Yeah, I just saw the filmi. Did you know Raymond Chandler gets a cameo, quarter of an hour in, by the way ?
Anyway, I couldn't make it through all of it in this sitting, not least because the script is miserableii, but principally because Stanwyck's no actressiii and I'm in no mood for 1930s coat check girls -- even leaving aside that she's way past the use-by date in 1944 and who the fuck told women they may not show how well they've shaved their pubis ?!
Consequently... you've got yourself a rewrite!iv But before we get to that, here's the old cover -- mostly to add insult to injury upon the "copyrights" industryv, but also to ask you... guess how the Romanian got the role ?
I drove out to Glendale -- they had three new trucks, and there were three new truck drivers to go with them, go nice and jointly all the way down to the brewery company's bond. It went faster than I expected it would, but then I remembered this renewal over in Hollywoodistan. I ran over there, that's how I came to know this "House of Death" that you've been reading about in the papers.
It didn't look like much of a House of Death when I saw it. Just a Spanish house, the sort everyone was nuts about ten or fifteen years ago. This set of white walls with the red tile roof and a patio out to one side must've set someone back about thirty thousand dollars or so. It was built cock-eyed. The garage was under the house, the first floor was over that, and the rest of it spilled up the hill any way they could get it in. The front door took some climbing, so I parked the car and climbed up there. A servant poked her head out.
"Is Mr. Nirdlinger in?"
"I don't know, sir. Who's wants to sees 'im?"
"And what's the business?"
Getting in is the tough part of this racket, and the main trick is you don't tip what you came for 'til you get in where it counts.
"I'm sorry, sir, but they won't let me ask anybody in unless they say what they want."
Just one of those spots you get in. If I harped some more on the "personal" line I'd be making a mystery of it, and that's no good. If I said what I really wanted, I'd just be setting myself up to watch the negress sway her leave and then, as sure as she left she'd be back, five minutes later, to tell me what every insurance agent could do without ever hearing again : "Not in." But I couldn't just say I'd wait, either. That makes one look small, and insignificant, and making yourself look small and insignificant never helped a sale yet... unless, of course, you count marriage. Fleas and such get by well enough on that premise, but an insurance salesman's too bulky to fit down that hole. To move this stuff, you've got to get in all above-board, like. Once you're in it's easier, they think they've got to listen to you, and you can pretty near rate an agent by how quick he gets to the family sofa with his hat on one side of him and his dopevi sheets on the other.
"I see. I told Mr. Nirdlinger I would drop in, but never-mind. I'll see if I can make it some other time."
It was true, in a way. On this automobile stuff, you always make it a point that you'll give a reminder on renewal. In this case though I hadn't seen him for a year or more. Yet it made it all sound like an old friend, and an old friend that wasn't any too pleased at the welcome he got. It worked. The negress got a worried look on her face. "Well -- come in, sir."
If I had used all that juice that got me in trying to keep out instead, that might have got me somewhere. Somewhere else, at any rate.
A woman was standing way up there, above the entryway. I had never seen her before. She was maybe twenty-nine, if you know how that goes, but with a sweet face. Light blue eyes and dusty blonde hair, and a towel wrapped around her. Believe me, there was plenty there to wrap, too. But you've seen the pictures.
"I wanted to see Mr. Nirdlinger."
"Herbert isn't in just now, but I am Mrs. Nirdlinger. Is there something I could do?"
There was nothing left to do but spill it, now.
"Why no, I think not, Mrs. Nirdlinger, thanks just the same. Huff is my name, Walter Huff, of the General Fidelity of California. Mr. Nirdlinger's automobile coverage runs out in about ten days, and I promised to give him a reminder on it. I thought I'd drop by and save him the hassle, but I certainly didn't mean to bother you about it."
"Insurance. I guess I took a chance coming up here in the daytime, but I happened to be in the neighborhood, so I thought it wouldn't hurt. When do you think would be a good time to see Mr. Nirdlinger? Could he give me a few minutes right after dinner, do you think, so I wouldn't cut into his evening?"
"What kind of insurance has he been carrying?" came the unexpected inquiry. She must have realised asking that's about as queer as showing up mid day knocking on people's doors, so she blushed a little. "I ought to know, but he never tells me anything."
"I guess nobody thinks it a big deal until something happens. Just the usual line : collision, fire, theft, and public liability."
"Oh yes, of course."
"It's only a routine matter, but he ought to attend to it in time, so he'll be protected." I paused. "I'd hate to think of... something happening... while you're not... fully covered." I squirted in spurts at her, but it didn't make her blush, not in the slightest.
"Perhaps I know what you mean, Mr. Huff. I've just been taking a sunbath."
"No pigeons around, I hope ?"
"About those policies, I'd hate to take up your time, but..."
"Oh, that's alright."
"If you'll wait 'til I put something on, I'll be right with you." then turning to the girl, "Nettie, show Mr. Huff into the living room."
"If it won't be too much", I offered. She took the hint, but disappeared without saying anymore on it.
I pitched my hat on the sofa. They've squeezed a lot out of that hill-top living room, those "blood-red drapes" and the whole rest of it. Newspaper pap through and through. What I saw was not more nor any less than whatever other living room in California. Maybe a little more expensive than about half of them, but still nothing any department store wouldn't deliver on one truck, lay out in the morning, and have the credit O.K. ready the same afternoon. The furniture was Spanish, the kind that looks pretty and sits stiff. The rug was one of those 12 x 15's that could have been Mexican if it weren't made in Oakland, Californiavii. The red drapes were there, but they didn't mean anything ; not to anyone. All these Spanish houses have red velvet drapes that run on iron spears, and generally some red velvet wall tapestries to go with them. This was right out of the same can. In spite of the coat-of-arms tapestry over the fireplace and a castle tapestry over the sofa there's not enough blood in all of California to match the red of a tenth of all these drapes, so they can't possibly be blood red all of them. Just one, I guess. The other two sides of the room were windows and the entrance to the hall.
The air was stiff with the floating remnants of last night's cigars. The windows were closed. The rich sunshine coming through the cracked Venetian blinds showed up all the dust in the air. On the requisite piano, in a couple of gaudy frames, were Mr. Nirdlinger and a very young girl. She didn't look anything like my hostess, either. There was a bowl of those little goldfish on the table behind the big davenport, but to tell the truth... I wasn't all that interested in little red fish just then, nor in Mr. Nirdlinger or his coverage needs. On the contrary, it was his wife's... discoverage needs, let's say, that had my full attention. I was thinking about that dame upstairs, and the way she looked at me... I was trying to guess what her idea of not too much would turn out to be. A come-on ? A come-back ? A turn-off ? A pat-down ? I just wanted her again, but up close, without that silly stairwell between us.
"I wasn't long, was I ?"
"Not at all."
"I hope I've got my face on straight."
"Let's see." and with that I grabbed her close, the tips of our noses almost touching. That's what you do with dames, pull them in close and look deep in their eyes. But then you let them go, see, that's the whole trick of it. They'll draw in a deep breath when you pull them in, and the whole thing is to let them go again before they have the time to finish sucking in that air and start blowing it back out again through the mouth. "It's perfect for my money", I said as she spun away.
It was. Plenty to squeeze was right, that old dog Nirdlinger had some fine kitten all tangled up in his Spanish furnishings. But perhaps she could be extracted yet ?
"Huff is the name, isn't it ?" came out of her.
"That's right. With two F's, like philadelphia, if you know the story."
"Suppose we sit down and you tell me about the insurance. My husband never tells me anything."
"Well, it's on your two cars, the LaSalle and the Plymouth. We've been handling this for Mr. Nirdlinger for three years now and..." I stopped to take a good look at her. She let me take it, and then she bit her lip. "... and we'd hate to see them lapse."
"Would you, Mr. Huff ? Would you hate to see the lapse ?"
"That's a honey of an anklet you're wearing, Mrs. Nirdlinger." but she hid her ankle under the other leg immediately and without looking at me. "As I was saying... of course there's a few days left ; and then we give it thirty days. That's all we're allowed to give it."
"I guess he's been too busy down at Long Beach. You know, the oilfields."
"Do you know the Long Beach oil fields, Mr. Huff ?" she asked me pointedly. "They're short and dark and as slick as you'd like" she continued, a strange fury in her eye. I had like a hunch she might be hinting at something, but I couldn't make out what it was. Or maybe I could.
"I can't say that I do, Mrs. Nirdlinger. Do you think I could catch him some evening for a few minutes ?"
"I suppose you could. In any case he's never home much before eight o'clock."
"That's fine with me."
"You're not connected with the Automobile Club, are you ?"
"No, it's the General Fidelity."
"Fidelity..." she repeated, dreamily. "Somebody from the Automobile Club has been trying to get him also. Do they have a better rate ?"
"If your husband's a member."
"He isn't. All with Fidelity, Mr. Nirdlinger."
"You can't do better than the Automobile Club. They're prompt, liberal in their view of claims, and courteous straight down the line. I've not got a word to say against them."
That's one thing you learn, sooner or later : never knock the other guy's stuff.
"And then it's cheaper." she pricked me, a strange smile dancing in her eye.
"I thought only members could get it."
"What I mean is this. If a man's going to join the Automobile Club anyway, for service in time of trouble, taking care of tickets, things like that, then if he takes their insurance too, he gets it cheaper. He certainly does. But if he's going to join the club just to get the insurance, by the time he adds that $16 membership fee to the premium rate, he's paying more. Figuring all in, I can still save Mr. Nirdlinger a little bit of money."
She talked along, and there was nothing for me but to go along with her. By the time you sell as many people as I have, though, you've long stopped going by what they say. You feel it, how the deal is going. Soon enough it was plainly obvious this woman didn't care anything about the Automobile Club, or automobile insurance or automobiles altogether. Maybe the husband did, but she certainly didn't. There was something else at work there, but we hadn't gotten there yet, we were still working our way through her stall. Together.
Sometimes housewives come up with proposals to split the commission, so they get a ten-spot out of it without the husband knowing. It seems like a bad idea at first. It sounds like doing twice the work for half the money. Sooner or later you wise up and figure in what else comes with the deal. No working girl will work it any good for that little. Not even the Mexican girls down by the oil slicks, if you're willing to go down that low. The housewife's more starved for that kind of attention than you are anyway, at least half the time if not most of the time. Besides, what can she do about it ? You've got a secret shared, and it's too small and too stupid a secret to confess. Women can stand many things, but not petty ridicule, that's for sure. At least not any women I've ever run into. There's no way out for her once she goes into this partnership, and so by the time you've a year or two in this line you know there's no better deal you can get for a tenner anywhere -- no bank, no stock broker, no general store, no diner and no burlesque show can ever dream to match what you can squeeze out of it right here, in someone else's suburban home.
I never passed on splitting the commission with a housetrapped girl if I got the chance and she wasn't a complete dog -- and hot damn was Mrs. Nirdlinger anything but. She could have made a career for herself in the pictures, that's for damn sure, and there was no doubt in my mind Mr. Nirdlinger had fished her out a chorus line somewhere. But instead of that she looked at me all of a sudden, and her eye sent a chill creeping straight up my back and into the roots of my hair.
"Do you handle accident insurance?" were the next words out of her. They're tattooed in my brain, I remember it all exactly. I sometimes hear in my sleep, "do you handle accident insurance ?" Well... do I or don't I ?
Maybe that doesn't mean to you what it meant to me. In the first place, accident insurance is sold, not bought. You get calls for almost all the other kinds. For fire, you get calls, and then for burglary. For life, even, but for accidents -- never. That stuff moves when agents move it and then only. So it sounds queer to be asked about it, that kind of queer like going about on a ship asking what kind of drill would make a hole big enough to sink it.
Because that's the other end of it : when there's dirty work going on, accident is the first thing they think of. There's good reasons for it, too, not just because they're never pros and are worried about botching the big job. Dollar for dollar paid down, there's a bigger face coverage on accident than any other kind. And it's the one kind of insurance that can be taken out without the insured knowing a thing about it. No physical examination for accident. On accident all they want is the money, and there's many a man walking around today that's worth more to his loved ones dead than alive, only he doesn't know it yet. But that's also how you know they're not pros -- the only way to get away with murder is to not have any connection to the corpse. Not before it became a corpse, at any rate. Being a pro and taking out insurance are mutually exclusive in the sense marriage and a good time don't go well together : by the time he's put the chain link on your finger he'd be a fool to waste his time or money showing you a good time. It makes sense, dunnit ?
"We handle all kinds of insurance."
