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Authors: Charles Williams

Girl Out Back (6 page)

BOOK: Girl Out Back
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If you live out of your hat for a sufficient number of years, you develop another sense. It’s a little like a built-in Geiger counter that can trip itself and start clicking faintly even when the rest of your mind is half asleep, and after a while you learn to heed it. I heard it now.

. . . and somebody to look after him, the poor old man. He really was nice, even if there was never any sense to the way he talked, and she felt sorry for him. She always tried to get him to drink a glass of fresh milk when he was down here, if they happened to have any, that is, and if George wasn’t around. George called him Two-Gun and made fun of him. But when you thought about it, if he wanted to live up there by himself, it was his business, wasn’t it? She’d live in New Orleans, herself. It had probably changed a lot since she was there when she was a girl, but it was the most wonderful place. She remembered she used to go down along the river and look at the ships from all over the world with flags she didn’t even recognize. Of course, being so young, she hadn’t been in any of the night clubs or the big restaurants, but she had heard about them. . . .

Mr. Cliffords? Oh, sure; she could understand how a strange case like that could intrigue you if you were interested in people. No, she was sure he’d been up there longer than just a year, or a year and a half. Of course,
they’d
only been here a little less than a year themselves, but she knew definitely he’d been living there three years at least because it was about that long ago when George had met him for the first time. He had come out here in the swamp to arrest a Negro who’d killed another man for—well, you know, running around with his wife. He’d come across Mr. Cliffords then and he’d told her about it when he got back to town, about the funny character who’d wanted to go along and help him round up the Negro and had used funny words like posse, and police cordon, and apprehend the killer, and so on. It was a real scream, George said. It was three years, all right; she knew because it was just a few months after she and George were married.

His age? Oh, he was pretty old. Forty-five or around there. No, he hardly ever went to town. Maybe just once every two or three months to cash his pension checks and buy what few clothes he needed. No, he had never asked them to cash one, but it seemed like the man who’d had the place before did say something about cashing one for him now and then if he had enough money on hand. His mail? Oh, it came in care of the camp, at the rural mailbox out on the county road. He never got anything, though, except the checks. They came in a long envelope with the name of the railroad on them. She thought it was the Southern Pacific. He probably didn’t have any kinfolks at all, the poor old thing.

When he did go to town he came down the lake in his boat and hitched a ride with George. His cabin was a mile or so above the road that came into the upper lake from the highway, but the road wasn’t open except when it had been dry for a long time, and he didn’t have a car anyway.

She poured two cups of the coffee she’d been making as we talked, and came back and sat down again. We were swung around, facing each other across the stool in the middle. I was on the left hand one, with my back to the door.

She took a sip of the coffee and smiled. “I ought to get back to work,” she said. “I don’t know when I’ve talked so much.”

“I’ve enjoyed it,” I said. “Very much.”

I took out cigarettes, wondering how to get her started on Cliffords again, and offered her one. We leaned toward each other as I held the lighter. She was quite pretty, I thought, the way she was now with that warm friendliness in her eyes.

Then her face froze up as suddenly as if I’d hit her. She was looking over my shoulder. I turned just as Nunn pulled open the screen and stepped inside. He must move like a cat, I thought; neither of us had heard him come up on the porch.

I nodded, lit my own cigarette, and snapped off the lighter. “How’s fishing?” I asked, wondering why he was back this time of day. I hadn’t even heard the boat come into the inlet.

He stared at me. For a moment I thought he wasn’t going to answer. Then he said, “So-so. And how’s it been with you? You catching a lot of fish?”

“I had a little luck at first, but it died out.”

“Maybe you just give up too easy. Or do you?”

She had said nothing at all, and I was conscious of the tension in the room. There was ugly feeling about it, as if it could blow up if anybody made a bad move.

He stared bleakly at the two of us and then at the coffee cups. “I wonder if I could trouble you to go get that box of  shear-pins?” he said to her. “That is, if you think you could spare the time.”

She got up from the stool without a word and disappeared through the doorway behind the counter. The silence she left behind her would have been awkward if it had been two other people. We cared so little for each other it didn’t seem to matter.

“You people do a fine job of overhauling motors,” he said.

I stared at him coldly. “What seems to be the trouble?”

“Sheared a pin.”

“I gathered that,” I said. “But just what do you think those pins are in there for?”

“Forget it, forget it,” he growled. “You got your money, what do you care?”

“If the pin didn’t go you’d tear up the propeller when you hit something, or bend the shaft.”

He struck a match on his thumbnail and lit a cigarette. “Yeah? They’re supposed to have a friction clutch that’ll slip.”

