Read The Only Girl in the Game Online

Authors: John D. MacDonald

Tags: #Mystery

The Only Girl in the Game (5 page)

BOOK: The Only Girl in the Game
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It is just simple logic. You cannot give yourself away totally to any man, no matter how great your need, if you no longer belong to yourself. And you do not belong to yourself, girl. You are leased out, in perpetuity. You belong to Them, and They are very relaxed and casual about their ownership until it is time to use your special
services. Then if you try to refuse, They know exactly how to explain the fact of ownership to you, and there is nothing to do but take your orders. You no longer belong to yourself.

Max Hanes gives the orders and, when it is over, you have the bonus—which he did not have to give you—and another smutch that won’t scrub off, and more material for bad dreams.

It is your problem, and nothing to be wished on Hugh, bless him.

As she swam there, feeling the long good stretch of her muscles, all her years were with her, clotted darkly in her throat, gagging her. And, as was her habit at such times, she cursed that girl she hardly knew, that Betty Dawson of nine years ago, that Stanford sophomore, that only daughter of Dr. Randolph Dawson, that girl of irritable restlessness, who felt cloistered and frustrated, and believed with all her heart she had great talent. Dazzled by the show biz dream, she was a perfect setup for the first cruel selfish bastard who came along and saw the dream and was willing to take it in trade.

Jackie Luster was the one who happened along. He had grinned at her out of the sleazy covers of two score fan magazines. He was glamor and importance and Her Big Chance. Naturally, the despair and heartbreak of her father meant nothing. The world had turned into a dream. When her father started to take legal action to get her away from Jackie, they went away together. They left the state. She was eighteen. She learned later that Jackie was at a low point in his career. He needed something fresh and young to set him off, so he bought material and worked up a double, and he trained her in heartless ways until she was the image he wanted. It was too late then to turn back.

They auditioned in Chicago and got a spot in a sleazy club in Cicero, and they were on their way. Somehow it was never the time or the place to get married. He had a vile temper, and he knew how to use his small hard fists so they hurt, and nothing hurt too much if you used a few drinks for a pillow. But, bruised or hungover or heartbroken, you always had to stand up in front of the baby spot and do it the way you were taught to do it—in Cicero, Chicago, Bayonne, Miami Beach, Biloxi, Mexico City.

Dreams die in strange ways. The show biz dream persisted longer than it should have, while she lived in shabby places with Jackie Luster and served him in the ways he demanded. But on a strangely disorganized houseparty
given by people who owned a club they were working, Jackie found it either politic, or a gesture of protest against her humble possessiveness, to load her up drunk enough so he could turn her over to one of the owners, in whose bed she awakened, at whose bedside she vomited. And though it was only peripheral, it killed what was left of the dream. It buried the wide-eyed sophomore. From then on, of course, there was much less chance of turning back, no chance at all to be Doctor Dawson’s pretty daughter ever again. And she continued to fulfill Jackie’s requirements, in an icy acceptance of a bargain made for better reasons.

Three years ago they were booked into Vegas, into the Glad Room at the Mozambique, and Jackie was beginning to get it all back, that perfect edge of timing, and a more judicious selection of material. As the room began to jump for him, he began to cut her material, shortening the musical bits, fattening his end of the monologue. After six socko months he had pushed her far enough out of it, close enough to the edge so he made that one last effort and dropped her.

“Who needs you?” he said. It seemed an apt summary of the whole thing.

But when you know you can’t go back, you have to make do with the little bit you have. She made a connection with a local agent-manager, a shy confused guy who had no idea how to sell talent, but knew how to build up the talent he was trying to peddle. So he added three factors—four if you add the looks and the figure and the sexy wardrobe: the true and husky voice of limited range, the piano playing—which was at best an accompaniment with chords, a la the late Dwight Fiske—and her knack of writing wry little lyrics and the music to go with them … a talent Jackie had scorned. Jackie had beaten timing into her. The little agent made her work with a mirror, made her concentrate on the mobility of her face until she had fifty clown faces to match the husky naughty lyrics. And then he showed her around, but she was nervous and could not put it over.