She switched back to the Automobile Club, and I tried to keep my eyes off her. I tried, which is to say I didn't. She kept squeezing herself closer to me on the sofa. She'd have been astride me if she kept at it for another minute when finally, "Would you like me to talk to my husband about this, Mr. Huff?"
Why would she talk to him about his insurance, instead of letting me do it? "That would be fine, Mrs. Nirdlinger."
"It would save time."
"Wish you'd show me what's engraved on that anklet."
"How about I tell you instead ?"
"Not quite the same."
"It's just my name."
"As for instance ?"
"Phyllis, huh. I think I like that."
"But you're not quite sure ?"
"I'd have to drive it around the block a couple of times to be sure."
"Mr. Huff, why don't you drop by tomorrow evening, say eight-thirty ? He'll be in by then."
"My husband. You were anxious to see my husband, weren't you ?"
"I was, yeah. But to tell you the truth I'm sort of getting over the idea."
"There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Huff. 45 miles an hour."
"How fast was I, officer ?"
"I'd say about ninety."
"Ah, I was afraid I was too slow. Suppose you get off your motorcycle and give me a ticket ?"
"Suppose I let you off with a warning this time."
"Suppose it doesn't take."
"I guess I might have to crack you one."
"Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder."
"How about you try putting it on my husband's shoulder ?"
"Alright, that tears it. 8:30 tomorrow evening, then."
"I'll be expecting you."
"Same dress, same perfume, same anklet ?"
"I wonder if I know what you mean."
I tipped my hat at her and found my way out. By the time I got in the car I was bawling myself out for being such a fool. Just because a woman had given me one sidelong look, that's all it takes now ?! It was a hot afternoon. I still remember the smell of honeysuckle all along her street.
When I got back to the office I found Keyes had been looking for me. Keyes is head of the Claim Department, and the most tiresome man in the whole world to do any kind of business with. You can't even say today is Tuesday without he has to look on the calendar, and then check if it's this year's calendar or last year's calendar, and then find out what company printed the calendar, and then find out if their calendar checks with the World Almanac calendar. That amount of useless work you'd think would keep down his weight, but it doesn't even. He gets fatter every year, and more peevish, and he's always in some kind of a feud with one department or another, if he can't figure out a way to get two of them quarelling with each other that is, or else both with him at the same time. He'd probably find fault with old Pete's own books up at the Pearly Gate, and soon enough he will, too. But until then he does little more than sit with his collar open, and sweat, and quarrel, and argue, until your head begins spinning around just for being in the same room with him. Also, he's a wolf on a phony claim.
When I got in there he got up and began to roar. It was a truck policy I had written about six months before on some shifty looking Polack, independent driver from Inglewood. Sure enough the fellow had burned his truck up and tried to collect. I cut in pretty quick. "What are you beefing to me for? I remember that case. And I distinctly remember that I clipped a memo to that application when I sent it through that I thought that fellow ought to be thoroughly investigated before we accepted the risk. I didn't like his looks, and I won't --"
"Walter, I'm not beefing to you. I know you said he ought to be investigated. I've got your memo right here on my desk. That's what I wanted to tell you. If other departments of this company would show half the sense that you show --"
That would be like Keyes, that even when he wanted to say something nice to you he had to make you sore first.
"What kind of an outfit is this, anyway ? Are we an insurance company or just a bunch of dimwitted amateurs... get this, Walter! Even after they issued the policy, in plain disregard of the warning on your memo, and even with that warning still looking them in the face, day before yesterday when the truck burned -- they'd have paid that claim if I hadn't sent a towcar up there this afternoon, pulled the truck out, and found a pile of shavings under the engine, that proved it up on him that he started the fire himself."
"Have you got him?"
"Oh, he confessed. He's taking a plea tomorrow morning, and that ends it. But my point is, that if you, just by looking at that man, could have your suspicions, why couldn't they! They'll write anything just to get it down on the sales sheet... oh what's the use! I'm the guy that has to sit here up to my neck in phony claims so they don't throw more money out the window than they take in at the door, not that they ain't trying to. Anyway I just wanted you to know it."
"Okay, turn the record over, let's hear the other side."
"Well, I get damn sick of trying to pick up after a gang of fast-talking salesmen nevertheless dumb enough to sell life insurance to a guy who shares a bed with four rattlesnakes. I'm sending a memo to Norton about it. I think the whole thing is something the president of this company might very well look into. Though if you ask me, if the president of this company had more... "
He stopped and I didn't jog him. Keyes was one of the few holdovers from the time of Old Man Norton, the founder of the company. He didn't think much of young Norton, that took over the job when his father died. Maybe he had a point. The way he told it, young Norton never did anything right, and the whole place was always worried for fear he'd pull them in on the feud. Keyes seemed to have an immunity of sorts, unspoken, impenetrable, something that few others flattered themselves thinking they enjoyed, and ever fewer were willing to put to the test. If young Norton was the man we had to do business with, then he was the man we had to do business with, and there was no sense letting Keyes get us in dutch with him. I gave Keyes' crack a dead pan. I didn't even know what he was talking about.
"Walter", he droned on, "I've had thirty-six years of this and let me tell you, I'm getting --"
"You're getting fat, Keyes. And you're loving every minute of it, too."
"Get out of here, would you ? Before I throw my desk at you."
I took one look at the half dozen tomes of whatever actuarial arcana graced his well furnished stockade of a desk this time, and split. By the time I finally made it back to my office Cheryl was just getting ready to leave. "Should I wait for you, Mr. Huff ?"
Cheryl's a great broad, and I knew well enough what her waiting for me meant and how it went. Somehow I didn't feel like taking the long ride all the way back to her cramped upstairs apartment, though. I wasn't really hungry, for one thing, and I guess there was thinking to be done. She's a sweet girl, but she'll have to ride the trains tonight.
"Oh --" she went on without skipping a beat, "I put a memo on your desk, about a Mrs. Nirdlinger. She called, about ten minutes ago, and said it would be inconvenient for you to call tomorrow night about that renewal. She said she'd let you know when to come." That's why I liked her most of all, she never got wrapped up in anything, just as businesslike as you'd like. I wouldn't have traded her for a promotion... in fact, I hadn't.
Off she went, and there I stood, looking down at the memo. What kind of warning was I going to clip to that application, if any ? "Beware of rattlesnakes!", perhaps ?
Three days later she called and left word I was to come at three-thirty. I had a lot lined up for that afternoon, including a trip down to Santa Monica, to see a couple of live prospects about some group insurance. But I kept thinking about Phyllis Nirdlinger, and the way that towel wrapped on those hips of hers, and the way that anklet of hers clinged to her...
She let me in herself.
"Hello Mr. Huff. Aren't you coming in ?"
"I'm considering it."
"I hope you didn't mind my changing the appointment."
"That's not all you changed."
She sported a white yachting dress. The zipper up front had slid almost all the way loose, and the very short skirt pulled very tight around her waist. Besides the white stockings she had nothing else on. I wasn't the only one that knew about her shape, she knew about it herself, and plenty. "Oh, silly me, I did promise I'd wear the same..." and she interrupted herself, to bite her lip like she did. "Would you like me to go change ?"
"Only if I can watch you do it."
"Now Mr. Huff!" she said, emphatically, batting her eyelashes in a thickly fake sauce of indignation. I followed her into the living room. There was a tray on the table.
"Last night wasn't so convenient..." she started.
"That's alright. I was just working on my stamp collection anyway."
"I was just fixing some ice tea. Would you like a glass ?"
"Sure. Unless you've got a bottle of beer that's not working..."
"There may be some, I never know quite what's in the icebox." then turning around, "Nettie!" and then back to me, "About those renewals, Mr. Huff... I talked to my husband..."
"Oh, you did ?"
"Yes. He'll renew with you, he told me so. As a matter of fact, I thought he'd be here this afternoon."
"Oh, you did ?"
"But he's not ?"
"Nettie!" then after a short pause, "Nettie!" and then, unsurprisingly enough, "Oh, I forgot, today's the maid's day off."
"Nevermind the beer, iced tea will be fine."
"Lemon ? Sugar ?"
"Fix it your way. And as long as it's the maid's day off, maybe there's something I could do for you ?"
"Like what, make with the vacuum..." and then she stopped, and then she bit her lips, and only then she uttered "cleaner".
"I used to peddle vacuum cleaners. Not much money in it, but you learn a lot about life."
"I didn't expect you'd learned from a correspondence course."
"Where did you pick up the tea drinking, anyway ? You're not English, are you ?"
"No, I'm not."
"You don't sound Southern..."
"I'm not. Native Californian. Born right here in Los Angeles."
"I thought most Californians were born in Iowa."
"Mr. Neff, I --"
"Make it Walter, huh ?"
"I suppose I really have to show you my anklet now, don't I."
"If you'd like to."
"Tell me, Walter, on this insurance, how much commission do you make ?"
"Twenty percent. Why ?"
"I thought perhaps I could throw a little more business your way. The way I figure it..."
"You could use a little money Mr. Nirdlinger wouldn't necessarily know anything about..."
"And if I didn't say anything about it with the renewals, I'd maybe get a hint if..."
"Oh, Mr. Huff..." and she bit her lip, and then "Walter, it's nothing like that. Honest. It's nothing like that." She sat there a minute, making little pleats with the edge of her skirt and then rubbing them back out. "I didn't say anything to him about the accident insurance."
"I hate to talk to him about it."
"I can understand that."
"It seems an awful thing to tell him you think he ought to have an accident policy. And yet -- you see, my husband is the Los Angeles representative of the Western Pipe and Supply Company. It's very dangerous work..."
"Not for an executive. He's in the Petroleum Building, isn't he?"
"That's where he has his office. But most of the time he's in the oil fields. He doesn't just sit behind a desk, he's right down there with those drilling crews. I worry a lot about him, down in those oil fields. It makes me positively ill to think about it. The other day a casing line snapped and caught the foreman. He's in the hospital now, with a broken back."
"Does his company carry anything on him?"
"Not that I know of."
"Man in a business like that, he ought not to take chances. I tell you... how would you like it if I talked with Mr. Nirdlinger about this? You know, not say anything about where I got the idea, but just bring it up when I see him."
"I just hate to talk to him about it."
"I'm telling you, I'll talk."
"But then he'll ask me what I think, and -- I won't know what to say. It's got me worried sick."
She made another bunch of pleats. Then, after a long time, out it came. "Mr. Huff, Walter I mean... would it be possible for me to take out a policy for him, without bothering him about it at all? I have a little allowance of my own. I could pay you for it, and he wouldn't know, but just the same all this worry would be over. See what I mean, Walter ?" and her eyes fixed, piercing right into mine.
I couldn't be mistaken about what she meant, not after fifteen years in the insurance business. I mashed out my cigarette, so I could get up and go.
"Yes, I see what you mean. You mean you want him to have insurance without knowing he does, and for the insurance company to not know he doesn't know. That's the setup, isn't it ?"
"Is there anything wrong with it ?"
"No, I think it's lovely. Then, if some dark, wet night some crown block falls on him -- "
"What crown block ?"
"Only sometimes it doesn't quite make it on its own, and has to have a little help."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Of course, it doesn't have to be a crown block. It could also be the car backing over him, or he could fall out of the upstairs window. Any little thing like that. Just so long it's a morgue job."
"Are you crazy ?"
"Not that crazy. Goodbye, Mrs. Nirdlinger." and I stood up.
"What's the matter ?" she asked sweetly, while lifting her heels up on the sofa on either side of her and lifting her pleats with both hands.
I could see her all plainly, and a sweet and fine all it was, but still it came short. "Look baby, you can't get away with it. What sort of dope did you take me for anyway, 'Good afternoon, I sell accident insurance on husbands. You got any that've been around too long ? Any you'd like to turn in for cash ? Just smile that sweet vertical smile at me and I'll help you collect' ?"
"That's a rotten thing to say. And I think you're a rotten man to say it!"
"I think you're swell. Just as long as I'm not your husband."
She turned on the waterworks and I split. I knew I had a good firm hold of a red-hot poker, and I knew the time to drop it was before it burned my hands off. I stopped at a drive-in for the bottle of beer I had wanted all along, only I wanted it worse now, to wash out the sour taste of her iced tea, and everything that went with it.
I didn't want to go back to the office. Instead I dropped by a bowling alley at Third and Western to roll a few lines. I wanted to get my mind thinking about something else for a while. I didn't feel like dinner when I left, nor like a show either, so I drove home, put the car away and went up to my apartment.
