Don’t Look Behind You
by Fredric Brown
Just sit back and relax, now. Try to enjoy this; it’s going be the last story you ever read, or nearly the last. After you finish it you can sit there and stall a while, you can find excuses to hang around your house, or your room, or your office, wherever you’re reading this; but sooner or later you’re going to have to get up and go out. That’s where I’m waiting for you: outside. Or maybe closer than that. Maybe in this room.
You think that’s a joke of course. You think this is just a story in a book, and that I don’t really mean you. Keep right on thinking so. But be fair; admit that I’m giving you fair warning.
Harley bet me I couldn’t do it. He bet me a diamond he’s told me about, a diamond as big as his head. So you see why I’ve got to kill you. And why I’ve got to tell you how and why and all about it first. That’s part of the bet. It’s just the kind of idea Harley would have.
I’ll tell you about Harley first. He’s tall and handsome, and suave and cosmopolitan. He looks something like Ronald Coleman, only he’s taller. He dresses like a million dollars, but it wouldn’t matter if he didn’t; I mean that he’d look distinguished in overalls. There’s a sort of magic about Harley, a mocking magic in the way he looks at you; it makes you think of palaces and far-off countries and bright music.
It was in Springfield, Ohio, that he met Justin Dean. Justin was a funny-looking little runt who was just a printer. He worked for the Atlas Printing Engraving Company. He was a very ordinary little guy, just about as different as possible from Harley; you couldn’t pick two men more different. He was only thirty-five, but he was mostly bald already, and he had to wear thick glasses because he’d worn out his eyes doing fine printing and engraving. He was a good printer and engraver; I’ll say that for him.
I never asked Harley how he happened to come to Springfield, but the day he got there, after he’d checked in at the Castle Hotel, he stopped in at Atlas to have some calling cards made. It happened that Justin Dean was alone in the shop at the time, and he took Harley’s order for the cards; Harley wanted engraved ones, the best. Harley always wants the best of everything.
Harley probably didn’t even notice Justin; there was no reason why he should have. But Justin noticed Harley all right, and in him he saw everything that he himself would like to be, and never would be, because most of the things Harley has, you have to be born with.
And Justin made the plates for the cards himself and printed them himself, and he did a wonderful job—something he thought would be worthy of a man like Harley Prentice. That was the name engraved on the card, just that and nothing else, as all really important people have their cards engraved.
He did fine-line work on it, freehand cursive style, and used all the skill he had. It wasn’t wasted, because the next day when Harley called to get the cards he held one and stared at it for a while, and then he looked at Justin, seeing him for the first time. He asked, “Who did this?”
And little Justin told him proudly who had done it, and Harley smiled at him and told him it was the work of an artist, and he asked Justin to have dinner with him that evening after work, in the Blue Room of the Castle Hotel.
That’s how Harley and Justin got together, but Harley was careful. He waited until he’d known Justin a while before he asked him whether or not he could make plates for five and ten dollar bills. Harley had the contacts; he could market the bills in quantity with men who specialized in passing them, and—most important—he knew where he could get paper with the silk threads in it, paper that wasn’t quite the genuine thing, but was close enough to pass inspection by anyone but an expert.
So Justin quit his job at Atlas and he and Harley went to New York, and they set up a little printing shop as a blind, on Amsterdam Avenue south of Sherman Square, and they worked at the bills. Justin worked hard, harder than he had ever worked in his life, because besides working on the plates for the bills, he helped meet expenses by handling what legitimate printing work came into the shop.
He worked day and night for almost a year, making plate after plate, and each one was a little better than the last, and finally he had plates that Harley said were good enough. That night they had dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria to celebrate and after dinner they went the rounds of the best night clubs, and it cost Harley a small fortune, but that didn’t matter because they were going to get rich.
They drank champagne, and it was the first time Justin ever drank champagne and he got disgustingly drunk and must have made quite a fool of himself. Harley told him about it afterwards, but Harley wasn’t mad at him. He took him back to his room at the hotel and put him to bed, and Justin was pretty sick for a couple of days. But that didn’t matter, either, because they were going to get rich.
Then Justin started printing bills from the plates, and they got rich. After that, Justin didn’t have to work so hard, either, because he turned down most jobs that came into the print shop, told them he was behind schedule and couldn’t handle any more. He took just a little work, to keep up a front. And behind the front, he made five and ten dollar bills, and he and Harley got rich.
