/ Language: English / Genre:detective

The Best American Noir of the Century

James Ellroy

In his introduction to the The Best American Noir of the Century, James Ellroy writes, 'noir is the most scrutinized offshoot of the hard-boiled school of fiction. It's the long drop off the short pier and the wrong man and the wrong woman in perfect misalliance. It's the nightmare of flawed souls with big dreams and the precise how and why of the all-time sure thing that goes bad.' Offering the best examples of literary sure things gone bad, this collection ensures that nowhere else can readers find a darker, more thorough distillation of American noir fiction. James Ellroy and Otto Penzler, series editor of the annual The Best American Mystery Stories, mined one hundred years of writing - 1910-2010 - to find this treasure trove of thirty-nine stories. From noir's twenties-era infancy come gems like James M. Cain's 'Pastorale,' and its post-war heyday boasts giants like Mickey Spillane and Evan Hunter. Packing an undeniable punch, diverse contemporary incarnations include Elmore Leonard, Patricia Highsmith, Joyce Carol Oates, Dennis Lehane, and William Gay, with many page-turners appearing in the last decade.

The Best American Noir

of the Century

Edited by James Ellroy & Otto Penzler

1923 • TOD ROBBINS Spurs

1928 • JAMES M. CAIN Pastorale

1938 • STEVE FISHER You’ll Always Remember Me

1940 • MACKINLAY KANTOR Gun Crazy

1945 • DAY KEENE Nothing to Worry About

1946 • DOROTHY E. HUGHES The Homecoming

1952 • HOWARD BROWNE Man in the Dark

1953 • MICKEY SPILLANE The Lady Says Die!

1953 • DAVID GOODIS Professional Man

1956 • GIL BREWER The Gesture

1956 • EVAN HUNTER The Last Spin

1960 • JIM THOMPSON Forever After

1968 • CORNELL WOOLRICH For the Rest of Her Life

1972 • DAVID MORRELL The Dripping

1979 • PATRICIA HIGHSMITH Slowly, Slowly in the Wind

1984 • STEPHEN GREENLEAF Iris

1987 • BRENDAN DUBOIS A Ticket Out

1988 • JAMES ELLROY Since I Don’t Have You

1991 • JAMES LEE BURKE Texas City, 1947

1993 • HARLAN ELLISON Mefisto in Onyx

1995 • ED GORMAN Out There in the Darkness

1996 • JAMES CRUMLEY Hot Springs

1996 • JEFFERY DEAVER The Weekender

1998 • LAWRENCE BLOCK Like a Bone in the Throat

1999 • JAMES W. HALL Crack

1999 • DENNIS LEHANE Running Out of Dog

2000 • WILLIAM GAY The Paperhanger

2001 • F. X. TOOLE Midnight Emissions

2002 • ELMORE LEONARD When the Women Come Out to Dance

2002 • SCOTT WOLVEN Controlled Burn

2005 • THOMAS H. COOK What She Offered

2005 • ANDREW KLAVAN Her Lord and Master

2006 • CHRIS ADRIAN Stab

2006 • BRADFORD MORROW The Hoarder

2007 • LORENZO CARCATERRA Missing the Morning Bus

FOREWORD

The French word noir (which means “black”) was first connected to the word film by a French critic in 1946, and has subsequently become a prodigiously overused term to describe a certain type of film or literary work. Curiously, noir is not unlike pornography, in the sense that it is virtually impossible to define, but everyone thinks they know it when they see it. Like many other certainties, it is often wildly inaccurate.

This volume is devoted to short noir fiction of the past century, but it is impossible to divorce the literary genre entirely from its film counterpart. Certainly, noir most commonly evokes the great crime films of the 1940s and 1950s that were shot in black-and-white with cinematography that was heavily influenced by early-twentieth-century German expressionism: sharp angles (Venetian blinds, windows, railroad tracks) and strong contrasts between light and dark. Most of us have a collective impression of film noir as having certain essentials: a femme fatale, some tough criminals, an equally tough cop or private eye, an urban environment, and night …endless night. There are bars, nightclubs, menacing alleys, seedy hotel rooms.

While it may be comforting to recognize these elements as the very definition of film noir, it is as simplistic a view as that which limits the mystery genre to detective fiction, failing to accept the numerous other elements of that rich literature, such as the crime novel and suspense stories.

Certainly the golden age of film noir occurred in those decades, the ‘40s and ‘50s, but there were superb examples in the 1930s, such as M (1931), in which Peter Lorre had his first starring role, and Freaks (1932), Tod Browning’s unforgettable biopic in which the principal actors were actual carnival “human curiosities.” And no one is likely to dispute that the noir motion picture continued into the 1960s and beyond, as evidenced by such classics as The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Taxi Driver (1976), Body Heat (1981), and L.A. Confidential (1997).

Much of film noir lacks some or all of the usual clichéd visual set pieces of the genre, of course, but the absolutist elements by which the films are known are less evident in the literature, which relies more on plot, tone, and theme than on the chiaroscuro effects choreographed by directors and cinematographers.

Allowing for the differences of the two mediums, I also believe that most film and literary critics are entirely wrong about their definitions of noir, a genre which famously — but erroneously — has its roots in the American hard-boiled private eye novel. In fact, the two subcategories of the mystery genre, private detective stories and noir fiction, are diametrically opposed, with mutually exclusive philosophical premises.

Noir works, whether films, novels, or short stories, are existential, pessimistic tales about people, including (or especially) protagonists, who are seriously flawed and morally questionable. The tone is generally bleak and nihilistic, with characters whose greed, lust, jealousy, and alienation lead them into a downward spiral as their plans and schemes inevitably go awry. Whether their motivation is as overt as a bank robbery, or as subtle as the willingness to compromise integrity for personal gain, the central figures in noir stories are doomed to hopelessness. They may be motivated by the pursuit of seemingly easy money or by love — or, more commonly, physical desire — almost certainly for the wrong member of the opposite sex. The machinations of their relentless lust will ‘cause them to lie, steal, cheat, and even kill as they become more and more entangled in a web from which they cannot possibly extricate themselves. And, while engaged in this hopeless quest, they will be double-crossed, betrayed, and, ultimately, ruined. The likelihood of a happy ending in a noir story is remote, even if the protagonists own view of a satisfactory resolution is the criterion for defining happy. No, it will end badly, because the characters are inherently corrupt and that is the fate that inevitably awaits them.

The private detective story is a different matter entirely. Raymond Chandler famously likened the private eye to a knight, a man who could walk mean streets but not himself be mean, and this is true of the overwhelming majority of those heroic figures. They may well be brought into an exceedingly dark situation, and encounter characters who are deceptive, violent, paranoid, and lacking a moral center, but the American private detective retains his sense of honor in the face of all the adversity and duplicity with which he must do battle. Sam Spade avenged the murder of a partner because he knew he “was supposed to do something about it.” Mike Hammer found it easy to kill a woman to whom he had become attached because he learned she had murdered his friend. Lew Archer, Spenser, Elvis Cole, and other iconic private eyes, as well as policemen who, like Harry Bosch and Dave Robicheaux, often act as if they are unconstrained by their official positions, may bend (or break) the law, but their own sense of morality will be used in the pursuit of justice. Although not every one of their cases may have a happy conclusion, the hero nonetheless will emerge with a clean ethical slate.

Film noir blurs the distinction between hard-boiled private eye narratives and true noir stories by employing similar design and camerawork techniques for both genres, though the discerning viewer will easily recognize the opposing life-views of a moral, even heroic, often romantic detective, and the lost characters in noir who are caught in the inescapable prisons of their own construction, forever trapped by their isolation from their own souls, as well as from society and the moral restrictions that permit it to be regarded as civilized.

This massive collection seldom allows exceptions to these fundamental principles of noir stories. They are dark and often oppressive, failing to allow redemption for most of the people who inhabit their sad, violent, amoral world. Carefully wrought plans crumble, lovers deceive, normality morphs into decadence, and decency is scarce and unrewarded. Nonetheless, the writers who toil in this oppressive landscape have created stories of such relentless fascination that they rank among the giants of the literary world. Some, like Cornell Woolrich, David Goodis, and Jim Thompson, wrote prolifically but produced little that did not fall into the noir category, accurately reflecting their own troubled, tragic lives. Others, like Elmore Leonard, Evan Hunter, and Lawrence Block, have written across a more varied range of crime fiction, from dark to light, from morose to hilarious. Just not in this volume. If you find light and hilarity in these pages, I strongly recommend a visit to a mental health professional.

Otto Penzler >May 2009

INTRODUCTION

We created it, but they love it more in France than they do here. Noir is the most scrutinized offshoot of the hard-boiled school of fiction. It’s the long drop off the short pier, and the wrong man and the wrong woman in perfect misalliance. It’s the nightmare of flawed souls with big dreams and the precise how and why of the all-time sure thing that goes bad. Noir is opportunity as fatality, social justice as sanctified shuck, and sexual love as a one-way ticket to hell. Noir indicts the other subgenres of the hard-boiled school as sissified, and canonizes the inherent human urge toward self-destruction.

Noir sparked before the Big War and burned like a four-coil hot plate up to 1960. Cheap novels and cheap films about cheap people ran concurrent with American boosterism and yahooism and made a subversive point just by being. They described a fully existing fringe America and fed viewers and readers the demography of a Secret Pervert Republic. It was just garish enough to be laughed off as unreal and just pathetic enough to be recognizably human. The concurrence said: Something is wrong here. The subtext was: Malign fate has a great and unpredictable power and none of us is safe.

The thrill of noir is the rush of moral forfeit and the abandonment to titillation. The social importance of noir is its grounding in the big themes of race, class, gender, and systemic corruption. The overarching joy and lasting appeal of noir is that it makes doom fun.

The inhabitants of the Secret Pervert Republic are a gas. Their intransigence and psychopathy are delightful. They relentlessly pursue the score, big and small. They only succeed at a horrific cost that renders it all futile. They are wildly delusional and possessed of verbal flair. Their overall job description is “grandiose lowlife.” They speak their own language. Safecrackers are “box men” who employ explosive “soup.” Grifters perfect the long con, the short con, and the dime hustle. Race-wire scams utilize teams of scouts who place last-minute bets and relay information to bookmaking networks. A twisted professionalism defines all strata of the Secret Pervert Republic. This society grants women a unique power to seduce and destroy. A six-week chronology from first kiss to gas chamber is common in noir.

The subgenre officially died in 1960. New writer generations have resurrected it and redefined it as a sub-subgenre, tailored to meet their dramatic needs. Doom is fun. Great sex preceded the gas-chamber bounce. Older Secret Pervert Republicans blew their wads on mink coats for evil women. Present-day SPRs go broke on crack cocaine. Lethal injection has replaced the green room. Noir will never die — it’s too dementedly funny not to flourish in the heads of hip writers who wish they could time-trip to 1948 and live postwar malaise and psychoses. The young and feckless will inhabit the Secret Pervert Republic, reinvent it, wring it dry, and reinvent it all over again.

The short stories in this volume are a groove. Exercise your skeevy curiosity and read every one. You’ll be repulsed and titillated. You’ll endure moral forfeit. Doom is fun. You’re a perv for reading this introduction. Read the whole book and you’ll die on a gurney with a spike in your arm.

James Ellroy July 2009

1923

TOD ROBBINS

SPURS

Clarence Aaron “Tod” Robbins (1888-1949) graduated from Washington and Lee University in Virginia and soon became an expatriate, moving to the French Riviera. When World War II erupted and the Nazis occupied France, he refused to leave and was put into a concentration camp for the duration of the war.

He wrote mostly horror and dark fantasy fiction for the pulps, publishing two collections of these stories, Silent, White, and Beautiful and Other Stories (1920) and Who Wants a Green Bottle? and Other Uneasy Tales (1926). Among his novels, the most successful was The Unholy Three (1917), twice adapted for films of the same title: a silent directed by Tod Browning in 1925 and a sound version in 1930 directed by Jack Conway, both of which starred Lon Chaney. Robbins’s earlier novel, Mysterious Martin (1912), was about a man who creates art that can be deadly; he later rewrote the enigmatic story and published it as The Master of Murder (1933). He also wrote In the Shadow (1929) and Close Their Eyes Tenderly (1947), published only in Monaco in a tiny edition, an anti-Communist novel in which murder is treated as comedy and farce.

“Spurs” was the basis for the classic noir film Freaks, which was released by MGM in 1932. It was directed by Robbins’s friend Tod Browning, who enjoyed enormous success with Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, which was released the previous year. Freaks used real-life carnival performers for most roles, horrifying audiences so much that it was banned in England and the studio cut the ninety-minute film to sixty-four minutes. Public outrage led to the swift end of Tod Brownings career as a director. It featured the midget Harry Earles, who had also appeared in The Unholy Three.

This very dark film retained little of the equally dark story on which it was based. It remains the story of carnival people and a midget, Jacques Courbé (Hans in the film), who falls in love with the bareback rider Jeanne Marie (Cleopatra in the film), a beautiful tall blonde.

“Spurs” was first published in the famous pulp magazine Munsey’s (February 1923) and first collected in book form in Who Wants a Green Bottle? and Other Uneasy Tales (London: Philip Allan, 1926).

I

Jacques courbé was a romanticist. He measured only twenty-eight inches from the soles of his diminutive feet to the crown of his head; but there were times, as he rode into the arena on his gallant charger, St. Eustache, when he felt himself a doughty knight of old about to do battle for his lady.

What matter that St. Eustache was not a gallant charger except in his master’s imagination — not even a pony, indeed, but a large dog of a nondescript breed, with the long snout and upstanding aura of a wolf? What matter that M. Courbé’s entrance was invariably greeted with shouts of derisive laughter and bombardments of banana skins and orange peel? What matter that he had no lady, and that his daring deeds were severely curtailed to a mimicry of the bareback riders who preceded him? What mattered all these things to the tiny man who lived in dreams, and who resolutely closed his shoe-button eyes to the drab realities of life?

The dwarf had no friends among the other freaks in Copo’s Circus. They considered him ill-tempered and egotistical, and he loathed them for their acceptance of things as they were. Imagination was the armor that protected him from the curious glances of a cruel, gaping world, from the stinging lash of ridicule, from the bombardments of banana skins and orange peel. Without it, he must have shriveled up and died. But those others? Ah, they had no armor except their own thick hides! The door that opened on the kingdom of imagination was closed and locked to them; and although they did not wish to open this door, although they did not miss what lay beyond it, they resented and mistrusted anyone who possessed the key.

Now it came about, after many humiliating performances in the arena, made palatable only by dreams, that love entered the circus tent and beckoned commandingly to M. Jacques Courbé. In an instant the dwarf was engulfed in a sea of wild, tumultuous passion.

Mlle. Jeanne Marie was a daring bareback rider. It made M. Jacques Courbé’s tiny heart stand still to see her that first night of her appearance in the arena, performing brilliantly on the broad back of her aged mare, Sappho. A tall, blond woman of the amazon type, she had round eyes of baby blue which held no spark of her avaricious peasant’s soul, carmine lips and cheeks, large white teeth which flashed continually in a smile, and hands which, when doubled up, were nearly the size of the dwarf’s head.

Her partner in the act was Simon Lafleur, the Romeo of the circus tent — a swarthy, herculean young man with bold black eyes and hair that glistened with grease, like the back of Solon, the trained seal.

From the first performance, M. Jacques Courbé loved Mlle. Jeanne Marie. All his tiny body was shaken with longing for her. Her buxom charms, so generously revealed in tights and spangles, made him flush and cast down his eyes. The familiarities allowed to Simon Lafleur, the bodily acrobatic contacts of the two performers, made the dwarf’s blood boil. Mounted on St. Eustache, awaiting his turn at the entrance, he would grind his teeth in impotent rage to see Simon circling round and round the ring, standing proudly on the back of Sappho and holding Mlle. Jeanne Marie in an ecstatic embrace, while she kicked one shapely, bespangled leg skyward.

“Ah, the dog!” M. Jacques Courbé would mutter. “Some day I shall teach this hulking stable boy his place! Ma foi, I will clip his ears for him!”

St. Eustache did not share his master’s admiration for Mlle. Jeanne Marie. From the first, he evinced his hearty detestation of her by low growls and a ferocious display of long, sharp fangs. It was little consolation for the dwarf to know that St. Eustache showed still more marked signs of rage when Simon Lafleur approached him. It pained M. Jacques Courbé to think that his gallant charger, his sole companion, his bedfellow, should not also love and admire the splendid giantess who each night risked life and limb before the awed populace. Often, when they were alone together, he would chide St. Eustache on his churlishness.

“Ah, you devil of a dog!” the dwarf would cry. “Why must you always growl and show your ugly teeth when the lovely Jeanne Marie condescends to notice you? Have you no feelings under your tough hide? Cur, she is an angel, and you snarl at her! Do you not remember how I found you, starving puppy in a Paris gutter? And now you must threaten the hand of my princess! So this is your gratitude, great hairy pig!”

M. Jacques Courbé had one living relative — not a dwarf, like himself, but a fine figure of a man, a prosperous farmer living just outside the town of Roubaix. The elder Courbé had never married; and so one day, when he was found dead from heart failure, his tiny nephew —for whom, it must be confessed, the farmer had always felt an instinctive aversion — fell heir to a comfortable property. When the tidings were brought to him, the dwarf threw both arms about the shaggy neck of St. Eustache and cried out:

“Ah, now we can retire, marry and settle down, old friend! I am worth many times my weight in gold!”

That evening as Mlle. Jeanne Marie was changing her gaudy costume after the performance, a light tap sounded on the door.

“Enter!” she called, believing it to be Simon Lafleur, who had promised to take her that evening to the Sign of the Wild Boar for a glass of wine to wash the sawdust out of her throat. “Enter, mon chéri!”

The door swung slowly open; and in stepped M. Jacques Courbé, very proud and upright, in the silks and laces of a courtier, with a tiny gold-hilted sword swinging at his hip. Up he came, his shoe-button eyes all aglitter to see the more than partially revealed charms of his robust lady. Up he came to within a yard of where she sat; and down on one knee he went and pressed his lips to her red-slippered foot.

“Oh, most beautiful and daring lady,” he cried, in a voice as shrill as a pin scratching on a windowpane, “will you not take mercy on the unfortunate Jacques Courbé? He is hungry for your smiles, he is starving for your lips! All night long he tosses on his couch and dreams of Jeanne Marie!”

“What play-acting is this, my brave little fellow?” she asked, bending down with the smile of an ogress. “Has Simon Lafleur sent you to tease me?”

“May the black plague have Simon!” the dwarf cried, his eyes seeming to flash blue sparks. “I am not play-acting. It is only too true that I love you, mademoiselle; that I wish to make you my lady. And now that I have a fortune, not that —” He broke off suddenly, and his face resembled a withered apple. “What is this, mademoiselle?” he said, in the low, droning tone of a hornet about to sting. “Do you laugh at my love? I warn you, mademoiselle — do not laugh at Jacques Courbé!”

Mlle. Jeanne Maries large, florid face had turned purple from suppressed merriment. Her lips twitched at the corners. It was all she could do not to burst out into a roar of laughter.

Why, this ridiculous little manikin was serious in his lovemaking! This pocket-sized edition of a courtier was proposing marriage to her! He, this splinter of a fellow, wished to make her his wife! Why, she could carry him about on her shoulder like a trained marmoset!

What a joke this was — what a colossal, corset-creaking joke! Wait till she told Simon Lafleur! She could fairly see him throw back his sleek head, open his mouth to its widest dimensions, and shake with silent laughter. But she must not laugh — not now. First she must listen to everything the dwarf had to say; draw all the sweetness of this bonbon of humor before she crushed it under the heel of ridicule.

“I am not laughing,” she managed to say. “You have taken me by surprise. I never thought, I never even guessed —”

“That is well, mademoiselle,” the dwarf broke in. “I do not tolerate laughter. In the arena I am paid to make laughter; but these others pay to laugh at me. I always make people pay to laugh at me!”

“But do I understand you aright, M. Courbé? Are you proposing an honorable marriage?”

The dwarf rested his hand on his heart and bowed. “Yes, mademoiselle, an honorable marriage, and the wherewithal to keep the wolf from the door. A week ago my uncle died and left me a large estate. We shall have a servant to wait on our wants, a horse and carriage, food and wine of the best, and leisure to amuse ourselves. And you? Why, you will be a fine lady! I will clothe that beautiful big body of yours with silks and laces! You will be as happy, mademoiselle, as a cherry tree in June!”

The dark blood slowly receded from Mlle. Jeanne Marie’s full cheeks, her lips no longer twitched at the corners, her eyes had narrowed slightly. She had been a bareback rider for years, and she was weary of it. The life of the circus tent had lost its tinsel. She loved the dashing Simon Lafleur; but she knew well enough that this Romeo in tights would never espouse a dowerless girl.

The dwarf’s words had woven themselves into a rich mental tapestry. She saw herself a proud lady, ruling over a country estate, and later welcoming Simon Lafleur with all the luxuries that were so near his heart. Simon would be overjoyed to marry into a country estate. These pygmies were a puny lot. They died young! She would do nothing to hasten the end of Jacques Courbé. No, she would be kindness itself to the poor little fellow; but, on the other hand, she would not lose her beauty mourning for him.

“Nothing that you wish shall be withheld from you as long as you love me, mademoiselle,” the dwarf continued. “Your answer?”

Mlle. Jeanne Marie bent forward, and with a single movement of her powerful arms, raised M. Jacques Courbé and placed him on her knee. For an ecstatic instant she held him thus, as if he were a large French doll, with his tiny sword cocked coquettishly out behind. Then she planted on his cheek a huge kiss that covered his entire face from chin to brow.

“I am yours!” she murmured, pressing him to her ample bosom. “From the first I loved you, M. Jacques Courbé!”

II

The wedding of Mlle. Jeanne Marie was celebrated in the town of Roubaix, where Copo’s Circus had taken up its temporary quarters. Following the ceremony, a feast was served in one of the tents, which was attended by a whole galaxy of celebrities.

The bridegroom, his dark little face flushed with happiness and wine, sat at the head of the board. His chin was just above the tablecloth, so that his head looked like a large orange that had rolled off the fruit dish. Immediately beneath his dangling feet, St. Eustache, who had more than once evinced by deep growls his disapproval of the proceedings, now worried a bone with quick, sly glances from time to time at the plump legs of his new mistress. Papa Copo was on the dwarf’s right, his large round face as red and benevolent as a harvest moon. Next to him sat Griffo, the giraffe boy, who was covered with spots and whose neck was so long that he looked down on all the rest, including M. Hercule Hippo the giant. The rest of the company included Mlle. Lupa, who had sharp white teeth of an incredible length and who growled when she tried to talk; the tiresome M. Jegongle, who insisted on juggling fruit, plates, and knives, although the whole company was heartily sick of his tricks; Mme. Samson, with her trained boa constrictors coiled about her neck and peeping out timidly, one above each ear; Simon Lafleur, and a score of others.

The bareback rider had laughed silently and almost continually ever since Jeanne Marie had told him of her engagement. Now he sat next to her in his crimson tights. His black hair was brushed back from his forehead and so glistened with grease that it reflected the lights overhead, like a burnished helmet. From time to time, he tossed off a brimming goblet of burgundy, nudged the bride in the ribs with his elbow, and threw back his sleek head in another silent outburst of laughter.

“And you are sure you will not forget me, Simon?” she whispered. “It may be some time before I can get the little ape’s money.”

“Forget you, Jeanne?” he muttered. “By all the dancing devils in champagne, never! I will wait as patiently as Job till you have fed that mouse some poisoned cheese. But what will you do with him in the meantime, Jeanne? You must allow him some liberties. I grind my teeth to think of you in his arms!”

The bride smiled, and regarded her diminutive husband with an appraising glance. What an atom of a man! And yet life might linger in his bones for a long time to come. M. Jacques Courbé had allowed himself only one glass of wine, and yet he was far gone in intoxication. His tiny face was suffused with blood, and he stared at Simon Lafleur belligerently. Did he suspect the truth?

“Your husband is flushed with wine!” the bareback rider whispered. “Ma foi, madame, later he may knock you about! Possibly he is a dangerous fellow in his cups. Should he maltreat you, Jeanne, do not forget that you have a protector in Simon Lafleur.”

“You clown!” Jeanne Marie rolled her large eyes roguishly and laid her hand for an instant on the bareback riders knee. “Simon, I could crack his skull between my finger and thumb, like a hickory nut!” She paused to illustrate her example, and then added reflectively: “And, perhaps, I shall do that very thing, if he attempts any familiarities. Ugh! The little ape turns my stomach!”

By now the wedding guests were beginning to show the effects of their potations. This was especially marked in the case of M. Jacques Courbé’s associates in the sideshow.

Griffo, the giraffe boy, had closed his large brown eyes and was swaying his small head languidly above the assembly, while a slightly supercilious expression drew his lips down at the corners. M. Hercule Hippo, swollen out by his libations to even more colossal proportions, was repeating over and over: “I tell you I am not like other men. When I walk, the earth trembles!” Mlle. Lupa, her hairy upper lip lifted above her long white teeth, was gnawing at a bone, growling unintelligible phrases to herself and shooting savage, suspicious glances at her companions. M. Jejongle’s hands had grown unsteady, and as he insisted on juggling the knives and plates of each new course, broken bits of crockery littered the floor. Mme. Samson, uncoiling her necklace of baby boa constrictors, was feeding them lumps of sugar soaked in rum. M. Jacques Courbé had finished his second glass of wine, and was surveying the whispering Simon Lafleur through narrowed eyes.

There can be no genial companionship among great egotists who have drunk too much. Each one of these human oddities thought that he or she was responsible for the crowds that daily gathered at Copo’s Circus; so now, heated with the good Burgundy, they were not slow in asserting themselves. Their separate egos rattled angrily together, like so many pebbles in a bag. Here was gunpowder which needed only a spark.

“I am a big — a very big man!” M. Hercule Hippo said sleepily. “Women love me. The pretty little creatures leave their pygmy husbands, so that they may come and stare at Hercule Hippo of Copo’s Circus. Ha, and when they return home, they laugh at other men always! ‘You may kiss me again when you grow up,’ they tell their sweethearts.”

“Fat bullock, here is one woman who has no love for you!” cried Mlle. Lupa, glaring sidewise at the giant over her bone. “That great carcass of yours is only so much food gone to waste. You have cheated the butcher, my friend. Fool, women do not come to see you! As well might they stare at the cattle being led through the street. Ah, no, they come from far and near to see one of their own sex who is not a cat!”

“Quite right,” cried Papa Copo in a conciliatory tone, smiling and rubbing his hands together. “Not a cat, mademoiselle, but a wolf. Ah, you have a sense of humor! How droll!”

“I have a sense of humor,” Mlle. Lupa agreed, returning to her bone, “and also sharp teeth. Let the erring hand not stray too near!”

“You, M. Hippo and Mlle. Lupa, are both wrong,” said a voice which seemed to come from the roof. “Surely it is none other than me whom the people come to stare at!”

All raised their eyes to the supercilious face of Griffo, the giraffe boy, which swayed slowly from side to side on its long, pipe-stem neck. It was he who had spoken, although his eyes were still closed.

“Of all the colossal impudence!” cried the matronly Mme. Samson. “As if my little dears had nothing to say on the subject!” She picked up the two baby boa constrictors, which lay in drunken slumber on her lap, and shook them like whips at the wedding guests. “Papa Copo knows only too well that it is on account of these little charmers, Mark Antony and Cleopatra, that the sideshow is so well-attended!”

The circus owner, thus directly appealed to, frowned in perplexity. He felt himself in a quandary. These freaks of his were difficult to handle. Why had he been fool enough to come to M. Jacques Courbé’s wedding feast? Whatever he said would be used against him.

As Papa Copo hesitated, his round, red face wreathed in ingratiating smiles, the long deferred spark suddenly alighted in the powder. It all came about on account of the carelessness of M. Jejongle, who had become engrossed in the conversation and wished to put in a word for himself. Absent-mindedly juggling two heavy plates and a spoon, he said in a petulant tone:

“You all appear to forget me!”

Scarcely were the words out of his mouth, when one of the heavy plates descended with a crash on the thick skull of M. Hippo; and M. Jejongle was instantly remembered. Indeed he was more than remembered; for the giant, already irritated to the boiling point by Mlle. Lupa’s insults, at the new affront struck out savagely past her and knocked the juggler head-over-heels under the table.

Mlle. Lupa, always quick-tempered and especially so when her attention was focused on a juicy chicken bone, evidently considered her dinner companions conduct far from decorous, and promptly inserted her sharp teeth in the offending hand that had administered the blow. M. Hippo, squealing from rage and pain like a wounded elephant, bounded to his feet, overturning the table.

Pandemonium followed. Every freak’s hands, teeth, feet, were turned against the others. Above the shouts, screams, growls, and hisses of the combat, Papa Copo’s voice could be heard bellowing for peace.

“Ah, my children, my children! This is no way to behave! Calm yourselves, I pray you! Mlle. Lupa, remember that you are a lady as well as a wolf!”

There is no doubt that M. Jacques Courbé would have suffered most in this undignified fracas, had it not been for St. Eustache, who had stationed himself over his tiny master and who now drove off all would-be assailants. As it was, Griffo, the unfortunate giraffe boy, was the most defenseless and therefore became the victim. His small, round head swayed back and forth to blows like a punching bag. He was bitten by Mlle. Lupa, buffeted by M. Hippo, kicked by M. Jejongle, clawed by Mme. Samson, and nearly strangled by both of the baby boa constrictors which had wound themselves about his neck like hangmen’s nooses. Undoubtedly he would have fallen a victim to circumstances, had it not been for Simon Lafleur, the bride, and half a dozen of her acrobatic friends, whom Papa Copo had implored to restore peace. Roaring with laughter, they sprang forward and tore the combatants apart.

M. Jacques Courbé was found sitting grimly under a fold of tablecloth. He held a broken bottle of wine in one hand. The dwarf was very drunk, and in a towering rage. As Simon Lafleur approached with one of his silent laughs, M. Jacques Courbé hurled the bottle at his head.

“Ah, the little wasp!” the bareback rider cried, picking up the dwarf by his waistband. “Here is your fine husband, Jeanne! Take him away before he does me some mischief. Parbleu, he is a bloodthirsty fellow in his cups!”

The bride approached, her blond face crimson from wine and laughter. Now that she was safely married to a country estate, she took no more pains to conceal her true feelings.

“Oh, la, la!” she cried, seizing the struggling dwarf and holding him forcibly on her shoulder. “What a temper the little ape has! Well, we shall spank it out of him before long!”

“Let me down!” M. Jacques Courbé screamed in a paroxysm of fury. “You will regret this, madame! Let me down, I say!”

But the stalwart bride shook her head. “No, no, my little one!” she laughed. “You cannot escape your wife so easily! What, you would fly from my arms before the honeymoon!”

“Let me down!” he cried again. “Can’t you see that they are laughing at me!”

“And why should they not laugh, my little ape? Let them laugh, if they will; but I will not put you down. No, I will carry you thus, perched on my shoulder, to the farm. It will set a precedent which brides of the future may find a certain difficulty in following!”

“But the farm is quite a distance from here, my Jeanne,” said Simon Lafleur. “You are strong as an ox, and he is only a marmoset; still I will wager a bottle of Burgundy that you set him down by the roadside.”

“Done, Simon!” the bride cried, with a flash of her strong white teeth. “You shall lose your wager, for I swear that I could carry my little ape from one end of France to the other!”

M. Jacques Courbé no longer struggled. He now sat bolt upright on his bride’s broad shoulder. From the flaming peaks of blind passion, he had fallen into an abyss of cold fury. His love was dead, but some quite alien emotion was rearing an evil head from its ashes.

“Come!” cried the bride suddenly. “I am off. Do you and the others, Simon, follow to see me win my wager.”

They all trooped out of the tent. A full moon rode the heavens and showed the road, lying as white and straight through the meadows as the parting in Simon Lafleur’s black, oily hair. The bride, still holding the diminutive bridegroom on her shoulder, burst out into song as she strode forward. The wedding guests followed. Some walked none too steadily. Griffo, the giraffe boy, staggered pitifully on his long, thin legs. Papa Copo alone remained behind.

“What a strange world!” he muttered, standing in the tent door and following them with his round blue eyes. “Ah, these children of mine are difficult at times — very difficult!”

III

A year had rolled by since the marriage of Mlle. Jeanne Marie and M. Jacques Courbé. Copo’s Circus had once more taken up its quarters in the town of Roubaix. For more than a week the country people for miles around had flocked to the sideshow to get a peep at Griffo, the giraffe boy; M. Hercule Hippo, the giant; Mlle. Lupa, the wolf lady; Mme. Samson, with her baby boa constrictors; and M. Jejongle, the famous juggler. Each was still firmly convinced that he or she alone was responsible for the popularity of the circus.

Simon Lafleur sat in his lodgings at the Sign of the Wild Boar. He wore nothing but red tights. His powerful torso, stripped to the waist, glistened with oil. He was kneading his biceps tenderly with some strong-smelling fluid.

Suddenly there came the sound of heavy, laborious footsteps on the stairs. Simon Lafleur looked up. His rather gloomy expression lifted, giving place to the brilliant smile that had won for him the hearts of so many lady acrobats.

“Ah, this is Marcelle!” he told himself. “Or perhaps it is Rose, the English girl; or, yet again, little Francesca, although she walks more lightly. Well, no matter — whoever it is, I will welcome her!”

By now, the lagging, heavy footfalls were in the hall; and, a moment later, they came to a halt outside the door. There was a timid knock.

Simon Lafleur’s brilliant smile broadened. “Perhaps some new admirer that needs encouragement,” he told himself. But aloud he said, “Enter, mademoiselle!”

The door swung slowly open and revealed the visitor. She was a tall, gaunt woman dressed like a peasant. The wind had blown her hair into her eyes. Now she raised a large, toil-worn hand, brushed it back across her forehead and looked long and attentively at the bareback rider.

“Do you not remember me?” she said at length.

Two lines of perplexity appeared above Simon Lafleur’s Roman nose; he slowly shook his head. He, who had known so many women in his time, was now at a loss. Was it a fair question to ask a man who was no longer a boy and who had lived? Women change so in a brief time! Now this bag of bones might at one time have appeared desirable to him.

Parbleu! Fate was a conjurer! She waved her wand; and beautiful women were transformed into hogs, jewels into pebbles, silks and laces into hempen cords. The brave fellow who danced tonight at the princes ball, might tomorrow dance more lightly on the gallows tree. The thing was to live and die with a full belly. To digest all that one could — that was life!

“You do not remember me?” she said again.

Simon Lafleur once more shook his sleek, black head. “I have a poor memory for faces, madame,” he said politely. “It is my misfortune, when there are such beautiful faces.”

“Ah, but you should have remembered, Simon!” the woman cried, a sob rising in her throat. “We were very close together, you and I. Do you not remember Jeanne Marie?”

“Jeanne Marie!” the bareback rider cried. “Jeanne Marie, who married a marmoset and a country estate? Don’t tell me, madame, that you —”

He broke off and stared at her, open-mouthed. His sharp black eyes wandered from the wisps of wet, straggling hair down her gaunt person till they rested at last on her thick cowhide boots encrusted with layer on layer of mud from the countryside.

“It is impossible!” he said at last.

“It is indeed Jeanne Marie,” the woman answered, “or what is left of her. Ah, Simon, what a life he has led me! I have been merely a beast of burden! There are no ignominies which he has not made me suffer!”

“To whom do you refer?” Simon Lafleur demanded. “Surely you cannot mean that pocket-edition husband of yours — that dwarf, Jacques Courbé?”

“Ah, but I do, Simon! Alas, he has broken me!”

“He —that toothpick of a man?” the bareback rider cried with one of his silent laughs. “Why, it is impossible! As you once said yourself, Jeanne, you could crack his skull between finger and thumb like a hickory nut!”

“So I thought once. Ah, but I did not know him then, Simon! Because he was small, I thought I could do with him as I liked. It seemed to me that I was marrying a manikin. ‘I will play Punch and Judy with this little fellow,’ I said to myself. Simon, you may imagine my surprise when he began playing Punch and Judy with me!”

“But I do not understand, Jeanne. Surely at any time you could have slapped him into obedience!”

“Perhaps,” she assented wearily, “had it not been for St. Eustache. From the first that wolf-dog of his hated me. If I so much as answered his master back, he would show his teeth. Once, at the beginning, when I raised my hand to cuff Jacques Courbé, he sprang at my throat and would have torn me limb from limb had the dwarf not called him off. I was a strong woman, but even then I was no match for a wolf!”

“There was poison, was there not?” Simon Lafleur suggested.

“Ah, yes, I, too, thought of poison; but it was of no avail. St. Eustache would eat nothing that I gave him; and the dwarf forced me to taste first of all food that was placed before him and his dog. Unless I myself wished to die, there was no way of poisoning either of them.”

“My poor girl!” the bareback rider said pityingly. “I begin to understand; but sit down and tell me everything. This is a revelation to me, after seeing you stalking homeward so triumphantly with your bridegroom on your shoulder. You must begin at the beginning.”

“It was just because I carried him thus on my shoulder that I have had to suffer so cruelly,” she said, seating herself on the only other chair the room afforded. “He has never forgiven me the insult which he says I put upon him. Do you remember how I boasted that I could carry him from one end of France to the other?”

“I remember. Well, Jeanne?”

“Well, Simon, the little demon has figured out the exact distance in leagues. Each morning, rain or shine, we sally out of the house — he on my back, and the wolf-dog at my heels — and I tramp along the dusty roads till my knees tremble beneath me from fatigue. If I so much as slacken my pace, if I falter, he goads me with cruel little golden spurs; while, at the same time, St. Eustache nips my ankles. When we return home, he strikes so many leagues off a score which he says is the number of leagues from one end of France to the other. Not half that distance has been covered, and I am no longer a strong woman, Simon. Look at these shoes!”

She held up one of her feet for his inspection. The sole of the cowhide boot had been worn through; Simon Lafleur caught a glimpse of bruised flesh caked with the mire of the highway.

“This is the third pair that I have had,” she continued hoarsely. “Now he tells me that the price of shoe leather is too high, that I shall have to finish my pilgrimage barefooted.”

“But why do you put up with all this, Jeanne?” Simon Lafleur asked angrily. “You, who have a carriage and a servant, should not walk at all!”

“At first there was a carriage and a servant,” she said, wiping the tears from her eyes with the back of her hand, “but they did not last a week. He sent the servant about his business and sold the carriage at a nearby fair. Now there is no one but me to wait on him and his dog.”

“But the neighbors?” Simon Lafleur persisted. “Surely you could appeal to them?”

“We have no neighbors; the farm is quite isolated. I would have run away many months ago, if I could have escaped unnoticed; but they keep a continual watch on me. Once I tried, but I hadn’t traveled more than a league before the wolf-dog was snapping at my ankles. He drove me back to the farm, and the following day I was compelled to carry the little fiend until I fell from sheer exhaustion.”

“But tonight you got away?”

“Yes,” she said with a quick, frightened glance at the door. “Tonight I slipped out while they were both sleeping, and came here to you. I knew that you would protect me, Simon, because of what we have been to each other. Get Papa Copo to take me back in the circus, and I will work my fingers to the bone! Save me, Simon!”

Jeanne Marie could no longer suppress her sobs. They rose in her throat, choking her, making her incapable of further speech.

“Calm yourself, Jeanne,” Simon Lafleur told her soothingly. “I will do what I can for you. I shall discuss the matter with Papa Copo tomorrow. Of course, you are no longer the woman that you were a year ago. You have aged since then, but perhaps our good Papa Copo could find you something to do.”

He broke off and eyed her intently. She had sat up in the chair; her face, even under its coat of grime, had turned a sickly white.

“What troubles you, Jeanne?” he asked a trifle breathlessly.

“Hush!” she said, with a finger to her lips. “Listen!”

Simon Lafleur could hear nothing but the tapping of the rain on the roof and the sighing of the wind through the trees. An unusual silence seemed to pervade the Sign of the Wild Boar.

“Now don’t you hear it?” she cried with an inarticulate gasp. “Simon, it is in the house — it is on the stairs!”

At last the bareback rider’s less-sensitive ears caught the sound his companion had heard a full minute before. It was a steady pit-pat, pit-pat, on the stairs, hard to dissociate from the drip of the rain from the eaves; but each instant it came nearer, grew more distinct.

“Oh, save me, Simon; save me!” Jeanne Marie cried, throwing herself at his feet and clasping him about his knees. “Save me! It is St. Eustache!”

“Nonsense, woman!” the bareback rider said angrily, but nevertheless he rose. “There are other dogs in the world. On the second landing, there is a blind fellow who owns a dog. Perhaps that is what you hear.”

“No, no — it is St. Eustache’s step! My God, if you had lived with him a year, you would know it, too! Close the door and lock it!”

“That I will not,” Simon Lafleur said contemptuously. “Do you think I am frightened so easily? If it is the wolf-dog, so much the worse for him. He will not be the first cur I have choked to death with these two hands!”

Pit-pat, pit-pat — it was on the second landing. Pit-pat, pit-pat — now it was in the corridor, and coming fast. Pit-pat — all at once it stopped.

There was a moment’s breathless silence, and then into the room trotted St. Eustache. M. Jacques sat astride the dog’s broad back, as he had so often done in the circus ring. He held a tiny drawn sword; his shoe-button eyes seemed to reflect its steely glitter.

The dwarf brought the dog to a halt in the middle of the room, and took in, at a single glance, the prostrate figure of Jeanne Marie. St. Eustache, too, seemed to take silent note of it. The stiff hair on his back rose up, he showed his long white fangs hungrily, and his eyes glowed like two live coals.

“So I find you thus, madame!” M. Jacques Courbé said at last. “It is fortunate that I have a charger here who can scent out my enemies as well as hunt them down in the open. Without him, I might have had some difficulty in discovering you. Well, the little game is up. I find you with your lover!”

“Simon Lafleur is not my lover!” she sobbed. “I have not seen him once since I married you until tonight! I swear it!”

“Once is enough,” the dwarf said grimly. “The imprudent stable boy must be chastised!”

“Oh, spare him!” Jeanne Marie implored. “Do not harm him, I beg of you! It is not his fault that I came! I —”

But at this point Simon Lafleur drowned her out in a roar of laughter.

“Ha, ha!” he roared, putting his hands on his hips. “You would chastise me, eh? Nom d’un chien! Don’t try your circus tricks on me! Why, hop-o’-my-thumb, you who ride on a dog’s back like a flea, out of this room before I squash you. Begone, melt, fade away!” He paused, expanded his barrel-like chest, puffed out his cheeks, and blew a great breath at the dwarf. “Blow away, insect,” he bellowed, “lest I put my heel on you!”

M. Jacques Courbé was unmoved by this torrent of abuse. He sat very upright on St. Eustache’s back, his tiny sword resting on his tiny shoulder.

“Are you done?” he said at last, when the bareback rider had run dry of invectives. “Very well, monsieur! Prepare to receive cavalry!” He paused for an instant, then added in a high, clear voice: “Get him, St. Eustache!”

The dog crouched, and at almost the same moment, sprang at Simon Lafleur. The bareback rider had no time to avoid him and his tiny rider. Almost instantaneously the three of them had come to death grips. It was a gory business.

Simon Lafleur, strong man as he was, was bowled over by the dog’s unexpected leap. St. Eustache’s clashing jaws closed on his right arm and crushed it to the bone. A moment later the dwarf, still clinging to his dog’s back, thrust the point of his tiny sword into the body of the prostrate bareback rider.

Simon Lafleur struggled valiantly, but to no purpose. Now he felt the fetid breath of the dog fanning his neck, and the wasp-like sting of the dwarf’s blade, which this time found a mortal spot. A convulsive tremor shook him and he rolled over on his back. The circus Romeo was dead.

M. Jacques Courbé cleansed his sword on a kerchief of lace, dismounted, and approached Jeanne Marie. She was still crouching on the floor, her eyes closed, her head held tightly between both hands. The dwarf touched her imperiously on the broad shoulder which had so often carried him.

“Madame,” he said, “we now can return home. You must be more careful hereafter. Ma foi, it is an ungentlemanly business cutting the throats of stable boys!”

She rose to her feet, like a large trained animal at the word of command.

“Do you wish to be carried?” she said between livid lips.

“Ah, that is true, madame,” he murmured. “I was forgetting our little wager. Ah, yes! Well, you are to be congratulated, madame — you have covered nearly half the distance.”

“Nearly half the distance,” she repeated in a lifeless voice.

“Yes, madame,” M. Jacques Courbé continued. “I fancy that you will be quite a docile wife by the time you have done.” He paused, and then added reflectively: “It is truly remarkable how speedily one can ride the devil out of a woman — with spurs!”

Papa Copo had been spending a convivial evening at the Sign of the Wild Boar. As he stepped out into the street, he saw three familiar figures preceding him — a tall woman, a tiny man, and a large dog with upstanding ears. The woman carried the man on her shoulder; the dog trotted at her heels.

The circus owner came to a halt and stared after them. His round eyes were full of childish astonishment.

“Can it be?” he murmured. “Yes, it is! Three old friends! And so Jeanne carries him! Ah, but she should not poke fun at M. Jacques Courbé! He is so sensitive; but, alas, they are the kind that are always henpecked!”

1928

JAMES M. CAIN

PASTORALE

James M(allahan) Cain (1892-1977) was born in Annapolis, and grew up in Maryland, returning to the state permanently (after seventeen years as a screenwriter in California) in 1947. He received his BA from Washington College at the age of eighteen, then taught mathematics and English for four years before receiving his MA. He became a journalist, also submitting articles and stories to magazines while still in his twenties. His first full-length novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), became a huge bestseller and was filmed by MGM (with a script by Raymond Chandler) in 1946, starring Lana Turner and John Garfield, and again in 1981, with Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson. Cain did not write detective stories, but is lumped with other hard-boiled writers for his tough, gritty crime novels of sex and violence, most of which follow a familiar plot of a man falling for a woman and engaging in a criminal plot for her, only to have her betray him. In addition to Postman, the formula also worked in Double Indemnity (1943), filmed by Billy Wilder in 1944 with Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, and Edward G. Robinson. The other classic film noir made from his work, Mildred Pierce (1941), was as bleak as his other books and films, but this time it is the titular character who is betrayed by a woman — her daughter.

“Pastorale” is Cain’s first published story and established the template for what was to become his more serious work. The familiar story of a man and woman in an illicit affair planning to murder her husband is told in the humorous style of Ring Lardner’s “Haircut,” but nonetheless leads to inevitable darkness. It was first published in the March 1928 issue of American Mercury and first collected in book form in Cain’s The Baby in the Icebox (1981).

1

Well, it looks like Burbie is going to get hung. And if he does; what he can lay it on is, he always figured he was so damn smart. You see, Burbie, he left town when he was about sixteen year old. He run away with one of them traveling shows, “East Lynne” I think it was, and he stayed away about ten years. And when he come back he thought he knowed a lot. Burbie, he’s got them watery blue eyes what kind of stick out from his face, and how he killed the time was to sit around and listen to the boys talk down at the poolroom or over at the barber shop or a couple other places where he hung out, and then wink at you like they was all making a fool of theirself or something and nobody didn’t know it but him.

But when you come right down to what Burbie had in his head, why, it wasn’t much. ‘Course, he generally always had a job, painting around or maybe helping out on a new house, like of that, but what he used to do was to play baseball with the high school team. And they had a big fight over it, ‘cause Burbie was so old nobody wouldn’t believe he went to the school, and them other teams was all the time putting up a squawk. So then he couldn’t play no more. And another thing he liked to do was sing at the entertainments. I reckon he liked that most of all, ‘cause he claimed that a whole lot of the time he was away he was on the stage, and I reckon maybe he was at that, ‘cause he was pretty good, specially when he dressed hisself up like a old-time Rube and come out and spoke a piece what he knowed.

Well, when he come back to town he seen Lida and it was a natural. ‘Cause Lida, she was just about the same kind of a thing for a woman as Burbie was for a man. She used to work in the store, selling dry goods to the men, and kind of making hats on the side. ‘Cepting only she didn’t stay on the dry goods side no more’n she had to. She was generally over where the boys was drinking Coca-Cola, and all the time carrying on about did they like it with ammonia or lemon, and could she have a swallow outen their glass. And what she had her mind on was the clothes she had on, and was she dated up for Sunday night. Them clothes was pretty snappy, and she made them herself. And I heard some of them say she wasn’t hard to date up, and after you done kept your date why maybe you wasn’t going to be disappointed. And why Lida married the old man I don’t know, lessen she got tired working at the store and too-ken a look at the big farm where he lived at, about two mile from town.

By the time Burbie got back she’d been married about a year and she was about due. So her and him commence meeting each other, out in the orchard back of the old man’s house. The old man would go to bed right after supper and then she’d sneak out and meet Burbie. And nobody wasn’t supposed to know nothing about it. Only everybody did, ‘cause Burbie, after he’d get back to town about eleven o’clock at night, he’d kind of slide into the poolroom and set down easy like. And then somebody’d say, “Yay, Burbie, where you been?” And Burbie, he’d kind of look around, and then he’d pick out somebody and wink at him, and that was how Burbie give it some good advertising.

So the way Burbie tells it, and he tells it plenty since he done got religion down to the jailhouse, it wasn’t long before him and Lida thought it would be a good idea to kill the old man. They figured he didn’t have long to live nohow, so he might as well go now as wait a couple of years. And another thing, the old man had kind of got hep that something was going on, and they figured if he throwed Lida out it wouldn’t be no easy job to get his money even if he died regular. And another thing, by that time the Klux was kind of talking around, so Burbie figured it would be better if him and Lida was to get married, else maybe he’d have to leave town again.

So that was how come he got Hutch in it. You see, he was afeared to kill the old man hisself and he wanted some help. And then he figured it would be pretty good if Lida wasn’t nowheres around and it would look like robbery. If it would’ve been me, I would’ve left Hutch out of it. ‘Cause Hutch, he was mean. He’d been away for a while too, but him going away, that wasn’t the same as Burbie going away. Hutch was sent. He was sent for ripping a mail sack while he was driving the mail wagon up from the station, and before he come back he done two years down to Atlanta.

But what I mean, he wasn’t only crooked, he was mean. He had a ugly look to him, like when he’d order hisself a couple of fried eggs over to the restaurant, and then set and eat them with his head humped down low and his arm curled around his plate like he thought somebody was going to steal it off him, and handle his knife with his thumb down near the tip, kind of like a nigger does a razor. Nobody didn’t have much to say to Hutch, and I reckon that’s why he ain’t heard nothing about Burbie and Lida, and et it all up what Burbie told him about the old man having a pot of money hid in the fireplace in the back room.

So one night early in March, Burbie and Hutch went out and done the job. Burbie he’d already got Lida out of the way. She’d let on she had to go to the city to buy some things, and she went away on No. 6, so everybody knowed she was gone. Hutch, he seen her go, and come running to Burbie saying now was a good time, which was just what Burbie wanted. ‘Cause her and Burbie had already put the money in the pot, so Hutch wouldn’t think it was no put-up job. Well, anyway, they put $23 in the pot, all changed into pennies and nickels and dimes so it would look like a big pile, and that was all the money Burbie had. It was kind of like you might say the savings of a lifetime.

And then Burbie and Hutch got in the horse and wagon what Hutch had, ‘cause Hutch was in the hauling business again, and they went out to the old man’s place. Only they went around the back way, and tied the horse back of the house so nobody couldn’t see it from the road, and knocked on the back door and made out like they was just coming through the place on their way back to town and had stopped by to get warmed up, ‘cause it was cold as hell. So the old man let them in and give them a drink of some hard cider what he had, and they got canned up a little more. They was already pretty canned, ‘cause they both of them had a pint of corn on their hip for to give them some nerve.

And then Hutch he got back of the old man and crowned him with a wrench what he had hid in his coat.

2

Well, next off Hutch gets sore as hell at Burbie ‘cause there ain’t no more’n $23 in the pot. He didn’t do nothing. He just set there, first looking at the money, what he had piled up on a table, and then looking at Burbie.

And then Burbie commences soft-soaping him. He says hope my die he thought there was a thousand dollars anyway in the pot, on account the old man being like he was. And he says hope my die it sure was a big surprise to him how little there was there. And he says hope my die it sure does make him feel bad, on account he’s the one had the idea first. And he says hope my die it’s all his fault and he’s going to let Hutch keep all the money, damn if he ain’t. He ain’t going to take none of it for his-self at all, on account of how bad he feels. And Hutch, he don’t say nothing at all, only look at Burbie and look at the money.

And right in the middle of while Burbie was talking, they heard a whole lot of hollering out in front of the house and somebody blowing a automobile horn. And Hutch jumps up and scoops the money and the wrench off the table in his pockets, and hides the pot back in the fireplace. And then he grabs the old man and him and Burbie carries him out the back door, hists him in the wagon, and drives off. And how they was to drive off without them people seeing them was because they come in the back way and that was the way they went. And them people in the automobile, they was a bunch of old folks from the Methodist church what knowed Lida was away and didn’t think so much of Lida nohow and come out to say hello. And when they come in and didn’t see nothing, they figured the old man had went in to town and so they went back.

Well, Hutch and Burbie was in a hell of a fix all right. ‘Cause there they was, driving along somewheres with the old man in the wagon and they didn’t have no more idea than a baldheaded coot where they was going or what they was going to do with him. So Burbie, he commence to whimper. But Hutch kept a-setting there, driving the horse, and he don’t say nothing.

So pretty soon they come to a place where they was building a piece of county road, and it was all tore up and a whole lot of toolboxes laying out on the side. So Hutch gets out and twists the lock off one of them with the wrench, and takes out a pick and a shovel and throws them in the wagon. And then he got in again and drove on for a while till he come to the Whooping Nannie woods, what some of them says has got a ghost in it on dark nights, and it’s about three miles from the old man’s farm. And Hutch turns in there and pretty soon he come to a kind of a clear place and he stopped. And then, first thing he’s said to Burbie, he says,

“Dig that grave!”

So Burbie dug the grave. He dug for two hours, until he got so damn tired he couldn’t hardly stand up. But he ain’t hardly made no hole at all. ‘Cause the ground is froze and even with the pick he couldn’t hardly make a dent in it scarcely. But anyhow Hutch stopped him and they throwed the old man in and covered him up. But after they got him covered up his head was sticking out. So Hutch beat the head down good as he could and piled the dirt up around it and they got in and drove off.