I live in a bungalow in the Los Feliz hills. By the time I got in it had begun to rain, and I watched it slowly get dark, without even bothering to turn on the light. That didn't help me either. I was all twisted up inside, trying to figure out where I was at. I knew where I was at, of course. I was standing right on the deep end, looking over the edge, and I kept telling myself to get out of there, but quickly, and never come back. That was what I kept telling myself. What I was doing, meanwhile, was peeping over that edge, and all the time I was trying to pull away from it, there was something in me that kept edging a little closer, trying to get a better look. Truth be told, I wasn't doing all that well. And I was still holding on to that red-hot poker.
Just as the dusk was getting thick, half past seven maybe, the doorbell rang and I knew I hadn't walked out on anything. She was too strong a hook, there was no end between her and me, only beginning. I knew who was ringing without even having to think, and sure enough, there she was, a little damp with the rain but otherwise shaking like a leaf.
"Do you have a maid ?"
"No. I keep a Filipino house boy, but he doesn't sleep here."
"That's queer, I wouldn't have taken you for a ..."
"That's all the better, as I'm not a homosexual."
"Then why'd you take off on me ? Before we could make it ? I had the maid out and everything."
She didn't guess. Instead, she took off her shoes, swaying ever so faintly at first, then slightly ever more pronounced, as if to imaginary music. She dropped her overcoat, paddled barefoot across the room losing her marine outfit in the process, and straddled me. I wasn't ready for her, but I wasn't in the mood of swatting her off, either, not anymore, not by then. Who am I kidding, moods ain't got anything to do with any of it, I couldn't have extracted myself from under her if my life depended on it.
"I know what you're thinking", she cooed, "but you don't have to feel obligated. Pay me a tenner when you're done with me, if that'll make you feel better."
"I don't know if..." I started, but honestly I have no idea what I was even trying to say. Can't say I ever did.
"Fine, a dollar then. Two dimes and a quarter. Whatever you've got loose in your pockets, I'll work for tips. I'll work for a lolipop. Do you have anything around the house that needs doing ?"
With that she kneeled next to the sofa beside me, and she got to working it, patiently, slowly. You could almost say lovingly. Then she seated herself on me the other way, freely inviting me to an open buffet of her delicate flower. It smelled faintly of honeysuckle, and as she suckled and suckled the cloying sensation somehow turned into a drip of honey. Just as I was about to lose myself she stopped, and then turned around and reseated herself, engulfing me in her clinging folds.
"Honey, I'm about to..." I started, but she just whispered "inside, inside" while clasping herself to my chest, hard nipples rubbing against my ribs. That did me in, and afterwards she lingered for just one minute before going into the bathroom.
When she came back out I was still lying down where she left me, smoking. She kneeled by my feet, peeled my socks off and started kissing my toes. She'd kiss and lick and in between whisper, "Walter... oh, Walter... I know the score... Walter... I know how it goes... you want some fun... who doesn't want some fun... but no trouble... and that's fine... you'll use me... like they use a girl... and then get rid of me... like they get rid of her... and that's fine... just, Walter, please... use me, but knock me loose... you don't know what it's like... I'm stuck, Walter, I'm stuck... I have to get out... what's it cost you... it costs you nothing.... nothing at all... think about it... so you write insurance... that's what you do... what are you afraid of... what's to be afraid of... that they'll catch me... maybe it's worth it for me... maybe I'd rather be there than here... what's it to you...that I'll sing... I won't sing on you... but say I do... maybe I'll talk... what could I say... insurance is your business... how are you supposed to know... writing is what you do... so write me..."
I must confess her speech seemed to make a lot of sense at the time.
"How did you get my address?" It jumped out at me, even then, that I didn't want her calling my office asking questions about me.
"I liked you all the time."
"I don't believe it."
"Didn't I ask you to tea? Didn't I have you come when Nettie was off? I liked you the very first minute. I loved it, the solemn way you kept talking about your company, and all this and that. That was why I kept teasing you about the Automobile Club."
"Oh, it was."
"Now you know." then after a short pause, biting that lip again, "I'm seeing you soon?"
"Well listen, I am."
"Your husband out?"
"Long Beach. They're putting down a new well, he says. Three shifts, and he had to go down, or so the story goes. He called the exact minute you left, so I had to come see you. It's like fate. Don't you think ?"
"I don't know. So he had to go down to Long Beach, huh."
"Well he had to go down on something, that's for sure. I told Lolaviii I was going to a picture show."
"She's nineteen. Well, are you glad to see me?"
"You know honey... about six months ago a guy slipped on a cake of soap in his bathtub and knocked himself cold. He was drowned. The inquest found accidental death, and that'd have ended it, only... he had accident insurance. So they paid for an autopsy and she didn't get away with it."
"Who didn't ?"
"The Mrs. Then there was a case of a guy who was found shot. His wife said he was cleaning a gun and his stomach got in the way. All she collected was a three-to-ten stretch in Tehachapi."
"And she was out nineteen months later, on good behaviour. You ever been in a female prison, Walter ?"
"Can't say as I ever have."
"Then what are you talking about ?"
I couldn't bear her cold stare. That woman could stare down a coffin nail back into the board it had come out of. So I looked out the window, at the rain. She followed, and in a moment we were talking about how wet it was out, and how we hoped it didn't turn into a flood, like it did the night before New Year's, 1934, as easy as you'd like.
"It's nice here, Walter. Who takes care of it for you ?"
"I told you, I've a Filipino boy, comes around five days a week."
"Cook your own breakfast ?"
"I squeeze a grapefruit once in a while. Everything else I get at the corner drugstore."
"Sounds wonderful. Just strangers besides you. You don't know them and so you don't hate them. You don't have to sit across the table and smile at him and that daughter of his every morning of your life."
I ought to quit, while the quitting was good. I knew that. But that thing was in me, pushing me still closer to the edge. I could feel it again, that she wasn't saying what she meant. There was something else, besides what she was telling me. I couldn't shake it off.
"What daughter ? The girl on the piano ?"
"Lola. She lives with us."
"I didn't see your picture up there ?"
"He thinks a lot more of her than he does of me."
"You ever considered divorce ?"
"Oh don't be ridiculous, Walter. He'd never give me a divorce. Not in a million years."
"I suppose because it'd cost him too much money."
"That why you married him ?"
"I wanted a home. Is that so wrong ?"
"It's not wrong, baby."
"That wasn't the only reason. You see... I was his wife's nurse. She was sick a long time. When she died, he was terribly broken up. I pitied him so."
"And now you hate him."
"Yes, Walter. Now I hate him. I do. He's so mean to me... he keeps me on a leash so tight I can't breathe. Every time I buy a dress or a pair of shoes he yells his head off. He never lets me go anywhere, he keeps me shut up... Even his life insurance all goes to that daughter of his."
"Nothing for you at all ?"
"Nothing. And nothing is just what I'm worth to him."
"So you lie awake in the dark and listen to him snore and get ideas."
"Walter, I don't want to kill him. I never did want to kill him. Not even when he gets drunk, and ties me up and canes me."
"He what ?"
"What do you think these are ?"
"They look like cane cuts."
"If that's what they look like then that's what they are."
"And you don't want to kill him."
"But you want him dead."
"Not just dead, though. You want him accidentally dead, and with an accident policy on his head in your pocket."
"That's right." and those eyes again. She might not be a pro, sure, but she did a lot of thinking. Some sap's wife got three to ten, sure. It happens. But if the company pays, even if the company settles, the nail's driven through, and clinched on the other end for good measure. It's in. Forever. "The other night," she continued, "we drove home from a party. He was drunk again. When we drove into the garage, he just sat there with his head on the steering wheel, and the motor still running. I thought about what it'd be like if I didn't switch it off. If I just got up, closed the doors behind me, and left him there."
"That much I can tell you, what it'd be like. If you had that accident policy and tried to pull a monoxide job... We've got this guy in our back office named Keyes. In all of three minutes he'd know this wasn't an accident. In ten minutes you'd be toasting under those hot lights. In a half-hour you'd be signing your name to a confession."
"Half hour, Walter ?"
"Ok, so maybe you take a full hour. Maybe you take two hours. What's in a couple of hours ?"
"Oh, I think you know what's in them."
"For me, you mean ?"
"For you, Walter."
"That only goes so far."
"But Walter, I didn't do it ; and I'm not going to do it."
"That's not how it goes if there's an insurance company in the picture, baby. They know more tricks than a carload of monkeys. And if there's death mixed up in the cocktail... Let's just say they'll hang you just as sure as ten dimes buys four quarters."
Maybe that put a stop to her thinking about it. At least for the time being, maybe. Do you think it did ?
But I was still thinking about it. I didn't stop, I had never stopped. I couldn't stop. It all tied up with something I'd been thinking for years, see. Something I'd been thinking about since long before I ever ran into an anklet carved "S Phyllis" on one face and "17923" on the other. Because you know how it is, in this business you can't sleep for trying to figure out all the tricks they could try pulling on you. You're like the guy behind the roulette wheel, watching the customers to make sure they don't crook the house. And then one night, as you lie awake smoking, you switch to thinking how you could crook the house yourself. But do it smart, do it proper like. Because you've got that wheel right under your hands, and you know every notch and curve of it by heart.
You figure all you need is a plant out front, a shill to put down the bet. But shills are hard. Shills are the hardest thing in the book. Yeah, that's right, the book. There's a book on grifting, only no one's ever seen it, yet more people know what's inside than know two verses from the bible -- and the bible's free with a dollar's room in every hotel and on permanent sale in every bookshop. Maybe trying to push things on everyone ain't the way to go about things ?
Anyway, a shill's the hardest thing in the book, in the first line because it looks like the easiest thing in the book. That's always the hardest thing. Then because a shill must not know too much. That's what the word even means, a shill is one that doesn't know too much. If he knows enough he should be a partner, not a shill, and trying to keep a partner down is the cornerstone of all trouble. But in the other way, a shill must know a lot, or else he's no good. He won't work, he'll say the wrong thing or not do the right thing just when it counts, and then the whole set-up goes up in smoke. That's why you don't want a putz -- even if every time it can be made to work with one it should be made to work with one -- and you don't want a patsy -- those are always useless. No, what you want is a shill, and that's someone who knows everything and nothing at the same time. Hardest thing in the book.
Except for a woman. Women can do it, women are the only ones who can do this magic trick where they know everything and nothing at the same time. It's in their cunts, somewhere. They've all got it, even if plenty don't know about it. They walk on two legs separated by liquid media and they are two things, separated by liquid media. And they can shill, boy howdy can women shill. Women can shill so well you'd think that's what they were made for.
Then suddenly the doorbell rings, and the whole setup falls right into place, right into your lap. Right there, in the room with you, all that's needed meshed up nice and proper. So who am I kidding, I fought it, but I guess I didn't fight it hard enough. Or at all.
"How much did I make tonight ?" she asked, standing by the door, as plain and innocent as you'd like. A strange impulse washed over me. I picked up some coins from an ashtray on the table. I don't even know what all they were. I threw them on the floor. She spent a while crawling around, crawling all over in nothing but those white stockings, shoulders deliberately held low so her magnificent rack pushed her nipples down against the rough rug. I got up and mounted her from behind. I had my way with her savagely, like an animal. It was glorious.
So I ran away from the edge, didn't I, and socked it into her so she knew what I meant, and left it so we could never go back to it again? Or maybe not. That was what I tried to do. I never even got up when she finally left. I didn't help her on with her things. I didn't drive her back. I treated her like you'd treat an alley cat. But all the time I knew it would be still raining the next night, that there'd still be drilling going on at Long Beach, that I would look out the window and a little after seven or maybe a little before eight the doorbell would ring.
She didn't even speak to me when she came in. We sat in silence for at least five minutes before either one of us said anything. Then she started it.
"How could you say such things as you said to me last night?"
"Because they're true."
"I hate him. I loathe going back to him. You believe me, don't you Walter ?"
"Sure I believe you."
"I can't stand it anymore. What if they hang me ? Let them hang me. If I had the heart for it I'd do it myself."
"They're not going to hang you baby."
"They damned well should. And let 'em. It's better than going on this way."
"They're not going to hang you because you're gonna do it right, and I'm gonna help you. But this has got to be perfect, you understand ? Straight down the line."
I caught her by surprise again, but she didn't even try to put on an act this time. "Why -- I couldn't have anybody help me! It would be -- impossible."
"You couldn't have anybody help you? Well let me tell you something. You had better have somebody help you. It would be nice to pull it off by yourself, all alone, so nobody knew anything about it, sure it would. The only trouble with that is, you can't. Not if you're going up against an insurance company, you can't. You've got to have help. And it had better be help that knows its stuff."
