Authors: Jim Thompson
uddenly everything was all right again. As right as it had been in the beginning. I didn’t have to avoid Lila Luther; she made a point of keeping out of my way. And on those rare occasions when we did encounter each other she was barely polite.
Almost overnight the constraint which I had seen building up in Doc disappeared. He became the old Doc, alternately slangy and grammatical, flippant and profound; generous, good natured: a man who made the best of a shabby situation.
I got paid the week following my visit to Hardesty, on Friday, as I remember. I hadn’t worked a full month, but I was paid for one.
I gave the check to Doc to cash for me, and he brought the money back to my room the next night. Smiling, he refused to take a cent of it.
“Just hang onto your money, Pat,” he said. “You won’t want to stick in one of those political jobs always, and you probably won’t be able to, anyway. Hang onto it, and you’ll have something to operate on when your parole runs out.”
“I wonder if I should start a bank account?” I said.
“That’s a good idea,” he said. “We’ll do that some day soon when I can spare the time to go down and introduce you.”
I left the house every morning at a reasonably early hour, and never returned before five in the afternoon. Usually I spent an hour or so at Madeline’s. The rest of the time I saw picture shows or read in the public library or drove around.
One morning, a few days after payday, I drove out to the place where Doc and I had stopped my first night out of Sandstone: the place where the sludge from the oil wells had widened the river into an expanse of stinking and treacherous mud. I don’t think I sought the spot consciously; it was no attraction which would justify a drive of ten or twelve miles. But I found myself there suddenly, and I pulled the car off the road and walked up to the stone bench. I sat down on it, and leaned forward, carefully. I scooped up a handful of pebbles and began dropping them down into the mud.
Now and then I caught the faint, dull clatter of pipe tongs, or the muted
of some faraway roughneck. And the bank after bank of quadruple boilers belched lazy smoke into the air. And even here, where I was, there was a rhythmic tremble to the earth, a constant shivering as the mud-hog pumps growled and spat out their burden.
I took a long, deep breath and slowly let it out again. It was good to be here, here or any place that wasn’t Sandstone. Every day I realized a little more how good it was. To be able to be off guard; to smile or laugh when you wanted to; just to breathe—easily; to think instead of scheme.
I leaned forward and smiled down into the black surface below; and back came another smile, my reflection, thoughtful but reassuring.
Hang on to yourself, Red. Hang on, or—
A hand came down on my shoulder.
“Better hang on to the bench, Red. You might fall in.”
In one unthinking instant, I had lowered my shoulders, caught the arm and shifted my weight forward and upward. Luckily she yelled, and a reflex action set in against the first one. Otherwise, Myrtle Briscoe would have gone into the river instead of down on to the bench. And I, the chances are, would have gone with her with a bullet through my head.
There was a highway patrol car parked near mine, and a state trooper was bounding up the slope, tugging at his holstered .45.
He almost had it out when Myrtle Briscoe leaped up from the bench and waved her arms at him.
“Hold it, Tony!” she gasped. Then she got her breath and yelled, “Dammit to hell, hold it!”
The trooper paused. “You sure you’re all right, Miss Briscoe?”
“Hell yes!” She let out a snort of laughter, and made brushing motions at her clothes. “Shook up but all together.”
The trooper looked from me to her, an expression of sullen disappointment on his swarthy face. “You sure you don’t want me to—”
“I want you to go back to the car and sit there!”
He turned and went back. Myrtle sat down, shaking her head.
“Don’t know why it is,” she said. “Give a guy a gun and he can’t wait to use it.”
“I’ve noticed that,” I said, sitting down at her side. “I’m sorry if I startled you, Miss Briscoe.”
“Oh, well. One good startle deserves another. What are you doing so far from town, Red?”
“I didn’t think it was far.”
“Aren’t you working?”
“I still have my job,” I said. “I’m caught up for a few hours.”
“Okay,” she said. “Now let me tell you something, Red. Tony and I gave you a long tail all the way from town. About an hour ago we lost you. We go on down the road about twenty miles and then we come back, and here you are. How do you explain that?”
“You mean I was trying to shake you?” I said. “I didn’t even know you were following me.”
“How come we didn’t see you or at least your car?”
“That’s simple. For one thing, there were probably other cars between yours and mine. Mainly, however, you didn’t want to see me. You wanted to believe I was skipping out. You were so certain I was going to that you probably wouldn’t have seen me if I’d waved a red flag at you.”
“Now, look, Red. You know doggone well what I’m talking about. What about that car?”
“It belongs to the state. You know that, Miss Briscoe.”
Her mouth dropped open and her eyes flashed. She jerked a paper from the pocket of her old-fashioned skirt, and thrust it at me.
It was one of those small legal papers which list title transfers and mortgages and similar information. Myrtle Briscoe put her fingers on a red-circled item under Automobile Transfer:
Capital Car Co. to Patrick M. Cosgrove
’42 Fd. Cp., $175
“I suppose it’s another Cosgrove,” said Myrtle, sarcastically. “Go on, tell me it is.”