After they’d went a little ways, Hutch commence to cuss Burbie. Then he said Burbie’d been lying to him. But Burbie, he swears he ain’t been lying. And then Hutch says he was lying and with that he hit Burbie. And after he knocked Burbie down in the bottom of the wagon he kicked him and then pretty soon Burbie up and told him about Lida. And when Burbie got done telling him about Lida, Hutch turned the horse around. Burbie asked then what they was going back for and Hutch says they’re going back for to git a present for Lida. So they come back for to git a present for Lida. So they come back to the grave and Hutch made Burbie cut off the old man’s head with the shovel. It made Burbie sick, but Hutch made him stick at it, and after a while Burbie had it off. So Hutch throwed it in the wagon and they get in and start back to town once more.

Well, they wasn’t no more’n out of the woods before Hutch takes his-self a slug of corn and commence to holler. He kind of raved to hisself, all about how he was going to make Burbie put the head in a box and tie it up with a string and take it out to Lida for a present, so she’d get a nice surprise when she opened it. Soon as Lida comes back he says Burbie has got to do it, and then he’s going to kill Burbie. “I’ll kill you!” he says. “I’ll kill you, damn you! I’ll kill you!” And he says it kind of singsongy, over and over again.

And then he takes hisself another slug of corn and stands up and whoops. Then he beat on the horse with the whip and the horse commence to run. What I mean, he commence to gallop. And then Hutch hit him some more. And then he commence to screech as loud as he could. “Ride him, cowboy!” he hollers. “Going East! Here come old broadcuff down the road! Whe-e-e-e-e!” And sure enough, here they come down the road, the horse a-running hell to split, and Hutch a-hollering, and Burbie a-shivering, and the head a-rolling around in the bottom of the wagon, and bouncing up in the air when they hit a bump, and Burbie damn near dying every time it hit his feet.

3

After a while the horse got tired so it wouldn’t run no more, and they had to let him walk and Hutch set down and commence to grunt. So Burbie, he tries to figure out what the hell he’s going to do with the head. And pretty soon he remembers a creek what they got to cross, what they ain’t crossed on the way out ‘cause they come the back way. So he figures he’ll throw the head overboard when Hutch ain’t looking. So he done it. They come to the creek, and on the way down to the bridge there’s a little hill, and when the wagon tilted going down the hill the head rolled up between Burbie’s feet, and he held it there, and when they got in the middle of the bridge he reached down and heaved it overboard.

Next off, Hutch give a yell and drop down in the bottom of the wagon. ‘Cause what it sounded like was a pistol shot. You see, Burbie done forgot that it was a cold night and the creek done froze over. Not much, just a thin skim about a inch thick, but enough that when that head hit it, it cracked pretty loud in different directions. And that was what scared Hutch. So when he got up and seen the head setting out there on the ice in the moonlight, and got it straight what Burbie done, he let on he was going to kill Burbie right there. And he reached for the pick. And Burbie jumped out and run, and he didn’t never stop till he got home at the place where he lived at, and locked the door, and climbed in bed and pulled the covers over his head.

Well, the next morning a fellow come running into town and says there’s hell to pay down at the bridge. So we all went down there and first thing we seen was that head laying out there on the ice, kind of rolled over on one ear. And next thing we seen was Hutch’s horse and wagon tied to the bridge rail, and the horse damn near froze to death. And the next thing we seen was the hole in the ice where Hutch fell through. And the next thing we seen down on the bottom next to one of the bridge pilings, was Hutch.

So the first thing we went to work and done was to get the head. And believe me a head laying out on thin ice is a pretty damn hard thing to get, and what we had to do was to lasso it. And the next thing we done was to get Hutch. And after we fished him out he had the wrench and the $23 in his pockets and the pint of corn on his hip and he was stiff as a board. And near as I can figure out, what happened to him was that after Burbie run away he climbed down on the bridge piling and tried to reach the head and fell in.

But we didn’t know nothing about it then, and after we done got the head and the old man was gone and a couple of boys that afternoon found the body and not the head on it, and the pot was found, and them old people from the Methodist church done told their story and one thing and another, we figured out that Hutch done it, ‘specially on account he must have been drunk and he done time in the pen and all like of that, and nobody ain’t thought nothing about Burbie at all. They had the funeral and Lida cried like hell and everybody tried to figure out what Hutch wanted with the head and things went along thataway for three weeks.

Then one night down to the poolroom they was having it some more about the head, and one says one thing and one says another, and Benny Heath, what’s a kind of a constable around town, he started a long bum argument about how Hutch must of figured if they couldn’t find the head to the body they couldn’t prove no murder. So right in the middle of it Burbie kind of looked around like he always done and then he winked. And Benny Heath, he kept on a-talking, and after he got done Burbie kind of leaned over and commence to talk to him. And in a couple of minutes you couldn’t of heard a man catch his breath in that place, accounten they was all listening at Burbie.

I already told you Burbie was pretty good when it comes to giving a spiel at a entertainment. Well, this here was a kind of spiel too. Burbie act like he had it all learned by heart. His voice trimmled and ever couple of minutes he’d kind of cry and wipe his eyes and make out like he can’t say no more, and then he’d go on.

And the big idea was what a whole lot of hell he done raised in his life. Burbie said it was drink and women what done ruined him. He told about all the women what he knowed, and all the saloons he’s been in, and some of it was a lie ‘cause if all the saloons was as swell as he said they was they’d of throwed him out. And then he told about how sorry he was about the life he done led, and how hope my die he come home to his old hometown just to get out the devilment and settle down. And he told about Lida, and how she wouldn’t let him cut it out. And then he told how she done led him on till he got the idea to kill the old man. And then he told about how him and Hutch done it, and all about the money and the head and all the rest of it.

And what it sounded like was a piece what he knowed called “The Face on the Floor,” what was about a bum what drawed a picture on the barroom floor of the woman what done ruined him. Only the funny part was that Burbie wasn’t ashamed of hisself like he made out he was. You could see he was proud of hisself. He was proud of all them women and all the liquor he’d drunk and he was proud about Lida and he was proud about the old man and the head and being slick enough not to fall in the creek with Hutch. And after he got done he give a yelp and flopped down on the floor and I reckon maybe he thought he was going to die on the spot like the bum what drawed the face on the barroom floor, only he didn’t. He kind of lain there a couple of minutes till Benny got him up and put him in the car and tooken him off to jail.

So that’s where he’s at now, and he’s went to work and got religion down there, and all the people what comes to see him, why he sings hymns to them and then he speaks them his piece. And I hear tell he knows it pretty good by now and has got the crying down pat. And Lida, they got her down there too, only she won’t say nothing ‘cepting she done it same as Hutch and Burbie. So Burbie, he’s going to get hung, sure as hell. And if he hadn’t felt so smart, he would’ve been a free man yet.

Only I reckon he done been holding it all so long he just had to spill it.

1938

STEVE FISHER

YOU’LL ALWAYS REMEMBER ME

Steve (Stephen Gould) Fisher (1912-1980) was born in Marine City, Illinois, and joined the Marines at the age of sixteen, moving to California when he was discharged in 1932. His first short story had been published when he was thirteen, so he soon moved to New York to write for pulps, producing hundreds of stories, mostly mysteries but also stories about war, sex, and romance, graduating to the better-paying “slicks” such as Esquire and the Saturday Evening Post. When Hollywood money looked more enticing, he went to Los Angeles and became an equally prolific writer for motion pictures, with fifty-three screenplays to his credit, including Johnny Angel (1945, with Frank Gruber), Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake (1946), Song of the Thin Man (1947), and Cornell Woolrich’s I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes (1948). Fisher was an even more prolific writer for television, producing more than 200 scripts for such long-running series as McMillan and Wife, Barnaby Jones, Starsky and Hutch, Cannon, and 77 Sunset Strip, among many others.

What had been a moderately successful career changed in 1941 when he wrote I Wake Up Screaming, which was adapted in the same year into what is generally regarded as the first film noir. With the action moving from the novel’s Hollywood setting of palm trees and sunshine to the dark alleys and nightclubs of New York City, it starred Victor Mature, Betty Grable, and Carole Landis. It was remade twelve years later as Vicki, this time set entirely in California, and starred Jeanne Crain, Elliott Reid, Jean Peters, and Richard Boone.

“You’ll Always Remember Me” was first published in the March 1938 issue of Black Mask.

I could tell it was Pushton blowing the bugle and I got out of bed tearing half of the bedclothes with me. I ran to the door and yelled, “Drown it! Drown it! Drown it!” and then I slammed the door and went along the row of beds and pulled the covers off the rest of the guys and said:

“Come on, get up. Get up! Don’t you hear Pushton out there blowing his stinky lungs out?”

I hate bugles anyway, but the way this guy Pushton all but murders reveille kills me. I hadn’t slept very well, thinking of the news I was going to hear this morning, one way or the other, and then to be jarred out of what sleep I could get by Pushton climaxed everything.

I went back to my bed and grabbed my shoes and puttees and slammed them on the floor in front of me, then I began unbuttoning my pajamas. I knew it wouldn’t do any good to ask the guys in this wing. They wouldn’t know anything. When they did see a paper all they read was the funnies. That’s the trouble with Clark’s. I know it’s one of the best military academies in the West and that it costs my old man plenty of dough to keep me here, but they sure have some dopey ideas on how to handle kids. Like dividing the dormitories according to ages. Anybody with any sense knows that it should be according to grades because just take for instance this wing. I swear there isn’t a fourteen-year-old punk in it that I could talk to without wanting to push in his face. And I have to live with the little pukes.

So I kept my mouth shut and got dressed, then I beat it out into the company street before the battalion got lined up for the flag raising. That’s a silly thing, isn’t it? Making us stand around with empty stomachs, shivering goose pimples while they pull up the flag and Pushton blows the bugle again. But at that I guess I’d have been in a worse place than Clark’s Military Academy if my pop hadn’t had a lot of influence and plenty of dollars. I’d be in a big school where they knock you around and don’t ask you whether you like it or not. I know. I was there a month. So I guess the best thing for me to do was to let the academy have their Simple Simon flag-waving fun and not kick about it.

I was running around among the older guys now, collaring each one and asking the same question: “Were you on home-going yesterday? Did you see a paper last night? What about Tommy Smith?” That was what I wanted to know. What about Tommy Smith.

“He didn’t get it,” a senior told me.

“You mean the governor turned him down?”

“Yeah. He hangs Friday.”

That hit me like a sledge on the back of my head and I felt words rushing to the tip of my tongue and then sliding back down my throat. I felt weak, like my stomach was all tied up in a knot. I’d thought sure Tommy Smith would have had his sentence changed to life. I didn’t think they really had enough evidence to swing him. Not that I cared, particularly, only he had lived across the street and when they took him in for putting a knife through his old man’s back —that was what they charged him with — it had left his two sisters minus both father and brother and feeling pretty badly.

Where I come in is that I got a crush on Marie, the youngest sister. She’s fifteen. A year older than me. But as I explained, I’m not any little dumb dope still in grammar school. I’m what you’d call bright.

So that was it; they were going to swing Tommy after all, and Marie would be bawling on my shoulder for six months. Maybe I’d drop the little dame. I certainly wasn’t going to go over and take that for the rest of my life.

I got lined up in the twelve-year-old company, at the right end because I was line sergeant. We did squads right and started marching toward the flagpole. I felt like hell. We swung to a company front and halted.

Pushton started in on the bugle. I watched him with my eyes burning. Gee, I hate buglers, and Pushton is easy to hate anyway. He’s fat and wears horn-rimmed glasses. He’s got a body like a bowling ball and a head like a pimple. His face looks like yesterday’s oatmeal. And does he think being bugler is an important job! The little runt struts around like he was Gabriel, and he walks with his buttocks sticking out one way and his chest the other.

I watched him now, but I was thinking more about Tommy Smith. Earlier that night of the murder I had been there seeing Marie and I had heard part of Tommy’s argument with his old man. Some silly thing. A girl Tommy wanted to marry and the old man couldn’t see it that way. I will say he deserved killing, the old grouch. He used to chase me with his cane. Marie says he used to get up at night and wander around stomping that cane as he walked.

Tommy’s defense was that the old boy lifted the cane to bean him. At least that was the defense the lawyer wanted to present. He wanted to present that, with Tommy pleading guilty, and hope for an acquittal. But Tommy stuck to straight denials on everything. Said he hadn’t killed his father. The way everything shaped up the state proved he was a drunken liar and the jury saw it that way.

Tommy was a nice enough sort. He played football at his university, was a big guy with blond hair and a ruddy face, and blue eyes. He had a nice smile, white and clean like he scrubbed his teeth a lot. I guess his old man had been right about that girl, though, because when all this trouble started she dropped right out of the picture, went to New York or somewhere with her folks.

I was thinking about this when we began marching again; and I was still thinking about it when we came in for breakfast about forty minutes later, after having had our arms thrown out of joint in some more silly stuff called setting-up exercises. What they won’t think of! As though we didn’t get enough exercise running around all day!

Then we all trooped in to eat.

I sat at the breakfast table cracking my egg and watching the guy across from me hog six of them. I wanted to laugh. People think big private schools are the ritz and that their sons, when they go there, mix with the cream of young America. Bushwa! There are a few kids whose last names you might see across the front of a department store like Harker Bros., and there are some movie stars’ sons, but most of us are a tough, outcast bunch that couldn’t get along in public school and weren’t wanted at home. Tutors wouldn’t handle most of us for love or money. So they put us here.

Clark’s will handle any kid and you can leave the love out of it so long as you lay the money on the line. Then the brat is taken care of so far as his parents are concerned, and he has the prestige of a fancy Clark uniform.

There wasn’t another school in the state that would have taken me, public or private, after looking at my record. But when old man Clark had dough-ray-me clutched in his right fist he was blind to records like that. Well, that’s the kind of a bunch we were.

Well, as I say, I was watching this glutton stuff eggs down his gullet which he thought was a smart thing to do even though he got a bellyache afterward, when the guy on my right said:

“I see Tommy Smith is going to hang.”

“Yeah,” I said, “that’s rotten, ain’t it?”

“Rotten?” he replied. “It’s wonderful. It’s what that rat has coming to him.”

“Listen,” said I, “one more crack like that and I’ll smack your stinking little face in.”

“You and how many others?” he said.

“Just me,” I said, “and if you want to come outside I’ll do it right now.”

The kid who was table captain yelled: “Hey, you two pipe down. What’s the argument anyway?”

“They’re going to hang Tommy Smith,” I said, “and I think it’s a dirty rotten shame. He’s as innocent as a babe in the woods.”

“Ha-ha,” said the table captain, “you’re just bothered about Marie Smith.”

“Skirt crazy! Skirt crazy!” mumbled the guy stuffing down the eggs.

I threw my water in his face, then I got up, facing the table captain and the guy on my right. “Listen,” I said, “Tommy Smith is innocent. I was there an hour before the murder happened, wasn’t I? What do you loudmouthed half-wits think you know about it? All you morons know is what you read in the papers. Tommy didn’t do it. I should know, shouldn’t I? I was right there in the house before it happened. I’ve been around there plenty since. I’ve talked to the detectives.”

I sat down, plenty mad. I sat down because I had seen a faculty officer coming into the dining room. We all kept still until he walked on through. Then the table captain sneered and said:

“Tommy Smith is a dirty stinker. He’s the one that killed his father all right. He stuck a knife right through his back!”

“A lie! A lie!” I screamed.

“How do you know it’s a lie?”

“Well, I — I know, that’s all,” I said.

“Yeah, you know! Listen to him! You know! That’s hot. I think I’ll laugh!”

“Damn it,” I said. “I do know!”

“How? How? Tell us that!”

“Well, maybe I did it. What do you think about that?”

“You!” shouted the table captain. “A little fourteen-year-old wart like you killing anybody! Ha!”

“Aw, go to hell,” I said, “that’s what you can do. Go straight to hell!”

“A little wart like you killing anybody,” the table captain kept saying, and he was holding his sides and laughing.

* * *

All that Monday I felt pretty bad thinking about Tommy, what a really swell guy he had been, always laughing, always having a pat on the back for you. I knew he must be in a cell up in San Quentin now, waiting, counting the hours, maybe hearing them build his scaffold.

I imagine a guy doesn’t feel so hot waiting for a thing like that, pacing in a cell, smoking up cigarettes, wondering what it’s like when you’re dead. I’ve read some about it. I read about Two Gun Crowley, I think it was, who went to the chair with his head thrown back and his chest out like he was proud of it. But there must have been something underneath, and Crowley, at least, knew that he had it coming to him. The real thing must be different than what you read in the papers. It must be pretty awful.

But in spite of all this I had sense enough to stay away from Marie all day. I could easily have gone to her house, which was across the street from the campus, but I knew that she and her sister, Ruth, and that Duff Ryan, the young detective who had made the arrest — because, as he said, he thought it was his duty — had counted on the commutation of sentence. They figured they’d have plenty of time to clear up some angles of the case which had been plenty shaky even in court. No, sir. Sweet Marie would be in no mood for my consolation, and besides I was sick of saying the same things over and over and watching her burst into tears every time I mentioned Tommy’s name.

I sat in the study hall Monday evening thinking about the whole thing. Outside the window I could see the stars crystal clear; and though it was warm in the classroom I could feel the cold of the air in the smoky blue of the night, so that I shivered. When they marched us into the dormitory at eight-thirty, Simmons, the mess captain, started razzing me about Tommy being innocent again, and I said:

“Listen, putrid, you wanta get hurt?”

“No,” he said, then he added: “Sore head.”

“You’ll have one sore face,” I said, “if you don’t shut that big yap of yours.”

There was no more said, and when I went to bed and the lights went off I lay there squirming while that fat-cheeked Pushton staggered through taps with his bugle. I was glad that Myers had bugle duty tomorrow and I wouldn’t have to listen to Pushton.

But long after taps I still couldn’t sleep for thinking of Tommy. What a damn thing that was — robbing me of my sleep! But I tell you, I did some real fretting, and honestly, if it hadn’t been for the fact that God and I parted company so long ago, I might have even been sap enough to pray for him. But I didn’t. I finally went to sleep. It must have been ten o’clock.

I didn’t show around Marie’s Tuesday afternoon either, figuring it was best to keep away But after chow, that is, supper, an orderly came beating it out to the study hall for me and told me I was wanted on the telephone. I chased up to the main building and got right on the wire. It was Duff Ryan, that young detective I told you about.

“You’ve left me with quite a load, young man,” he said.

“Explain,” I said. “I’ve no time for nonsense.” I guess I must have been nervous to say a thing like that to the law, but there was something about Duff Ryan’s cool gray eyes that upset me and I imagined I could see those eyes right through the telephone.

“I mean about Ruth,” he said softly, “she feels pretty badly. Now I can take care of her all right, but little Marie is crying her eyes out and I can’t do anything with her.”

“So what?” I said.

“She’s your girl, isn’t she, Martin?” he asked.

“Listen,” I said, “in this school guys get called by their last name. Martin sounds sissy. My name is Thorpe.”

“I’m sorry I bothered you, Martin,” Duff said in that same soft voice. “If you don’t want to cooperate—”

“Oh, I’ll cooperate,” I said. “I’ll get right over. That is, provided I can get permission.”

“I’ve already arranged that,” Duff told me. “You just come on across the street and don’t bother mentioning anything about it to anyone.”

“OK,” I said, and hung up. I sat there for a minute. This sounded fishy to me. Of course, Duff might be on the level, but I doubted it. You can never tell what a guy working for the law is going to do.

I trotted out to the campus and on across to the Smith house. Their mother had died a long while ago, so with the father murdered, and Tommy in the death house, there were only the two girls left.

Duff answered the door himself. I looked up at the big bruiser and then I sucked in my breath. I wouldn’t have known him! His face was almost gray. Under his eyes were the biggest black rings I had ever seen. I don’t mean the kind you get fighting. I mean the other kind, the serious kind you get from worry. He had short clipped hair that was sort of reddish, and shoulders that squared off his figure, tapering it down to a nice V.

Of course, he was plenty old, around twenty-six, but at this his being a detective surprised you because ordinarily he looked so much like a college kid. He always spoke in a modulated voice and never got excited over anything. And he had a way of looking at you that I hated. A quiet sort of way that asked and answered all of its own questions.

Personally, as a detective, I thought he was a big flop. The kind of detectives that I prefer seeing are those giant fighters that blaze their way through a gangster barricade. Duff Ryan was none of this. I suppose he was tough but he never showed it. Worst of all, I’d never even seen his gun!

“Glad you came over, Martin,” he said.

“The name is Thorpe,” I said.

He didn’t answer, just stepped aside so I could come in. I didn’t see Ruth, but I spotted Marie right away. She was sitting on the divan with her legs pulled up under her and her face hidden. She had a handkerchief pressed in her hand. She was a slim kid, but well developed for fifteen, so well developed in fact that for a while I had been razzed about this at school.

Like Tommy, she had blond hair, only hers was fluffy and came partway to her shoulders. She turned now and her face was all red from crying, but I still thought she was pretty. I’m a sucker that way. I’ve been a sucker for women ever since I was nine.

She had wide-spaced green eyes, and soft, rosy skin, and a generous mouth. Her only trouble, if any, was that she was a prude. Wouldn’t speak to anybody on the Clark campus except me. Maybe you think I didn’t like that! I’d met her at Sunday school, or rather coming out, since I had been hiding around waiting for it to let out, and I walked home with her four Sundays straight before she would speak to me. That is, I walked along beside her holding a one-way conversation. Finally I skipped a Sunday, then the next one she asked me where I had been, and that started the ball rolling.

“Thorpe,” she said — that was another thing, she always called me by my last name because that was the one I had given her to start with — “Thorpe, I’m so glad you’re here. Come over here and sit down beside me.”

I went over and sat down and she straightened up, like she was ashamed that she had been crying, and put on a pretty good imitation of a smile. “How’s everything been?” she said.

“Oh, pretty good,” I said. “The freshmen are bellyaching about Latin this week, and just like algebra, I’m already so far ahead of them it’s a crying shame.”

“You’re so smart, Thorpe,” she told me.

“Too bad about Tommy,” I said. “There’s always the chance for a reprieve though.”

“No,” she said, and her eyes began to get dim again, “no, there isn’t. This — this decision that went through Sunday night — that’s the — Unless, of course, something comes up that we — the lawyer can—” and she began crying.

I put my arm around her, which was a thing she hadn’t let me do much, and I said, “Come on, kid. Straighten up. Tommy wouldn’t want you to cry.”

About five minutes later she did straighten up. Duff Ryan was sitting over in the corner looking out the window, but it was just like we were alone.

“I’ll play the piano,” she said.

“Do you know anything hot yet?”

“Hot?” she said.

“Something popular, Marie,” I explained. Blood was coming up into my face.

“Why, no,” she replied. “I thought I would —”

“Play hymns!” I half screamed. “No! I don’t want to hear any of those damned hymns!”

“Why, Thorpe!”

“I can’t help it,” I said. “I’ve told you about that enough times. Those kinds of songs just drone along in the same pitch and never get anywhere. If you can’t play something decent stay away from the piano.”

My fists were tight now and my fingers were going in and out. She knew better than to bring up that subject. It was the only thing we had ever argued about. Playing hymns. I wanted to go nuts every time I heard “Lead Kindly Light” or one of those other goofy things. I’d get so mad I couldn’t see straight. Just an obsession with me, I guess.

“All right,” she said, “but I wish you wouldn’t swear in this house.”

I said, “All right, I won’t swear in this house.”

“Or anywhere else,” she said.

I was feeling good now. “OK, honey, if you say so.”

She seemed pleased, and at least the argument had gotten her to quit thinking about Tommy for a minute. But it was then that her sister came downstairs.

Ruth was built on a smaller scale than Marie so that even though she was nineteen she wasn’t any taller. She had darker hair too, and an oval face, very white now, making her brown eyes seem brighter. Brighter though more hollow. I will say she was beautiful.

She wore only a rich blue lounging robe, which was figure-fitting though it came down past her heels and was clasped in a high collar around her pale throat.

“I think it’s time for you to come to bed, Marie,” she said. “Hello, Thorpe.”

“Hello,” I said.

Marie got up wordlessly and pressed my hand, and smiled again, that faint imitation, and went off. Ruth stood there in the doorway from the dining room and as though it was a signal — which I suspect it was — Duff Ryan got up.

“I guess it’s time for us to go, Martin,” he said.

“You don’t say,” I said.

He looked at me fishily. “Yeah. I do say. We’ve got a job to do. Do you know what it is, Martin? We’ve got to kill a kitten. A poor little kitten.”

I started to answer but didn’t. The way he was saying that, and looking at me, put a chill up my back that made me suddenly ice cold. I began to tremble all over. He opened the door and motioned for me to go out.

* * *

That cat thing was a gag of some kind, I thought, and I was wide awake for any funny stuff from detectives, but Duff Ryan actually had a little kitten hidden in a box under the front steps of the house. He picked it up now and petted it.

“Got hit by a car,” he said. “It’s in terrible pain and there isn’t a chance for recovery. I gave it a shot of stuff that eased the pain for a while but it must be coming back. We’ll have to kill the cat.”

I wanted to ask him why he hadn’t killed it in the first place, whenever he had picked it up from under the car, but I kept my mouth shut and we walked along, back across the street to the Clark campus. There were no lights at all here and we walked in darkness, our feet scuffing on the dirt of the football gridiron.

“About that night of the murder, Martin,” Duff said. “You won’t mind a few more questions, will you? We want to do something to save Tommy. I made the arrest but I’ve been convinced since that he’s innocent. I want desperately to save him before it’s too late. It’s apparent that we missed on something because — well, the way things are.”

I said, “Are you sure of Tommy’s innocence, or are you stuck on Ruth?”

“Sure of his innocence,” he said in that soft voice. “You want to help, don’t you, Martin? You don’t want to see Tommy die?”

“Quit talking to me like a kid,” I said. “Sure I want to help.”

“All right. What were you doing over there that night?”

“I’ve answered that a dozen times. Once in court. I was seeing Marie.”

“Mr. Smith — that is, her father — chased you out of the house though, didn’t he?”

“He asked me to leave,” I said.

“No, he didn’t, Martin. He ordered you out and told you not to come back again.”

I stopped and whirled toward him. “Who told you that?”

“Marie,” he said. “She was the only one who heard him. She didn’t want to say it before because she was afraid Ruth would keep her from seeing you. That little kid has a crush on you and she didn’t think that had any bearing on the case.”

“Well, it hasn’t, has it?”

“Maybe not,” snapped Duff Ryan, “but he did chase you out, didn’t he? He threatened to use his cane on you?”

“I won’t answer,” I said.

“You don’t have to,” he told me. “But I wish you’d told the truth about it in the first place.”

“Why?” We started walking again. “You don’t think I killed him, do you?” I shot a quick glance in his direction and held my breath.

“No,” he said, “nothing like that, only—”

“Only what?”

“Well, Martin, haven’t you been kicked out of about every school in the state?”

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say every school.”

Duff said, “Quite a few though, eh?”

“Enough,” I said.

“That’s what I thought.” He went on quietly, “I went over and had a look at your record, Martin. I wish I had thought of doing that sooner.”

“Listen —”

“Oh, don’t get excited,” he said, “this may give us new leads, that’s all. We’ve nothing against you. But when you were going to school at Hadden, you took the goat, which was a class mascot, upstairs with you one night and then pushed him down the stairs so that he broke all his legs. You did that, didn’t you?”

“The goat slipped,” I said.

“Maybe,” whispered Duff. He lit a cigarette, holding on to the crippled cat with one hand. “But you stood at the top of the stairs and watched the goat suffer until somebody came along.”

“I was so scared I couldn’t move.”

“Another time,” Duff continued, “at another school, you pushed a kid into an oil hole that he couldn’t get out of and you were ducking him — maybe trying to kill him — when someone came along and stopped you.”

“He was a sissy. I was just having some fun!”

“At another school you were expelled for roping a newly born calf and pulling it up on top of a barn where you stabbed it and watched it bleed to death.”

“I didn’t stab it! It got caught on a piece of tin from the drain while I was pulling it up. You haven’t told any of this to Marie, have you?”

“No,” Duff said.

“All those things are just natural things,” I said. “Any kid is liable to do them. You’re just nuts because you can’t pin the guilt on anybody but the guy who is going to die Friday and you’re trying to make me look bad!”

“Maybe,” Duff answered quietly, and we came into the chapel now and stopped. He dropped his cigarette, stepped on it, then patted the cat. Moonlight shone jaggedly through the rotting pillars. I could see the cat’s eyes shining. “Maybe,” Duff breathed again, “but didn’t you land in a reform school once?”

“Twice,” I said.

“And once in an institution where you were observed by a staff of doctors? It was a state institution, I think. Sort of a rest home.”

“I was there a month,” I said. “Some crab sent me there, or had me sent. But my dad got me out.”

“Yes,” Duff replied, “the crab had you sent there because you poisoned two of his Great Dane dogs. Your dad had to bribe somebody to get you out, and right now he pays double tuition for you here at Clark’s.”

I knew all this but it wasn’t anything sweet to hear coming from a detective. “What of it?” I said. “You had plenty of chance to find that out.”

“But we weren’t allowed to see your records before,” Duff answered. “As a matter of fact I paid an orderly to steal them for me, and then return them.”

“Why, you dirty crook!”

I could see the funny twist of his smile there in the moonlight. His face looked pale and somehow far away. He looked at the cat and petted it some more. I was still shaking. Scared, I guess.

He said, “Too bad we have to kill you, kitten, but it’s better than that pain.”

Then, all at once I thought he had gone mad. He swung the cat around and began batting its head against the pillar in the chapel. I could see the whole thing clearly in the moonlight, his arm swinging back and forth, the cat’s head being battered off, the bright crimson blood spurting all over.

He kept on doing it and my temples began to pound. My heart went like wildfire. I wanted to reach over and help him. I wanted to take that little cat and squeeze the living guts out of it. I wanted to help him smash its brains all over the chapel. I felt dizzy. Everything was going around. I felt myself reaching for the cat.

But I’m smart. I’m no dummy. I’m at the head of my class. I’m in high school. I knew what he was doing. He was testing me. He wanted me to help him. The son of a-wasn’t going to trick me like that. Not Martin Thorpe. I put my arms behind me and grabbed my wrists and with all my might I held my arms there and looked the other way.

I heard the cat drop with a thud to the cement, then I looked up, gasping to catch my breath. Duff Ryan looked at me with cool gray eyes, then he walked off. I stood there, still trying to get my breath and watching his shadow blend with the shadows of the dark study hall. I was having one hell of a time getting my breath.

* * *

But I slept good all night. I was mad and I didn’t care about Tommy anymore. Let him hang. I slept good but I woke up ten minutes before reveille remembering that it was Pushton’s turn at the bugle again. He and Myers traded off duty every other day.

I felt pretty cocky and got up putting on only my slippers and went down to the eleven-year-old wing. Pushton was sitting on the edge of the bed working his arms back and forth and yawning. The fat little punk looked like an old man. He took himself that seriously. You would have thought maybe he was a general.

“What you want, Thorpe?” he said.

“I want your bugle. I’m going to break the damn thing.”

“You leave my bugle alone,” he said. “My folks aren’t as rich as yours and I had to save all my spending money to buy it.” This was true. They furnished bugles at school but they were awful and Pushton took his music so seriously that he had saved up and bought his own instrument.

“I know it,” I said, “so the school won’t be on my neck if I break it.” I looked around. “Where is it?”

“I won’t tell you!”

I looked under the bed, under his pillow, then I grabbed him by the nose. “Come on, Heinie. Where is it?”

“Leave me alone!” he wailed. “Keep your hands off me.” He was talking so loud now that half the wing was waking up.

“All right, punk,” I said. “Go ahead and blow that thing, and I hope you blow your tonsils out.”

I went back to my bed and held my ears. Pushton blew the bugle all right, I never did find out where he had the thing hidden.

I dressed thinking, well, only two more days and Tommy gets it. I’d be glad when it was over. Maybe all this tension would ease up then and Marie wouldn’t cry so much because once he was dead there wouldn’t be anything she could do about it. Time would go by and eventually she would forget him. One person more or less isn’t so important in the world anyway, no matter how good a guy he is.

Everything went swell Wednesday right through breakfast and until after we were marching out of the chapel and into the schoolroom. Then I ran into Pushton, who was trotting around with his bugle tucked under his arm. I stopped and looked him up and down.

His little black eyes didn’t flicker. He just said, “Next time you bother me, Thorpe, I’m going to report you.”

“Go ahead, punk,” I said, “and see what happens to you.”

I went on into school then, burning up at his guts, talking to me that way.

I was still burned up and sore at the guy when a lucky break came, for me, that is, not Pushton. It was during the afternoon right after we had been dismissed from the classroom for the two-hour recreation period.

I went into the main building, which was prohibited in the daytime so that I had to sneak in, to get a book I wanted to read. It was under my pillow. I slipped up the stairs, crept into my wing, got the book, and started out. It was then that I heard a pounding noise.

I looked around, then saw it was coming from the eleven-year-old wing.

I walked in and there it was! You wouldn’t have believed anything so beautiful could have been if you hadn’t seen it with your own eyes. At least that was the way I felt about it. For who was it but Pushton.

The bugler on duty has the run of the main building and it was natural enough that he was here, but I hadn’t thought about it. There was a new radio set, a small portable, beside his bed. I saw that the wires and earphone — which you have to use in the dormitory—were connected with the adjoining bed as well and guessed that it belonged to another cadet. But Pushton was hooking it up. He was leaning halfway out the window trying, pounding with a hammer, to make some kind of a connection on the aerial wire.

Nothing could have been better. The window was six stories from the ground, with cement down below. No one knew I was in the building. I felt blood surge into my temples. My face got red, hot red, and I could feel fever throbbing in my throat. I moved forward slowly, on cat feet, my hands straight at my sides. I didn’t want him to hear me. But I was getting that dizzy feeling now. My fingers were itching.

Then suddenly I lunged over, I shoved against him. He looked back once, and that was what I wanted. He looked back for an instant, his fat face green with the most unholy fear I have ever seen. Then I gave him another shove and he was gone. Before he could call out, before he could say a word, he was gone, falling through the air!

I risked jumping up on the bed so I could see him hit, and I did see him hit. Then I got down and straightened the bed and beat it out.

I ran down the stairs as fast as I could. I didn’t see anybody. More important, no one saw me. But when I was on the second floor I ran down the hall to the end and lifted the window. I jumped out here, landing squarely on my feet.

I waited for a minute, then I circled the building from an opposite direction. My heart was pounding inside me. It was difficult for me to breathe. I managed to get back to the play field through an indirect route.

Funny thing, Pushton wasn’t seen right away. No one but myself had seen him fall. I was on the play field at least ten minutes, plenty long enough to establish myself as being there, before the cry went up. The kids went wild. We ran in packs to the scene.

I stood there with the rest of them looking at what was left of Push-ton. He wouldn’t blow any more bugles. His flesh was like a sack of water that had fallen and burst full of holes. The blood was splattered out in jagged streaks all around him.

We stood around about five minutes, the rest of the kids and I, nobody saying anything. Then a faculty officer chased us away, and that was the last I saw of Pushton.

Supper was served as usual but there wasn’t much talk. What there was of it seemed to establish the fact that Pushton had been a thick-witted sort and had undoubtedly leaned out too far trying to fix the aerial wire and had fallen.

I thought that that could have easily been the case, all right, and since I had hated the little punk I had no conscience about it. It didn’t bother me nearly so much as the fact that Tommy Smith was going to die. I had liked Tommy. And I was nuts about his sister, wasn’t I?

That night study hall was converted into a little inquest meeting. We were all herded into one big room and Major Clark talked to us as though we were a bunch of Boy Scouts. After ascertaining that no one knew any more about Pushton’s death than what they had seen on the cement, he assured us that the whole thing had been unavoidable and even went so far as to suggest that we might spare our parents the worry of telling them of so unfortunate an incident. All the bloated donkey was worrying about was losing a few tuitions.

Toward the end of the session Duff Ryan came in and nodded at me, and then sat down. He looked around at the kids, watched Major Clark a while, and then glanced back at me. He kept doing that until we were dismissed. He made me nervous.

* * *

Friday morning I woke up and listened for reveille but it didn’t come. I lay there, feeling comfortable in the bedclothes and half lazy, but feeling every minute that reveille would blast me out of my place. Then I suddenly realized why the bugle hadn’t blown. I heard the splash of rain across the window and knew that we wouldn’t have to raise the flag or take our exercises this morning. On rainy days we got to sleep an extra half-hour.

I felt pretty good about this and put my hands behind my head there on the pillow and began thinking. They were pleasant, what you might call mellow, thoughts. A little thing like an extra half-hour in bed will do that.

Things were working out fine and after tonight I wouldn’t have anything to worry about. For Duff Ryan to prove Tommy was innocent after the hanging would only make him out a damn fool. I was glad it was raining. It would make it easier for me to lay low, to stay away from Marie until the final word came …

That was what I thought in the morning, lying there in bed. But no. Seven-thirty that night Duff came over to the school in a slicker. He came into the study hall and got me. His eyes were wild. His face was strained.

“Ruth and I are going to see the lawyer again,” he said. “You’ve got to stay with Marie.”

“Nuts,” I said.

He jerked me out of the seat, then he took his hands off me as though he were ashamed. “Come on,” he said. “This is no time for smart talk.”

So I went.

Ruth had on a slicker too and was waiting there on the front porch. I could see her pretty face. It was pinched, sort of terrible. Her eyes were wild too. She patted my hand, half crying, and said, “You be good to Marie, honey. She likes you, and you’re the only one in the world now that can console her.”

“What time does Tommy go?” I asked.

“Ten-thirty,” said Duff.

I nodded. “OK.” I stood there as they crossed the sidewalk and got into Duff Ryan’s car and drove away. Then I went in to see Marie. The kid looked scared, white as a ghost.

“Oh, Thorpe,” she said, “they’re going to kill him tonight!”

“Well, I guess there’s nothing we can do,” I said.

She put her arms around me and cried on my shoulder. I could feel her against me, and believe me, she was nice. She had figure, all right. I put my arms around her waist and then I kissed her neck and her ears. She looked at me, tears on her cheeks, and shook her head. “Don’t.”

She said that because I had never kissed her before, but now I saw her lips and I kissed her. She didn’t do anything about it, but kept crying.

Finally I said, “Well, let’s make fudge. Let’s play a game. Let’s play the radio. Let’s do something. This thing’s beginning to get me.”

We went to the kitchen and made fudge for a while.

But I was restless. The rain had increased. There was thunder and lightning in the sky now. Again I had that strange feeling of being cold, although the room was warm. I looked at the clock and it said ten minutes after eight. Only ten minutes after eight! And Tommy wasn’t going to hang until ten-thirty!

“You’ll always stay with me, won’t you, Thorpe?” said Marie.

“Sure,” I told her, but right then I felt like I wanted to push her face in. I had never felt that way before. I couldn’t understand what was the matter with me. Everything that had been me was gone. My wit and good humor.

I kept watching the clock, watching every minute that ticked by, and thinking of Tommy up there in San Quentin in the death cell pacing back and forth. I guess maybe he was watching the minutes too. I wondered if it was raining up there and if rain made any difference in a hanging.

We wandered back into the living room and sat down at opposite ends of the divan. Marie looking at nothing, her eyes glassy, and me watching and hating the rain, and hearing the clock.

Then suddenly Marie got up and went to the piano. She didn’t ask me if she could or anything about it. She just went to the piano and sat down. I stared after her, even opened my mouth to speak. But I didn’t say anything. After all, it was her brother who was going to die, wasn’t it? I guess for one night at least she could do anything she wanted to do.

But then she began playing. First, right off, “Lead Kindly Light,” and then “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and then “Little Church in the Wildwood.” I sat there wringing my hands with that agony beating in my ears. Then I leapt to my feet and began to shout at her.

“Stop that! Stop it! Do you want to drive me crazy?”

But her face was frozen now. It was as though she was in a trance. I ran to her and shook her shoulder, but she pulled away from me and played on.

I backed away from her and my face felt as though it was contorted. I backed away and stared at her, her slim, arched back. I began biting my fingernails, and then my fingers. That music was killing me. Those hymns …those silly, inane hymns. Why didn’t she stop it? The piano and the rain were seeping into my bloodstream.

I walked up and down the room. I walked up and down the room faster and faster. I stopped and picked up a flower vase and dropped it, yelling: “Stop it! For the love of heaven, stop!”

But she kept right on. Again I began staring at her, at her back, and her throat, and the profile of her face. I felt blood surging in me. I felt those hammers in my temples …

I tried to fight it off this time. I tried to go toward her to pull her away from that damn piano but I didn’t have the strength to move in her direction. I stood there feeling the breath go out of me, feeling my skin tingle. And I didn’t want to be like that. I looked at my hands, and one minute they were tight fists and the next my fingers were working in and out like mad.

I looked toward the kitchen, and then I moved quietly into it. She was still slamming at the piano when I opened the drawer and pulled out the knife I had used to kill her father.

At least it was a knife like it. I put it behind me and tiptoed back into the room. She wasn’t aware that I had moved. I crept up on her, waited.

Her hands were flying over the piano keys. Once more I shouted, and my voice was getting hoarse: “Stop it!”

But of course she didn’t. She didn’t and I swore. I swore at her. She didn’t hear this either. But I’d show the little slut a thing or two.

I was breathing hard, looking around the room to make sure no one was here. Then I lifted the knife and plunged down with it.

I swear I never knew where Duff Ryan came from. It must have been from behind the divan. A simple place like that and I hadn’t seen him, merely because I had been convinced that he went away in the car. But he’d been in the room all the time waiting for me to do what I almost did.

It had been a trick, of course, and this time I’d been sap enough to fall into his trap. He had heard me denounce hymns, he knew I’d be nervous tonight, highly excitable, so he had set the stage and remained hidden, and Marie had done the rest.

He had told Marie then, after all.

Duff Ryan grabbed my wrist just at the right moment, as he had planned on doing, and of course being fourteen I didn’t have much chance against him. He wrested away the knife, then he grabbed me and shouted:

“Why did you murder Maries father?”

“Because the old boy hated me! Because he thought Marie was too young to know boys! Because he kicked me out and hit me with his cane!” I said all this, trying to jerk away from him, but I couldn’t so I went on:

“That’s why I did it. Because I had a lot of fun doing it! So what? What are you going to do about it? I’m a kid, you can’t hang me! There’s a law against hanging kids. I murdered Pushton too. I shoved him out the window! How do you like that? All you can do is put me in reform school!”

As my voice faded, and it faded because I had begun to choke, I heard Ruth at the telephone. She had come back in too. She was calling long distance. San Quentin.

Marie was sitting on the divan, her face in her hands. You would have thought she was sorry for me. When I got my breath I went on:

“I came back afterward, while Tommy was in the other room. I got in the kitchen door. The old man was standing there and I just picked up the knife and let him have it. I ran before I could see much. But Pushton. Let me tell you about Pushton —”

Duff Ryan shoved me back against the piano. “Shut up,” he said. “You didn’t kill Pushton. You’re just bragging now. But you did kill the old man and that’s what we wanted to know!”

Bragging? I was enraged. But Duff Ryan clipped me and I went out cold.

* * *

So I’m in reform school now and — will you believe it? —I can’t convince anyone that I murdered Pushton. Is it that grownups are so unbelieving because I’m pretty young? Are they so stupid that they still look upon fourteen-year-old boys as little innocents who have no minds of their own? That is the bitterness of youth. And I am sure that I won’t change or see things any differently. I told the dopes that too, but everyone assures me I will.

But the only thing I’m really worried about is that no one will believe about Pushton, not even the kids here at the reform school, and that hurts. It does something to my pride.

I’m not in the least worried about anything else. Things here aren’t so bad, nor so different from Clark’s. Doctors come and see me now and then but they don’t think anything is wrong with my mind.

They think I knifed old man Smith because I was in a blind rage when I did it, and looking at it that way, it would only be second-degree murder even if I were older. I’m not considered serious. There are lots worse cases here than mine. Legally, a kid isn’t responsible for what he does, so I’ll be out when I’m twenty-one. Maybe before, because my old man’s got money…

You’ll always remember me, won’t you? Because I’ll be out when I’m older and you might be the one I’ll be seeing.

1940

MACKINLAY KANTOR

GUN CRAZY

MacKinlay Kantor (1904-1977) was born in Webster City, Iowa, becoming a journalist at seventeen, and soon after began selling hard-boiled mystery stories to various pulp magazines. He wrote numerous crime stories, as well as several novels in the genre, such as Diversey (1928), about Chicago gangsters, and Signal Thirty-Two (1950), an excellent police procedural, given verisimilitude by virtue of Kantors receiving permission from the acting police commissioner of New York to accompany the police on their activities to gather background information. His most famous crime novel is Midnight Lace (1948), the suspenseful tale of a young woman terrorized by an anonymous telephone caller; it was filmed twelve years later, starring Doris Day and Rex Harrison.

Kantor is far better known for his mainstream novels, such as the sentimental dog story The Voice of Bugle Ann (1936), filmed the same year; the long narrative poem Glory for Me (1945), filmed as The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), which won the Academy Award for Best Picture; and the outstanding Civil War novel Andersonville (1955), about the notorious Confederate prisoner of war camp, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize.

“Gun Crazy” was first published in the February 13, 1940, issue of the Saturday Evening Post. It has seldom been reprinted, even though it served as the basis for the famous noir cult film of the same title, for which Kantor wrote the screenplay. Released in 1949, it was directed by Joseph H. Lewis. The film, an excellent though more violent expansion of the short story, features a clean-cut gun nut, Bart (Nelly in the story), played by John Dall, who meets a good-looking sharpshooter, Laurie Starr (Antoinette McReady in the story), played by Peggy Cummins, and their subsequent spree of bank robberies and shootings.

I first met Nelson Tare when he was around five or six years old, and I was around the same. I had watched his family moving into the creek house on a cold, snowless morning in early winter.

Two lumber wagons went by, with iron beds and old kitchen chairs and mattresses tied all over them. They rumbled down the hill past Mr. Boston’s barn and stopped in front of the creek house. I could see men and girls working, carrying the stuff inside.

In midafternoon I was outdoors again, and I coasted to the corner in my little wagon to see whether the moving-in activities were still going on.

Then Nelson Tare appeared. He had climbed the hill by himself; probably he was looking for guns, although I couldn’t know that at the time. He was a gaunt little child with bright blue beads for eyes, and a sharp-pointed nose.

He said, “Hello, kid. Want to pway?”

Nelson was only about a month younger than I, it turned out, but he still talked a lot of baby talk. I think kids are apt to do that more when their parents don’t talk to them much.

I told him that I did want to play, and asked him what he wanted to do.

He asked, “Have you got any guns?” What he actually said was, “Dot any duns?” and for a while I didn’t know what he was talking about. Then, when I understood, I coasted back to the house in my wagon, with Nelson walking beside me. We went into the living room.

I had three guns: a popgun with the pop gone, and a glass pistol that used to have candy inside — but now the candy was all eaten up — and a cap gun and holster.

The cap gun was the best. It was nickel-plated, and the holster was made of black patent leather. It was the shape and possibly half the size of an ordinary .32-caliber revolver.

Nelson Tare’s eyes pushed out a little when he saw it. He made a grab, and belted it on before I had time to protest and tell him that I wanted to play with the cap gun and he could play with the glass pistol or the broken pop rifle. He went swaggering around with the gun on, and it kind of scared me the way he did it — all of a sudden he’d snatch the revolver out of its holster and aim it at me.

I took the glass pistol and tried to imitate him. But the glass pistol couldn’t click, and at least the hammer of the cap gun would come down with a resounding click. Nelson, or Nelly, as I came to know him, fairly shot the daylights out of me. I began to protest, and he kept on advancing and kind of wrangling and threatening me, until he had me backed up in a corner.

He hadn’t taken off his little red coat with its yellow horn buttons, and he was perspiring inside it. I still recollect how he smelled when he got close enough to wool me around; I had never smelled a smell like that before. I remember his face, too, when he came close — the tiny, expressionless turquoise eyes, the receding chin and baby mouth still marked with the tag ends of his dinner; and in between them, that inhuman nose whittled out to a point.

I tried to push him away as he kept battling me and shooting me, and I guess I began to cry.

Nelson said that it wasn’t a real gun.

“It might go off!”

He said that it couldn’t go off; that it wasn’t “weal.”

“‘Course it isn’t real!” I cried. “I guess there isn’t any boy in the world got a real gun!”

Well, he said that he had one, and when I was still disbelieving he said that he would go home and fetch it. His coat had come unbuttoned in our scufflings, and I remember how he looked as I watched through the window and saw him flapping down the last length of concrete sidewalk past the big maple tree.

My mother came from upstairs while I waited at the window. She said that she had heard voices. “Did you have company?” she asked.

“It was a new boy.”

“What new boy?”

“He moved into the creek house down there.”

My mother said doubtfully, “Oh, yes. I heard there was a ditcher’s family moving in down there.”

Well, I wanted to know what a ditcher was, and while Mother was explaining to me about drainage ditches out on the prairie and how the tile was laid in them, here came Nelly hustling up the road as fast as he could leg it. He had something big and heavy that he had to carry in both hands. When he got into the yard we could see that he did have a revolver, and it looked like a real one.

Mother exclaimed, and went to open the door for him. He ducked inside, bareheaded and cold, with his dirty, thin, straw-colored hair sticking every which way, and the old red coat still dangling loose.

“I dot my dun,” he said.

It was a large revolver — probably about a .44. It had a yellow handle, but the metal parts were a mass of rust. The cylinder and hammer were rusted tight and couldn’t be moved.

“Why, little boy,” Mother exclaimed in horror, “where on earth did you get this?”

He said that he got it at home.

Mother lured it out of his hands, but only after she had praised it extravagantly. She got him to put the revolver on the library table, and then she took us both out to the kitchen, where we had milk and molasses cookies.

My father came home from his newspaper office before Nelly had gone. We showed Father the gun, and he lighted the lamp on the library table and examined the revolver thoroughly.

“My goodness, Ethel,” he said to my mother, “it’s got cartridges in it!”

“Cartridges?”

“Yes, it sure has. They’re here in the cylinder, all rusted in tight. Good thing the rest of it is just as rusty.”

He put on his coat again and said that he’d take Nelson home. It was growing dark and was almost suppertime, and he was afraid the boy might be lost there in the new surroundings of Elm City. Nelson wanted his gun, but my father said no and put it in his own overcoat pocket. I was allowed to go along with them.

When we got to the creek house, Father rapped on the door and Nelly’s mother opened it. She was a scrawny, pale-faced woman, very round-shouldered, in a calico dress. Nelly’s father wasn’t there; he had gone to take one of the teams back. There were several girls — Nelly’s sisters — strung out all the way from little kids to a big, bony creature as tall as her mother.

Father brought out the gun and said that it wasn’t wise to let little kids go carrying things like that around.

“You little devil!” said Nelly’s mother to Nelly, and she laughed when she said it. “What on earth were you doing with that?”

The girls crowded close and looked. “Why, it’s Jay’s gun!” said the eldest one.

Father wanted to know who Jay was. They laughed a lot while they were telling him, although they were remarkably close-lipped about it at the same time. All that Father could get out of them was the fact that they used to live in Oklahoma, and Jay was somebody who used to stay at their house. He had left that gun there once, and they still kept it — as a kind of memorial for Jay, it would seem.

“I swear Nelly must have taken it out of the bureau drawer,” said Mrs. Tare, still smiling. “You little devil, you got to behave yourself, you got to!” And she gave him a kind of spat with her hand, but not as if she were mad. They all seemed to think it was cute, for him to sneak off with that gun.

Father said goodbye and we went home. It was dark now, and all the way up the hill and past Mr. Boston’s farmyard, I kept wondering about this new little boy and the rusty revolver. I kept breathing hard, trying to breathe that strange oily smell out of my nose. It was the odor of their house and of themselves — the same odor I had noticed when Nelly tussled with me.

My father said quite calmly that he supposed Jay was an Oklahoma outlaw. Unintentionally, he thus gave Nelson Tare a fantastic importance in my eyes. I did not dream then that Jay, instead of old Barton Tare with his sloppy mustache, might have been Nelly’s own father. Perhaps it is a dream, even as I write the words now. But I think not.

* * *

When Nelly grew older, he possessed a great many physical virtues. He was remarkably agile in the use of his hands and arms. He had no fear of height; he would climb any windmill within reach and he could stump any boy in that end of town when it came to Stump-the-Leader. But Nelly Tare liked guns better than he did games.

At the air-rifle stage of our development, Nelly could shoot rings around any of us. He and I used to go up in our barn and lie on the moldy, abandoned hay of the old mow. There were rats that sometimes came into the chicken run next door, to eat the chickens’ food. I never did shoot a rat with my BB gun, and for some reason Nelly never did either. That was funny, because he was such a good shot. We used to amuse ourselves, while waiting for rats, by trying to peck away at the chickens’ water pan. It was a good healthy distance, and I’d usually miss. But the side of the pan which faced our way had the enamel all spotted off by Nelly’s accurate fire.

He owned an air-pump gun of his own, but not for long. He traded it to somebody for an old .22, and after that there was little peace in the neighborhood. He was always shooting at tin cans or bottles on the roadside dump. He was always hitting too.

In the winter of 1914, Nelly and I went hunting with Clyde Boston. Clyde was a huge, ruddy-faced young man at least ten years older than Nelly and I. He lived with his parents across from our corner.

One day there was deep snow, and Nelly and I were out exploring. He had his .22, and every now and then he’d bang away at a knot on a fence post. At last we wandered into Boston’s barnyard, and found Clyde in the barn, filling his pockets with shotgun shells.

He had a shotgun too — a fine repeater, gleaming blue steel — and Nelly wanted to know what Clyde was doing. “Going hunting?”

“Come on, Clyde,” I said, “let us go! Nelly’s got his gun.”

Clyde took the little rifle and examined it critically. “This won’t do for hunting around here,” he said. “I’m going out after rabbits, and you got to have a shotgun for that. Rifle bullets are apt to carry too far and hit somebody, or maybe hit a pig or something. Anyway, you couldn’t hit a cottontail on the run with that.”

“Hell I couldn’t,” said Nelly.

I said, “Clyde, you let us go with you and we’ll beat up the game. We’ll scare the rabbits out of the weeds, because you haven’t got any dog. Then you can shoot them when they run out. Maybe you’ll let us have one shot each, huh, Clyde — maybe?”

Clyde said that he would see, and he made Nelly leave his rifle at the barn. We went quartering off through the truck garden on the hillside.

The snow had fallen freshly, but already there was a mass of rabbit tracks everywhere. You could see where the cottontails had run into the thickest, weediest coverts to feed upon dry seeds.

Clyde walked in the middle, with his face apple-colored with the cold and his breath blowing out. Nelly and I spread wide, to scare up the game. We used sticks and snowballs to alarm the thickets, and we worked hard at it. The big twelve-gauge gun began to bang every once in a while. Clyde had three cottontails hanging furry from his belt before we got to the bend in the creek opposite the Catholic cemetery. Then finally he passed the gun over to me and told me I could have the next chance.