He got to know other people whom Harley knew. He met Bull Mallon, who handled the distribution end. Bull Mallon was built like a bull, that was why they called him that. He had a face that never smiled or changed expression at all except when he was holding burning matches to the soles of Justin’s bare feet. But that wasn’t then; that was later, when he wanted Justin to tell him where the plates were.
And he got to know Captain John Willys of the Police Department, who was a friend of Harley’s, to whom Harley gave quite a bit of the money they made, but that didn’t matter either, because there was plenty left and they all got rich. He met a friend of Harley’s who was a big star of the stage, and one who owned a big New York newspaper. He got to know other people equally important, but in less respectable ways.
Harley, Justin knew, had a hand in lots of other enterprises besides the little mint on Amsterdam Avenue. Some of these ventures took him out of town, usually over weekends. And the weekend that Harley was murdered Justin never found out what really happened, except that Harley went away and didn’t come back. Oh, he knew that he was murdered, all right, because the police found his body— with three bullet holes in his chest—in the most expensive suite of the best hotel in Albany. Even for a place to be found dead in Harley Prentice had chosen the best.
All Justin ever knew about it was that a long distance call came to him at the hotel where he was staying, the night that Harley was murdered—it must have been a matter of minutes, in fact, before the time the newspapers said Harley was killed.
It was Harley’s voice on the phone, and his voice was debonair and unexcited as ever. But he said, “Justin? Get to the shop and get rid of the plates, the paper, everything. Right away. I’ll explain when I see you.” He waited only until Justin said, “Sure, Harley,” and then he said, “Attaboy,” and hung up.
Justin hurried around to the printing shop and got the plates and the paper and a few thousand dollars’ worth of counterfeit bills that were on hand. He made the paper and bills into one bundle and the copper plates into another, smaller one, and he left the shop with no evidence that it had ever been a mint in miniature.
He was very careful and very clever in disposing of both bundles. He got rid of the big one first by checking in at a big hotel, not one he or Harley ever stayed at, under a false name, just to have a chance to put the big bundle in the incinerator there. It was paper and it would burn. And he made sure there was a fire in the incinerator before he dropped it down the chute.
The plates were different. They wouldn’t burn, he knew, so he took a trip to Staten Island and back on the ferry and, somewhere out in the middle of the bay, he dropped the bundle over the side into the water.
Then, having done what Harley had told him to do, and having done it well and thoroughly, he went back to the hotel—his own hotel, not the one where he had dumped the paper and the bills—and went to sleep.
In the morning he read in the newspapers that Harley had been killed, and he was stunned. It didn’t seem possible. He couldn’t believe it; it was a joke someone was playing on him. Harley would come back to him, he knew. And he was right; Harley did, but that was later, in the swamp.
But anyway, Justin had to know, so he took the very next train for Albany. He must have been on the train when the police went to his hotel, and at the hotel they must have learned he’d asked at the desk about trains for Albany, because they were waiting for him when he got off the train there.
They took him to a station and they kept him there a long long time, days and days, asking him questions. They found out, after a while, that he couldn’t have killed Harley because he’d been in New York City at the time Harley was killed in Albany but they knew also that he and Harley had been operating the little mint, and they thought that might be a lead to who killed Harley, and they were interested in the counterfeiting, too, maybe even more than in the murder. They asked Justin Dean questions, over and over and over, and he couldn’t answer them, so he didn’t. They kept him awake for days at a time, asking him questions over and over. Most of all they wanted to know where the plates were. He wished he could tell them that the plates were safe where nobody could ever get them again, but he couldn’t tell them that without admitting that he and Harley had been counterfeiting, so he couldn’t tell them.
They located the Amsterdam shop, but they didn’t find any evidence there, and they really had no evidence to hold Justin on at all, but he didn’t know that, and it never occurred to him to get a lawyer.
He kept wanting to see Harley, and they wouldn’t let him; then, when they learned he really didn’t believe Harley could be dead, they made him look at a dead man they said was Harley, and he guessed it was, although Harley looked different dead. He didn’t look magnificent, dead. And Justin believed, then, but still didn’t believe. And after that he just went silent and wouldn’t say a word, even when they kept him awake for days and days with a bright light in his eyes, and kept slapping him to keep him awake. They didn’t use clubs or rubber hoses, but they slapped him a million times and wouldn’t let him sleep. And after a while he lost track of things and couldn’t have answered their questions even if he’d wanted to.