“The new ones do,” I said. “Not the old models.”

“Sure. Sure. I knew you’d have all the answers. I’ve had nothing but trouble with those motors since I bought ’em.”

I finished the coffee, put a dime on the counter, and stood up. “Try taking care of them,” I said. “It helps.”

I started for the door. He moved aside grudgingly. You could see he was looking for trouble, but he wanted me out of here even more. It was all right with me; I had other things to do myself.

“You don’t want anything else?” he said.

I stopped and turned, looking into the bleak hatchet face from a distance of about two feet. “No,” I said. “I don’t think so. Why?”

“I just wanted to be sure. That’s all right, ain’t it?”

“I guess so,” I said.

I went on out and crossed the sun-drenched clearing to my cabin. The argument about the motors was a phony. He probably hadn’t even sheared a pin, or if he had he’d done it on purpose for an excuse to sneak back. He was spying on her. Or on me.

I wondered why. Did it have something to do with the thing that’d brought me out here? Or did he simply believe
she
was the thing? It might figure that way, to a mind like Nunn’s, and the way he’d acted all along seemed to bear it out.

Well, if he wasn’t sure he was keeping her at home, that was his hard luck, not mine. I had other things to think about, such as the fact that while this whole thing might have appeared to be mildly goofy to begin with it was now completely insane.

You had all these pieces of evidence. They interlocked. You put them all together, and you had the answer. So what was it?

One of the great police organizations of the world was shaking down North America trying to find the loot from a bank robbery, while some dreamy birdbrain in his second childhood was serenely buying comic books with it.

Move over, Cliffords, I thought. I’ll bring up an armful and we’ll trade. Dibs on Superman.

I cut the motor and came to rest beneath dense overhanging foliage along the bank. It was a little after one p.m. I had come over a mile, I thought, since entering the mouth of the winding waterway up which Cliffords had gone with his boat, and I could as well be lost in some remote back country of the Amazon drainage. No sound broke the stillness of midday. The channel, about a hundred yards wide at this point, materialized out of the timber a quarter of a mile behind me and disappeared around another bend just ahead.

I opened the tackle box and unfolded the large map of the county. Here was the channel I was on; it was the easternmost arm of the lake, next to the highway and roughly paralleling it at a distance varying from two to three miles. I was about—say, at this point on it. Now. There was the access road coming in from the highway. It turned off the road a mile or so south of that tricky S-bend.

I sat still for a moment, frowning thoughtfully at the map without actually seeing it. What the devil was it? I shrugged, and lit a cigarette. It didn’t matter. Now, here. The dirt road, merely a thin line on the map, dead-ended on this channel. I glanced at the scale at the bottom of the map and estimated the distance. Say another four miles. And beyond it somewhere was the shack Cliffords lived in. She’d said a mile or two; I wondered if she had ever been up there herself.

I put the map back in the box and took the ten-dollar bill out of my wallet. It was an old one, creased and limp from the thousands of hands it had been through and like any one of a million others except for that narrow stain along the edge at one end. I compared it with the twenty. The stain was exactly the same color, a reddish shade of brown, and it was on only that one place. Why never anywhere else? There was one very good answer to that, I thought, and the picture it brought to mind made my skin prickle with excitement. Wherever it had been to pick up that discoloration, there had been a lot of it, stacked in bundles so that only this edge was exposed to the contaminating agent. You didn’t need a doctorate in physics to realize that a mere handful of banknotes, thrown loosely into a box or something, seldom stood on end of their own volition or stuck straight out from the side with no support. I moistened a finger and rubbed it along the stain; it smudged slightly and a faint trace of it came off. It was the same stuff.

Then I snorted. Precise chemical analysis by the Godwin laboratories. Millions of compounds were water soluble, and the minute dried crystals of practically any substance could be dispersed and spread with water. I was chasing moonbeams, and when I caught a sackful I’d build an arc light.

Cliffords was absurd. This entire thing was absurd. It almost had to be Haig, or Haig’s ill-gotten swag, that they were seeking, because he was the biggest crime story, and the most baffling one, of the past decade, and because they had shown me his picture. So where was the connection between that coldly violent killer and this harmless old pixie getting his kicks out of space ships and Peter Rabbit? Why, of course, I thought sarcastically; you could see the tie-in almost immediately. Cliffords had at one time been an employee of the Southern Pacific Railroad, and Haig was born in California. Fool-proof, wasn’t it? And to narrow it down even further, they each had one left hand. Or at least, I supposed they did, or had.