It came pretty soon. We saw a cottontail in his set — a gray little mound among the vervain stalks. I lifted the muzzle, but Clyde said that it wasn’t fair to shoot rabbits in the set, and made Nelly throw a snowball. The cottontail romped out of there in a hurry, and I whaled away with the shotgun and managed to wound the rabbit and slow him down. I fired again and missed, and Clyde caught up with the rabbit after a few strides. He put the poor peeping thing out of its misery by rapping it on the head.

I tied the rabbit to the belt of my mackinaw, and Clyde passed the shotgun over to Nelly.

Nelly’s face was pale.

“Watch your step,” said Clyde. “Remember to keep the safety on until you see something to shoot.”

“Sure,” said Nelly Tare.

We crossed the creek without starting any more rabbits, and came down the opposite side of the stream. Then a long-legged jack jumped up out of a deep furrow where there had been some fall plowing, and ran like a mule ahead of us.

“Look at those black ears!” Clyde sang out. “It’s a jack! Get him, Nelly — get him!”

Well, Nelson had the gun at his shoulder; at first I thought he had neglected to touch the safety— I thought he couldn’t pull the trigger because the safety was on. He kept swinging the muzzle of the gun, following the jackrabbit in its erratic course, until the rabbit slowed up a little.

The jack bobbed around behind a tree stump, and then came out on the other side. It squatted down on top of the snow and sat looking at us. It hopped a few feet farther and then sat up again to watch.

“For gosh sakes,” said Clyde Boston, “what’s the matter with you, kid? There he is, looking at you.”

Nelson Tare just stood like a snow man, or rather like a snow boy. He kept the rabbit covered; his dirty blue finger didn’t move. The trigger waited, the shell in the barrel waited, and so did we.

Nelly’s face was deathly white under the dirt that streaked it. The eyes were blank little marbles, as always; even his nose seemed pointed like the sights of a gun. And yet he did not shoot.

Clyde said, half under his breath, “I guess that’s what they call buck fever. You got the buck, Nelly.” He hurried over to take the shotgun.

Blood from the last-killed rabbit made little dots on the snow around my feet, though the animal was freezing fast.

“Can’t you see him, Nelly?”

Nelson said, “Yes. I —”

Clyde lost all patience. “Oh, for gosh sake!” he exclaimed, and grabbed the gun. But our combined motions startled the jackrabbit, and he vanished into the creek gorge beyond.

Something had happened there in the snow; none of us knew exactly what had happened. But whatever it was, it took the edge off our sport. We tramped along a cattle path next to the stream, with Clyde carrying the shotgun. We boys didn’t scare up any more game. Nelly kept looking at the rabbits, which bounced and rubbed their frozen red against Clyde Boston’s overalls.

Clyde teased him, all the way back to the Boston barnyard. He’d say, “Nelly, I thought you were supposed to be the Daniel Boone of the neighborhood. Gosh, Nelly, I thought you could shoot. I thought you were just gun crazy!”

We walked through the fresh warm mire behind the Boston barn. Clyde said that he didn’t need three rabbits; that his mother could use only two, and would Nelly want the other one?

“No,” said Nelson. We went into the barn, and Nelly picked up his .22 rifle.

“Look out while you’re on the way home,” said Clyde, red-faced and jovial as ever. “Look out you don’t meet a bear. Maybe he wouldn’t set around and wait like that jackrabbit did.”

Nelson Tare sucked in his breath. “You said I couldn’t shoot, didn’t you, Mister Clyde?”

“You had your chance. Look at Dave there. He’s got a rabbit to take home that he shot himself, even though he didn’t kill it first crack.”

“I can shoot,” said Nelly. He worked a cartridge into the breech of his rifle. “Dave,” he said to me, “you throw up a snowball.”

“Can’t anybody hit a snowball with a twenty-two,” said big Clyde Boston.

Nelly said, “Throw a snowball, Dave.”

I stepped down from the sill of the barn door and made a ball about the size of a Duchess apple. I threw it high toward the telephone wires across the road. Nelly Tare pinked it apart with his .22 before the ball ever got to the wires. Then he went down the road to the creek house, with Clyde Boston and me looking after him. Clyde was scratching his head, but I just looked.

* * *

Nelly began to get into trouble when he was around fourteen. His first trouble that anyone knew about happened in the cloakroom of the eighth grade at school. Miss Cora Petersen was a great believer in corporal punishment, and when Nelly was guilty of some infraction of rules, Miss Petersen prepared to thrash him with a little piece of white rubber hose. Teachers used to be allowed to do that.

But if the pupil did not permit it to be done to him, but instead drew a loaded revolver from inside his shirt and threatened to kill his teacher, that was a different story. It was a story in which the superintendent of schools and the local chief of police and hard-faced old Mr. Tare were all mixed together in the climax.

There was some talk about the reform school, too, but the reform school did not materialize until a year later.

That was after Meisner’s Hardware and Harness Store had been robbed. The thief or thieves had a peculiar taste in robbery; the cash drawer was untouched, but five revolvers and a lot of ammunition were taken away. A mile and a quarter away, to be exact. They were hidden beneath planks and straw in Mr. Barton Tare’s wagon shed, and Chief of Police Kelcy found them after the simplest kind of detective work.

This time the story had to be put in the paper, no matter how much my father regretted it. This time it was the reform school for sure.

We boys in the south end of town sat solemnly on our new concrete curbstone and talked of Nelly Tare in hushed voices. The judge had believed, sternly and simply, that Nelly was better off at Eldora than at home. He gave him two years. Nelly didn’t serve all of that time. He got several months off for good behavior, which must have come as a surprise to many people in Elm City.

He emerged from the Eldora reformatory in the spring of 1918. His parents were out of the picture by this time. His mother was dead; his father had moved to South Dakota with the two youngest girls, and the other girls had married or drifted away.

Nelly may have been under age, but when he expressed a preference for the cavalry, and when he flourished a good report sheet from the reformatory superintendent, no one cared to say him nay. Once he came home on furlough from a camp in New Mexico. I remember how he looked, standing in front of Frank Wanda’s Recreation Pool Hall, with the flashing badge of a pistol expert pinned upon his left breast, and all the little kids grouped around to admire the polish on his half-leather putts.

He never got a chance to use any guns against the Germans. He wasn’t sent to France, and came back to Elm City in the spring of 1919. It was reasonable for him to come there. Elm City was the only real hometown he had, and one of his sisters was married to Ira Flagler, a garage mechanic who lived out on West Water Street. Nelly went to live with the Flaglers.

He began working at Frank Wanda’s pool hall. I have spoken about his skill with his hands; he employed that skill to good advantage in the pool hall. He had developed into a remarkable player during his year in the Army. He also ran the cigar counter and soft drinks for Frank Wanda, who was getting old and couldn’t stand on his feet very long at a time.

It used to be that in every pool hall there was somebody who played for the house, if people came along and really wanted to bet anything. Nelly would play on his own, too, taking money away from farm boys or from some out-of-towner who thought he was good. He was soon making real money, but he didn’t spend it in the usual channels. He spent it on guns.

All sorts. Sometimes he’d have an especially good revolver down there in the billiard parlor with him, and he’d show it to me when I dropped in for cigarettes. He had a kind of private place out along the Burlington tracks where he used to practice shooting on Sundays. And in 1923 a carnival came to town.

* * *

Miss Antoinette McReady, the Outstanding Six-Gun Artiste of Two Nations, was supposed to come from Canada. Maybe she did. They built up a phony Royal Canadian Mounted Police atmosphere for her act. A fellow in a shabby red coat and yellow-striped breeches sold tickets out in front. An extra girl in the same kind of comic uniform assisted the artiste with her fancy shooting. They had a steel backstop at the rear of the enclosure to stop the bullets. I went to the carnival on the first night, and dropped in to see the shooting act.

The girl was pretty good. Her lady assistant put on a kind of crown with white chalks sticking up in it, and Miss McReady shot the chalks out of the crown quite accurately, missing only one or two shots and not killing the lady assistant at all. She did mirror shooting and upside-down-leaning-backward shooting; she balanced on a chair and shot. She was a very pretty redhead, though necessarily painted.

Then the Royal Canadian Mounted manager made a speech. He said that frequently during her extensive travels, Miss McReady had been challenged by local pistol-artists, but that she was so confident of her ability that she had a standing offer of one hundred dollars to anybody who could outshoot her.

The only condition was that the challenging local artist should agree to award Miss McReady an honorarium of twenty dollars, provided she outshot him.

Nelly Tare climbed up on the platform; he showed the color of his money and the bet was on.

Miss Antoinette McReady shot first, shooting at the tiny target gong with great deliberation; she rang the gong five out of six times. Nelly took her gun, aimed, and snapped it a few times before ejecting the empty shells, to acquaint himself with the trigger pull. Then he loaded up, with the whole audience standing to watch him. He fired his six rounds, rapid fire, and everyone yipped when he rang the gong with every shot.

Miss Antoinette McReady smiled and bowed as if she had done the shooting instead of Nelly; she went over to congratulate him. They got ready for the next competition. The girl assistant started to put on the crown thing with its chalks sticking out of the sockets. Nelly talked to her a minute in a low voice; he took the crown and put it on his own head.

He stood against the backstop. His face was very red, but he stood there stiff at Army attention, with his hands against his sides.

“Go ahead, sister,” he told Miss McReady.

Well, they made him sign a waiver first, in case of accident. You could have heard an ant sneeze in that place when Miss McReady stood up to do her shooting. She fired six times and broke four of the chalks. The people in the audience proceeded to wake up babies two blocks away, and Miss Antoinette McReady went over to Nelly with those little dancing, running steps that circus and vaudeville folks use. She made him come down to the front and take applause with her. Then she said she’d wear the crown for Nelly, and this time there was no waiver signed.

Nelly broke all six chalks in six steady shots, and Miss Antoinette McReady kissed him, and Frank Wanda had to get a new fellow for the pool hall when Nelly left town with the show after the last performance on Saturday night.

It was six months later when I heard my father exclaim, while he was taking press dispatches over the out-of-town wire. He often did that when some news came through which particularly interested or excited him. I left my desk and went to look over his shoulder, while his fat old fingers pushed out the story on the typewriter.

* * *

hampton, Colorado, April 2. — Two desperate trick-shot artists gave Hampton residents an unscheduled exhibition today. When the smoke had cleared away the Hampton County Savings Bank discovered it had paid more than $7,000 to watch the show.

Shortly after the bank opened this morning, a young man and a young woman, identified by witnesses as “Cowboy” Nelson Tare and Miss Antoinette McReady, walked into the bank and commanded tellers and customers to lie down on the floor. They scooped up $7,150 in small bills, and were backing toward an exit, when Vice-President O. E. Simms tried to reach for a telephone.

The trick-shot bandits promptly shot the telephone off the desk. They pulverized chandeliers, interior glass, and window lights in a rapid fusillade which covered their retreat to their car.

Within a few minutes a posse was in hot pursuit, but lost the trail near Elwin, ten miles south of this place. A stolen car, identified as the one used by the bandits, was found abandoned this noon near Hastings City. State and county officers immediately spread a dragnet on surrounding highways.

Nelson Tare and his female companion were easily recognized as stunt shooters with a traveling carnival which became stranded in El-win a week ago. A full description of the hard-shooting pair has been broadcast to officials of five nearby states.

* * *

All the time I was reading it, I kept thinking of Nelly Tare, half-pint size in a dirty red coat, asking me, “Dot any duns?”

They were captured in Oklahoma that summer, after another robbery. Antoinette McReady, whose real name turned out to be Ruth Riley, was sent to a women’s penal institution; Nelly Tare went to McAlester Prison. He managed his escape during the winter two years later, and started off on a long series of holdups which carried him south into Texas, over to Arkansas, and north into Missouri.

Those were the days of frequent and daring bank robberies throughout that region. There were a lot of other bad boys around, and Nelly was only one of the herd. Still, he began to appear in the news dispatches with increasing regularity, and when some enterprising reporter called him Nice Nelly, the name stuck and spread. It was a good news name, like Baby Face or Pretty Boy.

They recaptured him in Sedalia; the story of his escape from the Jefferson City Penitentiary in 1933 was front-page stuff all over the nation. It was always the same — he was always just as hard to catch up with. He was always just as able to puncture the tires of pursuing cars, to blast the headlights that tried to pick him out through the midnight dust.

Federal men didn’t enter the picture until the next January, when Nelly kidnapped a bank cashier in Hiawatha, Kansas, and carried him nearly to Lincoln, Nebraska. That little state line made all the difference in the world. The so-called Lindbergh Law had come into existence, and Nice Nelly Tare became a public enemy on an elaborate scale.

It is not astonishing that some people of Elm City basked in this reflected notoriety.

Reporters from big-city papers, photographers from national magazines, came poking around all the time. They interviewed Nelly’s sister, poor Mrs. Ira Flagler, until she was black in the face — until she was afraid to let her children play in the yard.

They took pictures of Frank Wanda’s pool hall, and they would have taken pictures of Frank if he hadn’t been dead. They managed to shake Miss Cora Petersen, late of Elm City’s eighth grade, from asthmatic retirement. Her homely double-chinned face appeared in a fine-screen cut, in ugly halftones — a million different impressions of it. read teacher’s story of how nice nelly, baby bandit, drew his first bead on her. other pictures on page seven.

Clyde Boston and I used to talk about it, over in Clyde’s office in the courthouse. Clyde Boston had been sheriff for two terms; he was just as apple-cheeked and good-natured as ever, though most of his hair was gone. He would shake his head when we talked about Nelly Tare, which we did often.

“You know,” he’d say, “a lot of people probably doubt those stories about Nelly’s fancy shooting — people who haven’t seen him shoot. But I still remember that time he had you throw a snowball for him to break with a rifle. He certainly is gun crazy.”

* * *

It was during the late summer of 1934 — the bad drought year — when Nelly held up a bank at Northfield, Minnesota, and was promptly dubbed the Modern Jesse James.

Officers picked up Nelly’s trail in Sioux Falls, and that was a relief to us in Elm City, because people had always feared that Nelly might be struck with a desire to revisit his boyhood haunts and stage a little shooting right there in the lobby of the Farmers’ National Bank. Nelly’s trail was lost again, and for two weeks he slid out of the news.

Then came the big story. Federal men very nearly recaptured him in Council Bluffs, though he got away from them even there. Then silence again.

About two o’clock of the following Thursday afternoon, I went up to the courthouse on printing business. I had stopped in at Sheriff Clyde Boston’s office and was chewing the rag with Clyde, when his telephone rang.

Clyde picked up the phone. He said, “Yes …Yes, Barney …He did? …Yes …Glad you called me.” He hung up the receiver and sat drumming his fingers against a desk blotter.

“Funny thing,” he said. “That was young Barney Meisner, down at the hardware store.”

“What did he have to say?”

“He said that one of the Flagler kids was in there a while ago and bought two boxes of forty-five shells. Funny, isn’t it?”

We looked at each other. “Maybe Ira Flagler’s decided to emulate his wife’s folks,” I said, “and take up trick shooting on the side.”

Clyde Boston squeezed out a smile. “Guess I’ll ride up to their house and ask about it.”

So I went along with him, and when we got to the green-and-white Flagler house on West Water Street, we saw a coupe parked in the drive. Clyde breathed rapidly for a moment; I saw his hands tighten on the steering wheel, until he could read the license number of the car. Clyde relaxed. It was a Vera Cruz County number; it was one of our own local cars; I remembered that I had seen Ira Flagler driving that car sometimes.

Clyde parked across the street, although down a little way. He got out on the driver’s side and I got out on the other side. When I walked around the rear of the car and looked up at the Flagler house, Nelly Tare was standing on the porch with a revolver in his hand.

I guess neither Clyde nor I could have said anything if we had been paid. Clyde didn’t have his own gun on; sheriffs didn’t habitually carry guns in our county anymore. There was Nelly on the porch, covering us and looking just about the same as ever, except that his shoulders had sagged and his chin seemed to have receded a good deal more.

He said, “Lay down on the ground. That’s right — both of you. Lay down. That’s right — keep your hands up.”

When we were on the ground, or rather on the asphalt pavement which formed the last block of Water Street, Nelly fired four shots. He put them all into the hood and engine of the car, and then we heard his feet running on the ground. I didn’t look for a minute, but Clyde had more nerve than I, and got up on his haunches immediately.

By that time Nelly was in the Flagler coupe. He drove it right across their vegetable garden, across Lou Miller’s yard, and out onto the pavement of Prospect Street. Prospect Street connected with a wide gravel road that went south toward the Rivermouth country and the town of Liberty beyond. Nelly put his foot on the gas; dust went high.

Those four bullets had made hash out of the motor. The starter was dead when Clyde got his foot on it; gas and water were leaking out underneath. Mrs. Ira Flagler stumbled out upon the porch with one of her children; they were both crying hysterically.

She said, “Oh, thank God he didn’t shoot you, Mr. Boston!”

Later she told her story. Nelly had showed up there via boxcar early that morning, but Ira was working on a hurry-up job at the garage and didn’t know about it. Nelly had made his sister and the children stay in the house all day. Finally he persuaded the youngest boy that it would be great fun and a joke on everybody if he would go downtown and buy him two boxes of .45 shells.

But all this revelation came later, for Clyde Boston was well occupied at the telephone. He called the courthouse and sent a carload of vigilantes after Nelly on Primary No. 37. He called the telephone office and had them notify authorities in Liberty, Prairie Flower, Mannville, and Fort Hood. Then he called the state capital and talked to federal authorities himself. Government men started arriving by auto and airplane within two hours.

About suppertime Nelly showed up at a farmhouse owned by Larry Larsen, fourteen miles southwest of Elm City. He had been circling around all afternoon, trying to break through the cordon. They had heavy trucks across all the roads; late-summer cornfields don’t make for good auto travel, even when there has been a drought.

He took Larsen’s sedan and made the farmer fill it with gas out of his tractor tank. Nelly had cut the telephone wires; he forced the farmer’s family to tie one another up, and then he tied the last one himself. Nelly saw to it that the tying was well done; it was after eight o’clock before one of the kids got loose and they shouted forth their story over a neighbor’s telephone.

Things were wild enough down at the Chronicle office that evening. But I had a reliable staff, and at eight-thirty I thought it was safe to take a run up to the courthouse.

“I kind of expected you’d be up, Dave,” said Clyde Boston.

I told him that I thought he’d be out on the road somewhere.

“Been out for the last four hours.” He took his feet down off the desk, and then put them up again. “If I can get loose from all these state and national efficiency experts, how’d you like to take a little drive with me in your car? Mine’s kind of out of order.”

Well, I told him that I’d be glad to drive him anywhere he said, but I didn’t want to come back with bullet holes in the cowling. So he got loose from the efficiency experts, and he made me strike out south of town and then east, on Primary No. 6.

Clyde didn’t talk. Usually it was his way to talk a lot, in a blissful, middle-aged, baldheaded fashion. We passed two gangs of guards and identified ourselves each time, and finally Clyde had me stop at a farm where some cousins of his lived. He borrowed a log chain — a good big one with heavy links. This rusty mass Clyde dumped down into my clean back seat, and then he directed me to drive south again.

The katydids exclaimed in every grove.

“You know,” said Clyde, “I used to do a lot of rabbit hunting and prairie-chicken hunting down this way, when I was younger. And you used to do a lot of hiking around down here with the boys. Fact is, only boys who were raised in these parts would know this country completely. Isn’t that a fact? Outside officers wouldn’t know it.”

Well, I agreed that they wouldn’t, and then Clyde began to talk about Nelly Tare. He said that Nelly’s one chance to get out of those several hundred square miles that he was surrounded in was to ride out on a railroad train. He wouldn’t be likely to try it on foot, not unless he was crazy, and Clyde Boston didn’t think he was crazy. Except gun crazy, as always.

“Now, the railroads all cross up here in this end of the county, up north of the river. Don’t they?”

“That’s right.”

“So to get from where Nelly was at suppertime to where he’d like to be, he’d have to go diagonally from southwest to northeast. Now, the river timber runs diagonally from southwest to northeast —”

I began to see a little light. “You’re talking about the old Rivermouth road.” And Clyde said that he was.

He said that he had picnicked there with his family in recent years. The ancient timber road was still passable by car, if a driver proceeded slowly and cautiously enough. It meant fording several creeks; it couldn’t be managed when the creeks were up.

“It comes out on the prairie just below the old Bemis farm,” said Clyde. “You go down between pastures on a branch-off lane, and then you’re right in the woods. That’s where I think maybe he’ll come out.”

When he got to the Bemis place we turned off on the side lane and drove to the edge of the timber. The forest road emerged — a wandering sluice with yellow leaves carpeting it. We left my car parked at the roadside, and Clyde dragged the log chain down the timber road until he found a good place.

Cottonwoods and thin saplings made a wall along either side, where the road twisted out of the gully. A driver couldn’t tell that the road was blocked until he had climbed the last curve in low gear.

Clyde wrapped the log chain around two cottonwoods. It sagged, stiff and heavy, across the path.

I said, “He’ll kill you, Clyde. Don’t expect me to help you try to grab him and get killed at the same time.”

“There won’t be any killing.” Clyde settled himself in the darkness. “I’m going to take Nelly Tare back to Elm City. Alive.”

* * *

Old logs and gullies are thick in the Rivermouth country; hazel brush fairly blocks the forgotten road in a hundred places. It was long before Nelly’s headlights came sneaking through the trees. The katydids spoke a welcome; the dull parking lights went in and out, twisting, exploring, poking through the brush; they came on, with the motor growling in low.

Nelly made quite a spurt and went into second for a moment as the car swung up out of the gorge; sleek leaves flew from under his rear wheels; little rocks pattered back into the shrubbery.

Then Nelly saw the log chain. He jammed his brakes and the car slewed around until it was broadside. Nelly turned off the motor and lights in half a second; the car door swung; he was out on the log-chain side, and he had a gun in his hand.

“Don’t shoot, Nelly,” said Clyde Boston, stepping in front of the trees and turning on his flashlight.

I didn’t want to be killed, so I stood behind a tree and watched them. The flashlight thrust out a long, strong beam; Clyde stood fifteen feet away from the car’s radiator, but the shaft of his lamp was like whitewash on Nelly Tare.

“It’s Clyde,” the sheriff said. “Clyde Boston. You remember me? I was up at your sister’s place today.”

Nelly cried, “Turn off that light!”

“No,” Clyde said. “And I’m warning you not to shoot the light out, because I’m holding it right in front of my stomach. My stomach’s a big target. You wouldn’t want to shoot my stomach, would you, Nelly?”

Nelson Tare’s hair was too long, and he needed a shave. He looked like some wild thing that had been dug out of the woods. “Clyde! I’m telling you for the last time! Turn it off!”

Clyde’s voice was a smooth rumble. “Remember one time when we went hunting rabbits?” He edged forward a little. “You and Dave and me. Remember? A big jack sat down, waiting for you to kill him. And you couldn’t pull the trigger. You couldn’t kill him.”

Nelly had his face screwed into a wad, and his teeth showed between his lips.

“Never shot anything or anybody, did you, Nelly?” There was a snapping sound, and I jumped. It was only a stick breaking under Clyde’s foot as he moved nearer to the car. “You never shot a soul. Not a jack-rabbit or anything. You couldn’t.”

He was only ten feet away from Nelly and Nelly’s gun.

“You just pretended you could. But the guards in Oklahoma and Missouri didn’t know you the way I do. They hadn’t ever gone hunting with you, had they?”

He took another step forward. Another. Nelly was something out of a waxworks in a sideshow, watching him come. Then a vague suffusion of light began to show around them; a carload of deputies had spotted my car at the head of the lane; their headlamps came hurtling toward us.

“You shot telephones off of desks,” Clyde purred to Nelly, “and tires off of cars. You’ve been around and you’ve done a lot of shooting. But you never shot things that the blood ran out of…Now, you drop your gun, Nelly. Drop it on the ground. Gosh, I was crazy this afternoon. I shouldn’t have laid down when you told me to. I should have just stood there.”

Maybe he was right and maybe he was wrong, I don’t know. The car stopped and I heard men yell, “Look out, Sheriff!” They were ready with their machine guns, trying to hustle themselves into some position where they could spatter the daylights out of Nelly Tare without shooting Clyde Boston too. Clyde didn’t give them a chance to do it. He dove forward; he flung his arms around Nelly and crushed him to the ground.

Nelly cried, and I don’t like to think about it; sometimes I wake up in the night and think I hear him crying. My memory goes back to our haymow days and to the rats in the chicken pen — the rats that Nelly couldn’t shoot — and I remember the bloody cottontails dangling from Clyde’s belt.

Nelly cried, but not solely because he was captured and would never be free again. He wept because the world realized something he had tried to keep hidden, even from himself. When he was taken back into prison, he wore an expression of tragic perplexity. It must have been hideous for him to know that he, who had loved guns his whole life long, should at last be betrayed by them.

1945

DAY KEENE

NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT

Day Keene, the pseudonym of Gunard Hjertstedt (1904-1969), was born on the south side of Chicago. As a young man he became active as an actor and playwright in repertory theater with such friends as Melvyn Douglas and Barton MacLane. When they decided to go to Hollywood, Keene instead opted to become a full-time writer, mainly for radio soap operas. He was the head writer for the wildly successful Little Orphan Annie, which premiered on NBCs Blue Network on April 6,1931, and ran for nearly thirteen years, as well as the mystery series Kitty Keene, Incorporated, about a beautiful female private eye with a showgirl past; it began on the NBC Red Network on September 13, 1937, and ran for four years. Keene then abandoned radio to write mostly crime and mystery stories for the pulps, then for the newly popular world of paperback originals, for which his dark, violent, and relentlessly fast-paced stories were perfectly suited, producing nearly fifty mysteries between 1949 and 1965. Among his best and most successful novels were his first, Framed in Guilt (1949), the recently reissued classic noir Home Is the Sailor (1952), Joy House (1954, filmed by MGM in 1964 and also released as The Love Cage, with Alain Delon, Jane Fonda, and Lola Albright), and Chautauqua (1960), written with Dwight Vincent, the pseudonym of mystery writer Dwight Babcock; it was filmed by MGM in 1969 and also released as The Trouble with Girls, starring Elvis Presley and Marlyn Mason.

“Nothing to Worry About” was first published in the August 1945 issue of Detective Tales.

If there were any letters of fire on Assistant State’s Attorney Brad Sorrel’s broad and distinguished brow, they were invisible to his fellow passengers in the lighted cabin of the Washington-Chicago plane, as it circled the Cicero Airport at fifteen minutes to midnight. The stewardess, appraising his broad shoulders, graying temples, and hearty laughter, considered the woman to whom he was returning very fortunate indeed. His seat mate had found him intelligent and sympathetic.

At no time during the flight, or during the hours preceding it, had there been anything in Sorrel’s voice or demeanor to which anyone could point and say, “I knew it at the time. He was nervous. He couldn’t concentrate. His conversation was forced. He talked and acted like a man about to kill his wife.”

It was no sudden decision on Sorrel’s part. He had considered killing Frances, often; only a firm respect for the law that he himself represented had deterred him. He had, in the name of the state, asked for, and been given, the lives of too many men to be careless with his own. Intolerable as his marital situation had become, it was preferable to facing a jury whom he had lost the right to challenge.

The no smoking and please fasten your seat belt panels over the door of the pilot’s compartment blinked on. The lights of the field rushed up to meet the plane.

This is it, Sorrel thought. In twenty minutes, thirty at the most, Frances will be dead. Poor soul.

His seat mate wound up the telling of the involved argument and verbal slug-fest in which he had just engaged with the Office of Price Administration. Sorrel gave him one-half of his mind, sympathizing hugely, assuring him he had been right, that it couldn’t last forever, and agreeing that it seemed that private business was headed for a boom.

The other half of his mind considered the thing that he had to do. It would not be pleasant. In his search for a solution to his problem, he had inspected, weighed, and judged the none-too-many means by which murder could be done. The alleged clever methods — accidental death, suicide, death by misadventure — he had rejected almost immediately. They left too many loopholes for failure; few of them ever succeeded. There was a reason. No matter how brilliant a killer might be, he was seldom, if ever, a match for the combined technical, executive, and judicial branches of the law.

Crime detection, trial, and judgment had become akin to an exact science.

The art of killing, the three Ms, means, method, motive, had changed little in the known history of man. To take a life, one still had to shoot, knife, drown, strike, strangle, or poison the party of the unwanted part. And, as with most basic refinements to the art of living, the first known method of murder used — that of striking the party to be removed with whatever object came first to hand —was still the most difficult of detection, providing of course that the party who did the striking could maintain a reasonable plea of being elsewhere at the time.

* * *

It was, after mature consideration, that method that Sorrel had chosen. He had even chosen his weapon, one of the heavy cut-glass candlesticks that stood on Frances’s dressing table.

“Murphy. J. P. Murphy is the name,” his seat mate identified himself. He shook Sorrel’s hand vigorously. “It’s been a pleasure to meet you, Prosecutor. And if you decide to enter the senatorial race, as I’ve seen hinted at in the papers, you can count on my vote as certain.”

Sorrel’s hearty laugh filled the plane. “Thanks. I’ll remember that, Murphy.”

His only luggage was his briefcase. The stewardess insisted on getting it down from the rack for him. He tucked a forbidden bill in the breast pocket of her uniform. “Nice trip.” He smiled. “And thanks.”

“Thank you, Mr. Sorrel!” She beamed. One met such few really nice men. Most tipping hands brushed or hovered, seeking a partial return on their investment.

* * *

Sorrel stood in the open door of the plane a moment, sniffing the night air. The fine weather was still holding. It was neither too hot nor too cold.

He descended the steps and lifted a hand in greeting to the pilot as he passed the nose of the plane. He did so habitually on his not-infrequent trips. There must be no departure from the norm, no errors of omission or commission, no nervously spilled milk in which the bacteria of suspicion might breed.

He, John Sorrel, assistant state’s attorney, was returning from Washington with nothing on his mind but the successful conclusion of the business that had taken him there. He wasn’t nervous. He felt fine. He assured himself that he did.

In the doorway of the terminal, Murphy touched his arm. “I’m taking a cab to the Loop. If you’d like to share it, Sorrel…”

“Thanks, no,” Sorrel said. “My car should be waiting.” He managed to edge his words with the proper amount of innuendo without being vulgar. “You see, I — well, I’m not going directly home.”

The other man winked. “I — see.”

* * *

They parted after shaking hands again. He was, Sorrel realized, running the risk of being slightly too clever. But the more people who knew, or who thought they knew, that he had gone directly from the plane to Evelyn’s apartment, the stronger would be his alibi.

He had never kept their affair a secret. He doubted that any prosecutor, judge, or jury —if it should come to that —would question so embarrassing an alibi as a husbands being forced to admit that, while his wife had been killed, he had been with another woman, railing against the deceased because she had refused to divorce him.

Despite the lateness of the hour, the terminal was crowded. He saw three or four men whom he knew and nodded cordially to as he passed through the terminal.

* * *

Jackson was waiting behind the wheel of a department car. Sorrel tossed his case into the back seat and slid in beside him. “So you got my wire.”

“And why not?” Jackson asked. “You wanna go home, the office, or …” He left the question open.

Sorrel sighed. “Home, I suppose. But let’s drop by the Eldorado first.”

“I figured that,” Jackson said.

Sorrel rode, the night wind cool cn his cheeks, eager to be done with what he had to do, wishing that Frances had been reasonable. If she had been, if she had been willing to divorce him, none of this would have to be.

In front of the building he told Jackson, “I won’t be long, I think.”

Jackson fished in his vest pocket for a toothpick, found one. “Take your time.”

He meant it. He liked Sorrel. He liked Evelyn, too. For all of her good looks, she was a lady. Frances Sorrel wasn’t, what with her calling a spade a dirty shovel and her drinking and her fighting — she was no wife for a man who soon might be a senator. Although, at that, he reflected, he had heard someone say that she had worked like a dog for the money that had put Sorrel through law school, and she had always sworn she hadn’t started to drink and chase until he had gone lace curtain Irish on her.

Under the marquee of the building, the colored doorman grinned whitely at Sorrel. “Glad to see you back, Mr. Smith. Been missin’ you for a week now.”

Sorrel creased a five-dollar bill and slipped it into his hand. “I’ve been in Washington saving the nation.”

The doorman chuckled, hugely amused. “He say he been in Washington savin’ the nation,” he confided to Jackson.

Jackson continued to pick at his teeth. “Yair.”

* * *

Inside the lobby, Sorrel paused briefly, suddenly short of breath. This was murder. He, John Sorrel, an assistant states attorney who would have been state’s attorney had it not been for his wife, and who was being considered by the party as a senatorial candidate, was proposing to steal into his own home by stealth and remove the sole obstacle who stood in the path of his political success.

That angle would not enter the case, however. It would not be considered a motive. None of the powers-that-were had ever mentioned Frances. But, he knew, there was the feminine vote to consider. And what with things as they were, the party couldn’t afford to take a chance. Frances’s scenes were too well known. She drank; she cursed; she was unfaithful. Not that he had ever been so fortunate as to obtain proof that would stand in a court of law.

* * *

He closed his eyes and saw his wife as he had seen her, fat, slovenly dressed, her face puffed with drink, during the last public scene that she had made. That had been in the lobby of the Chalmers House, before a delighted ring of onlookers.

“Sure I’m drunk. An’ I’m a tramp,” she had taunted while he had tried vainly to hush her. “An’ don’t you tell me to shut up. Wash a hell. I’m human. The trouble with you is that you’ve got too big for your bed. You’re one of them whitened sepelcurs like Father Ryan wash always talking about.” She had turned to the crowd, her voice suddenly gin-throaty, maudlin tears spilling down her cheeks. “I’m not good enough for him anymore. Me, who put him through school, who loved him when he didn’t have a dime.” She had attempted to embrace him. “Cansha understand? I still love you, Johnny.” The tears had dried as abruptly as they had come. “An’ I’ll shee you in hell before I’ll let some painted young tart make a bigger fool of you than you are. Now go ahead an’ hit me. I dare you to, you blankety blankety blank.”

Sorrel opened his eyes, his moment of weakness gone. There was only the one thing to do. But at least in one respect she was wrong. He was very human. He wanted to feel Evelyn’s arms soft and cool around his neck, hear her assure him again that someday everything would be all right, if only they were patient.

His jaw muscles tightening, he opened the door of the self-service elevator and punched the twelfth-floor button. He was finished with being patient. He had been patient for ten years. It was not his fault, it was her own fault, that Frances had not grown with him. One thing he knew, he could no longer stand the sight or sound or touch of her.

Tonight must end it.

* * *

In front of Evelyn’s door he slipped his key from his pocket, paused at the realization that if he saw her now he would make her a party to his crime. More, she would attempt to dissuade him. It was best that she know nothing about it, until the affair was over.

Light streamed out from under her door. Her radio was playing softly. He could hear the sound of movement, a drawer being opened and closed. It was enough to know that she was home, that she had received his wire and was waiting. Good girl. Evelyn was a brick. Whatever happened, he could count on her.

He descended to the second floor, left the elevator and walked down the service stairs and out of the side door. The coupe was parked where he had left it. His one fear had been that he might find it stripped.

The motor started easily. He glanced at his watch in the dash light. Five of the thirty minutes that he had allotted himself were gone. Driving at forty miles an hour, the three miles he had to travel would take him two minutes each way. It was fifteen minutes of one. Allow even six more minutes for mishaps and he still had plenty of time to do what he had to do and be back in Evelyn’s apartment within a half hour from the time that he had left Jackson. At one-fifteen he would phone down to the doorman and ask him to have Jackson bring up his briefcase and the bottle of rye it contained.

* * *

He had no fear that Frances would not be at home. His telegram had stated that his plane was arriving at midnight. Clinging to the tattered remnants of their marriage, she always made it a practice to be home and more or less sober whenever he returned.

“You’ll never catch me that way,” she had told him once. “I’m a good wife to you, Johnny, see? And I’m willing to be a better one if you would only let me. Why can’t we start all over?”

There were a dozen answers to that one, the best of which was Evelyn. The two women had never met. Frances knew that she existed, that was all. That was enough.

As he slowed for the intersection at Sixty-third Street, Sorrel smiled wryly at a suggestion that Evelyn, intrigued by the fact that they had never met, had made.

“We know she’s not true to you, Johnny,” she had pointed out. “She has no right to point a finger. She doesn’t know me. So why can’t I strike up a drinking acquaintance with her, or take a job as her maid, or something, and get some concrete proof that would stand up in a divorce court?”

Sorrel had refused to hear of it. Frances was shrewd. A scene between the two was unthinkable. Frances fought as they fought in back of the yards, where both of them had been born — for keeps. Then, too, a sense of guilt had assailed him. His own hands were not clean. He, and he alone, was responsible for Frances’s infidelities. She was merely reaching out for the love that he denied her. He had told Evelyn at the time that whatever was done, he would do. He was keeping his word now.

There were few cars on Sixty-third Street. There were none on the darker residential street onto which he turned. He drove for another quarter mile and parked a half a block and across the street from his home.

There were lights in both the kitchen and in Frances’s bedroom. The shades of the bedroom were drawn, but, as he watched, a vague figure crossed the room, too far back of the shade to seem more than a passing shadow.

* * *

His eyes felt suddenly hot and strained. His throat contracted. His mouth was dry. His hands felt cold and clammy on the wheel. He sat a moment longer, wondering at himself, revolted by the thing he had come to do. This was murder. This was what other men had done for reasons no better than his own, and he, in his smug superiority, safe in the law’s ivory tower, had thundered against them and denounced them as cool-blooded conniving scoundrels.

He stepped from the car with an effort and crossed the street. He had come a long way in his climb up — he intended to go still further. With Frances dead and Evelyn beside him, there was no goal to which he might not aspire.

He stopped under a spreading elm tree in the yard and cursed his shaking hands. There was no reason to be afraid. The law would never touch him. He had planned too well. There would be no insurance angle. Frances had none. His only gain would be peace of mind and that wasn’t considered a motive for murder. A few of the boys in his own office might suspect him but no one would be able to prove a thing.

* * *

Frances’s failings were well known. She had come home drunk. She had left the door unlocked. A night prowler had entered and killed her. No one would be more surprised and shocked than he when he returned with Jackson an hour from now and found her — dead.

He slipped his key in the front door. The inner bolt was shot and it refused to open. He considered ringing the bell and killing her in the hall. He decided to stay, as far as possible, with his original plan. There was no convenient weapon in the hall. A single scream would shatter the stillness of the sleeping street. What he had to do must be done in silence.

The back door leading into the kitchen was open but the screen door was locked. He slipped on a pair of gloves and fumbled in one corner of the porch where he had remembered seeing a rusty ice pick. His luck was holding. The pick was there. He probed it through the screen and lifted the hood from its eyes.

* * *

The door open, he waited, listening, hearing nothing. There was a half-emptied bottle of milk, a clouded glass, and the remains of a peanut butter sandwich on the kitchen table.

Frances, he decided, was playing the sober and repentant wife this time.

Believe me, John. I love you. I’ll stop drinking. I’ll do anything you say. You’re all that matters to me. Why can’t we start all over?

He had heard it so many times that he could play the record by heart. He noted that the kitchen shade was up. Anyone entering the kitchen would be visible from the darkened windows of the house next door. Sweat beading on his forehead, he slipped in a hand before him and snapped the switch, thankful that he had noticed the shade in time. It was the little things of murder that sent men to the chair.

The darkness magnified his strain. His mouth grew even drier. He heard, or thought he heard, the pounding of his heart. He had to force himself to cross the kitchen, feeling his way along the wall to the rear stairs.

Now he could hear sounds in the bedroom. She seemed to be opening and closing drawers, probably in search of one of the bottles she was always hiding from herself.

He crossed the dark hall toward the closed bedroom door and his weight caused a board to creak. The light in the bedroom went out and the door opened. They stood only feet apart in the black hallway, aware of each other but unable to see.

The blood, Sorrel thought suddenly. It will splatter. I’ll be covered with blood. Damn it! Why didn’t I think of that!

Then he realized he still was clutching the rusted ice pick in his hand. It was as good a weapon as any, better than most. Murder Incorporated had used them as the chief tool of their trade. An ice pick had been used in the case of the State versus Manny Capper. The sweat on his brow turned cold. Manny had gone to the chair.

Galvanized by his own terror, crying out hoarsely, Sorrel sprang forward. His groping hand felt teeth in time to clamp his palm over the welling scream. It died stillborn as he plunged the pick in his hand repeatedly into the yielding flesh. The body he held ceased squirming and sagged limply. He allowed it to fall to the floor, relieved to be rid of it.

* * *

The ice pick fell from his nerveless hand. He tried to fumble a match from his pocket and could not. His hands were shaking too badly. Afraid of the dark, afraid of the woman whom he had killed, he squatted beside the body and felt for a pulse with the back of his wrist, where flesh gaped between glove and coat cuff. There was no pulse. It was over, done with, finis. He was free.

He crept back down the stairs and out through the kitchen to the porch. Then he remembered the pick. It would have no fingerprints on it. He considered returning for it and his stomach rebelled.

So there were no fingerprints on the death weapon. So what? Most house prowlers with the sense of gnats wore gloves. It was nothing for him to worry over.

He walked silently, unseen, back to his car and examined his gloves in the dash light. One was slightly splattered with blood but there seemed to be none on the cuffs of his suit. All that remained to be done was to rid himself of the gloves.

It was over, done. He was free. There was nothing to stop him now, nothing to stop the boys from running him for whatever office they pleased. Frances had made her last scene. He was young, under forty. His new life was just beginning.

As he drove, the horror of the thing that he had been forced to do left him. He wanted to sing, to yell, to shout to the stars that he was free. He contented himself with a grin.

It had been a relatively simple matter, after all. He wadded the gloves into a ball and tossed them out the car window. They could not be traced to him. There was nothing to tie him to the murder but the fact that he and Frances were married. Back at the Eldorado, he parked the coupe in the same space it had occupied before and glanced at his watch before switching off the lights. It was eleven minutes past one. He was four minutes ahead of schedule.

He expended them by walking to the corner and peering around it cautiously. The doorman and Jackson were deep in some discussion. Satisfied that he had not been missed, he entered the side door.

Telling Evelyn would take some doing. She would be horrified at first, but she was quick-witted enough to realize that no other course had been open to him. It didn’t matter now. All that mattered was that the thing was done.

His throat and mouth were normal again. In the bright light of the cage he could see no bloodstains on his suit. He had been fortunate. He was whistling softly, almost cheerfully, as he inserted his key in the door.

* * *

The radio was still playing softly. A bottle of his best scotch beside her, Frances was sitting in one of Evelyn’s easy chairs. “I knew you’d come here first,” she said. “What’s a matter? Was your plane late?”

He stared at her open-mouthed, screams he was unable to utter tearing at his throat.

“You poor damn fool,” his wife continued. “Why didn’t you let me meet her? Why didn’t you make me realize what a swell kid she really was? Why didn’t you tell me that the boys wanted to run you for senator? You should have known me better, John. You’re my man. You always will be. No tramp was goin’ to take you from me. But a sweet kid like that is another matter.” She fluffed at her frowsy hair. “I feel kind of honored like.”

Sorrel managed to gasp one word, “Evelyn …”

* * *

Frances nipped at the scotch. “Oh, you didn’t know. Well, she showed at the house this morning and gave me a song and dance about being a maid out of work, her with fingernails that long.” She laughed, shortly “So I hired her and I pumped her. She’s probably goin’ through all my things right now, spyin’ on me.” Frances picked an oblong scrap of yellow paper from the table. “She never even got a chance to see her telegram because I copped her key from her purse and come over here shortly after I got the telegram that you sent me. Mine was all right. But after I read this one I kinda wondered.” She read it aloud: “‘Sweetheart. Be in your apartment at twelve tonight. Don’t leave it for any reason. And don’t let anyone in but me. This is important, more important than you realize.’”

His voice sounding strange to himself, Sorrel asked, “You — knew?”

Frances Sorrel smiled thinly. “I know you,” she admitted. “But don’t worry. Think nothing of it. As long as your plane was late, you’ve got nothing to worry about.”

1946

DOROTHY B. HUGHES

THE HOMECOMING

Dorothy B(elle) Hughes (1904-1993). Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Hughes received her journalism degree from the University of Missouri and did postgraduate work at the University of New Mexico and Columbia University. She worked as a journalist in Missouri, New York, and New Mexico before becoming a mystery writer.

This underappreciated author is historically important as being the first female to fall squarely in the hard-boiled school. She wrote eleven novels in the 1940s, beginning with The So Blue Marble (1940) and including The Cross-Eyed Bear (1940), The Bamboo Blonde (1941), The Fallen Sparrow (1942), Ride the Pink Horse (1946), and In a Lonely Place (1947), the latter three all made into successful films noir. The Fallen Sparrow was filmed by RKO in 1943 and starred John Garfield and Maureen O’Hara; Ride the Pink Horse (Universal, 1947) starred Robert Montgomery and Thomas Gomez; In a Lonely Place (Columbia, 1950) was a vehicle for Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, and Martha Stewart, and was directed by Nicholas Ray. This classic film noir portrays an alcoholic screenwriter who is prone to violent outbursts and is accused of murdering a hatcheck girl. He is given an alibi by his attractive blond neighbor, who soon becomes fearful that he really did commit the crime, and that she might be next. In the book, the writer is, in fact, a psychopathic killer, but the director found it too dark and softened the plot.

At the height of her powers and success, Hughes largely quit writing due to domestic responsibilities. She reviewed mysteries for many years, winning an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for her critical acumen in 1951; in 1978 the organization named her a Grand Master for lifetime achievement.

“The Homecoming” was first published in Murder Cavalcade, the first Mystery Writers of America anthology (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1946).

It was a dark night, a small-wind night, the night on which evil things could happen, might happen. He didn’t feel uneasy walking the two dark blocks from the streetcar to her house. The reason he kept peering over his shoulder was because he heard things behind him, things like the rustle of an ancient bombazine skirt, like footsteps trying to walk without sound, things like crawling and scuttling and pawing. The things you’d hear in a too-old forest place, not on the concrete pavement of a city street. He had to look behind him to know that the sounds were the ordinary sounds of a city street in the autumn. Browned leaves shriveled and fallen, blown in small whirlpools by the small wind. Warped elm boughs scraping together in lonely nakedness. The sounds you’d expect on a night in autumn when the grotesquerie of shadows was commonplace. Elm fingers beckoning, leaves drifting to earth, shadows on an empty street. The little moans of the wind quivering his own flung shadow, and his own steps solid in the night, moving to her house.

He’d be there. The hero. Korea Jim. He’d be there a long time, since supper. She’d have asked him to supper because this was her folks’ night out. Her folks always went out Thursday nights, ladies’ night at the club. Cards and bingo and dancing and eats and they wouldn’t get home till after one o’clock at least.

She’d say it cute, “Come over for supper Thursday. I’m a terrible cook. All I can fix is pancakes.” And you’d know there was nothing you’d rather eat Thursday night than her pancakes. Better than thick steak, better than chicken and dumplings, better than turkey and all the fixings would be pancakes on Thursday night. She’d say it coaxing, “If you don’t come I’ll be here all by myself. The family always goes out on Thursday night.” And even if there weren’t going to be pancakes with sorghum or real maple syrup, your choice, your chest would swell until it was tight enough to bust, wanting to protect her from a lonely night at home with the folks out.

She was such a little thing. Not tall enough to reach the second shelf in the kitchen without standing on tiptoes. Not even in her pencil-point heels was she high enough to reach his chin. She was little and soft as fur and her hair was like yellow silk. She was always fooling you with her hair. You’d get used to the memory of her looking like a kid sister with her hair down her back, maybe curled a little, and the next time she’d have it pinned on top of her head like she was playing grownup. Or she’d have it curled up short or once or twice in two stiff pigtails with ribbon bows like a real kid. Wondering about her hair he forgot for a moment the dark and the wind and the things crawling in his mind and heart; he quickened his steps to cover the blocks to her house.

Then he remembered. It wasn’t he who had been invited to pancakes for supper; it was the boy with the medals, the hero, Korea Jim. By now she and Jim would be sitting on the couch, sitting close together so they’d both avoid the place where the couch sagged. Her brother, the one in the Navy, had busted it when he was a kid.

She and Jim would be sitting there close and only the one lamp on. Too much light hurt her eyes. Her eyes were big as cartwheels, blue sometimes, a smoky blue, and sometimes sort of purple-gray. You didn’t know what color her eyes were until you looked into them. It was like her hair only she did it to her hair and her eyes did themselves. Her nose didn’t change, it was little and cute like she was. Just turned up the least bit, enough to make her cuter when she put her eyelashes up at you and said, “Aw, Benny!” Her mouth changed colors, red like a Jonathan sometimes, sometimes like holly, sometimes like mulberries. Her father didn’t like that purple color. He’d say, “Take it off, Nan. You look like a stuck pig.” Red like blood. But the colors didn’t change her mouth really, red like fire, red like soft warm wool. Her mouth …

He picked up his steps and shadows flickered as he moved. This time he didn’t look over his shoulder. Nothing was back there. And beyond, a block beyond her house, he could see the blur of green light, the precinct police station house. It was somehow reassuring. There couldn’t be anything behind you with the police station ahead of you. Besides he had the gun.

It was heavy in his overcoat pocket. On the streetcar riding out to her neighborhood he’d felt everyone’s eyes looking through the pocket and wondering why a nice young fellow was carrying a gun. He could have told them he was going to Nan’s house though she wasn’t expecting him. Though she’d told him for the twelfth night in a row, “I’m so sorry, Benny, but I’m busy tonight.” Except the one night he hadn’t phoned, the night he’d walked the streets in the chill autumn rain until his shoes were soggy and his mind a tight red knot.

He could have told them he was going to surprise Nan and especially surprise Hero Jim, Korea Jim. He’d find out how much of a hero Jim was. He’d see what big bold Jim would do up against a real gun. She’d see, too.

They’d be sitting on the couch so close, and the lamp over on the far table the only light. Not much light from that lamp. Her mother had made the lampshade. She’d bought a regular paper shade at the ten-cent store for thirty-nine cents, then she’d pasted on it colored pictures of kids and dogs and handsome sailors and soldiers and Marines. All put together sort of like a patchwork quilt in diamond shapes. After that she’d shellacked over the pictures and it made a swell shade. Only it didn’t give much light.

When he’d ring the doorbell they’d sort of jump apart, she and Jim, wondering who it was. Wondering if her folks had left the club early, before the spread. Wondering who it could be. She’d say, “I wonder who it could possibly be this time of night.” The way she’d said it the night the wire came that her brother was married in San Diego. Jim would say, “Probably your folks,” just the way Benny had said it the night of the telegram. And she’d say, wrinkling her forehead the way she did when she was disturbed by something, “It couldn’t be. Pop would never leave before the cheese. Unless someone’s sick—”

Then Jim would go to the door. She wouldn’t come because she’d be wondering who it was. Besides she was nervous at night, even walking down the street with a man she was nervous, looking over her shoulder, skipping along faster. As if she felt something was after her, something that someday would catch up to her. It might have been from her that he got the nervousness of walking down this street at night. No reason why he should be nervous. It wasn’t late, hardly eleven yet. He’d only sat through half the show. He’d seen it before.

Jim would come to the door. He ought to let Jim have it right then and there. The dirty, cheating, lying —. Sitting around saying. “I don’t want to talk about it, Nan.” Waiting to be coaxed. And she’d coaxed him, turning the sweet smell of her body to big Jim, handsome Jim, the hero of Korea. She got him started, bringing up things about the raid that had been printed in the newspapers along with the picture of Jim. He didn’t want to talk about it but once she got him started, you couldn’t turn him off. He went on and on, not even seeming to see her big blue smoky eyes, not even seeming to hear her little soft furry hurt cries. On and on, practically crawling around the floor, and then he’d stopped and the sweat had broken out all over his red face. “I’m sorry, Nan,” he’d said so quietly you could hardly hear him.

She didn’t say anything. She just was looking at Jim. He, Benny, had put a hot number on the phonograph, a new Les Brown, and he’d said, “Come on, Nan. Let’s start the joint jumping.” He’d had enough of Jim’s showing off. He’d said it again louder but she didn’t answer him. She sat there looking at Jim, and Jim looking at the floor. Les Brown played on and on not knowing nobody was listening to him. Benny knew that night what was going to happen. Her and Jim. And him out of it.

It had always been like that for Jim. He got everything. In High he was the one elected captain of the basketball team. He was the junior class president. He was the one the girls were always looking their eyes out at in the halls. He was the one the fellows wanted to double-date with. He’d always got everything. Nan and him sitting together in assembly. Everything. When other guys had pimples, Jim didn’t. When other guys had to sleep in stocking tops and grease their hair to keep it out of their eyes, Jim’s yellow hair was crisp enough to stay where it belonged. When other guys’ pants needed pressing and they forgot their dirty fingernails, Jim didn’t. Korea Jim. The hero. Even in the war he’d come out the big stuff.

War was supposed to make all men the same. Not one guy with more stripes a hero and another guy already back in civvies. It wasn’t Benny’s fault he hadn’t been sent over. The Army didn’t say, “Would you like to go to Korea and be a hero?” They said you were doing your part just as much being a soldier in your own hometown in the recruiting office. Benny had been pretty lucky being in his own hometown for the war, being in clean work, in safe work. He’d thought he’d been lucky until Jim came back with all those pretty ribbons and his picture in the paper. It wasn’t Benny’s fault. He didn’t ask the Army not to send him over; if he’d been sent he could have been a hero too. He could have led the raiders through frontline fire and liberated those poor starved guys. High school kids like yourself only they were men now, old men. It made Benny shiver to see them in the newsreels. It made him know he was lucky to have been in the recruiting office, addressing envelopes and filing papers.

Even if Jim had come back a big-shot hero. Jim who’d always had everything and now had this. And Nan, too. He wasn’t going to get away with it this time. He wasn’t going to have Nan. Nan was Benny’s girl. She’d been his girl for almost two years. Jim hadn’t meant anything to her those years. Just one of the gang in Korea. She didn’t talk about him any more than she did about any of the other kids, wondering what they were doing on certain nights while she and Benny were out jumping and jiving at the USO.

Jim wasn’t going to come back and bust up Benny and Nan. He wasn’t going to be let do it. He could get him plenty of other girls; there were always plenty of girls for a good-looking guy like Jim. All he had to do was whistle. Just because he’d been Nan’s fellow in high school before the war started didn’t mean he could walk back in and take over. Not after leaving her for four years. Jim had left her. He hadn’t even waited for the draft. He’d quit high school and signed up right away.

