her back.”
He shook his thick head, sighed. “You'd think a whore's back would be the last place she'd let be damaged.”
“Occupational hazard,” I told him, playing it straight-faced. The sun had left us both bushed and after rubbing her red back down, we turned in early. About an hour later, the desk man knocked on the door, told Lucille one of her customers, a little fish-eyed slob of an old goat, was willing to pay thirty dollars for a session. “When I told him your back was raw... he got all excited, upped the pay.”
“Nothing doing,” I mumbled, still in bed.
“Send him up—in a minute,” Lucille said, yawning as she shut the door. “Tony, wait in the can for a few minutes. That's all it will take to...”
“Tell him to go to hell!”
“What for? We haven't turned a dime all day. Thirty bucks—almost puts me in the call girl bracket.”
“We can't get a decent night's sleep without some goddamn pest bothering us!”
“This pest is parting with thirty pieces of bread. Anyway, no point in getting the hotel manager sore, ruining our set-up. Stop making such a fuss and get going.” Lucille stretched, like a pitcher warming up.
“I'm in no mood to wait out in any damn hall!”
“Stop pouting about nothing, Tony. When you come back, as the wise man said...”
“Oh shut up.” Taking my duffel bag, cursing her and the world in general, I walked down the hall to the can—which smelled like yesterday's vomit— wondering what I was doing in this hell. Granted I was a lousy artist, I was an artist, not a two-bit panderer! Of course, at the moment I was an artist-murderer.
Standing around the horrid john—far worse than the one in madame's stinking hotel—I raged at Lucille for not making a connection so I could unload the damn junk. Was she really trying, or stalling to hold on to me and my bag? If...
Hearing our door open down the hall, I stepped out to see this plump old gent spryly heading for the stairs, happy grin on his moist face, coat buttoned cockeyed. I glared at him. I looked silly, coming out of the toilet wearing only shorts, carrying a duffel bag... but when the old windbreaker smirked at me I damn near booted him down the steps; managed instead to rush to the hall window, stare at the dull, dark street until I cooled off.
When I entered our room Lucille was sprawled on the sheet—messy from the lotion on her back—snoring lightly. The place had this peculiar heavy odor. Staring at her gross body, the hideous darkness of the vein in her left arm—I knew I simply couldn't take this much longer. I tried to tell myself murderers and dope carriers couldn't be choosey, but it didn't help—I had to break out of this sewer.
When I hit the damp bed, like a robot Lucille rolled over to press her hot breasts against me, still snoring. I pushed her away hard, moved to the coolest spot I could find on the sheet, tried to sleep. I had this crazy dream where I was riding a scooter on the road to Monte Carlo, somebody sitting behind me, their arms hugging my stomach. Passing the old villas and the new modern ones, the camping sites, I'd turn now and then to say something to my rider. But the rider was never the same person: like a game, I'd turn to see Syd, or Noel, Amy, a naked Lucille... and once it was Hank holding me.
When I awoke the morning was terribly hot and humid. Lucille was making coffee, in the nude as usual, looking greasy and unbathed. Dressing, I went down to buy the paper, some rolls and jam. Returning to the room I found her sitting by the window, reading a book, scratching her breasts and rump now and then, like a pleased cow. Putting my duffel bag and packages down, I thumbed through the paper as Lucille said, “The coffee is done.” She didn't even glance up from her book.
There wasn't anything in the paper. Taking her purse from the drawer, I pulled out three five dollar bills, announced: “Get dressed, we're going to the beach.”
“Again? Tony, do you think it's wise?”
“I think it's very wise—and damn necessary!” I snapped.
“Being out on the street... Also, my back is still red...”
“You weren't worrying about your back last night, with that old pig! More sun will help your skin, make it brown. Stay here, if you wish!”
As she slipped on her dress and shoes. I told myself if the desk moron said a word, I'd break his nose.
