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Authors: Jim Thompson

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BOOK: Recoil
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H
is hat was jammed low on his sandy hair, and there was a fleck of spittle beneath the overhung teeth. He pushed me to one side and almost jerked her off the seat.

“What in the name of God is the matter with you, Madeline?” he said harshly. “I sent you after those contracts thirty minutes ago, and I waited and waited until my parties gave up and left. And then I come out here and find you showing your backside to—to—”

“Was not backside,” she pouted. “Was underneath side.”

“To hell with that stuff! You’re not a kid; you’re not being paid kid’s wages! If you can’t snap out of it and do your work like you’re supposed to, I’ll get someone who will.”

“Bet you couldn’t!” she said. “Bet you couldn’t get any one that knows,” she stressed the word ever so lightly, “half as much as I do.”

“But, dammit!” He stared at her helplessly, swallowing whatever else he had been about to say.

“It’s my fault, Doc,” I said. “I saw her get those papers out of the car, and I jumped to the wrong conclusion.”

“And I was nasty to him,” said Madeline, “in my own peculiar way.”

“I can imagine,” Doc said. “Well, I guess I’m as much at fault as anyone. I’d forgotten about Pat waiting there at the entrance. By the way, you two had better meet each other.”

He introduced us, casually, and opened the door of the car. “Make another copy of those contracts tonight, Madeline,” he said. “And bring them out here in the afternoon. Same place. Same time.
On
time!”

“I was going to a show tonight.”

“Go ahead. Get up early in the morning and work. I don’t care when you do them.”

“Well—” she stood near the door, pouting. And with her left hand she scrawled an address in the dust on the car’s side and wrote “4-noon” beneath it. “Well, you and Mr. Cosgrove can drive me home, then.”

“We’ve something important to do,” said Doc, coolly. “Come along, Pat.”

I rubbed out the writing, nodded to her, and walked on around the car. As I drove away, she put her hands behind her and stuck her tongue out at Doc.

“That woman,” he muttered. “If she wasn’t so valuable to me…”

“She’s your secretary?”

“Call her that. She’s actually a great deal more; does things that aren’t ordinarily included in secretarial work. She knows—well, you heard her. She knows.”

“I see,” I said.

“There’s a perfect example of what being sorry for a person can get you into,” he went on, wearily. “When I first ran into her I thought she was one of the most pitiable, helpless little tykes that ever came out of business college. Raised by an aunt who kicked her out when she was sixteen—I can understand why, now! Worked her way through school as a waitress with all the big bad men insulting her. Just wanted to work real hard for a nice fatherly man like me who would give her good advice. Well…”

I laughed appreciatively. “Isn’t she a pretty disrupting influence to have around?”

“She gets on my nerves plenty, yes. But she’s smart and fast, and people like her in spite of themselves. They let their guards down around her before they realize she’s not half as giddy as she appears to be. She—”

“Excuse me, Doc,” I said. “Where did you want to drive to?”

“Why, home, I suppose. Unless you’ve got some place you’d like to go.”

“Not at all,” I said. “I just thought I understood you to say that—”

“That was a brush-off. I have to use her in my business. I don’t have to cart her around—give her any kind of a personal hold on me. Incidentally, Pat…”

“Yes,” I said, knowing what was coming.

“I want you to keep away from her, too. I know you’re loyal and grateful to me, that you wouldn’t deliberately do anything that might injure me. But it’s simply a bad idea for two people so close to my affairs to get on an intimate basis. You understand, Pat? I won’t tolerate it.”

He turned to look at me. I nodded emphatically, not trusting my voice.

He said, “I’m counting on you.”

I let him out at the front of the house, and drove the car on back to the garage.

Then another car—the sports roadster I’d seen the night before—swept down the driveway. It shot into the stall next to the sedan, tires sliding, and banged noisily, but apparently harmlessly, against the rear of the garage.

A woman got out and came swiftly toward me, smiling, hand extended.

She was above average height, and slender, yet there was a soft billowy look about her. Her hair was ash blonde, and she had the smooth flawless complexion which should, but so seldom does, accompany it. She wore a tailored, fawn-colored suit with a fox fur scarf around the shoulders.

Briefly, she was a very beautiful woman of thirty or thereabouts. A little theatrical in her actions, but beautiful. And absolutely nothing else.

“You’re Pat Cosgrove,” she announced, dipping her hand a little to take hold of mine. “Doctor’s told me so much about you. I’m Lila Luther.”

“How do you do, Mrs. Luther,” I said.

“I was going to drop in last night and say hello, but Doctor said you were tired. And, of course, he snatched you away this morning before I got my eyes open.”

“Well…” I said.

“Do come along.” She linked her wrist over my arm. “I want you to show me your room. Doctor assured me you were made utterly comfortable, but naturally he wouldn’t know if you weren’t. Isn’t he a weird man? But sweet. Very sweet.”