I shook my head. I didn’t know what it was all about, but I knew it wouldn’t be another Cosgrove. It was all done too neatly.
I’d drawn a check for $250. After allowing for a month’s expenses, I’d have a surplus of just about $175 to spend on a car. I hadn’t done it, but I wouldn’t dare tell Myrtle that. She’d never liked the idea of my being paroled to Doc. If she got the idea that he was using me, that there was something seriously wrong…
I was in a trap, and I couldn’t go out by the door. That led back to Sandstone. I had to stay in until I found my own exit.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t know it was a violation of my parole.”
“Who said it was? What I want to know is why you bought it? That title was transferred yesterday, but the car was still on the sales lot this morning.”
“I thought I’d pick it up over the week end,” I said.
“But why did you buy it—a jalopy like that—when the state lets you have a first class car for nothing?”
“It’s simple enough,” I said. “Since I don’t need it for myself, I obviously intend to resell it. I’m pretty handy with tools. I can fix it up in my spare time and make a little money on it.”
“Well…” She stared at me suspiciously.
“That’s what I intend to do, Miss Briscoe.”
“Now,” she nodded. “That’s what you intend to do
What did you—did you honest-to-God buy that car, Red?”
“I don’t understand.”
“I don’t either. But let it go. Get that car off the lot today. And don’t lose any time about re-selling it.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “Do you want me to drive back to town ahead of you?”
“That won’t be necessary,” she snapped. And then her voice and her face softened. “I’m trying to help you, Red, and that’s all I am trying to do. Why don’t you give me a chance?”
“Come out of it! For God’s sake come out of your shell before you rot in it.” She put a hand on my knee and leaned toward me. “I’m sure you’re in a jam, a damned bad one. Tell me about it.”
“There’s nothing I can tell you,” I said.
“There. You see? You don’t even have to think any more; you slide off center automatically. Doc’s got you mixed up in something, and you don’t know how to get out of it, hasn’t he?”
“Why should Doc do that?”
“Red—!” She sighed and removed her hand. “Suppose I said this to you. Suppose I told you I knew you were on the level and wanted to stay that way and any trouble you were in wasn’t your own fault.”
“There’s nothing to tell at the moment,” I said carefully. “But something might come up…”
“I understand you always keep your word,” I said. “You always make good on a threat or a promise. So make that supposition of yours a little more specific, and I’ll believe you. Tell me you’ll trust me to do what I have to, what I think is right, and that you’ll keep me from going back to Sandstone.”
“Well,” she laughed, irritatedly, “that’s a pretty big load to buy blind, Red.”
I nodded. “But no bigger than the one you’re asking me to buy.”
“Yes, it is. You see, Red, there’s such a hell of a lot more involved than just you and me. For almost ten years, now, Doc’s crowd has been riding high and handsome. This time, in this coming election, it looks like they’re going to lose out. They’re getting desperate. They’re looking for some way to discredit me. You could be it.”
“I don’t see how I could be used,” I said. “Anyway, I’ve been given to understand that you can stay in office as long as you want to.”
“I’ve stayed in for thirty years, but that doesn’t mean I can keep on doing it. And when I go, whatever small reform element there is goes with me. A first-class scandal will put any office-holder in the street—and the straighter he’s been the harder it’ll hit him. He’ll either lose out entirely or he’ll have to do so much horse-trading that he won’t be able to do anything in his job.”
“Yeah, I know. I didn’t sign your parole. But I did consent to it, and you’re my obligation. Let you get in a really bad scrape, and it’ll come back on me. Let me get it in the neck, and the whole reform slate will collapse. That automatically leaves Doc’s crowd in the saddle. This is a one-party state. The people don’t vote for candidates, they vote against them.”
“I understand,” I said. “But how am I going to be used to discredit you?”
“I don’t know, Red. But I can think of any number of things you could do that would pull the trick. That’s why I want you to level with me. And I’ll go along with you as far as I can, Red. That’s a promise.”
She stood up tiredly and began brushing at her perpetually wrinkled skirt. The sun was full out by now, and it etched every line of her harsh, haggard face. Her faded topknot of hair was more gray than red.
I stood up also, and she looked up into my face for a moment, squinting her eyes against the sun. Then she took hold of my arm, pushed me gently aside and strode past me and down the hill.
Watching her, watching the firm unfaltering stride, I somehow felt ashamed; and I wanted to run after her or call her back. And I stayed where I was and kept my mouth closed.
I knew I was making a mistake, just how bad a one I was yet to discover. But I knew of nothing else to do.
he Capital Car Company had a block-long sales lot on the outskirts of the downtown business district. A salesman directed me to a small frame office, surrounded and almost hidden by cars. I introduced myself to the manager, a brisk gold-toothed little man named Rivers.
“Oh, sure,” he said instantly. “Wife bought it for you. Very fine lady, very fine. Want to take a look at it?”
“I thought I’d take it with me,” I said.
“Take it or leave it. Wife said you might want to leave it a while. A fine lady, that.”
“Fine,” I said.
