Authors: Jim Thompson
e was about my height, though heavier; and he had a lipless tobacco-stained mouth and little red-rimmed pig eyes and a nose that might have been made out of soiled putty. He wore a blue serge suit, without a vest, a snap-brimmed gray hat, and black high-topped shoes. Shoes and hat were spotless. The suit wasn’t.
I knew what he was before he ever spit the toothpick out of his mouth and showed his credentials.
I nodded and handed them back to him.
“This gentleman is with the probation department, Madeline,” I said. “He’s caught me in a pretty serious violation of my parole.”
“Huh!” She stared at him fiercely. “That doesn’t give him a license to housebreak! Where’s your warrant, you—”
“You don’t understand, Madeline. This gentleman can have me sent back to Sandstone. Now just close the door, and lock it this time. We don’t want to be disturbed while we’re talking, do we, sir?”
He grinned and the caution in his pig eyes disappeared.
“Now,” I said, smiling, staring straight into his eyes. “What did you have in mind, sir? How would a couple of C-notes do?”
“Two C’s?” His ugly face lit up, then contorted into a scowl. “Huh-uh. Ain’t half enough. Make it five.”
“Would that be enough?”
“I said so, didn’t I? For five it’s a deal.”
“You’re making a mistake,” I said. “It’s worth much more than five hundred for me to stay out of Sandstone. I’m afraid I can’t tell you how much it is worth to me. I’d have to show you. Now, don’t be alarmed, sir…”
He was alarmed, or beginning to be. But I was smiling, and holding his eyes; and so he stood and watched while I slid out of my coat and shirt and undershirt.
I heard Madeline gasp.
He gulped and whistled softly. “My God!” he whispered.
“You were looking at those welts, sir?” I said. “Why they were nothing, relatively speaking. A little annoying, perhaps, when you get them full of gnats and salt sweat and rock dust; but nothing compared to those ribs. You should have seen them popping out through the flesh like splinters bursting through tree bark. You should have seen this arm the day a friend tried to chop it off for me. That’s right, sir. A friend. He got thirty days in the hole and I got three weeks in the hospital.
“I hope I didn’t upset you, sir?” I said. “I just wanted to demonstrate that I don’t and won’t have enough to pay you to stay out of Sandstone. Which brings us to our problem. Since I can’t pay you, what can I do to show how highly I value your silence? What can I give you…that will last and always be enough? That you’ll never want any more of?”
He took a step backwards.
“B-better watch out now, Red,” his voice cracked and rose. “B-better watch out, k-keep away from me! Ain’t n-no h-harm done. J-just a joke, n-no h-harm in j-jokin’…”
He stumbled and tried to throw his hands in front of his face.
I chopped down and in, with the edge of my hands, getting both kidneys at once. His arms came down and I cuffed him, spinning him around. I jerked his tie tight, as tight as I could get it, took a turn around his neck with each end, and knotted it in the back.
I let him drop to the floor and watched him thrash about, scratching and clawing at his throat.
As from a distance I heard Madeline say, “He’ll d-die, Pat. Don’t let him die…”
“A few oranges,” I said, “in a net bag. Or a flour sack. And something to cut the tie.”
“What do you want with the oranges?”
“You’d better hurry,” I said, and I kicked him away as he tried to crawl up my legs.
She came running back with a paring knife, and four or five oranges in the bottom of a red net bag.
I swung the sack with both hands. It struck him in the chest and flattened him. It frightened him to the last degree he could be frightened. I beat him all over the chest and stomach and thighs, and then I turned him over and beat him up and down the back.
I jerked him upright, cut the necktie and tossed him into a chair. He sat there panting, pawing at his throat, his eyes rolling up and down in his head.
I had Madeline bring me a washrag and a comb, and I sponged off his face and combed his hair for him. I set his hat back on his head, and buttoned up his coat.
“Do you understand?” I said. “That’s what it means.”
“I—” he nodded his head. “I g-get you.”
“You might not make a charge stick,” I said. “And if you did, I’d still find a way of seeing you. I can’t lose any more, and you can lose and keep losing. So I’d see you. Once. I wouldn’t have to see you after that.”
I jerked a thumb toward the door. “You’ve got it. Keep it.”
He wasn’t hurt. No one who was hurt could have got out of there that fast. I laughed a little as the door slammed.
Madeline grinned, a slow fixed grin.
“You see I didn’t kill him,” I said. “I didn’t even hurt him.”
