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Authors: Jim Thompson

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BOOK: Recoil
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D
oc came in the next morning while I was finishing my coffee, and sat down on the bed. He asked me if I’d slept well, and said the new suit looked nice on me. I made the proper replies. Not much was said after that until we reached the capitol.

We were starting up the long steps of the main entrance when he cleared his throat, with a trace of embarrassment, and spoke.

“I know you’re as anxious to avoid unfavorable impressions as I am. If Mrs. Luther should visit your room again, it might be best to leave the door open.”

“What?” I said, and turned in my tracks and looked at him. “But, Doc—”

I didn’t finish the sentence, although it was an effort to choke it off. The look of stubborn embarrassment on his face stopped me. He’d convinced himself all over again that Lila couldn’t be at fault. She couldn’t, so someone else had to be. That was that.

“All right, Doc,” I said. “I’ll remember that.”

“Fine,” he said, obviously relieved. “Do you think you can find your way home all right tonight? I don’t know when I’ll be leaving and of course you don’t know your hours yet.”

I told him I’d be all right by myself; he hurried off. Seething inside, I walked on toward the highway department.

It was on the main floor of the building, and occupied an entire wing. A long counter, facing the entrance door stretched the length of it. A series of cages similar to those in banks fronted on the counter.

It was nine o’clock when I arrived, but no one was there. Finally, at a quarter after nine, an auto-license clerk entered his cage and pointed out Fleming’s office to me.

I went down the aisle to a door at the end. It opened into a reception room with an immense executive-type desk and a white-leather upholstered lounge with matching chairs. I knocked on a door marked “Private” and tried the knob. I sat down in one of the chairs and lighted a cigarette.

The nearest ash tray stood by the desk. I’d got up to move it over by me when the door behind me opened and a woman bustled in breathlessly. She was about fifty, trim, sharp-featured.

“What are you doing here?” she demanded. And before I could answer, she had pushed around me and was trying the drawers of the desk.

“Anything missing?” I said.

“What do you want?”

“I was supposed to see Mr. Fleming about a job,” I said. “I’m Patrick Cosgrove.”

She gave me a tight-lipped smile. “I’m Mr. Fleming’s secretary. I don’t remember his mentioning your name.”

“Senator Burkman spoke to him about it.”

“Oh,” her face cleared,
“Burkman!
Well, that accounts for it. It probably slipped his mind.”

“When will Mr. Fleming be in?” I asked.

“I’m not sure that he can see you when he does come in. Oh, well, drop back in an hour or so if you like. I’ll see what I can do.”

I thanked her and left, far from happy with the situation. I thought I’d better talk things over with Doc before I went back to Fleming’s office, and I went down to the restaurant, hoping to catch him there.

He wasn’t there and neither was Burkman. I was on the point of leaving when Hardesty hailed me. He was alone at his table.

“How are you, Pat?” He arose beaming, and shook hands. “Sit right down. Out pretty early, aren’t you? Are you by yourself?”

“I didn’t think it was early,” I said. “But I guess it is. I was looking for Doc.”

“He’s tied up. Anything I can do?”

“It’s about the job I was supposed to have. I thought I had one with the highway department, but I’m not sure now.”

“Well, now,” he smiled reassuringly. “That won’t do at all. Tell me about it.”

“Mr. Fleming wasn’t in his office, and his secretary practically threw me out. She told me I could come back later, but I got the impression that it wouldn’t do me much good.”

“Let’s see—Burkman was sponsoring you, wasn’t he? Hmm, that’s not so good.”

“You don’t think I’ll get a job?”

“Oh, yes. You’ll get your job. I was just thinking of the matter, uh, objectively.” He nodded his head. “Fleming’s over there a few tables. We’ll tag him when he starts out.”

“Thanks very much,” I said. “I was getting pretty worried.”

“Glad to do it. No trouble at all.” He stirred his coffee, thoughtfully, smiling his warm, confident smile. “Quite a little fracas we had yesterday, eh, Pat?”

“I’m sorry about that,” I said. “I’ll see that nothing of the kind happens again.”

“Oh, I’m not blaming you for it. But I couldn’t help feeling a little annoyed with Doc. After all, I did just about as much work on your parole as he did. He should have told you about me beforehand.”

“I suppose you’re right,” I said carefully.

“One serious misstep, something of the kind that happened yesterday, for example, and Doc or no one else could save you from going back to Sandstone. For that matter, Doc himself…”

“Yes?” I said.

“Oh, well, I probably shouldn’t say anything like that.”

He might as well have said it: that Doc himself might take a notion to have me returned to prison.

“Why don’t you drop up to my office sometime, Pat? I think you and I have a great many things to talk about.”

