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Authors: Charles Williams

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BOOK: Girl Out Back
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It was ten p.m. when I ground out the last of the letters and finished checking the receipts and making up the bank deposit. I slammed the door of the safe and stood for a moment looking around the dim interior of the showroom. Mrs. Jessica Roberts McCarran Godwin, I give it to you. Cherish it, and guard it well in that old classic repository of the fervent resignation and the disenchanted farewell. From now on I’m just going through the motions here while I look after Godwin’s future. And no motions at all at home. Put it away, dear Mrs. Godwin; you had your little revenge and I’ll admit it was a nice piece of strategy, but it works only once in this league.

The drug store was still open. The copy of that digest magazine Cliffords had in his trunk was the current issue, and I found it on the stand. I drank a coke while I read the article about Haig. It could be, I reflected thoughtfully; it was a million-to-one shot, but it was probably the only thing they’d never thought of. I got in the station wagon and drove out to the cemetery just north of town. The night was dark and there were no houses within a half-mile; I had it all to myself. I took a flashlight from the car and went through the gate.

Grayson? No-o. Greggson. . . . That was it. It took about ten minutes to find the double headstone. I splashed the light against it and felt a surge of excitement as I read the date.

I could quit worrying about that part of it. I knew now how Cliffords had got that money.

* * *

I left the house before she got up, and had some breakfast in town. Otis was parking his car at the side of the store when I arrived.

“How was the fishing, boss,” he asked.

“Poor,” I said. I opened the front door and we went in. “Those jokers probably got their bass somewhere else. Never believe a fisherman.”

“Who does?” he said. He leaned against the showcase and lit a cigarette. “Say, where’d you stay up there?”

Dan Cahoon’s fishing camp was the obvious answer, since it was the only good one, but that warning bell went off in my mind just in time. “Oh,” I said. “Some little place on the west side. Why?”

“Man came in yesterday and made us an offer on those two reconditioned fifteen-horse jobs. Said he’d take both of ‘em if we’d cut the price fifty dollars. I tried to get hold of you at Cahoon’s, but they said you wasn’t there.”

That was too close for comfort. “I started there, but decided to try a new one. In this business, the more camp operators you know, the better.”

Careful. Don’t explain too much. Never, never do that. “Did he say he’d be back?” I went on.

Otis nodded. “Today or tomorrow. And, by the way, that F.B.I, man—what’s his name? Ramsey. . .?”

“I think it was Ramsey,” I said casually. I reached inside the showcase and straightened a display card of brass spinners. For Christ’s sake,
what about him?
“Something like that. Why?”

“Oh, he was in again, looking for you.”

“He was?” I asked. That was all I could manage.

“Yeah. You know, boss, that must be something really hot they’re working on.”

Don’t mind me, Otis; don’t let me hurry you. I love these rambling dissertations. What do you think of T. S. Eliot? “You say he wanted to see me?”

“Yeah. He just wondered if you ever remembered who gave you that new bill.”

“No,” I said, breathing again. “It throws me.”

He leaned his elbows on the case and frowned at the cigarette in his hand. “You know, I was just thinking. I mean, about that twenty. You remember those two motors we fixed for Nunn . . .?”

I was beginning to feel limp. Torquemada lost a good man when Otis blundered into the wrong century. “What about them?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Probably nothing. But he must have picked ’em about Saturday, because I noticed Monday they was gone. The bill would have been over twenty dollars, and he’s got a pretty sad reputation for being mixed up in anything crooked that’s going on. It’s just a shot in the dark. . . .”

And Ramsey was here pumping him. I lit a cigarette for myself.

“. . . I didn’t think of it till after the F.B.I, man had left, but you might mention it when he comes back. I think they’re still around here, a couple of ‘em. They’re making every place in town.”

Is this the last trip, Otis? You’re sure you don’t want to feed me through the rollers again? I frowned thoughtfully at my own cigarette, since that seemed to be what they were doing now, and said, “No. Wait. I think
she
came after those motors. His wife, I mean. Early Monday morning, before you got here. Seems to me she gave me a check.”

Was that too risky? It would be if it got as far as Ramsey, but not if I stopped Otis here and now. “Yeah,” I went on. “I’m pretty sure of it. Signed her own name to it. Her first name, I mean. Janice? Jeanette? No. Jewel. That was it.”

“Oh.” He shrugged. “Well, it was just a thought. Guess it’s about time to check in at the salt mine. You got your whip and the leg-irons?”