“What about the—way—?”
“The oranges? That’s the old dummy-chucker’s trick. You know, the fake-accident racket.”
“I guess I don’t know, Pat,” she said slowly, “much of anything.”
“A man’s supposed to have been in an accident, but he doesn’t have any marks on him. So a confederate takes a bag of oranges and beats him with them. They don’t hurt him, but they turn him black and blue. He’s a mass of bruises.”
“Our friend struck me as being unusually susceptible to fear. He’ll probably believe to his dying day that he barely escaped being killed.”
“And he didn’t, did he?”
I thought I had explained. “No,” I said, shortly. “Not that time.”
I picked up my undershirt and put it on. I put on my shirt and tie. I reached for my coat, but she was ahead of me. She held it for me, pushing it up onto my shoulders; and then she slid around in front, holding me tight around the waist.
“I understand, Pat. Oh, I do understand, honey!”
“I guess,” I said. “You understand too much.”
“It’s all right, Pat. I don’t blame you. But—Oh, let’s just forget it!”
“I made you afraid,” I said, “with what I did to that guy. You’re afraid I’ll do the same thing to Doc. What’s Doc to you, Madeline? What is he planning that makes you think I might try to kill him if I found it out?”
She shook her head, stubbornly. “There’s nothing I can tell you, Pat,” she said. “Nothing. If you love me, you’ll have to believe that.”
“All right,” I said.
She gave me a final squeeze. “Betcha everything’s going to be all right,” she declared, brightly. “Betcha it will.”
“Betcha,” I said.
I knew she was crying the second the door closed behind me.
ardesty had a suite of offices on the top floor of the city’s tallest skyscraper. The legend on the series of doors leading to the reception room read:
Hardesty & Hardesty
Attorneys at Law
and the receptionist, a querulous elderly woman with a suspicious stare, presided over a room as old fashioned as the building was new.
I put my cigarette out, and folded my hands. After some fifteen minutes, Hardesty came out of his office.
He nodded to me, tossing some papers on the receptionist’s desk.
“I’ll be tied up the rest of the morning, Mrs. Smithson,” he told her. “Just make a note of any calls I have, will you?”
“Tied up!” she exclaimed. “You’re supposed to be in court at eleven o’clock.”
“Clark will handle it; nothing important,” he said. “Come right on in, Pat.”
He closed the door on her disapproving grunt, an abashed smile on his darkly handsome face. “Friendly little thing, isn’t she?”
“An old employee?” I said.
“One of my grandfather’s.” He put a match to his cigarette and held it for mine. “He and my father were partners, in case you’re wondering about the firm name.”
“That must make it one of the oldest law firms in the state.”
“I think it is,” he nodded. “Quite an outfit, eh? When my father died, I planned on fancying things up a bit but you can see how far I got. I imagine if the other building we were in hadn’t been condemned I wouldn’t even have got us moved over here. Anyhow, stodginess is an asset with the kind of clientele we have.”
“Yes,” I said. “I suppose it would be.”
“Not quite what you expected, huh?” He gave me a shrewd glance. “You didn’t think an old and respectable law firm would be mixed up with a guy like Doc.”
“Frankly, no,” I said. “Although I’m not being critical of Doc.”
“Mmm. Of course not. Well, confidentially, Pat; I’m not involved with Doc a bit more than I can help. You know how it is. You want to swing a piece of business with the state, and the first thing you know you find Doc or someone like him in your path. And you either work with him or you don’t put your deal across.”
I nodded noncommittally. The less I had to say about Doc, I felt, the better.
“Let’s see, now. How long have you been out of Sandstone?”
“Almost three weeks.”
“And you’re pretty badly worried. Oh, don’t be afraid to say so, Pat.”
“All right,” I said. “But it’s a pretty hard thing to put into words. The trouble is—is Mrs. Luther. She won’t leave me alone.”
“She came back to my room the second night I was there, and she almost got me in very serious trouble with Doc. She’s followed the same line of conduct ever since. She does things that, well, look like hell.”
“Mmm,” murmured Hardesty. “That’s embarrassing, all right, but I wouldn’t be too disturbed about it. Doc won’t blame you for it.”
“He shouldn’t,” I said. “But he does. I can’t tell him it isn’t my fault. I can’t brush her off. I can’t let her go on. Whatever I do or don’t do, I have Doc angry with me. I’m afraid it might lead to my parole being canceled.”