It wasn’t Benny’s fault he’d had to wait to be drafted. Jim’s folks had given him permission to sign up. Benny’s mom had just cried and cried and wouldn’t talk about it. So he’d had to wait for the draft. Besides he wasn’t as strong as Jim. He always had colds in the winter just like Mom said. Besides none of that made any difference. He’d been a soldier just like Jim. It wasn’t his fault he hadn’t got to be a hero. None of that mattered at all. There was only one thing counting. Nan. His girl. Benny’s girl. Jim was going to find that out. Tonight.

He was there at the white cement steps, the familiar steps, gray in the night. He didn’t walk on by like he had the night he walked in the soggy rain, his stomach curdled and his thoughts tied in wet red knots. Tonight he climbed the steps without breaking the firmness of his stride. Without trying to be quiet. He wasn’t afraid of Jim. He had as much right here as Jim had. He continued up the short cement walk to the gray stoop, climbed the gray steps and was on the porch.

The drapes were drawn across the front parlor windows. Only the little light was on inside. He knew from the dim red glow against the drapes, almost purple-red. He pushed the bell once, hard and firm and not afraid. Like he had a right. Like he’d been pushing it for the two years since he ran into Nan at a USO party.

It happened the way he knew it was going to happen. A wait. Waiting while she and Jim jumped apart and she smoothed her hair while she was wondering who it could possibly be. The wait and then the footsteps of a man coming to the door. Of Jim. Benny’s hand gripped tight on the gun in his pocket. Holding tight that way kept his stomach from jumping around. He had to keep tight so he wouldn’t let Jim have it the way he ought to when Jim opened the door. The dirty, double-crossing, lying…

The door opened sudden. Before he was quite ready for it to open. Jim was standing there, tall and lanky in the dim hallway, peering out to see who was standing outside. Not expecting Benny. Not expecting him at all. Because his face came over with a real surprised look when he figured out who it was. Jim said, “For gos’ sake! It’s Benny.” He said it more to her, back there in the parlor, than to himself.

Benny didn’t say anything. He stepped in and Jim had to stand aside and let him pass. She was just starting over to the archway from the couch when Benny walked into the parlor. He didn’t say anything to her either; he simply stood with his hands in his overcoat pockets looking at her. He didn’t even take off his hat. He couldn’t, not without letting her see how his hands were shaking. Keeping his hand gripped on the gun kept it steady, and the other hand a tight fist in his pocket. There wasn’t any reason for them to be shaking; he wasn’t afraid of anything. It wasn’t because he was afraid his voice would shake that he didn’t speak; it wasn’t that at all. It was that he didn’t have anything to say to them. Keeping his mouth shut was easy. Nan started talking the minute he came in.

She was mad. Her eyes were like sparklers and her words came out of her mouth like little spits of lead. He’d seen her mad before but just a little bit, kind of cute. This was different. If he hadn’t been bigger than she, she’d have used her fists on him. If he hadn’t had a gun …She didn’t know about the gun. But he could hardly hear what she was saying from looking at her. Because she was so pretty she was like a lump in his heart, so little and soft and her cheeks bright and her mouth …His hand was so tight on the gun that his fingers ached like his heart. He set his teeth together tight as his knuckles so that his head hurt too, so that all the hurts could fuse and he could keep from thinking about the bad one, the inside one. So he wouldn’t cry. He wanted to cry, to bawl like a kid. But he wouldn’t, not with Jim standing there like he owned the parlor, like he was the head of the house waiting to see what this peddler wanted.

She was saying, “What are you doing here, Benny? You knew very well I was busy tonight. I told you that. What’s the idea of coming here when I told you I was busy? And at this time of night?” He had a feeling she’d been saying it over and over again.

She was funny sputtering out words that way and not having any idea why he was here or what he was going to do. He wanted to laugh at her, to laugh and laugh until he doubled up from laughing. As if he’d eaten green apples. But he didn’t. He just stood there listening to her until Jim said, “Shush, Nan.” Said it sharp, like he was giving orders to a soldier.

Benny turned his eyes over to Jim then. The way Jim had said it you’d have thought he was nervous. You’d have thought he knew why Benny had come and that he didn’t want to have it happen, to be shown up in front of Nan.

Jim said, “Why don’t you take off your things and join us, Benny? We’re just sitting around waiting for Nan’s folks to get home from the club.”

As if he didn’t know what they were doing. As if he hadn’t known all evening every minute what they were doing. From when Jim got there at seven and she tied an apron around his waist and let him help drip the batter on the griddle. Right through every minute of it. Sitting down together in the breakfast nook and her saying, “Isn’t this fun? Like —” and breaking off and looking embarrassed. That’s the way she was, nice, sort of shy, not like most girls who’d say anything and never be embarrassed.

Jim said, “Come on, Benny, take off your hat and coat. We’ll have some jive. I brought Nan some new records tonight. There’s a swell new Tatum — have you heard it?”

Shaming him because he never brought any records to Nan. He’d have brought them if he’d thought of it. He’d just never thought of it. Nan always had the new records.

Jim didn’t stop talking. He kept on like Benny was a little kid, coaxing him. “— let me have your coat. How about having a Coke with us?”

Hero Jim. Asking Benny to have a Coke like he was still a high school kid instead of a man. Hero Jim, the plaster saint, acting like he’d never had a slug of gin. Trying to make her think he was a Galahad and Benny a no-good bum.

“—I was just telling Nan we hadn’t seen you for a long time. Wondered what happened to you. Why you didn’t come around.”

Yeah. Sure. Rubbing salt in the wounds. That’s what he learned in Korea. Scrub salt in the bleeding. Acting like it was his house. Acting like he and Nan were married. Trying to show Benny up for the outsider. Talking and talking, so sure of himself, so big and brave and handsome and sure of himself.

Nan stopped Jim. Stopped him by breaking in with a hard icy crust of anger around her soft red mouth.

“What do you want, Benny?” she asked. Hard and cold and cruel. “If you have anything to say, say it and get out. If you haven’t, get out!” Her voice was like a whip.

Jim cried, “Nan!” He shook his head. “You shouldn’t have said that, Nan.” He was talking to her soft now, like she was the child. “It wasn’t right to say that. Benny’s come to see you —”

“I told him I wouldn’t see him tonight.” She didn’t bend to Jim. She was too mad. “He knew I was busy tonight.” She turned her eyes again on Benny. They weren’t like Nan’s eyes, they were black like hate. “I’ll tell him now to his face what I told you.” The words came from her frozen mouth, each one like a whip. “I don’t ever want to see you again. Now get out.”

“Nan,” Jim cried again. His voice wasn’t steady. It was shaky. “Oh, Nan!” He twisted some kind of a smile at Benny. “Come on, Benny, sit down and let’s talk everything over. Nan didn’t mean it. We’re all friends. We’ve been friends for years. Sit down and have a Coke —”

Benny brought his hand out of his pocket then. He had a smile on his face too, he could feel it there. It hurt his mouth. He had a little trouble getting his hand out of his pocket. Getting it out and holding on to that thing at the same time. But it came out and the gun was still in his hand.

Jim saw it. Jim saw it and he had sweat on his upper lip and above his eyebrows. He was yellow. Just like Benny had known he’d be. Yellow. Korea Jim, Hero Jim, was scared to death.

Jim’s voice didn’t sound scared. It was quiet and calm and easy. “Where did you get that, Benny? Let me see it, will you?”

Benny didn’t say anything. He just held the gun and Jim put his hand down to his side again, slowly, creakingly.

The sweat was trickling down Jim’s nose. He laughed but it wasn’t a good laugh. “What do you want with a gun, Benny? You might hurt somebody if you aren’t careful with it. Let me see it, will you? Come on, let me have it.”

He’d had enough. Hero Jim, standing there like a gook, like he’d never seen a gun before and didn’t know what to do about it. Now was Benny’s time to laugh, but the gun made too much noise. Nobody could have heard him laughing with all that noise. Even if Nan hadn’t started screaming. Standing there, her eyes crazy and her face like an old woman’s, just screaming and screaming and screaming. He only turned the gun on her to make her keep quiet. He didn’t mean that she should fall down and spread on the floor like Jim. She shouldn’t have dropped like Jim. She had on her good blue dress. They looked silly, the two of them, like big sawdust dolls, crumpled there on the rug. Scared to death. Scared to get up. Scared even to look at him. That’s the way a hero acted when a real guy came around. Like a girl. Like a soft, silly girl. Lying down on his face, not moving a muscle, lying on his face like a dog.

They looked like shadows, the two of them, big shadows on the rug. When the gun clicked instead of blasting, Benny stopped laughing. The room was so quiet he could hear the beat of his heart. He didn’t like it so quiet. Not at all.

He said, “Get up.” He’d had enough of their wallowing, of their being scared.

“Get up.”

He said, “You look crazy lying there. Get up.” Suddenly he shrilled it.

“Get up.”

Louder. “Get up! Get up! Get up!”

Scared to death …scared to death …

The gun made such a little noise dropping to the rug. Because his fingers couldn’t hold it. Because his fingers were soft as her hair. They couldn’t get up. They couldn’t ever get up.

Not ever.

He hadn’t meant to do it. He didn’t do it on purpose. He wouldn’t hurt Nan. He wouldn’t hurt Nan for anything in the world, he loved her.

She was his girl.

He wouldn’t hurt Nan. He wouldn’t kill — he wouldn’t kill anyone.

He hadn’t! They were doing this to get even with him. He began shouting again, “Get up! Get up!”

But his voice didn’t sound like his own voice. It was shaky like his mouth and his hands and the wet back of his neck.

“Get up!”

He heard his mouth say it and he started over to take hold of Jim and make him stop acting like he was dead.

He started.

He took one step and that was all. Because he knew. He knew whatever he said or did couldn’t make them move. They were dead, really dead.

When his mind actually spoke the word, he ran. Bolting out of the house, stumbling off the stoop down the steps to the curb. He didn’t get there too soon.

He retched.

When he was through being sick, he sat down on the curb. He was too weak to stand. He was like the leaves blowing down the street in the little moans of wind.

He was like the shadows wavering against the houses across the street.

There were lights in most of the houses. You’d think the neighbors would have heard all the noise. Would have come running out to see what was going on. They probably thought it was the radio.

They should have come. If they had come, they’d have stopped him. He didn’t want to kill anyone. He didn’t want even to kill Jim. Just to scare him off. Just give him a scare.

She couldn’t be dead. She couldn’t be, she couldn’t be, she couldn’t be. He sobbed the words into the wind and the dark and the dead brown leaves.

He sat there a long, long time. When he stood up his face was wet. He rubbed his eyes, trying to dry them so he could see where he was going.

But the rain came into them again, spilling down his cheeks, filling up, overflowing, refilling, over and over again.

He ought to go back and close the blurred door. The house would get cold with it standing wide open, letting the cold dark wind sweep through.

He couldn’t go back there. Not even for his gun.

He started down the street, not knowing where he was going, not seeing anything but the wet dark world.

He no longer feared the sound and shadow behind him.

There was no terror as bad as the hurt in his head and his heart.

As he moved on without direction he saw through the mist the pinprick of green in the night. He knew then where he was going, where he must go. The tears ran down his cheeks into his mouth. They tasted like blood.

1952

HOWARD BROWNE

MAN IN THE DARK

Howard Browne (1908-1999) was born in Omaha, Nebraska, and from 1929 worked for more than a dozen years in various jobs, many of them in department stores, before becoming a full-time writer and editor. Beginning in 1942, he worked for nearly fifteen years as the editor of several Ziff-Davis science-fiction magazines (a genre he actively disliked, preferring mysteries), including Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures. During this time, he wrote numerous stories for pulp magazines, as well as several novels under the pseudonym John Evans, most successfully the somewhat controversial series about Chicago private detective Paul Pine. The Pine novels were probably closer in style to Raymond Chandler than any other writer (with the exception of the early Lew Archer novels by Ross Macdonald) of his time. Halo in Blood (1946) was the first; Halo for Satan (1948) is about a manuscript purportedly written by Jesus Christ; Halo in Brass (1949) deals with the then-unmentionable subject of lesbianism; and The Taste of Ashes (1957) was published under his own name and is among the earliest works of fiction to deal with child molestation.

Browne went to Hollywood in 1956 and wrote more than 100 episodes of numerous television series, including Playhouse 90, Maverick, Ben Casey, The Virginian, and Columbo. He also wrote numerous screenplays, notably Portrait of a Mobster (1961) with Vic Morrow playing Dutch Schultz, The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967) with George Segal and Jason Robards, and Capone (1975), with Ben Gazzara.

In 1952, while Browne was editor of Fantastic, he called his friend Roy Huggins (creator of such famous television series as Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, and The Fugitive) and asked him if he could write a detective story with fantasy elements in it. Huggins agreed, but when the time came to turn to it, he was too busy writing a screenplay to do the story. Since Browne already had the cover of the fall issue of the magazine ready to go, with Huggins’s name on it, he wrote “Man in the Dark” himself, under the “pseudonym” of Roy Huggins.

I

She called me at four-ten. “Hi, Poopsie.”

I scowled at her picture in the leather frame on my desk. “For Christ’s sake, Donna, will you lay off that ‘Poopsie’ stuff? It’s bad enough in the bedroom, but this is over the phone and in broad daylight.”

She laughed. “It kind of slipped out. You know I’d never say it where anyone else could hear. Would I, Poopsie?”

“What’s all that noise?”

“The man’s here fixing the vacuum. Hey, we eating home tonight, or out? Or are you in another deadline dilemma?”

“No dilemma. Might as well —”

“Can’t hear you, Clay.”

I could hardly hear her. I raised my voice. “Tell the guy to turn that goddamn thing off. I started to say we might as well eat out and then take in that picture at the Paramount. Okay?”

“All right. What time’ll you get home?”

“Hour — hour’n a half.”

The vacuum cleaner buzz died out just as she said, “Bye now,” and the two words sounded loud and unnatural. I put back the receiver and took off my hat and sat down behind the desk. We were doing a radio adaptation of Echo of a Scream that coming Saturday and I was just back from a very unsatisfactory rehearsal. When things don’t go right, it’s the producer who gets it in the neck, and mine was still sensitive from the previous week. I kept a small office in a building at Las Palmas and Yucca, instead of using the room allotted me at NBS. Some producers do that, since you can accomplish a lot more without a secretary breathing down your neck and the actors dropping in for gin rummy or a recital of their love life.

The telephone rang. A man’s voice, deep and solemn, said, “Is this Hillside 7-8691?”

“That’s right,” I said.

“Like to speak to Mr. Clay Kane.”

“I’m Clay Kane. Who’s this?”

“The name’s Lindstrom, Mr. Kane. Sergeant Lindstrom, out of the sheriff’s office, Hollywood substation.”

“What’s on your mind, Sergeant?”

“We got a car here, Mr. Kane,” the deep slow voice went on. “Dark blue ‘51 Chevrolet, two-door, license 2W78-40. Registered to Mrs. Donna Kane, 7722 Fountain Avenue, Los Angeles.”

I could feel my forehead wrinkling into a scowl. “That’s my wife’s car. What do you mean: you ‘got’ it?”

“Well, now, I’m afraid I got some bad news for you, Mr. Kane.” The voice went from solemn to grave. “Seems your wife’s car went off the road up near the Stone Canyon Reservoir. I don’t know if you know it or not, but there’s some pretty bad hills up —”

“I know the section,” I said. “Who was in the car?”

“…Just your wife, Mr. Kane.”

My reaction was a mixture of annoyance and mild anger. “Not my wife, Sergeant. I spoke to her on the phone not five minutes ago. She’s at home. Either somebody stole the car or, more likely, she loaned it to one of her friends. How bad is it?”

There was a pause at the other end. When the voice spoke again, the solemnity was still there, but now a vague thread of suspicion was running through it.

“The car burned, Mr. Kane. The driver was still in it.”

“That’s terrible,” I said. “When did it happen?”

“We don’t know exactly That’s pretty deserted country. Another car went by after it happened, spotted the wreck, and called us. We figure it happened around two-thirty.”

“Not my wife,” I said again. “You want to call her, she can tell you who borrowed the car. Unless, like I say, somebody swiped it. You mean you found no identification at all?”

“…Hold on a minute, Mr. Kane.”

There followed the indistinct mumble you get when a hand is held over the receiver at the other end of the wire. I waited, doodling on a scratch pad, wondering vaguely if my car insurance would cover this kind of situation. Donna had never loaned the car before, at least not to my knowledge.

The sergeant came back. “Hate to trouble you, Mr. Kane, but I expect you better get out here. You got transportation, or would you want one of our men to pick you up?”

This would just about kill our plans for the evening. I tried reasoning with him. “Look here, Officer, I don’t want to sound cold-blooded about this, but what can I do out there? If the car was stolen, there’s nothing I can tell you. If Mrs. Kane let somebody use it, she can tell you who it was over the phone. Far as the car’s concerned, my insurance company’ll take care of that.”

The deep slow voice turned a little hard. “Afraid it’s not that simple. We’re going to have to insist on this, Mr. Kane. Take Stone Canyon until you come to Fontenelle Way, half a mile or so south of Mulholland Drive. The accident happened about halfway between those two points. I’ll have one of the boys keep an eye out for you. Shouldn’t take you more’n an hour at the most.”

I gave it another try. “You must’ve found some identification, Sergeant. Something that —”

He cut in sharply. “Yeah, we found something. Your wife’s handbag. Maybe she loaned it along with the car.”

A dry click meant I was alone on the wire. I hung up slowly and sat there staring at the wall calendar. That handbag bothered me. If Donna had loaned the Chevy to someone, she wouldn’t have gone off and left the bag. And if she’d left it on the seat while visiting or shopping, she would have discovered the theft of the car and told me long before this.

There was one sure way of bypassing all this guesswork. I picked up the receiver again and dialed the apartment.

After the twelfth ring I broke the connection. Southern California in August is as warm as anybody would want, but I was beginning to get chilly along the backbone. She could be at the corner grocery or at the Feldmans’ across the hall, but I would have liked it a lot better if she had been in the apartment and answered my call.

It seemed I had a trip ahead of me. Stone Canyon Road came in between Beverly Glen Boulevard and Sepulveda, north of Sunset. That was out past Beverly Hills, and the whole district was made up of hills and canyons, with widely scattered homes clinging to the slopes. A car could go off almost any one of the twisting roads through there and not be noticed for a lot longer than two hours. It was the right place for privacy, if privacy was what you were looking for.

The thing to do, I decided, was to stop at the apartment first. It was on the way, so I wouldn’t lose much time, and I could take Donna along with me. Getting an explanation direct from her ought to satisfy the cops, and we could still get in a couple of drinks and a fast dinner, and make that premiere.

I covered the typewriter, put on my hat, locked up, and went down to the parking lot. It was a little past four-twenty.

II

It was a five-minute trip to the apartment building where Donna and I had been living since our marriage seven months before. I waited while a fat woman in red slacks and a purple and burnt-orange blouse pulled a yellow Buick away from the curb, banging a fender or two in the process, then parked and got out onto the walk.

It had started to cool off a little, the way it does in this part of the country along toward late afternoon. A slow breeze rustled the dusty fronds of palm trees lining the parkways along Fountain Avenue. A thin pattern of traffic moved past, and the few pedestrians in sight had the look of belonging there.

I crossed to the building entrance and went in. The small foyer was deserted and the mailbox for 2c, our apartment, was empty. I unlocked the inner door and climbed the carpeted stairs to the second floor and walked slowly down the dimly lighted corridor.

Strains of a radio newscast filtered through the closed door of the apartment across from 2c. Ruth Feldman was home. She might have word, if I needed it. I hoped I wouldn’t need it. There was the faint scent of jasmine on the air.

I unlocked the door to my apartment and went in and said, loudly: “Hey, Donna. It’s your ever-lovin’.”

All that came back was silence. Quite a lot of it. I closed the door and leaned against it and heard my heart thumping away. The white metal Venetian blinds at the living room windows overlooking the street were lowered but not turned, and there was a pattern of sunlight on the maroon carpeting. Our tank-type vacuum cleaner was on the floor in front of the fireplace, its hose tracing a lazy’s along the rug like a gray python, the cord plugged into a wall socket.

The silence was beginning to rub against my nerves. I went into the bedroom. The blind was closed and I switched on one of the red-shaded lamps on Donna’s dressing table. Nobody there. The double bed was made up, with her blue silk robe across the foot and her slippers with the powder blue pompons under the trailing edge of the pale yellow spread.

My face in the vanity’s triple mirrors had that strained look. I turned off the light and walked out of there and on into the bathroom, then the kitchen and breakfast nook. I knew all the time Donna wouldn’t be in any of them; I had known it from the moment that first wave of silence answered me.

But I looked anyway…

She might have left a note for me, I thought. I returned to the bedroom and looked on the nightstand next to the telephone. No note. Just the day’s mail: two bills, unopened; a business envelope from my agent, unopened, and a letter from Donna’s mother out in Omaha, opened and thrust carelessly back into the envelope.

The mail’s being there added up to one thing at least: Donna had been in the apartment after three o’clock that afternoon. What with all this economy wave at the post offices around the country, we were getting one delivery a day and that not before the middle of the afternoon. The phone call, the vacuum sweeper, the mail on the nightstand: they were enough to prove that my wife was around somewhere. Out for a lipstick, more than likely, or a carton of Fatimas, or to get a bet down on a horse.

I left the apartment and crossed the hall and rang the bell to 2d. The news clicked off in the middle of the days baseball scores and after a moment the door opened and Ruth Feldman was standing there.

“Oh. Clay.” She was a black-haired little thing, with not enough color from being indoors too much, and a pair of brown eyes that, in a prettier face, would have made her something to moon over on long winter evenings. “I thought it was too early for Ralph; he won’t be home for two hours yet.”

“I’m looking for Donna,” I said. “You seen her?”

She leaned negligently against the door edge and moved her lashes at me. The blouse she was wearing was cut much too low. “No-o-o. Not since this morning anyway. She came in about eleven for coffee and a cigarette. Stayed maybe half an hour, I guess it was.”

“Did she say anything about her plans for the day? You know: whether she was going to see anybody special, something like that?”

She lifted a shoulder. “Hunh-uh. She did say something about her agent wanting her to have lunch with this producer — what’s his name? — who does the Snow Soap television show. They’re casting for a new musical and she thinks that’s why this lunch. But I suppose you know about that. You like to come in for a drink?”

I told her no and thanked her and she pouted her lips at me. I could come in early any afternoon and drink her liquor and give her a roll in the hay, no questions asked, no obligations and no recriminations. Not just because it was me, either. It was there for anyone who was friendly, no stranger, and had clean fingernails. You find at least one like her in any apartment house, where the husband falls asleep on the couch every night over a newspaper or the television set.

I asked her to keep an eye out for Donna and tell her I had to run out to Stone Canyon on some urgent and unexpected business and that I’d call in the first chance I got. She gave me a big smile and an up-from-under stare and closed the door very gently.

I lit a cigarette and went back to the apartment to leave a note for Donna next to the telephone. Then I took a last look around and walked down one flight to the street, got into the car, and headed for Stone Canyon.

III

It was a quarter past five by the time I got out there. There was an especially nasty curve in the road just to the north of Yestone, and off on the left shoulder where the bend was sharpest, three department cars were drawn up in a bunch. A uniformed man was taking a smoke behind the wheel of the lead car; he looked up sharply as I made a U-turn and stopped behind the last car.

By the time I had cut off the motor and opened the door, he was standing there scowling at me. “Where d’ya think you’re goin’, Mac?”

“Sergeant Lindstrom telephoned me,” I said, getting out onto the sparse sun-baked growth they call grass in California.

He ran the ball of a thumb lightly along one cheek and eyed me stonily from under the stiffbrim of his campaign hat. “Your name Kane?”

“That’s it.”

He took the thumb off his face and used it to point. “Down there. They’re waitin’ for you. Better take a deep breath, Mac. You won’t like what they show you.”

I didn’t say anything. I went past him and on around the department car. The ground fell away in what almost amounted to a forty-five-degree slope, and a hundred yards down the slope was level ground. Down there a knot of men were standing near the scorched ruins of what had been an automobile. It could have been Donnas Chevy or it could have been any other light job. From its condition and across the distance I couldn’t tell.

It took some time and a good deal of care for me to work my way to the valley floor without breaking my neck. There were patches of scarred earth spaced out in a reasonably straight line all the way down the incline where the car had hit and bounced and hit again, over and over. Splinters of broken glass lay scattered about, and about halfway along was a twisted bumper and a section of grillwork. There was a good deal of brush around and it came in handy for hanging on while I found footholds. It was a tough place to get down, but the car at the bottom hadn’t had any trouble making it.

A tall, slender, quiet-faced man in gray slacks and a matching sports shirt buttoned at the neck but without a tie was waiting for me. He nodded briefly and looked at me out of light blue eyes under thick dark brows.

“Are you Clay Kane?” It was a soft, pleasant voice, not a cop’s voice at all.

I nodded, looking past him at the pile of twisted metal. The four men near it were looking my way, their faces empty of expression.

The quiet-faced man said, “I’m Chief Deputy Martell, out of Hollywood. They tell me it’s your wife’s car, but that your wife wasn’t using it. Has she told you yet who was?”

“Not yet; no. She was out when I called the apartment, although I’d spoken to her only a few minutes before.”

“Any idea where she might be?”

I shrugged. “Several, but I didn’t have a chance to do any checking. The sergeant said you were in a hurry.”

“I see …I think I’ll ask you to take a quick glance at the body we took out of the car. It probably won’t do much good, but you never know. I’d better warn you: it won’t be pleasant.”

“That’s all right,” I said. “I spent some time in the Pacific during the war. We opened up pillboxes with flamethrowers.”

“That should help.” He turned and moved off, skirting the wreckage, and I followed. A small khaki tarpaulin was spread out on the ground, bulged in the center where it covered an oblong object. Not a very big object. I began to catch the acrid-sweetish odor of burned meat, mixed with the faint biting scent of gasoline.

Martell bent and took hold of a corner of the tarpaulin. He said flatly, “Do the best you can, Mr. Kane,” and flipped back the heavy canvas.

It looked like nothing human. Except for the contours of legs and arms, it could have been a side of beef hauled out of a burning barn. Where the face had been was a smear of splintered and charred bone that bore no resemblance to a face. No hair, no clothing except for the remains of a woman’s shoe still clinging to the left foot; only blackened, flame-gnawed flesh and bones. And over it all the stench of a charnel house.

I backed away abruptly and clamped down on my teeth, fighting back a wave of nausea. Martell allowed the canvas to fall back into place. “Sorry, Mr. Kane. We can’t overlook any chances.”

“It’s all right,” I mumbled.

“You couldn’t identify …her?”

I shuddered. “Christ, no! Nobody could!”

“Let’s have a look at the car.”

I circled the wreck twice. It had stopped right-side up, the tires flat, the hood ripped to shreds, the engine shoved halfway into the front seat. The steering wheel was snapped off and the dashboard appeared to have been worked over with a sledgehammer. Flames had eaten away the upholstery and blackened the entire interior.

It was Donnas car; no doubt about that. The license plates showed the right number and a couple of rust spots on the right rear fender were as I remembered them. I said as much to Chief Deputy Martell and he nodded briefly and went over to say something I couldn’t hear to the four men.

He came back to me after a minute or two. “I’ve a few questions. Nothing more for you down here. Let’s go back upstairs.”

He was holding something in one hand. It was a woman’s bag: blue suede, small, with a gold clasp shaped like a question mark. I recognized it and my mouth felt a little dry.

It was a job getting up the steep slope. The red loam was dry and crumbled under my feet. The sun was still high enough to be hot on my back and my hands were sticky with ooze from the sagebrush.

Martell was waiting for me when I reached the road. I sat down on the front bumper of one of the department cars and shook the loose dirt out of my shoes, wiped most of the sage ooze off my palms, and brushed the knees of my trousers. The man in the green khaki uniform was still behind the wheel of the lead car but he wasn’t smoking now.

I followed the sheriff into the front seat of a black-and-white Mercury with a buggy-whip aerial at the rear bumper and a radio phone on the dash. He lit up a small yellow cigar in violation of a fire-hazard signboard across the road from us. He dropped the match into the dashboard ashtray and leaned back in the seat and bounced the suede bag lightly on one of his broad palms.

IV

He said, “One of the boys found this in a clump of sage halfway down the slope. You ever see it before?”

“My wife has one like it.”

He cocked an eye at me. “Not like it, Mr. Kane. This is hers. Personal effects, identification cards, all that. No doubt at all.”

“…OK.”

“And that’s your wife’s car?”

“Yeah.”

“But you say it’s not your wife who was in it?”

“No question about it,” I said firmly.

“When did you see her last?”

“Around nine-thirty this morning.” “But you talked to her later, I understand.”

“That’s right.”

“What time?”

“A few minutes past four this afternoon.”

He puffed out some blue smoke. “Sure it was your wife?”

“If I wouldn’t know, who would?”

His strong face was thoughtful, his blue eyes distant. “Mrs. Kane’s a singer, I understand.”

“That’s right,” I told him. “Uses her maiden name: Donna Collins.”

He smiled suddenly, showing good teeth. “Oh, sure. The missus and I heard her on the Dancing in Velvet program last week. She’s good — and a mighty lovely young woman, Mr. Kane.”

I muttered something polite. He put some cigar ash into the tray and leaned back again and said, “They must pay her pretty good, being a radio star.”

“Not a star,” I explained patiently. “Just a singer. It pays well, of course — but nothing like the top names pull down. However, Donna’s well fixed in her own right; her father died a while back and left her what amounts to quite a bit of money …Look, Sheriff, what’s the point of keeping me here? I don’t know who the dead woman is, but since she was using my wife’s car, the one to talk to is Mrs. Kane. She’s bound to be home by this time; why not ride into town with me and ask her?”

He was still holding the handbag. He put it down on the seat between us and looked off toward the blue haze that marked the foothills south of Burbank. “Your wife’s not home, Mr. Kane,” he said very quietly.

A vague feeling of alarm stirred within me. “How do you know that?” I demanded.

He gestured at the two-way radio. “The office is calling your apartment at ten-minute intervals. As soon as Mrs. Kane answers her phone, I’m to get word. I haven’t got it yet.”

I said harshly, “What am I supposed to do — sit here until they call you?”

He sighed a little and turned sideways on the seat far enough to cross his legs. The light blue of his eyes was frosted over now, and his jaw was a grim line.

“I’m going to have to talk to you like a Dutch uncle, Mr. Kane. As you saw, we’ve got a dead woman down there as the result of what, to all intents and purposes, was an unfortunate accident. Everything points to the victim’s being your wife except for two things, one of them your insistence that you spoke to her on the phone nearly two hours after the accident. That leaves us wondering — and with any one of several answers. One is that you’re lying; that you didn’t speak to her at all. If that’s the right answer, we can’t figure out the reason behind it. Two: your wife loaned a friend the car. Three: somebody lifted it from where it was parked. Four: you drove up here with her, knocked her in the head, and let the car roll over the edge.”

“Of all the goddamn-!”

He held up a hand, cutting me off. “Let’s take ‘em one at a time. I can’t see any reason, even if you murdered her, why you’d say your wife telephoned you afterwards. So until and unless something turns up to show us why you’d lie about it, I’ll have to believe she did make that call. As for her loaning the car, that could very well have happened, only it doesn’t explain why she’s missing now. This business of the car’s being stolen doesn’t hold up, because the key was still in the ignition and in this case.”

He took a folded handkerchief from the side pocket of his coat and opened it. A badly scorched leather case came to light, containing the ignition and trunk keys. The rest of the hooks were empty. I sat there staring at it, feeling my insides slowly and painfully contracting.

“Recognize it?” Martell asked softly

I nodded numbly. “It’s Donnas.”

He picked up the handbag with his free hand and thrust it at me. “Take a look through it.”

Still numb, I released the clasp and pawed through the contents. A small green-leather wallet containing seventy or eighty dollars and the usual identification cards, one of them with my office, address, and phone number. Lipstick, compact, mirror, comb, two initialed handkerchiefs, a few hairpins. The French enamel cigarette case and matching lighter I’d given her on her twenty-fifth birthday three months ago. Less than a dollar in change.

That was all. Nothing else. I shoved the stuff back in the bag and closed the clasp with stiff fingers and sat there looking dully at Martell.

He was refolding the handkerchief around the key case. He returned it to his pocket carefully, took the cigar out of his mouth and inspected the glowing tip.

“Your wife wear any jewelry, Mr. Kane?” he asked casually.

I nodded. “A wristwatch. Her wedding and engagement rings.”

“We didn’t find them. No jewelry at all.”

“You wouldn’t,” I said. “Whoever that is down there, she’s not Donna Kane.”

He sat there and looked out through the windshield and appeared to be thinking. He wore no hat and there was a strong sprinkling of gray in his hair and a bald spot about the size of a silver dollar at the crown. There was a network of fine wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, as there so often is in men who spend a great deal of time in the sun. He looked calm and confident and competent and not at all heroic.

Presently he said, “That phone call. No doubt at all that it was your wife?”

“None.”

“Recognized her voice, eh?”

I frowned. “Not so much that. It was more what she said. You know, certain expressions nobody else’d use. Pet name — you know.”

His lips quirked and I felt my cheeks burn. He said, “Near as you can remember, tell me about that call. If she sounded nervous or upset — the works.”

I put it all together for him, forgetting nothing. Then I went on about stopping off at the apartment, what I’d found there and what Ruth Feldman had said. Martell didn’t interrupt, only sat there drawing on his cigar and soaking it all in.

After I was finished, he didn’t move or say anything for what seemed a long time. Then he leaned forward and ground out the stub of the cigar and put a hand in the coat pocket next to me and brought out one of those flapped bags women use for formal dress, about the size of a business envelope and with an appliquéd design worked into it. Wordlessly he turned back the flap and let a square gold compact and matching lipstick holder slide out into the other hand.

“Ever see these before, Kane?”

I took them from him. His expression was impossible to read. There was nothing unusual about the lipstick tube, but the compact had a circle of brilliants in one corner and the initials H.W. in the circle.

I handed them back. “New to me, Sheriff.”

He was watching me closely. “Think a minute. This can be important. Either you or your wife know a woman with the initials H.W.?”

“…Not that I…Helen? Helen! Sure; Helen Wainhope! Dave Wainhope’s wife.” I frowned. “I don’t get it, Sheriff.”

He said slowly, “We found this bag a few feet from the wreck. Any idea how it might have gotten there?”

“Not that I can think of.”

“How well do you know these Wainhopes?”

“About as well as you get to know anybody. Dave is business manager for some pretty prominent radio people. A producer, couple of directors, seven or eight actors that I know of.”

“You mean he’s an agent?”

“Not that. These are people who make big money but can’t seem to hang on to it. Dave collects their checks, puts ‘em on an allowance, pays their bills, and invests the rest. Any number of men in that line around town.”

“How long have you known them?”

“Dave and Helen? Two, three years. Shortly after I got out here. As a matter of fact, he introduced me to Donna. She’s one of his clients.”

“The four of you go out together?”

“Now and then; sure.”

“In your wife’s car?”

“…I see what you’re getting at. You figure Helen might have left her bag there. Not a chance, Sheriff. We always used Dave’s Cadillac. Helen has a Pontiac convertible.”

“When did you see them last?”

“Well, I don’t know about Donna, but I had lunch with Dave …let’s see …day before yesterday. He has an office in the Taft Building.”

“Where do they live?”

“Over on one of those little roads off Beverly Glen. Not far from here, come to think about it.”

With slow care he pushed the compact and lipstick back in the folder and dropped it into the pocket it had come out of. “Taft Building, hunh?” he murmured. “Think he’s there now?”

I looked at my strapwatch. Four minutes till six. “I doubt it, Sheriff. He should be home by this time.”

“You know the exact address?”

“Well, it’s on Angola, overlooking the southern tip of the Reservoir. A good-sized redwood ranch house on the hill there. It’s the only house within a couple miles. You can’t miss it.”

He leaned past me and swung open the door. “Go on home, Kane. Soon as your wife shows up, call the station and leave word for me. I may call you later.”

“What about her car?”

He smiled without humor. “Nobody’s going to swipe it. Notify your insurance agent in the morning. But I still want to talk to Mrs. Kane.”

I slid out and walked back to my car. As I started the motor, the black-and-white Mercury made a tight turn on screaming tires and headed north. I pulled back onto the road and tipped a hand at the deputy. He glared at me over the cigarette he was lighting.

I drove much too fast all the way back to Hollywood.

V

She wasn’t there.

I snapped the switch that lit the end-table lamps flanking the couch and walked over to the window and stood there for a few minutes, staring down into Fountain Avenue. At seven o’clock it was still light outside. A small girl on roller skates scooted by, her sun-bleached hair flying. A tall, thin number in a pale blue sports coat and dark glasses got leisurely out of a green convertible with a wolf tail tied to the radiator emblem and sauntered into the apartment building across the street.

A formless fear was beginning to rise within me. I knew now that it had been born at four-thirty when I stopped off on my way to Stone Canyon and found the apartment empty. Seeing the charred body an hour later had strengthened that fear, even though I knew the dead woman couldn’t be Donna. Now that I had come home and found the place deserted, the fear was crawling into my throat, closing it to the point where breathing seemed a conscious effort.

Where was Donna?

I lit a cigarette and began to pace the floor. Let’s use a little logic on this, Kane. You used to be a top detective-story writer; let’s see you go to work on this the way one of your private eyes would operate.

All right, we’ve got a missing woman to find. To complicate matters, the missing woman’s car was found earlier in the day with a dead woman at the wheel. Impossible to identify her, but we know it’s not the one we’re after because that one called her husband after the accident.

Now, since your wife’s obviously alive, Mr. Kane, she’s missing for one of two reasons: either she can’t come home or she doesn’t want to. “Can’t” would mean she’s being held against her will; we’ve nothing to indicate that. That leaves the possibility of her not wanting to come home. What reason would a woman have for staying away from her husband? The more likely one would be that she was either sore at him for something or had left him for another man.

I said a short ugly word and threw my cigarette savagely into the fireplace. Donna would never pull a stunt like that! Hell, we’d only been married a few months and still as much in love as the day the knot was tied.

Yeah? How do you know? A lot of guys kid themselves into thinking the same thing, then wake up one morning and find the milkman has taken over. Or they find some hot love letters tied in blue ribbon and shoved under the mattress.

I stopped short. It was an idea. Not love letters, of course; but there might be something among her personal files that could furnish a lead. It was about as faint a possibility as they come, but at least it would give me something to do.

The big bottom drawer of her desk in the bedroom was locked. I remembered that she carried the key in the same case with those to the apartment and the car, so I used the fireplace poker to force the lock. Donna would raise hell about that when she got home, but I wasn’t going to worry about that now.

There was a big manila folder inside, crammed with letters, tax returns, receipted bills, bankbooks, and miscellaneous papers; I dumped them out and began to paw through the collection. A lot of the stuff had come from Dave Wainhope’s office, and there were at least a dozen letters signed by him explaining why he was sending her such-and-such.

The phone rang suddenly. I damned near knocked the chair over getting to it. It was Chief Deputy Martell.

“Mrs. Kane show up?”

“Not yet. No.”

He must have caught the disappointment in my voice. It was there to catch. He said, “That’s funny…Anyway, the body we found in that car wasn’t her.”

“I told you that. Who was it?”

“This Helen Wainhope. We brought the remains into the Georgia Street Hospital and her husband made the ID about fifteen minutes ago.”

I shivered, remembering. “How could he?”

“There was enough left of one of her shoes. That and the compact did the trick.”

“He tell you why she was driving my wife’s car?”

Martell hesitated. “Not exactly. He said the two women had a date in town for today. He didn’t know what time, but Mrs. Wainhope’s car was on the fritz, so the theory is that your wife drove out there and picked her up.”

“News to me,” I said.

He hesitated again. “…Any bad blood between your wife and …and Mrs. Wainhope?”

“That’s a hell of a question!”

“You want to answer it?” he said quietly.

“You bet I do! They got along fine!”

“If you say so.” His voice was mild. “I just don’t like this coincidence of Mrs. Kane’s being missing at the same time her car goes off a cliff with a friend in it.”

“I don’t care about that. I want my wife back.”

He sighed. “OK. Give me a description and I’ll get out an all-points on her.”

I described Donna to him at length and he took it all down and said he’d be in touch with me later. I put back the receiver and went into the living room to make myself a drink. I hadn’t eaten a thing since one o’clock that afternoon, but I was too tightened up with worry to be at all hungry.

Time crawled by. I finished my drink while standing at the window, put together a second, and took it back into the bedroom and started through the papers from Donna’s desk. At eight-fifteen the phone rang.

“Clay? This is Dave — Dave Wainhope.” His voice was flat and not very steady.

I said, “Hello, Dave. Sorry to hear about Helen.” It sounded pretty lame, but it was the best I could do at the time.

“You know about it then?”

“Certainly I know about it. It was Donna’s car, remember?”

“Of course, Clay.” He sounded very tired. “I guess I’m not thinking too clearly. I called you about something else.”

“Yeah?”

“Look, Clay, it’s none of my business, I suppose. But what’s wrong between you and Donna?”

I felt my jaw sag a little. “Who said anything was wrong?”

“All I know is, she was acting awfully strange. She wanted all the ready cash I had on hand, no explanation, no —”

My fingers were biting into the receiver. “Wait a minute!” I shouted. “Dave, listen to me! You saw Donna?”

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you. She —”

“When?”

“…Why, not ten minutes ago. She —”

“Where? Where was she? Where did you see her?”

“Right here. At my office.” He was beginning to get excited himself. “I stopped by on my way from the Georgia —”

I cut him off. “Christ, Dave, I’ve been going nuts! I’ve been looking for her since four-thirty this afternoon. What’d she say? What kind of trouble is she in?”

“I don’t know. She wouldn’t tell me anything—just wanted money quick. No checks. I thought maybe you and she had had a fight or something. I had around nine hundred in the safe; I gave it all to her and she beat —”

I shook the receiver savagely. “But she must have said something! She wouldn’t just leave without…you know…” “She said she sent you a letter earlier in the day.” I dropped down on the desk chair. My hands were shaking and my mouth was dry. “A letter,” I said dully. “A letter. Not in person, not even a phone call. Just a letter.”

By this time Dave was making comforting sounds. “I’m sure it’s nothing serious, Clay. You know how women are. The letter’ll probably tell you where she is and you can talk her out of it.”

I thanked him and hung up and sat there and stared at my thumb. For some reason I felt even more depressed than before. I couldn’t understand why Donna wouldn’t have turned to me if she was in trouble. That was always a big thing with us: all difficulties had to be shared…

I went into the kitchen and made myself a couple of cold salami sandwiches and washed them down with another highball. At nine-twenty I telephoned the Hollywood substation to let Martell know what Dave Wainhope had told me. Whoever answered said the chief deputy was out and to call back in an hour. I tried to leave a message on what it was about, but was told again to call back and got myself hung up on.

* * *

About ten minutes later the buzzer from downstairs sounded. I pushed the button and was standing in the hall door when a young fellow in a postman’s gray uniform showed up with a special-delivery letter. I signed for it and closed the door and leaned there and ripped open the envelope.

A single sheet of dime-store paper containing a few neatly typed lines and signed in ink in Donnas usual scrawl.

Clay darling:

I’m terribly sorry, but something that happened a long time ago has come back to plague me and I have to get away for a few days. Please don’t try to find me, I’ll be all right as long as you trust me.

You know I love you so much that I won’t remain away a day longer than I have to. Please don’t worry, darling, I’ll explain everything the moment I get back.

All my love,

Donna

And that was that. Nothing that I could get my teeth into; no leads, nothing to cut away even a small part of my burden of concern. I walked into the bedroom with no spring in my step and dropped the letter on the desk and reached for the phone. But there was no point to that. Martell wouldn’t be back at the station yet.

Maybe I had missed something. Maybe the envelope was a clue? A clue to what? I looked at it. Carefully. The postmark was Hollywood. That meant it had gone through the branch at Wilcox and Selma. At five-twelve that afternoon. At five-twelve I was just about pulling up behind those department cars out on Stone Canyon Road. She would have had to mail it at the post office instead of a drop box for me to get it four hours later.

No return address, front or back, as was to be expected. Just a cheap envelope, the kind you pick up at Woolworth’s or Kress’s. My name and the address neatly typed. The e key was twisted very slightly to the right and the t was tilted just far enough to be noticeable if you looked at it long enough.

I let the envelope drift out of my fingers and stood there staring down at Donna’s letter. My eyes wandered to the other papers next to it…

I said, “Jesus Christ!” You could spend the next ten years in church and never say it more devoutly than I did at that moment. My eyes were locked to one of the letters David Wainhope had written to Donna — and in its typewritten lines two individual characters stood out like bright and shining beacons: a tilted t and a twisted e!

VI

It took some time — I don’t know how much — before I was able to do any straight-line thinking. The fact that those two letters had come out of the same typewriter opened up so many possible paths to the truth behind Donna’s disappearance that — well, I was like the mule standing between two stacks of hay.

Finally I simply turned away and walked into the living room and poured a good half-inch of bonded bourbon into a glass and drank it down like water after an aspirin. I damned near strangled on the stuff; and by the time I stopped gasping for air and wiping the tears out of my eyes, I was ready to do some thinking.

Back at the desk again, I sat down and picked up the two sheets of paper. A careful comparison removed the last lingering doubt that they had come out of the same machine. Other points began to fall into place: the fact that the typing in Donnas letter had been done by a professional. You can always tell by the even impression of the letters, instead of the dark-light-erasure-strike-over touch you find in an amateur job. And I knew that Donna had never used a typewriter in her life!

All right, what did it mean? On the surface, simply that somebody had typed the letter for Donna, and at Dave Wainhope’s office. It had to be his office, for he would hardly write business letters at home — and besides I was pretty sure Dave was strictly a pen-and-pencil man himself.

Now what? Well, since it was typed in Dave’s office, but not by Dave or Donna, it would indicate Dave’s secretary had done the work. Does that hold up? It’s got to hold up, friend; no one else works in that office but Dave and his secretary.

Let’s kind of dig into that a little. Let’s say that Donna dropped in on Dave earlier in the afternoon, upset about something. Let’s say that Dave is out, so Donna dictates a note to me and the secretary types it out. Very simple …But is it?

No.

And here’s why. Here are the holes: first, the note is on dime-store paper, sent in a dime-store envelope. Dave wouldn’t have that kind of stationery in his office — not a big-front guy like Dave. OK, stretch it all the way out; say that Donna had brought her own paper and had the girl use it. You still can’t tell me Dave’s secretary wouldn’t have told her boss about it when he got back to the office. And if she told him, he would certainly have told me during our phone conversation.

But none of those points compares with the biggest flaw of them all: why would Donna have anyone type the letter for her when a handwritten note would do just as well — especially on a very private and personal matter like telling your husband you’re in trouble?

I got up and walked down the room and lit a cigarette and looked out the window without seeing anything. A small voice in the back of my mind said, “If all this brain work of yours is right, you know what it adds up to, don’t you, pal?”

I knew. Sure, I knew. It meant that Donna Kane was a threat to somebody It meant that she was being held somewhere; that she had been forced to sign a note to keep me from reporting her disappearance to the cops until whoever was responsible could make a getaway.

It sounded like a bad movie, and I tried hard to make myself believe that’s all it was. But the more I dug into it, the more I went over the results of my reasoning, the more evident it became that there was no other explanation.

You do only one thing in a case like that. I picked up the phone and called Martell again. He was still out. I took a stab at telling the desk sergeant, or whoever it was at the other end, what was going on. But it sounded so complex and confused, even to me, that he finally stopped me. “Look, neighbor, call back in about fifteen, twenty minutes. Martell’s the man you want to talk to.” He hung up before I could give him an argument.

His advice was good and I intended to take it. Amateur detectives usually end up with both feet stuck in their esophagus. This was a police job. My part in it was to let them know what I’d found out, then get out of their way.

That secretary would know. She was in this up to the hilt. I had seen her a few times: a dark-haired girl, quite pretty, a little on the small side but built right. Big blue eyes; I remembered that. Quiet. A little shy, if I remembered right. What was her name? Nora. Nora something. Campbell? Kenton? No. Kemper? That was it: Nora Kemper.

I found her listed in the Central District phone book. In the 300 block on North Hobart, a few doors below Beverly Boulevard. I knew the section. Mostly apartment houses along there. Nothing fancy, but a long way from being a slum. The right neighborhood for private secretaries. As I remembered, she had been married but was now divorced.

I looked at my watch. Less than five minutes since I’d called the sheriff’s office. I thought of Donna tied and gagged and stuck away in, say, the trunk of some car. It was more than I could take.

I was on my way out the door when I thought of something else. I went back into the bedroom and dug under a pile of sports shirts in the bottom dresser drawer and took out the gun I’d picked up in San Francisco the year before. It was a Smith & Wesson .38, the model they called the Terrier. I made sure it was loaded, shoved it under the waistband of my slacks in the approved pulp-magazine style, and left the apartment.

VII

It was a quiet street, bordered with tall palms, not much in the way of streetlights. Both curbs were lined with cars, and I had to park half a block down and across the way from the number I wanted.

I got out and walked slowly back through the darkness. I was a little jittery, but that was to be expected. Radio music drifted from a bungalow court and a woman laughed thinly. A couple passed me, arm in arm, the man in an army officer’s uniform. I didn’t see anyone else around.

The number I was after belonged to a good-sized apartment building, three floors and three separate entrances. Five stone steps, flanked by a wrought-iron balustrade, up to the front door. A couple of squat Italian cypresses in front of the landing.

There was no one in the foyer. In the light from a yellow bulb in a ceiling fixture I could make out the names above the bell buttons. Nora Kemper’s apartment was 205. Automatically I reached for the button, then hesitated. There was no inner door to block off the stairs. Why not go right on up and knock on her door? No warning, no chance for her to think up answers before I asked the questions.

I walked up the carpeted steps to the second floor and on down the hall. It was very quiet. Soft light from overhead fixtures glinted on pale green walls and dark green doors. At the far end of the hall, a large window looked out on the night sky.

Number 205 was well down the corridor. No light showed under the edge of the door. I pushed a thumb against a small pearl button set flush in the jamb and heard a single flatted bell note.

Nothing happened. No answering steps, no questioning voice. A telephone rang twice in one of the other apartments and a car horn sounded from the street below.

I tried the bell again, with the same result. Now what? Force the door? No sense to that, and besides, illegal entry was against the law. I wouldn’t know how to go about it anyway.

She would have to come home eventually. Thing to do was stake out somewhere and wait for her to show up. If she didn’t arrive within the next half hour, say, then I would hunt up a phone and call Martell.

I went back to the stairs and was on the point of descending to the first floor when I heard the street door close and light steps against the tile flooring down there. It could be Nora Kemper. Moving silently, I took the steps to the third floor and stood close to the wall where the light failed to reach.

A woman came quickly up the steps to the second floor. From where I stood I couldn’t see her face clearly, but her build and the color of her hair were right. She was wearing a light coat and carrying a white drawstring bag, and she was in a hurry. She turned in the right direction, and the moment she was out of sight I raced back to the second floor.

It was Nora Kemper, all right. She was standing in front of the door to 205 and digging into her bag for the key. I had a picture of her getting inside and closing the door and refusing to let me in.

I said, “Hold it a minute, Miss Kemper.”

She jerked her head up and around, startled. I moved toward her slowly. When the light reached my face, she gasped and made a frantic jab into the bag, yanked out her keys, and tried hurriedly to get one of them into the lock.

I couldn’t afford to have that door between us. I brought the gun out and said sharply, “Stay right there. I want to talk to you.”

The hand holding the keys dropped limply to her side. She began to hack away, retreating toward the dead end of the corridor. Her face gleamed whitely, set in a frozen mask of fear.

She stopped only when she could go no farther. Her back pressed hard against the wall next to the window, her eyes rolled, showing the whites.

Her voice came out in a ragged whisper. “Wha-what do you want?”

I said, “You know me, Miss Kemper. You know who I am. What are you afraid of?”

Her eyes wavered, dropped to the .38 in my hand. “The gun. I —”

“Hunh-uh,” I said. “You were scared stiff before I brought it out. Recognizing me is what scared you. Why?”

Her lips shook. Against the pallor of her skin they looked almost black. “I don’t know what…Don’t stand …Please. Let me go.”

She tried to squeeze past me. I reached out and grabbed her by one arm. She gasped and jerked away—and her open handbag fell to the floor, spilling the contents.

She started after them, but I was there ahead of her. I had seen something— something that shook me like a solid right to the jaw.

Three of them, close together on the carpet. I scooped them up and straightened and jerked Nora Kemper around to face me. I shoved my open hand in front of her eyes, letting her see what was in it.

“Keys!” I said hoarsely. “Take a good look, lady! They came out of your purse. The keys to my apartment, my mailbox. My wife’s keys!”

A small breeze would have knocked her down. I took a long look at her stricken expression, then I put a hand on her shoulder and pushed her ahead of me down the hall. I didn’t have to tell her what I wanted: she unlocked the door and we went in.

When the lights were on, she sank down on the couch. I stood over her, still holding the gun. My face must have told her what was going on behind it, for she began to shake uncontrollably.

I said, “I’m a man in the dark, Miss Kemper. I’m scared, and when I get scared I get mad. If you don’t want a mouth full of busted teeth, tell me one thing: where is my wife?”

She had sense enough to believe me. She gasped and drew back. “He didn’t tell me,” she wailed. “I only did what he told me to do, Mr. Kane.”

“What who told you?”

“David. Mr. Wainhope.”

I breathed in and out. “You wrote that letter?”

“…Yes.”

“Did you see my wife sign it?”

She wet her lips. “She wasn’t there. David signed it. There are samples of her signature at the office. He copied from one of them.”

I hadn’t thought of that. “What’s behind all this?”

“I — I don’t know.” She couldn’t take her eyes off the gun. “Really I don’t, Mr. Kane.”

“You know a hell of a lot more than I do,” I growled. “Start at the beginning and give it to me. All of it.”

She pushed a wick of black hair off her forehead. Some of the color was beginning to seep back into her cheeks, but her eyes were still clouded with fear.

“When I got back to the office from lunch this afternoon,” she said, “David was out. He called me a little after three and told me to meet him at the corner of Fountain and Courtney. I was to take the Hollywood streetcar instead of a cab and wait for him there.”

“Did he say why?”

“No. He sounded nervous, upset. I was there within fifteen minutes, but he didn’t show up until almost a quarter to four.”

“Go on,” I said when she hesitated.

“Well, we went into an apartment building on Fountain. Dave took out some keys and used one of them to take mail out of a box with your name on it. Then he unlocked the inner door and we went up to your apartment. He had the key to it, too. He gave me the keys and we went into the bedroom. He told me to call you and what to say. Before that, though, he hunted up the vacuum cleaner and started it going. Then I talked to you on the phone.”