Max Hanes saw something in the package. And he knew she was broke and desperate and beautiful in her own special way, and he knew most of the things that can be done to desperate people, and he talked to her and learned what would work best with her.

That’s how they install the button. That’s how they wire you for chimes.

See what you did to me, schoolgirl? See where you put me? Many thanks, little sophomore. Many, many thanks.

She clambered up out of the pool seal-sleek and spectacular. As she walked smiling back toward Hugh Darren, she yanked her bathing cap off and fluffed her midnight hair, and then, on impulse, clowned for him, making a big wet Marilyn Monroe mouth, with the chin up and eyes hooded, and giving her hips all the roll and swing she could manage.

“They could pass laws about you, even in Vegas,” he said.

“It was all for you, dear.”

“The bystanders suffer, though. One of my younger lifeguards just walked into the ladder on the slide.”

She winked at him, toweled her face and shoulders dry, and clambered lithely back into the sun chaise with a sigh of contentment. “Just a bawdy impulse, I guess. Didn’t mean to destroy poolside morale. Just thought, mmmm, there’s ol’ Hugh and I’ll walk him a girl-type walk.”

She lay back, her face turned toward him. He sat on the towel beside the chaise, his gray-blue eyes level with, and less than a foot from, her dark blue eyes. And with that magic that was but a month old for them, they were suddenly enclosed in their own area of special and personal privacy.

“It was girl-type,” he said. “I will give you that. Yes.”

“Some days your eyes look green, even.” And she did something with her lips that so specifically invited his kiss that she saw his inadvertent leaning toward her.

“Oh, fine,” he said, scolding her in a mocking way. “We establish this poolside routine and some other routines of meeting here and there, and now you are giving me the walk, and trapping me into the kiss. So why don’t we just have the information tattooed across our foreheads so nobody will be in any doubt at all?”

“You have made me see it all, Mr. Darren. I have been unfair to you. I have been undermining your authority. I am causing your employees to whisper about you behind your back. The only decent thing I can do is to … sever our clandestine relationship right here and now.”

“Hey!” he said. “Hey, now!”

“You’ve made me see the error of my ways at last.” She did that thing with her mouth again.

“Stop that, dammit!”

She produced a tragic sigh. “Here it is Wednesday, the only night I have off in the whole week, and I was all set to be sly and sneaky and sort of skulk around so as not to completely destroy your reputation by having anybody see one of the entertainers sneak into your room. But now it is all over.
Indeed. Forsooth. Verily. I shall spend the evening reading something uplifting.”

He stared skyward for strength, wiped his hand slowly across his face, then glowered at her and said, “Why, O why do you give me hell on Wednesdays?”

She giggled. “No girl wants to make things

“Skulking is splendid exercise, Miss Dawson.”

“But should you really be so smug about all this, Hugh?”

“Smug?” His expression changed. “I’ll be serious for once, without you changing the subject. Now shut up and listen. Not smug, Betty. Eternally, quietly, humbly grateful. And not quite able to believe my own luck. I didn’t know there was such a thing as this kind of a relationship between a man and a woman. I thought there always had to be love or it was just a sort of cheap opportunism. But there’s a special, wonderful honesty about this. You are a hell of a nice guy, Betty. We became good friends before … we added the physical part. And now this whole thing of … giving and receiving pleasure seems to be such a logical extension of friendship and affection that it seems a damn shame more people can’t find it the way we have, without tension and friction.”

“That’s right. You’re unbearably smug. I’m just another fool woman. You are using me, you cad.”

“Sure am,” he said, grinning. “Couldn’t possibly stop now. Don’t you ever want to say anything in a serious vein?”

“You, my managerial friend, are serious enough for both of us. Let’s not pick at things and analyze them and make a lot of goopy comparisons, Hugh. That bird over there in that bush will never need psychiatry. He just busts his throat singing, and takes things as they come.”

“And so should we?”

“Don’t you think so?”

“Of course I do, Betty. Like this is Wednesday night, so let’s take it.”

“Trapped,” she said. “Outmaneuvered again. Ah, sir, you are too clever for stupid broad in entertainment field, no? Broad condemned to career of skulking to save reputation. But may humble girl ask favor from mighty manager?”

“Anything your shriveled little heart desires, cutie.”

