Authors: Edward D. Hoch
Dale Fielding knew all the statistics. He could have written a fairly lengthy biography of Captain Mason, because he’d spent a week in Dallas after the war learning more about this man he’d watched die before his eyes. Mason had been a good man back home, good to his mother and good to his wife, and the news had come as a shock to Dale, bent on justifying one evil with another. But he more than anyone should have known that men change in the service, especially during wartime. The kind, generous, loving man who had been Charles Mason had become the bitter, driving, ruthless officer Captain Mason. Just as Dale Fielding, who’d always hated the bloodshed of a mere hunting trip, had crossed a dozen Pacific islands with flame-thrower and rifle without ever a single doubt.
It had been Harvey Stout who’d first put the thought into words, of course, while they crouched in the bloodied sand of the le Shima beach. “Let’s kill that so-and-so Mason.” Just like that, “let’s kill that so-and-so Mason.” And Dale’s eyes had followed his pointing finger. Further up the beach, in the midst of a fallen forest of young bodies, Captain Mason was indulging in his favorite pastime, slapping the muddy face of a sobbing young private who could go no further. The incident had decided them, after all those months.
Toward twilight on the same day Captain Mason had asked for three men to go with him on a scouting trip. Dale and Harvey had fallen out immediately, along with the third man who’d seen the beach episode, a dark-haired youth named Travello. Mason, suspecting nothing, had led them up the beach a bit, then signaled them to spread out with their rifles and follow him into the underbrush. They knew the Japanese could not be far away, but not one of the three men was thinking of that enemy now.
When Mason was some fifty feet ahead, perfectly outlined in the fading daylight, Dale saw Harvey Stout raise his rifle. Dale and Travello did likewise. The first bullet spun the captain around and perhaps he never knew what hit him but only thought it was a bit of twilight thunder over the water. Stout and Travello kept firing until he went down, his body ripped and violated, the surprise bloodied from his face. At that last instant, for some reason, Dale hadn’t squeezed his trigger. And in the noise and flame that followed, the other two never realized it. But that did not make him less a murderer, as he well understood, standing there above the captain’s body.
They carried the body back to camp, with a story to go with the blood and the bullets. Luckily they didn’t run ballistics tests on le Shima.
“Hello, Fielding. You’re looking good for a fellow of thirty-five.”
“Hello, Harvey.” Yes, he still looked the same. Even those long fifteen years hadn’t changed him much. A bit heavier, perhaps, with hair that tended just a shade more toward the gray, but he was still the same Harvey Stout. “Can I buy you a drink?”
“Did I ever refuse one, boy? Scotch and water.”
“What have you been doing with yourself all these years, Harvey?”
The leer he remembered so well. “Little of this, little of that. You know. Selling, mostly. Always on the road.”
“Gave it up, though. Decided—this is good Scotch, damn good—decided to settle down. Right here in Riverview, maybe.”
The chill was back. What did he want? What twisted thoughts were going around that dark mind of his? “Why here, Harvey?”
“Well, my old buddy Fielding is here, for one thing. Thought you might help me get started, with a little money to set up a business.”
Dale glanced down the bar to make certain the bartender wasn’t listening. “Listen, Harvey, I’ll say this once and make it clear. I don’t intend to be blackmailed by you!”
“Blackmail! Fielding, I’m your buddy, remember? Don’t you think back occasionally to those Pacific days when the three of us were…”
“Travello’s dead.” He’d stepped on a Japanese land mine two days after the murder of Captain Mason.
“Sure, he’s dead. Does that mean you’ve forgotten him, boy? Have you forgotten me too, or what the three of us did out there?”
Dale sighed into his drink. “I never told you this, Harvey, but I didn’t fire my rifle that day. It was just you and Travello.”
Harvey looked at Dale with eyes both deep and curious. It seemed for a moment that he was trying to comprehend something, some great mystery of life. Then the eyes cleared, and Dale saw what he’d known all along—that this admission of his didn’t change anything.
“I’m not trying to blackmail you, boy. Get that foolish idea out of your head. What happened to Mason was a long time ago. It’s only worth remembering because it made us buddies, and we’re just as close buddies whether you helped do it or just watched. Understand?”