I stared at her. “You did fine. The cleaner kept me from realizing it wasn’t Donna’s voice, and I suppose at one time or another Helen must’ve found out Donna called me ‘Poopsie’ and told Dave about it. Big laugh! What happened after that?”

Her hands were clenched in her lap, whitening the knuckles. Her small breasts rose and fell under quick shallow breathing. Fear had taken most of the beauty out of her face.

“Dave opened one of the letters he had brought upstairs,” she said tonelessly, “and left it next to the phone. We went back downstairs and drove back to the office. On the way Dave stopped off and bought some cheap stationery. I used some of it to write that letter. He told me to mail at at the post office right away, then he walked out. I haven’t seen him since.”

“Secretaries like you,” I said sourly, “must take some finding. Whatever the boss says goes. You don’t find ‘em like that around the broadcasting studios.”

Her head swung up sharply. “I happen to love Dave…and he loves me. We’re going to be married — now that he’s free.”

My face ached from keeping my expression unchanged. “How nice for both of you. Only he’s got a wife, remember?”

She looked at me soberly. “Didn’t you know about that?”

“About what?”

“Helen Wainhope. She was killed in an automobile accident this afternoon.”

“When did you hear that?”

“David told me when he called in around three o’clock.”

I let my eyes drift to the gun in my hand. There was no point in flashing it around any longer. I slid it into one of my coat pockets and fished a cigarette out and used a green and gold table lighter to get it going. I said, “And all this hocus-pocus about signing my wife’s name to a phony letter, calling me on the phone and pretending to be her — all this on the same day Dave Wainhope’s wife dies — and you don’t even work up a healthy curiosity? I find that hard to believe, Miss Kemper. You must have known he was into something way over his head.”

“I love David,” she said simply.

I blew out some smoke. “Love isn’t good for a girl like you. Leave it alone. It makes you stupid. Good night, Miss Kemper.”

She didn’t move. A tear began to trace a jagged curve along her left cheek. I left her sitting there and went over to the door and out, closing it softly behind me.

VIII

At eleven o’clock at night there’s not much traffic on Sunset, especially when you get out past the bright two-mile stretch of the Strip with its Technicolor neons, its plush nightclubs crowded with columnists and casting-couch starlets and vacationing Iowans, its modernistic stucco buildings with agents’ names in stylized lettering across the fronts. I drove by them and dropped on down into Beverly Hills, where most of the homes were dark at this hour, through Brentwood, where a lot of stars hide out in big estates behind hedges and burglar alarms, and finally all that was behind me and I turned off Sunset onto Beverly Glen Boulevard and followed the climbing curves up into the foothills to the north.

The pattern was beginning to form. Dave Wainhope had known his wife was dead long before Sheriff Martell drove out to break the news to him. I saw that as meaning one thing: he must have had a hand in that “accident” on Stone Canyon Road. He could have driven out there with Helen, then let the car roll over the lip of the canyon with her in it. The motive was an old, old one: in love with another woman and his wife in the way.

That left only Donnas disappearance to account for. In a loose way I had that figured out too. She might have arrived at Dave’s home at the wrong time. I saw her walking in and seeing too much and getting herself bound and gagged and tucked away somewhere while Dave finished the job. Why he had used Donna’s car to stage the accident was something I couldn’t fit in for sure, although Sheriff Martell had mentioned that Helen’s car hadn’t been working.

It added up — and in the way it added up was the proof that Donna was still alive. Even with the certainty that Dave Wainhope had coldbloodedly sent his wife plunging to a horrible death, I was equally sure he had not harmed Donna. Otherwise the obvious move would have been to place her in the car with Helen and drop them both over the edge. A nice clean job, no witnesses, no complications. Two friends on their way into town, a second of carelessness in negotiating a dangerous curve — and the funeral will be held Tuesday!

The more I thought of it, the more trouble I was having in fitting Dave Wainhope into the role of murderer at all. He was on the short side, thick in the waistline, balding, and with the round guileless face you find on some infants. As far as I knew he had never done anything more violent in his life than refuse to tip a waiter.

None of that proved anything, of course. If murders were committed only by people who looked the part, there would be a lot more pinochle played in homicide bureaus.

I turned off Beverly Glen at one of the narrow unpaved roads well up into the hills and began to zigzag across the countryside. The dank smell of the distant sea drifted in through the open windows, bringing with it the too-sweet odor of sage blossoms. The only sounds were the quiet purr of the motor and the rattle of loose stones against the underside of the fenders.

* * *

Then suddenly I was out in the open, with Stone Canyon Reservoir below me behind a border of scrub oak and manzanita and the sheen of moonlight on water. On my left, higher up, bulked a dark sharp-angled building of wood and stone and glass among flowering shrubs and bushes and more of the scrub oak. I followed a graveled driveway around a sweeping half-circle and pulled up alongside the porch.

I cut off the motor and sat there. Water gurgled in the radiator. With the headlights off, the night closed in on me. A bird said something in its sleep and there was a brief rustling among the bushes.

The house stood big and silent. Not a light showed. I put my hand into my pocket next to the gun and got out onto the gravel. It crunched under my shoes on my way to the porch. I went up eight steps and across the flagstones and turned the big brass doorknob.

Locked. I hadn’t expected it not to be. I shrugged and put a finger against the bell and heard a strident buzz inside that seemed to rock the building.

No lights came on. I waited a minute or two, then tried again, holding the button down for what seemed a long time. All it did was use up some of the battery.

Now what? I tried to imagine David Wainhope crouched among the portieres with his hands full of guns, but it wouldn’t come off. The more obvious answer would be the right one: he simply wasn’t home.

I wondered if he would be coming home at all. By now he might be halfway to Mexico, with a bundle of his clients’ cash in the back seat and no intention of setting foot in the States ever again. He would have to get away before somebody found Donna Kane and turned her loose to tell what had actually happened. I had a sharp picture of her trussed up and shoved under one of the beds. It was all I needed.

I walked over to one of the porch windows and tried it. It was fastened on the inside. I took out my gun and tapped the butt hard against the glass. It shattered with a sound like the breaking up of an ice jam. I reached through and turned the catch and slid the frame up far enough for me to step over the sill.

Nobody else around. I moved through the blackness until I found an arched doorway and a light switch on the wall next to that.

I was in a living room which ran the full length of the house. Modern furniture scattered tastefully about. Sponge-rubber easy chairs in pastel shades. An enormous wood-burning fireplace. Framed Greenwich Village smears grouped on one wall. A shiny black baby grand with a tasseled gold scarf across it and a picture in a leather frame of Helen Wainhope. Everything looked neat and orderly and recently dusted.

I walked on down the room and through another archway into a dining room. Beyond it was a hall into the back of the house, with three bedrooms, one of them huge, the others ordinary in size with a connecting bath. I went through all of them. The closets had nothing in them but clothing. There was nothing under the beds, not even a little honest dirt. Everything had a place and everything was in its place.

The kitchen was white and large, with all the latest gadgets. Off it was a service porch, with a refrigerator, a deep freeze big enough to hold a body (but without one in it), and a washing machine. The house was heated with gas, with a central unit under the house. No basement.

Donna was still missing.

I left the lights on and went outside and around the corner of the house to the three-car garage. The foldback doors were closed and locked, but a side entrance wasn’t. One car inside: a gray Pontiac convertible I recognized as Helen’s. Nobody in it and the trunk was locked. I gave the lid a halfhearted rap and said, “Donna? Are you in there?”

No answer. No wild drumming of heels, no thrashing about. No sound at all except the blood rushing through my veins, and I probably imagined that.

Right then I knew I was licked. He had hidden her somewhere else or he had taken her with him. That last made no sense at all, but then he probably wasn’t thinking sensibly.

Nothing left but to call the sheriff and let him know how much I’d learned and how little I’d found. I should have done that long before this. I went back to the house to hunt up the telephone. I remembered seeing it on a nightstand in one of the bedrooms, and I walked slowly back along the hall to learn which one.

Halfway down I spotted a narrow door I had missed the first time. I opened it and a light went on automatically. A utility closet, fairly deep, shelves loaded with luggage and blankets, a couple of electric heaters stored away for use on the long winter nights. And that was all.

I was on the point of leaving when I noticed that a sizable portion of the flooring was actually a removable trapdoor. I bent down and tugged it loose and slid it to one side, revealing a cement-lined recess about five feet deep and a good eight feet square. Stone steps, four of them, very steep, went down into it. In there was the central gas furnace and a network of flat pipes extending in all directions. The only illumination came from the small naked bulb over my head, and at first I could see nothing beyond the unit itself.

My eyes began to get used to the dimness. Something else was down there on the cement next to the furnace. Something dark and shapeless …A pale oval seemed to swell and float up toward me.

“Donna!” I croaked. “My good God, it’s Donna!”

I half fell down the stone steps and lifted the lifeless body into my arms. Getting back up those steps and along the hall to the nearest bedroom is something I would never remember.

And then she was on the bed and I was staring down at her. My heart seemed to leap once and shudder to a full stop, and a wordless cry tore at my throat.

The girl on the bed was Helen Wainhope!

IX

I once heard it said that a man’s life is made up of many small deaths, the least of them being the final one. I stood there looking at the dead woman, remembering the charred ruins of another body beside a twisted heap of blackened metal, and in that moment a part of me stumbled and fell and whimpered and died.

The telephone was there, waiting. I looked at it for a long time. Then I took a slow uneven breath and shook my head to clear it and picked up the receiver.

“Put it down, Clay.”

I turned slowly. He was standing in the doorway, holding a gun down low, his round face drawn and haggard.

I said, “You killed her, you son of a bitch.”

He wet his lips nervously. “Put it down, Clay. I can’t let you call the police.”

It didn’t matter. Not really. Nothing mattered anymore except that he was standing where I could reach him. I let the receiver drop back into place. “Like something left in the oven too long,” I said. “That’s how I have to remember her.”

I started toward him. Not fast. I was in no hurry. The longer it lasted, the more I would like it.

He brought the gun up sharply. “Don’t make me shoot you. Stay right there. Please, Clay.”

I stopped. It took more than I had to walk into the muzzle of a gun. You have to be crazy, I guess, and I wasn’t that crazy.

He began to talk, his tongue racing, the words spilling out. “I didn’t kill Donna, Clay. It was an accident. You’ve got to believe that, Clay! I liked her; I always liked Donna. You know that.”

I could feel my lips twisting into a crooked line. “Sure. You always liked Donna. You always liked me, too. Put down the gun, Dave.”

He wasn’t listening. A muscle twitched high up on his left cheek. “You’ve got to understand how it happened, Clay. It was quick like a nightmare. I want you to know about it, to understand that I didn’t intend …”

There was a gun in my pocket. I thought of it and I nodded. “I’m listening, Dave.”

His eyes flicked to the body on the bed, then back to me. They were tired eyes, a little wild, the whites bloodshot. “Not in here,” he said. He moved to one side. “Go into the living room. Ahead of me. Don’t do anything…foolish.”

I went past him and on along the hall. He was close behind me, but not close enough. In the silence I could hear him breathing.

I sat down on a sponge-rubber chair without arms. I said, “I’d like a cigarette, Dave. You know, to steady my nerves. I’m very nervous right now. You know how it is. I’ll just put my hand in my pocket and take one out. Will that be all right with you?”

He said, “Go ahead,” not caring, not even really listening.

Very slowly I let my hand slide into the side pocket of my coat. His gun went on pointing at me. The muzzle looked as big as the Second Street tunnel. My fingers brushed against the grip of the .38. A knuckle touched the trigger guard and the chill feel was like an electric shock. His gun went on staring at me.

My hand came out again. Empty. I breathed a shallow breath and took a cigarette and my matches from behind my display handkerchief. My forehead was wet. Whatever heroes had, I didn’t have it. I struck a match and lit the cigarette and blew out a long plume of smoke. My hand wasn’t shaking as much as I had expected.

“Tell me about it,” I said.

He perched on the edge of the couch across from me, a little round man in a painful blue suit, white shirt, gray tie, and brown pointed shoes. He had never been one to go in for casual dress like everyone else in Southern California. Lamplight glistened along his scalp below the receding hairline and the muscle in his cheek twanged spasmodically.

“You knew Helen,” he said in a kind of faraway voice. “She was a wonderful woman. We were married twelve years, Clay. I must have been crazy. But I’m not making much sense, am I?” He tried to smile but it broke on him.

I blew out some more smoke and said nothing. He looked at the gun as though he had never seen it before, but he kept on pointing it at me.

“About eight months ago,” he continued, “I made some bad investments with my own money. I tried to get it back by other investments, this time with Donna’s money. It was very foolish of me. I lost that, too.”

He shook his head with slow regret. “It was quite a large sum, Clay. But I wasn’t greatly worried. Things would break right before long and I could put it back. And then Helen found out about it…

“She loved me, Clay. But she wouldn’t stand for my dipping into Donna’s money. She said unless I made good the shortage immediately she would tell Donna. If anything like that got out it would ruin me. I promised I would do it within two or three weeks.”

He stopped there and the room was silent. A breeze came in at the open window and rustled the drapes.

“Then,” David Wainhope said, “something else happened, something that ruined everything. This isn’t easy for me to say, but…well, I was having an …affair with my secretary. Miss Kemper. A lovely girl. You met her.”

“Yes,” I said. “I met her.”

“I thought we were being very—well, careful. But Helen is — was a smart woman, Clay. She suspected something and she hired a private detective. I had no idea, of course …

“Today, Helen called me at the office. I was alone; Miss Kemper was at lunch. Helen seemed very upset; she told me to get home immediately if I knew what was good for me. That’s the way she put it: ‘if you know what’s good for you’!”

I said, “Uh-hunh!” and went on looking at the gun.

“Naturally, I went home at once. When I got here, Donna was just getting out of her car in front. Helen’s convertible was also in the driveway, so I put my car in the garage and came into the living room. I was terribly upset, feeling that Helen was going to tell Donna about the money.

“They were standing over there, in front of the fireplace. Helen was furious; I had never seen her quite so furious before. She told me she was going to tell Donna everything. I pleaded with her not to. Donna, of course, didn’t know what was going on.

“Helen told her about the shortage, Clay. Right there in front of me. Donna took it better than I’d hoped. She said she would have to get someone else to look after her affairs but that she didn’t intend to press charges against me. That was when Helen really lost her temper.

“She said she was going to sue me for divorce and name Miss Kemper; that she had hired a private detective and he had given her a report that same morning. She started to tell me all the things the detective had told her. Right in front of Donna. I shouted for her to stop but she went right on. I couldn’t stand it, Clay. I picked up the poker and I hit her. Just once, on the head. I didn’t know what I was doing. It — it was like a reflex. She died on the floor at my feet.”

I said, “What am I supposed to do — feel sorry for you?”

He looked at me woodenly. I might as well have spoken to the wall. “Donna was terribly frightened. I think she screamed, then she turned and ran out of the house. I heard her car start before I realized she would tell them I killed Helen.

“I ran out, shouting for her to wait, to listen to me. But she was already turning into the road. My car was in the garage, so I jumped into Helen’s and went after her. I wasn’t going to do anything to her, Clay; I just wanted her to understand that I hadn’t meant to kill Helen, that it only happened that way.

“By the time we reached that curve on Stone Canyon I was close behind her. She was driving too fast and the car skidded on the turn and went over. I could hear it. All the way down I heard it. I’ll never get that sound out of my mind.”

I shivered and closed my eyes. There was no emotion in me anymore — only a numbness that would never really go away.

His unsteady voice went on and on. “She must have died instantly. The whole front of her face…My mind began to work fast. If I could make the police think it was my wife who had died in the accident, then I could hide Helen’s body and nobody would know. That way Donna would be the one missing and they’d ask you questions, not me.

“The wreckage was saturated with gasoline. I — I threw a match into it. The fire couldn’t hurt her, Clay. She was already dead. I swear it. Then I went up to the car and looked through it for something of Helen’s I could leave near the scene.

“I came back here,” he went on tonelessly, “and hid Helen’s body. And all the time thoughts kept spinning through my head. Nobody must doubt that it was Helen in that car. If I could just convince you that Donna was not only alive after the accident, but that she had gone away…

“It came to me almost at once. I don’t know from where. Maybe when staying alive depends on quick thinking, another part of your mind takes over. Miss Kemper would have to help me —”

I waved a hand, stopping him. “I know all about that. She told me. And for Christ’s sake stop calling her Miss Kemper! You’ve been sleeping with her — remember?”

He was staring at me. “She told you? Why? I was sure —”

“You made a mistake,” I said. “That note you signed Donna’s name to was typed on the office machine. When I found that out I called on your Miss Kemper. She told me enough to get me started on the right track.”

The gun was very steady in his hand now. Hollows deepened under his cheeks. “You — you told the police?”

“Certainly.”

He shook his head. “No. You didn’t tell them. They would be here now if you had.” He stood up slowly, with a kind of quiet agony. “I’m sorry, Clay.”

My throat began to tighten. “The hell with being sorry. I know. I’m the only one left. The only one who can put you in that gas chamber out at San Quentin. Now you make it number three.”

His face seemed strangely at peace. “I’ve told you what happened. I wanted you to hear it from me, exactly the way it happened. I wanted you to know I couldn’t deliberately kill anyone.”

He turned the gun around and reached out and laid it in my hand. He said, “I suppose you had better call the police now.”

I looked stupidly down at the gun and then back at him. He had forgotten me. He settled back on the couch and put his hands gently down on his knees and stared past me at the night sky beyond the windows.

I wanted to feel sorry for him. But I couldn’t. It was too soon. Maybe some day I would be able to.

After a while I got up and went into the bedroom and put through the call.

1953

MICKEY SPILLANE

THE LADY SAYS DIE!

Mickey (born Francis Morrison) Spillane (1918-2006) was born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised in a tough neighborhood in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He sold his first stories to the top American magazines at the age of seventeen, then switched to pulp magazines and comic books; he was one of the creators of superheroes Captain Marvel and Captain America. He took time out for World War II, in which he flew combat missions and trained pilots for the Air Force, then he returned to continue his writing career while also becoming a trampoline performer for Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey circus and working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation to break up a narcotics ring.

Spillane created his most famous character, Mike Hammer, for a comic book, but when the publisher failed he converted the story and hero into a novel, I, the Jury (1947), which became a national phenomenon, selling many millions of copies, as did his next six books. At one time, his first seven books all ranked among the top-ten best-selling novels in U.S. history. While most critics savaged them, partly because of their relatively (for the time) graphic depictions of violence and references to sex, partly because of his avowed right-wing patriotism, readers loved him, and the objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand wrote of him admiringly, comparing reading his books to listening to a military band in a public park. Most of his early novels were made into motion pictures, including I, the Jury (1953), with Biff Elliot as Hammer; the noir classic Kiss Me Deadly (1955), with Ralph Meeker as Hammer; and The Girl Hunters (1963), in which Spillane himself played the detective. The Mystery Writers of America named him a Grand Master for lifetime achievement in 1995.

Although Spillane was a better novelist than short story writer, his name on a magazine cover was certain to increase circulation; he was eagerly pursued for new works and was often accommodating. “The Lady Says Die!” originally appeared in the October 1953 issue of Manhunt, the ultimate hard-boiled digest magazine of its time.

The stocky man handed his coat and hat to the attendant and went through the foyer to the main lounge of the club. He stood in the doorway for a scant second, but in that time his eyes had seen all that was to be seen; the chess game beside the windows, the foursome at cads, and the lone man at the rear of the room sipping a drink.

He crossed between the tables, nodding briefly to the card players, and went directly to the back of the room. The other man looked up from his drink with a smile. “Afternoon, Inspector. Sit down. Drink?”

“Hello, Dune. Same as you’re drinking.”

Almost languidly, the fellow made a motion with his hand. The waiter nodded and left. The inspector settled himself in his chair with a sigh. He was a big man, heavy without being given to fat. Only his high shoes proclaimed him for what he was. When he looked at Chester Duncan he grimaced inwardly, envying him his poise and manner, yet not willing to trade him for anything.

Here, he thought smugly, is a man who should have everything, yet has nothing. True, he has money and position, but the finest of all things, a family life, was denied him. And with a brood of five in all stages of growth at home, the inspector felt that he had achieved his purpose in life.

The drink came and the inspector took his, sipping it gratefully. When he put it down he said, “I came to thank you for that, er …tip. You know, that was the first time I’ve ever played the market.”

“Glad to do it,” Duncan said. His hands played with the glass, rolling it around in his palms. His eyebrows shot up suddenly, as though he was amused at something. “I suppose you heard all the ugly rumors.”

A flush reddened the inspector’s face. “In an offhand way, yes. Some of them were downright ugly.” He sipped his drink again and tapped a cigarette on the side table. “You know,” he said, “if Walter Harrison’s death hadn’t been so definitely a suicide, you might be standing an investigation right now.”

Duncan smiled slowly. “Come now, Inspector. The market didn’t budge until after his death, you know.”

“True enough. But rumor has it that you engineered it in some manner.” He paused long enough to study Duncan’s face. “Tell me, did you?”

“Why should I incriminate myself?”

“It’s over and done with. Harrison leaped to his death from the window of a hotel room. The door was locked, and there was no possible way anyone could have gotten in that room to give him a push. No, we’re quite satisfied that it was suicide, and everybody that ever came in contact with Harrison agrees that he did the world a favor when he died. However, there’s still some speculation about you having a hand in things.”

“Tell me, Inspector, do you really think I had the courage or the brains to oppose a man like Harrison, and force him to kill himself?”

The inspector frowned, then nodded. “As a matter of fact, yes. You did profit by his death.”

“So did you.” Duncan laughed.

“Ummmm.”

“Though it’s nothing to be ashamed about,” Duncan added. “When Harrison died, the financial world naturally expected that the stocks he financed were no good and tried to unload. It so happened that I was one of the few who knew they were as good as gold and bought while I could. And, of course, I passed the word on to my friends. Somebody had might as well profit by the death of a …a rat.”

Through the haze of the smoke, Inspector Early saw his face tighten around the mouth. He scowled again, leaning forward in his chair. “Duncan, we’ve been friends quite a while. I’m just cop enough to be curious and I’m thinking that our late Walter Harrison was cursing you just before he died.”

Duncan twirled his glass around. “I’ve no doubt of it,” he said. His eyes met the inspectors. “Would you really like to hear about it?”

“Not if it means your confessing to murder. If that has to happen, I’d much rather you spoke directly to the DA.”

“Oh, it’s nothing like that at all. No, not a bit, Inspector. No matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t do a thing that would impair either my honor or reputation. You see, Walter Harrison went to his death through his own greediness.”

The inspector settled back in his chair. The waiter came with drinks to replace the empties and the two men toasted each other silently.

“Some of this you probably know already, Inspector,” Duncan said…

* * *

Nevertheless, I’ll start at the beginning and tell you everything that happened. Walter Harrison and I met in law school. We were both young and not too studious. We had one thing in common and only one. Both of us were the products of wealthy parents who tried their best to spoil their children. Since we were the only ones who could afford certain— er — pleasures, we naturally gravitated to each other, though when I think back, even at that time, there was little true friendship involved.

It so happened that I had a flair for my studies, whereas Walter didn’t give a damn. At examination time, I had to carry him. It seemed like a big joke at the time, but actually I was doing all the work while he was having his fling around town. Nor was I the only one he imposed upon in such a way. Many students, impressed with having his friendship, gladly took over his papers. Walter could charm the devil himself if he had to.

And quite often he had to. Many’s the time he’s talked his way out of spending a weekend in jail for some minor offense — and I’ve even seen him twist the dean around his little finger, so to speak. Oh, but I remained his loyal friend. I shared everything I had with him, including my women, and even thought it amusing when I went out on a date and met him, only to have him take my girl home.

In the last year of school the crash came. It meant little to me, because my father had seen it coming and got out with his fortune increased. Walter’s father tried to stick it out and went under. He was one of the ones who killed himself that day.

Walter was quite stricken, of course. He was in a blue funk and got stinking drunk. We had quite a talk, and he was for quitting school at once, but I talked him into accepting the money from me and graduating. Come to think of it, he never did pay me back that money. However, it really doesn’t matter.

After we left school I went into business with my father and took over the firm when he died. It was that same month that Walter showed up. He stopped in for a visit and wound up with a position; though at no time did he deceive me as to the real intent of his visit. He got what he came after and in a way it was a good thing for me. Walter was a shrewd businessman.

His rise in the financial world was slightly less than meteoric. He was much too astute to remain in anyone’s employ for long, and with the Street talking about Harrison, the boy wonder of Wall Street, in every other breath, it was inevitable that he open up his own office. In a sense, we became competitors after that, but always friends.

Pardon me, Inspector, let’s say that I was his friend, he never was mine. His ruthlessness was appalling at times, but even then he managed to charm his victims into accepting their lot with a smile. I for one know that he managed the market to make himself a cool million on a deal that left me gasping. More than once he almost cut the bottom out of my business, yet he was always in with a grin and a big hello the next day as if it had been only a tennis match he had won.

If you’ve followed his rise then you’re familiar with the social side of his life. Walter cut quite a swath for himself. Twice, he was almost killed by irate husbands, and if he had been, no jury on earth would have convicted his murderer. There was the time a young girl killed herself rather than let her parents know that she had been having an affair with Walter and had been trapped. He was very generous about it. He offered her money to travel, her choice of doctors, and anything she wanted …except his name for her child. No, he wasn’t ready to give his name away then. That came a few weeks later.

I was engaged to be married at the time. Adrianne was a girl I had loved from the moment I saw her, and there aren’t words enough to tell how happy I was when she said she’d marry me. We spent most of our waking hours poring over plans for the future. We even selected a site for our house out on the Island and began construction. We were timing the wedding to coincide with the completion of the house, and if ever I was a man living in a dream world, it was then. My happiness was complete, as was Adrianne’s, or so I thought. Fortune seemed to favor me with more than one smile at the time. For some reason my own career took a sudden spurt and whatever I touched turned to gold, and in no time the Street had taken to following me rather than Walter Harrison. Without realizing it, I turned several deals that had him on his knees, though I doubt if many ever realized it. Walter would never give up the amazing front he affected.

* * *

At this point Duncan paused to study his glass, his eyes narrowing. Inspector Early remained motionless, waiting for him to go on …

* * *

Walter came to see me, Duncan said. It was a day I shall never forget. I had a dinner engagement with Adrianne and invited him along. Now I know that what he did was done out of sheer spite, nothing else. At first I believed that it was my fault, or hers, never giving Walter a thought…

Forgive me if I pass over the details lightly, Inspector. They aren’t very pleasant to recall. I had to sit there and watch Adrianne captivated by this charming rat to the point where I was merely a decoration in the chair opposite her. I had to see him join us day after day, night after night, then hear the rumors that they were seeing each other without me, then discover for myself that she was in love with him.

Yes, it was quite an experience. I had the idea of killing them both, then killing myself. When I saw that that could never solve the problem, I gave it up.

Adrianne came to me one night. She sat and told me how much she hated to hurt me, but she had fallen in love with Walter Harrison and wanted to marry him. What else was there to do? Naturally, I acted the part of a good loser and called off the engagement. They didn’t wait long. A week later they were married and I was the laughingstock of the Street.

Perhaps time might have cured everything if things hadn’t turned out the way they did. It wasn’t very long afterwards that I learned of a break in their marriage. Word came that Adrianne had changed, and I knew for a fact that Walter was far from being true to her.

You see, now I realized the truth. Walter never loved her. He never loved anybody but himself. He married Adrianne because he wanted to hurt me more than anything else in the world. He hated me because I had something he lacked …happiness. It was something he searched after desperately himself and always found just out of reach.

In December of that year Adrianne took sick. She wasted away for a month and died. In the final moments, she called for me, asking me to forgive her; this much I learned from a servant of hers. Walter, by the way, was enjoying himself at a party when she died. He came home for the funeral and took off immediately for a sojourn in Florida with some attractive showgirl.

God, how I hated that man! I used to dream of killing him! Do you know, if ever my mind drifted from the work I was doing, I always pictured myself standing over his corpse with a knife in my hand, laughing my head off.

Every so often I would get word of Walter’s various escapades, and they seemed to follow a definite pattern. I made it my business to learn more about him, and before long I realized that Walter was almost frenzied in his search to find a woman he could really love. Since he was a fabulously wealthy man, he was always suspicious of a woman wanting him more than his wealth, and this very suspicion always was the thing that drove a woman away from him.

It may seem strange to you, but regardless of my attitude, I saw him quite regularly. And equally strange, he never realized that I hated him so. He realized, of course, that he was far from popular in any quarter, but he never suspected me of anything else save a stupid idea of friendship. But having learned my lesson the hard way, he never got the chance to impose upon me again, though he never really had need to.

It was a curious thing, the solution I saw to my problem. It had been there all the time, I was aware of it being there, yet using the circumstances never occurred to me until the day I was sitting on my veranda reading a memo from my office manager. The note stated that Walter had pulled another coup in the market and had the Street rocking on its heels. It was one of those times when any variation in Wall Street reflected the economy of the country, and what he did was undermine the entire economic structure of the United States. It was with the greatest effort that we got back to normal without toppling, but in doing so a lot of places had to close up. Walter Harrison, however, had doubled the wealth he could never hope to spend anyway.

As I said, I was sitting there reading the note when I saw her behind the window in the house across the way. The sun was streaming in, reflecting the gold in her hair, making a picture of beauty so exquisite as to be unbelievable. A servant came and brought her a tray, and as she sat down to lunch I lost sight of her behind the hedges and the thought came to me of how simple it would all be.

I met Walter for lunch the next day. He was quite exuberant over his latest adventure, treating it like a joke.

I said, “Say, you’ve never been out to my place on the Island, have you?

He laughed, and I noticed a little guilt in his eyes. “To tell you the truth,” he said, “I would have dropped in if you hadn’t built the place for Adrianne. After all…”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Walter. What’s done is done. Look, until things get back to normal, how about staying with me a few days. You need a rest after your little deal.”

“Fine, Duncan, fine! Anytime you say.”

“All right, I’ll pick you up tonight.”

We had quite a ride out, stopping at a few places for drinks and hashing over the old days at school. At any other time I might have laughed, but all those reminiscences had taken on an unpleasant air. When we reached the house I had a few friends in to meet the fabulous Walter Harrison, left him accepting their plaudits, and went to bed.

We had breakfast on the veranda. Walter ate with relish, breathing deeply of the sea air with animal-like pleasure. At exactly nine o’clock the sunlight flashed off the windows of the house behind mine as the servant threw them open to the morning breeze.

Then she was there. I waved and she waved back. Walter’s head turned to look, and I heard his breath catch in his throat. She was lovely, her hair a golden cascade that tumbled around her shoulders. Her blouse was a radiant white that enhanced the swell of her breasts, a gleaming contrast to the smooth tanned flesh of her shoulders.

Walter looked like a man in a dream. “Lord, she’s lovely!” he said. “Who is she, Dune?”

I sipped my coffee. “A neighbor,” I said lightly.

“Do you…do you think I could get to meet her?”

“Perhaps. She’s quite young and just a little bit shy and it would be better to have her see me with you a few times before introductions are in order.”

He sounded hoarse. His face had taken on an avid, hungry look. “Anything you say, but I have to meet her.” He turned around with a grin. “By golly, I’ll stay here until I do, too!”

We laughed over that and went back to our cigarettes, but every so often I caught him glancing back toward the hedge with that desperate expression creasing his face.

Being familiar with her schedule, I knew that we wouldn’t see her again that day, but Walter knew nothing of this. He tried to keep away from the subject, yet it persisted in coming back. Finally he said, “Incidentally, just who is she?”

“Her name is Evelyn Vaughn. Comes from quite a well-to-do family.”

“She here alone?”

“No, besides the servants she has a nurse and a doctor in attendance. She hasn’t been quite well.”

“Hell, she looks the picture of health.”

“Oh, she is now,” I agreed. I walked over and turned on the television and we watched the fights. For the sixth time a call came in for Walter, but his reply was the same. He wasn’t going back to New York. I felt the anticipation in his voice, knowing why he was staying, and had to concentrate on the screen to keep from smiling.

Evelyn was there the next day and the next. Walter had taken to waving when I did, and when she waved back his face seemed to light up until it looked almost boyish. The sun had tanned him nicely and he pranced around like a colt, especially when she could see him. He pestered me with questions and received evasive answers. Somehow he got the idea that his importance warranted a visit from the house across the way. When I told him that to Evelyn neither wealth nor position meant a thing, he looked at me sharply to see if I was telling the truth. To have become what he was he had to be a good reader of faces, and he knew that it was the truth, beyond the shadow of a doubt.

So I sat there day after day watching Walter Harrison fall helplessly in love with a woman he hadn’t met yet. He fell in love with the way she waved, until each movement of her hand seemed to be for him alone. He fell in love with the luxuriant beauty of her body, letting his eyes follow her as she walked to the water from the house, aching to be close to her. She would turn sometimes and see us watching, and wave.

At night he would stand by the window, not hearing what I said because he was watching her windows, hoping for just one glimpse of her, and often I would hear him repeating her name slowly, letting it roll off his tongue like a precious thing.

It couldn’t go on that way. I knew it and he knew it. She had just come up from the beach and the water glistened on her skin. She laughed at something the woman said who was with her and shook her head back so that her hair flowed down her back.

Walter shouted and waved and she laughed again, waving back. The wind brought her voice to him and Walter stood there, his breath hot in my face. “Look here, Duncan, I’m going over and meet her. I can’t stand this waiting. Good Lord, what does a guy have to go through to meet a woman?”

“You’ve never had any trouble before, have you?”

“Never like this!” he said. “Usually they’re dropping at my feet. I haven’t changed, have I? There’s nothing repulsive about me, is there?”

I wanted to tell the truth, but I laughed instead. “You’re the same as ever. It wouldn’t surprise me if she was dying to meet you, too. I can tell you this …she’s never been outside as much as since you’ve been here.”

His eyes lit up boyishly. “Really, Dune. Do you think so?”

“I think so. I can assure you of this, too. If she does seem to like you, it’s certainly for yourself alone.”

As crudely as the barb was placed, it went home. Walter never so much as glanced at me. He was lost in thought for a long time, then: “I’m going over there now, Duncan. I’m crazy about that girl. By God, I’ll marry her if it’s the last thing I do.”

“Don’t spoil it, Walter. Tomorrow, I promise you. I’ll go over with you.”

His eagerness was pathetic. I don’t think he slept a wink that night. Long before breakfast, he was waiting for me on the veranda; we ate in silence, each minute an eternity for him. He turned repeatedly to look over the hedge, and I caught a flash of worry when she didn’t appear.

Tight little lines had appeared at the corners of his eyes, and he said, “Where is she, Dune? She should be there by now, shouldn’t she?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “It does seem strange. Just a moment.” I rang the bell on the table and my housekeeper came to the door. “Have you seen the Vaughns, Martha?” I asked her.

She nodded sagely. “Oh, yes, sir. They left very early this morning to go back to the city.”

Walter turned to me. “Hell!”

“Well, she’ll be back,” I assured him.

“Damn it, Dune, that isn’t the point!” He stood up and threw his napkin on the seat. “Can’t you realize that I’m in love with the girl? I can’t wait for her to get back!”

His face flushed with frustration. There was no anger, only the crazy hunger for the woman. I held back my smile. It happened. It happened the way I planned for it to happen. Walter Harrison had fallen so deeply in love, so truly in love, that he couldn’t control himself. I might have felt sorry for him at that moment if I hadn’t asked him, “Walter, as I told you, I know very little about her. Supposing she is already married.”

He answered my question with a nasty grimace. “Then she’ll get a divorce if I have to break the guy in pieces. I’ll break anything that stands in my way, Duncan. I’m going to have her if it’s the last thing I do!”

He stalked off to his room. Later I heard the car roar down the road. I let myself laugh then.

I went back to New York and was there a week when my contacts told me of Walter’s fruitless search. He used every means at his disposal, but he couldn’t locate the girl. I gave him seven days, exactly seven days. You see, that seventh day was the anniversary of the date I introduced him to Adrianne. I’ll never forget it. Wherever Walter is now, neither will he.

When I called him, I was amazed at the change in his voice. He sounded weak and lost. We exchanged the usual formalities; then I said, “Walter, have you found Evelyn yet?”

He took a long time to answer. “No, she’s disappeared completely.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” I said.

He didn’t get it at first. It was almost too much to hope for. “You…mean you know where she is?”

“Exactly.”

“Where? Please, Dune …where is she?” In a split second he became a vital being again. He was bursting with life and energy, demanding that I tell him.

I laughed and told him to let me get a word in and I would. The silence was ominous then. “She’s not very far from here, Walter, in a small hotel right off Fifth Avenue.” I gave him the address and had hardly finished when I heard his phone slam against the desk. He was in such a hurry he hadn’t bothered to hang up …

* * *

Duncan stopped and drained his glass, then stared at it remorsefully. The inspector coughed lightly to attract his attention, his curiosity prompting him to speak. “He found her?” he asked eagerly.

“Oh yes, he found her. He burst right in over all protests, expecting to sweep her off her feet.”

This time the inspector fidgeted nervously. “Well, go on.”

Duncan motioned for the waiter and lifted a fresh glass in a toast. The inspector did the same. Duncan smiled gently. “When she saw him, she laughed and waved. Walter Harrison died an hour later …from a window in the same hotel.”

It was too much for the inspector. He leaned forward in his chair, his forehead knotted in a frown. “But what happened? Who was she? Damn it, Duncan …”

Duncan took a deep breath, then gulped the drink down.

“Evelyn Vaughn was a hopeless imbecile,” he said.

“She had the beauty of a goddess and the mentality of a two-year-old. They kept her well tended and dressed so she wouldn’t be an object of curiosity. But the only habit she ever learned was to wave bye-bye …”

1953

DAVID GOODIS

PROFESSIONAL MAN

David Goodis (1917-1967) was born in Philadelphia and received a BS in journalism from Temple University, briefly working for an advertising agency after graduation. He quickly became a prolific freelance fiction writer, his first novel, Retreat from Oblivion, being published in 1939. After numerous short stories sold to various pulp magazines, under both his own name and several pseudonyms, he had tremendous success with his second novel, Dark Passage (1946), which was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post and was bought for the movies. Delmer Daves directed and wrote the screenplay, and Humphrey Bogart starred as Vincent Parry, the wrongfully imprisoned convict who escapes from prison in order to find the real killer of his wife; Lauren Ba-call also starred. Other films made from his work include Down There (1956), filmed by Francois Truffaut as Shoot the Piano Player (i960); Street of No Return (1954), a 1989 film directed by Samuel Fuller; The Burglar (1953), adapted for a 1957 film with a screenplay by Goodis; and many others, mainly in France. Although his early novels and some short stories are powerful and memorable, his later work is so hopelessly dark that he has failed to maintain his place among the top rank of noir or hard-boiled writers. The people in his books are losers and know it. This sense of utter despair seems to appeal to the French, where Goodis is ranked among the greatest American crime writers. Goodis himself was a recluse, and his appraisal of his own work suggests a familiarity with depression. “My first novel was published when I was twenty-two,” he wrote in a letter shortly before he died. “It was nothing and the same applies to most of the sixteen others published since then.”

“Professional Man” was televised as an episode of the Showtime series Fallen Angels, on October 15, 1995. The script was by Howard A. Rodman, Steven Soderbergh was the director, and it starred Peter Coyote as the Boss and Brendan Fraser as Johnny Lamb. It was first published in the October 1953 issue of Manhunt.

At five past five the elevator operated by Freddy Lamb came to a stop on the street floor. Freddy smiled courteously to the departing passengers. As he said good night to the office-weary faces of secretaries and bookkeepers and executives, his voice was soothing and cool-sweet, almost like a caress for the women and a pat on the shoulder for the men. People were very fond of Freddy. He was always so pleasant, so polite and quietly cheerful. Of the five elevator-men in the Chambers Trust Building, Freddy Lamb was the favorite.

His appearance blended with his voice and manner. He was neat and clean and his hair was nicely trimmed. He had light brown hair parted on the side and brushed flat across his head. His eyes were the same color, focused level when he addressed you, but never too intent, never probing. He looked at you as though he liked and trusted you, no matter who you were. When you looked at him you felt mildly stimulated. He seemed much younger than his thirty-three years. There were no lines on his face, no sign of worry or sluggishness or dissipation. The trait that made him an ideal elevator man was the fact that he never asked questions and never talked about himself.

At twenty past five, Freddy got the go-home sign from the starter, changed places with the night man, and walked down the corridor to the locker room. Taking off the uniform and putting on his street clothes, he yawned a few times. And while he was sitting on the bench and tying his shoelaces, he closed his eyes for a long moment, as though trying to catch a quick nap. His fingers fell away from the shoelaces and his shoulders drooped and he was in that position when the starter came in.

“Tired?” the starter asked.

“Just a little.” Freddy looked up.

“Long day,” the starter said. He was always saying that. As though each day was longer than any other.

Freddy finished with the shoelaces. He stood up and said, “You got the dollar-fifty?”

“What dollar-fifty?”

“The loan,” Freddy said. He smiled offhandedly. “From last week. You ran short and needed dinner money. Remember?”

The starters face was blank for a moment. Then he snapped his fingers and nodded emphatically. “You’re absolutely right,” he declared. “I’m glad you reminded me.”

He handed Freddy a dollar bill and two quarters. Freddy thanked him and said good night and walked out. The starter stood there, lighting a cigarette and nodding to himself and thinking, Nice guy, he waited a week before he asked me, and then he asked me so nice, he’s really a nice guy.

* * *

At precisely eight-ten, Freddy Lamb climbed out of the bathtub on the third floor of the uptown rooming house in which he lived. In his room, he opened a dresser drawer, took out silk underwear, silk socks, and a silk handkerchief. When he was fully dressed, he wore a pale gray roll-collar shirt that had cost fourteen dollars, a gray silk gabardine suit costing ninety-seven fifty, and dark gray suede shoes that had set him back twenty-three ninety-five. He broke open a fresh pack of cigarettes and slipped them into a wafer-thin sterling silver case, and then he changed wristwatches. The one he had been wearing was of mediocre quality and had a steel case. The one he wore now was fourteen-karat white gold. But both kept perfect time. He was very particular about the watches he bought. He wouldn’t wear a watch that didn’t keep absolutely perfect time.

The white-gold watch showed eight-twenty when Freddy walked out of the rooming house. He walked down Sixteenth to Ontario, then over to Broad and caught a cab. He gave the driver an address downtown. The cab’s headlights merged with the flooded glare of southbound traffic. Freddy leaned back and lit a cigarette.

“Nice weather,” the driver commented.

“Yes, it certainly is,” Freddy said.

“I like it this time of year,” the driver said, “it ain’t too hot and it ain’t too cold. It’s just right.” He glanced at the rearview mirror and saw that his passenger was putting on a pair of dark glasses. He said, “You in show business?”

“No,” Freddy said.

“What’s the glasses for?”

Freddy didn’t say anything.

“What’s the glasses for?” the driver asked.

“The headlights hurt my eyes,” Freddy said. He said it somewhat slowly, his tone indicating that he was rather tired and didn’t feel like talking.

The driver shrugged and remained quiet for the rest of the ride. He brought the cab to a stop at the corner of Eleventh and Locust. The fare was a dollar twenty. Freddy gave him two dollars and told him to keep the change. As the cab drove away, Freddy walked west on Locust to Twelfth, walked south on Twelfth, then turned west again, moving through a narrow alley. There were no lights in the alley except for a rectangle of green neon far down toward the other end. The rectangle was a glowing frame for the neon wording, Billy’s Hut. It was also a beckoning finger for that special type of citizen who was never happy unless he was being ripped off in a clip joint. They’d soon be flocking through the front entrance on Locust Street. But Freddy Lamb, moving toward the back entrance, had it checked in his mind that the place was empty now. The dial of his wristwatch showed eight fifty-seven, and he knew it was too early for customers. He also knew that Billy Donofrio was sound asleep on a sofa in the backroom used as a private office. He knew it because he’d been watching Donofrio for more than two weeks and he was well acquainted with Donofrio’s nightly habits.

When Freddy was fifteen yards away from Billy’s Hut, he reached into his inner jacket pocket and took out a pair of white cotton gloves. When he was five yards away, he came to a stop and stood motionless, listening. There was the sound of a record player from some upstairs flat on the other side of the alley. From another upstairs flat there was the noise of lesbian voices saying, “You did,” and “I didn’t,” and “You did, you did—”

He listened for other sounds and there were none. He let the tip of his tongue come out just a little to moisten the center of his lower lip. Then he took a few forward steps that brought him to a section of brick wall where the bricks were loose. He counted up from the bottom, the light from the green neon showing him the fourth brick, the fifth, the sixth, and the seventh. The eighth brick was the one he wanted. He got a grip on its edges jutting away from the wall, pulled at it very slowly and carefully. Then he held it in one hand and his other hand reached into the empty space and made contact with the bone handle of a switchblade. It was a six-inch blade and he’d planted it there two nights ago.

He put the brick back in place and walked to the back door of Billy’s Hut. Bending to the side to see through the window, he caught sight of Billy Donofrio on the sofa. Billy was flat on his back, one short leg dangling over the side of the sofa, one arm also dangling, with fat fingers holding the stub of an unlit cigar. Billy was very short and very fat, and in his sleep he breathed as though it were a great effort. Billy was almost completely bald and what hair he had was more white than black. Billy was fifty-three years old and would never get to be fifty-four.

Freddy Lamb used a skeleton key to open the back door. He did it without a sound. And then, without a sound, he moved toward the sofa, his eyes focused on the crease of flesh between Billy’s third chin and Billy’s shirt collar. His arm went up and came down and the blade went into the crease, went in deep to cut the jugular vein, moved left, moved right, to widen the cut so that it was almost from ear to ear. Billy opened his eyes and tried to open his mouth but that was as far as he could take it. He tried to breathe and he couldn’t breathe. He heard the voice of Freddy Lamb saying very softly, almost gently, “Good night, Billy.” Then he heard Freddy’s footsteps moving toward the door, and the door opening, and the footsteps walking out.

Billy didn’t hear the door as it closed. By that time he was far away from hearing anything.

* * *

On Freddy’s wrist, the hands of the white-gold watch pointed to nine twenty-six. He stood on the sidewalk near the entrance of a nightclub called Yellow Cat. The place was located in a low-rent area of South Philadelphia, and the neighboring structures were mostly tenements and garages and vacant lots heaped with rubbish. The club’s exterior complied with the general trend; it was dingy and there was no paint on the wooden walls. But inside it was a different proposition. It was glittering and lavish, the drinks were expensive, and the floorshow featured a first-rate orchestra and singers and dancers. It also featured a unique type of striptease entertainment, a quintet of young females who took off their clothes while they sat at your table. For a reasonable bonus they’d let you keep the brassiere or garter or whatnot for a souvenir.

The white-gold watch showed nine twenty-eight. Freddy decided to wait another two minutes. His appointment with the owner of Yellow Cat had been arranged for nine-thirty. He knew that Herman Charn was waiting anxiously for his arrival, but his personal theory of punctuality stipulated split-second precision, and since they’d made it for nine-thirty he’d see Herman at nine-thirty, not a moment earlier or later.

A taxi pulled up and a blonde stepped out. She paid the driver and walked toward Freddy and he said, “Hello, Pearl.”

Pearl smiled at him. “Kiss me hello.”

“Not here,” he said.

“Later?”

He nodded. He looked her up and down. She was five-five and weighed 110 and nature had given her a body that caused men’s eyes to bulge. Freddy’s eyes didn’t bulge, although he told himself she was something to see. He always enjoyed looking at her. He wondered if he still enjoyed the nights with her. He’d been sharing the nights with her for the past several months and it had reached the point where he wasn’t seeing any other women and maybe he was missing out on something. For just a moment he gazed past Pearl, telling himself that she needed him more than he needed her, and knowing it wouldn’t be easy to get off the hook.

Well, there wasn’t any hurry. He hadn’t seen anything else around that interested him. But he wished Pearl would let up on the clinging routine. Maybe he’d really go for her if she wasn’t so hungry for him all the time.

Pearl stepped closer to him. The hunger showed in her eyes. She said, “Know what I did today? I took a walk in the park.”

“You did?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I went to Fairmount Park and took a long walk. All by myself.”

“That’s nice,” he said. He wondered what she was getting at.

She said, “Let’s do it together sometimes. Let’s go for a walk in the park. It’s something we ain’t never done. All we do is drink and listen to jazz and find all sorts of ways to knock ourselves out.”

He gave her a closer look. This was a former call girl who’d done a stretch for prostitution, a longer stretch for selling cocaine, and had finally decided she’d done enough time and she might as well go legitimate. She’d learned the art of stripping off her clothes before an audience, and now at twenty-six she was earning a hundred-and-a-half a week. It was clean money, as far as the law was concerned, but maybe in her mind it wasn’t clean enough. Maybe she was getting funny ideas, like this walk-in-the-park routine. Maybe she’d soon be thinking in terms of a cottage for two and a little lawn in the front and shopping for a baby carriage.

He wondered what she’d look like, wearing an apron and standing at a sink and washing dishes.

For some reason the thought disturbed him. He couldn’t understand why it should disturb him. He heard her saying, “Can we do it, Freddy? Let’s do it on Sunday. We’ll go to Fairmount Park.”

“We’ll talk about it,” he cut in quickly. He glanced at his wristwatch. “See you after the show.”

He hurried through the club entrance, went past the hatcheck counter, past the tables and across the dance floor and toward a door marked private. There was a button adjoining the door and he pressed the button: one short, two longs, another short, and then there was a buzzing sound. He opened the door and walked into the office. It was a large room and the color motif was yellow and gray. The walls and ceiling were gray and the thick carpet was pale yellow. The furniture was bright yellow. There was a short skinny man standing near the desk and his face was gray. Seated at the desk was a large man whose face was a mixture of yellow and gray.

Freddy closed the door behind him. He walked toward the desk. He nodded to the short, skinny man and then he looked at the large man and said, “Hello, Herman.”

Herman glanced at a clock on the desk. He said, “You’re right on time.”

“He’s always on time,” said the short, skinny man.

Herman looked at Freddy Lamb and said, “You do it?”

Before Freddy could answer, the short, skinny man said, “Sure he did it.”

“Shut up, Ziggy,” Herman said. He had a soft, sort of gooey voice, as though he spoke with a lot of marshmallow in his mouth. He wore a suit of very soft fabric, thin and fleecy, and his thick hands were pressed softly on the desktop. On the little finger of his left hand he wore a large star emerald that radiated a soft green light. Everything about him was soft, except for his eyes. His eyes were iron.

“You do it?” he repeated softly.

Freddy nodded.

“Any trouble?” Herman asked.

“He never has trouble,” Ziggy said.

Herman looked at Ziggy. “I told you to shut up.” Then, very softly, “Come here, Ziggy.”

Ziggy hesitated. He had a ferret face that always looked sort of worried and now it looked very worried.

“Come here,” Herman purred.

Ziggy approached the large man. Ziggy was blinking and swallowing hard. Herman reached out and slowly took hold of Ziggy’s hand. Herman’s thick fingers closed tightly on Ziggy’s bony fingers and gave a yank. Ziggy moaned.

“When I tell you to shut up,” Herman said, “you’ll shut up.” He smiled softly and paternally at Ziggy. “Right?”

“Right,” Ziggy said. Then he moaned again. His fingers were free now and he looked down at them as an animal gazes sadly at its own crushed paws. He said, “They’re all busted.”

“They’re not all busted,” Herman said. “They’re damaged just enough to let you know your place. That’s one thing you must never forget. Every man who works for me has to know his place.” He was still smiling at Ziggy. “Right?”

“Right,” Ziggy moaned.

Then Herman looked at Freddy Lamb and said, “Right?”

Freddy didn’t say anything. He was looking at Ziggy’s fingers. Then his gaze climbed to Ziggy’s face. The lips quivered, as though Ziggy was trying to hold back sobs. Freddy remembered the time when nothing could hurt Ziggy, when Ziggy and he were their own bosses and did their engineering on the waterfront. There were a lot of people on the waterfront who were willing to pay good money to have other people placed on stretchers or in caskets. In those days the rates had been fifteen dollars for a broken jaw, thirty for a fractured pelvis, and a hundred for the complete job. Ziggy handled the blackjack work and the bullet work and Freddy took care of such special functions as switchblade slicing, lye in the eyes, and various powders and pills slipped into a glass of beer or wine or a cup of coffee. There were orders for all sorts of jobs in those days.

Fifteen months ago, he was thinking. And times had sure changed. The independent operator was swallowed up by the big combines. It was especially true in this line of business, which followed the theory that competition, no matter how small, was not good for the overall picture. So the moment had come when he and Ziggy had been approached with an offer, and they knew they had to accept, there wasn’t any choice, if they didn’t accept they’d be erased. They didn’t need to be told about that. They just knew. As much as they hated to do it, they had to do it. The proposition was handed to them on a Wednesday afternoon and that same night they went to work for Herman Charn.

He heard Herman saying, “I’m talking to you, Freddy.”

“I hear you,” he said.

“You sure?” Herman asked softly. “You sure you hear me?”

Freddy looked at Herman. He said quietly, “I’m on your payroll. I do what you tell me to do. I’ve done every job exactly the way you wanted it done. Can I do any more than that?”

“Yes,” Herman said. His tone was matter-of-fact. He glanced at Ziggy and said, “From here on it’s a private discussion. Me and Freddy. Take a walk.”

Ziggy’s mouth opened just a little. He didn’t seem to understand the command. He’d always been included in all the business conferences, and now the look in his eyes was a mixture of puzzlement and injury.

Herman smiled at Ziggy. He pointed to the door. Ziggy bit hard on his lip and moved toward the door and opened it and walked out of the room.

For some moments it was quiet in the room and Freddy had a feeling it was too quiet. He sensed that Herman Charn was aiming something at him, something that had nothing to do with the ordinary run of business.

There was the creaking sound of leather as Herman leaned back in the desk chair. He folded his big soft fingers across his big soft belly and said, “Sit down, Freddy. Sit down and make yourself comfortable.”

Freddy pulled a chair toward the desk. He sat down. He looked at the face of Herman and for just a moment the face became a wall that moved toward him. He winced; his insides quivered. It was a strange sensation, he’d never had it before and he couldn’t understand it. But then the moment was gone and he sat there relaxed, his features expressionless, as he waited for Herman to speak.

Herman said, “Want a drink?”

Freddy shook his head.

“Smoke?” Herman lifted the lid of an enamel cigarette box.

“I got my own,” Freddy murmured. He reached into his pocket and took out the flat silver case.

“Smoke one of mine,” Herman said. He paused to signify it wasn’t a suggestion, it was an order. And then, as though Freddy were a guest, rather than an employee, “These smokes are special-made. Come from Egypt. Cost a dime apiece.”