“I’ll be glad to come,” I said.

“Good!” he smiled. “Well, here comes your man. Fleming! Just a moment.”

A tall fat man turned slowly away from a group that was starting for the door, and looked at us sourly. Hardesty took me by the elbow and drew me forward.

“Mr. Fleming, I want you to shake hands with Pat Cosgrove,” he said, heartily. “Pat’s supposed to go to work in your department, you know.”

“Work?” Fleming took the cigar out of his mouth, and barely touched my hand with fat, hard fingers. “Don’t you ever look at the calendar, Hardesty?”

Hardesty laughed. “Pat’s a good friend of Burkman’s. The senator spoke to you about him.”

“Burkman’s a goddam nuisance,” said Fleming, and annoyed remembrance flickered in his small eyes.

“Pat’s all set and rarin’ to go,” said Hardesty jovially. “Would you like to talk to him here or up in your office?”

The fat man grunted. “Office. See Rita.” Without another word, he turned and rolled slowly away.

“That’s his secretary,” Hardesty explained. “Rita Kennedy. Fleming will have called her by the time you get there.”

“It’s all settled?” I said.

“Sure, she’ll fix you up.” He slapped me on the back. “I’ll have to run, now. Don’t forget that other matter.”

“I’ll remember,” I said.

I went back to Fleming’s office, not feeling any too sure of myself. But the moment I stepped through the door I knew the job was mine. Rita Kennedy was hardly effusive, but she gave me one of her tight-lipped smiles and motioned for me to draw a chair up to the desk.

“All right, Pat,” she said briskly, drawing a heavy manila folder from her desk. “I believe we’re all organized, now. Here are your gasoline mileage books, and these are your daily-expense blanks—you’re allowed one dollar per meal—and this is your car-requisition card. You know where the state garage is—just two blocks south?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “But—”

“Oh, yes. I knew there was something I’d forgotten. Excuse me a moment.”

She got up, locked the drawer of the desk, and bustled into the main offices. In a minute or two she was back with a thick stack of mimeographed sheets covered with writing and figures.

“These are the survey forms, Pat. You use one for each day. You can turn them in, as many as you complete, every three or four days.”

“I see,” I nodded. “But what am I supposed to do with them, Miss Kennedy?”

“Keep your mouth shut and don’t leave your car parked too long in front of beer joints. The newspapers have given us some awful ridings about stuff of that kind.”

“But…oh,” I said.

“You should kick.” She smiled faintly, easing me toward the door. “Don’t forget what I said about the beer joints.”

“I’ll remember,” I said.

I left the capitol and started south, thinking; wondering why I should feel ashamed of myself.

A little more than fifteen years before on a day like this, I’d walked into the First State Bank of Selby and pointed my sixteen gauge shotgun at the cashier. I can’t tell you why I did it. I only know it wasn’t planned. I’d started for the river to go hunting when I discovered I only had two shells. And all I’d intended when I entered the bank was to draw a dollar out of my savings account.

It was around noon and old Briggs, the cashier, was by himself. I was carrying my gun because I didn’t want to leave it in my stripped-down Model-T.

Briggs gave me a funny, teasing look and half raised his hands. And then his hands were going higher, and his look was frightened; and I was stuttering something that sounded like, “N-now I’m not—I—I don’t mean—I—I—I won’t h-hurt you, Mr. Briggs.”

He toppled down to the floor inside the cage, and I started to run out on the street and call for help. Instead of that, I scooped up half a dozen packets of bills and shoved them down inside my sweater, and most of them fell out as I ran out the door.

My car was parked around the corner and Sheriff Nick Nickerson was sitting on the running board. “Been wantin’ to see you, boy. Think I got ’er fixed so’s you can go to the U next fall.” “Gosh,” I said, “thanks, Mr. Nickerson.” “Writ my nephew up there an’ he says you want to make yourself handy around his garage he can swing your board and room an’ a little spendin’ money.” “That’s swell,” I said. “I can get enough for the tuition and books.” “Glad to do it. There ain’t nothing around here for a bright young fellow. Seems like the brighter they are the quicker they go to rot.” I thanked him again, and got in the car. And then the alarm in the bank began to clatter and he started running and I drove off. Slowly, dazed. Then faster. As fast as I could go.

About a mile out of town, the car begun to sputter and pop and I knew I was almost out of gas. I turned in at the airport and drove across the field.

Frank Miller was spinning the prop of his little old patched-up three seater. It caught and he ran around and crawled inside; and I was out of my car and crawling right in behind him. Judge Lipscomb Lacy was in the passengers’ seats; he weighed more than three hundred pounds and he was spread all over both of them. Frank said, “What the hell you think you’re doin’, Red? Judge Lacy’s got ’portant business in the city an’—” “Get goin’,” I said. “I’ll blast you, Frank. I’ll—I’ll blast you, I swear to God I will.”