“I understand.” He felt the other’s breath on him like something unclean, sucking the air from his lungs, smothering him. “But I can’t help you. I have a family.”
“You insurance men got a racket! You’re rolling in dough.”
Now the bitterness was showing, the battle was joined. “Look, Harvey. If you want a handout I can give you five bucks. Anything more than that you’ve come to the wrong boy.”
“Yeah. That’s the way it is. I’m sorry.” He slid off the bar stool and casually tossed down a five dollar bill for their two drinks, turning purposely away before he could see what became of it.
“You’ll be hearing from me, Fielding.”
He kept walking without looking back.
Dale Fielding lived in a quiet house on a quiet street where trouble never visited. Even the laughter of children at play had always seemed muted to him, though it never occurred to his preoccupied mind that his very presence might have a quieting effect. At his own home, the last one on a street of nearly identical post-war houses, Marge and his two children would be waiting this evening, as they always were. The boys, eight and ten years old, could be seen from the street, playing at boyish pastimes in the back yard. That was good, because he wanted to speak to Marge alone.
“Home so soon, dear?”
“Yeah. Things were a little slow today, and besides, I have to make a call tonight.” He tossed his topcoat over a chair, not feeling just then like hanging it up. “Marge?”
“Yes, dear?” She called him that always, but with the automatic inflection that comes perhaps after too many years of it.
“A man called me at the office today. A man I was in the service with during the war.”
“That’s nice, dear.”
He knew what he wanted to tell her, and yet somehow the words didn’t come. Then, before the opportunity came again, the boys were in from their play, clustering about him.
After supper the phone rang; and Marge came back to say it was for him. Somehow he knew it would be Harvey Stout, and he wasn’t surprised. “Hello, Fielding. I was wondering if you’d changed your mind.”
“I’m… very busy. I was just on my way out. Talk to me tomorrow. At the office, not at home.”
“Sure, Fielding. I understand.”
He hung up, and for a long time Dale just stood there by the phone, looking down at it as if it were a thing alive. Then, in answer to Marge’s absent-minded question, he said, “Nothing important. I’ll be going out on that call now, I guess. Try to be home early…”
The next morning he was irritable at the office, raising his voice for the first time in months to the girl who typed the fire policies. He sat dully at his desk waiting for the phone to ring, feeling his heart skip a beat every time it did. He’d been foolish to tell Harvey Stout to call today, yet in the panic of the moment it had been the only way to get rid of him. What if he ever came to the house? Or what if he ever told his story to Marge or said something in front of the children?
Dale Fielding, murderer.
The phone rang.
“It’s for you, Mr. Fielding.”
“Hello. Fielding speaking.”
“How are you today, boy?”
“Fine. A little busy.”
“What about it?”
Silence, for the space of a heartbeat. Then, “I can’t fool around, boy. I need cash.”
Dale cleared his throat. “I’m sorry.”
“You’ll be a damn lot sorrier.”
“Listen—stop calling me. Stop threatening me or I’ll get the police after you. Understand?”
“Hell, I’m not threatening you.” The old friendly tone was back. “But we were buddies, remember? You and me and Travello? And Captain Mason. Remember?”
“I remember. I had nothing to do with that.”
“Sure. But for old times’ sake…”
Dale hung up.
He tried to light a cigarette and found that his hand was shaking. “Jean, I’m out if anyone else calls.”
“Yes, Mr. Fielding.”
He leaned back in his chair and thought about it all, about those dark days of war, and its aftermath. He remembered his trip to Dallas and the week he’d spent looking into the past of Charles F. Mason…
The city was still caught up in the excitement of peace, year one. He’d walked among cattle-rich ranchers and oil millionaires, smiling around their thick cigars and thicker fingers. He’d stood in a grassy square and watched workmen putting up a plaque to honor the city’s war dead. Captain Charles F. Mason, U.S.M.C.
Killed in action.