Freddy took one. Herman flicked a table-lighter, applied the flame to Freddy’s cigarette, lit one for himself, took a slow, soft drag, and let the smoke come out of his nose. Herman waited until all of the smoke was out and then said, “You didn’t like what I did to Ziggy.”

It was a flat statement that didn’t ask for an answer. Freddy sipped at the cigarette, not looking at Herman.

“You didn’t like it,” Herman persisted softly. “You never like it when I let Ziggy know who’s boss.”

Freddy shrugged. “That’s between you and Ziggy.”

“No,” Herman said. And he spoke very slowly, with a pause between each word. “It isn’t that way at all. I don’t do it for Ziggy’s benefit. He already knows who’s top man around here.”

Freddy didn’t say anything. But he almost winced. And again his insides quivered.

Herman leaned forward. “Do you know who the top man is?”

“You,” Freddy said.

Herman smiled. “Thanks, Freddy. Thanks for saying it.” Then the smile vanished and Herman’s eyes were hammerheads. “But I’m not sure you mean it.”

Freddy took another sip from the Egyptian cigarette. It was strongly flavored tobacco but somehow he wasn’t getting any taste from it.

Herman kept leaning forward. “I gotta be sure, Freddy,” he said. “You been working for me more than a year. And just like you said, you do all the jobs exactly the way I want them done. You plan them perfect, it’s always clean and neat from start to finish. I don’t mind saying you’re one of the best. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cooler head. You’re as cool as they come, an icicle on wheels.”

“That’s plenty cool,” Freddy murmured.

“It sure is,” Herman said. He let the pause drift in again. Then, his lips scarcely moving, “Maybe it’s too cool.”

Freddy looked at the hammerhead eyes. He wondered what showed in his own eyes. He wondered what thoughts were burning under the cool surface of his own brain.

He heard Herman saying, “I’ve done a lot of thinking about you. A lot more than you’d ever imagine. You’re a puzzler, and one thing I always like to do is play stud poker with a puzzler.”

Freddy smiled dimly. “Want to play stud poker?”

“We’re playing it now. Without cards.” Herman gazed down at the desktop. His right hand was on the desktop and he flicked his wrist as though he was turning over the hole card. His voice was very soft as he said, “I want you to break it up with Pearl.”

Freddy heard himself saying, “All right, Herman.”

It was as though Freddy hadn’t spoken. Herman said, “I’m waiting, Freddy.”

“Waiting for what?” He told the dim smile to stay on his lips. It stayed there. He murmured, “You tell me to give her up and I say all right. What more do you want me to say.”

“I want you to ask me why. Don’t you want to know why?”

Freddy didn’t reply. He still wore the dim smile and he was gazing past Herman’s head.

“Come on, Freddy. I’m waiting to see your hole card.”

Freddy remained quiet.

“All right,” Herman said. “I’ll keep on showing you mine. I go for Pearl. I went for her the first time I laid eyes on her. That same night I took her home with me and she stayed over. She did what I wanted her to do but it didn’t mean a thing to her, it was just like turning a trick. I thought it wouldn’t bother me, once I have them in bed I can put them out of my mind. But this thing with Pearl, it’s different. I’ve had her on my mind and it gets worse all the time and now it’s gotten to the point where I have to do something about it. First thing I gotta do is clear the road.”

“It’s cleared,” Freddy said. “I’ll tell her tonight I’m not seeing her anymore.”

“Just like that?” And Herman snapped his fingers.

“Yes,” Freddy said. His fingers made the same sound. “Just like that.”

Herman leaned back in the soft leather chair. He looked at the face of Freddy Lamb as though he was trying to solve a cryptogram. Finally he shook his head slowly, and then he gave a heavy sigh and he said, “All right, Freddy. That’s all for now.”

Freddy stood up. He started toward the door. Halfway across the room he stopped and turned and said, “You promised me a bonus for the Donofrio job.”

“This is Monday,” Herman said. “I hand out the pay on Friday.”

“You said I’d be paid right off.”

“Did I?” Herman smiled softly.

“Yes,” Freddy said. “You said the deal on Donofrio was something special and the customer was paying fifteen hundred. You told me there was five hundred in it for me and I’d get the bonus the same night I did the job.”

Herman opened a desk drawer and took out a thick roll of bills.

“Can I have it in tens and twenties?” Freddy asked.

Herman lifted his eyebrows. “Why the small change?”

“I’m an elevator man,” Freddy said. “The bank would wonder what I was doing with fifties.”

“You’re right,” Herman said. He counted off the five hundred in tens and twenties, and handed the money to Freddy. He leaned back in the chair and watched Freddy folding the bills and pocketing them and walking out of the room. When the door was closed Herman said aloud to himself, “Don’t try to figure him out, he’s all ice and no soul, strictly a professional.”

* * *

The white-gold watch showed eleven thirty-five. Freddy sat at a table watching the floorshow and drinking from a tall glass of gin and ginger ale. The Yellow Cat was crowded now and Freddy wore the dark glasses and his table was in a darkly shadowed section of the room. He sat there with Ziggy and some other men who worked for Herman. There was Dino, who did his jobs at long range and always used a rifle. There was Shikey, six foot six and weighing three hundred pounds, an expert at bone cracking, gouging, and the removing of teeth. There was Riley, another bone-cracker and strangling specialist.

A tall, pretty boy stood in front of the orchestra, clutching the mike as though it was the only support he had in the world. He sang with an ache in his voice, begging someone to “— please understand.” The audience liked it and he sang it again. Then two colored lap-dancers came out and worked themselves into a sweat and were gasping for breath as they finished the act. The MC walked on and motioned the orchestra to quiet down and grinned at ringside faces as he said, “Ready for dessert?”

“Yeah,” a man shouted from ringside. “Let’s have the dessert.”

“All right,” the MC said. He cupped his hands to his mouth and called offstage, “Bring it out, we’re all starved for that sweetmeat.”

The orchestra went into medium tempo, the lights changing from glaring yellow to a soft violet. And then they came out, seven girls wearing horn-rimmed glasses and ultraconservative costumes. They walked primly, and all together they resembled the stiff-necked females in a cartoon lampooning the WCTU. It got a big laugh from the audience, and there was some appreciative applause. The young ladies formed a line and slowly waved black parasols as they sang, “— Father, oh father, come home with me now.” But then it became, “—Daddy, oh daddy, come home with me now.” And as they emphasized the daddy angle, they broke up the line and discarded the parasols and took off their ankle-length dark blue coats. Then, their fingers loosening the buttons of dark blue dresses, they moved separately toward the ringside tables. The patrons in the back stood up to get a better look and in the balcony the lenses of seven lamps were focused on seven young women getting undressed.

Dino, who had a footwear fetish, said loudly, “I’ll pay forty for a high-heeled shoe.”

One of the girls took off her shoe and flung it toward Freddy’s table. Shikey caught it and handed it to Dino. A waiter came over and Dino handed him four tens and he took the money to the girl. Riley looked puzzledly at Dino and said, “Whatcha gonna do with a high-heeled shoe?” And Shikey said, “He boils ‘em and eats em.” But Ziggy had another theory. “He bangs the heel against his head,” Ziggy said. “That’s the way he gets his kicks.” Dino sat there gazing lovingly at the shoe in his hand while his other hand caressed the kidskin surface. Then gradually his eyes closed and he murmured, “This is nice, this is so nice.”

Riley was watching Dino and saying, “I don’t get it.”

Ziggy shrugged philosophically. “Some things,” he said, “just can’t be understood.”

“You’re so right.” It was Freddy talking. He didn’t know his lips were making sounds. He was looking across the tables at Pearl. She sat with some ringsiders and already she’d taken off considerable clothing; she was half-naked. On her face there was a detached look and her hands moved mechanically as she unbuttoned the buttons and unzipped the zippers. There were three men sitting with her and their eyes feasted on her, they had their mouths open in a sort of mingled fascination and worship. At nearby tables the other strippers were performing but they weren’t getting undivided attention. Most of the men were watching Pearl. One of them offered a hundred dollars for her stocking. She took off the stocking and let it dangle from her fingers. In a semiwhisper she asked if there were any higher bids. Freddy told himself that she wasn’t happy doing what she was doing. Again he could hear her plaintive voice as she asked him to take her for a walk in the park. Suddenly, he knew that he’d like that very much. He wanted to see the sun shining on her hair, instead of the nightclub lights. He heard himself saying aloud, “Five hundred.”

He didn’t shout it, but at the ringside tables they all heard it, and for a moment there was stunned silence. At his own table the silence was very thick. He could feel the pressure of it, and the moment seemed to have substance, something on the order of iron wheels going around and around, making no sound and getting nowhere.

Some things just can’t be understood, he thought. He was taking the tens and twenties from his jacket pocket. The five hundred seemed to prove the truth of Ziggy’s vague philosophy. Freddy got up from his chair and moved toward an empty table behind some potted ferns adjacent to the orchestra stand. He sat down and placed green money on a yellow tablecloth. He wasn’t looking at Pearl as she approached the table. From ringside an awed voice was saying, “For one silk stocking she gets half a grand —”

She seated herself at the table. He shoved the money toward her. He said, “There’s your cash. Let’s have the stocking.”

“This a gag?” she asked quietly. Her eyes were somewhat sullen. There was some laughter from the table where Ziggy and some of the others were seated; they now had the notion it was some sort of joke.

Freddy said, “Take off the stocking.”

She looked at the pile of tens and twenties. She said, “Whatcha want the stocking for?”

“Souvenir,” he said.

It was the tone of his voice that did it. Her face paled. She started to shake her head very slowly, as though she couldn’t believe him.

“Yes,” he said, with just the trace of a sigh. “It’s all over, Pearl. It’s the end of the line.”

She went on shaking her head. She couldn’t talk.

He said, “I’ll hang the stocking in my bedroom.”

She was biting her lip. “It’s a long time till Christmas.”

“For some people it’s never Christmas.”

“Freddy—” She leaned toward him. “What’s it all about? Why’re you doing this?”

He shrugged. He didn’t say anything.

Her eyes were getting wet. “You won’t even give me a reason?”

All he gave her was a cool smile. Then his head was turned and he saw the faces at Ziggy’s table and then he focused on the face of the large man who stood behind the table. He saw the iron in the eyes of Herman Charn. He told himself he was doing what Herman had told him to do. And just then he felt the quiver in his insides. It was mostly in the spine, as though his spine was gradually turning to jelly.

He spoke to himself without a sound. He said, No, it isn’t that, it can’t be that.

Pearl was saying, “All right, Freddy, if that’s the way it is.”

He nodded very slowly.

Pearl bent over and took the stocking off her leg. She placed the stocking on the table. She picked up the five hundred, counted it off to make sure it was all there.

Then she stood up and said, “No charge, mister. I’d rather keep the memories.”

She put the tens and twenties on the tablecloth and walked away. Freddy glanced off to the side and saw a soft smile on the face of Herman Charn.

The floorshow had ended and Freddy was still sitting there at the table. There was a bottle of bourbon in front of him. It had been there for less than twenty minutes and already it was half empty. There was also a pitcher of ice water and the pitcher was full. He didn’t need a chaser because he couldn’t taste the whiskey. He was drinking the whiskey from the water glass.

A voice said, “Freddy —”

And then a hand tugged at his arm. He looked up and saw Ziggy sitting beside him.

He smiled at Ziggy. He motioned toward the bottle and shot glass and said, “Have a drink.”

Ziggy shrugged. “I might as well while I got the chance. At the rate you’re going, that bottle’ll soon be empty.”

“It’s very good bourbon,” Freddy said.

“Yeah?” Ziggy was pouring a glass for himself. He swished the liquor into his mouth. Then, looking closely at Freddy, “You don’t care whether it’s good or not. You’d be gulping it if it was shoe polish.”

Freddy was staring at the tablecloth. “Let’s go somewhere and drink some shoe polish.”

Ziggy tugged again at Freddy’s arm. He said, “Come out of it.”

“Come out of what?”

“The clouds,” Ziggy said. “You’re in the clouds.”

“It’s nice in the clouds,” Freddy said. “I’m up here having a dandy time. I’m floating.”

“Floating? You’re drowning.” Ziggy pulled urgently at his arm, to get Iris hand away from a water glass filled with whiskey. “You’re not a drinker, Freddy. What do you want to do, drink yourself into a hospital?”

Freddy grinned. He aimed the grin at nothing in particular. For some moments he sat there motionless. Then he reached into his jacket pocket and took out the silk stocking. He showed it to Ziggy and said, “Look what I got.”

“Yeah,” Ziggy said. “I seen her give it to you. What’s the score on that routine?”

“No score,” Freddy said. He went on grinning. “It’s a funny way to end a game. Nothing on the scoreboard. Nothing at all.”

Ziggy frowned. “You trying to tell me something?”

Freddy looked at the whiskey in the water glass. He said, “I packed her in.”

“No,” Ziggy said. His tone was incredulous. “Not Pearl. Not that pigeon. That ain’t no ordinary merchandise. You wouldn’t walk out on Pearl unless you had a very special reason.”

“It was special, all right.”

“Tell me about it, Freddy.” There was something plaintive in Ziggy’s voice, a certain feeling for Freddy that he couldn’t put into words. The closest he could get to it was: “After all, I’m on your side, ain’t I?”

“No,” Freddy said. The grin was slowly fading. “You’re on Herman’s side.” He gazed past Ziggy’s head. “We’re all on Herman’s side.”

“Herman? What’s he got to do with it?”

“Everything,” Freddy said. “Herman’s the boss, remember?” He looked at the swollen fingers of Ziggy’s right hand. “If Herman wants something done, it’s got to be done. He gave me orders to break with Pearl. He’s the employer and I’m the hired man, so I did what I had to do. I carried out his orders.”

Ziggy was quiet for some moments. Then, very quietly, “Well, it figures he wants her for himself. But it don’t seem right. It just ain’t fair.”

“Don’t make me laugh,” Freddy said. “Who the hell are we to say what’s fair?”

“We’re human, aren’t we?”

“No,” Freddy said. He gazed past Ziggy’s head. “I don’t know what we are. But I know one thing, we’re not human. We can’t afford to be human, not in this line of business.”

Ziggy didn’t get it. It was just a little too deep for him. All he could say was “You getting funny ideas?”

“I’m not reaching for them, they’re just coming to me.”

“Take another drink,” Ziggy said.

“I’d rather have the laughs.” Freddy showed the grin again. “It’s really comical, you know? Especially this thing with Pearl. I was thinking of calling it quits anyway. You know how it is with me, Ziggy. I never like to be tied down to one skirt. But tonight Pearl said something that spun me around. We were talking outside the club and she brought it in out of left field. She asked me to take her for a walk in the park.”

Ziggy blinked a few times. “What?”

“A walk in the park,” Freddy said.

“What for?” Ziggy wanted to know. “She gettin’ square all of a sudden? She wanna go around picking flowers?”

“I don’t know,” Freddy said. “All she said was ‘It’s very nice in Fairmount Park.’ She asked me to take her there and we’d be together in the park, just taking a walk.”

Ziggy pointed to the glass. “You better take that drink.”

Freddy reached for the glass. But someone else’s hand was there first. He saw the thick soft fingers, the soft green glow of the star emerald. As the glass of whiskey was shoved out of his reach, he looked up and saw the soft smile on the face of Herman Charn.

“Too much liquor is bad for the kidneys,” Herman said. He bent down lower to peer at Freddy’s eyes. “You look knocked out, Freddy. There’s a soft couch in the office. Go in there and lie down for a while.”

Freddy got up from the chair. He was somewhat unsteady on his feet. Herman took his arm and helped him make it down the aisle, past the tables to the door of the office. He could feel the pressure of Herman’s hand on his arm. It was very soft pressure but somehow it felt like a clamp of iron biting into his flesh.

Herman opened the office door and guided him toward the couch. He fell onto the couch, sent an idiotic grin toward the ceiling, then closed his eyes and went to sleep.

* * *

He slept until four-forty in the morning. The sound that woke him up was a scream.

At first it was all blurred, there was too much whiskey-fog in his brain, he had no idea where he was or what was happening. He pushed his knuckles against his eyes. Then, sitting up, he focused on the faces in the room. He saw Shikey and Riley and they had girls sitting in their laps. They were on the other couch at the opposite side of the room. He saw Dino standing near the couch with his arm around the waist of a slim brunette. Then he glanced toward the door and he saw Ziggy. That made seven faces for him to look at. He told himself to keep looking at them. If he concentrated on that, maybe he wouldn’t hear the screaming.

But he heard it. The scream was an animal sound and yet he recognized the voice. It came from near the desk, and he turned his head very slowly, telling himself he didn’t want to look but knowing he had to look.

He saw Pearl kneeling on the floor. Herman stood behind her. With one hand he was twisting her arm up high between her shoulder blades. His other hand was on her head and he was pulling her hair so that her face was drawn back, her throat stretched.

Herman spoke very softly. “You make me very unhappy, Pearl. I don’t like to be unhappy.”

Then Herman gave her arm another upward twist and pulled tighter on her hair and she screamed again.

The girl in Shikey’s lap gave Pearl a scornful look and said, “You’re a damn fool.”

“In spades.” It came from the stripper who nestled against Riley. “All he wants her to do is kiss him like she means it.”

Freddy told himself to get up and walk out of the room. He lifted himself from the couch and took a few steps toward the door and heard Herman saying, “Not yet, Freddy. I’ll tell you when to go.”

He went back to the couch and sat down.

Herman said, “Be sensible, Pearl. Why can’t you be sensible?”

Pearl opened her mouth to scream again. But no sound came out. There was too much pain and it was choking her.

The brunette who stood with Dino was saying, “It’s a waste of time, Herman, she can’t give you what she hasn’t got. She just don’t have it for you, Herman.”

“She’ll have it for him,” Dino said. “Before he’s finished, he’ll have her crawling on her belly.”

Herman looked at Dino. “No,” he said. “She won’t do that. I wouldn’t let her do that.” He cast a downward glance at Pearl. His lips shaped a soft smile. There was something tender in the smile and in his voice. “Pearl, tell me something, why don’t you want me?”

He gave her a chance to reply, his fingers slackening the grip on her wrist and her hair. She groaned a few times and then she said, “You got my body, Herman. You can have my body anytime you want it.”

“That isn’t enough,” Herman said. “I want you all the way, a hundred percent. It’s got to be like that, Pearl. You’re in me so deep it just can’t take any other route. It’s got to be you and me from here on in, you gotta need me just as much as I need you.”

“But Herman —” She gave a dry sob. “I can’t lie to you. I just don’t feel that way.”

“You’re gonna feel that way,” Herman said.

“No.” Pearl sobbed again. “No. No.”

“Why not?” He was pulling her hair again, twisting her arm. But it seemed he was suffering more than Pearl. The pain racked his pleading voice. “Why can’t you feel something for me?”

Her reply was made without sound. She managed to turn her head just a little, toward the couch. And everyone in the room saw her looking at Freddy.

Herman’s face became very pale. His features tightened and twisted and it seemed he was about to burst into tears. He stared up at the ceiling.

Herman shivered. His body shook spasmodically, as though he stood on a vibrating platform. Then all at once the tormented look faded from his eyes, the iron came into his eyes, and the soft smile came onto his lips. He released Pearl, turned away from her, went to the desk, and opened the cigarette box. It was very quiet in the room while Herman stood there lighting the cigarette. He took a slow, easy drag and then he said quietly, “All right, Pearl, you can go home now.”

She started to get up from the floor. The brunette came over and helped her up.

“I’ll call a cab for you,” Herman said. He reached for the telephone and put in the call. As he lowered the phone, he was looking at Pearl and saying, “You want to go home alone?”

Pearl didn’t say anything. Her head was lowered and she was leaning against the shoulder of the brunette.

Herman said, “You want Freddy to take you home?”

Pearl raised her head just a little and looked at the face of Freddy Lamb.

Herman laughed softly. “All right,” he said. “Freddy’ll take you home.”

Freddy winced. He sat there staring at the carpet.

Herman told the brunette to fix a drink for Pearl. He said, “Take her to the bar and give her anything she wants.” He motioned to the other girls and they got up from the laps of Shikey and Riley. Then all the girls walked out of the room. Herman was quiet for some moments, taking slow drags at the cigarette and looking at the door. Then gradually his head turned and he looked at Freddy. He said, “You’re slated, Freddy.”

Freddy went on staring at the carpet.

“You’re gonna bump her,” Herman said.

Freddy closed his eyes.

“Take her somewhere and bump her and bury her,” Herman said.

Shikey and Riley looked at each other. Dino had his mouth open and he was staring at Herman. Standing next to the door, Ziggy had his eyes glued to Freddy’s face.

“She goes,” Herman said. And then, speaking aloud to himself, “She goes because she gives me grief.” He hit his hand against his chest. “She hits me here, where I live. Hits me too hard. Hurts me. I don’t appreciate getting hurt. Especially here.” Again his hand thumped his chest. He said, “You’ll do it, Freddy. You’ll see to it that I get rid of the hurt.”

“Let me do it,” Ziggy said. Herman shook his head. He pointed a finger at Freddy. His finger jabbed empty air, and he said, “Freddy does it. Freddy.”

Ziggy opened his mouth, tried to close it, couldn’t close it, and blurted, “Why take it out on him?”

“That’s a stupid question,” Herman said mildly. “I’m not taking it out on anybody. I’m giving the job to Freddy because I know he’s dependable. I can always depend on Freddy.”

Ziggy made a final, frantic try. “Please, Herman,” he said. “Please don’t make him do it.”

Herman didn’t bother to reply. All he did was give Ziggy a slow appraising look up and down. It was like a soundless warning to Ziggy, letting him know he was walking on thin ice and the ice would crack if he opened his mouth again.

Then Herman turned to Freddy and said, “Where’s your blade?”

“Stashed,” Freddy said. He was still staring at the carpet.

Herman opened a desk drawer. He took out a black-handled switchblade. “Use this,” he said, coming toward the couch. He handed the knife to Freddy. “Give it a try,” he said.

Freddy pressed the button. The blade flicked out. It glimmered blue-white. He pushed the blade into the handle and tried the button again. He went on trying the button and watching the flash of the blade. It was quiet in the room as the blade went in and out, in and out. Then from the street there was the sound of a horn. Herman said, “That’s the taxi.” Freddy nodded and got up from the sofa and walked out of the room. As he moved toward the girls who stood at the cocktail bar, he could feel the weight of the knife in the inner pocket of his jacket. He was looking at Pearl and saying, “Come on, let’s go,” and as he said it, the blade seemed to come out of the knife and slice into his own flesh.

* * *

The taxi was cruising north on Sixteenth Street. On Freddy’s wrist the white-gold watch said five-twenty. He was watching the parade of unlit windows along the dark street. Pearl was saying something but he didn’t hear her. She spoke just a bit louder and he turned and looked at her. He smiled and murmured, “Sorry, I wasn’t listening.”

“Can’t you sit closer?”

He moved closer to her. A mixture of moonlight and streetlamp glow came pouring into the back seat of the taxi and illuminated her face. He saw something in her eyes that caused him to blink several times.

She noticed the way he was blinking and said, “What’s the matter?”

He didn’t answer. He tried to stop blinking and he couldn’t stop.

“Hangover?” Pearl asked.

“No,” he said. “I feel all right now, I feel fine.”

For some moments she didn’t say anything. She was rubbing her sore arm. She tried to stretch it, winced and gasped with pain, and said, “Oh Jesus, it hurts. It really hurts. Maybe it’s broken.”

“Let me feel it,” he said. He put his hand on her arm. He ran his fingers down from above her elbow to her wrist. “It isn’t broken,” he murmured. “Just a little swollen, that’s all. Sprained some ligaments.”

She smiled at him. “The hurt goes away when you touch it.”

He tried not to look at her, but something fastened his eyes to her face. He kept his hand on her arm. He heard himself saying, “I feel sorry for Herman. If he could see you now, I mean if you’d look at him like you’re looking at me —”

“Freddy,” she said. “Freddy.” Then she leaned toward him. She rested her head on his shoulder.

Then somehow everything was quiet and still and he didn’t hear the noise of the taxi’s engine, he didn’t feel the bumps as the wheels hit the ruts in the cobblestone surface of Sixteenth Street. But suddenly there was a deep rut and the taxi gave a lurch. He looked up and heard the driver cursing the city engineers. “Goddamn it,” the driver said. “They got a deal with the tire companies.”

Freddy stared past the driver’s head, his eyes aimed through the windshield to see the wide intersection where Sixteenth Street met the Parkway. The Parkway was a six-laned drive slanting to the left of the downtown area, going away from the concrete of Philadelphia skyscrapers and pointing toward the green of Fairmount Park.

“Turn left,” Freddy said.

They were approaching the intersection, and the driver gave a backward glance. “Left?” the driver asked. “That takes us outta the way. You gave me an address on Seventeenth near Lehigh. We gotta hit it from Sixteenth —”

“I know,” Freddy said quietly. “But turn left anyway.”

The driver shrugged. “You’re the captain.” He beat the yellow of a traffic light and the taxi made a left turn onto the Parkway.

Pearl said, “What’s this, Freddy? Where’re we going?”

“In the park.” He wasn’t looking at her. “We’re gonna do what you said we should do. We’re gonna take a walk in the park.”

“For real?” Her eyes were lit up. She shook her head as though she could scarcely believe what he’d just said.

“We’ll take a nice walk,” he murmured. “Just the two of us. The way you wanted it.”

“Oh,” she breathed. “Oh, Freddy—”

The driver shrugged again. The taxi went past the big monuments and fountains of Logan Circle, past the Rodin Museum and the Art Museum and onto River Drive. For a mile or so they stayed on the highway, bordering the moonlit water of the river and then, without being told, the driver made a turn off the highway, made a series of turns that took them deep into the park. They came to a section where there were no lights, no movement, no sound except the autumn wind drifting through the trees and bushes and tall grass and flowers.

“Stop here,” Freddy said.

The taxi came to a stop. They got out and he paid the driver. The driver gave him a queer look and said, “You sure picked a lonely spot.”

Freddy looked at the cabman. He didn’t say anything.

The driver said, “You’re at least three miles off the highway. It’s gonna be a problem getting a ride home.”

“Is it your problem?” Freddy asked gently.

“Well, no—”

“Then don’t worry about it,” Freddy said. He smiled amiably. The driver threw a glance at the blonde, smiled, and told himself that the man might have the right idea, after all. With an item like that, any man would want complete privacy. He thought of the bony, bucktoothed woman who waited for him at home, crinkled his face in a distasteful grimace, put the car in gear, and drove away.

“Ain’t it nice?” Pearl said. “Ain’t it wonderful?”

They were walking through a glade where the moonlight showed the autumn colors of fallen leaves. The night air was fragrant with the blended aromas of wildflowers. He had his arm around her shoulder and was leading her toward a narrow lane sloping downward through the trees.

She laughed lightly, happily. “It’s like as if you know the place. As if you’ve been here before.”

“No,” he said. “I’ve never been here before.”

There was the tinkling sound of a nearby brook. A bird chirped in the bushes. Another bird sang a tender reply. “Listen,” Pearl murmured. “Listen to them.”

He listened to the singing of the birds. Now he was guiding Pearl down along the slope and seeing the way it leveled at the bottom and then went up again on all sides. It was a tiny valley down there with the brook running along the edge. He told himself it would happen when they reached the bottom.

He heard Pearl saying, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could stay here?”

He looked at her. “Stay here?”

“Yes,” she said. “If we could live here for the rest of our lives. Just be here, away from everything —”

“We’d get lonesome.”

“No we wouldn’t,” she said. “We’d always have company. I’d have you and you’d have me.”

They were nearing the bottom of the slope. It was sort of steep now and they had to move slowly. All at once she stumbled and pitched forward and he caught her before she could fall on her face. He steadied her, smiled at her, and said, “OK?”

She nodded. She stood very close to him and gazed into his eyes and said, “You wouldn’t let me fall, would you?”

The smile faded. He stared past her. “Not if I could help it.”

“I know,” she said. “You don’t have to tell me.”

He went on staring past her. “Tell you what?”

“The situation.” She spoke softly, almost in a whisper. “I got it figured, Freddy. It’s so easy to figure.”

He wanted to close his eyes; he didn’t know why he wanted to close his eyes.

He heard her saying, “I know why you packed me in tonight. Orders from Herman.”

“That’s right.” He said it automatically, as though the mention of the name was the shifting of a gear.

“And another thing,” she said. “I know why you brought me here.” There was a pause, and then, very softly, “Herman.” He nodded.

She started to cry. It was quiet weeping and contained no fear, no hysteria. It was the weeping of farewell. She was crying because she was sad. Then, very slowly, she took the few remaining steps going down to the bottom of the slope. He stood there and watched her face as she turned to look up at him.

He walked down to where she stood, smiling at her and trying to pretend his hand was not on the switchblade in his pocket. He tried to make himself believe he wasn’t going to do it, but he knew that wasn’t true. He’d been slated for this job. The combine had him listed as a top-rated operator, one of the best in the business. He’d expended a lot of effort to attain that reputation, to be known as the grade-A expert who’d never muffed an assignment.

He begged himself to stop. He couldn’t stop. The knife was open in his hand and his arm flashed out and sideways with the blade sliding in neatly and precisely, cutting the flesh of her throat. She went down very slowly, tried to cough, made a few gurgling sounds, and then rolled over on her back and died looking up at him.

For a long time he stared at her face. There was no expression on her features now. At first he didn’t feel anything, and then he realized she was dead, and he had killed her.

He tried to tell himself there was nothing else he could have done, but even though that was true it didn’t do any good. He took his glance away from her face and looked down at the white-gold watch to check the hour and the minute, automatically. But somehow the dial was blurred, as though the hands were spinning like tiny propellers. He had the weird feeling that the watch was showing time traveling backward, so that he found himself checking it in terms of years and decades. He went all the way back to the day when he was eleven years old and they took him to reform school.

In reform school he was taught a lot of things. The thing he learned best was the way to use a knife. The knife became his profession. But somewhere along the line he caught onto the idea of holding a daytime job to cover his nighttime activities. He worked in stockrooms and he did some window cleaning and drove a truck for a fruit dealer. And finally he became an elevator operator and that was the job he liked best. He’d never realized why he liked it so much but he realized now. He knew that the elevator was nothing more than a moving cell, and that the only place for him was a cell. The passengers were just a lot of friendly visitors walking in and out, saying “Good morning, Freddy,” and “Good night, Freddy,” and they were such nice people. Just the thought of them brought a tender smile to his lips.

Then he realized he was smiling down at her. He sensed a faint glow coming from somewhere, lighting her face. For an instant he had no idea what it was. Then he realized it came from the sky. It was the first signal of approaching sunrise.

The white-gold watch showed five fifty-three. Freddy Lamb told himself to get moving. For some reason he couldn’t move. He was looking down at the dead girl. His hand was still clenched about the switchblade, and as he tried to relax it he almost dropped the knife. He looked down at it.

The combine was a cell, too, he told himself. The combine was an elevator from which he could never escape. It was going steadily downward and there were no stops until the end. There was no way to get out.

Herman had made him kill the girl. Herman would make him do other things. And there was no getting away from that. If he killed Herman there would be someone else.

The elevator was carrying Freddy steadily downward. Already, he had left Pearl somewhere far above him. He realized it all at once, and an unreasonable terror filled him.

Freddy looked at the white-gold watch again. A minute had passed and he knew suddenly that he was slated to do a job on someone in exactly three minutes now. The minutes passed and he stood there alone.

At precisely five fifty-seven he said goodbye to his profession and plunged the blade into his heart.

1956

GIL BREWSTER

THE GESTURE

Gil(bert) Brewer (1922-1983) was born in Canandaigua, New York. While he was serving in the Army during World War II, his family moved to Florida; he joined them after his discharge. He decided to become a writer like his father when he was nine years old, dropping out of school to work at various blue-collar jobs while practicing his craft. Although his bibliography shows numerous sales to pulps such as Zeppelin Stories in 1929 and to various detective magazines between 1931 and 1934, they are obviously inaccurate. His first book, 13 French Street, was published in 1951 — the first of his twenty-three novels to be issued in that decade — the same year in which he sold what is probably his first published short story, “With This Gun,” to Detective Tales. He published nearly one hundred stories in all, mostly under his own name, but also under the pseudonyms Eric Fitzgerald and Bailey Morgan. He also ghostwrote novels for Ellery Queen, Hal Ellson, Al Conroy, and five novels for an Israeli soldier named Harry Arvay.

Early in his career, Brewer came to the attention of Joseph T. Shaw, who became his agent. The famous editor of Black Mask saw in Brewer a special talent and thought he could rival the biggest names, but Shaw died of a heart attack in 1952, soon after their association began. Thereafter Brewer cranked out paperback originals at a prodigious rate, often completing a book in a week or less. They are generally dark stories, compared by the editor Anthony Boucher to the work of James M. Cain and Jim Thompson, mostly about ordinary men led down the road to ruin by unscrupulous women. His best-selling book, The Red Scarf (1958), one of two hardcover books he published, sold more than a million copies. After the 1950s, however, his output diminished, both quantitatively and qualitatively, largely due to alcoholism and serious injuries sustained in a car crash — a good career that, with better advice and a little more luck, could have been a great one.

“The Gesture” was originally published in the March 1956 issue of The Saint Mystery Magazine.

Nolan placed both hands on the railing of the veranda, and unconsciously squeezed the wood until the muscles in his arms corded and ached. He looked down, across the immaculately trimmed green lawn, past the palms and the Australian pines, to the beach, gleaming whitely under the late-morning sun.

The Gulf was crisply green today, and calm, broken only by the happy frolicking of the man and woman — laughing, swimming. His wife, Helen, and Latimer, the photographer from the magazine in New York, down to do a picture story of the island.

Nolan turned his gaze away, lifted his hands, and stared at his palms. His hands were trembling and his thin cotton shirt was soaked with perspiration.

He couldn’t stand it. He left the veranda and walked swiftly into the sprawling living room of his home. He paced back and forth for a moment, his feet whispering on the grass rug. Then he stood quietly in the center of the room, trying to think. For two weeks it had been going on. At first he’d thought he would last. Now he knew it no longer mattered, about lasting.

He would have to do something. He strode rapidly across the room into his study, opened the top drawer of his desk, and looked down at the .45 automatic. He slammed the drawer shut, whirled, and went back into the living room.

Why had he ever allowed the man entrance to the island?

Oh, he knew why, well enough. Because Helen had wanted it. And now he couldn’t order Latimer away. It would be as good as telling Helen the reason. She knew how much he loved her; why did she act this way? Why did she torture him? She must realize, after all these years, that he couldn’t stand another man even looking at her beauty.

Why did she think they lived here — severed from all mainland life?

He stiffened, making an effort to wipe away the frown on his face. He reached for his handkerchief and swabbed at the perspiration on his arms and forehead. They were coming, laughing and talking, up across the lawn.

Quickly, he selected a magazine from the rack and settled into a wicker chair with his back to the front entrance. He flipped the periodical open and was engrossed in a month-old mystery story when they stomped loudly across the veranda.

Every step was a kind of unbearable thunder to Nolan. He was reaching such a pitch of helpless irritability that he nearly screamed.

“Darling!” Helen called. “Where are you — oh, there!”

She stepped toward him, her bare feet softly thumping the grass rug. He half-glanced up at her. She was coffee-brown, her eyes excited and happier than he’d seen them in a long time. She wore one of the violent-lined red, yellow, and green cloth swimming suits that she’d designed for herself.

He abruptly realized how meager the suit was and his neck burned. He had contrived to have her make the suit with the least expenditure of material. It was his pleasure to look at her.

But not now — not with Latimer here!

“What have you been doing?” she asked.

He started to reply, looking across at Latimer standing at the entranceway, but she rippled on. “You really should have come swimming with us, dear. It was wonderful this morning.” She reached out and tousled his hair. “You haven’t been near the water in days.”

Nolan cleared his throat. “Well,” he said. “Well, Mr. Latimer. About caught up? About ready with your story?”

He wanted to shout: When are you leaving! He could not. He sat there, staring at Latimer. The sunny days here on the island had done the man good. He was bronzed and healthy and young and abrim with a vitality that had not been present when he’d first come over from the mainland.

“A few more days, I guess,” Latimer said. “I wish you’d call me Jack. And I sure wish you two would pose for a few pictures. It’s nice enough, the way you’ve been about letting me photograph the island, your home, but —” Latimer left the protest unspoken, smiling halfheartedly.

Nolan glanced at his wife. She reached down and touched his arm, her fingers trembling. “After lunch Jack and I are going to take a walk, clear around the island,” she said. “You know, we haven’t done that in a terribly long while. Why don’t you come along?”

“Sorry,” Nolan said quickly. “I’ve some things I’ve got to attend to.”

“Sure wish you’d come,” Latimer said.

Nolan said nothing.

“Well,” Latimer said. “I’ve got to write a letter. Guess I’ll do it while you’re fixing lunch, Helen.”

“Right,” Helen said. “I’d better get busy.” She turned and hurried off toward the kitchen, humming softly.

“By the way,” Latimer said to Nolan. “Anything you’d like done in town? I’ll be taking the boat across this evening, so I can mail some stuff off.”

“Thank you,” Nolan said. “There’s nothing.”

“Well,” Latimer said. He sighed and started across the room toward the hallway leading to his bedroom. It had been a storage room, but Nolan had fixed it up with a bed and a table for Latimer’s typewriter when Helen insisted the photographer stay on the island. Latimer paused by the hallway. “Sure you won’t come with us this afternoon?”

Nolan didn’t bother to answer. He couldn’t answer. If he had tried, he knew he might have shouted, even cursed — maybe actually gone at the man with his bare hands.

He would not use his bare hands. He wouldn’t soil them. He would use the gun. He listened as Latimer left the room, and sat there breathing stiffly, his fingers clenched into the magazines crumpled pages.

Yes, that’s what he would do. Latimer’s saying he was going to remain on the island longer still clinched it. Nolan knew why Latimer had said that. He wasn’t fooling anybody. Taking advantage of hospitality for his own sneaking reasons. Didn’t Helen see what kind of a man Latimer was? Was she blind? Or did she want it this way?

The very thought of such a thing sent Nolan out of the chair, stalking back and forth across the room. He could hear Latimer’s typewriter ticking away from the far side of the house.

Their paradise. Their home. Their love. Torn and twisted and broken by this insensitive person. He heard Helen call them to lunch then, and moving toward the table in the dining room, he felt slightly relieved. He knew that while they were gone this afternoon, he would get everything ready.

With Latimer’s unconscious aid, Nolan knew exactly how he was going to do it. He sat at the table, picking at his food, listening to them talk and laugh. He tried vainly to concentrate away from the sounds of their voices.

“This salad’s terrific,” Latimer said. “Helen, you’re wonderful! You two’ve got it made out here!”

Helen lowered her gaze to her plate. Nolan stared directly at Latimer and Latimer reddened and looked away. Nolan grinned inside. He had caught the man. But the victory was empty. The long afternoon, thinking about her out there with Latimer, would be painful.

They finished lunch in silence. Almost before Nolan realized it, the house was again empty. He could hear them laughing still, their voices growing faint as they moved down along the beach.

Helen had even insisted on taking several bottles of cold beer wrapped in insulated bags to keep cool, and carried in the old musette.

* * *

Nolan could not stand still. He paced back and forth across the extent of the house, thinking about tonight. If he didn’t do it tonight, it might be too late. He did not want Helen too attached to Latimer, and he felt sure it had gone very far already.

He knew Latimer intended to stay on and stay on — until he could take Helen away with him. But tonight would end it. He would go along with Latimer to the mainland. Only, Latimer would never reach the mainland. The boat would swamp.

Nolan knew how to swamp a boat. He knew Latimer wasn’t much of a swimmer, and anyhow, a man couldn’t swim with a .45 slug in his heart. But Nolan could swim well. He would kill Latimer, take him out into the Gulf, weight him, and sink him. Then he’d bring the boat in and swamp it and swim ashore. He would report it, and rent a boat and come home. He knew they were in for a bit of heavy weather tonight. It would be just perfect.

And Helen and he would be happy again. The way they had always been.

He looked back, thinking over the good times. The time before they’d come to the island, when he’d been hard-working at the glass-cutting business he’d inherited from his father. Then more and more he’d become conscious of Helen’s beauty and the effect she had on men. And loving her as wildly as he did, he could no longer bear the endless suspense; the knowledge that sooner or later she would leave him. So he sold the business, retired. His little lie. So far as she knew, he simply wanted island life — quiet, unhurried, alone with her. It was true. But not a complete truth.

All this time they had been happy. Until now. Somebody’d got wind of the beauty of the island and Latimer had shown up to do his story. Under conditions imposed by Nolan — no pictures of either himself or Helen. He had allowed one fuzzy negative of them standing against a blossoming hibiscus near the house, at twilight — that was all.

Wandering through the house, trying not to think of what they were doing now, he found himself in Latimer’s room. The unmade bed, the photographic equipment, the typewriter set up on the table.

Beside the machine was a typewritten letter.

Nolan turned away. But something drew him over to the table. Pure curiosity in this man Latimer. He stood there, staring down at the obviously unfinished letter. An addressed envelope lay beside it. There was a half-completed sentence on the sheet in the typewriter, numbered Page 2.

The letter was addressed to the editor of the magazine where Latimer worked.

Nolan began reading, at first leisurely, then feverishly.

Dear Bart:

Really have this thing wrapped up, but I’m staying on a while longer, just to settle a few things in my own mind and maybe I’ll come up with a bunch of pix and a yarn that’ll knock your head off…sure beautiful scenery on the island…house is a regular bamboo and cypress mansion…unhealthy, Bart, really sick…he watches her like a hawk. He’s ripped with jealousy and it would be laughable, except that they’re both so very old. He must be in his eighties, but she’s a bit harder to read. I did a lousy thing. I confronted her with it. You would have, too. She’s so obviously just enduring everything for his sake. Humoring him. My God, think of it! All these years he’s kept her out here, away from everybody, imprisoned. It’s pure hell. She as much as admitted it. I’m staying on, just to see if I can’t work it somehow. Get her back to civilization, if only for a vacation, Bart. She deserves it. You should hear her ask how things are out there — it would break your damned heart…

There was more, and Nolan read all of it through twice. For a moment longer he stood there, seeing everything clearly for the first time in nearly a half century.

Then he walked through the house to his study, opened the desk drawer, took out the .45 automatic. He sat down in his chair by the desk, put the muzzle of the gun into his mouth, and pulled the trigger.

1956

EVAN HUNTER

THE LAST SPIN

Evan Hunter (1926-2005) was born Salvatore A. Lombino, legally changing his name in 1952. He was admitted to New York’s Cooper Union after winning a scholarship to the Art Students League, then served in the Navy during World War II; he graduated from Hunter College after his return from the Pacific theater. He had begun writing stories while based on a destroyer, then wrote numerous short stories and several novels in the years after the war. After several unsuccessful adult and children’s books, he published The Blackboard Jungle in 1954, which was an instant success, filmed the following year and starring Glenn Ford, Anne Francis, and Sidney Poitier. In 1956 he created the Ed McBain byline, which became more famous than his own, as he wrote the iconic Eighty-seventh Precinct series, in which the members of an entire squad room, rather than a single police officer, serve as the hero. Fifty-four novels succeeded Cop Hater, the first book in the series. Under the McBain name, he also produced thirteen novels about Matthew Hope, a Florida lawyer, and several standalone mysteries. Hunter also wrote under the pseudonyms Richard Marston, Hunt Collins, Ezra Hannon, Curt Cannon, and John Abbott, producing more than one hundred books. Other films made from his works include Strangers When We Meet (i960), High and Low (1962), Last Summer (1969), Fuzz (1972), Blood Relatives (1977), and The Chisholms (1979). He also wrote the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963).

The Blackboard Jungle was the first significant book to deal with juvenile delinquents and gang violence in New York, and many of Hunter’s early short stories, collected in Learning to Kill (2006), deal with these subjects, often in a sympathetic manner.

“The Last Spin” was first published in the September 1956 issue of Manhunt; it was collected in Hunter’s The Jungle Kids the same year.

The boy sitting opposite him was his enemy.

The boy sitting opposite him was called Tigo, and he wore a green silk jacket with an orange stripe on each sleeve. The jacket told Dave that Tigo was his enemy. The jacket shrieked ‘Enemy, enemy!’

‘This is a good piece,’ Tigo said, indicating the gun on the table. ‘This runs you close to forty-five bucks, you try to buy it in a store.’

The gun on the table was a Smith & Wesson .38 Police Special.

It rested exactly in the centre of the table, its sawed-off two-inch barrel abruptly terminating the otherwise lethal grace of the weapon. There was a checked walnut stock on the gun, and the gun was finished in a flat blue. Alongside the gun were three .38 Special cartridges.

Dave looked at the gun disinterestedly. He was nervous and apprehensive, but he kept tight control of his face. He could not show Tigo what he was feeling. Tigo was the enemy, and so he presented a mask to the enemy, cocking one eyebrow and saying, ‘I seen pieces before. There’s nothing special about this one.’

‘Except what we got to do with it,’ Tigo said. Tigo was studying him with large brown eyes. The eyes were moist-looking. He was not a bad-looking kid, Tigo, with thick black hair and maybe a nose that was too long, but his mouth and chin were good. You could usually tell a cat by his mouth and his chin. Tigo would not turkey out of this particular rumble. Of that, Dave was sure.

‘Why don’t we start?’ Dave asked. He wet his lips and looked across at Tigo.

‘You understand,’ Tigo said. ‘I got no bad blood for you.’

‘I understand.’

‘This is what the club said. This is how the club said we should settle it. Without a big street diddlebop, you dig? But I want you to know I don’t know you from a hole in the wall—except you wear a blue and gold jacket.’

‘And you wear a green and orange one,’ Dave said, ‘and that’s enough for me.’

“Sure, but what I was trying to say …”

‘We going to sit and talk all night, or we going to get this thing rolling?’ Dave asked.

‘What I’m trying to say,’ Tigo went on, ‘is that I just happened to be picked for this, you know? Like to settle this thing that’s between the two clubs. I mean, you got to admit your boys shouldn’t have come in our territory last night.’

‘I got to admit nothing,’ Dave said flatly.

‘Well, anyway, they shot at the candy store. That wasn’t right. There’s supposed to be a truce on.’

‘Okay, okay,’ Dave said.

‘So like …like this is the way we agreed to settle it. I mean, one of us and …and one of you. Fair and square. Without any street boppin’, and without any Law trouble.’

‘Let’s get on with it,’ Dave said.

‘I’m trying to say, I never even seen you on the street before this. So this ain’t nothin’ personal with me. Which­ever way it turns out, like …”

‘I never seen you neither,’ Dave said.

Tigo stared at him for a long time. ‘That’s ‘cause you’re new around here. Where you from originally?’

‘My people come down from the Bronx.’

‘You got a big family?’

‘A sister and two brothers, that’s all.’

‘Yeah, I only got a sister,’ Tigo shrugged. ‘Well.’ He sighed. ‘So.’ He sighed again. ‘Let’s make it, huh?’

‘I’m waitin’,’ Dave said.

Tigo picked up the gun, and then he took one of the cartridges from the table top. He broke open the gun, slid the cartridge into the cylinder, and then snapped the gun shut and twirled the cylinder. ‘Round and round she goes,’ he said, ‘and where she stops, nobody knows. There’s six chambers in the cylinder, and only one cartridge. That makes the odds five-to-one that the cartridge’ll be in firing position when the cylinder stops twirling. You dig?’

‘I dig.’

‘I’ll go first,’ Tigo said.

Dave looked at him suspiciously. ‘Why?’

‘You want to go first?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘I’m giving you a break.’ Tigo grinned. ‘I may blow my head off first time out.’

‘Why you giving me a break?’ Dave asked.

Tigo shrugged. ‘What’s the hell’s the difference?’ He gave the cylinder a fast twirl.

‘The Russians invented this, huh?’ Dave asked.

‘Yeah.’

‘I always said they was crazy bastards.’

‘Yeah, I always …’ Tigo stopped talking. The cylinder was still now. He took a deep breath, put the barrel of the .38 to his temple, and then squeezed the trigger.

The firing pin clicked on an empty chamber.

‘Well, that was easy, wasn’t it?’ he asked. He shoved the gun across the table. ‘Your turn, Dave.’

Dave reached for the gun. It was cold in the basement room, but he was sweating now. He pulled the gun toward him, then left it on the table while he dried his palms on his trousers. He picked up the gun then and stared at it.

‘It’s a nifty piece.’ Tigo said. ‘I like a good piece.’

‘Yeah, I do too,’ Dave said. ‘You can tell a good piece just by the way it feels in your hand.’

Tigo looked surprised. ‘I mentioned that to one of the guys yesterday, and he thought I was nuts.’

‘Lots of guys don’t know about pieces,’ Dave said, shrugging.

‘I was thinking,’ Tigo said, ‘when I get old enough, I’ll join the Army, you know? I’d like to work around pieces.’

‘I thought of that, too. I’d join now, only my old lady won’t give me permission. She’s got to sign if I join now.’

‘Yeah, they’re all the same,’ Tigo said, smiling. ‘Your old lady born here or the island?’

‘The island,’ Dave said.

‘Yeah, well, you know they got these old-fashioned ideas.’

‘I better spin,’ Dave said.

‘Yeah,’ Tigo agreed.

Dave slapped the cylinder with his left hand. The cylinder whirled, whirled and then stopped. Slowly, Dave put the gun to his head. He wanted to close his eyes, but he didn’t dare. Tigo, the enemy, was watching him. He returned Tigo’s stare, and then he squeezed the trigger.

His heart skipped a beat, and then over the roar of his blood he heard the empty click. Hastily, he put the gun down on the table.

‘Makes you sweat, don’t it?’ Tigo said.

Dave nodded, saying nothing. He watched Tigo. Tigo was looking at the gun.

‘Me now, huh?’ he said. He took a deep breath, then picked up the .38.

He shrugged. ‘Well.’ He twirled the cylinder, waited for it to stop, and then put the gun to his head.

‘Bang!’ he said, and then he squeezed the trigger. Again, the firing pin clicked on an empty chamber. Tigo let out his breath and put the gun down.

‘I thought I was dead that time,’ he said.

‘I could hear the harps,’ Dave said.

‘This is a good way to lose weight, you know that?’ He laughed nervously, and then his laugh became honest when he saw that Dave was laughing with him. ‘Ain’t it the truth? You could lose ten pounds this way.’

‘My old lady’s like a house,’ Dave said laughing. ‘She ought to try this kind of a diet.’ He laughed at his own humour, pleased when Tigo joined him.

‘That’s the trouble,’ Tigo said. ‘You see a nice deb in the street, you think it’s crazy, you know? Then they get to be our people’s age, and they turn to fat.’ He shook his head.

‘You got a chick?’ Dave asked.

‘Yeah, I got one.’

‘What’s her name?’

‘Aw, you don’t know her.’

‘Maybe I do,’ Dave said.

‘Her name is Juana.’ Tigo watched him. ‘She’s about five-two, got these brown eyes …’

‘I think I know her,’ Dave said. He nodded. ‘Yeah, I think I know her.’

‘She’s nice, ain’t she?’ Tigo asked. He leaned forward, as if Dave’s answer was of great importance to him.

‘Yeah, she’s nice,’ Dave said.

‘The guys rib me about her. You know, all they’re after — well, you know—they don’t understand some­thing like Juana.’

‘I got a chick, too,’ Dave said.

‘Yeah? Hey, maybe sometime we could …’ Tigo cut himself short. He looked down at the gun, and his sud­den enthusiasm seemed to ebb completely. ‘It’s your turn,’ he said.

‘Here goes nothing,’ Dave said. He twirled the cylin­der, sucked in his breath, and then fired.

The empty click was loud in the stillness of the room.

‘Man!’ Dave said.

‘We’re pretty lucky, you know?’ Tigo said.

‘So far.’

‘We better lower the odds. The boys won’t like it if we …’ He stopped himself again, and then reached for one of the cartridges on the table. He broke open the gun again, and slipped the second cartridge into the cylinder. ‘Now we got two cartridges in here,’ he said. ‘Two cartridges, six chambers. That’s four-to-two. Divide it, and you get two-to-one.’ He paused. ‘You game?’

‘That’s …that’s what we’re here for, ain’t it?’

‘Sure.’

‘Okay then.’

‘Gone,’ Tigo said, nodding his head. ‘You got courage, Dave.’

‘You’re the one needs the courage,’ Dave said gently. ‘It’s your spin.’

Tigo lifted the gun. Idly, he began spinning the cylinder.

‘You live on the next block, don’t you?’ Dave asked.

‘Yeah.’ Tigo kept slapping the cylinder. It spun with a gently whirring sound.

‘That’s how come we never crossed paths, I guess. Also I’m new on the scene.’

‘Yeah, well you know, you get hooked up with one club, that’s the way it is.’

‘You like the guys on your club?’ Dave asked, wondering why he was asking such a stupid question, listening to the whirring of the cylinder at the same time.

‘They’re okay.’ Tigo shrugged. ‘None of them really send me, but that’s the club on my block, so what’re you gonna do, huh?’ His hand left the cylinder. It stopped spinning. He put the gun to his head.

‘Wait!’ Dave said.

Tigo looked puzzled. ‘What’s the matter?’

‘Nothing. I just wanted to say …I mean …’ Dave frowned. ‘I don’t dig too many of the guys on my club, cither.’

Tigo nodded. For a moment, their eyes locked. Then Tigo shrugged, and fired.

The empty click filled the basement room.

‘Phew,’ Tigo said.

‘Man, you can say that again.’

Tigo slid the gun across the table.

Dave hesitated an instant. He did not want to pick up the gun. He felt sure that this time the firing pin would strike the percussion cap of one of the cartridges. He was sure that this time he would shoot himself.

‘Sometimes I think I’m turkey,’ he said to Tigo, surprised that his thoughts had found voice.

‘I feel that way sometimes, too,’ Tigo said.

‘I never told that to nobody,’ Dave said. ‘The guys on my club would laugh at me, I ever told them that.’

‘Some things you got to keep to yourself. There ain’t nobody you can trust in this world.’

‘There should be somebody you can trust,’ Dave said. ‘Hell, you can’t tell nothing to your people. They don’t understand.’

Tigo laughed. ‘That’s an old story. But that’s the way things are. What’re you gonna do?’

‘Yeah. Still, sometimes I think I’m turkey.’

‘Sure, sure,’ Tigo said. ‘It ain’t only that, though. Like sometimes …well, don’t you wonder what you’re doing stomping some guy in the street? Like…you know what I mean? Like…who’s the guy to you? What you got to beat him up for? ‘Cause he messed with somebody else’s girl?’ Tigo shook his head. ‘It gets complicated sometimes.’

‘Yeah, but …” Dave frowned again. ‘You got to stick with the club. Don’t you?’