"What would you do this for?"
"You, for one thing."
"How much money ?"
"All of it."
"Everything the insurance company pays out ?"
"That's a good start. Everything the insurance company pays out, and everything anyone else pays you, too. For as long as you live. And every last dime you've got. Let's see your purse."
She handed it over without protest and without hesitation. There were nineteen dollars and forty-five cents in there, and some more coins in a separate compartment. I took it all and shoved it in my pants pocket.
"What will I do for busfare back ?"
"Maybe you earn back a buck or two."
"Earn it ? Doing what ?"
"You know what you do."
"You're making me into your slave."
"I'd love to", she whispered. You could barely make it out, but I heard her alright. She closed her eyes, and after a while she began to cry. I put my arm around her and patted her. It seemed funny, after what we had been talking about, after what we had been doing, that I was treating her like some child that had lost a penny. "Please, Walter, don't let me do this. We can't. It's simply -- insane."
"Yes, it's insane."
"We're going to do it. I can feel it."
"I haven't any reason. He treats me as well as any man can treat a woman. I don't love him, but he's never done anything to me."
"But you wish he had."
She stopped crying, and lay in my arms for a while without saying anything. Then she began to talk in a low whisper.
"He's not happy. He'll be better off dead."
"Is that so."
"That's not true, is it?"
"Not from where he sits, I don't think."
"I know it's not true. I tell myself it's not true. But there's something in me, I don't know what. Maybe I'm crazy. But there's something in me that loves Death. I think of myself as Death, sometimes. In a scarlet shroud, floating through the night. I'm so beautiful, then. And sad. And hungry to make the whole world happy, by taking them out where I am, into the night, away from all trouble, all unhappiness... Walter, this is the awful part. I know this is terrible. I tell myself it's terrible. But to me, it doesn't seem terrible. It seems as though I'm doing something -- something that's really best for him, if he only knew it. Do you understand me, Walter?"ix
"Nobody could. But we're going to do it."
"Yes, we're going to do it."
"Straight down the line."
"Straight down the line."
And with that, the machinery had started. The gears meshed together, driving more cogs and spokes and pistons as far as the eye could see. Nothing could stop it now. Nothing.
A night or two later we were talking about it just as casually as if it was a little trip to the mountains. I had to find out what she had been figuring on, and whether she had gummed it up with some bad move of her own. "Have you said anything to him about this, Phyllis? About the policy?"
"Not a thing."
"Alright, how are you going to do it?"
"I was going to take out the policy first --"
"Without him knowing?"
"Holy smoke, that's no good. It's the first thing they look for. Anyway -- that's out. What else?"
"He's going to build a swimming pool. In the spring. Out in the patio."
"I thought it could be made to look as though he hit his head diving or something."
"That's out. That's still worse."
"Why? People do, don't they?"
"No, they don't. It's a terrible, terrible idea. You might as well send a signed confession on a postcard. Here's the scoop, for your own education : some fool in the insurance business put out a newspaper story five or six years ago that most accidents happen in people's own bathtubs. This isn't true, as anyone with half an hour's idle time and half a highschool education can check for himself by borrowing the actuarial tables at his local library. But the newspapers carried it, because they print what you read, and the press agents pushed it, too, because the companies paying them would much rather see the word "bathtub" in that slot than say "automobile", or "workplace". Sure enough ever since then bathtubs, swimming pools, and fishponds are the first thing you think of. When you're trying to pull something, I mean.x So no, people don't do it ; and when they "do", the wives get sent upriver. There's two cases like that out here in California right now. Neither one of them are on the up-and-up. One girl's gonna walk, but the other's got an insurance angle and she's screwed. Maybe she doesn't know it yet, but watch those newspapers in a few weeks. Besides, you're talking a daytime job, and you never can tell who's peeping at you from the next hill. And then... a swimming pool is like a tennis court, you no sooner have one than it's a community affair, and you don't know who might come popping in on you at any minute. And then it's one of those things where you've got to watch for your chance, and you can't plan it in advance, and know where you're going to come out to the last decimal point."
"Get this, Phyllis. There's three essential elements to a successful murder."
That word was out before I knew it. I looked at her quick. I thought she'd wince under it. She didn't. She leaned forward. The firelight was reflected in her eyes like she was some god damned leopard. "I love you, Walter. You know, I do. He never talks shop with me like that, not over anything."
"The first is, help. One person can't get away with it, that is unless they're going to admit it and plead the unwritten lawxi or something. It takes more than one, that's just the way it goes. The second is, the time, the place, the way, all known in advance -- to us, but not to him. The third is, audacity. That's the one that all the hothead amateurs always forget, driven by need and passion as they are. They know the first two, sometimes. But that third, only the dispassionate veteran knows. There comes a time in any murder when the only thing that can see you through is audacity, and I can't tell you why. You know the perfect murder? You think it's this swimming pool job, and you're going to do it so slick nobody would ever guess it. They'd guess it in two seconds, flat. Then in three more seconds they'd prove it, and then you can spend the rest of your life trying not to confess it, for all the good that'll do you. No, that's not it. The perfect murder is the gangster that goes on the spot, which is why they do it the way they do it. You know what they do? First they get a finger on him. The girl that he lives with, usually. Along about six o'clock they get a phone call from her. She goes out to a drugstore to buy some lipstick, and she calls. They're going to see a picture tonight, he and she, and it's at such and such a theatre. They'll get there around nine o'clock. Alright, there's the first two elements. They got help, and they fixed the time and the place in advance. Alright, now watch the third. They go there in a car. They park across the street. They keep the motor running. They put a sentry out. He loafs up an alley, and pretty soon he drops a handkerchief and picks it up. That means he's coming. They get out of the car. They drift up to the theatre. They close in on him. And right there, in the glare of the lights, with a couple hundred people looking on, they let him have it. He hasn't got a chance. Twenty bullets hit him, from four or five automatics. He falls, they scram for the car, they drive off -- and then you try to convict them. You just try to convict them. They've got their alibis ready in advance, all airtight, they were only seen for a second, by people who were so scared they didn't know what they were looking at -- and there isn't a chance to convict them.xii The police know who they are, of course. They round them up, give them the water cure -- and then they're habeas corpused into court and turned loose. Those guys don't get convicted. They get put on the spot by other gangsters.xiii Oh yeah, they know their stuff, alright. And if we want to get away with it, we've got to do it the way they do it, and not the way some punk up near San Francisco does it, that's had two trials already, and still he's not free."
"Be bold. It's the only way."
"If we shoot him it wouldn't be an accident. Would it ?"
"That's right. We don't shoot him, but I want you to get the principle through your head. Be bold. It's the only chance to get away with it."
"I'm coming to that. Another sore spot in your swimming pool idea is that there's no money in it."
"They'd have to pay --"
"They'd have to pay, but this is a question of how much they'd have to pay. All the big money on an accident policy comes from railroad accidents. They found out pretty quick, when they began to write accident insurance, that the apparent danger spots, the spots that people think are danger spots, aren't danger spots at all. I mean, people always think a railroad train is a pretty dangerous place to be, or they did, anyway, before the novelty wore off. But the figures show not many people get killed, or even hurt, on railroad trains. So on accident policies they put it in as a come-on to the customer, that they pay double indemnity for railroad accidents. It's a feature that sounds pretty good to the man that buys it, because he's a little worried about train trips, but it doesn't cost the company much, because it knows he's pretty sure to get there safely. It gives the salesman something to hang his hat on, besides. That's just where we cash in. You've been thinking about some piker job, maybe, and a fat chance it is I'd be taking a chance like this for payoff like that. When we're through with it we cash a $50,000 bet, and if we do it right we're going to cash it, don't make any mistake about that."
"Fifty thousand dollars?"
"And now we're getting to it. This is a beauty, if I do say it myself. I didn't spend all this time in this business for nothing, did I? Listen, he knows all about this policy, and yet he doesn't know a thing about it. He applies for it, in writing, and yet he doesn't apply for it. He pays me for it with his own check, and yet he doesn't pay me. He has an accident happen to him and yet he doesn't have an accident happen to him. He gets on the train, and yet he doesn't get on it."
"What are you talking about?"
"I'll fill you in. The first thing is, we've got to fix him up with that policy. I sell it to him, do you get that? -- except that I don't sell him. Not quite. I give him the works, the same as I give any other prospect. And I've got to have witnesses. Get that. There's got to be somebody that heard me go right after him. I show him that he's covered on everything that might hurt the automobile, but hasn't got a thing that covers personal injury to himself. I put it up to him whether a man isn't worth more than his car. I --"
"Suppose he buys?"
"Well, suppose he does? He won't. I can bring him within one inch of the line and hold him there, don't you think I can't. I'm a salesman, if I'm nothing else. But -- I've got to have witnesses. Anyway, one witness."
"I'll have somebody."
"Do you want to oppose it ?"
"Alright. You're all for the automobile stuff, when I start in on that, but this accident thing gives you the shivers."
"You better make a date pretty quick. Give me a ring."
"Confirm by phone. Remember, you need a witness."
"I'll have one."
"Tomorrow, then, subject to call."
"Walter, I -- I'm so excited! It does terrible things to me. Kiss me, will you baby ?"
You think I'm nuts? Alright, maybe I'm nuts. Spend fifteen years in the business I'm in, maybe you'll go nuts yourself. You think it's a business, don't you, just like your business, and maybe a little better than that, because it's the friend of the widow, the orphan, and the needy in time of trouble? It's not. It's the biggest gambling wheel in the world. It doesn't look like it, to the chump, sure it doesn't. But it is. Whatever it may look like, it is what it is, from the way they figure the percentage on the big nothing all the way down to the look on their face when they cash your chips. You bet that your house will burn down, they bet it won't, that's all. What fools you is that you didn't want your house to burn down when you made the bet, and so you forget it's a bet. But that doesn't fool them. It's not their house, after all, and so to them a bet is a bet, and a hedge bet doesn't look any different than any other bet. But there comes a time, maybe, when you do want your house to burn down, when the money is worth more than the house. And right there is where the trouble starts. They know there's just so many people out there that are out to crook that wheel, and that's when they get tough. They've got their spotters out on the line, they know every crooked trick there is, nevermind is -- that can be. If you want to beat them you had better be good. So long as you're honest, they'll pay you with a smile, and you may even go home thinking it was all in a spirit of good clean fun. But start something, and then you'll find out.
Alright, I'm an agent. I sell the stuff, my job ends there. But I still know all their tricks. I lie awake nights thinking up tricks, so I'll be ready for them when they come at me. And then one night I think up a trick, and get to thinking I could crook the wheel myself if I could only plant a hand to put down my bet. That's all. If that seems queer to you, that I would kill a man just to pick up a stack of chips, queer exactly in the way of some guy keeping a Filipino house boy, you've got it all wrong. I had seen so many houses burned down, so many cars wrecked, so many corpses with blue holes in their temples, so many awful things that people had pulled to try and crook that damned wheel that what we were discussing seemed rather an economical approach. I didn't think I'm killing an extra guy to get to the chips. I simply thought I'm replacing a botched job with a spot of good work, that's all. If you don't drive the nail in the board, someone else will, isn't that right. The nail dun get out of needing driving just because you don't feel like lifting a hammer. The way I saw it, I was saving Nirdlinger the indignity of ineptitude, nothing more. If you are to be killed, like he was to be killed, wouldn't you rather it be done right and proper like ?
If you don't get that, go to any big town, any place there's a big casino. Sit your sweet ass down at their table, and watch the face of the man that spins the little ivory ball. After you've watched it a while, ask yourself how much he would care if you went out and plugged yourself in the head. His eyes might drop when he heard the shot, but it wouldn't be from worry whether you lived or died. It would be to make sure you didn't leave a bet on the table, that he would have to cash for your estate. No, he wouldn't care. Not that guy. Not any other guy. Get it now ?
"Then another thing I call your attention to, Mr. Nirdlinger, a feature we've added in the last year, at no extra cost, is our guarantee of bail bond. We furnish you a card, and all you have to do, in case of accident where you're held responsible, or in any traffic case where the police put you under arrest, is to produce that card and if it's a bailable offense, it automatically procures your release. The police take up the card, that puts us on your bond, and you're free until your case comes up for trial. Since that's one of the things the Automobile Club does for members, and you're thinking about the Automobile Club-"
"I've pretty well given that idea up."
"Well then, why don't we fix this thing up right now? I've pretty well outlined what we do for you --"
"I guess we might as well."