He led me halfway down a row of automobiles and stopped before a Ford coupe. It wasn’t junk, by any means, despite the scratched and lustreless body. The tires were new. I lifted the hood and saw an engine as clean as though it had been scrubbed with soap and water.
“Gettin’ a buy there,” Rivers declared. “Why, I bet you I coulda got two, two and a quarter for that car this morning if I hadn’t already sold it. Little old lady was down here lookin’ at it. Tell she knew cars, too.”
A Negro youth, an employee of the company, drove the car out to Doc’s house for me. Rivers followed in another car to take the youth back to town.
I left the coupe and the state car at the curb, and went up the walk to the house. As I climbed the steps the venetian blind at one of the front windows moved, and when I opened the front doors Mrs. Luther was standing in the door of her apartment.
She was wearing a flowered silk house coat with a bodice of some very sheer material. She smiled and stood back from the door, inviting me in.
“Now aren’t you a bad man!” she cried. “You found out about our surprise.”
“Is Doc here?” I said.
“Oh, no. He’s gone for the day. Come in.”
I stepped inside, stopping as near the door as I could without standing close to her. She closed the door, gave me another bright chiding smile and led me to one of the over-stuffed lounges.
“Now,” she said, pushing me down on the lounge with a playful gesture. “How did you find out?”
“Wasn’t I supposed to?” I said.
“Of course not. Not yet.”
“Oh—” I hesitated, “well, you can probably guess, Mrs. Luther. The highway department gets a daily list of title transfers. I saw that I owned a car, so I went down and got it. Shouldn’t I have?”
“Well…as long as you did. Of course, we intended to give it to you on your birthday.”
“That was very nice of you,” I said, “but I wonder if you haven’t made a mistake? My birthday was in March, more than two months ago.”
” she said. “Why, Doctor thought it was in May!”
“That’s too bad. If you or Doc want to get your money back…”
She shook her head, doubtfully. She was sure Doc wouldn’t want to do that. I murmured more thanks, wondering what went on beneath that vapidly beautiful face.
May and March. The months could easily have been confused. And the present of a car wasn’t at all out of keeping with Doc’s other acts of generosity toward me. I didn’t need one, immediately, but circumstances might change to where I would. What actually was there to be suspicious about?
I looked up at Lila Luther suddenly and caught a peculiar expression in her eyes. Something that was a mixture of shame and hunger. I smiled at her, and she smiled back; shyly, a faint blush spreading across the tawny cheeks. She felt the blush, too, and tried to fix her face against it.
I put out my hand, and let the fingers trail across her breasts.
She gasped, but she didn’t pull away. She sat and waited, biting at her lip.
“You’re out of character, Mrs. Luther,” I said. “Or are you in character? It’s got to be one way or the other.”
“I—I don’t know what you mean.” I could feel her mind racing, trying to think and not to think at the same time. “Y-you’ve got no right to question me!”
“You made one pass at me after another,” I said, “and you weren’t particular where or when you made them. And then Hardesty told you to lay off, and you did. You didn’t count on my making the passes. You don’t know what to do, now that I have.”
“I—” her eyes were glazing. “I know what to do.”
“Spill it! You were told to begin. You were told to stop. What’s it all about?”
She didn’t answer. She wriggled, moving closer to me; and her lips parted, and her eyelids flickered lazily. She seemed to have taken a deep, swelling breath and held it.
It was a good act, if it was one. I decided to see if it was, and, if so, how good. I caught the bodice with both hands and pulled out and down.
It came apart like paper, and she fell against me, flinging her arms around me, and crying.
“P-Pat!” It was almost a sob, frantic, hysterical with passion. “Oh, Pat…”
I let her draw me forward and down.
We still lay together, but I was thinking. The ash-blonde hair was sweetly damp against my face, and her lips brushed my ear, kissing, whispering, and the soft ripe body began to move again in tentative rhythm.
But I was thinking.
What if Doc should come in, now, I thought. What if the door should open and
The door did open.
A silver-backed hair brush stood on edge on the coffee table, mirroring the opening door. Mirroring Doc.
And, then, as gently as it had opened it closed again.
It closed; and cautiously the screen door opened and closed.
Seconds later I heard the quiet purr of a distant motor. Distant, then more distant.
Doc, the insanely jealous, had seen this—
—and driven away.
It all had taken place in seconds, not more than a minute. Too swiftly for shock and fear to follow. And Lila Luther hadn’t seen or heard.
I sat up. Shock was gripping me at last. A cold, weak feeling spread up through my chest and throat, and cold sweat broke out on my forehead.
“Darling!” She sat up, also, anxiety and hunger blending on her face. “What’s the matter?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Felt sick, all of a sudden.”
She whispered, “Maybe you’d better go,” and I went.
I wanted to tell her, to explain, and reason that had become unreason held me silent. Perhaps she shouldn’t know. Perhaps it would precipitate a crisis if she did. Why and how I didn’t know, but I sensed the danger. She couldn’t be trusted. She’d lied about the car. She’d lied figuratively, ever since I’d come to this house. She knew what was going on, and I didn’t, and if I told her this…
I didn’t know. I didn’t know what might happen. But I wasn’t going to tell her and find out.