“I like him,” I said, trying not to make it sound like a reproof. “And the room is fine. I—”

“Oh, well,” she shrugged. “Of course, you
would
like him. Not that you’re not sincere. I could see instantly that you were. Do you know Mr. Hardesty? I like him very much, don’t you? He’s such a smooth, earnest man. So, uh, so unweird.”

She chattered incessantly as we went up the driveway and around the walk to the house, apparently so intrigued with the sound of her own voice that my tense silence went unnoticed.

At the door of her apartment, hers and Doc’s, she rapped briskly and called:

“Doctor! I’ll be with Mr. Cosgrove for a few minutes!”

Then, without waiting for a reply, she urged me down the hall, her long, soft thigh brushing against mine.

I unlocked the door of my room, and pushed it open for her. She took my arm and we went in together.

“Well,” she said, glancing around critically. “They haven’t done
too
badly by you.”

“It’s far better than anything I’ve had,” I said. “There’s really nothing I need, Mrs. Luther.”

“Nothing at all?” She gave my arm a sly squeeze. “Well I do. I need a drink.”

“Mrs. Luther,” I said. “Do—do you—”

“What?” She raised one delicate, glossy eyebrow. “Oh some of that bourbon will be all right. With just a little water, please.”

I nodded and went over to the bar—hearing the door ease shut almost the moment my back was turned.

Doc would resent my ordering her out. No matter what he might think about her himself, he would resent anyone else’s implication that she was less than she could be. I could only hope he would not let jealousy get the better of his common sense. Surely, he must realize that I would not play loose with his wife.

I mixed the drink and brought it over to her. I lighted her cigarette. I tried not to notice as she toed off her highheeled suede slippers.

“Do sit down, Pat,” she said. Then, “Oh, where’s your drink?”

“I don’t drink very much, Mrs. Luther,” I said. “I don’t think I want one just now.”

“But I never drink alone! I mean, I’m very serious about it!”

“Mrs. Luther…”

“Lila. Or don’t you like the name?”

“I like it very much, but—”

“Say it, then.”

“Lila,” I said flatly.

What happened then was so completely insane that I am almost doubtful it did happen.

She set her glass on the floor and arose, letting the fox scarf slide from her shoulders. She put her arms around me and turned, turning me, and slumped backwards. She went down on the bed, drawing me down with her.

Her eyes were closed and she was breathing deeply, and her head rocked a little from side to side on its thick pallet of ash blonde hair…Her lips parted and she raised them up toward mine. And, almost, I bent down to them. I wanted to. I wanted her.

I believe it must have been the red of her mouth which brought me to my senses. Lipstick: evidence: penalty. Or perhaps I heard the soft footsteps in the thickly carpeted hallway…although that does not seem possible.

Whatever the case was, I did not bend down.

I reversed the trick she had pulled on me.

I moved up and backwards, swiftly, jerking her upright before she could release her hold. I caught her by the elbows, literally swung her in an arc, and dropped her into the chair. I swept the hair back from her face. I dropped the scarf around her shoulders. I slipped the shoes on her feet and thrust the glass into her hand.

I made a leap for the door.

It was locked. She had turned the latch.

I turned it again, turning the knob noisily at the same time.

As I did so, I felt it turn from the other side; and Dr. Luther walked in.

O
h,” I said. “I was going to call you, Doc. Mrs. Luther thought you might have time for a drink with us.”

He shook his head curtly, and looked at her. He looked her over very carefully. “Are you through with that drink yet?”

“It doesn’t look like it, does it?”

“Drink it up, then. Or take it with you.”

She stared at him, smiling in a funny way, swinging one long perfect leg.

“Lila,” he said, a note of apology in his voice. “Don’t you think…?”

“I’ll tell you what I think,” she said, arising. “I think you’d better take it.” And she hurled the contents of the glass squarely into his face.

I wanted to slap her. I hoped, no matter what happened to me, that Doc would. Instead, he merely stood there helplessly, the whiskey dripping down from his glasses, running in little rivulets toward his mouth and chin.

Mrs. Luther laughed shortly. She turned and gave me a bright, vacant smile.

“Sorry about the carpet, Pat,” she said; and she strolled out of the room, closing the door behind her.

“Doc,” I said. “Doc…”

He turned and looked at me, slowly, his glasses misted over by the whiskey. He made a pawing motion at them with one hand.

“Doc,” I said again, helplessly, and he took a hesitating step toward me.

He took another step and I moved out of the way. He went past me and into the bathroom, and I heard water being turned on. I went over to the bar and poured myself a stiff drink, straight. I was tilting the bottle for the second time when the bathroom door opened.

“Make that two, will you, Pat?” said Doc, casually.

“Certainly,” I said, and I poured another one, trying to keep the bottle from rattling against the glass.

He’d washed and tidied himself up, and he looked pretty much the same as he always had. The terrific inner strain was apparent only in the tight line of his mouth, the unconsciously self-conscious way in which he kept his lips drawn over the protruding teeth.

He sat down in one of the upholstered chairs. I handed him a glass and sat down across from him.

“Well,” he smiled at me almost timidly, “here’s how, Pat.”

“How,” I said. And then I banged the glass down, slopping whiskey onto the coffee table.