"Then if you'll sign these applications, you'll be protected until the new policies are issued, which will be in about a week, but there's no use your paying for a whole week's extra insurance. There's for the collision, fire, and theft, there's for the public liability -- and if you don't mind sticking your name on these two, they're the agent's copies, and I keep them for my files."
"Right on the dotted line."
He was a big, blocky man, about my size but with glasses, and I played him exactly the way I figured I was going to. As soon as I had the applications, I switched to accident insurance. He didn't seem much interested, so I made it pretty stiff. Phyllis cut in that the very idea of accident insurance made her shiver, and I kept on going. I didn't quit 'til I had hammered in every reason for taking out accident insurance that any agent ever thought of, and maybe a couple of reasons that no agent ever had thought of. He sat there drumming with his fingers on the arms of his chair, wishing I would go.
That didn't bother me any. What bothered me was the witness that Phyllis brought out. I thought she would have some friend of the family in to dinner, maybe a woman, and just let her stay with us, there in the sitting room, after I showed up around eight-thirty. That's not what she'd done. Instead, she brought the stepdaughter in. She brought in Lola.
Lola wanted to go roller-skating, but Phyllis said she had to get the wool wound for a sweater she was knitting, and kept her there, winding it. I had to tie her in, with a gag now and then, to make sure she would remember what we were talking about, but the more I looked at her the less I liked it. Having to sit with her there, knowing all the time what we were going to do to her father, was one of the things I hadn't bargained for.
Then as I stood up Lola stood up too, wanting to go. They had a domestic scene, nice and pretty right there in front of me. Her father wouldn't let her go anywhere. Lola whined and pleaded and struggled and chewed at the bit, but nothing doing. She was stuck and she knew it -- it was obvious enough Phyllis was working with him to keep her home, obvious enough to everyone but perhaps the young filly. As I left and she was sent to her room, under the close escort of her father, Phyllis saw me to the door.
"It'll be the train, Walter. It'll be just the way you want it. Straight down the line."
"Goodnight, Mrs. Nirdlinger."
She pushed in for a kiss, a long, drawn-out kiss, her tongue going for all it could find, unyielding, desperate, like a shipwrecked man looking through the shipwreck. Then she peeled herself off and whispered, "Wait for her, and take her where she's going, will you."
"Lola." and then the door snapped shut.
I looked up and down the road. Completely deserted at that time of night. I took my time rolling up a cigarette, throwing away enough tobacco to roll a whole cigar. I looked up and down the road again. It just didn't figure. What was Lola doing into any of this ?
Then I made my way to my car, and sure enough, there she was, sitting in the passenger seat all unconcerned like it was understood we were going to church. But we weren't going to no church.
"Hello Mr. Huff. It's me. Lola."
I put the car in gear and took off. "Is anything wrong ?"
"I've been waiting for you."
"For me ? Why ?"
"I thought you could let me ride with you, if you're going my way."
"You like roller-skating ?"
"I can take it or leave it."
"Only tonight, you're leaving it ?"
"Yes, I am." then after a pause, during which she bit her lip, "I'm having a very tough time at home. My father doesn't understand me and Phyllis hates me."
"Sounds tough alright."
"That's why I have to lie sometimes."
"So where are you going ?"
"Just go on the highway, towards Wilmington."
"Wilmington ?! That's down South! More than half an hour out... what are you doing all the way out there, anyway ?!"
"I'll make it worth your while, you know." and with that... she leaned over across the seat and made herself familiar with my pants buttons.
It was the queerest ride I ever took, in that old heap or any other. Eventually, somewhere past Carson I pulled over, facing away from the road, hitched her ass up on the engine cover and gave her a right proper seeing to. It didn't seem to do much to her, but I was beyond spent. The next moment she dusted herself off, stood up and sort-of wandered away.
"Hey, what are you doing ? Get back in the car."
"That's ok Mr. Huff. This is close enough. Thank you."
"Close enough to what ?! What the hell are you going to do out here ?"
"I work here. You won't tell on me, will you ?" she offered, with a chuckle, as she disappeared beyond some trees.
I drove home, as confused as you'd like. What the hell was all that ?! Phyllis was already there, waiting for me, and apparently had been for quite a while as she'd somehow managed to turn the fire on in the ancient fireplace. I never used that thing, I had no idea it even worked, and I shudder to think what she might've used for wood. Or kindling. She was humming a song out of a Nelson Eddy picture. "Did you like my sweater?" as I walked in.
"Isn't it a lovely color? I never wore old rose before. I think it's going to be really becoming to me."
"It's going to look all right."
"Where did you leave Lola?"
"On the boulevard."
"Where did she go?"
"I didn't notice."
"Was there somebody waiting for her?"
"Not that I saw. Why?"
"I was just wondering. She's been going around with a boy named Zachetti. A perfectly terrible person. She's been forbidden to see him."
"He wasn't on deck tonight. Anyway, I didn't see him. Why didn't you tell me about her?"
"Well? You said have a witness."
"Yeah, but I didn't mean her."
"Isn't she as good a witness as any other?"
"Yeah, but holy smoke there's a limit. A man's own daughter, and we're even using her -- for what we're using her for."
"She's been used for worse." An awful look came over her face, and her voice got as hard as glass. "What's the matter? Are you getting ready to back out?"
"No, but you could have got somebody else. Me, driving her down, and all the time I had this in my pocket." I took out the applications, and showed them to her. One of those "agent's copies" was an updated application for a $25,000 personal accident policy, with double indemnity straight down the line for any disability or death incurred on a railroad train.
"Oh, Walter, that's wonderful."
"How did you get in, anyway ?"
It was part of the play that I had to make two or three calls on Nirdlinger in his office. The first time, I gave him the bail-bond guarantee, stuck around about five minutes, told him to put it in his car, and left. The next time I gave him a little leather memo book, with his name stamped on it in gilt, just a little promotion feature we have for policy holders. The third time I delivered the automobile policies, and took his check, $79.52. When I got back to the office that day, Cheryl told me there was somebody waiting for me in my office. "Who?"
"A Miss Lola Nirdlinger and a Mr. Zachetti, I think she said. I didn't get his first name."
I went in and Lola burst laughing. She liked me, I could see that. "You surprised to see us again?"
"Oh, not much. What can I do for you?"
"We've come in to ask a favor. But it's your own fault."
"Yeah? How's that?"
"What you said the other night to Father about being able to get money on his car, if he needed it. We've come to take you up on it. Or anyway, Nino has."
That was something I had to do something about, with all the competition I was getting from the Automobile Club. They lend money on a member's car, and I got to the point where I had to, too, if I was going to get any business. So we got a few fellows together and we organized ourselves a little finance company of our own. Everyone was made a director and spent about one day a week there. It didn't have anything to do with the insurance company, but it was one way I could meet that question that I ran into all the time: "Do you lend money on a car?" I had mentioned it to Nirdlinger, just as part of the sales talk, but I didn't know she was paying attention. I looked at Zachetti. "You want to borrow money on your car?"
"What kind of car is it?"
He told me, and it was as cheap as you'd expect.
"It's in your name? And paid for?"
She giggled. "He couldn't use it the other night. He didn't have any gas."
I didn't want to lend him money on his car, or anything else. I didn't want to have anything to do with him in any way, shape, or form. I lit a cigarette, and sat there a minute. "You sure you want to borrow money on this car? Because if you're not working now, what I mean is if you don't absolutely see your way clear to pay it back, it's a sure way to lose it. The whole secondhand car business depends on people that thought they could pay a small loan back, and then couldn't."
She looked at me very solemnly. "It's different with Nino. He isn't working, but he doesn't want this loan just to have money to spend. You see, he's done all his work for his Sc.D., and-"
"Chemistry. If he can only get his degree, he's sure of work, he's been promised that, and it seems such a pity to miss a chance for a really good position just because he hasn't taken his degree. But to take it, he has to have his dissertation published, and pay this and that, for his diploma for instance, and that's what he wants this money for. He won't spend it on his living. He has friends that will take care of that."
I had to come through. I knew that. I wouldn't have, if it didn't make me so nervous to be around her, but all I could think of now was to say yes and get them out of there. "How much do you want?"
"He thought if he could get $250, that would be enough."
"I see. I see."
I figured it up. With charges, it would amount to around $285, and it was an awfully big loan on the car he was going to put up. "Well-give me a day or two on it. I think we can manage it."
They went out, and then she ducked back. "You're awfully nice to me. I don't know why I keep bothering you about things."
"That's alright, Miss Nirdlinger, I'm glad --"
"You can call me Lola, if you want to."
"Thanks, I'll be glad to help any time I can."
"I know you will. But... this is secret, too."
"Yes, I know."
"I'm terribly grateful, Mr. Huff."
The accident policy came through a couple of days later. That meant I had to get his check for it, and get it right away, so the dates would correspond. You understand, I wasn't going to deliver the accident policy, not to him anyway. That would go to Phyllis, to be found later, among his papers. And I wasn't going to tell him anything about it, either. Just the same, I had to get his check, in the exact amount of the policy, so that later on, when they checked up his stubs and his cancelled checks, they would find he had paid for it himself. That would check with the application in our files, and it would also check with those trips I had made to his office, if it had to come to that.
I went in on him pretty worried, and shut the door on his secretary, and got down to brass tacks right away. "Mr. Nirdlinger, I'm in a hole, and I'm wondering if you'll help me out."
"Well I don't know. I don't know. What is it?" He was expecting a touch and I wanted him to be expecting a touch. "It's pretty bad."
"Suppose you tell me."
"I've charged you too much for your insurance. For that automobile stuff."
He burst out laughing. "Is that all? I thought you wanted to borrow money."
"Oh. No. Nothing like that. It's worse -- from my point of view."
"Do I get a refund?"
"Then it's better, from my point of view."
"It isn't as simple as that. This is the trouble, Mr. Nirdlinger. There's a board, in our business, that was formed to stop cut-throating on rates, and see to it that every company charges a rate sufficient to protect the policy holder, and that's the board I'm in dutch with. Because here recently, they've made it a rule that every case, every case, mind you, where there's an alleged mischarge by an agent, is to be investigated by them, and you can see where that puts me. And you too, in a way. Because they'll have me up for fifteen different hearings, and come around pestering you 'til you don't know what your name is -- and all because I looked up the wrong rate in the book when I was out to your house that night, and never found it out 'til this morning when I checked over my month's accounts."
"And what do you want me to do?"
"There's one way I can fix it. Your check, of course, was deposited, and there's nothing to do about that. But if you'll let me give you cash for the check you gave me -- $79.52 -- I've got it right here with me -- and give me a new check for the correct amount --$58.60 -- then that'll balance it, and they'll have nothing to investigate."
"How do you mean, balance it?"
"Well, you see, in multiple-card bookkeeping -- oh well, it's so complicated I don't even know if I understand it myself. Anyway, that's what our cashier tells me. It's the way they make their entries."
He looked out the window and I saw a funny look come in his eye. "Well -- alright. I don't know why not."
I gave him the cash and took his check. It was all hooey. We've got a board, but it doesn't bother with agents' mistakes. It governs rates. I don't even know if there's such a thing as multiple-card bookkeeping, and I never talked with our cashier. I just figured that when you offer a man about twenty bucks more than he thought he had when you came in, he wouldn't ask too many questions about why you offer it to him. I went to the bank. I deposited the check. I even knew what he wrote on his stub. It just said "Insurance." I had what I wanted.
The day after that Lola came in for Zachetti's loan. By herself. When I handed her the check she did a little dance in the middle of the floor. "You want a copy of Nino's dissertation?"
"Why, I'd love one!"
"It's called 'The Problem of Colloids in the Reduction of Low-Grade Gold Ores.'"
"I'll look forward to it."
"Liar -- you won't even read it."
"I'll read as much as I can understand."
"Anyway, you'll get a signed copy."
"Good-bye. Maybe you're rid of us for a while."
All this, what I've been telling you, happened in late winter, along the middle of February. Of course, in California February looks like any other month, but anyway it would have been winter anywhere else. From then on, all through the spring, believe me I didn't get much sleep. You start on something like this, and if you don't wake up plenty of times in the middle of the night, dreaming they got you for something you forgot, you've got better nerves than I've got. Then there were things we couldn't figure out, like how to get on a train. That was tough, and if we didn't have a piece of luck, maybe we never would have put it over.