But he wasn't around, probably in the can sipping his wine, and we managed to sit in an air-conditioned car on the Long Island railroad, so by the time we reached Wantagh, and finally Jones Beach, I was in a better mood. In fact I was so relaxed, I almost forgot about the police. Still, minus her harsh make-up Lucille looked different, and with my hair cut so short... we were fairly safe. Renting suits again, we had a glass of beer and hot dogs, then strolled along the beach to 'our' deserted dunes. I took a swim while Lucille sat on the edge of the sand like a big baby, let the waves wash her off, then we slept for an hour or so. She started reading a book she'd picked up on the way out, while I stared at the mixed-green of the Atlantic, remembering the clean, ultramarine blue of the Mediterranean, wishing I had oils and a canvas with me, dared use them. Some teenagers appeared on the beach, near us, and laying on top of the dune—the hot sun soothing on my back—I watched them horse around in the water with their fins and aqualungs.
When they left I went back to sleep until Lucille gently shook me awake. With her skin taking on a reddish-brown tan, glistening with lotions and oils, the dark hair, she looked quite charming and almost South Pacific-ish. “Tony, it's after three—how much longer are we staying here?”
Blinking at a pastel rainbow in the salt haze, I felt of the duffel bag tied to my right hand, stretched, and then slapped her backside. “Still hot, might as well make a day of it. Leave around six, safer to be in the crowd.”
“I'm hungry, give me a couple of bucks. What do you want to eat?”
“Hamburger, pie, and a beer,” I said, reaching for my pants, giving her three singles. “Long walk back to the snack bar.”
“I don't mind. My eyes are too tired to read, and I am hungry.”
“Me too—hurry back.
For a time I watched her walk the beach, the strong movement of hips and sturdy legs. I took a swim, enjoyed the sheer luxury of urinating on the empty beach. I tried skimming stones in the waves, took another dip and dried off, went back to the slight shade between the dunes, read Lucille's book. I gave up after a few pages and watched the waves, childishly wishing there was a secret tunnel in the Atlantic to take me... anywhere.
Getting thirsty, I stuck my head out to look for Lucille. She was down the beach, walking along the water's edge, carrying a paper bag of food... about a hundred yards behind her was a tall, thin man wearing a straw hat, a short, squatty, bareheaded man. There was no doubting they were Ping and the knife runt! Nor could there be any doubt about Lucille knowing she was being followed—only the three of them on that stretch of the beach and the two goons stood out—they were completely dressed.
It was too late for me to run—be a stand-out target myself if I moved.
Cursing her for selling me out, I picked up the duffel bag, crawled around the back end of the dune: then ducking-walking like we used to do in football training, I reached a dune farther down. Pulling Gus' gun from the duffel bag, I waited. I was neither excited nor cool—but absolutely impersonal about it all. I decided to gun Ping down first, then the knife-thrower, and Lucille last. But as she came nearer I noticed that if her hips still had a gay swing, her face was tense and strained.
When Lucille walked past 'our' dune, a sort of wild joy filled my throat—she wasn't crossing me!
Knowing she was being followed, Lucille was deliberately walking on, taking the killers with her— and away from me. Mixed with my joy was cold anger plus a kind of twisted logic: here was the answer to my tangle—I'd knock off Ping and Shorty, then—assuming the police still hadn't found the camphor bag full of Gassy Gus, Lucille would have a few hours, even a day or two, to chance returning to her old hangouts, make the connection for the sale of my bag.
Holding the gun in my left, I carefully dried my right hand on my chest hair, then gripped the gun firmly again. The top of the dunes were too far for an accurate pistol shot—at least two hundred feet from the water's edge where they were walking. Leaving the blue duffel bag, I came around the side of the dune as Lucille and the two goons passed. Walking silently on the sand, I followed them, holding my breath as best I could. When about seventy-five feet behind, I called out, “Keep your hands in sight!”
My voice was crisp, even tough. They both stopped abruptly, didn't turn. Lucille began circling back—keeping out of the way. Ping had a corny loud sport shirt over the top of grey slacks—obviously covering a hip holster. Never taking my eyes off Ping's hands, I came up behind Shorty, kicked the back of his left knee.
As the runt went sprawling on his face, Ping spun around, right hand going for his shirt tails. I fired once at his gut, raced toward him as he went over backwards—shot him again in the side of his peanut head at almost point blank range: his ear seemed to jump, then gush blood. Spinning around like a Western TV hero, I shot Shorty still on his knees, knife hand raised to throw. The slug tore into his wide chest. Dropping the knife, he knelt with his right hand still in the air—as if praying—fell over on his face.