Dale wandered about the city, managing finally to catch a glimpse of Mrs. Mason, a slimly beautiful young woman who he thought deserved better. But the more he dug, the more he asked, the deeper the picture seemed to etch itself. Charles Mason hadn’t been a really bad man. In fact, there were those who remembered him as a rising young executive, who mourned his death as that of a hero. But surely men changed in the service, men hardened in the face of daily death and uncertain life. Perhaps Mason had been one to crack under the strain. Stout and Travello might even have been doing their duty in some obscure manner when they pumped a dozen bullets into his unexpecting body.
But day by day he became more certain of the facts, more aware of the guilt. On the final evening of his stay in Dallas he sat in his hotel room and thought about the alternatives open to him. He spent three hours debating between confessing everything and killing himself. In the end, because he’d never had a really strong will, he did nothing.
That, in a way, had always been the story of his life, even to the moment in the jungle of le Shima. While others acted, he did nothing.
He’d come back east and married Marge and let the bitter, unfriendly memories drift into the further reaches of his mind. War is never won by men who do nothing, but Dale thought that perhaps peace was won that way at times…
On his way back from lunch, Harvey Stout crossed the street and caught up with him as he walked. “I guess we got disconnected this morning.”
“Yeah, I guess so, Harvey.”
“Let me tell you some more about this business I want to start.”
“Don’t bother, Harvey. It doesn’t mean a thing to me.”
He started to turn in at his office, but Harvey put a restraining hand on his shoulder. “I was out looking at your house this morning, boy.”
“Stay away from my wife!”
“Nobody’s going anywhere near your wife, Fielding. Don’t worry, I won’t tell her about Mason.”
“There’s nothing to tell, anyway, I told you I didn’t do it.”
“Did you tell her?”
Dale was silent. Beyond Stout’s shoulder a traffic light turned red. Finally, like a man suddenly collapsing against the wind, he asked, “How much do you want?”
“That’s better. That’s sounding more like a buddy.”
“I think ten thousand would do it.”
“Ten thousand!” The light turned green. “Are you out of your mind?”
“You’ve got a nice house, a business of your own. And I never met a starving insurance man yet.”
“That’s out of the question. I was thinking of a few hundred, a thousand at the very most.”
“Think a little harder, boy.” And then, with an expression on his face, a light in his eyes that Dale hadn’t seen since the Pacific, he added, too casually, “When I was out at your house I was noticing how close it was to the woods. Must be dangerous this time of the year, with the hunters out. Stray bullet could be dangerous to the kids.”
He turned, and walked away, leaving Dale staring after him. Within a block he’d been lost in the noonday crowd, and there was nothing but a blur of faces confronting Dale. A blur like a jungle swallowing up the enemies, and for a moment he might have been back there, back on a Pacific island that time forgot, facing the gloom with a rifle in his hands and determination in his mind.
“I want to talk.”
“Sure. Can you wait till I get the kids off to bed?”
“I suppose so.”
“You haven’t been looking good, dear. Are you coming down with something?”
“I’m all right. I saw my old buddy, Harvey Stout, again today.”
“That’s nice. You could invite him out for dinner some night if you wanted. Is he going to be in town long?”
“I don’t think he really knows. We had a sort of long talk today, and…”
“Excuse me, dear. I have to see what they’re up to now.”
He sat down by the window and looked out across the irregular fields to the blackness of the twilight woods. Even now the hunters were still out—a figure moved, paused, then shattered the silence with a shotgun’s roar. Perhaps unseen a partridge had crumpled to earth.
Yes, they were awfully close. A shotgun slug could carry almost to the house. He remembered how it had been in the jungle, then got up and went to the basement. After a time, Marge called.
“Dear, what in heaven’s name are you up to?”
“Thinking of doing a little hunting. I was just checking over my shotgun.”
“You haven’t used that in years.”
“This buddy of mine, Harvey Stout, wants to go. Maybe Friday night after work.”
Yes, it would be Friday night. He took out his cleaning gear and began polishing the weapon.
For most of the next day he was busy, and there was only a vague awareness of Harvey Stout in his mind. He no longer waited in dread for the phone call he knew would come. Rather, he glowed with an inner expectation, like a schoolboy anxiously waiting to give the correct answer.