For a while after that, he was in a bed in a white room, and all he remembers about that are nightmares he had, and calling for Harley and an awful confusion as to whether Harley was dead or not, and then things came back to him gradually and he knew he didn’t want to stay in the white room; he wanted to get out so he could hunt for Harley. And if Harley was dead, he wanted to kill whoever had killed Harley, because Harley would have done the same for him.
So he began pretending, and acting, very cleverly, the way the doctors and nurses seemed to want him to act, and after a while they gave him his clothes and let him go.
He was becoming cleverer now. He thought, What would Harley tell me to do? And he knew they’d try to follow him because they’d think he might lead them to the plates, which they didn’t know were at the bottom of the bay, and he gave them the slip before he left Albany, and he went first to Boston, and from there by boat to New York, instead of going direct.
He went first to the print shop, and went in the back way after watching the alley for a long time to be sure the place wasn’t guarded. It was a mess; they must have searched it very thoroughly for the plates.
Harley wasn’t there, of course. Justin left and from a phone booth in a drugstore he telephoned their hotel and asked for Harley and was told Harley no longer lived there; and to be clever and not let them guess who he was, he asked for Justin Dean, and they said Justin Dean didn’t live there any more either.
Then he moved to a different drugstore and from there he decided to call up some friends of Harley’s, and he phoned Bull Mallon first and because Bull was a friend, he told him who he was and asked if he knew where Harley was.
Bull Mallon didn’t pay any attention to that; he sounded excited, a little, and he asked, “Did the cops get the plates, Dean?” and Justin said they didn’t, that he wouldn’t tell them, and he asked again about Harley.
Bull asked, “Are you nuts, or kidding?” And Justin just asked him again, and Bull’s voice changed and he said, “Where are you?” and Justin told him. Bull said, “Harley’s here. He’s staying under cover, but it’s all right if you know, Dean. You wait right there at the drugstore, and we’ll come and get you.”
They came and got Justin, Bull Mallon and two other men in a car, and they told him Harley was hiding out way deep in New Jersey and that they were going to drive there now. So he went along and sat in the back seat between two men he didn’t know, while Bull Mallon drove.
It was late afternoon then, when they picked him up, and Bull drove all evening and most of the night and he drove fast, so he must have gone farther than New Jersey, at least into Virginia or maybe farther, into the Carolinas. The sky was getting faintly gray with first dawn when they stopped at a rustic cabin that looked like it had been used as a hunting lodge. It was miles from anywhere, there wasn’t even a road leading to it, just a trail that was level enough for the car to be able to make it.
They took Justin into the cabin and tied him to a chair, and they told him Harley wasn’t there, but Harley had told them that Justin would tell them where the plates were, and he couldn’t leave until he did tell.
Justin didn’t believe them; he knew then that they’d tricked him about Harley, but it didn’t matter, as far as the plates were concerned. It didn’t matter if he told them what he’d done with the plates, because they couldn’t get them again, and they wouldn’t tell the police. So he told them, quite willingly.
But they didn’t believe him. They said he’d hidden the plates and was lying. They tortured him to make him tell. They beat him, and they cut him with knives, and they held burning matches and lighted cigars to the soles of his feet, and they pushed needles under his fingernails. Then they’d rest and ask him questions and if he could talk, he’d tell them the truth, and after a while they’d start to torture him again.
It went on for days and weeks—Justin doesn’t know how long, but it was a long time. Once they went away for several days and left him tied up with nothing to eat or drink. They came back and started in all over again. And all the time he hoped Harley would come to help him, but Harley didn’t come, not then.
After a while what was happening in the cabin ended, or anyway he didn’t know any more about it. They must have thought he was dead; maybe they were right, or anyway not far from wrong.
The next thing he knows was the swamp. He was lying in shallow water at the edge of deeper water. His face was out of the water; it woke him when he turned a little and his face went under. They must have thought him dead and thrown him into the water, but he had floated into the shallow part before he had drowned, and a last flicker of consciousness had turned him over on his back with his face out.