You’re not really going to get off my back and go to work, you cadaverous ray of sunshine? “Strength, comrade,” I said. “Soon comes the day.”

The morning passed in a blur. I waited on people automatically, going through the motions like a machine while my thoughts raced along an endless treadmill. The F.B.I, must be swarming in on this place like an air attack; it was just a miracle I’d got those twenties shut off in time. But maybe I hadn’t; there was still one more floating around somewhere. One could do it.

How was I going to find it, something no larger than a two-suiter bag in over fifty square miles of wilderness? It was impossible. No. For over a hundred and sixty thousand dollars, nothing was impossible. But it wouldn’t be that much, I cautioned myself. Some of it would be in securities I’d have to destroy; more would be like those twenties—too risky to pass. But there still could be over a hundred thousand of it. But where? Think of it—fifty square miles. Thirty-two thousand acres of timber and underbrush and swamp.

Otis went out to lunch. When he returned, I started out. The phone rang before I could get in the car. I went back. Otis had answered it and was holding out the receiver as I came in the door. “For you, boss.”

“Thanks,” I said. He went back toward the shop.

“Mr. Godwin?” It was a woman’s voice. It was Jewel Nunn.

I wondered if she had told Otis who she was.

“Oh, hello,”” I said. “How are you?”

“I hated to bother you,” she said hesitantly. “But yesterday when you left you forgot to pack one of your shirts.”

“Well, thanks a million for calling,” I said. “Just throw it in a corner somewhere, and the next time I come out I’ll pick it up.”

“Oh, I’ve got it with me.”

“Where are you?”

“I’m in Hampstead, at the drug store. I had to come in to buy some things, and I thought that since I’d be this near to Wardlow I’d just bring the shirt along. I could leave it here—or if you’ve got a few minutes to spare you could meet me here and I’d give it to you.” She sounded faintly embarrassed, as if she’d got involved in that rigamarole of explanation and couldn’t find any way to turn it off.

Hampstead was fifteen miles south of town, where you left the highway to go to Javier Lake. It was silly to drive down there and back just for an old khaki shirt, but there didn’t seem to be any graceful way out of it. Then it occurred to me I might learn a little more about Cliffords if I talked to her. I was going to need all the information I could get.

“Sure, I’ll be right there,” I said. “It’s awfully nice of you to go to all this trouble.”

I called to Otis to take over, and hit the highway out of town. Less than twenty minutes later I was in Hampstead. It was a village with a population of less than a thousand, in a tomato-growing community. The highway by-passed it at a distance of about half a mile. There was a big packing shed near the railroad tracks and beyond that a cluster of buildings about a block long that comprised the business district. It was quiet and half asleep in the white sunlight of noon. I saw her old station wagon parked on the left in front of the grocery, directly across the street from the drugstore. I pulled into a space beyond the drugstore and was just getting out when I saw him.

There were a few people on the sidewalks, mostly farmers in khaki and overalls and a teen-age girl or two in jeans, but this one was no tomato-grower. He’d just come out of the hardware place at the corner on the other side of the street and was lighting a cigarette while he studied the other store fronts along that side. He was wearing a snap-brim Panama and a gray suit and had a thin briefcase under his arm. He
could
be a salesman, of course, but even at a distance of half a block you could see that young, alert, well-pressed neatness of the F.B.I, agent written all over him. They must be taking this end of the country apart. I hoped that bundle I’d put on the bus would start hitting the Kansas City or Chicago banks in a few days; they were making me nervous.

I pushed open the screen door of the drugstore and went in. A couple of old-fashioned overhead fans moved sluggishly, faintly stirring the air. At the left two teen-age boys with gooey concoctions before them slouched on stools and sprawled against the soda fountain like melting wax figures. There was a counter and a prescription department at the rear, and three booths on the right, behind the magazine stands. Most of the floor space in the center was taken up with racks holding cosmetics and candy and other assorted merchandise. She was in one of the booths, watching the door. Her eyes lit up and she gave me a faintly embarrassed smile.

I walked over. “You look very nice,” I said, smiling down at her. She had on a crisp summery dress with very short sleeves and a lacy spray of white at the throat, and this time she’d done a better job with the lipstick. A narrow blue ribbon passed under the cascade of tawny hair and was tied with a little bow at the top of her head. It made her appear younger, not more than twenty at most. “The shirt is in that paper bag,” she said awkwardly. It was on the table before her, with a couple of other small parcels and a half-finished lemonade.

“Do you mind if I sit down?” I asked. “After all, I do want to thank you.”

