Authors: Jim Thompson
he trap was snapping shut, I could feel it; a sensation of things rushing in on me from every side.
On Monday morning I stopped by the capitol to leave a bunch of the survey forms for Rita Kennedy. They were meaningless, of course, but appearances had to be kept up. Firmly entrenched as the highway department crowd was, even they were not taking unnecessary chances in an election year.
Rita Kennedy wasn’t in, and she’d left word that she wanted to see me. I passed the day reading and driving, and went back to the capitol again that evening.
Rita took the forms I handed her with a crisp smile.
“I hope I didn’t inconvenience you by not being here this morning, Pat?”
“Not at all,” I said.
“I’m glad to hear it. Is it raining out?”
I said it was. “At least, it’s starting to.”
“Oh, damn,” she said. “I’ll never be able to get a taxi this time in the evening. And, of course, this is one day when I wouldn’t bring an umbrella.”
“I’ve got my car here,” I said. “The state car, that is. If you’d care to have me…”
“I would,” she said instantly. “Get down my coat while I’m locking my desk. I want to get out of here.”
I helped her on with her coat, and she gave my arm a little squeeze as we went out the door. She held onto my arm all the way down the corridor and out to the car. And she didn’t exactly lean away from me.
“I’ve been meaning to have a talk with you for some time, Pat,” she said, as I pulled the car away from the curb. “Can you talk while you’re driving?”
“Why, yes,” I said.
“Perhaps I’d better not have you. This traffic makes me nervous, and the rain makes it worse. We’ll wait until we get to my apartment.”
“Fine,” I said.
“You don’t have to hurry home for any reason?”
“Not at all.”
“We’ll wait, then. I won’t keep you long.”
“It’ll be all right if you do,” I said.
“I won’t. Don’t talk any more, please.”
She gave me her address, and I kept quiet all the way. I stopped in front of a large apartment house, and a doorman with an umbrella ushered us to the door. An elevator shot us up to some floor near the top.
I don’t know how many rooms there were in the apartment. But I know it must have been large and expensive. It was the kind of place you have when you like good things and have had the money to buy them for a long time.
A Negro maid in a white cap took our wraps, and Rita asked me what I’d like to drink.
“Scotch will do me fine.”
“I’ll have the same…Sit down there by the fire, Pat.”
I took a chair in front of the fireplace, and Rita came over and stood by the mantel, pausing on the way to arrange a vase on the grand piano. When the drinks came she nodded to me over her glass, lifted it, and set it down almost empty.
“Something tells me that’s quite a bit better than they serve in Sandstone.”
“Yes,” I said, “it is.”
“Don’t be so sensitive about it,” she said. “We went into your background thoroughly, Pat. Believe it or not, we’re extremely careful about whom we hire in the highway department.”
“You must be,” I said; and she chuckled.
“I think you’ll get along all right, Pat. If you’ll come to your senses. Have you found yourself a new sponsor, yet? Burkman’s out, you know.”
“No,” I said. “I didn’t know he was out.”
“Oh, yes. Losing the election is only a formality. We weren’t positive when we took you on, and we never put the lid on until we are positive. Fortunately for you, and a lot of others.”
I said, “Well—”
“We’re the largest of all the departments; we have the most jobs. That enables us—the top handful—to perpetuate ourselves. If we see a likely looking candidate we may start handing him patronage, even though the election is a year off. When we see a man on the downgrade we shake him. We kick his jobholders out. We lick him with his own people, and let the new man in. We’ve shaken Burkman.”
“And you’re…kicking his people out?”
“We’ve kicked them out. All except you. I thought we might make a trade with you.”
“What kind of a trade?” I said.
“A job for some information.”
“I don’t have any information you could use.”
“I’m probably a better judge of that than you are. We’re curious. We think there may be straws in the wind that we can’t see. Doc’s taken a lot of trouble with you. He’s pretty good at playing both ends against the middle, himself. What’s the answer?”
I shook my head; I hardly knew her. This was going too far too fast.
“I don’t know the answer,” I said. “And I couldn’t tell you if I did. Doc took me out of Sandstone.”
“And he could send you back?”
“Yes. But I don’t need threats to keep me from double-crossing my friends.”
She nodded, smiling a little, as if she’d expected me to say that.
“I think a stretch in the penitentiary might do a lot of my acquaintances some good, Pat. Well, you can have the job, anyway. Another drink?”