I don’t remember much about Justin in the swamp; it was a long time, but I just remember flashes of it. I couldn’t move at first; I just lay there in the shallow water with my face out. It got dark and it got cold, I remember, and finally my arms would move a little and I got farther out of the water, lying in the mud with only my feet in the water. I slept or was unconscious again and when I woke up it was getting gray dawn, and that was when Harley came. I think I’d been calling him, and he must have heard.
He stood there, dressed as immaculately and perfectly as ever, right in the swamp, and he was laughing at me for being so weak and lying there like a log, half in the dirty water and half in the mud, and I got up and nothing hurt any more.
We shook hands and he said, “Come on, Justin, let’s get you out of here,” and I was so glad he’d come that I cried a little. He laughed at me for that and said I should lean on him and he’d help me walk, but I wouldn’t do that, because I was coated with mud and filth of the swamp and he was so clean and perfect in a white linen suit, like an ad in a magazine. And all the way out of that swamp, all the days and nights we spent there, he never even got mud on his trouser cuffs, nor his hair mussed.
I told him just to lead the way, and he did, walking just ahead of me, sometimes turning around, laughing and talking to me and cheering me up. Sometimes I’d fall but I wouldn’t let him come back and help me. But he’d wait patiently until I could get up. Sometimes I’d crawl instead when I couldn’t stand up any more. Sometimes I’d have to swim streams that he’d leap lightly across.
And it was day and night and day and night, and sometimes I’d sleep, and things would crawl across me. And some of them I caught and ate, or maybe I dreamed that. I remember other things, in that swamp, like an organ that played a lot of the time, and sometimes angels in the air and devils in the water, but those were delirium, I guess.
Harley would say, “A little farther, Justin; we’ll make it. And we’ll get back at them, at all of them.”
And we made it. We came to dry fields, cultivated fields with waist-high corn, but there weren’t ears on the corn for me to eat. And then there was a stream, a clear stream that wasn’t stinking water like the swamp, and Harley told me to wash myself and my clothes and I did, although I wanted to hurry on to where I could get food.
I still looked pretty bad; my clothes were clean of mud and filth but they were mere rags and wet, because I couldn’t wait for them to dry, and I had a ragged beard and I was barefoot.
But we went on and came to a little farm building, just a two-room shack, and there was a smell of fresh bread just out of an oven, and I ran the last few yards to knock on the door. A woman, an ugly woman, opened the door and when she saw me she slammed it again before I could say a word.
Strength came to me from somewhere, maybe from Harley, although I can’t remember him being there just then. There was a pile of kindling logs beside the door. I picked one of them up as though it were no heavier than a broomstick, and I broke down the door and killed the woman. She screamed a lot, but I killed her. Then I ate the hot fresh bread.
I watched from the window as I ate, and saw a man running across the field toward the house. I found a knife, and I killed him as he came in at the door. It was much better, killing with the knife; I liked it that way.
I ate more bread, and kept watching from all the windows, but no one else came. Then my stomach hurt from the hot bread I’d eaten and I had to lie down, doubled up, and when the hurting quit, I slept.
Harley woke me up, and it was dark. He said, “Let’s get going; you should be far away from here before it’s daylight.”
I knew he was right, but I didn’t hurry away. I was becoming, as you see, very clever now. I knew there were things to do first. I found matches and a lamp, and lighted the lamp. Then I hunted through the shack for everything I could use. I found clothes of the man, and they fitted me—not too badly except that I had to turn up the cuffs of the trousers and the shirt. His shoes were big, but that was good because my feet were so swollen.
I found a razor and shaved; it took a long time because my hand wasn’t steady, but I was very careful and didn’t cut myself much.
I had to hunt hardest for their money, but I found it finally. It was sixty dollars.
And I took the knife, after I had sharpened it. It isn’t fancy; just a bone-handled carving knife, but it’s good steel. I’ll show it to you, pretty soon now. It’s had a lot of use.
Then we left and it was Harley who told me to stay away from the roads, and find railroad tracks. That was easy because we heard a train whistle far off in the night and knew which direction the tracks lay. From then on, with Harley helping, it’s been easy.
You won’t need the details from here. I mean, about the brakeman, and about the tramp we found asleep in the empty reefer, and about the near thing I had with the police in Richmond. I learned from that; I learned I mustn’t talk to Harley when anybody else was around to hear. He hides himself from them; he’s got a trick and they don’t know he’s there, and they think I’m funny in the head if I talk to him. But in Richmond I bought better clothes and got a haircut and a man I killed in an alley had forty dollars on him, so I had money again. I’ve done a lot of traveling since then. If you stop to think you’ll know where I am right now.