“Dammit to hell, Doc,” I said, “I’m going to tell you a few things. You may not like—”

“Don’t bother, Pat. I don’t think you can tell me anything I don’t already know.”

“You can’t know, or—”

“Yes. Yes, I can know, all right, and still not accept. Fight against accepting. I think it might be better if I told you a few things about myself. When you know them you can understand about Lila.”

“You don’t need to explain anything to me, Doc,” I said. “I—”

“I should have done it before. You’ll be hearing things from other people, and you may as well get the straight story from me…Do you recall one of Myrtle Briscoe’s opening remarks this morning—the one about locking the vault?”

“Why,” I nodded, “yes.”

“That little barb was intended for me, Pat. You and I have at least one thing in common.”

“You mean that—that you robbed a bank, too?”

“Just a safe, a vault in the college where I was an instructor.” He smiled wryly and shook his head. “I made about as big a botch of it as you did, even though I didn’t go to prison. I sometimes wonder whether that was a break, whether I wouldn’t have been better off if…”

“No,” I said. “No one’s better off for that.”

“It’s something I’ll never know, I guess. How about another drink?”

I got the bottle and brought it over to the table. He added a little to the drink I poured for him, and took most of it at a swallow. He shuddered and smacked his lips.

“It happened about ten years ago, Pat,” he said, abruptly breaking into speech. “I was about your age, a few years older, perhaps, and my prospects didn’t look half as good. I’d scraped and starved and slaved through the best years of my life to get an education—and all I’d got out of it was an assistant professorship in a jerkwater college. It would be years, I knew, before I got any more than that; before I became a full professor and finally, if I was lucky, a department head. The last thing I should have done, from a practical standpoint, was to get married. I got married, anyway.”

He took another drink, glancing at me over the rim of his glass. “I see the full significance of that escapes you, Pat. You can’t understand what it means to have income staked at a definite and unchangeable level, and to take on an obligation which far exceeds it. We didn’t plan it that way, of course. Lila was a student of mine, working her way through as I had. We were going to keep the thing secret until she finished school and I—or the two of us together—was making enough to establish a home. That’s the way we planned it.

“What happened was, she became pregnant. She had to quit school and her part-time job. She had to have money and she was going to have to have more when the baby came and afterward. I got it for her one day…when the registrar was out of his office and the safe was standing open.”

“Doc,” I said, when he had been silent for several seconds. “Are you sure you want to tell me all this?”

“I—I think so.” He rubbed his eyes. “About the money. It didn’t take them long to discover it was missing nor to prove that I’d taken it. I admitted it—said I’d lost it gambling. They let me resign and the police gave me twenty-four hours to get out of town.

“I didn’t dare go near Lila; I was afraid even to send her a message. She had to have that money, you see.
Had
to have it.

“I came here, about as far away from the other place as I could get. I rented an office on credit and slept on the floor at night, and fixed my own meals whenever I had the money to buy food. Inside of a year I’d built up a pretty fair practice as a consulting psychologist, so I sent for her. I’d only written her one other letter before that. I hadn’t signed it or given any address, and I was afraid to say much except that I was well and she wasn’t to worry.

“Well, she came here, Pat. Alone. I’ll never forget the look on her face when I asked her where the baby was. I—you see—she thought I’d abandoned her. All those months she’d thought that. The baby had been born dead.”

“I’m sorry, Doc,” I said. “After all, though, it wasn’t your fault.”

“I’m afraid you and I aren’t the best judges of that, Pat,” he said, slowly. “We’re not equipped to judge…anything about her. Well. Want to hear the rest of the story?”

“If you don’t mind telling it.”

“There’s not much more. I’d had to use my own name to establish my right to practice, so it didn’t take long for my past to catch up with me. People found out who I was.

“They found out—but just a little late. A psychologist learns things that could be embarrassing, and there’s an unusual number of such things to be learned around a state capitol. When the professional groups began cracking down on me, I was already in. I had to agree to stop practicing, but I was in. I’ve stayed in.”

“And you wish you were out?” I said.

“Naturally.” He shrugged. “I’ve never belonged in this game any more than you belonged in Sandstone. Aside from the fact that I’m constantly forced to go against all my instincts and training, I just don’t fit. I don’t know my way around. I had the few original contacts, and I’ve used this place to get more. But I’ve had to depend on people like, well, our friend Hardesty to steer me. Being dependent upon anyone in a game of this kind has serious disadvantages.”

“Yes,” I said. “I can see that it would.”

He stretched lazily and stood up, frowning absently at the small clock on the writing table. “Well, I’ll run along now. I didn’t mean to stay so long, but I thought I’d put your mind at rest about a few things.”

And on that seemingly commonplace remark, Dr. Ronald Luther, ex-professor of psychology turned lobbyist, left the room.

Henry brought in my dinner and cleaned up the mess on the carpet. I ate, unpacked the clothes that had come from the store, and tried to read a while. I couldn’t. I went to bed; sleep wouldn’t come.

BOOK: Recoil
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