There's plenty of people out here that have never been inside a train, let alone taken a ride on one. They go everywhere by car. That was how he travelled, when he travelled, and how to make him use a train just once, that was something that gave us a headache for quite some time. We got a break on one thing though that I had sweated over plenty. That was the funny look that came over his face when I got that check. There was something back of it, I knew that, and if it was something his secretary was in on, and especially if he went out after I left and made some crack to the secretary about getting $20 he didn't expect, it would look plenty bad later, no matter what kind of story I made up. But that wasn't it. Phyllis got the low-down on it, and it startled me, how pretty it broke for us. He charged his car insurance to his company, under expenses, and his secretary had already entered it when I came along with my proposition. She had not only entered it, but if he went through with what I wanted, he still had his cancelled check to show for it, the first one, I mean. All he had to do was keep his mouth shut to the secretary and he could put his $20 profit in his pocket, and nobody would be the wiser. He kept his mouth shut. He didn't even tell Lola. But he had to brag to somebody how smart he was, so he told Phyllis.
Another thing that worried me was myself. I was afraid my work would fall off, and they'd begin talking about me in the office, wondering why I'd begun to slip. That wouldn't do me any good, later I mean, when they began to think about it. I had to sell insurance while this thing was cooking, if I never sold it before. I worked like a wild man. I saw every prospect there was the least chance of selling, and how I high-pressured them was a shame. Believe it or not, my business showed a 12% increase in March, it jumped 2% over that in April, and in May, when there's a lot of activity in cars, it went to 7% over that. I even made a hook-up with a big syndicate of secondhand dealers for my finance company, and that helped. The books didn't know anything to tell on me. I was the candy kid in both offices that spring. They were all taking off their hats to me.
While all this was going on, I was seeing Lola twice, even three times a week on some weeks ; always in the car, take her to the side of some dusty old road for her come-uppance, if she didn't drive me clear off the road or into oncoming traffic first with her wild antics. She was insatiable, the little harlot, and even though I never managed to ring her bell she kept coming back for more and more and still more again. Then there was Phyllis, who showed up like a cat in heat at my apartment every other day regular, and sometimes even managed to sweet talk her way into sleeping over -- which meant she'd get one in the morning, too. Poor Cheryl hadn't seen any in months and months, which made her look sadder and sadder by degrees, but she never said anything about it. Even so, I was eating steak every day and still managing to lose weight. I think I slept less than thirty hours together, some weeks, and I was starting to think falling asleep at the wheel was going to take me out of the story before any serious harm could be done. But it never happened. Then one day,
"He's going to his class reunion. At Palo Alto."
"June. It's about six weeks out."
"That's it. That's what we've been waiting for."
"But he wants to drive. He wants to take the car, and he wants me to go with him. He'll raise an awful fuss if I don't go."
"Yeah? Listen, don't give yourself airs. I don't care if it's a class reunion or just down to the drugstore, a man would rather go alone than with a wife. He's just being polite. You talk like you're not interested in his class reunion, and he'll be persuaded. He'll be persuaded so easy you'll be surprised."
"Well I like that."
"You're not supposed to like it. But you'll find out."
That was how it turned out, but she worked on him a whole week and she couldn't change him on the car. "He says he'll have to have it, and there'll be a lot of things he'll want to go to, picnics and things like that, and if he doesn't have it he'll have to hire one. Besides, he hates trains. He gets trainsick."
"Can you put on an act?"
"I did. I put on all the act I dare put, and still he won't budge. I put on such an act that Lola is laughing at me. I can try again, but --"
"Holy smoke, no."
"I could do this. The day before he's to start, I could bang the car up. Mess up the ignition or something. So it had to go in the shop. Then he'd have to go by train."
"Nothing like it. Nothing even a little bit like it. In the first place, if you've already put on an act, they'll smell something, and believe me Lola will be hard to talk down, later. In the second place, we need the car."
"We need it?"
"I still don't know what we're going to do."
"You'll know. You'll know in plenty of time. But we've got to have the car. We've got to have two cars, yours and mine. Whatever you do, don't pull any monkey business with the car. That car's got to run. It's got to be in perfect shape."
"Hadn't we better give up the train idea?"
"Listen, it's the train or we don't do it."
"Walter, honey, you don't have to snap at me. I'll do what you tell me to. You know that."
"Just pulling off some piker job, that doesn't interest me. But this, hitting it for the limit, that's what I go for. It's all I go for."
"I was just wondering."
Two weeks later was when we had our piece of luck. She called me at the office a little before four in the afternoon. "Is this the Knightsbridge Theatre?" she whispered. That was our understanding, if anything important came up she's go to a phone booth, dial my office and ask for a theatre. We had a timetable for it and everything, so I'd be in the office and not risk having Cheryl picking it up. Then I'd go out to a phone booth she'd be calling a half hour later. It was all set up in advance.
Only, you can never set up anything in advance. As it happened, Keyes was right there with me, in the office. The only man in the whole world we had to fear, and he was right there, listening in. How do you like that for something set up in advance ? I had all of half an hour to credibly get rid of him, and make it to the phone booth across the street, and he wouldn't stop droning.
"I just came from Norton's office. The mid-month sales figures are out, you know. Looks like you're set to be high man for May, Walter."
"If I recall you were tops in April, too ?"
"Thanks. Would you like a cheap drink ?"
"No, thank you. Tell me... how would you like a fifty dollar pay cut ?"
"Do I laugh now or do I wait for it to get funny ?"
"I've just been talking to Norton. Too much stuff piling up on my desk. Too much pressure on my nerves. I spend half the night walking up and down in my bed."
"You worry too much, Keyes. You're so darn conscientious you're driving yourself crazy."
"Regardless, I've got to have an assistant, and I thought of you."
"Me ?! Why pick on me ?"
"Why! Because I've got a crazy idea you might be good at the job."
"That's a crazy idea alright. I'm a salesman."
"Yeah, a peddler. A gladhandler, a backslapper, that's not what you are, Walter. You're too good to be a salesman."
"And you're too good to be a crotchety old crab, but it doesn't seem to stop you or anything."
"Nobody's too good to be a salesman."
"All you guys do all day is just ring doorbells and dish out a smooth line of monkey talk. What's troubling you is that fifty dollar cut, isn't it."
"That'd trouble anybody."
"Now look, Walter. You're not some young sprig, even if you look it alright. If you were going to get married and start a family with some broad and move out in the sticks you'd have done it by now. You don't drink, nothing worth money anyway, you don't gamble, you couldn't possibly care less about that fifty. I'd be surprised if you knew what to do with half the money you make as it is -- god knows most of the other salesmonkeys don't. Meanwhile the job I'm talking about, that takes brains. It takes brains and it takes integrity. And another thing besides : it takes more guts than there's in fifty salesmen. It's the hottest job in the business."
"Yeah, but it's still a desk job. I don't want to be nailed to a desk."
"Desk job ?! Is that all you can see in it ? Just a hard chair to park your pants on from nine to five, huh ? Just a pile of papers to shuffle around and a scratch pad to make figures on, maybe do a little doodling on the side ? Well... that's not the way I look at it, Walter. To me, a claims man is a surgeon, with that lousy desk for an operating table. Those papers, they're not forms and statistics, they're alive. They're packed with drama, they're the stuff of twisted hopes and choked out dreams, beaten black and blue and then hung up high and left to dry. A claims man, Walter, is doctor and bloodhound and cop and judge and jury and father confessor."
"With a collar of foam on top!"
"You want to laugh at it ? You want to tell me you're not interested ? You don't want to work with your brains ? All you want to work with is that finger on the doorbell, for a few more bucks a week..."
"Why don't you settle down and get married already ?"
"I almost did once, believe it or not. This was long ago... even had the church picked out, the dame and I. She had a white satin dress. With flounces on it, too! I was on my way to the jewelry store to buy the ring, and then suddenly that little man inside started working on me..."
"So you went back and had her investigated ?"
"Yeah. And the stuff that came out... She'd been dyeing her hair ever since she was sixteen. There was a manic depressive in her family. On her mother's side. She had already had a husband, some pro pool player in Baltimore. And as far as her brother..."
"I get the general idea, she was a tramp from a long line of tramps."
"Yeah. Alright, alright. Now what do I say to Norton ? What about this job I want you for ?"
"I tell you I don't see it, Keyes. Thanks just the same."
"Fair enough. Only, get this : I picked you for the job not because I think you're so darn smart, but because I thought you were a shade less dumb than the rest of the outfit. Guess I was wrong. You're not smarter, Walter. You're just a little taller, that's all."
I made it to the booth with all of nine seconds to spare, by the watch. But then again nine seconds early is just as good as nine minutes. Just as long as you don't go over the long straight line.
"Yes. What happened ?"
"The Palo Alto trip is off. He's broken his leg."
"I don't even know how he did it, yet. He was holding a dog or something, a neighbor's dog that was chasing a rabbit, and slipped and fell down. He's in the hospital now. Lola's with him. They'll be bringing him home in a few minutes."
"I guess that knocks it in the head."
"I'm afraid so."
I was cutting through prime beef before it came to me that instead of knocking it in the head, maybe this fixed it up perfect. I walked three miles around the living room later, wondering if she'd come that night. Then I heard the bell ring.
"I've only got a few minutes. I'm supposed to be on the boulevard, buying him something to read. I could cry. Whoever heard of such a thing?"
"Listen, Phyllis, never mind that. What kind of break has he got? I mean, is it bad?"
"It's down near the ankle. No, it's not that bad."
"Is it in pulleys?"
"No. There's a weight on it, that comes off in about a week. But he won't be able to walk. He'll have to wear a cast. A long time."
"He'll be able to walk."
"You think so?"
"If you get him up."
"What do you mean, Walter?"
"On crutches, he can get up, if you get him up. Get this : with his foot in a cast, he won't be able to drive. He'll have to go by train. Phyllis, this is what we've been hoping for."
"You think so?"
"And then another thing. I told you, he gets on that train but he doesn't get on it. Alright, then. We've got a question of identification there, haven't we? Those crutches, that foot in a cast -- there's the most perfect identification a man ever had. Oh yeah, I'm telling you. If you can get him off that bed, and make him think he ought to take the trip anyway, just as a vacation from all he's been through -- we're in. I can feel it. We're in."
"It's dangerous, though."
"What's dangerous about it?"
"I mean, getting a broken leg case out of bed too soon. I used to be a nurse, and I know. It's almost certain to affect the length. Make one leg shorter than the other, I mean."
"Is that all that's bothering you?"
It was a minute before she got it. Whether one leg was going to be shorter than the other... that was one thing he sure didn't have any cause to worry about.
His train was to leave at 9:45 at night. Around four o'clock, I drove down to San Pedro Street and talked employers' liability to the manager of a wine company. There wasn't a chance of landing him until August, when the grapes came in and his plant opened up, but I had a reason. He explained why he wasn't ready to do business yet, but I put on an act and went back to the office. I told Cheryl I thought I had a real prospect, and to make out a card for him. The card automatically gave the date of the first call, and that was what I wanted. I signed a couple of letters, and around five-thirty I left.
I got home around six, and the Filipino was all ready to serve dinner. I had seen to that. This was June 3rd, and I should have paid him on the first, but I pretended I had forgotten to go to the bank, and put him off. Today, though, I had stopped at the house for lunch, and paid him. That meant that when night came he could hardly wait to go out and spend it. I O.K.'d serving dinner and he had the soup on the table before I even got washed up. I ate, as well as I could. He gave me steak, mashed potatoes, peas and carrots, with fruit cup for dessert. I was so nervous I could hardly chew, but I got it all down somehow. I had hardly finished my coffee when he had everything washed up, and himself changed to cream-colored pants, white shoes and white stockings, a brown coat, and white shirt open at the neck all ready to go out on the town. It used to be that what a Hollywood actor wore on Monday a Filipino house boy wore on Tuesday, but now, if you ask me, it's the other way around, and the boy from Manila beats Clark Gable to the punch.
He left around a quarter to seven. When he came up to ask if there was anything else for him to do, I was taking off my clothes getting ready to go to bed. I told him I was going to lie there and do a little work. I got some paper and pencils and made a lot of notes, like I was figuring up the public liability stuff for the man I talked to in the afternoon. It was the kind of stuff you would naturally save and put in the prospect's folder. I took care there were a couple of notes on the date.
Then I went down and called the office. Ol' Joe, the night watchman, answered. "Listen Joe, this is Walter Huff. Do me a favor will you? Go up to my office, and right on top of the desk you'll find my rate book. It's a looseleaf book, with a soft leather back, and my name stamped in gold on the front, and under that the word 'rates.' I forgot to bring it home, and I need it. Will you get it and send it up to me by messenger, right away?"
"O.K., Mr. Huff. Right away."
Fifteen minutes later he rang back and said he couldn't find it. "I looked all over the desk, Mr. Huff, and through the office besides, and there's no such book there."