I’m looking for Bull Mallon and the two men who helped him. Their names are Harry and Carl. I’m going to kill them when I find them. Harley keeps telling me that those fellows are big time and that I’m not ready for them yet. But I can be looking while I’m getting ready so I keep moving around. Sometimes I stay in one place long enough to hold a job as a printer for a while. I’ve learned a lot of things. I can hold a job and people don’t think I’m too strange; they don’t get scared when I look at them like they sometimes did a few months ago. And I’ve learned not to talk to Harley except in our own room and then only very quietly so people in the next room won’t think I’m talking to myself.
And I’ve kept in practice with the knife. I’ve killed lots of people with it, mostly on the streets at night. Sometimes because they look like they might have money on them, but mostly just for practice and because I’ve come to like doing it. I’m really good with the knife by now. You’ll hardly feel it.
But Harley tells me that kind of killing is easy and that it’s something else to kill a person who’s on guard, as Bull and Harry and Carl will be.
And that’s the conversation that led to the bet I mentioned. I told Harley that I’d bet him that, right now, I could warn a man I was going to use the knife on him and even tell him why and approximately when, and that I could still kill him. And he bet me that I couldn’t and he’s going to lose that bet.
He’s going to lose it because I’m warning you right now and you’re not going to believe me. I’m betting that you’re going to believe that this is just another story in a book. That you won’t believe that this is the only copy of this book that contains this story and that this story is true. Even when I tell you how it was done, I don’t think you’ll really believe me.
You see I’m putting it over on Harley, winning the bet, by putting it over on you. He never thought, and you won’t realize how easy it is for a good printer, who’s been a counterfeiter too, to counterfeit one story in a book. Nothing like as hard as counterfeiting a five dollar bill.
I had to pick a book of short stories and I picked this one because I happened to notice that the last story in the book was titled Don’t Look Behind You and that was going to be a good title for this. You’ll see what I mean in a few minutes.
I’m lucky that the printing shop I’m working for now does book work and had a type face that matches the rest of this book. I had a little trouble matching the paper exactly, but I finally did and I’ve got it ready while I’m writing this. I’m writing this directly on a linotype, late at night in the shop where I’m working days. I even have the boss’ permission, told him I was going to set up and print a story that a friend of mine had written, as a surprise for him, and that I’d melt the type metal back as soon as I’d printed one good copy.
When I finish writing this I’ll make up the type in pages to match the rest of the book and I’ll print it on the matching paper I have ready. I’ll cut the new pages to fit and bind them in; you won’t be able to tell the difference, even if a faint suspicion may cause you to look at it. Don’t forget I made five and ten dollar bills you couldn’t have told from the original, and this is kindergarten stuff compared to that job. And I’ve done enough bookbinding that I’ll be able to take the last story out of the book and bind this one in instead of it and you won’t be able to tell the difference no matter how closely you look. I’m going to do a perfect job of it if it takes me all night.
And tomorrow I’ll go to some bookstore, or maybe a newsstand or even a drugstore that sells books and has other copies of this book, ordinary copies, and I’ll plant this one there. I’ll find myself a good place to watch from, and I’ll be watching when you buy it.
The rest I can’t tell you yet because it depends a lot on circumstances, whether you went right home with the book or what you did. I won’t know till I follow you and keep watch till you read it—and I see that you’re reading the last story in the book.
If you’re home while you’re reading this, maybe I’m in the house with you right now. Maybe I’m in this very room, hidden, waiting for you to finish the story. Maybe I’m watching through a window. Or maybe I’m sitting near you on the streetcar or train, if you’re reading it there. Maybe I’m on the fire escape outside your hotel room. But wherever you’re reading it, I’m near you, watching and waiting for you to finish. You can count on that.
You’re pretty near the end now. You’ll be finished in seconds and you’ll close the book, still not believing. Or, if you haven’t read the stories in order, maybe you’ll turn back to start another story. If you do, you’ll never finish it.
But don’t look around; you’ll be happier if you don’t know, if you don’t see the knife coming. When I kill people from behind they don’t seem to mind so much.
Go on, just a few seconds or minutes, thinking this is just another story. Don’t look behind you. Don’t believe this— until you feel the knife.