Lucille came running. “Tony! Tony! I knew they'd spotted me, but there wasn't anything I could do but keep walking in this direction...!”
“Keep still!” Glancing around carefully, I studied the beach. There wasn't a soul in sight, the sounds of the waves had smothered the barking of the gun. Ping's head was a stepped-on tomato, Shorty's puss was buried in the hot sand.
Picking up his knife, I hurled it into the ocean. Turning to Lucille, who was clutching her belly and throwing up, I said softly, “Babes, back of that dune is the bag—get it. Fast!”
Nodding, she staggered over to the sand dune. I kept looking up and down the beach: the bathers far down on Jones Beach were spots on the sand: if only nobody came by within the next few minutes we'd be okay.
Face pale with hysteria and fright, Lucille walked toward me, dragging the blue bag behind her in the sand. Shoving the gun in the crotch of my swim shorts, I grabbed the bag with my left hand, told her, “Come on, get a hold of your nerves —well make it okay! Help me pull these stiffs behind the dune.”
I took Shorty's foot with my right hand, Lucille picked up his other leg. We started dragging him across the beach, toward the dune.
“I... I... can't...” she gasped, dropping Shorty's leg and throwing up again. Leaving the duffel bag, I took both of the runt's thick legs, pulled him up and over the dune. Then I ran down and stepped between Ping's long legs, grabbed his ankles, pulled him up the hill of sand. Reaching the top of the dune, I heard Lucille running behind me, mumbling, “So much blood...”
I turned to grin coldly at her. “Don't worry, hon, the tide's coming in, wash it all away... soon.”
The last word died in my open mouth. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Shorty up on one elbow, blood gushing out of his shirt, a large ugly .45 held by both hands. I flung Ping toward him, tried to push Lucille back as I made a tackle-dive for him... seemed to hit a wall of orange flame making me do a back flip in mid-air. I found myself sitting on the sand above him, sure he'd missed me... until a fiery wind swept through my guts, a dry scream actually whistled up my throat. In a daze I heard another roar of thunder, a hot flash zinged by my face... Lucille came tumbling down near me, one breast hanging out of her burnt bathing suit: horrible piece of bloody raw meat.
Digging my left hand through the fire in my belly, I found the .32—turned to face Shorty. He was glaring at me with cold, childish-large eyes, trying to raise the heavy .45 with trembling hands. I couldn't move my legs... falling on my face, left hand extended until it was inches from the bastard's head, I pulled the trigger until there wasn't any more thunder... nor much left of his stupid face.
Staring at the mess of hair, blood, crushed skull and pink brains, I whispered, “Little... smart sonofabitch... you had a gun... too,” as if Shorty could hear me. A clawing, searing pain reached for my wild heart. I had this feeling of flying straight up... like a rocket... crashing through misty rainbows of sad soft colors...
I passed out in a burning red wave.
It was the most exciting canvas—mild blue shot through with streaks of gold wash. “How... can you... have a gold... wash?” I asked. It took a vague moment to finally realize I was on my back, seeing the sky. It took a far longer moment to believe I was still alive. I felt weightless—as if from the chest up I was a balloon drifting in air. Every few seconds the wind scooped me up so high and far, I seemed lost in this delicate baby blue fog.
Then I'd surface down to reality, regain consciousness. I moved my head, a mighty effort but little pain. From the top of my chest down I felt drugged... drugged; hell of a thing to say. Examining the sky again I knew several hours had passed.
Pushing my elbows into the sand, I propped myself up—with only one dizzy stab of pain. For a second I thought Lucille had vomited on my lap. Then I realized—minus any horror and with only a detached curiosity—I was looking at my own entrails hanging out. Lord, what ugly stuffing! Turning my head away, I saw Ping and Shorty already had the indifferent placidity of death, the stiff lines of...
There was a small, dry sound behind me. Putting my head far back against the sand as possible, I could see Lucille. She was lying stomach down on the crest of the dune, making animal coughs. Her legs were painted with dried and bright fresh blood. I stared at her for a long time; blood on her hands and swim suit, bloody bosom, on her dark hair. Her face—what I could see of it—looked ancient and wrinkled. But the eyes were glassy-bright, very alive—eyebrows still pretty. She was gazing straight ahead with great effort, making her pathetic barks, as if her mouth was full of sand.