“Oh, of course,” she said. “I mean—please sit down. But I’ll have to run in just a minute.”

She was as transparent as glass, a basically nice kid sticking her toe in the water and then drawing back in alarm. It wasn’t me, particularly. It was the bleakness of her life in general. Probably anybody who bathed as often as once a week and didn’t scratch himself in public could score with any one of the standard approaches if he’d merely take the trouble to restore her faith in her own desirability. She’d called me, and now by God it was up to me; she wasn’t sure, either, just how much she wanted to happen, but it
would
be nice just to be able to use some of the old defense patterns again, if nothing else.

It was interesting, but I had other things on my mind. And at any rate if I
were
looking around for somebody else’s patio to play in, it probably wouldn’t be Nunn’s. The silly bastard might blow your head off.

We engaged in the usual inane small talk for a few minutes, and when she started gathering up her packages and said she had to go I merely thanked her again for bringing the shirt.

“I’ll go out to the car with you,” I said, helping her with the parcels.

“Thank you,” she said. “But there’s one more thing I want to get, if you don’t mind.”

I followed her as she prowled among the stands of merchandise. In a moment she found what she was looking for, a bottle of scented bath oil. Just as we turned to take it back toward the clerk at the cash register in the rear, I saw the man in the gray suit come in the door.

He came back too and stood waiting at the counter beside us while the woman clerk was winding up a transaction with another customer off to our left. I was standing between him and Jewel Nunn and perhaps a half-step behind them. He put down his briefcase. She set the bath oil on the counter and started opening her purse.

At that moment the pharmacist came out of his cubbyhole and said inquiringly, “Yes, sir?”

The man pulled out the little black folder I’d been sure he had, flipped it open, and said, “I’m from the Federal Bureau of Investigation . . .”

It unfolded then like some horrible and unstoppable nightmare. I saw it before she even put it down, and recognized it for what it was, but I was frozen. The clerk was coming from the left. It lay there on the open counter, not fifteen inches from the corner of his briefcase.

“I’d like to speak to the owner . . .” he was saying.

He hadn’t seen it.
He was looking at the pharmacist. The clerk was almost here. I snapped out of it then, at last.

“Here, here,” I said chidingly, grabbing up the bill at the same time. “Put your money away. It’s the least I can do. . . .”

I grabbed her purse and stuffed it inside and closed it. He was still talking; he hadn’t even looked around. I felt limp.

“Why, Mr. Godwin, I couldn’t. . .” she began.

“Don’t be silly,” I said, smiling at her. “I was just wondering how I could thank you.” I tossed a five on the counter for the clerk.

But what now? My thoughts were racing as I went on exuding the old Good-time Charley from every pore. I hadn’t solved anything yet; she still had it.

“But you didn’t have to do that,” she said uncertainly.

“Hush,” I said, smiling. “I’m doing this. Suppose you wait outside and stop giving me so much trouble.”

“But why?”

“You’ll see.” I gave it the old masterful touch, taking her by the elbow and pointing her toward the door. She went on out, still not too sure about it.

The clerk had finished wrapping the bath oil and was getting my change. The F.B.I, man and the pharmacist had gone into the back. I glanced swiftly around, searching for something. It had to be small. Then I saw it in the showcase. That would do nicely.

“I’ll take one of those small bottles of Escapade,” I said to the clerk. “And gift-wrap it, please.”

I dropped it in my pocket and went out carrying the bath oil and the paper bag that held my shirt. She was putting her packages in the station wagon, across the street. I went over and set the bath oil in the seat and held the door open for her. She got in, and started to say something.

I shook my head at her and then looked down at my hands on the door. “Listen,” I said quietly. “On your way home, about two miles out of town, there’s a little road that turns off to the right in the trees. . . .”

“No,” she said. “I—I couldn’t.”

I raised my eyes to hers then. “Please,” I said earnestly. “I only want to talk to you. Just this once, and I’ll never ask it of you again.”

She hesitated. She wanted to, but any time they did this sort of thing in a soap opera it bitched up the works in a frightful fashion.

“Don’t say anything now,” I said. Just think about it. I think you’ll see there’s no harm in it. I did want very badly just to talk to you for a few minutes. If you’re there, it’ll be wonderful; if you’re not—well. . . .” I spread my hands in a gesture of resignation and went back to the car. She drove off.

I lit a cigarette and waited about five minutes. Taking out my wallet, I checked to be sure I had a twenty. I had three. Selecting the crispest and newest, I slid it in my trousers pocket with the small bottle of perfume.