I squeezed in, the gun jammed right into Judge Lacy’s guts, and I said I’d blast them both, I’d blast him if Frank didn’t do what I said and then I’d blast Frank. Judge Lacy’s eyes went shut and his face turned green and his head lolled. And Frank said, “All right, you crazy bastard!” And we were in the air. And down again. Bouncing. Rocking from side to side.

“It won’t lift us, Red. Honest to Gawd, it won’t.” “I know,” I said. “You want I should dump him out?” “I guess not. He looks awfully sick.” “What the hell do you want?” “I don’t know.”

The door of the plane opened, a long time later it opened, and there was a big crowd out there. And Sheriff Nick Nickerson reached inside and took the gun out of my hands. “Come on now, boy,” he said. “You just come along now an’ we’ll see about this.” So I got out, and it was all over. All over except for the trial, with a court-appointed lawyer and Judge Lipscomb Lacy presiding.

…I’d never been ashamed of that. I was not ashamed now. Of that.

The garage manager glanced at my requisition card, and turned me over to a young Negro in overalls. He led me back to the rear, past the motorcycles and the black-and-white trooper cars.

“Yes, sir,” he said, stopping. “What kind o’ car you like, now?”

“I can have any one I want?” I asked.

“We-ell. Don’t believe I’d take none of them big babies. That’s a mightly nice little coupe right there. No one’s got no call on that.”

It was practically new, and a plain unadorned black. Only the license plates identified it as a state car.

“It’ll do,” I said. “What time do I bring it back in?”

“You live here in town, sir?”

“Yes, I do,” I said.

“Well, most of the gen’lemen that lives in town jus’ keeps their cars.”

“That sounds like a pretty good arrangement,” I said.

“Yes, sir,” he grinned. “Hardly no one ever kicks on it.”

I gave him a dollar tip, put my papers up in back of the seat and drove out.

M
adeline Flournoy’s apartment was on the second floor of a two-story brick building in a semi-residential district. A furniture store occupied the first floor. The upstairs entrance was on a side street, and there were no windows on that side. The blank wall of a warehouse rose on the other side of the street.

There was a door at the head of the stairs and another a few steps up the hallway. I hesitated, then remembered the single mail slot downstairs: both doors were hers. I knocked on the first one.

It opened almost immediately.

“Riding or walking?” She didn’t seem surprised to see me. “Where did you park your car?”

“Down the street two blocks on a lot.”

“Come on in.”

She was wearing a pair of shorts, very short, and a gray wool sweat shirt. Her feet and legs were bare. The long curl of her hair was pulled up on top of her head and fastened with a single pin. The crisp brown end of it stuck out even with her forehead like a little brush.

“Now don’t look in there,” she said, nodding the brush. And of course I did look in there, into the bedroom with its rumpled bed. “I just got up.”

“That Doc,” she yawned. “Nothing’s too hard for him as long as someone else has to do it.”

“Up pretty late?” I said.

“Mmm. Come on. I need coffee!”

“Perhaps I should tell you,” I said. “Doc warned me I wasn’t to see you.”

“Pooey on Doc,” she said. “Trust him to order people around. Who the hell is he to tell us what to do?”

“Well,” I said. “He’s in a pretty good position to tell me what to do.”

“Yeah?” She looked at me blankly. “Well, he won’t know about it. No one ever comes around here during the day. But no one.”

She gave my arm an impatient tug, and I went with her.

There was an areaway to our right almost wholly blocked by a worn plush lounge. She closed the connecting door into the living room, pushed me down on the lounge, and, squeezing past my knees, went into the kitchen.

She came back with two cups of coffee and gave me one. Then she sat down or rather stood on her knees facing me.

“You’d better put your legs up, too,” she said. “There’s hardly room for them that way.”

“This is all right,” I said.

“What you squirming for?” She crinkled her eyes. “Have to go to the bathroom? It’s right there.”

“Thanks, no,” I said.

“Now, you look here,” she said, shaking the brush of hair. “The door’s closed and we’ve got those other rooms between us and the hallway. And, anyway, no one ever comes up here during the day. Good gosh, if I’d known you were such a scaredy-cat—”

“I thought you knew,” I said. “Or I wouldn’t have come today. It might make a difference in your wanting to know me.”

“Know what? What am I supposed to know?”

“I’ve just been released from Sandstone,” I said. “Doc got my parole for me.”

“Oh,” she said, softly.

“Fifteen years. Bank robbery.”

“I’m awfully sorry, Pat. How old were you?”

“Almost eighteen.”