“No, thanks,” I said. “And perhaps you’d better not let me keep the job.”
“Nonsense,” she said. “You’re being melodramatic; if you can pick up any valuable information around there, I’ll split the proceeds with you. No. The only way you’ll be able to help Doc is to give him part of your salary.”
“I’ll be glad to do that,” I said.
“You’re planning to stay with us, then. I wondered. You see, we watch car transfers very closely. I thought you might be going away.”
“No, ma’am,” I said. “It’s an old car. I just bought it to knock around in.”
“Oh? I understood that you were keeping the state car after hours.”
“I am,” I said. “What I’ll probably do is fix up the one I bought in my spare time, and resell it.”
“I couldn’t leave, Miss Kennedy. I’d be breaking my parole.”
“So I understood,” she said. “I wondered if you did. You’d have a great deal to lose by leaving, Pat. What would you gain?”
“Nothing. I’m not leaving.”
She smiled, shaking her gray head slightly.
“Have you read a book called
“No—yes. Alphonse Daudet, wasn’t it?”
“The hero had strong obligations too, if you remember. A career, a proud family. And all he had to gain was a harlot. An unusually lovely harlot—but aren’t they all when a man falls in love with them?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.
“I’m talking about Mrs. Luther.”
I said, “Oh,” and I think I sighed inwardly with relief.
“It would be very easy for you to be in love with her. I wouldn’t blame you at all.”
“But I’m not.” She couldn’t have heard anything. If there was that much talk, if it had already got to her…
“What would you do if I called you a liar?”
“Well,” I smiled. “From you, I’d take it.”
“Consider it said, then. You’re the worst possible kind of liar.”
“All right,” I said.
“If I were you I’d do a great deal of thinking. Doc has never made any impression upon me except in a slippery sort of way, but he’s gone through a lot for that wife of his and he won’t give her up easily. There’s a blind spot in every man; there’s something he’d kill for. Leave Mrs. Luther alone. Don’t have anything to do with her, and don’t let her have anything to do with you.”
“Maybe—” I hesitated, “maybe I don’t see what you’re driving at, Miss Kennedy. Mrs. Luther is inclined a little to make up to a man, whether the man is interested or not—”
“That isn’t what I mean.”
“Will you have another drink? I’m going to have to start dressing in about five minutes.”
“No, thank you.” I got up. “I appreciate your talking to me, Miss Kennedy,” I said. “But you seem to have heard something that just isn’t true. Someone’s been misrepresenting me to you,” I said.
“No one misrepresents anything to me.”
“Well, I don’t blame you for not wanting to stick your neck out. But if there’s talk going around—”
“Goodnight, Pat. This conversation was strictly between us. You don’t need to worry about that.”
“What do I need to worry about?”
She smiled, but she sounded angry; or, rather, disgusted. It was almost as if she said, “Good God!”
I rode back downstairs and jumped in the car, slamming the door after me. It was late, now, and the rain made the night darker. I didn’t know he was there until he spoke—until a match flared and raised up to a face beneath a slouch-brimmed hat.
recognized him just in time to keep from swinging. Or rather to stop the swing I’d started.
“That,” I said, settling back on the seat, “is a good way of getting killed, Mr. Eggleston.”
“There is no good way of getting killed, Mr. Cosgrove. I see your point, though. I didn’t realize I was quite so invisible.”
“How did you find me?”
“Find you? You mean you’re trying to avoid discovery?”
“You know what I mean.”
“Yes. Well, it wasn’t a task that strained my professional capabilities. Whoever got your parole would have strong political connections. Those connections would almost certainly be used in getting you a job. A few hours of observation, a few discreet inquiries—and here I am.”
“You followed me from the capitol.”
“So. I thought it would be better, say, than calling you at Dr. Luther’s.”
I turned the switch key, and stepped on the starter. His cigarette arced down to the floor, and I heard his heel grind it out. I heard something else, too.
“Going some place, Mr. Cosgrove?”
“I thought I’d drive some place where we could talk,” I said.
“We can talk very well here. But drive on, if you like. I only hope you will do nothing that will make it necessary for me to shoot you.”
“Hell,” I laughed, and I shut off the motor. “Why would I do anything like that?”
“Because you might feel I was dangerous to you, whereas I’m actually your buckler and your shield. I have much more to sell you than silence. Something even more golden, from any standpoint.”