Look at it, I thought. Cliffords was already living up here alone in this isolated backwater before Haig had even begun his fantastic career. I’d established that. Haig would be twenty-eight now; Cliffords was forty-five, or around there. There could be no family relationship, or even nodding acquaintance, between the two; anybody Haig had even borrowed a match from in the past ten years had been run down and checked out by the F.B.I.

So what did you have? You had nothing.

No-o. Not quite. No matter how fantastic it was, you still had the almost dead certainty that this derailed leprechaun was spending Haig’s money.

I cranked the motor.

Around each bend the next reach lay glaring and empty under the sun, as devoid of any signs of life or human habitation as the last. After about thirty minutes I began watching the right-hand shore for the end of the road. I spotted it shortly, an opening in the trees where the bank had been cut down into a sloping ramp for launching boats off trailers. There were the remains of several old campfires, but no cars were visible. I slowed a little and began keeping a lookout for the cabin or a boat landing. A little over a mile ahead as I came around a bend the channel spread out to some two hundred yards in width and ran straight for almost a mile with an extensive bed of pads along the left side. About half-way up it I saw what I was looking for. A skiff was pulled up on a shelving bit of beach in a small cove on the right. The motor was tilted up on the stern. Cliffords wasn’t in sight, but as I went past I had a glimpse of weather-beaten gray back among the trees. That would be the cabin.

I went on without slowing. He would probably hear me, but there would be nothing strange about an occasional fisherman going by. I cleared the next bend and continued another mile or two before I cut the motor and set up the fly-rod again. An hour went by as I fished with indifferent success, merely going through the motions. I refilled the motor from the fuel can and started back. The skiff was still in the cove. I didn’t see Cliffords anywhere. He probably took a nap this time of the afternoon, or caught up on his reading.

I wound on down the channel until I was sure he could no longer hear the motor. The new models are a lot quieter than the old ones used to be. Just before rounding the last bend approaching the camp-site and launching ramp at the end of the road I cut the motor and swung into the bank where the limbs of a large tree overhung the water. Working the boat back under the screen of foliage, I made it fast, and stepped out.

There was no trail. I kept open water in view from time to time as I slipped through the underbrush and timber. It was intensely still and very hot now, and my shirt became soaked with perspiration. An outraged blue jay called me a Sunday driver and expressed his doubts as to my legitimacy, and once I flushed out a wild sow with a litter of pigs. About twenty minutes later I swung to the left again and eased back out to the lake shore. Not far enough; I was still south of the last bend. I went on for another two hundred yards and tried once more. This was fine. I was just past the bend and I could see most of the long reach spread out ahead of me and to the right. The cove where his boat was beached was on this side, of course, and hidden because of the angle, but it didn’t matter. If he came out, I’d see him. I sat down in the shade with my back against the trunk of a tree, and lit a cigarette. It was ten minutes past three.

There was no guarantee, of course, that he would go out. With 365 days a year in which to fish if he wanted, he probably took a day off now and then. Well, if he didn’t leave the place, there was nothing I could do about it; I’d just have to try again tomorrow.

An hour dragged by. Mosquitoes buzzed around my face. I smoked more cigarettes, being careful to throw the butts in the water. This was an occupation for a grown man, I thought with disgust; why didn’t I go on up there and join him and we could take turns being Dick Tracy? Of all the stupid. . . .

I heard his motor start. He came out of the cove and headed this way. I stepped back a little further from the bank. He cut his motor and came to rest almost opposite me, near the beds of pads along the other shore. He set up a casting outfit and began fishing, kicking the boat along with the oars now and then. Good.

I faded back and turned, hurrying now. In a few minutes I came up in back of the clearing. I stopped short, studying it intently as I remained motionless in the edge of the timber. Nothing moved anywhere. The two unpainted old buildings slumped dejectedly in an attitude of timeless and perpetually arrested collapse, lying partly in shadow now as the late afternoon sun slanted across the trees on my right. The far one, and the larger of the two, was the cabin itself, roofed with split oak shakes and sitting on round foundation blocks sawn from logs. A section of rusting stovepipe extended above the roof here at the rear and was guyed with baling wire. The one small window I could see was open. There was no door in back. The other building, a small shed about the size of a one-car garage, was nearer and to my right. Weeds were grown up around the rear of it. I could see no window, but presumably the door would be around in front. I went carefully back over the ground again, searching for a dog or for any evidence of one. There was none. Of course, he might be in the cabin.