“Honestly, I am exhausted, Hugh. So, with your permission, I’ll sneak into your room about seven or maybe a little later, and please see if you can keep yourself busy long enough so I can have a long nap. May I say, solemnly, that it is one of those little favors you won’t regret?”

He looked at her eyes and her lips. “Damn this secrecy kick. I’d like to brag about you. Take ads in the paper. Buy air time.”

“Let’s just keep it to ourselves, hmmmm?”

He stood up. “I’ve got a five o’clock date with some gift-shop people who don’t like our standard lease.”

“Give ’em hell, Mr. D. Tell them what for.”

“You have a happy nap.”

She winked at him. He turned and walked away from her. When he reached the service-alley gate he looked back and waved from the distance. She lifted one long leg in sardonic salute. When he was gone she said, moving her lips, making no sound, “I love you, I love you, I love you with all my heart, Hugh Darren.”

And that is the message I cannot give you, ever. And it is that love, you dull darling, which keeps it all from being cheap. I wrap everything in my love, all for you, and it is all right if you call it friendship, because I’m going to take all of it I can get, drink deep and fast of it, because I know it is going to end and I just don’t know how soon.

A man hairy as a bison, and almost as large, moved in on her, bringing his chair and planting it next to the chaise, facing her. “I certainly admire your work, Miss Dawson. I caught your midnight show last night.”

She saw, with weary amusement, that his eyes were tracking back and forth from her ankles to her throat as though he watched a midget tennis match. “Ummm,” she said.

In a soporific drone he began to tell her all about himself. She thought about her nap in Hugh’s bed and she thought about Hugh with great precision of erotic detail, and thus comforted, baked by a slanting sun, she slid off into a cat nap right in the middle of the bison’s explanation of how it had practically stolen the tract of land on which it had erected its third shopping center.

• • •  three

As Betty Dawson was drifting into her cat nap down by the pool, Al Marta, in his penthouse apartment atop the east wing of the Cameroon, was awakening from his afternoon siesta. The master bedroom was of sufficient luxury
to remind Al Marta, each time he returned from dreams of ancient violence, that he was safe and well and rich. The decor affirmed his heavy ownership—even though it was partially a front—of the Cameroon. It spoke of his freedom from the indignity of any kind of arrest for many years. It was safe harbor, rich, protected, loaded with all the niceties of the standard hoodlum dream. With Max Hanes down there operating the casino, and the Darren kid running the hotel, and with good talent running the other aspects of his local operations, the days were made of silk and broads, bourbon and laughs, and there were a thousand important people who loved him and called him Al.

He checked and learned he had napped alone, knuckled his eyes, dug at the coarse gray thatch on his chest and got up, yawning so vastly that he tottered. He pulled on a pair of rumpled linen slacks, smoothed his thinning hair back with the palms of his hands, fired up a cigar and walked barefoot out into the main living room of the apartment to see who was around. There had to be someone around. He had arranged his life so there would be. He had to have people near him. He needed them close, where he could touch them, look at them, laugh with them.

The music was turned low. Gidge Allen and Bobby Waldo were playing gin. Beaver Brownell was slumped on a low couch, soft-talking, with practiced insistence, a young blonde broad from the chorus line of the current show in the Safari Room. She sat, glass in hand, her expression rapt and blank, while the Beaver emphasized the highlights of his muted lecture by touching, lightly and often, the golden convexity of her right thigh just below the hem of her shorts.

Jerry Buckler was asleep on one of the other couches, blowing small bubbles in the corner of his mouth.

Al went over to the control panel and boosted the volume of the music. He wandered over and watched Gidge throw the seven of hearts. Bobby Waldo hesitated over his next discard, then threw the seven of diamonds. Gidge snatched it up to fit right in the middle of a diamond run, and Bobby Waldo mumbled, “Advertising son of a bitch.”

“Stay alert, son,” Gidge said smugly.

Al made himself a light highball and said to the group at large, “Where’s the action? Who’s ahead?”

“The home team,” Beaver told him.

“What’s the score? Don’t tell me. Nothing to nothing, the way it looks around here. You people are dragging it. Where the hell is Artie?”

BOOK: The Only Girl in the Game
11.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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