‘Sure, sure …no question.’ Again, their eyes locked.

‘Well, here goes,’ Dave said. He lifted the gun. ‘It’s just …’ He shook his head, and then twirled the cylinder. The cylinder spun, and then stopped. He studied the gun, wondering if one of the cartridges would roar from the barrel when he squeezed the trigger.

Then he fired.

Click.

‘I didn’t think you was going through with it,’ Tigo said.

‘I didn’t neither.’

‘You got heart, Dave,’ Tigo said. He looked at the gun. He picked it up and broke it open.

‘What you doing?’ Dave asked.

‘Another cartridge,’ Tigo said. ‘Six chambers, three car­tridges. That makes it even money. You game?’

‘You?’

‘The boys said …’ Tigo stopped talking. ‘Yeah, I’m game,’ he added, his voice curiously low.

‘It’s your turn, you know.’

‘I know.’

Dave watched as Tigo picked up the gun.

‘You ever been rowboating on the lake?’

Tigo looked across the table at him, his eyes wide. ‘Once,’ he said. ‘I went with Juana.’

‘Is it…is it any kicks?’

‘Yeah. Yeah, it’s grand kicks. You mean you never been?’

‘No,’ Dave said.

‘Hey, you got to try it, man,’ Tigo said excitedly. ‘You’ll like it. Hey, you try it.’

‘Yeah, I was thinking maybe this Sunday I’d …’ He did not complete the sentence.

‘My spin,’ Tigo said wearily. He twirled the cylinder. ‘Here goes a good man,’ he said, and he put the revolver to his head and squeezed the trigger.

Click.

Dave smiled nervously. ‘No rest for the weary,’ he said.’ But, Jesus, you got heart. I don’t know if I can go through with it.’

‘Sure, you can,’ Tigo assured him. ‘Listen, what’s there to be afraid of?’ He slid the gun across the table.

‘We keep this up all night?’ Dave asked.

‘They said …you know …’

‘Well, it ain’t so bad. I mean, hell, we didn’t have this operation, we wouldn’ta got a chance to talk, huh?’ He grinned feebly.

‘Yeah,’ Tigo said, his face splitting in a wide grin. ‘It ain’t been so bad, huh?’

‘No, it’s been …well, you know, these guys on the club, who can talk to them?’

He picked up the gun.

‘We could …’ Tigo started.

‘What?’

‘We could say …well …like we kept shootin’ an’ nothing happened, so …” Tigo shrugged. ‘What the hell! We can’t do this all night, can we?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Let’s make this the last spin. Listen, they don’t like it, they can take a flying leap, you know?’

‘I don’t think they’ll like it. We supposed to settle for the clubs.’

‘Screw the clubs!’ Tigo said vehemently. ‘Can’t we pick our own …’ The word was hard coming. When it came, he said it softly, and his eyes did not leave Dave’s face. ‘…friends?’

‘Sure we can,’ Dave said fervently. ‘Sure we can! Why not?’

‘The last spin,’ Tigo said. ‘Come on, the last spin.’

‘Gone,’ Dave said. ‘Hey, you know, I’m glad they got this idea. You know that? I’m actually glad!’ He twirled the cylinder. ‘Look you want to go on the lake this Sunday? I mean, with your girl and mine? We could get two boats. Or even one if you want.’

‘Yeah, one boat,’ Tigo said. ‘Hey, your girl’ll like Juana, I mean it. She’s a swell chick.’

The cylinder stopped. Dave put the gun to his head quickly.

‘Here’s to Sunday,’ he said. He grinned at Tigo, and Tigo grinned back, and then Dave fired.

The explosion rocked the small basement room, ripping away half of Dave’s head, shattering his face. A small sharp cry escaped Tigo’s throat, and a look of incredulous shock knifed his eyes.

Then he put his head on the table and began weeping.

1960

JIM THOMPSON

FOREVER AFTER

Jim (James Meyers) Thompson (1906-1977) was born in Anadarko, Oklahoma Territory, and worked numerous hard, physical jobs, including as an oil-well and pipeline laborer (his father was a wildcatter), while trying to write. He received commissions from the Works Projects Administration Writers’ Project during the Depression, producing guidebooks of Oklahoma, among other works, and worked as a journalist, mainly covering crime stories.

His first novel, Now and on Earth (1942), is a tale of sex, sin, violence, and revenge. The book most readers regard as his masterpiece, The Killer Inside Me (1952), was the first of sixteen paperback originals he produced during the 1950s, his only prolific era. His other critically successful novels during the ‘50s include Savage Night (1953), A Swell-Looking Babe (1954), and The Getaway (1959). After The Grifters (1963) and Pop. 1280 (1964), the quality of his work, already extremely erratic, declined rapidly. When he died in 1977, not a single book of his was in print in the United States until Quill included The Killer Inside Me in a series of classic hard-boiled novels in 1983; the following year, Black Lizard reprinted most of his other titles. While his bleak novels of psychopaths, losers, alcoholics, and unreliable narrators never achieved sales beyond a vocal cult following in his own country, he enjoyed substantial commercial and critical success in France, where he has often been regarded as America’s greatest hard-boiled writer. Several films were made from his work, with varying aesthetic success, including The Killer Inside Me, a dud filmed in 1976 with Stacy Keach as Sheriff Lou Ford; The Getaway, filmed twice (both with endings absurdly changed from very noir to happy), first in 1972 with Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw, then in 1994 with Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger; and the superb The Grifters (1990), for which Donald E. Westlake’s screenplay received one of the film’s four Academy Award nominations. Directed by Stephen Frears, it starred John Cusack, Anjelica Huston, Annette Bening, and Pat Hingle. Thompson also wrote several screenplays, including the caper film The Killing (1956) and the antiwar film Paths of Glory (1957), both directed by Stanley Kubrick, but was cheated out of a screenwriting credit both times.

“Forever After” was published in the May i960 issue of Shock magazine.

It was a few minutes before five o’clock when Ardis Clinton unlocked the rear door of her apartment and admitted her lover. He was a cow-eyed young man with a wild mass of curly black hair. He worked as a dishwasher at Joe’s Diner, which was directly across the alley.

They embraced passionately. Her body pressed against the meat cleaver concealed inside his shirt, and Ardis shivered with delicious anticipation. Very soon now, it would all be over. That stupid ox, her husband, would be dead. He and his stupid cracks —- all the dullness and boredom — would be gone forever. And with the twenty thousand insurance money, ten thousand dollars double-indemnity…

“We’re going to be so happy, Tony,” she whispered. “You’ll have your own place, a real swank little restaurant with what they call one of those intimate bars. And you’ll just manage it, just kind of saunter around in a dress suit, and —”

“And we’ll live happily ever after,” Tony said. “Just me and you, baby, walking down life’s highway together.”

Ardis let out a gasp. She shoved him away from her, glaring up into his handsome empty face. “Don’t!” she snapped. “Don’t say things like that! I’ve told you and told you not to do it, and if I have to tell you again, I’ll —!”

“But what’d I say?” he protested. “I didn’t say nothin’.”

“Well …” She got control of herself, forcing a smile. “Never mind, darling. You haven’t had any opportunities and we’ve never really had a chance to know each other, so — so never mind. Things will be different after we’re married.” She patted his cheek, kissed him again. “You got away from the diner all right? No one saw you leave?”

“Huh-uh. I already took the stuff up to the steam-table for Joe, and the waitress was up front too, y’know, filling the sugar bowls and the salt and pepper shakers like she always does just before dinner. And—”

“Good. Now, suppose someone comes back to the kitchen and finds out you’re not there. What’s your story going to be?”

“Well…I was out in the alley dumping some garbage. I mean —” He corrected himself hastily, “maybe I was. Or maybe I was down in the basement, getting some supplies. Or maybe I was in the john — the lavatory, I mean — or —”

“Fine,” Ardis said approvingly. “You don’t say where you were, so they can’t prove you weren’t there. You just don’t remember where you were, understand, darling? You might have been any number of places.”

Tony nodded. Looking over her shoulder into the bedroom, he frowned worriedly. “Why’d you do that now, honey? I know this has got to look like a robbery. But tearin’ up the room now, before he gets here —”

“There won’t be time afterwards. Don’t worry, Tony. I’ll keep the door closed.”

“But he might open it and look in. And if he sees all them dresser drawers dumped around, and—”

“He won’t. He won’t look into the bedroom. I know exactly what he’ll do, exactly what he’ll say, the same things that he’s always done and said ever since we’ve been married. All the stupid, maddening, dull, tiresome—!” She broke off abruptly, conscious that her voice was rising. “Well, forget it,” she said, forcing another smile. “He won’t give us any trouble.”

“Whatever you say.” Tony nodded docilely. “If you say so, that’s the way it is, Ardis.”

“But there’ll be trouble —from the cops. I know I’ve already warned you about it, darling. But it’ll be pretty bad, worse than anything you’ve ever gone through. They won’t have any proof, but they’re bound to be suspicious, and if you ever start talking, admitting anything —”

“I won’t. They won’t get anything out of me.”

“You’re sure? They’ll try to trick you. They’ll probably tell you that I’ve confessed. They may even slap you around. So if you’re not absolutely sure…”

“They won’t get anything out of me,” he repeated stolidly. “I won’t talk.”

And studying him, Ardis knew that he wouldn’t.

She led the way down the hall to the bathroom. He parted the shower curtains and stepped into the tub. Drawing a pair of gloves from his pocket, he pulled them onto his hands. Awkwardly, he fumbled the meat cleaver from beneath his shirt.

“Ardis. Uh — look, honey.”

“Yes?”

“Do I have to hit you? Couldn’t I just maybe give you a little shove, or —“

“No, darling,” she said gently “You have to hit me. This is supposed to be a robbery. If you killed my husband without doing anything to me, well, you know how it would look.”

“But I never hit no woman —any woman — before. I might hit you too hard, and —”

“Tony!”

“Well, all right,” he said sullenly. “I don’t like it, but all right.”

Ardis murmured soothing endearments. Then, brushing his lips quickly with her own, she returned to the living room. It was a quarter after five, exactly five minutes—but exactly—until her husband, Bill, would come home. Closing the bedroom door, she lay down on the lounge. Her negligee fell open, and she left it that way, grinning meanly as she studied the curving length of her thighs.

Give the dope a treat for a change, she thought. Let him get one last good look before he gets his.

Her expression changed. Wearily, resentfully, she pulled the material of the negligee over her legs. Because, of course, Bill would never notice. She could wear a ring in her nose, paint a bull’s-eye around her navel, and he’d never notice.

If he had ever noticed, just once paid her a pretty compliment…

If he had ever done anything different, ever said or done anything different at all — even the teensiest little bit…

But he hadn’t. Maybe he couldn’t. So what else could she do but what she was doing? She could get a divorce, sure, but that was all she’d get. No money; nothing with which to build a new life. Nothing to make up for those fifteen years of slowly being driven mad.

It’s his own fault, she thought bitterly. I can’t take any more. If I had to put up with him for just one more night, even one more hour…!

She heard heavy footsteps in the hallway. Then a key turned in the door latch, and Bill came in. He was a master machinist, a solidly built man of about forty-five. The old-fashioned gold-rimmed glasses on his pudgy nose gave him a look of owlish solemnity.

“Well,” he said, setting down his lunch bucket. “Another day, another dollar.”

Ardis grimaced. He plodded across to the lounge, stooped, and gave her a halfhearted peck on the cheek.

“Long time no see,” he said. “What we havin’ for supper?”

Ardis gritted her teeth. It shouldn’t matter now; in a few minutes it would all be over. Yet somehow it did matter. He was as maddening to her as he had ever been.

“Bill…” She managed a seductive smile, slowly drawing the negligee apart. “How do I look, Bill?”

“OK,” he yawned. “Got a little hole in your drawers, though. What’d you say we was havin’ for supper?”

“Slop,” she said. “Garbage. Trash salad with dirt dressing.”

“Sounds good. We got any hot water?”

Ardis sucked in her breath. She let it out again in a kind of infuriated moan. “Of course we’ve got hot water! Don’t we always have? Well, don’t we? Why do you have to ask every night?”

“So what’s to get excited about?” He shrugged. “Well, guess I’ll go splash the chassis.”

He plodded off down the hall. Ardis heard the bathroom door open and close. She got up, stood waiting by the telephone. The door banged open again, and Tony came racing up the hall.

He had washed off the cleaver. While he hastily tucked it back inside his shirt, Ardis dialed the operator. “Help,” she cried weakly. “Help …police …murder!”

She let the receiver drop to the floor, spoke to Tony in a whisper. “He’s dead? You’re sure of it?”

“Yeah, yeah, sure I’m sure. What do you think?”

“All right. Now, there’s just one more thing …”

“I can’t, Ardis. I don’t want to. I —”

“Hit me,” she commanded, and thrust out her chin. “Tony, I said to hit me!”

He hit her. A thousand stars blazed through her brain and disappeared. And she crumpled silently to the floor.

…When she regained consciousness, she was lying on the lounge. A heavyset man, a detective obviously, was seated at her side, and a white-jacketed young man with a stethoscope draped around his neck hovered nearby.

She had never felt better in her life. Even the lower part of her face, where Tony had smashed her, was surprisingly free of pain. Still, because it was what she should do, she moaned softly; spoke in a weak, hazy voice.

“Where am I?” she said. “What happened?”

“Lieutenant Powers,” the detective said. “Suppose you tell me what happened, Mrs. Clinton.”

“I …I don’t remember. I mean, well, my husband had just come home, and gone back to the bathroom. And there was a knock on the door, and I supposed it was the paperboy or someone like that. So —”

“You opened the door and he rushed in and slugged you, right? Then what happened?”

“Well, then he rushed into the bedroom and started searching it. Yanking out the dresser drawers and —”

“What was he searching for, Mrs. Clinton? You don’t have any considerable amount of money around, do you? Or any jewelry aside from what you’re wearing? And it wasn’t your husband’s payday, was it?”

“Well, no. But—”

“Yes?”

“I don’t know. Maybe he was crazy. All I know is what he did.”

“I see. He must have made quite a racket, seems to me. How come your husband didn’t hear it?”

“He couldn’t have. He had the shower running, and —”

She caught herself, fear constricting her throat. Lieutenant Powers grinned grimly.

“Missed a bet, huh, Mrs. Clinton?”

“I — I don’t know what you’re —”

“Come off of it! The bathtub’s dry as an oven. The shower was never turned on, and you know why it wasn’t. Because there was a guy standing inside of it.”

“B-but —but I don’t know anything. I was unconscious, and—”

“Then, how do you know what happened? How do you know this guy went into the bedroom and started tearing it apart? And how did you make that telephone call?”

“Well, I…I wasn’t completely unconscious. I sort of knew what was going on without really—

“Now, you listen to me,” he said harshly. “You made that fake call of yours —yes, I said fake — to the operator at twenty-three minutes after five. There happened to be a prowl car right here in the neighborhood, so two minutes later, at five twenty-five, there were cops here in your apartment. You were unconscious then, more than an hour ago. You’ve been unconscious until just now.”

Ardis’s brain whirled. Then it cleared suddenly, and a great calm came over her.

“I don’t see quite what you’re hinting at, Lieutenant. If you’re saying that I was confused, mixed up — that I must have dreamed or imagined some of the things I told you — I’ll admit it.”

“You know what I’m saying! I’m saying that no guy could have got in and out of this place, and done what this one did, in any two minutes!”

“Then the telephone operator must have been mistaken about the time,” Ardis said brightly. “I don’t know how else to explain it.”

Powers grunted. He said he could give her a better explanation — and he gave it to her. The right one. Ardis listened to it placidly, murmuring polite objections.

“That’s ridiculous, Lieutenant. Regardless of any gossip you may have heard, I don’t know this, uh, Tony person. And I most certainly did not plot with him or anyone else to kill my husband. Why—”

“He says you did. We got a signed confession from him.”

“Have you?” But of course they didn’t have. They might have found out about Tony, but he would never have talked. “That hardly proves anything, does it?”

“Now, you listen to me, Mrs. Clinton! Maybe you think that —”

“How is my husband, anyway? I do hope he wasn’t seriously hurt.”

“How is he?” the lieutenant snarled. “How would he be after gettin’ worked over with—” He broke off, his eyes flickering. “As a matter of fact,” he said heavily, “he’s going to be all right. He was pretty badly injured, but he was able to give us a statement and —”

“I’m so glad. But why are you questioning me, then?” It was another trick. Bill had to be dead. “If he gave you a statement, then you must know that everything happened just like I said.”

She waited, looked at him quizzically. Powers scowled, his stern face wrinkling with exasperation.

“All right,” he said at last. “All right, Mrs. Clinton. Your husband is dead. We don’t have any statement from him, and we don’t have any confession from Tony.”

“Yes?”

“But we know that you’re guilty, and you know that you are. And you’d better get it off your conscience while you still can.”

“While I still can?”

“Doc” — Powers jerked his head at the doctor. At the man, that is, who appeared to be a doctor. “Lay it on the line, Doc. Tell her that her boyfriend hit her a little too hard.”

The man came forward hesitantly. He said, “I’m sorry, Mrs. Clinton. You have a — uh — you’ve sustained a very serious injury.”

“Have I?” Ardis smiled. “I feel fine.”

“I don’t think,” the doctor said judiciously, “that that’s quite true. What you mean is that you don’t feel anything at all. You couldn’t. You see, with an injury such as yours —”

“Get out,” Ardis said. “Both of you get out.”

“Please, Mrs. Clinton. Believe me, this isn’t a trick. I haven’t wanted to alarm you, but—”

“And you haven’t,” she said. “You haven’t scared me even a little bit, mister. Now, clear out!”

She closed her eyes, kept them closed firmly. When, at last, she reopened them, Powers and the doctor — if he really had been a doctor — were gone. And the room was in darkness.

She lay smiling to herself, congratulating herself. In the corridor outside, she heard heavy footsteps approaching; and she tensed for a moment. Then, remembering, she relaxed again.

Not Bill, of course. She was through with that jerk forever. He’d driven her half out of her mind, got her to the point where she couldn’t have taken another minute of him if her life depended on it. But now …

The footsteps stopped in front of her door. A key turned in the lock, the door opened and closed.

There was a clatter of a lunch pail being set down; then a familiar voice — maddeningly familiar words:

“Well. Another day, another dollar.”

Ardis’s mouth tightened; it twisted slowly in a malicious grin. So they hadn’t given up yet! They were pulling this one last trick. Well, let them; she’d play along with the gag.

The man plodded across the room, stooped, and gave her a halfhearted peck on the cheek. “Long time no see,” he said. “What we havin’ for supper?”

“Bill…” Ardis said. “How do I look, Bill?”

“OK. Got your lipstick smeared, though. What’d you say we was having for supper?”

“Stewed owls! Now, look, mister. I don’t know who you —”

“Sounds good. We got any hot water?”

“Of course, we’ve got hot water! Don’t we always have? Why do you always have to ask if — if—”

She couldn’t go through with it. Even as a gag — even someone who merely sounded and acted like he did — it was too much to bear.

“Y-you get out of here!” she quavered. “I don’t have to stand for this! I c-can’t stand it! I did it for fifteen years, and —”

“So what’s to get excited about?” he said. “Well, guess I’ll go splash the chassis.”

“Stop it! STOP IT!” Her screams filled the room …silent screams ripping through silence. “He’s —you’re dead! I know you are! You’re dead, and I don’t have to put up with you for another minute. And — and —!”

“Wouldn’t take no bets on that if I was you,” he said mildly. “Not with a broken neck like yours.”

He trudged off toward the bathroom, wherever the bathroom is in Eternity.

1968

CORNELL WOOLRICH

FOR THE REST OF HER LIFE

Cornell (George Hopley) Woolrich (1903-1968) was born in New York City but divided his early years between Latin America and Mexico, with his father, and New York, with his Manhattan socialite mother. While still an undergraduate at Columbia University, he wrote his first novel, a romance, Cover Charge (1926). Another romantic novel, Children of the Ritz (1927), quickly followed, and it won a $10,000 prize jointly offered by College Humor magazine and First National Pictures, which filmed it in 1929. Four more romantic novels, favorably compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald, followed. Woolrich had also begun to write short stories, and his first mystery was published in 1934. Most of his subsequent work (more than two hundred stories and sixteen novels) was in that genre. A reclusive alcoholic, he rarely left his hotel room for the last three decades of his life.

Arguably the greatest suspense writer of the twentieth century, Woolrich, under his own name and the pseudonyms William Irish and George Hopley, was able to construct plots that stretched credulity, especially in their dependence on coincidence, yet relentlessly gripped readers. He is noted for producing stories of the everyday gone wrong, as terrible things happen to ordinary people. More than twenty of his novels and stories were filmed, including The Leopard Man (1943), based on Black Alibi (1942), directed by Jacques Tourneur; Phantom Lady (1944), directed by Robert Siodmak; Rear Window (1954), based on “It Had to Be Murder” and directed by Alfred Hitchcock; and The Bride Wore Black (1967), directed by Francois Truffaut. More true of the literary works than the motion pictures (since Hollywood preferred happy endings), Woolrich was able to heighten suspense by being totally unpredictable, with readers never knowing if the suspense would be relieved or if it would be worse when the tale was ended.

“For the Rest of Her Life,” the last Woolrich story published during his lifetime, first appeared in the May 1968 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and was first collected in his Angels of Darkness (1978). It was made into a two-hour television movie in West Germany in 1974, directed and adapted for the screen by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Their eyes met in Rome. On a street in Rome — the Via Piemonte.

He was coming down it, coming along toward her, when she first saw him. She didn’t know it but he was also coming into her life, into her destiny — bringing what was meant to be.

Every life is a mystery. And every story of every life is a mystery. But it is not what happens that is the mystery. It is whether it has to happen no matter what, whether it is ordered and ordained, fixed and fated, or whether it can be missed, avoided, circumvented, passed by; that is the mystery.

If she had not come along the Via Piemonte that day, would it still have happened? If she had come along the Via Piemonte that day, but ten minutes later than she did, would it still have happened? Therein lies the real mystery. And no one ever knows, and no one ever will.

As their eyes met, they held. For just a heartbeat.

He wasn’t cheap. He wasn’t sidewalk riffraff. His clothes were good clothes, and his air was a good air.

He was a personable-looking man. First your eye said: he’s not young anymore, he’s not a boy anymore. Then your eye said: but he’s not old. There was something of youth hovering over and about him, and yet refusing to land in any one particular place. As though it were about to take off and leave him. Yet not quite that, either. More as though it had never fully been there in the first place. In short, the impression it was, was agelessness. Not young, not old, not callow, not mature — but ageless. Thirty-six looking fifty-six, or fifty-six looking thirty-six, but which it was you could not say.

Their eyes met — and held. For just a heartbeat.

Then they passed one another by, on the Via Piemonte, but without any turn of their heads to prolong the look.

I wonder who that was, she thought.

What he thought couldn’t be known — at least, not by her.

Three nights later they met again, at a party the friend she was staying with took her to.

He came over to her, and she said, “I’ve seen you before. I passed you on Monday on the Via Piemonte. At about four in the afternoon.”

“I remember you, too,” he said. “I noticed you that day, going by.”

I wonder why we remember each other like that, she mused; I’ve passed dozens, hundreds of other people since, and he must have too. I don’t remember any of them.

“I’m Mark Ramsey,” he said.

“I’m Linda Harris.”

An attachment grew up. What is an attachment? It is the most difficult of all the human interrelationships to explain, because it is the vaguest, the most impalpable. It has all the good points of love, and none of its drawbacks. No jealousy, no quarrels, no greed to possess, no fear of losing possession, no hatred (which is very much a part of love), no surge of passion, and no hangover afterward. It never reaches the heights, and it never reaches the depths.

As a rule it comes on subtly. As theirs did. As a rule the two involved are not even aware of it at first. As they were not. As a rule it only becomes noticeable when it is interrupted in some way, or broken off by circumstances. As theirs was. In other words, its presence only becomes known in its absence. It is only missed after it stops. While it is still going on, little thought is given to it, because little thought needs to be.

It is pleasant to meet, it is pleasant to be together. To put your shopping packages down on a little wire-backed chair at a little table at a sidewalk cafe, and sit down and have a vermouth with someone who has been waiting there for you. And will be waiting there again tomorrow afternoon. Same time, same table, same sidewalk cafe. Or to watch Italian youth going through the gyrations of the latest dance craze in some inexpensive indigenous night-place — while you, who come from the country where the dance originated, only get up to do a sedate fox trot. It is even pleasant to part, because this simply means preparing the way for the next meeting.

One long continuous being-together, even in a love affair, might make the thing wilt. In an attachment it would surely kill the thing off altogether. But to meet, to part, then to meet again in a few days, keeps the thing going, encourages it to flower.

And yet it requires a certain amount of vanity, as love does: a desire to please, to look one’s best, to elicit compliments. It inspires a certain amount of flirtation, for the two are of opposite sex. A wink of understanding over the rim of a raised glass, a low-voiced confidential aside about something and the smile of intimacy that answers it, a small impromptu gift — a necktie on the one part because of an accidental spill on the one he was wearing, or of a small bunch of flowers on the other part because of the color of the dress she has on.

So it goes.

And suddenly they part, and suddenly there’s a void, and suddenly they discover they have had an attachment.

Rome passed into the past, and became New York.

Now, if they had never come together again, or only after a long time and in different circumstances, then the attachment would have faded and died. But if they suddenly do come together again — while the sharp sting of missing one another is still smarting — then the attachment will revive full force, full strength. But never again as merely an attachment. It has to go on from there, it has to build, to pick up speed. And sometimes it is so glad to be brought back again that it makes the mistake of thinking it is love.

She was thinking of him at the moment the phone rang. And that helped, too, by its immediacy, by its telephonic answer to her wistful wish of remembrance. Memory is a mirage that fools the heart…

“You’ll never guess what I’m holding in my hand, right while I’m talking to you…

“I picked it up only a moment ago, and just as I was standing and looking at it, the phone rang. Isn’t that the strangest thing!…

“Do you remember the day we stopped in and you bought it…

“I have a little one-room apartment on East Seventieth Street. I’m by myself now, Dorothy stayed on in Rome …”

A couple of months later, they were married …

* * *

They call this love, she said to herself. I know what it is now. I never thought I would know, but I do now.

But she failed to add: If you can step back and identify it, is it really there? Shouldn’t you be unable to know what the whole thing’s about? Just blindly clutch and hold and fear that it will get away. But unable to stop, to think, to give it any name.

Just two more people sharing a common human experience. Infinite in its complexity, tricky at times, but almost always successfully surmounted in one of two ways: either blandly content with the results as they are, or else vaguely discontent but chained by habit. Most women don’t marry a man, they marry a habit. Even when a habit is good, it can become monotonous; most do. When it is bad in just the average degree it usually becomes no more than a nuisance and an irritant; and most do.

But when it is darkly, starkly evil in the deepest sense of the word, then it can truly become a hell on earth.

Theirs seemed to fall midway between the first two, for just a little while. Then it started veering over slowly toward the last. Very slowly, at the start, but very steadily…

* * *

They spent their honeymoon at a New Hampshire lakeshore resort. This lake had an Indian name which, though certainly barbaric in sound to the average English-speaker, in her special case presented such an impassable block both in speech and in mental pre-speech imagery (for some obscure reason, Freudian perhaps, or else simply an instinctive retreat from something with distressful connotations) that she gave up trying to say it and it became simply “the lake.” Then as time drew it backward, not into forgetfulness but into distance, it became “that lake.”

Here the first of the things that happened, happened. The first of the things important enough to notice and to remember afterward, among a great many trifling but kindred ones that were not. Some so slight they were not more than gloating, zestful glints of eye or curt hurtful gestures. (Once he accidentally poured a spurt of scalding tea on the back of a waitress’s wrist, by not waiting long enough for the waitress to withdraw her hand in setting the cup down, and by turning his head momentarily the other way. The waitress yelped, and he apologized, but he showed his teeth as he did so, and you don’t show your teeth in remorse.)

One morning when she woke up, he had already dressed and gone out of the room. They had a beautifully situated front-view of rooms which overlooked the lake itself (the bridal suite, as a matter of fact), and when she went to the window she saw him out there on the white-painted little pier which jutted out into the water on knock-kneed piles. He’d put on a turtleneck sweater instead of a coat and shirt, and that, over his spare figure, with the shoreward breeze alternately lifting and then flattening his hair, made him look younger than when he was close by. A ripple of the old attraction, of the old attachment, coursed through her and then was quickly gone. Just like the breeze out there. The little sidewalk-cafe chairs of Rome with the braided-wire backs and the piles of parcels on them, where were they now? Gone forever; they couldn’t enchant anymore.

The lake water was dark blue, pebbly-surfaced by the insistent breeze that kept sweeping it like the strokes of invisible broom-straws, and mottled with gold flecks that were like floating freckles in the nine o’clock September sunshine.

There was a little boy in bathing trunks, tanned as a caramel, sitting on the side of the pier, dangling his legs above the water. She’d noticed him about in recent days. And there was his dog, a noisy, friendly, ungainly little mite, a Scotch terrier that was under everyone’s feet all the time.

The boy was throwing a stick in, and the dog was splashing after it, retrieving it, and paddling back. Over and over, with that tirelessness and simplicity of interest peculiar to all small boys and their dogs. Off to one side a man was bringing up one of the motorboats that were for rent, for Mark to take out.

She could hear him in it for a while after that, making a long slashing ellipse around the lake, the din of its vibration alternately soaring and lulling as it passed from the far side to the near and then back to the far side again.

Then it cut off suddenly, and when she went back to look it was rocking there sheepishly engineless. The boy was weeping and the dog lay huddled dead on the lake rim, strangled by the boiling backwash of the boat that had dragged it — how many times? — around and around in its sweep of the lake. The dogs collar had become snagged some way in a line with a grappling hook attached, left carelessly loose over the side of the boat. (Or aimed and pitched over as the boat went slashing by?) The line trailed limp now, and the lifeless dog had been detached from it.

“If you’d only looked back,” the boy’s mother said ruefully to Mark. “He was a good swimmer, but I guess the strain was too much and his little heart gave out.”

“He did look! He did! He did! I saw him!” the boy screamed, agonized, peering accusingly from in back of her skirt.

“The spray was in the way,” Mark refuted instantly. But she wondered why he said it so quickly. Shouldn’t he have taken a moment’s time to think about it first, and then say, “The spray must have been — “ or “I guess maybe the spray — “ But he said it as quickly as though he’d been ready to say it even before the need had arisen.

Everyone for some reason acted furtively ashamed, as if something unclean had happened. Everyone but the boy, of course. There were no adult nuances to his pain.

The boy would eventually forget his dog.

But would she? Would she?

They left the lake — the farewells to Mark were a bit on the cool side, she noticed — and moved into a large rambling country house in the Berkshire region of Massachusetts, not far from Pittsfield, which he told her had been in his family for almost seventy-five years. They had a car, an Alfa Romeo, which he had brought over from Italy, and, at least in all its outward aspects, they had a not too unpleasant life together. He was an art importer, and financially a highly successful one; he used to commute back and forth to Boston, where he had a gallery with a small-size apartment above it. As a rule he would stay over in the city, and then drive out Friday night and spend the weekend in the country with her.

(She always slept so well on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. Thursdays she always lay awake half the night reminding herself that the following night was Friday. She never stopped to analyze this; if she had, what would it have told her? What could it have, if she didn’t realize it already?)

As far as the house was concerned, let it be said at once that it was not a depressing house in itself. People can take their moods from a house, but by the same token a house can take its mood from the people who live in it. If it became what it became, it was due to him — or rather, her reaction to him.

The interior of the house had crystallized into a very seldom evoked period, the pre-World War I era of rococo and gimcrack elegance. Either its last occupant before them (an unmarried older sister of his) had had a penchant for this out of some girlhood memory of a war-blighted romance and had deliberately tried to re-create it, or what was more likely, all renovations had stopped around that time and it had just stayed that way by default.

Linda discovered things she had heard about but never seen before. Claw legs on the bathtub, nacre in-and-out pushbuttons for the lights, a hanging stained-glass dome lamp over the dining-room table, a gramophone with a crank handle — she wondered if they’d first rolled back the rug and then danced the hesitation or the one-step to it. The whole house, inside and out, cried out to have women in the straight-up-and-down endlessly long tunics of 1913, with side-puffs of hair over their ears, in patent-leather shoes with beige suede tops up to the middle of the calf, suddenly step out of some of the rooms; and in front of the door, instead of his slender-bodied, bullet-fast Italian compact, perhaps a four-cornered Chalmers or Pierce-Arrow or Hupmobile shaking all over to the beat of its motor.

Sometimes she felt like an interloper, catching herself in some full-length mirror as she passed it, in her over-the-kneetop skirt and short free down-blown hair. Sometimes she felt as if she were under a magic spell, waiting to be disenchanted. But it wasn’t a good kind of spell, and it didn’t come wholly from the house or its furnishings …

One day at the home of some people Mark knew who lived in the area, where he had taken her on a New Year’s Day drop-in visit, she met a young man named Garrett Hill. He was branch head for a company in Pittsfield.

It was as simple as that — they met. As simple as only beautiful things can be simple, as only life-changing things, turning-point things, can be simple.

Then she met him a second time, by accident. Then a third, by coincidence. A fourth, by chance …Or directed by unseen forces?

Then she started to see him on a regular basis, without meaning anything, certainly without meaning any harm. The first night he brought her home they chatted on the way in his car; and then at the door, as he held out his hand, she quickly put hers out of sight behind her back.

“Why are you afraid to shake my hand?”

“I thought you’d hurt me.”

“How can anyone hurt you by just shaking your hand?”

When he tried to kiss her, she turned and fled into the house, as frightened as though he’d brandished a whip at her.

When he tried it again, on a later night, again she recoiled sharply — as if she were flinching from some sort of punishment.

He looked at her, and his eyes widened, both in sudden understanding and in disbelief. “You’re afraid physically,” he said, almost whispering. “I thought it was some wifely scruple the other night. But you’re physically afraid of being kissed! As if there were pain attached to it.”

Before she could stop herself or think twice she blurted out, “Well, there is, isn’t there?”

He said, his voice deadly serious, “What kind of kissing have you been used to?”

She hung her head. And almost the whole story had been told.

His face was white as a sheet. He didn’t say another word. But one man understands another well; all are born with that particular insight.

The next week she went into the town to do some small shopping — shopping she could have done as easily over the phone. Did she hope to run across him during the course of it? Is that why she attended to it in person? And after it was taken care of she stepped into a restaurant to sit down over a cup of coffee while waiting for her bus. He came into the place almost immediately afterward; he must have been sitting in his car outside watching for her.

He didn’t ask to sit down; he simply leaned over with his knuckles resting on the table, across the way from her, and with a quick back glance toward the door by which he had just entered, took a book out from under his jacket and put it down in front of her, its title visible.

“I sent down to New York to get this for you,” he said. “I’m trying to help you in the only way I know how.”

She glanced down at it. The title was: The Marquis de Sade: The Complete Writings.

“Who was he?” she asked, looking up. She pronounced it with the long a, as if it were an English name. “Sayd.”

“Sod,” he instructed. “He was a Frenchman. Just read the book” was all he would say. “Just read the book.”

He turned to leave her, and then he came back for a moment and added, “Don’t let anyone else see — “ Then he changed it to “Don’t let him see you with it. Put a piece of brown wrapping paper around it so the title won’t be conspicuous. As soon as you’ve finished, bring it back; don’t leave it lying around the house.”

After he’d gone she kept staring at it. Just kept staring.

They met again three days later at the same little coffee shop off the main business street. It had become their regular meeting place by now. No fixed arrangement to it; he would go in and find her there, or she would go in and find him there.

“Was he the first one?” she asked when she returned the book.

“No, of course not. This is as old as man — this getting pleasure by giving pain. There are some of them born in every generation. Fortunately not too many. He simply was the first one to write it up and so when the world became more specialized and needed a separate tag for everything, they used his name. It became a word — sadism, meaning sexual pleasure got by causing pain, the sheer pleasure of being cruel.”

She started shaking all over as if the place were drafty. “It is that.” She had to whisper it, she was so heartsick with the discovery. “Oh, God, yes, it is that.”

“You had to know the truth. That was the first thing. You had to know, you had to be told. It isn’t just a vagary or a whim on his part. It isn’t just a — well, a clumsiness or roughness in making love. This is a frightful thing, a deviation, an affliction, and — a terrible danger to you. You had to understand the truth first.”

“Sometimes he takes his electric shaver — “ She stared with frozen eyes at nowhere out before her. “He doesn’t use the shaver itself, just the cord — connects it and — “

She backed her hand into her mouth, sealing it up.

Garrett did something she’d never seen a man do before. He lowered his head, all the way over. Not just onto his chest, but all the way down until his chin was resting on the tabletop. And his eyes, looking up at her, were smoldering red with anger. But literally red, the whites all suffused. Then something wet came along and quenched the burning in them.

“Now you know what you’re up against,” he said, straightening finally. “Now what do you want to do?”

“I don’t know.” She started to sob very gently, in pantomime, without a sound. He got up and stood beside her and held her head pressed against him. “I only know one thing,” she said. “I want to see the stars at night again, and not just the blackness and the shadows. I want to wake up in the morning as if it was my right, and not have to say a prayer of thanks that I lived through the night. I want to be able to tell myself there won’t be another night like the last one.”

The fear Mark had put into her had seeped and oozed into all parts of her; she not only feared fear, she even feared rescue from fear.

“I don’t want to make a move that’s too sudden,” she said in a smothered voice.

“I’ll be standing by, when you want to and when you do.”

And on that note they left each other. For one more time.

On Friday he was sitting there waiting for her at their regular table, smoking a cigarette. And another lay out in the ashtray, finished. And another. And another.

She came up behind him and touched him briefly but warmly on the shoulder, as if she were afraid to trust herself to speak.

He turned and greeted her animatedly. “Don’t tell me you’ve been in there that long! I thought you hadn’t come in yet. I’ve been sitting out here twenty minutes, watching the door for you.”

Then when she sat down opposite him and he got a good look at her face, he quickly sobered.

“I couldn’t help it. I broke down in there. I couldn’t come out any sooner. I didn’t want everyone in the place to see me, the way I was.”

She was still shaking irrepressibly from the aftermath of long-continued sobs.

“Here, have one of these,” he offered soothingly. “May make you feel better — “ He held out his cigarettes toward her.

“No!” she protested sharply, when she looked down and saw what it was. She recoiled so violently that her whole chair bounced a little across the floor. He saw the back of her hand go to the upper part of her breast in an unconscious gesture of protection, of warding off.

His face turned white when he understood the implication. White with anger, with revulsion. “So that’s it,” he breathed softly. “My God, oh, my God.”

They sat on for a long while after that, both looking down without saying anything. What was there to say? Two little cups of black coffee had arrived by now—just as an excuse for them to stay there.

Finally he raised his head, looked at her, and put words to what he’d been thinking. “You can’t go back anymore, not even once. You’re out of the house and away from it now, so you’ve got to stay out. You can’t go near it again, not even one more time. One more night may be one night too many. He’ll kill you one of these nights — he will even if he doesn’t mean to. What to him is just a thrill, an excitement, will take away your life. Think about that — you’ve got to think about that.”

“I have already,” she admitted. “Often.”

“You don’t want to go to the police?”

“I’m ashamed.” She covered her eyes reluctantly with her hand for a moment. “I know I’m not the one who should be, he’s the one. But I am nevertheless. I couldn’t bear to tell it to an outsider, to put it on record, to file a complaint — it’s so intimate. Like taking off all your clothes in public. I can hardly bring myself even to have you know about it. And I haven’t told you everything — not everything.”

He gave her a shake of the head, as though he knew.

“If I try to hide out in Pittsfield, he’ll find me sooner or later — it’s not that big a place — and come after me and force me to come back, and either way there’ll be a scandal. And I don’t want that. I couldn’t stand that. The newspapers …”

All at once, before they quite knew how it had come about, or even realized that it had come about, they were deep in the final plans, the final strategy and staging that they had been drawing slowly nearer and nearer to all these months. Nearer to with every meeting, with every look and with every word. The plans for her liberation and her salvation.

He took her hands across the table.

“No, listen. This is the way, this is how. New York. It has to be New York; he won’t be able to get you back; it’s too big; he won’t even be able to find you. The company’s holding a business conference there on Tuesday, with each of the regional offices sending a representative the way they always do. I was slated to go, long before this came up. I was going to call you on Monday before I left. But what I’m going to do now is to leave ahead of time, tonight, and take you with me.”

He raised one of her hands and patted it encouragingly.

“You wait for me here in the restaurant. I have to go back to the office, wind up a few things, then I’ll come back and pick you up — shouldn’t take me more than half an hour.”

She looked around her uneasily. “I don’t want to sit here alone. They’re already giving me knowing looks each time they pass, the waitresses, as if they sense something’s wrong.”

“Let them, the hell with them,” he said shortly, with the defiance of a man in the opening stages of love.

“Can’t you call your office from here? Do it over the phone?”

“No, there are some papers that have to be signed — they’re waiting for me on my desk.”

“Then you run me back to the house and while you’re doing what you have to at the office I’ll pick up a few things; then you can stop by for me and we’ll start out from there.”

“Isn’t that cutting it a little close?” he said doubtfully. “I don’t want you to go back there.” He pivoted his wristwatch closer to him. “What time does he usually come home on Fridays?”

“Never before ten at night.”

He said the first critical thing he’d ever said to her. “Just like a girl. All for the sake of a hairbrush and a cuddly negligee you’re willing to stick your head back into that house.”

“It’s more than just a hairbrush,” she pointed out. “I have some money there. It’s not his, it’s mine. Even if this friend from my days in Rome — the one I’ve spoken to you about — even if she takes me in with her at the start, I’ll need some money to tide me over until I can get a job and find a place of my own. And there are other things, like my birth certificate, that I may need later on; he’ll never give them up willingly once I leave.”

“All right,” he gave in. “We’ll do it your way.”

Then just before they got up from the table that had witnessed such a change in both their lives, they gave each other a last look. A last, and yet a first one. And they understood each other.

She didn’t wait for him to say it, to ask it. There is no decorum in desperation, no coyness in a crisis. She knew it had been asked unsaid, anyway. “I want to rediscover the meaning of gentle love. I want to lie in your bed, in your arms. I want to be your wife.”

He took hold of her left hand, raised the third finger, stripped off the wedding band and in its place firmly guided downward a massive fraternity ring that had been on his own hand until that very moment. Heavy, ungainly, much too large for her — and yet everything that love should be.

She put it to her lips and kissed it.

They were married now.

The emptied ring rolled off the table and fell on the floor, and as they moved away his foot stepped on it, not on purpose, and distorted it into something warped, misshapen, no longer round, no longer true. Like what it had stood for.

He drove her back out to the house and dropped her off at the door, and they parted almost in silence, so complete was their understanding by now, just three muted words between them: “About thirty minutes.”

It was dark now, and broodingly sluggish. Like something supine waiting to spring, with just the tip of its tail twitching. Leaves stood still on the trees. An evil green star glinted in the black sky like a hostile eye, like an evil spying eye.

His car had hummed off; she’d finished and brought down a small packed bag to the ground floor when the phone rang. It would be Garry, naturally, telling her he’d finished at the office and was about to leave.

“Hello — “ she began, urgently and vitally and confidentially, the way you share a secret with just one person and this was the one.

Mark’s voice was at the other end.

“You sound more chipper than you usually do when I call up to tell you I’m on the way home.”

Her expectancy stopped. And everything else with it. She didn’t know what to say. “Do I?” And then, “Oh, I see.”

“Did you have a good day? You must have had a very good day.”

She knew what he meant, she knew what he was implying.

“I — I — oh, I did nothing, really. I haven’t been out of the house all day.”

“That’s strange,” she heard him say. “I called you earlier — about an hour ago?” It was a question, a pitfall of a question. “You didn’t come to the phone.”

“I didn’t hear it ring,” she said hastily, too hastily. “I might have been out front for a few minutes. I remember I went out there to broom the gravel in the drivew — “

Too late she realized he hadn’t called at all. But now he knew that she hadn’t been in the house all day, that she’d been out somewhere during part of it.

“I’ll be a little late.” And then something that sounded like “That’s what you want to hear, isn’t it?”

“What?” she said quickly. “What?”

“I said I’ll be a little late.”

“What was it you said after that?”

“What was it you said after that?” he quoted studiedly, giving her back her own words.

She knew he wasn’t going to repeat it, but by that very token she knew she’d heard it right the first time.

He knows, she told herself with a shudder of premonition as she got off the phone and finally away from him. (His voice could hold fast to you and enthrall you, too; his very voice could torture you, as well as his wicked, cruel fingers.) He knows there’s someone; he may not know who yet, but he knows there is someone.

A remark from one of the nightmare nights came back to her: “There’s somebody else who wouldn’t do this, isn’t there? There’s somebody else who wouldn’t make you cry”

She should have told Garry about it long before this. Because now she had to get away from Mark at all cost, even more than she had had to ever before. Now there would be a terrible vindictiveness, a violent jealousy sparking the horrors, where before there had sometimes been just an irrational impulse, sometimes dying as quickly as it was born. Turned aside by a tear or a prayer or a run around a chair.

And then another thing occurred to her, and it frightened her even more immediately, here and now. What assurance was there that he was where he’d said he was, still in the city waiting to start out for here? He might have been much closer, ready to jump out at her unexpectedly, hoping to throw her off-guard and catch her away from the house with someone, or (as if she could have possibly been that sort of person) with that someone right here in the very house with her. He’d lied about calling the first time; why wouldn’t he lie about where he was?

And now that she thought of it, there was a filling station with a public telephone less than five minutes’ drive from here, on the main thru-way that came up from Boston. An eddy of fear swirled around her, like dust rising off the floor in some barren, drafty place. She had to do one of two things immediately—there was no time to do both. Either call Garry at his office and warn him to hurry, that their time limit had shrunk. Or try to trace Mark’s call and find out just how much margin of safety was still left to them.

She chose the latter course, which was the mistaken one to choose.

Long before she’d been able to identify the filling station exactly for the information operator to get its number, the whole thing had become academic. There was a slither and shuffle on the gravel outside and a car, someone’s car, had come to a stop in front of the house.

Her first impulse, carried out immediately without thinking why, was to snap off all the room lights. Probably so she could see out without being seen from out there.

She sprang over to the window, and then stood there rigidly motionless, leaning a little to peer intently out. The car had stopped at an unlucky angle of perspective — unlucky for her. They had a trellis with tendrils of wisteria twining all over it like bunches of dangling grapes. It blanked out the midsection of the car, its body shape, completely. The beams of the acetylene-bright headlights shone out past one side, but they told her nothing; they could have come from any car. The little glimmer of color on the driveway, at the other side, told her no more.

She heard the door crack open and clump closed. Someone’s feet, obviously a man’s, chopped up the wooden steps to the entrance veranda, and she saw a figure cross it, but it was too dark to make out who he was.

She had turned now to face the other way, and without knowing it her hand was holding the place where her heart was. This was Mark’s house, he had the front-door key. Garry would have to ring. She waited to hear the doorbell clarinet out and tell her she was safe, she would be loved, she would live.

Instead there was a double click, back then forth, the knob twined around, and the door opened. A spurt of cool air told her it had opened.

Frightened back into childhood fears, she turned and scurried, like some little girl with pigtails flying out behind her, scurried back along the shadowed hall, around behind the stairs, and into a closet that lay back there, remote as any place in the house could be. She pushed herself as far to the back as she could, and crouched down, pulling hanging things in front of her to screen and to protect her, to make her invisible. Sweaters and mackintoshes and old forgotten coveralls. And she hid her head down between her knees — the way children do when a goblin or an ogre is after them, thinking that if they can’t see it, that fact alone will make the terror go away.

The steps went up the stairs, on over her, up past her head. She could feel the shake if not hear the sound. Then she heard her name called out, but the voice was blurred by the many partitions and separations between — as if she were listening to it from underwater. Then the step came down again, and the man stood there at the foot of the stairs, uncertain. She tried to teach herself how to forget to breathe, but she learned badly.

There was a little tick! of a sound, and he’d given himself more light. Then each step started to sound clearer than the one before, as the distance to her thinned away. Her heart began to stutter and turn over, and say: here he comes, here he comes. Light cracked into the closet around three sides of the door, and two arms reached in and started to make swimming motions among the hanging things, trying to find her.

Then they found her, one at each shoulder, and lifted her and drew her outside to him. (With surprising gentleness.) And pressed her to his breast. And her tears made a new pattern of little wet polka dots all over what had been Garry’s solid-colored necktie until now.

All she could say was “Hurry, hurry, get me out of here!”

“You must have left the door open in your hurry when you came back here. I tried it, found it unlocked, and just walked right in. When I looked back here, I saw that the sleeve of that old smock had got caught in the closet door and was sticking out. Almost like an arm, beckoning me on to show me where you were hiding. It was uncanny. Your guardian angel must love you very much, Linda.”

But will he always? she wondered. Will he always?

He took her to the front door, detoured for a moment to pick up the bag, then led her outside and closed the door behind them for good and all.

“Just a minute,” she said, and stopped, one foot on the ground, one still on the wooden front steps.

She opened her handbag and took out her key—-the key to what had been her home and her marriage. She flung it back at the door, and it hit and fell, with a cheap shabby little clop!— like something of not much value.

Once they were in the car they just drove; they didn’t say anything more for a long time.

All the old things had been said. All the new things to be said were still to come.

In her mind’s eye she could see the saw-toothed towers of New York climbing slowly up above the horizon before her at the end of the long road. Shimmering there, iridescent, opalescent, rainbows of chrome and glass and hope. Like Jerusalem, like Mecca, or some other holy spot. Beckoning, offering heaven. And of all the things New York has meant to various people at various times — fame, success, fulfillment — it probably never meant as much before as it meant to her tonight: a place of refuge, a sanctuary, a place to be safe in.

“How long does the trip take?” she asked him wistful-eyed.

“I usually make it in less than four hours. Tonight I’ll make it in less than three.”

I’ll never stray out of New York again, she promised herself. Once I’m safely there, I’ll never go out in the country again. I never want to see a tree again, except way down below me in Central Park from a window high up.

“Oh, get me there, Garry, get me there.”

“I’ll get you there,” Garry promised, like any new bridegroom, and bent to kiss the hand she had placed over his on the wheel.

Two car headlights from the opposite direction hissed by them — like parallel tracer bullets going so fast they seemed to swirl around rather than undulate with the road’s flaws.

She purposely waited a moment, then said in a curiously surreptitious voice, as though it shouldn’t be mentioned too loudly, “Did you see that?”

All he answered, noncommittally, was “Mmm.”

“That was the Italian compact.”

“You couldn’t tell what it was,” he said, trying to distract her from her fear. “Went by too fast.”

“I know it too well. I recognized it.”

Again she waited a moment, as though afraid to make the movement she was about to. Then she turned and looked back, staring hard and steadily into the funneling darkness behind them.

Two back lights had flattened out into a bar, an ingot. Suddenly this flashed to the other side of the road, then reversed. Then, like a ghastly scimitar chopping down all the tree trunks in sight, the headlights reappeared, rounded out into two spheres, gleaming, small — but coming back after them.

“I told you. It’s turned and doubled back.”

He was still trying to keep her from panic. “May have nothing to do with us. May not be the same car we saw go by just now.”

“It is. Why would he make a complete about-turn like that in the middle of nowhere? There’s no intersection or side road back there — we haven’t passed one for miles.”

She looked again.

“They keep coming. And they already look bigger than when they started back. I think they’re gaining on us.”

He said, with an unconcern that he didn’t feel, “Then we’ll have to put a stop to that.”

They burst into greater velocity, with a surge like a forward billow of air.

She looked, and she looked again. Finally, to keep from turning so constantly, she got up on the seat on the point of one knee and faced backward, her hair pouring forward all around her, jumping with an electricity that was really speed.

“Stay down,” he warned. “You’re liable to get thrown that way. We’re up to sixty-five now.” He gave her a quick tug for additional emphasis, and she subsided into the seat once more.

“How is it now?” he checked presently. The rearview mirror couldn’t reflect that far back.

“They haven’t grown smaller, but they haven’t grown larger.”

“We’ve stabilized, then,” he translated. “Dead heat.”

Then after another while and another look, “Wait a minute!” she said suddenly on a note of breath-holding hope. Then, “No,” she mourned quickly afterward. “For a minute I thought — but they’re back again. It was only a dip in the road.

“They hang on like leeches, can’t seem to shake them off,” she complained in a fretful voice, as though talking to herself. “Why don’t they go away? Why don’t they?”

Another look, and he could sense the sudden stiffening of her body.

“They’re getting bigger. I know I’m not mistaken.”

He could see that, too. They were finally peering into the rearview mirror for the first time. They’d go offside, then they’d come back in again. In his irritation he took one hand off the wheel long enough to give the mirror a backhand slap that moved it out of focus altogether.

“Suppose I stop, get out, and face him when he comes up, and we have it out here and now. What can he do? I’m younger, I can outslug him.”

Her refusal to consent was an outright scream of protest. All her fears and all her aversion were in it.

“All right,” he said. “Then we’ll run him into the ground if we have to.”

She covered her face with both hands — not at the speed they were making, but at the futility of it.

“They sure build good cars in Torino, damn them to hell!” he swore in angry frustration.

She uncovered and looked. The headlights were closer than before. She began to lose control of herself.

“Oh, this is like every nightmare I ever had when I was a little girl! When something was chasing me, and I couldn’t get away from it. Only now there’ll be no waking up in the nick of time.”

“Stop that,” he shouted at her. “Stop it. It only makes it worse, it doesn’t help.”

“I think I can feel his breath blowing down the back of my neck.”

He looked at her briefly, but she could tell by the look on his face he hadn’t been able to make out what she’d said.

Streaks of wet that were not tears were coursing down his face in uneven lengths. “My necktie,” he called out to her suddenly, and raised his chin to show her what he meant. She reached over, careful not to place herself in front of him, and pulled the knot down until it was loose. Then she freed the buttonhole from the top button of his shirt.

A long curve in the road cut them off for a while, from those eyes, those unrelenting eyes behind them. Then the curve ended, and the eyes came back again. It was worse somehow, after they’d been gone like that, than when they remained steadily in sight the whole time.

“He holds on and holds on and holds on — like a mad dog with his teeth locked into you.”

“He’s a mad dog all right.” All pretense of composure had long since left him. He was lividly angry at not being able to win the race, to shake the pursuer off. She was mortally frightened. The long-sustained tension of the speed duel, which seemed to have been going on for hours, compounded her fears, raised them at last to the pitch of hysteria.