I slipped noiselessly up to the rear window and peeped in. There was only one room, and it was empty. Opposite me was the door, which stood open. I could catch glimpses of water beyond, through the trees. Hurrying around the corner, I cased the terrain in front. The cove, where he kept his boat, was about fifty yards away. I could see only patches of the lake beyond, in the direction where he was fishing, but it was all right. He should be good for an hour or two, and I’d hear his motor if he started back. I stepped inside.

It was not very large, perhaps fifteen by twenty feet, with small windows on three sides and the one door here in front. In the rear there was a wood-burning cookstove, a woodbox, a pine table, two chairs, and a large wooden case covered with oilcloth which presumably served as a cooking table and sink because it was littered with dirty dishes. Some shelves along the wall held a supply of staple groceries and some dishes and cooking utensils. A frying-pan and two large pots hung from nails driven into the wall above the stove. At the right in the front part of the room was an unmade bed, while on the left was an old chest of drawers whose veneer was peeling, a table, and a trunk. A pump shotgun and a .22 rifle stood in the corner next to the trunk.

Everywhere you looked, on the table and on the trunk, under the bed, and piled on the floor around the sides of the room, were stacks of old comic books and cheap true crime magazines whose covers ran largely to toothsome and improbable girls who had died violently in attitudes calculated to display the optimum expanse of thigh. The floor hadn’t been swept for some time. I looked around at the dirty dishes and the rumpled bed. Well, I hadn’t come out here to inspect him for a Good Housekeeping seal of approval.

I started with the chest. On top of it there was nothing except a folded towel and a pair of thick-lensed spectacles. I slid out the top drawer. There were some handkerchiefs in it and his shaving gear and a small mirror, and two boxes of .38 caliber ammunition. Two envelopes bore the printed return address of an office of the Southern Pacific Railroad. They had been opened, but through the glassine windows I could see there was something still inside. Maybe the checks came with a voucher attached; I’d be able to find out just how large the pension was. I was reaching for one of them when I spied the corner of his wallet sticking out from under the handkerchiefs. I hurriedly slipped it out and flipped it open. It held seven ten-dollar bills, a five, and four singles. But not one of them had a stain along the edge. There was simply no trace of it at all.

I felt suddenly let down and cheated. Taking the tens over to the window, I turned them carefully in the light, examining them all over. It was no use. They were just like any of millions of others. I shrugged, and returned all the money to the wallet. There was no identification in it except an old New Mexico driver’s liscense that had expired in 1953. It was made out to Walter E. Cliffords, and gave an address in Lordsburg. He was five feet six inches tall and weighed 152. Hair, br. Eyes, bl. He was born in 1910.

I dropped the wallet back in the drawer and reached for one of the envelopes. When I slid the voucher out, I gave a little start of surprise. The check was still attached to it. It was the same story in the other one. I rooted among the handkerchiefs and came up with one more. The checks were all in the amount of $58.50, payable to Walter E. Cliffords, and he hadn’t cashed one since May. He must be popular with the accounting department, I thought. And suffering from no shortage of money, in spite of the fact she’d said he spent nearly half that amount on comic books and magazines each month. Well, he might get something from Social Security . . . no, you had to be sixty-five, didn’t you? One thing was clear, however; his finances didn’t ring true at all.

The other two drawers held nothing but clothing. I closed them and turned to the trunk. It wasn’t locked. Lifting off the stacks of magazines, I raised the lid, conscious of a strong odor of moth crystals. The compartmented tray on top held a hodge-podge of miscellaneous stuff, shotgun shells, plastic boxes of bass flies and spinning lures, gun-cleaning equipment, some bottles of old patent medicine, and another pair of spectacles in a case. I lifted it out and set it aside. The bottom was full of winter clothing. I snatched it all out, feeling in the pockets of the jackets and the raincoat. There was nothing else in it except some magazines lying on the bottom.

Well, what now? I shook my head, still crouched on my knees beside the trunk and staring musingly into its emptiness. There should have been something. Something besides you, honey, I thought.

The uppermost magazine was another of those true detective things. On its cover a creamy-textured and extremely loth maiden in a Place Pigalle outfit was trying to stay at least one jump ahead of a hearty type with a cleaver. Ah, youth.
What mad pursuit? . . . What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Wait a minute . . . . I frowned thoughtfully.
Why in the trunk?
He must have a half-ton of these things stacked around the room; what was special about this one? I grabbed it up. There were two more under it, another crime magazine of a different brand and one of those pocket-sized digests that can reduce Gibbon to four hundred words. I felt the stirrings of an illogical excitement; here I was going back into left field again. The digest magazine displayed its table of contents on the cover. I ran my eye down it rapidly. Half-way down I stopped.

BOOK: Girl Out Back
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