"I guess Cheryl must have locked it up then."
"Not a soul in your office, Mr Huff..."
"Yeah, she's gone home by now. I'll have to get along without it, I'm not making the poor girl haul back all the way from Cucamonga."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Huff."
"Don't worry about it. Have a good night, Joe."
"Thank you Mr. Huff. Goodnight Mr. Huff."
I had put that rate book in a place where he'd never find it : right on my bed. But it was one person that had called me at home that night, and I was there, working hard. There'd be others. No need to say anything to him that would make him remember the date. He had to keep a log, and enter everything he did, not only by date, but also by time. I looked at my watch. It was 7:49.
At five to eight I was in the drugstore booth when the phone rang. It was Phyllis. "Navy."
That was a check on what suit he would wear. She was to duck out to buy him an extra tooth brush, and call. Soon as I got back I dressed. I had a navy blue suit too, just like his, bought in the same shop. I stuffed my pockets with a thick roll of gauze, a small towel, adhesive tape, fifty-eight inches of light cotton rope, rolled small, and a brass knuckle. The coat bulged plenty, but I didn't care. I checked on a pair of horn-rim frames, like he wore. Just the frames, no glasses in them. Twenty minutes to nine I called Cheryl. "Did you see my rate book before I left?"
"Indeed I didn't, Mr. Huff."
"I need it, and I don't know what I did with it."
"You mean you lost it?"
"I don't know. I phoned Joe down there, and he can't find it. I can't imagine what I did with it."
"I can run in, if you want, and see if I can --"
"No, thanks. You're a sweet kid but it's over thirty miles. It's not that important."
"I'm sorry. I didn't see it, Mr. Huff."
That was a toll call. The record would show I called from the house at 8:40. As soon as she clicked off I opened the bell box and tilted half a visiting card against the clapper, so if the phone rang it would fall down. I had already done the same for the doorbell clapper, in the kitchen, just before calling. I would be out of the house an hour and a half, and I had to know if the doorbell rang or the phone rang. If they did, that could have been while I was in the bathroom taking a bath, with the door shut and the water running, so I didn't hear. But I had to know if I was taking a bath or not.
Then I got in my car and drove three streets over from the Nirdlinger residence. It was a good spot, where a car wouldn't attract any attention, but at the same time wasn't so far off that I had to do much walking. I slinked towards the house. The garage door was left ajar, as we arranged. I could smell the honeysuckle again, but I didn't know if I smelled the flower or the bud. Only it was even stronger, now that it was night. I slid myself inside the garage as quietly as I could. The Sedan was backed into place just like I told her to. I'd figured it's safer that way, just in case he got into the car before she drove it out. I got into the back of the car. I lay on the floor and took off my shoe. The towel went around the leg, right above the ankle, then the gauze thickly on top of that, then the adhesive. It was one hell of a cast, I can tell you that. Then I just lay there and waited. They call it "laying in wait" for a reason, after all. There's a bunch of waiting involved in this murder business, that's the truth of the matter.
Ten or so minutes later, there they were, making their way down that hill.
"Alright, honey ?
"Yeah, I'm O.K."
"I'll have the car out in a second."
She got in, and she flashed a single look at me but said nothing. I reached out and pinched her right nipple right through her dress. Hard. She didn't make a sound, she didn't flinch, she just turned the engine as cool as a cucumber and a moment later was bustling around the car, opening the door for him.
"Take it easy, honey. We've got lots of time."
"Remember what the doctor said. If you get careless, you might end up with a shorter leg."
"What of it ? I could always break the other one too and match them up again."
"It makes you feel pretty good, to get away from me, doesn't it ?"
Believe me it's an awful thing to kibitz on a man and his wife, and hear what they really talk about. She got him all worked up, until a flock of cusswords came out of him, and I could hear the crutches rattling against the side of the car. Then she smoothed him back down again, and all of it just for giving him something to do. It was clear she was in charge of that conversation. She'd have made a great salesman, if only she weren't a woman.
He began to beef about Nettie, the way she passed things at dinner. She panned Nettie for the way she broke so many dishes. Then they got switched off to somebody named Hobey, and a woman named Ethel, that seemed to be his wife. He said he was through with Hobey and Hobey might as well know it. She said she used to like Ethel but the high-hat way she's been acting lately was too much. They figured it out whether they owed Hobey and Ethel a dinner or the other way around. They found out they were one down, and decided that after they knocked that one off that was going to be the end of it. When they got that all settled, they decided he was to take a taxi wherever he went, up in Palo Alto, even if it did cost a little money, because if he had to slog along on crutches everywhere he went, he wouldn't have a good time, and besides he might strain his leg. Phyllis talked just like he was really going all the way to Palo Alto, and she didn't have a thing on her mind. A woman is a queer animal.
Back where I was, I couldn't see where we were. I was even afraid to breathe, for fear he'd hear me, even over all her chatter and constant distractions. She was to drive so she didn't make any sudden stops, or get herself tangled in traffic, or do anything that would make him turn his head around to see what was back of us. He didn't. He had a cigar in his mouth, and lay back in the seat, smoking it. After a while she gave two sharp raps on the horn.
"What was that for ?" was all he could manage, Mr. Nirdlinger's last say in this world. That was our signal that we had come to a dark street we had picked out, about a half mile from the station, so I rose up, put my hand over his mouth, and pulled his head back. He grabbed my hand in both of his, the cigar still in his fingers. I took it with my free hand and handed it to her. She took it. I took one of the crutches and hooked it under his chin, then twisted it, sharply. Next frame he was curled down on the seat with a broken neck, and not a mark on him except a crease right over his nose, the final kiss of the crosspiece on the crutch.
We were right up with it, the moment of audacity that has to be part of any successful murder. For the next twenty minutes we were in the jaws of death, not for what would happen now, but for how it would go together later. She started to throw the cigar out, but I stopped her. He had lit that cigar in the house, and I had to have it. She held it for me, and wiped the end of it as well as she could, while I went to work with the rope. I ran it across his shoulders, just below the neck, under his arms, and across his back. I tied it hard, all hooked through the brass knuckle. A dead man is about the hardest thing to handle there is, but I figured with this harness on one side we could do it, and do it quick.
"We're there, Walter. Shall I park now or drive around the block?"
"Park now. We're ready."
She stopped. It was on a side street, about a block from the station. That stumped us for a while, where to park. If we went on the regular station parking lot, it was a 10 to 1 shot that a redcap would jerk the door open to get the bags, and we'd be sunk. But parking here, we would be all right. If we got a chance, we were to have an argument about it in front of somebody, with me complaining about how far she made me walk, to cover up on something that might look a little funny, later.
She got out and took the bag and briefcase. He was one of the kind who puts his toilet articles in a briefcase, for use on the train, and that was a break for me, later. I wound up all windows, took the crutches, and got out. She locked the car. We left him right where he was, crumpled face down in the seat, with the harness on him.
She went ahead with the bag and briefcase, and I came along behind, with the bandaged leg half lifted up, walking on the crutches. It looked just like a woman making it easy for a cripple, but really it was to keep the redcap from getting a good look at me when he took the bags. Soon as we got around the corner, in sight of the station, here came one, running. He did just what we figured on. He took the bags from her, and never waited for me at all.
"The nine forty-five for San Francisco, Section 8, Car C."
"Eight in Car C, yas'm. Meet you on the train."
We went in the station. I had her drop back on me, so if anything came up I could mumble to her. I had the glasses on, and my hat pulled down, but not too much. I kept my eyes down, like I was watching where I put the crutches. I kept the cigar in my mouth, partly so it covered some of my face, partly so I could screw my face out of shape a little, like I was trying to keep the smoke out of my eyes.
The train was on a siding, out back of the station. I made a quick count of the cars. "Holy smoke, it's the third one." It was the one that both conductors were standing in front of, and not only them, but the porter, and the redcap, waiting for his tip. Unless we did something quick, it would be four people that had a good look at me before I went in the car, and it might hang us. She ran on ahead. I saw her tip the redcap, and he went off, all bows. He didn't pass near me. He headed for the far end of the station, where the parking lot was. Then the porter saw me, and started for me. She took him by the arm. "My husband doesn't like to be helped."
The porter didn't get it. The Pullman conductor did.
The porter stopped. Then he got it. They all turned their backs and started to talk. I stumped up the car steps. I got to the top. That was her cue. She was still down on the ground, with the conductors. "Dear."
I stopped and half turned. "Come back to the observation platform. I'll say good-bye to you there, and then I won't have to worry about getting off the train. You still have a few minutes. Maybe we can talk."
I started back, through the car. She started back, on the ground, outside.
All three cars were full of people getting ready to go to bed, with most of the berths made up and bags all out in the aisle. The porters weren't there. They were at their boxes, outside. I kept my eyes down, clinched the cigar in my teeth, and kept my face screwed up. Nobody really saw me, and yet everybody saw me, because the minute they saw those crutches they began snatching bags out of the way and making room. I just nodded and mumbled "thanks."
When I saw her face I knew something was wrong. Outside on the observation platform, I saw what it was, too. A man sat there, tucked back in a corner in the dark, having a smoke. I sat down on the opposite side. She reached her hand over. I took it.
"You're not mad at me any more? For where I parked?"
"I thought I was headed for the station parking lot, honestly. But I get all mixed up in this part of town. I hadn't any idea I was going to make you walk so far."
"I told you, forget it."
"I'm terribly sorry."
There were about ten minutes before the train would leave, but she needed a six-minute start for what she had to do. "Listen, Phyllis, there's no use of you waiting around here. Why don't you go on?"
"Well -- you don't mind?"
"I don't mind, no sense dragging it out."
"Have a good time. Three cheers for Leland Stanford."
"I'll do my best."
"Kiss me again."
For what I had to do, I had to get rid of this guy, and get rid of him quick. I hadn't expected anybody out there. There seldom is when a train pulls out. I sat there, trying to think of something. I thought he might leave when he finished his cigarette, but he didn't. He threw it over the side and began to talk.
"Women are funny, aren't they."
"Funny and then some."
"I couldn't help hearing that little conversation you had with your wife just now. About where she parked, I mean. Reminds me of an experience I had with my wife, coming home from San Diego."
He told the experience he had with his wife. I looked him over. I couldn't see his face. I figured he couldn't see mine. He stopped talking. I had to say something.
"Yeah, women are funny alright. Specially when you get them behind the wheel of a car."
"They're all of that."
The train began to roll. It crawled through the outskirts of Los Angeles, and he kept on talking. Then an idea came to me. I remembered I was supposed to be a cripple, and began feeling through my pockets.
"You lose something?"
"My ticket. I can't find it."
"Say, I wonder if I've got my ticket. Yeah, here it is."
"You know what I bet she did? Put that ticket in my briefcase, right where I told her not to. She was to put it here in the pocket of this suit, and now --"
"Oh, it'll turn up."
"Don't that beat all? Here I've got to go and hobble all through those cars, just because --"
"Ah don't be silly. Stay where you are."
"No, I couldn't let you --"
"It'll be a pleasure. Stay right where you are and I'll get it for you. What's your space?"
"Would you? Section 8, Car C."
"I'll be right back with it."
We were picking up speed a little now. My mark was a dairy sign, about a quarter of a mile from the track. We came in sight of it and I lit my cigar. I put my crutches under one arm, threw my leg over the rail, and let myself down. One of the crutches hit the ties and spun me so I almost fell. I hung on. When we came square abreast of the sign I dropped off.
There's nothing so dark as a railroad track in the middle of the night. The train shot ahead without me while I crouched there, waiting for the tingle to leave my feet. I had dropped off the left side of the train, into the footpath between the tracks, so there wouldn't be any chance I could be seen from the highway, about two hundred feet away. I stayed there, on my hands and knees, straining to see something on the other side of the tracks. There was a dirt road there, that gave entry to a couple of small factories, further back. All around stood vacant lots, nothing lit. She ought to be there by now. She had a seven-minute start, the train took six minutes to that point, and it was an eleven-minute drive from the station to this dirt road. I had checked it twenty times. I held still and stared, trying to spot the car. I couldn't see it.
I don't know how long I crouched there. It came to me that maybe she had bumped somebody's fender, or been stopped by a cop, or something. I seemed to turn to water. Then I heard something. I heard a panting. Then with it I heard footsteps. They would go fast for a second or two, and then stop. It was like being in a nightmare, with something queer coming after me, and I didn't know what it was, but it was horrible. Then I saw it. It was her. That man must have weighed 200 pounds, but she had him on her back, holding him by the handle, and staggering along with him, over the tracks. His head was hanging down beside her head. They looked like something in a horror picture.