Digging in with my elbows I started to move up toward her...on my back, head first. Oh, this was a gigantic task... and a dozen times I drifted up into the sky to rest, float around. But, after a long, long time, I made the top of the dune, was gasping beside her. “Lucille... honey... hon...”
I could hear myself talking—from a great distance—but she never even glanced at me. For a long moment I had to rest, studying the deeper gold in the sky... now. Really, a marvelous shade. Working with my right elbow only, I managed to turn on my side—at least my shoulders and head turned... the rest of my numb body was left someplace behind.
Lucille's face was so close to mine I could hear her rasping breath, but she never once moved her eyes from what she was staring down at.
On the beach in front of us, a plump and over-blonde housewife type in a red bathing suit, was sitting on a green beach chair, facing the ocean as she read a newspaper.
Much nearer to the advancing foamy water struggling up and down the beach, a little boy of about four was building a fine sand castle. He was a skinny kid wearing cute blue trunks, had the woman's yellow hair. Both he and mama sported a good tan. The castle was certainly a remarkable affair, complete in detail to towers, turrets, and even wall openings for the archers.
A foot or so to one side of the kid was my blue duffel hag and towel, the powdered-white heroin spilling all around it. I wondered, vaguely, if the plastic inner bag had torn while Lucille had been dragging it through the sand, or had the little boy opened the bag?
With great care the boy was placing a handful of junk on top of a tower, keeping an eye on the advancing tide. He was a smart kid, topping the rest of the castle with the stuff, the white making a neat contrast to the grey-brown sand.
When the boy used up as much of the seven kilos of horse as he could scoop up from the damp sand, he brushed his hands, called out, “Mommy, come see my white castle.”
“Yes, dear,” the bitch called out, too bored to look up from her paper. “It's very nice. The tide is almost full, means it's nearly six; we'll have to leave soon. Daddy will be home before us.”
Lucille made this tearing-barking sound again. Was she crying at the loss of the dope, or trying to call for help? Who wanted help with two corpses behind us to explain?
She cried out again. Raising my left hand high in the air, I let it drop on Lucille's sticky head. Gently as possible, until the rasping barks stopped.
The last press on her head sent me sailing into the air. Closing my tired eyes, I waited for the slow descent to consciousness. It took a very long time and when I opened my eyes, the sun, the beach, and the white castle seemed behind a faint gauze screen. It was a wonderful effect—I could see each delicate detail of the tiny square lines of the gauze.
The woman had her beach chair and the paper under one arm, was holding the boy with the other. She was actually an awful pot, the bathing suit a number of sloppy, fat curves. Yanking at the boy's hand, she said, “Oh, come on.”
“Wait, Mommy.” He was looking at the pretty castle.
“Come on. Watch now, this wave will do it.”
In the haze I saw the white castle, the junkie castle, standing bravely against the onrushing foamy thin water. The ocean, with military strategy, surrounded the castle, rushed down on it from the vulnerable rear.
Somehow, it was the most beautiful sight Td ever seen. The castle crumbled as the waves raced back to the ocean. A thunder of foam sent another front line of water charging up the beach, this one practically leveled the castle, leaving only one turret standing—a turret sparkling pure white in the dying sun.
The woman said, “Let's go.”
The kid began crying. “My castle! My castle is gone!”
She yanked at his arm. “Daddy has a fit if he's home before us, waits two lousy minutes for his supper. Now come on, you'll build a better castle tomorrow.”
They walked along the beach, the weeping boy twisting to look at the remains of his castle. Watching them, I wanted to shout, “You're so wrong... mama. He'll never build a better castle, that was a three million buck toy... he had. An historic castle tracing... tracing... its... evil past back all of six or eight days... to a casino in... Nice. Place a twenty franc chip... on...3... end up dead on Jones... Beach...“
I suddenly orbited, the sky a blaze of livid gold. The air became too thin for my lungs, began slicing at my throat like a slim knife. Gasping, I kept looking down, staring at the little white turret—now so tiny—but bravely fighting the greedy waves. It... seemed so terribly... important... to keep it in... sight...for as... long... as...I... could.