I drove back out of town and turned right on the road toward Javier. She’d better be there; if she weren’t, I was in a hell of a jam and had to think of something else, but fast. The next time she took that twenty out of her purse, anywhere within a hundred miles, the F.B.I, was going to fall on her like a brick wall. Where’d it come from, anyway? It was the last one, of course, but I’d checked then cash-box three times. Probably in her purse all the while, I thought. That hadn’t occurred to me.

I came to the side road and swung into it. It was a pair of sandy ruts leading off through heavy pine. I couldn’t be sure, but there didn’t appear to be any fresh tire tracks in them. I came around a bend where there was a small open space in the shade of two large trees by a stream and when I didn’t see the station wagon I knew I’d lost. She wouldn’t have gone past here. Just to make certain, however, I got out and examined the ruts. Nobody had been through here for days. I cursed the perversity of all women. What was the matter with her? Did she think I was Jack-the-Ripper?

Well, what now? Come up with something, pal, and hurry. I stopped then, and turned. A car was coming down the road behind me. I sighed wearily. Well, they always had to dramatize everything.

She stopped and I walked over to the car. “I came back,” she said. “I shouldn’t have. But just this once . . .”

I opened the door and slid in under the wheel; she moved over to let me in. It was very quiet out through the trees. I put my elbow on the back of the seat and turned a little, facing her. She was staring through the windshield. I reached out and put the tip of one finger under her chin and turned her face, very slowly and gently, until it was just under mine. For a minute I didn’t say anything; I merely continued to look into her eyes, and then at the rest of her face, and finally at her eyes again. She started to say something.

I beat her to it. “I know,” I said quietly.

“We shouldn’t be doing this.”

“That’s what I mean,” I said. “We’re both married, and we’ve got no right to. But I just had to tell you—just this once and probably never again—how lovely you are. And that I think you’re very, very nice.”

“You do?”

I smiled faintly. “What do you think?”

Then I went on, “It’s a strange thing, but a while ago when that phone rang, I was thinking of you. You don’t know what it was like, picking it up and hearing your voice.”

“I suppose I shouldn’t tell you this, she said. “But I was hoping I’d see you again. That’s pretty awful, isn’t it?”

“No,” I said.

“But it is. And we can’t do it again.”

“Not ever?”

“No. You know that, Barney.”

I didn’t even know she knew my first name, or how she’d learned it.

“It’s not much fun, is it?” I asked.

“And this isn’t helping things any.”

“I know. You’re right, of course. It’s crazy, any way you look at it.”

“I’d better go,” she said dully.

“Right now?”

“Yes,” she said. “Yes. Please. . . .”

“All right,” I said reluctantly. “But first I want to give you something.”

“I don’t think you should.”

“Hush,” I said. “It doesn’t amount to anything. I’ll put it in your purse, and you can just pretend you found it there, if you want to. But maybe you’ll remember me when you use it.”

The purse was lying in the seat on the other side of her. I reached over and picked it up. “Close your eyes,” I said.

She closed them. I opened the purse. The twenty was still loose in it, outside the billfold. I slipped it out quickly and replaced it with the one from my pocket. I dropped in the little gift-wrapped box containing the bottle of perfume, closed the purse, and set it in her lap.

“Now?” she asked.

“Almost,” I said. I put my hands up on each side of her face and kissed her very gently on the lips. “Now.”

She put her hands up over mine, pressing against them.

Her eyes opened. “I’ve got to go,” she whispered. “I’ve got to, Barney, please . . .”

. . . all we know of heaven, and all we need of hell,”
I said, softly. Oh, knock it off you lousy ham, I thought. You’ve got the twenty? what do you want to do, make a production of it?

“What is?” she asked.

“Parting,” I said.

“Is it a poem?”

“Yes,” I said. “Maybe it’s not the parting she had in mind, but it can be rough enough.”

“Good-bye,” she said.

“All right.” I kissed her again, and this time she cracked a little. She put her arms up about my neck and clung tightly for just an instant before she began pushing me away.

“You’d better get out now,” she said, and there was a slight edge of raggedness to her voice. I wasn’t getting off so lightly myself, after that deal last night, and I wondered what the percentage was in beating my brains out this way after I’d already accomplished the mission. Well, you had to follow through and lend it a certain amount of verisimilitude. I got out, a little awkwardly under the circumstances, and closed the door.

“I won’t see you again?”

“Don’t ask me to,” she said. “I don’t think I can trust you.”

BOOK: Girl Out Back
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