“Almost eighteen,” she said. “You didn’t hurt anyone, did you?”

“I didn’t even get any money,” I said, and I told her a little about it, and, oddly enough, I found myself laughing.

She giggled delightedly. She rocked forward on her knees, and burrowed her head against my shoulder.

I put my coffee cup on the floor beside hers and slid my arm around her. She lifted her head and looked at me.

“I’ve—I’ve never known anyone quite like you,” I said.

“Of course not,” she said promptly. “You never will either.”

“I’m in a rather peculiar position, Madeline. I can’t say and do things I’d like to, that a man normally would.”

“Yes,” she said. “You are.”

“Well—” I was somewhat taken back by her answer, “—we seem to be in agreement.”

“I wonder if it had occurred to you that I might be in a pretty peculiar position myself?”

“It had,” I said, “and it bothered me a great deal.”

“Why?”

“Because I like you. To use an understatement. To give you a fuller explanation, I’d have to go into the details of what I think are the peculiarities of your position.”

“There will now be a brief pause,” she said, “while Madame Flournoy goes into a trance and interprets Professor Cosgrove’s message.”

“I think you know what I mean,” I said.

“Quiet,” she said. And, turning, she lay down and put her head in my lap.

I bent my head and kissed her. She gave me two quick kisses in return before moving her mouth away. There was something about them, something so warm and confiding and innocent, that I wanted to thrust my hands into my pockets and keep them there; to sit on them, if necessary. And, of course, I didn’t.

She opened her eyes and looked up at me. She raised one small finger and put it on my lip and moved it up and down. She lowered the hand and let it lie on mine.

“What are you doing in—in all this anyway?” I said.

“What are you?”

“That’s hardly the same thing.”

“Isn’t it?” she said. “You did an impulsive, seemingly easy thing—something that seemed to promise a lot—when you were too young to judge the consequences. So did I.”

I lighted a cigarette, tossing the match into my saucer. She pursed her lips and crinkled her eyes at me, and I lowered the cigarette while she took a long deep puff.

“Well?” she said, puffing the smoke out in rings.

“It’s hard for me to imagine,” I said, “that you’d put up with anything over any very long period that you didn’t want to.”

“You put up with Sandstone, didn’t you?”

She took another puff from my cigarette, and bobbed her head emphatically. “When I first saw you on the capitol steps yesterday—oh, yes, I did
see
you—I thought, there, that’s it—”

“I thought the same thing.”

“I know you did, honey.” She patted my cheek. “And I made up my mind to bump into you on the way back, or—or drop something, or fall down in front of you. Anything to get to know you. And then I found you were with Doc and it made me kind of sick inside. But still…”

“I know,” I said.

“You must have had some pretty strong friends to set Doc in motion. If they could get him to swing the parole they can probably get him to put through a pardon…Did I say something wrong?”

“I don’t have any friends,” I said. “Doc got me out on his own.”

“Huh?” She gestured with her hand. “You mean just like that?”

“Just like that.” I told her about the letter I’d written him. “I’d never seen him before.”

“But, why? Pat! You didn’t agree to—you didn’t promise—”

“What could I promise?” I said.

“But—”

“I know,” I said. “There’s a reason. But the only one I can think of doesn’t make sense. That I’m valuable or will be valuable to him just by being what I am. That he thinks I will be.”

“Thinks?”

“It’s just a hunch,” I nodded. “He had a reason for getting me out; someone else had another. His plan isn’t going to come off…and the other will.”

“Now, that
doesn’t
make sense,” she said. “Believe me, Pat, that guy knows what he’s doing. Always. I’ve worked for him for years, and I’ve been on the inside of every crooked deal he’s pulled. I—I—”

“Don’t feel bad about it,” I said. “For a person who hasn’t had to work at it to stay alive, you’re pretty good.”

“What…I don’t understand.”

“Lying. Pretending. You’re Doc’s right hand. You knew that he was getting me out of Sandstone. You know why he got me out. Why don’t you tell me? What has he got on you that makes you afraid to talk?”

“Is that why you came here today, Pat, to pump me?”

“I didn’t think I’d have to pump you. I thought you had some of the same feeling for me that I have for you. I—”

“Oh, I do, Pat!” She thrust herself upwards and clung to me tightly. “You must believe me, honey. I do feel that way!”

“Tell me, then.”

“Don’t—don’t let him make you do anything, Pat! Talk to me first! Don’t do anything without talking to me. Will you promise that?”

“I—” My scalp crawled suddenly. “Did you lock that hall door?”

“I probably didn’t. No one ever comes up here during the day.”

“Someone did,” I said, and I nodded at the glass panel of the connecting door.

Just as he looked through it, grinning.

BOOK: Recoil
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