“Let’s hear it,” I said.
“A question or two, first. And please, for your own sake, be very accurate with your answers. Number one: What prompted Dr. Luther to get your parole? Did you talk with him while he was visiting Sandstone, or—”
“I wrote him a letter. Him and probably a hundred others. He was the only one to respond.”
“Oh, good. Very good. You had no acquaintance with him whatsoever, right?”
“Right,” I said. “I’ve already told you that.”
“Question number two: How long was it after you wrote this letter before Dr. Luther acted in your behalf?”
“I don’t know exactly. As I say, it was one of a number of letters, and I didn’t keep track of them. I think it must have been around three months.”
“I think it must have been, too, Mr. Cosgrove. In fact, I’d take an oath on it. Now—”
“Just a minute,” I said. “How do you know that?”
“Because the time corresponds with another act—a series of acts, I should say—by Dr. Luther. Acts which provide the motive for your parole. Now, question number three: Has anything happened which would incline you to believe that you might be forced into a disastrous quarrel with Dr. Luther?”
“Yes,” I said.
“I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure of meeting the lady. Is she a raving beauty—the kind to successfully inspire a mortal quarrel?”
“Not for my money,” I said. “But a lot of men would be crazy about her. You’ve probably seen her type. Tall, blonde, beautiful. And a bum.”
He grunted. With surprise, it seemed. But when he spoke it was in his usual flat monotone.
“Well, that’s about all, Mr. Cosgrove. Except for a rhetorical question. Have you dwelt any on the fact that Dr. Luther is now approaching the end of his political career, and that he must have seen the beginning of that end at about the time he received your letter?”
“I’ve thought about it a great deal,” I said.
“All right,” I said, “I’m curious. I’m more than curious. What have you got to tell me?”
“Nothing more, Mr. Cosgrove. Until I’m convinced, in a very concrete manner, that my words will be appreciated.”
“I haven’t got it.”
“A technicality. You can get it. Any man who’s done as much time as you have in a place like Sandstone knows how to get money.”
“You think I’m going to—”
“I think you’re going to do whatever is necessary to get that five hundred.”
“What are you going to tell me for the five hundred?”
“The answer to your riddle. How to keep Patrick Cosgrove alive and at liberty. When you know what I know—and make certain parties acquainted with that fact—your troubles will vanish even as the legendary snowball in hell.”
“I’m pretty much mixed up,” I said. “I don’t see how.…How soon do you want the money?”
“Not later than tomorrow night. Say six o’clock.”
“That isn’t much time.”
“I don’t think you have very much, Mr. Cosgrove. From the way things are shaping up, I think your time is running out very fast. Unless you know what I know by tomorrow night, I don’t think it will be of much value to you—or to me.”
“But six o’clock,” I said. “Something might come up that I couldn’t get away that early. Could you make it after dinner, around eight?”
“That will be after dark,” he said. “The other tenants will be out of their offices.”
“What of it?”
“That’s right. What? I’ll be expecting trouble from you. Expecting it, Mr. Cosgrove. So I wouldn’t bring anything with me, if I were in your place, but the money.”
“Oh, hell,” I laughed. “What would it get me?”
“Eight o’clock, then.”
“I’ll be there.”
I’ll be there before eight. I’ll be there when you get back from your dinner.
oc was backing his car out as I stepped off the porch, and I stood and waited for him to pass. He stopped and called to me, smiling.
“How’s the job going, Pat?” he said. “Haven’t kicked you out yet, have they?”
“Why, no,” I said, showing a proper amount of surprise at the question. “Were they supposed to?”
“Maybe not. It may be a little early yet. They haven’t said anything to you about Burkman, eh?”
“Not a word.” I shook my head. “Is there some trouble?”
“We-ell—” he hesitated, “nothing that you need to worry about. We’ll have to get you a new sponsor, but that shouldn’t be difficult. Any number of the boys should be glad to come through for you.”
“Fine,” I said. “I’m glad to hear it.”
“But I suspect we should be getting you a little better acquainted. Suppose you make it a point to be on hand tomorrow night. Around eight o’clock. I’m having a group in at that time.”
I said I’d be there.
With a sigh of relief, I watched him back out the driveway and drive off. If he’d said tonight at eight I couldn’t have met Eggleston. And if I missed out on that—
It would have been far better for me if I had missed out.