Their car swerved erratically, the two outer wheels jogged briefly over marginal stones and roots that felt as if they were as big as boulders and logs. He flung his chest forward across the wheel as if it were something alive that he was desperately trying to hold down; then the car recovered, came back to the road, straightened out safely again with a catarrhal shudder of its rear axle.

“Don’t,” he warned her tautly in the short-lived lull before they picked up hissing momentum again. “Don’t grab me like that again. It went right through the shoulder of my jacket. I can’t manage the car, can’t hold it, if you do that. I’ll get you away. Don’t worry, I’ll get you away from him.”

She threw her head back in despair, looking straight up overhead. “We seem to be standing still. The road has petrified. The trees aren’t moving backwards anymore. The stars don’t either. Neither do the rocks along the side. Oh, faster, Garry, faster!”

“You’re hallucinating. Your senses are being tricked by fear.”

“Faster, Garry, faster!”

“Eighty-five, eighty-six. We’re on two wheels most of the time — two are off the ground. I can’t even breathe, my breath’s being pulled out of me.”

She started to beat her two clenched fists against her forehead in a tattoo of hypnotic inability to escape. “I don’t care, Garry! Faster, faster! If I’ve got to die, let it be with you, not with him!”

“I’ll get you away from him. If it kills me.”

That was the last thing he said.

If it kills me.

And as though it had overheard, and snatched at the collateral offered i(, that unpropitious sickly greenish star up there — surely Mark’s star, not theirs —at that very moment a huge tremendous thing came into view around a turn in the road. A skyscraper of a long-haul van, its multiple tiers beaded with red warning lights. But what good were they that high up, except to warn off planes?

It couldn’t maneuver. It would have required a turntable. And they had no time or room.

There was a soft crunchy sound, like someone shearing the top off a soft-boiled egg with a knife. At just one quick slice. Then a brief straight -into-the face blizzard effect, but with tiny particles of glass instead of frozen flakes. Just a one-gust blizzard — and then over with. Then an immense whirl of light started to spin, like a huge Ferris wheel all lit up and going around and around, with parabolas of light streaking off in every direction and dimming. Like shooting stars, or the tails of comets.

Then the whole thing died down and went out, like a blazing amusement park sinking to earth. Or the spouts of illuminated fountains settling back into their basins …

She could tell the side of her face was resting against the ground, because blades of grass were brushing against it with a feathery tickling feeling. And some inquisitive little insect kept flitting about just inside the rim of her ear. She tried to raise her hand to brush it away, but then forgot where it was and what it was.

But then forgot…

* * *

When they picked her up at last, more out of this world than in it, all her senses gone except for reflex-actions, her lips were still quivering with the unspoken sounds of “Faster, Garry, faster! Take me away — “

Then the long nights, that were also days, in the hospital. And the long blanks, that were also nights. Needles, and angled glass rods to suck water through. Needles, and curious enamel wedges slid under your middle. Needles, and — needles and needles and needles. Like swarms of persistent mosquitoes with unbreakable drills. The way a pincushion feels, if it could feel. Or the target of a porcupine. Or a case of not just momentary but permanently endured static electricity after you scuff across a woolen rug and then put your finger on a light switch. Even food was a needle — a jab into a vein …

Then at last her head cleared, her eyes cleared, her mind and voice came back from where they’d been. Each day she became a little stronger, and each day became a little longer. Until they were back for good, good as ever before. Life came back into her lungs and heart. She could feel it there, the swift current of it. Moving again, eager again. Sun again, sky again, rain and pain and love and hope again. Life again — the beautiful thing called life.

Each day they propped her up in a chair for a little while. Close beside the bed, for each day for a little while longer.

Then at last she asked, after many starts that she could never finish, “Why doesn’t Garry come to me? Doesn’t he know I’ve been hurt?”

“Garry can’t come to you,” the nurse answered. And then, in the way that you whip off a bandage that has adhered to a wound fast, in order to make the pain that much shorter than it would be if you lingeringly edged it off a little at a time, then the nurse quickly told her, “Garry won’t come to you anymore.”

The black tears, so many of them, such a rain of them, blotted out the light and brought on the darkness…

Then the light was back again, and no more tears. Just — Garry won’t come to you anymore.

Now the silent words were: Not so fast, Garry, not so fast; you’ve left me behind and I’ve lost my way

Then in a little while she asked the nurse, “Why don’t you ever let me get up from this chair? I’m better now, I eat well, the strength has come back to my arms, my hands, my fingers, my whole body feels strong. Shouldn’t I be allowed to move around and exercise a little? To stand up and take a few steps?”

“The doctor will tell you about that,” the nurse said evasively.

The doctor came in later and he told her about it. Bluntly, in the modern way, without subterfuges and without false hopes. The kind, the sensible, the straight-from-the-shoulder modern way.

“Now listen to me. The world is a beautiful world, and life is a beautiful life. In this beautiful world everything is comparative; luck is comparative. You could have come out of it stone-blind from the shattered glass, with both your eyes gone. You could have come out of it minus an arm, crushed and having to be taken off. You could have come out of it with your face hideously scarred, wearing a repulsive mask for the rest of your life that would make people sicken and turn away. You could have come out of it dead, as — as someone else did. Who is to say you are lucky, who is to say you are not? You have come out of it beautiful of face. You have come out of it keen and sensitive of mind, a mind with all the precision and delicate adjustment of the works inside a fine Swiss watch. A mind that not only thinks, but feels. You have come out of it with a strong brave youthful heart that will carry you through for half a century yet, come what may.”

“But— “

She looked at him with eyes that didn’t fear.

“You will never again take a single step for all the rest of your life. You are hopelessly, irreparably paralyzed from the waist down. Surgery, everything, has been tried. Accept this …Now you know — and so now be brave.”

“I am. I will be,” she said trustfully. “I’ll learn a craft of some kind, that will occupy my days and earn me a living. Perhaps you can find a nursing home for me at the start until I get adjusted, and then maybe later I can find a little place all to myself and manage there on my own. There are such places, with ramps instead of stairs — “

He smiled deprecatingly at her oversight.

“All that won’t be necessary You’re forgetting. There is someone who will look after you. Look after you well. You’ll be in good capable hands. Your husband is coming to take you home with him today.”

Her scream was like the death cry of a wounded animal. So strident, so unbelievable, that in the stillness of its aftermath could be heard the slithering and rustling of people looking out the other ward-room doors along the corridor, nurses and ambulatory patients, asking one another what that terrified cry had been and where it had come from.

“Two cc’s of M, and hurry,” the doctor instructed the nurse tautly. “It’s just the reaction from what she’s been through. This sometimes happens — going-home happiness becomes hysteria.”

The wet kiss of alcohol on her arm. Then the needle again — the needle meant to be kind.

One of them patted her on the head and said, “You’ll be all right now.”

A tear came to the corner of her eyes, and just lay there, unable to retreat, unable to fall…

* * *

Myopically she watched them dress her and put her in her chair. Her mind remained awake, but everything was downgraded in intensity — the will to struggle had become reluctance, fear had become unease. She still knew there was ‘cause to scream, but the distance had become too great, the message had too far to travel.

Through lazy, contracting pupils she looked over and saw Mark standing in the doorway, talking to the doctor, shaking the nurse’s hand and leaving something behind in it for which she smiled her thanks.

Then he went around in back of her wheelchair, with a phantom breath for a kiss to the top of her head, and started to sidle it toward the door that was being held open for the two of them. He tipped the front of the chair ever so slightly, careful to avoid the least jar or impact or roughness, as if determined that she reach her destination with him in impeccable condition, unmarked and unmarred.

And as she craned her neck and looked up overhead, and then around and into his face, backward, the unspoken message was so plain, in his shining eyes and in the grim grin he showed his teeth in, that though he didn’t say it aloud, there was no need to; it reached from his mind into hers without sound or the need of sound just as surely as though he had said it aloud.

Now I’ve got you.

Now he had her — for the rest of her life.

1972

DAVID MORRELL

THE DRIPPING

David Morrell (1934-) was born in Kitchener, Ontario, and was still a teenager when he decided to become a writer, inspired by the Route 66 television series created by Stirling Silliphant, and encouraged by Hemingway scholar Philip Young at Penn State University, where Morrell eventually received his BA and MA. In 1970 he took a job as an English professor at the University of Iowa, and produced his initial novel, First Blood, two years later.

This book, since described as the father of the modern adventure novel, introduced the world to Rambo, who went on to become one of the most famous fictional characters in the world, largely through film adaptations starring Sylvester Stallone. John Rambo (the famous name came from a variety of apple) is a Vietnam War vet, a troubled, violent former Green Beret warrior trained in survival, hand-to-hand combat, and other special martial skills. The film series began with First Blood (1982), and has continued with Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Rambo III (1988), Rambo (2008), and Rambo V (scheduled for release in 2011).

Morrell has enjoyed numerous other bestsellers among his twenty-eight novels, including The Brotherhood of the Rose (1984), which became a popular TV miniseries starring Robert Mitchum in 1989. In addition to his ambitious international thrillers, he has written highly popular horror fiction, notably Creepers (2005), which won a Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers Association. He is also the cofounder of the organization International Thriller Writers.

“The Dripping” is the author’s first published story. It was originally published in the August 1972 issue of Ellery Queens Mystery Magazine.

That autumn we live in a house in the country, my mother’s house, the house I was raised in. I have been to the village, struck more by how nothing in it has changed, yet everything has, because I am older now, seeing it differently. It is as though I am both here now and back then, at once with the mind of a boy and a man. It is so strange a doubling, so intense, so unsettling, that I am moved to work again, to try to paint it.

So I study the hardware store, the grain barrels in front, the twin square pillars holding up the drooping balcony onto which seared wax-faced men and women from the old peoples hotel above come to sit and rock and watch. They look like the same aging people I saw as a boy, the wood of the pillars and balcony looks as splintered.

Forgetful of time while I work, I do not begin the long walk home until late, at dusk. The day has been warm, but now in my shirt I am cold, and a half mile along I am caught in a sudden shower and forced to leave the gravel road for the shelter of a tree, its leaves already brown and yellow. The rain becomes a storm, streaking at me sideways, drenching me; I cinch the neck of my canvas bag to protect my painting and equipment, and decide to run, socks spongy in my shoes, when at last I reach the lane down to the house and barn.

The house and barn. They and my mother, they alone have changed, as if as one, warping, weathering, joints twisted and strained, their gray so unlike the white I recall as a boy. The place is weakening her. She is in tune with it, matches its decay. That is why we have come here to live. To revive. Once I thought to convince her to move away. But of her sixty-five years she has spent forty here, and she insists she will spend the rest, what is left to her.

The rain falls stronger as I hurry past the side of the house, the light on in the kitchen, suppertime and I am late. The house is connected with the barn the way the small base of an I is connected to its stem. The entrance I always use is directly at the joining, and when I enter out of breath, clothes clinging to me cold and wet, the door to the barn to my left, the door to the kitchen straight ahead, I hear the dripping in the basement down the stairs to my right.

“Meg. Sorry I’m late,” I call to my wife, setting down the water-beaded canvas sack, opening the kitchen door. There is no one. No settings on the table. Nothing on the stove. Only the yellow light from the 60-watt bulb in the ceiling. The kind my mother prefers to the white of 100. It reminds her of candlelight, she says.

“Meg,” I call again, and still no one answers. Asleep, I think. Dusk coming on, the dark clouds of the storm have lulled them, and they have lain down for a nap, expecting to wake before I return.

Still the dripping. Although the house is very old, the barn long disused, roofs crumbling, I have not thought it all so ill-maintained, the storm so strong that water can be seeping past the cellar windows, trickling, pattering on the old stone floor. I switch on the light to the basement, descend the wood stairs to the right, worn and squeaking, reach where the stairs turn to the left the rest of the way down to the floor, and see not water dripping. Milk. Milk everywhere. On the rafters, on the walls, dripping on the film of milk on the stones, gathering speckled with dirt in the channels between them. From side to side and everywhere.

Sarah, my child, has done this, I think. She has been fascinated by the big wood dollhouse that my father made for me when I was quite young, its blue paint chipped and peeling now. She has pulled it from the far corner to the middle of the basement. There are games and toy soldiers and blocks that have been taken from the wicker storage chest and played with on the floor, all covered with milk, the dollhouse, the chest, the scattered toys, milk dripping on them from the rafters, milk trickling on them.

Why has she done this, I think. Where can she have gotten so much milk? What was in her mind to do this thing?

“Sarah,” I call. “Meg.” Angry now, I mount the stairs into the quiet kitchen. “Sarah,” I shout. She will clean the mess and stay indoors the remainder of the week.

I cross the kitchen, turn through the sitting room past the padded flower-patterned chairs and sofa that have faded since I knew them as a boy, past several of my paintings that my mother has hung up on the wall, bright-colored old ones of pastures and woods from when I was in grade school, brown-shaded new ones of the town, tinted as if old photographs. Two stairs at a time up to the bedrooms, wet shoes on the soft worn carpet on the stairs, hand streaking on the smooth polished maple banister.

At the top I swing down the hall. The door to Sarah’s room is open, it is dark in there. I switch on the light. She is not on the bed, nor has been; the satin spread is unrumpled, the rain pelting in through the open window, the wind fresh and cool. I have the feeling then and go uneasy into our bedroom; it is dark as well, empty too. My stomach has become hollow. Where are they? All in Mother’s room?

No. As I stand at the open door to Mother’s room I see from the yellow light I have turned on in the hall that only she is in there, her small torso stretched across the bed.

“Mother,” I say, intending to add, “Where are Meg and Sarah?” But I stop before I do. One of my mother’s shoes is off, the other askew on her foot. There is mud on the shoes. There is blood on her cotton dress. It is torn, her brittle hair disrupted, blood on her face, her bruised lips are swollen.

For several moments I am silent with shock. “My God, Mother,” I finally manage to say, and as if the words are a spring releasing me to action I touch her to wake her. But I see that her eyes are open, staring ceilingward, unseeing though alive, and each breath is a sudden full gasp, then slow exhalation.

“Mother, what has happened? Who did this to you? Meg? Sarah?”

But she does not look at me, only constant toward the ceiling.

“For God’s sake, Mother, answer me! Look at me! What has happened?”

Nothing. Eyes sightless. Between gasps she is like a statue.

* * *

What I think is hysterical. Disjointed, contradictory. I must find Meg and Sarah. They must be somewhere, beaten like my mother. Or worse. Find them. Where? But I cannot leave my mother. When she comes to consciousness, she too will be hysterical, frightened, in great pain. How did she end up on the bed?

In her room there is no sign of the struggle she must have put up against her attacker. It must have happened somewhere else. She crawled from there to here. Then I see the blood on the floor, the swath of blood down the hall from the stairs. Who did this? Where is he? Who would beat a gray, wrinkled, arthritic old woman? Why in God’s name would he do it? I shudder. The pain of the arthritis as she struggled with him.

Perhaps he is still in the house, waiting for me.

To the hollow sickness in my stomach now comes fear, hot, pulsing, and I am frantic before I realize what I am doing — grabbing the spare cane my mother always keeps by her bed, flicking on the light in her room, throwing open the closet door and striking in with the cane. Viciously, sounds coming from my throat, the cane flailing among the faded dresses.

No one. Under the bed. No one. Behind the door. No one.

I search all the upstairs rooms that way, terrified, constantly checking behind me, clutching the cane and whacking into closets, under beds, behind doors, with a force that would certainly crack a skull. No one.

“Meg! Sarah!”

No answer, not even an echo in this sound-absorbing house.

There is no attic, just an overhead entry to a crawlspace under the eaves, and that opening has long been sealed. No sign of tampering. No one has gone up.

I rush down the stairs, seeing the trail of blood my mother has left on the carpet, imagining her pain as she crawled, and search the rooms downstairs with the same desperate thoroughness. In the front closet. Behind the sofa and chairs. Behind the drapes.

No one.

I lock the front door, lest he be outside in the storm waiting to come in behind me. I remember to draw every blind, close every drape, lest he be out there peering at me. The rain pelts insistently against the windowpanes.

I cry out again and again for Meg and Sarah. The police. My mother. A doctor. I grab for the phone on the wall by the front stairs, fearful to listen to it, afraid he has cut the line outside. But it is droning. Droning. I ring for the police, working the handle at the side around and around and around.

* * *

They are coming, they say. A doctor with them. Stay where I am, they say. But I cannot. Meg and Sarah, I must find them. I know they are not in the basement where the milk is dripping — all the basement is open to view. Except for my childhood things, we have cleared out all the boxes and barrels and the shelves of jars the Saturday before.

But under the stairs. I have forgotten about under the stairs and now I race down and stand dreading in the milk; but there are only cobwebs there, already re-formed from Saturday when we cleared them. I look up at the side door I first came through, and as if I am seeing through a telescope I focus largely on the handle. It seems to fidget. I have a panicked vision of the intruder bursting through, and I charge up to lock the door, and the door to the barn.

And then I think: if Meg and Sarah are not in the house they are likely in the barn. But I cannot bring myself to unlock the barn door and go through. He must be there as well. Not in the rain outside but in the shelter of the barn, and there are no lights to turn on there.

And why the milk? Did he do it and where did he get it? And why? Or did Sarah do it before? No, the milk is too freshly dripping. It has been put there too recently. By him. But why? And who is he? A tramp? An escapee from some prison? Or asylum? No, the nearest institution is far away, hundreds of miles. From the town then. Or a nearby farm.

I know my questions are for delay, to keep me from entering the barn. But I must. I take the flashlight from the kitchen drawer and unlock the door to the barn, force myself to go in quickly, cane ready, flashing my light. The stalls are still there, listing; and some of the equipment, churners, separators, dull and rusted, webbed and dirty. The must of decaying wood and crumbled hay, the fresh wet smell of the rain gusting through cracks in the walls. Once this was a dairy, as the other farms around still are.

Flicking my light toward the corners, edging toward the stalls, boards creaking, echoing, I try to control my fright, try to remember as a boy how the cows waited in the stalls for my father to milk them, how the barn was once board-tight and solid, warm to be in, how there was no connecting door from the barn to the house because my father did not want my mother to smell the animals in her kitchen.

I run my light down the walls, sweep it in arcs through the darkness before me as I draw nearer to the stalls, and in spite of myself I recall that other autumn when the snow came early, four feet deep by morning and still storming thickly, how my father went out to the barn to milk and never returned for lunch, nor supper. There was no phone then, no way to get help, and my mother and I waited all night, unable to make our way through the storm, listening to the slowly dying wind; and the next morning was clear and bright and blinding as we shoveled out to find the cows in agony in their stalls from not having been milked and my father dead, frozen rock-solid in the snow in the middle of the next field where he must have wandered when he lost his bearings in the storm.

There was a fox, risen earlier than us, nosing at him under the snow, and my father had to be sealed in his coffin before he could lie in state. Days after, the snow was melted, gone, the barnyard a sea of mud, and it was autumn again and my mother had the connecting door put in. My father should have tied a rope from the house to his waist to guide him back in case he lost his way. Certainly he knew enough. But then he was like that, always in a rush. When I was ten.

Thus I think as I light the shadows near the stalls, terrified of what I may find in any one of them, Meg and Sarah, or him, thinking of how my mother and I searched for my father and how I now search for my wife and child, trying to think of how it was once warm in here and pleasant, chatting with my father, helping him to milk, the sweet smell of new hay and grain, the different sweet smell of fresh droppings, something I always liked and neither my father nor my mother could understand. I know that if I do not think of these good times I will surely go mad in awful anticipation of what I may find. Pray God they have not died!

What can he have done to them? To assault a five-year-old girl? Split her. The hemorrhaging alone can have killed her.

And then, even in the barn, I hear my mother cry out for me. The relief I feel to leave and go to her unnerves me. I do want to find Meg and Sarah, to try to save them. Yet I am relieved to go. I think my mother will tell me what has happened, tell me where to find them. That is how I justify my leaving as I wave the light in circles around me, guarding my back, retreating through the door and locking it.

* * *

Upstairs she sits stiffly on her bed. I want to make her answer my questions, to shake her, to force her to help, but I know it will only frighten her more, maybe push her mind down to where I can never reach.

“Mother,” I say to her softly, touching her gently. “What has happened?” My impatience can barely be contained. “Who did this? Where are Meg and Sarah?”

She smiles at me, reassured by the safety of my presence. Still she cannot answer.

“Mother. Please,” I say. “I know how bad it must have been. But you must try to help. I must know where they are so I can help them.”

She says, “Dolls.”

It chills me. “What dolls, Mother? Did a man come here with dolls? What did he want? You mean he looked like a doll? Wearing a mask like one?”

Too many questions. All she can do is blink.

“Please, Mother. You must try your best to tell me. Where are Meg and Sarah?”

“Dolls,” she says.

As I first had the foreboding of disaster at the sight of Sarah’s unrumpled satin bedspread, now I am beginning to understand, rejecting it, fighting it.

“Yes, Mother, the dolls,” I say, refusing to admit what I know. “Please, Mother. Where are Meg and Sarah?”

“You are a grown boy now. You must stop playing as a child. Your father. Without him you will have to be the man in the house. You must be brave.”

“No, Mother.” I can feel it swelling in my chest.

“There will be a great deal of work now, more than any child should know. But we have no choice. You must accept that God has chosen to take him from us, that you are all the man I have left to help me.”

“No, Mother.”

“Now you are a man and you must put away the things of a child.”

Eyes streaming, I am barely able to straighten, leaning wearily against the doorjamb, tears rippling from my face down to my shirt, wetting it cold where it had just begun to dry. I wipe my eyes and see her reaching for me, smiling, and I recoil down the hall, stumbling down the stairs, down, through the sitting room, the kitchen, down, down to the milk, splashing through it to the dollhouse, and in there, crammed and doubled, Sarah. And in the wicker chest, Meg. The toys not on the floor for Sarah to play with, but taken out so Meg could be put in. And both of them, their stomachs slashed, stuffed with sawdust, their eyes rolled up like dolls’ eyes.

The police are knocking at the side door, pounding, calling out who they are, but I am powerless to let them in. They crash through the door, their rubber raincoats dripping as they stare down at me.

“The milk,” I say.

They do not understand. Even as I wait, standing in the milk, listening to the rain pelting on the windows while they come over to see what is in the dollhouse and in the wicker chest, while they go upstairs to my mother and then return so I can tell them again, “The milk.” But they still do not understand.

“She killed them of course,” one man says. “But I don’t see why the milk.”

Only when they speak to the neighbors down the road and learn how she came to them, needing the cans of milk, insisting she carry them herself to the car, the agony she was in as she carried them, only when they find the empty cans and the knife in a stall in the barn, can I say, “The milk. The blood. There was so much blood, you know. She needed to deny it, so she washed it away with milk, purified it, started the dairy again. You see, there was so much blood.”

* * *

That autumn we live in a house in the country, my mother’s house, the house I was raised in. I have been to the village, struck even more by how nothing in it has changed, yet everything has, because I am older now, seeing it differently. It is as though I am both here now and back then, at once with the mind of a boy and a man …

1979

PATRICIA HIGHSMITH

SLOWLY, SLOWLY IN THE WIND

Patricia Highsmith (originally Mary Patricia Plangman) (1921-1995) was born in Fort Worth, Texas, and moved to New York as a child, later graduating from Barnard College. Her mother divorced her father five months before she was born, and had tried to abort her by drinking turpentine, so it is not surprising that they did not have a close relationship. Highsmith moved permanently to Europe in 1963, where she enjoyed greater success, both critical and commercial, than in America.

Her first short story, “The Heroine,” was published in Harpers Bazaar shortly after her graduation and was selected as one of the twenty-two best stories of 1945. Her first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), written while still in her twenties, was moderately successful but became a sensation when it was acquired for the movies by Alfred Hitchcock, who directed the classic film noir and released it in 1951; it starred Robert Walker and Farley Granger. More than twenty films are based on her thirty books (twenty-two novels and eight short story collections), many made in France. Apart from the first novel, she has been most avidly read for her series about the amoral, sexually ambiguous murderer and thief Tom Ripley, beginning with The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) and continuing with Ripley Under Ground (1970), Ripley’s Game (1974), The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980), and Ripley Under Water (1991). Ironically, her career and book sales received a huge boost after she died, when The Talented Mr. Ripley was filmed in 1999 by Anthony Minghella, starring Matt Damon, Gwy-neth Paltrow, Jude Law, and Cate Blanchett. It was followed by Ripley’s Game (2002), starring John Malkovich.

“Slowly, Slowly in the Wind” was Highsmith’s personal favorite of all her stories, according to an introduction she wrote for Chillers (1990), a collection of her stories that had been adapted for a television series. She acknowledges that the title was inspired by an aide to then-president Richard M. Nixon, who said that he’d like to see a certain enemy twisting slowly, slowly in the wind. It was first published in her collection Slowly, Slowly in the Wind (1976).

Edward “skip” skipperton spentmostofhislifefeelingangry.lt was his nature. When he was a boy he had a bad temper; now, as a man, he was impatient with people who were slow or stupid. He often met such people in his work, which was to give advice on managing companies. He was good at his job: he could see when people were doing something the wrong way, and he told them in a loud, clear voice how to do it better. The company directors always followed his advice.

Now Skipperton was fifty-two. His wife had left him two years ago, because she couldn’t live with his bad temper. She had met a quiet university teacher in Boston, ended her marriage with Skip, and married the teacher. Skip wanted very much to keep their daughter, Maggie, who was then fifteen. With the help of clever lawyers he succeeded.

A few months after he separated from his wife, Skip had a heart attack. He was better again in six months, but his doctor gave him some strong advice.

“Stop smoking and drinking now, or you’re a dead man, Skip! And I think you should leave the world of business, too — you’ve got enough money. Why don’t you buy a small farm and live quietly in the country?”

So Skip looked around, and bought a small farm in Maine with a comfortable farmhouse. A little river, the Coldstream, ran along the bottom of the garden, and the house was called Coldstream Heights. He found a local man, Andy Humbert, to live on the farm and work for him.

Maggie was moved from her private school in New York to one in Switzerland; she would come home for the holidays. Skip did stop smoking and drinking: when he decided to do something, he always did it immediately. There was work for him on the farm. He helped Andy to plant corn in the field behind the house; he bought two sheep to keep the grass short, and a pig, which soon gave birth to twelve more.

There was only one thing that annoyed him: his neighbor. Peter Frosby owned the land next to his, including the banks of the Coldstream and the right to catch fish in it. Skip wanted to be able to fish a little. He also wanted to feel that the part of the river which he could see from the house belonged to him. But when he offered to buy the fishing rights, he was told that Frosby refused to sell. Skip did not give up easily. The next week he telephoned Frosby, inviting him to his house for a drink. Frosby arrived in a new Cadillac, driven by a young man. He introduced the young man as his son, also called Peter. Frosby was a rather small, thin man with cold gray eyes.

“The Frosbys don’t sell their land,” he said. “We’ve had the same land for nearly three hundred years, and the river’s always been ours. I can’t understand why you want it.”

“I’d just like to do a little fishing in the summer,” said Skip. “And think you’ll agree that the price I offer isn’t bad — twenty thousand dollars for about two hundred meters of fishing rights. You won’t get such a good offer again in your lifetime.”

“I’m not interested in my lifetime,” Frosby said with a little smile. “I’ve got a son here.”

The son was a good-looking boy with dark hair and strong shoulders, taller than his father. He sat there with his arms across his chest, and appeared to share his father’s negative attitude. Still, he smiled as they were leaving and said, “You’ve made this house look very nice, Mr. Skipperton.” Skip was pleased. He had tried hard to choose the most suitable furniture for the sitting room.

“I see you like old-fashioned things,” said Frosby. “That scarecrow in your field — we haven’t seen one of those around here for many years.”

“I’m trying to grow corn out there,” Skip said. “I think you need a scarecrow in a cornfield.”

Young Peter was looking at a photograph of Maggie, which stood on the hall table. “Pretty girl,” he said.

Skip said nothing. The meeting had failed. Skip wasn’t used to failing. He looked into Frosby’s cold gray eyes and said: “I’ve one more idea. I could rent the land by the river for the rest of my life, and then it goes to you — or your son. I’ll give you five thousand dollars a year.”

“I don’t think so, Mr. Skipperton. Thank you for the drink, and — goodbye.”

“Stupid man,” said Skip to Andy as the Cadillac moved off. But he smiled. Life was a game, after all. You won sometimes, you lost sometimes.

It was early May. The corn which they had planted was beginning to come up through the earth. Skip and Andy had made a scarecrow from sticks joined together — one stick for the body and head, another for the arms, and two more for the legs. They had dressed it in an old coat and trousers that Andy had found, and had put an old hat of Skip’s on its head.

The weeks passed and the corn grew high. Skip tried to think of ways to annoy Frosby, to force him to rent part of the stream to him.

But he forgot about Frosby when Maggie came home for the summer holidays. Skip met her at the airport in New York, and they drove up to Maine. Skip thought she looked taller; she was certainly more beautiful!

“I’ve got a surprise for you at home,” Skip said.

“Oh — a horse, perhaps?”

Skip had forgotten she was learning to ride. “No, not a horse.” The surprise was a red Toyota. He had remembered, at least, that Maggie’s school had taught her to drive. She was very excited, and threw her arms round Skip’s neck. “You’re so sweet! And you’re looking very well!”

Skip and Maggie went for a drive in the new car the next morning. In the afternoon Maggie asked her father if she could go fishing in the stream. He had to tell her that she couldn’t, and he explained the reason.

“Well, never mind, there are a lot of other things to do.” Maggie enjoyed going for walks, reading, and doing little jobs in the house.

Skip was surprised one evening when Maggie arrived home in her Toyota carrying three fish. He was afraid she had been fishing in the stream, against his instructions.

“Where did you get those?”

“I met the boy who lives there. We were both buying petrol, and he introduced himself—he said he’d seen my photograph in your house. Then we had coffee together—”

“The Frosby boy?”

“Yes. He’s very nice. Perhaps it’s only the father who’s not nice. Well, Pete said, ‘Come and fish with me this afternoon,’ so I did.”

“I don’t — please, Maggie, I don’t want you to mix with the Frosbys.”

Maggie was surprised, but said nothing.

The next day, Maggie said she wanted to go to the village to buy some shoes. She was away for nearly three hours. With a great effort, Skip didn’t question her.

Then on Saturday morning, Maggie said there was a dance in the nearest town, and she was going.

“I can guess who you’re going with,” Skip said angrily.

“I’m going alone, I promise you. Girls don’t need a boy to take them to dances now.”

Skip realized that he couldn’t order her not to go to a dance. But he knew the Frosby boy would be there. And he knew what was going to happen. His daughter was falling in love with Pete Frosby.

Maggie got home very late that night, after Skip had gone to bed. At breakfast, she looked fresh and happy.

“I expect the Frosby boy was at the dance?” said Skip.

“I don’t know what you’ve got against him, Father.”

“I don’t want you to fall in love with an uneducated country boy. I sent you to a good school.”

“Pete had three years at Harvard University.” Maggie stood up. “I’m almost eighteen, Father. I don’t want to be told who I can and can’t see.”

Skip shouted at her: “They’re not our kind of people!”

Maggie left the room.

During the next week Skip was in a terrible state. In his business life he had always been able to force people to do what he wanted — but he couldn’t think of a way to do that with his daughter.

The following Saturday evening, Maggie said she was going to a party. It was at the house of a boy called Wilmers, who she had met at the dance. By Sunday morning, Maggie hadn’t come home. Skip telephoned the Wilmerses’ house.

A boy’s voice said that Maggie had left the party early.

“Was she alone?”

“No, she was with Pete Frosby. She left her car here.”

Skip felt the blood rush to his face. His hand was shaking as he picked up the telephone to call the Frosby house. Old Frosby answered. He said Maggie was not there. And his son was out at the moment.

“What do you mean? He was there and he went out?”

“Mr. Skipperton, my son has his own ways, his own room, his own key — his own life. I’m not going to —”

Skip put the telephone down.

Maggie was not home by Sunday evening or Monday morning. Skip didn’t want to inform the police. On Tuesday there was a letter from Maggie, written from Boston. It said that she and Pete had run away to be married.

…You may think this is sudden, but we do love each other, and we know what we’re doing. I didn’t really want to go back to school. Please don’t try to find me—you’ll hear from me next week. I was sorry to leave my nice new car.

Love always,

maggie

For two days Skip didn’t go out of the house, and he ate almost nothing. He felt three-quarters dead. Andy was very worried about him. When he needed to go to the village to buy some food, he asked Skip to go with him.

While Andy did the shopping, Skip sat in the car, looking at nothing. But then a figure coming down the street caught his eye. Old Frosby! He hoped Frosby wouldn’t see him in the car, but Frosby did. He didn’t pause, but he smiled his unpleasant little smile. Skip realized how much he hated Frosby. His blood boiled with anger, and he felt much better: he was himself again. Frosby must be punished! He began to make a plan.

That evening, Skip suggested to Andy that he should go away for the weekend and enjoy himself. “You’ve earned a holiday!” he said, and gave him three hundred dollars.

Andy left on Saturday evening, in the car. Skip then telephoned old Frosby, and said it was time they became friends. Frosby was surprised, but he agreed to come on Sunday morning at about eleven for a talk. He arrived in the Cadillac, alone.

Skip acted quickly. He had his heavy gun ready, and as soon as Frosby was inside the door he hit him on the head several times with the end of the gun until Frosby was dead. He then took off his clothes and tied an old cloth around the body. He burned Frosby’s clothes in the fireplace, and hid his watch and rings in a drawer.

Then Skip put one arm around Frosby’s body, and pulled him out of the house and up the field to the scarecrow. The corn had already been cut. He pulled down the old scarecrow and took the clothes off the sticks. He dressed Frosby in the old coat and trousers, tied a small cloth round his face, and pushed the hat onto his head.

When he stood the scarecrow up again it looked almost the same as before. As Skip went back to the house, he turned around many times to admire his work.

He had solved the problem of what to do with the body.

Next he buried Frosby’s watch and rings under a big plant in the garden. It was now half past twelve, and he had to do something with the Cadillac. He drove it to some woods a few kilometers away and left it there, after cleaning off all his fingerprints. He hadn’t seen anybody.

Soon after he got home a woman telephoned from Frosby’s house (his housekeeper, Skip guessed) to ask if Frosby was with him. He told her that Frosby had left his house at about twelve, and he hadn’t said where he was going. He said the same thing to the policeman who came to see him in the evening, and to Maggie when she telephoned from Boston. He found it easy to lie about Frosby.

Andy arrived back the next morning, Monday. He had already heard the story in the village, and also knew that the police had found Frosby’s car not far away in the woods. He didn’t ask any questions.

In the next week Skip spent a lot of time watching the scarecrow from his upstairs bedroom window. He thought with pleasure of old Frosby’s body there, drying —slowly, slowly in the wind.

After ten days the policeman came back, with a detective. They looked over Skip’s house and land, and they looked at his two guns. They didn’t find anything.

That evening, Maggie came to see him; she and Pete were at the Frosby house. It was hard for Skip to believe she was married.

“Pete’s very worried and upset,” she said. “Was Mr. Frosby unhappy when he visited you?”

Skip laughed. “No, very cheerful! And pleased with the marriage. Are you going to live at the Frosby house?”

“Yes. I’ll take some things back with me.”

She seemed cold and sad, which made Skip unhappy.

* * *

“I know what’s in that scarecrow,” said Andy one day.

“Do you? What are you going to do about it?” Skip asked.

“Nothing. Nothing,” Andy answered with a smile.

“Perhaps you would like some money, Andy? A little present — for keeping quiet?”

“No sir,” Andy said quietly. “I’m not that kind of man.”

Skip didn’t understand. He was used to men who liked money, more and more of it. Andy was different. He was a good man.

The leaves were falling from the trees and winter was coming. The children in the area were getting ready to celebrate the evening of October 31, when people wore special clothes and had special things to eat, and lit great fires outside and danced around them singing songs. No one came to Skip’s house that evening. There was a party at the Frosbys’ house — he could hear the music in the distance. He thought of his daughter dancing, having a good time. Skip was lonely, for the first time in his life. Lonely. He very much wanted a drink, but he decided to keep his promise to himself.

At that moment he saw a spot of light moving outside the window. He looked out. There was a line of figures crossing his field, carrying lights. Anger and fear rushed through him. They were on his land! They had no right! And they were children, he realized. The figures were small.

He ran downstairs and out into the field. “What do you think you’re doing?” he shouted. “Get off my property!”

The children didn’t hear him. They were singing a song. “We’re going to burn the scarecrow…”

“Get off my land!” Skip fell and hurt his knee. Now the children had heard him, he was sure, but they weren’t stopping. They were going to reach the scarecrow before him. He heard a cry. They had got there.

There were more cries, of terror mixed with pleasure.

Perhaps their hands had touched the body.

Skip made his way back to his house. It was worse than the police. Every child was going to tell his parents what he had found. Skip knew he had reached the end. He had seen a lot of men in business reach the end. He had known men who had jumped out of windows.

Skip went straight to his gun. He put the end in his mouth and fired. When the children came running back across the field to the road, Skip was dead.

Andy heard the shot from his room over the garage. He had also seen the children crossing the field, and heard Skip shouting. He understood what had happened.

He began walking toward the house. He would have to call the police. Andy decided to say that he didn’t know anything about the body in the scarecrow’s clothes. He had been away that weekend, after all.

1984

STEPHEN GREENLEAF

IRIS

Stephen Greenleaf (1942-) was born in Washington, D.C. He received a BA from Carleton College in 1964, and a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley, three years later. While serving in the Army (1967-1969), he was admitted to the California bar. He practiced and taught law, but didn’t like the profession very much, and studied creative writing at the University of Iowa (where he also taught, from 1995 to 2000).

His first novel — sold “over the transom,” without his having publishing experience, connections, or an agent — was Grave Error (1979), which introduced his series hero, the lawyer turned private detective John Marshall Tanner. “Marsh” is an exceptionally moral figure, a middle-aged loner who is drawn into cases because he discerns an injustice being done and wants to correct it. The series, set in San Francisco, is noted for Greenleaf’s reasonable, understated way of tackling complex social issues through his protagonist. Among the controversial subjects with which Tanner becomes involved are radical politics, the misuse of technology, legal insanity, and surrogate motherhood. Greenleaf’s nonseries books, written with the same literary grace as the Tanner series, are The Ditto List (1985) and Impact (1989). Greenleaf was nominated for the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association’s Dilys Award, for Book Case (1991); for two Shamus Awards by the Private Eye Writers of America, for Flesh Wounds (1996) and Ellipsis (2000); and for an Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America, for Strawberry Sundae (1999). He won the Falcon Award for the best private eye novel published in Japan, for Book Case.

Although private eye stories seldom fall into the noir category, the following John Marshall Tanner tale is a rare and stunning exception. “Iris,” the author’s only short mystery story, was first published in the anthology The Eyes Have It (New York: Mysterious Press, 1984).

The buick trudged toward the summit, each step slower than the last, the automatic gearing slipping ever lower as the air thinned and the grade steepened and the trucks were rendered snails. At the top the road leveled, and the Buick spent a brief sigh of relief before coasting thankfully down the other side, atop the stiff gray strap that was Interstate 5. As it passed from Oregon to California the car seemed cheered. Its driver shared the mood, though only momentarily.

He blinked his eyes and shrugged his shoulders and twisted his head. He straightened his leg and shook it. He turned up the volume of the radio, causing a song to be sung more loudly than it merited. But the acid fog lay still behind his eyes, eating at them. As he approached a roadside rest area he decided to give both the Buick and himself a break.

During the previous week he had chased a wild goose in the shape of a rumor all the way to Seattle, with tantalizing stops in Eugene and Portland along the way. Eight hours earlier, when he had finally recognized the goose for what it was, he had headed home, hoping to make it in one day but realizing as he slowed for the rest area that he couldn’t reach San Francisco that evening without risking more than was sensible in the way of vehicular manslaughter.

He took the exit, dropped swiftly to the bank of the Klamath River, and pulled into a parking slot in the Randolph Collier safety rest area. After making use of the facilities, he pulled out his map and considered where to spend the night. Redding looked like the logical place, out of the mountains, at the head of the soporific valley that separated him from home. He was reviewing what he knew about Redding when a voice, aggressively gay and musical, greeted him from somewhere near the car. He glanced to his side, sat up straight, and rolled down the window. “Hi,” the thin voice said again.

“Hi.”

She was blond, her long straight tresses misbehaving in the wind that tumbled through the river canyon. Her narrow face was white and seamless, as though it lacked flesh, was only skull. Her eyes were blue and tardy. She wore a loose green blouse gathered at the neck and wrists’ and a long skirt of faded calico, fringed in white ruffles. Her boots were leather and well worn, their tops disappearing under her skirt the way the tops of the mountains at her back disappeared into a disk of cloud.

He pegged her for a hitchhiker, one who perpetually roams the roads and provokes either pity or disapproval in those who pass her by. He glanced around to see if she was fronting for a partner, but the only thing he saw besides the picnic and toilet facilities and travelers like himself was a large bundle resting atop a picnic table at the far end of the parking lot. Her worldly possessions, he guessed; her only aids to life. He looked at her again and considered whether he wanted to share some driving time and possibly a motel room with a girl who looked a little spacy and a little sexy and a lot heedless of the world that delivered him his living.

“My name’s Iris,” she said, wrapping her arms across her chest, shifting her weight from foot to foot, shivering in the autumn chill.

“Mine’s Marsh.”

“You look tired.” Her concern seemed genuine, his common symptoms for some reason alarming to her.

“I am,” he admitted.

“Been on the road long?”

“From Seattle.”

“How far is that about?” The question came immediately, as though she habitually erased her ignorance.

“Four hundred miles. Maybe a little more.”

She nodded as though the numbers made him wise. “I’ve been to Seattle.”

“Good.”

“I’ve been lots of places.”

“Good.”

She unwrapped her arms and placed them on the door and leaned toward him. Her musk was unadulterated. Her blouse dropped open to reveal breasts sharpened to twin points by the mountain air. “Where you headed, Marsh?”

“South.”

“L.A.?”

He shook his head. “San Francisco.”

“Good. Perfect.”

He expected it right then, the flirting pitch for a lift, but her request was slightly different. “Could you take something down there for me?”

He frowned and thought of the package on the picnic table. Drugs? “What?” he asked.

“I’ll show you in a sec. Do you think you could, though?”

He shook his head. “I don’t think so. I mean, I’m kind of on a tight schedule, and …”

She wasn’t listening. “It goes to …” She pulled a scrap of paper from the pocket of her skirt and uncrumpled it. “It goes to 95 Albosa Drive, in Hurley City. That’s near Frisco, isn’t it? Marvin said it was.”

He nodded. “But I don’t…”

She put up a hand. “Hold still. I’ll be right back.”

She skipped twice, her long skirt hopping high above her boots to show a shaft of gypsum thigh, then trotted to the picnic table and picked up the bundle. Halfway back to the car she proffered it like a prize soufflé.

“Is this what you want me to take?” he asked as she approached.

She nodded, then looked down at the package and frowned. “I don’t like this one,” she said, her voice dropping to a dismissive rasp.

“Why not?”

“Because it isn’t happy. It’s from the B Box, so it can’t help it, I guess, but all the same it should go back, I don’t care what Marvin says.”

“What is it? A puppy?”

She thrust the package through the window. He grasped it reflexively, to keep it from dropping to his lap. As he secured his grip the girl ran off. “Hey! Wait a minute,” he called after her. “I can’t take this thing. You’ll have to …”

He thought the package moved. He slid one hand beneath it and with the other peeled back the cotton strips that swaddled it. A baby—not canine but human — glared at him and screamed. He looked frantically for the girl and saw her climbing into a gray Volkswagen bug that was soon scooting out of the rest area and climbing toward the freeway.

He swore, then rocked the baby awkwardly for an instant, trying to quiet the screams it formed with every muscle. When that didn’t work, he placed the child on the seat beside him, started the car, and backed out. As he started forward he had to stop to avoid another car, and then to reach out wildly to keep the child from rolling off the seat.

He moved the gear to park and gathered the seat belt on the passenger side and tried to wrap it around the baby in a way that would be more safe than throttling. The result was not reassuring. He unhooked the belt and put the baby on the floor beneath his legs, put the car in gear, and set out after the little gray VW that had disappeared with the child’s presumptive mother. He caught it only after several frantic miles, when he reached the final slope that descended to the grassy plain that separated the Siskiyou range from the lordly aspect of Mount Shasta.

The VW buzzed toward the mammoth mountain like a mad mouse assaulting an elephant. He considered overtaking the car, forcing Iris to stop, returning the baby, then getting the hell away from her as fast as the Buick would take him. But something in his memory of her look and words made him keep his distance, made him keep Iris in sight while he waited for her to make a turn toward home.

The highway flattened, then crossed the high meadow that nurtured sheep and cattle and horses below the lumps of the southern Cascades and the Trinity Alps. Traffic was light, the sun low above the western peaks, the air a steady splash of autumn. He checked his gas gauge. If Iris didn’t turn off in the next fifty miles he would either have to force her to stop or let her go. The piercing baby sounds that rose from beneath his knees made the latter choice impossible.

They reached Yreka, and he closed to within a hundred yards of the bug, but Iris ignored his plea that the little city be her goal. Thirty minutes later, after he had decided she was nowhere near her destination, Iris abruptly left the interstate, at the first exit to a village that was handmaiden to the mountain, a town reputed to house an odd collection of spiritual seekers and religious zealots.

The mountain itself, volcanic, abrupt, spectacular, had been held by the Indians to be holy, and the area surrounding it was replete with hot springs and mud baths and other prehistoric marvels. Modern mystics had accepted the mantle of the mountain, and the crazy girl and her silly bug fit with what he knew about the place and those who gathered there. What didn’t fit was the baby she had foisted on him.

He slowed and glanced at his charge once again and failed to receive anything resembling contentment in return. Fat little arms escaped the blanket and pulled the air like taffy. Spittle dribbled down its chin. A translucent bubble appeared at a tiny nostril, then broke silently and vanished.

The bug darted through the north end of town, left, then right, then left again, quickly, as though it sensed pursuit. He lagged behind, hoping Iris was confident she had ditched him. He looked at the baby again, marveling that it could cry so loud, could for so long expend the major portion of its strength in unrequited pleas. When he looked at the road again the bug had disappeared.

He swore and slowed and looked at driveways, then began to plan what to do if he had lost her. Houses dwindled, the street became dirt, then flanked the log decks and lumber stacks and wigwam burners of a sawmill. A road sign declared it unlawful to sleigh, toboggan, or ski on a county road. He had gasped the first breaths of panic when he saw the VW nestled next to a ramshackle cabin on the back edge of town, empty, as though it had been there always.

A pair of firs sheltered the cabin and the car, made the dwindling day seem night. The driveway was mud, the yard bordered by a falling wormwood fence. He drove to the next block and stopped his car, the cabin now invisible.

He knew he couldn’t keep the baby much longer. He had no idea what to do, for it or with it, had no idea what it wanted, no idea what awaited it in Hurley City, had only a sense that the girl, Iris, was goofy, perhaps pathologically so, and that he should not abet her plan.

Impossibly, the child cried louder. He had some snacks in the car — crackers, cookies, some cheese — but he was afraid the baby was too young for solids. He considered buying milk, and a bottle, and playing parent. The baby cried again, gasped and sputtered, then repeated its protest.

He reached down and picked it up. The little red face inflated, contorted, mimicked a steam machine that continuously whistled. The puffy cheeks, the tiny blue eyes, the round pug nose, all were engorged in scarlet fury. He cradled the baby in his arms as best he could and rocked it. The crying dimmed momentarily, then began again.

His mind ran the gauntlet of childhood scares — diphtheria, smallpox, measles, mumps, croup, even a pressing need to burp. God knew what ailed it. He patted its forehead and felt the sticky heat of fever.

Shifting position, he felt something hard within the blanket, felt for it, finally drew it out. A nippled baby bottle, half-filled, body-warm. He shook it and presented the nipple to the baby, who sucked it as its due. Giddy at his feat, he unwrapped his package further, enough to tell him he was holding a little girl and that she seemed whole and healthy except for her rage and fever. When she was feeding steadily he put her back on the floor and got out of the car.

The stream of smoke it emitted into the evening dusk made the cabin seem dangled from a string. Beneath the firs the ground was moist, a spongy mat of rotting twigs and needles. The air was cold and damp and smelled of burning wood. He walked slowly up the drive, courting silence, alert for the menace implied by the hand-lettered sign, nailed to the nearest tree, that ordered him to keep out.

The cabin was dark but for the variable light at a single window. The porch was piled high with firewood, both logs and kindling. A maul and wedge leaned against a stack of fruitwood piled next to the door. He walked to the far side of the cabin and looked beyond it for signs of Marvin.

A tool shed and a broken-down school bus filled the rear yard. Between the two a tethered nanny goat grazed beneath a line of drying clothes, silent but for her neck bell, the swollen udder oscillating easily beneath her, the teats extended like accusing fingers. Beyond the yard a thicket of berry bushes served as fence, and beyond the bushes a stand of pines blocked further vision. He felt alien, isolated, exposed, threatened, as Marvin doubtlessly hoped all strangers would.

He thought about the baby, wondered if it was all right, wondered if babies could drink so much they got sick or even choked. A twinge of fear sent him trotting back to the car. The baby was fine, the bottle empty on the floor beside it, its noises not wails but only muffled whimpers. He returned to the cabin and went onto the porch and knocked at the door and waited.

Iris wore the same blouse and skirt and boots, the same eyes too shallow to hold her soul. She didn’t recognize him; her face pinched only with uncertainty.

He stepped toward her and she backed away and asked him what he wanted. The room behind her was a warren of vague shapes, the only source of light far in the back by a curtain that spanned the room.

“I want to give you your baby back,” he said.

She looked at him more closely, then opened her mouth in silent exclamation, then slowly smiled. “How’d you know where I lived?”

“I followed you.”

“Why? Did something happen to it already?”

“No, but I don’t want to take it with me.”

She seemed truly puzzled. “Why not? It’s on your way, isn’t it? Almost?”

He ignored the question. “I want to know some more about the baby.”

“Like what?”

“Like whose is it? Yours?”

Iris frowned and nibbled her lower lip. “Sort of.”

“What do you mean, ‘sort of’? Did you give birth to it?”

“Not exactly.” Iris combed her hair with her fingers, then shook it off her face with an irritated twitch. “What are you asking all these questions for?”

“Because you asked me to do you a favor and I think I have the right to know what I’m getting into. That’s only fair, isn’t it?”

She paused. Her pout was dubious. “I guess.”

“So where did you get the baby?” he asked again.

“Marvin got it.”

“From whom?”

“Those people in Hurley City. So I don’t know why you won’t take it back, seeing as how it’s theirs and all.”

“But why …”

His question was obliterated by a high glissando, brief and piercing. He looked at Iris, then at the shadowy interior of the cabin.

There was no sign of life, no sign of anything but the leavings of neglect and a spartan bent. A fat gray cat hopped off a shelf and sauntered toward the back of the cabin and disappeared behind the blanket that was draped on the rope that spanned the rear of the room. The cry echoed once again. “What’s that?” he asked her.

Iris giggled. “What does it sound like?”

“Another baby?”

Iris nodded.

“Can I see it?”

“Why?”

“Because I like babies.”

“If you like them, why won’t you take the one I gave you down to Hurley City?”

“Maybe I’m changing my mind. Can I see this one?”

“I’m not supposed to let anyone in here.”

“It’ll be OK. Really. Marvin isn’t here, is he?”

She shook her head. “But he’ll be back any time. He just went to town.”

He summoned reasonableness and geniality. “Just let me see your baby for a second, Iris. Please? Then I’ll go. And take the other baby with me. I promise.”

She pursed her lips, then nodded and stepped back. “I got more than one,” she suddenly bragged. “Let me show you.” She turned and walked quickly toward the rear of the cabin and disappeared behind the blanket.

When he followed he found himself in a space that was half kitchen and half nursery Opposite the electric stove and Frigidaire, along the wall between the wood stove and the rear door, was a row of wooden boxes, seven of them, old orange crates, dividers removed, painted different colors and labeled A to G. Faint names of orchards and renderings of fruits rose through the paint on the stub ends of the crates. Inside boxes C through G were babies, buried deep in nests of rags and scraps of blanket. One of them was crying. The others slept soundly, warm and toasty, healthy and happy from all the evidence he had.

“My God,” he said.

“Aren’t they beautiful? They’re just the best little things in the whole world. Yes they are. Just the best little babies in the whole wide world. And Iris loves them all a bunch. Yes, she does. Doesn’t she?”

Beaming, Iris cooed to the babies for another moment, then her face darkened. “The one I gave you, she wasn’t happy here. That’s because she was a B Box baby. My B babies are always sad, I don’t know why. I treat them all the same, but the B babies are just contrary. That’s why the one I gave you should go back. Where is it, anyway?”

“In the car.”

“By itself?”

He nodded.

“You shouldn’t leave her there like that,” Iris chided. “She’s pouty enough already.”

“What about these others?” he asked, looking at the boxes. “Do they stay here forever?”

Her whole aspect solidified. “They stay till Marvin needs them. Till he does, I give them everything they want. Everything they need. No one could be nicer to my babies than me. No one.”

The fire in the stove lit her eyes like ice in sunlight. She gazed raptly at the boxes, one by one, and received something he sensed was sexual in return. Her breaths were rapid and shallow, her fists clenched at her sides. “Where’d you get these babies?” he asked softly.

“Marvin gets them.” She was only half-listening.

“Where?”

“All over. We had one from Nevada one time, and two from Idaho I think. Most are from California, though. And Oregon. I think that C Box baby’s from Spokane. That’s Oregon, isn’t it?”

He didn’t correct her. “Have there been more besides these?”

“Some.”

“How many?”

“Oh, maybe ten. No, more than that. I’ve had three of all the babies except G babies.”

“And Marvin got them all for you?”

She nodded and went to the stove and turned on a burner. “You want some tea? It’s herbal. Peppermint.”

He shook his head. “What happened to the other babies? The ones that aren’t here anymore?”

“Marvin took them.” Iris sipped her tea.

“Where?”

“To someone that wanted to love them.” The declaration was as close as she would come to gospel.

The air in the cabin seemed suddenly befouled, not breathable. “Is that what this is all about, Iris? Giving babies to people that want them?”

“That want them and will love them. See, Marvin gets these babies from people that don’t want them, and gives them to people that do. It’s his business.”

“Does he get paid for it?”

She shrugged absently. “A little, I think.”

“Do you go with Marvin when he picks them up?”

“Sometimes. When it’s far.”

“And where does he take them? To Idaho and Nevada, or just around here?”

She shrugged again. “He doesn’t tell me where they go. He says he doesn’t want me to try and get them back.” She smiled peacefully. “He knows how I am about my babies.”

“How long have you and Marvin been doing this?”

“I been with Mar