“Umm. And if you thought it was going to be, you’d try to make a run for it. Well, we can’t have that; can’t have that, at all.”
“I wonder if you’d have enough influence with her to make her stop,” I said.
“We-ell—” he pursed his lips, “—yes. Yes. I can do that little thing for you.”
“I’ll appreciate it very much,” I said.
“That isn’t all you’re worried about, Pat.”
“No,” I said.
“Just no? You’ve trusted me with this other matter.”
“I think you must know,” I said. “I can’t help wondering why Doc got me out of Sandstone.”
“You can’t feature Doc doing that unless he stood to cash in on it?”
“I didn’t say that,” I said. “I do feel it strange that he did it at this particular time. Judging by the way Burkman was treated and some other things I’ve seen and heard, Doc’s crowd may lose out at the election. They need everything they’ve got for themselves. Why should they use up a lot of their steam in helping me?”
“A good question, Pat. But the answer is simple enough. Ever hear of Fanning Arnholt, president of the National Phalanx?”
“The big patriotic organization?”
“The super-patriotic organization,” Hardesty corrected. “What Arnholt and the Phalanx says, we common mortals feel obliged to heed and obey.”
“Yes?” I said.
“Arnholt’s slated to make six speeches in this state, the first here in the capital about two weeks from today. He’s going to attack a number of the textbooks now in use on the grounds that they’re subversive. When he does, it’s going to be an easy matter to get those texts thrown out and a new line adopted.”
“I see,” I said. “But—”
“I know. You’re wondering why we fool with books when we’ve got the oil crowd to play with. But we—Doc’s gang
get to the oil companies. A big stink about textbooks diverts the public’s attention from them. It’s worth heavy dough to them to get that attention diverted. We take a double rack-off.”
He grinned and spread his hands, watching me out of warm dark eyes. “A dirty business all the way around, Pat, but with a boob crop like we’ve got here you just naturally find a threshing crew. And it’s worked out to your advantage. Doc set this deal up and agreed to cut his associates in on it. In return for that, they put through your parole.”
“But that still doesn’t answer my question,” I said. “Why did Doc want me paroled?”
“Well,” he hesitated. “I’m not sure that I can help you there.”
“You must know,” I said. “You have a great deal more to lose than Burkman and the others. You wouldn’t have taken a hand in this unless you knew exactly where it was leading.”
“You mean, unless I was certain of getting as much as Doc?” He shook his head. “Maybe not, Pat. There are other things besides money.”
“You’re putting words in my mouth,” I said. “My point is that you know why Doc wanted me out of Sandstone.”
“I might. But why should I tell you?”
“Well…” I was stumped by the flatness of the question. “I can’t give you anything for the information. But you indicated that you were my friend, that I could trust you…”
“Did you believe me?”
“Well, you see how it is, Pat,” he said, grinning engagingly. “You’re asking for something that you won’t give. And, as you pointed out a moment ago, I have a great deal to lose. Tell me. Don’t you have any ideas of your own?”
“None at all. There’s nothing I can do for anyone. I don’t have anything, that I can see, but a bad reputation.”
“Very bad,” he nodded.
“You mean that’s something in itself?”
“Let’s just say it’s something for you to think about.”
“But I don’t see how—”
“Go on, Pat. You’re doing fine.”
“Then there’s Mrs. Luther,” I said. “If she got Doc sore enough at me to have my parole canceled, his plan, whatever it is, would fall through. I’d be right back where I started and all his time and effort would be wasted. Of course, I know he’s unreasonable about her, but—”
“Think, Pat. Can’t you think of a set of circumstances where it might be profitable to anyone for you to be returned to Sandstone?”
I stared at him blankly. He nodded, narrow-eyed.
“I can see that you can’t,” he said. “But you will. You’ll see that and the other angle, as well. When you do, when you begin to get an inkling of their significance, we’ll have a talk.”
“Thanks,” I said, and I shook hands limply.
“You’ll be all right for the time being. There’s this Arnholt matter. Nothing’s going to happen until that’s wound up.”
“I’m glad to know that,” I said.
“You can depend on it. Meanwhile, I’ll see what I can do about getting Mrs. Luther off your neck. She’s rather fond of me, you know.”
He winked and poked me in the ribs. I let him lead me out the hall door of his office.
“I trust our little talk will remain confidential,” he said, as he shook hands with me again.
He gave me a final smile and nod, and very gently closed the door.