I drove out to the capitol building, circled around it, and headed back toward town. I backtracked on my trail several times, making sure that no one was following me, and reached the business district in about an hour. There I put the car on a parking lot and went to a picture show.
I left the show by a side street exit, ate lunch, and spent a couple of hours at the public library. After that I did some shopping.
I bought a small but strong pair of wire snips, a roll of adhesive tape, a pair of gloves, and a pocket flashlight. All in different stores. I went into a public toilet, unwrapped the articles and stowed them away in my pockets. I came out to the street again and sauntered slowly toward the market district.
It was now a little after five in the afternoon.
Catty-cornered to the building in which Eggleston had his offices was a workingman’s bar. It was a grimy unattractive place, unpleasantly but effectively advertised by its odor of stale beer and fried fish. I wouldn’t have eaten in it for pay, and I was sure Eggleston wouldn’t.
I sat down at the bar, near the entrance, and ordered a drink. I glanced out the fly-specked window.
The view wasn’t as good as I’d liked to have had. I could see the windows of Eggleston’s offices, but I couldn’t see the entrance to the building. That was on the side street, back near the alley.
I sipped my drink, waiting, watching his office windows. I didn’t think he’d seen through my plan. It seemed to me that if he had he’d have said so, since it would get him nothing to let me go ahead. He might not go out to dinner, of course. In that case, I’d have to think of something else.
At six o’clock lights started coming on in the building. Some of them stayed on, but most went off after a few minutes. The shades at Eggleston’s windows were drawn, and I had to stare hard to determine whether the lights were on or not.
At last, around six-thirty, when it was getting dark, I saw the broken lines of light around the shades. I saw them just in time to see them disappear. That left all the offices on his floor dark. It was better than I had hoped for.
I waited fifteen minutes more, then left the bar.
There were two elevators in the building, but only one was running at this time of night. I began looking at the office directory.
“Help you with somethin’, mister?”
I shook my head without looking around.
He muttered something under his breath, and his stool creaked as he sat down again. Then the elevator signal buzzed, and he said “Goddam” and he got up and rattled the control.
I didn’t say anything and I didn’t look around. He banged the door shut and the car went up. I jerked open the door to the stairs and raced up them.
At the third floor landing I heard the elevator coming down, and I waited until its lights flashed on the foyer and disappeared. Then I ran down the corridor and around the corner, jerking the gloves over my hands.
Eggleston’s outer office, the reception room, had a long pebble-glassed transom extending from the wall to the door casing. A short metal chain at each end allowed it to hang open a few inches.
I cut the chains with the wire snips and let the transom drop gently inward. I swung myself up and through the opening. I landed inside, swinging my feet just in time to avoid crashing down on a chair. I pushed the chair beneath the transom, climbed up on it, and took out the adhesive tape. I moved the transom back in its original position and taped the chains together again.
I sat down and rested.
My wrist watch said seven o’clock now. Eggleston had been gone approximately thirty minutes. Since our appointment was for eight, he’d hardly return before another half hour. That left me a lot of time…to do what?
I started to light a cigarette, then put the package and the match back in my pocket. He might notice the smoke. Someone might notice the flare of the match.
I turned the pencil-beam of the flashlight on my watch again. Thirty minutes or more and not much to do but wait. I didn’t know what to look for. At any rate, he’d hardly leave anything like this on paper. It would be in his head, something he could tell me.
I wondered how hard it would be to make him talk.
I hefted the wire snips, and stood up. How close to the door could I stand without being seen against the glass? And which side would be best to stand on? Here on the left or on the other side, where I could be behind it when it opened?
Probably here. He might sense something and he’d be armed. I might not be able to get out from behind the door fast enough.
I sat down and waited. And gradually, I felt my head turning toward the right, toward the door of the inner office. It was closed and the office was dark, and of course he wasn’t there. He wouldn’t be sitting in there in the dark. He hadn’t expected me to do what I had, so why would he be there?
I thought that one over, and my head kept turning toward the door. And finally I got up and walked over to it, and turned the knob.
It was unlocked.
I pushed it open slowly.
I ducked back and flattened myself against the partition, and then I moved away from it and stepped inside and flicked on the flashlight.
The beam moved across the desk. He was bent forward a little on his elbows; his hands lay on top of each other carelessly; and the chair was drawn close to the desk, holding his body against it.
He wouldn’t be talking that night or any other. He was through talking for all time.