I ran over and grabbed his legs, to take some of the weight off her. We ran him a few steps. She started to throw him down. "Not that track! The other one!"
We got him over to the track the train went out on, and dropped him. I cut the harness off and slipped it in my pocket. I put the lighted cigar within a foot or two of him. I threw one crutch over him and the other beside the track.
"Where's the car?"
"There. Couldn't you see it?"
I looked, and there it was, right where it was supposed to be, on the dirt road.
"We're done. Let's go."
We ran over and climbed in and she tried to start the motor, but it wouldn't go. "Oh my -- his hat!" I took that hat and sailed it out the window, on the tracks. "It's O.K., a hat can roll. Get going!" She tried again, but the engine wouldn't start.
"You didn't mess with the ignition after all, did you ?"
She looked at me, that cold, metallic stare. "No, I didn't mess with the ignition."
The engine wouldn't turn, and every minute we spent there was adding risk percentiles to our account book. I pulled the choke way out, and finally it turned. She got it into gear. We passed the factories. We came to a street.
On Sunset she went through a light. "Watch that stuff, can't you, Phyllis? If you're stopped now, with me in the car, we're sunk."
"Can I drive with that thing going on?"
She meant the car radio. I had turned it on. It was to be part of my alibi, for the time I was out of the house, that I knocked off work for a while and listened to the radio. I had to know what was coming in that night. I had to know more than I could find out by reading the programs in the papers. "I've got to have it, you know that --"
"Let me alone, let me drive!"
She hit a zone, and must have been doing seventy. I clenched my teeth, and kept quiet. When we came to a vacant lot I threw out the rope. About a mile further on I threw out the knuckle. Going by a curb drain I shot the glasses into it. Then I happened to look down and saw her shoes. They were scarred from the tracks' ballast.
"What did you carry him for? Why didn't you let me --"
"Where were you? Where were you?"
"I was there. I was waiting --"
"Did I know that? Could I just sit there, with that in the car?"
"I was trying to see where you were. I couldn't see --"
"Let me alone, let me drive!"
"Your shoes --" but I choked it back. In a second or two, she started up again. She raved like a lunatic. She raved and she kept on raving, about him, about me, about anything that came in her head. Every now and then I'd snap. There we were, after what we had done, snarling at each other like a couple of animals, and neither one of us could stop. It was like somebody had shot us full of some kind of dope. "Phyllis, cut this out. We've got to talk, and it may be our last chance."
"Talk then! Who's stopping you?"
"First then: You don't know anything about this insurance policy. You --"
"How many times do you have to say that?"
"I'm only telling you --"
"You've already told me 'til I'm sick of hearing you."
"Next, the inquest. You bring --"
"I bring a minister, I know that, I bring a minister to take charge of the body, how many times have I got to listen to that! Are you going to let me drive?"
"O.K., then. Drive. Is Nettie home?"
"How do I know? No!"
"And Lola's out?"
"Didn't I tell you?"
"Then you'll have to stop at the drugstore. To get a pint of ice cream or something. To have witnesses you drove straight home from the station. You got to say something to fix the time and the date. You --"
"Get out! Get out! I'll go insane!"
"I can't get out. I've got to get to my car! Do you know what that means, if I take time to walk? I can't complete my alibi! I --"
"I said get out!"
"Drive on, or I'll sock you."
When she got to my car she stopped and I got out. We didn't kiss. We didn't even say good-bye. I got out of her car, got in mine, started, and raced home.
When I got home I looked at the clock. It was 10:25. I opened the bell box of the telephone. The card was still there. I closed the box and dropped the card in my pocket. I went in the kitchen and looked at the doorbell. That card was still there. I dropped it in my pocket. I went upstairs, cut the bandage off my foot, ripped off my clothes, and got into pajamas and slippers. I went down, shoved the bandage and cards into the fireplace, with a stack of newspapers, and lit the whole damn mess on fire. I watched it burn for a moment, but then I went to the telephone and started to dial. I still had one callback to get, to round out the late part of my alibi. I felt something like a drawstring pull in my throat, and a sob popped out of me. I clapped the phone down. It was getting me. I knew I had to get myself under some kind of control. I swallowed a couple of times. I wanted to make sure of my voice, that it would sound O.K. A dumb idea came to me that maybe if I would sing something, that would make me snap out of it. I started to sing the Isle of Capri. I sang about two notes, and it swallowed into a kind of a wail.
I went in the dining room and took a drink. I took another drink. I started mumbling to myself, trying to get so I could talk. I had to have something to mumble. I thought of the Lord's Prayer. I mumbled that, a couple of times. I tried to mumble it another time, and couldn't remember how it went. Eventually, when I thought I could talk, I dialed again. It was 10:48. I dialed Ike Schwartz, that's another salesman with General.
"Ike, do me a favor, will you? I'm trying to figure out a proposition on a public liability bond for a wine company to have it ready for them tomorrow morning, and I'm going nuts. I came off without my rate book. Ol' Joe can't find it, and I'm wondering if you'll look up what I want in yours. You got it with you?"
"Sure, I'll be glad to."
I gave him the dope. He said give him fifteen minutes and he'd call back.
I walked around, digging my fingernails into my hands, trying to hold on to myself. The drawstring began to jerk on my throat again. I began mumbling again, saying over and over what I had just said to Ike. The phone rang. I answered. He had it figured for me, he said, and began to give it to me. He gave it to me three different ways, so I'd have it all. It took him twenty minutes. I took it down, what he said. I could feel the sweat squeezing out on my forehead and running down off my nose. After a while he was done.
"O.K., Ike, that's just what I wanted to know. That's just how I wanted it. Thanks, I owe you one."
Soon as he hung up everything cracked. I dived for the bathroom. I was sicker than I had ever been in my life. After that passed I fell into bed. It was a long time before I could turn out the light. I lay there staring into the dark. Every now and then I would have a chill or something and start to tremble. Then that passed and I lay there, like a dope. Then I started to think. I tried not to, but it would creep up on me. I knew then what I had done. I had killed a man. I had killed a man to get a woman. I had put myself in her power, so there was one person in the world that could point a finger at me, and I would have to die. I had done all that for her, and now I never wanted to see her again as long as I lived. That's all it takes, one drop of fear, to curdle love into hate.
The next day I gulped down some orange juice and coffee, and then went up to the bedroom with the paper. I was afraid to open it in front of the Filipino. Sure enough, there it was on Page 1:
OIL MAN, ON WAY TO JUNE RALLY,
DIES IN TRAIN FALL
H. S. Nirdlinger, Petroleum Pioneer,
Killed in Plunge from Express En Route to
Reunion at Leland Stanford.
With injuries about the head and neck, the body of H. S. Nirdlinger, Los Angeles representative of the Western Pipe & Supply Company and for a number of years prominently identified with the oil industry here, was found on the railroad tracks about two miles north of this city shortly before midnight last night. Mr. Nirdlinger had departed on a northbound train earlier in the evening to attend his class reunion at Leland Stanford Junior University, and it is believed he fell from the train. Police point out he had fractured his leg some weeks ago, and believe his unfamiliarity with crutches may have caused him to lose his balance on the observation platform, where he was last seen alive.
Mr. Nirdlinger was 44 years old. Born in Fresno, he attended Leland Stanford, and on graduation, entered the oil business, becoming one of the pioneers in the opening of the field at Long Beach. Later he was active at Signal Hill. For the last three years he had been in charge of the local office of the Western Pipe & Supply Company.
Surviving are a widow, formerly Miss Phyllis Belden of Mannerheim, and a daughter, Miss Lola Nirdlinger. Mrs. Nirdlinger, before her marriage, was head nurse of the Verdugo Health Institute here.
Twenty minutes to nine, Cheryl called. She said Mr. Norton wanted to see me as soon as I could possibly get down. That meant they already had it, and I wouldn't have to put on any act, going in there with my paper and saying this is the guy I sold an accident policy to last winter. I said I knew what it was, and I was right on my way.
First I had to face Norton, and tell him what I knew, or anyway what I was supposed to know. I told him how I propositioned Nirdlinger about the accident policy, and how his wife and daughter opposed it, and how I dropped it that night but went over to his office a couple of days later to give him another whirl. That would check with what the secretary saw. I told him how I sold him, then, but only after I promised not to say anything to the wife and daughter about it. I told how I took his application, then when the policy came through, delivered it, and got his check. Then we went down in Keyes' office and we went all over it again. It took all morning, you understand. All while we were talking phone calls and telegrams kept coming in, from San Francisco, where Keyes had our investigators interviewing people that were on the train, from the police, from the secretary, from Lola, after they got her on the phone to find out what she knew. They tried to get Phyllis, too, but she had strict instructions from me not to come to the phone, and she didn't. They got hold of the coroner, and arranged for an autopsy. There's generally a hook-up between insurance companies and coroners, so they can get an autopsy if they want it. They could demand it, under a clause in their policy, but that would mean going to court for an order, and would tip it that the deceased was insured, which is bad all the way around. They get it on the quiet instead, and in this case they had to have it, because if Nirdlinger died of apoplexy, or heart failure, and fell off the train, then it wouldn't any longer be accident, but death from natural causes, and they wouldn't be liable. About the middle of the afternoon they got the medical report. Death was from a broken neck. When they heard that they got the inquest postponed two days.
By four o'clock, the memos and telegrams were piled on Keyes' desk so he had to put a weight on top of them to keep them from falling over, and he was mopping his brow and so peevish nobody could talk to him. But Norton was getting more cheerful by the minute. He took a San Francisco call from somebody named Jackson, and I could tell from what he said that it was this guy I had got rid of on the observation platform before I dropped off. When he hung up he put one more memo on top of the others and turned to Keyes. "Clear case of suicide."
If it was suicide, you see, the company wouldn't be liable either. This policy only covered accident.
"Alright, watch me while I check it over. First, he took out this policy. He took it out in secret. He didn't tell his wife, he didn't tell his daughter, he didn't tell his secretary, he didn't tell anybody. If Huff here had been paying attention on the job, he might have known --"
"No need to get sore, Huff. But you've got to admit it looked funny."
"It didn't look funny at all. It happens every day. Now if they had tried to insure him, without him knowing, that would have looked funny."
"That's right. Leave Huff out of it."
"All I'm saying, Keyes, is that --"
"Huff's record shows that if there had been anything funny, he'd have noted it and we'd have known it. Probably not done anything about it, either. Do you know how many times he's done that in the past ? One hundred fifty eight, that's one hundred fifty eight times. You know how many times the rest of the knuckleheads you hire followed up on those memos ? About three. Like clockwork I have to send them do it afterwards, once the claim ends up with me, like most recently that Inglewood arson case. You know how many times he missed out on a memo, how many times we ended up in trouble with a dubious claim on my desk that he wrote and there wasn't a memo clipped to it with the story exactly like it'd eventually play out, only six months to two years in advance ? Zero. Zilch. Nada. It never happened, in fifteen years. You better find out something about your own agents, Norton."
"Alright, skip it. He takes out this policy in absolute secrecy. Why? Because he knew that if his family knew what he had done, they would know what he was up to. They knew what was on his mind, we can depend on that, and when we go into his books and his history, we'll find out what the trouble was. Alright, next point, he fractured his leg, but didn't put a claim in. Why? That looks funny, doesn't it, that a man had an accident policy, and didn't put a claim in for a broken leg?"
"Maybe he didn't get around to it."
"Funny. He didn't because he knew he was going to do this, and he was afraid if he put a claim in the family would find out about this policy and block him off."
"If they called us up, we'd cancel on him wouldn't we? You bet we would. We'd return his unused premium so fast you couldn't see our dust, and he knew it. Oh no, he wasn't taking a chance on our doctor going out there to look at his leg and tipping things off. That's a big point."
"He took out the policy without them knowing, he could have claimed on it without them knowing just as well."
"Can it. He figures an excuse to take a train. He takes his wife with him to the station, he gets on the train, he gets rid of her. She goes. He's ready to do it. But he runs into trouble. There's a guy out there, on the observation platform, and for this he doesn't want any company. You bet he doesn't. So what does he do? He gets rid of him, by putting some kind of a story about not having his ticket, and leaving it in his briefcase, and as soon as this guy goes, he takes his dive. That was the guy I just talked to, a man by the name of Jackson that went up to Friscoxiv on a business trip and is coming back tomorrow. He says there's no question about it, he had the feeling even when he offered to get Nirdlinger's briefcase for him that he was trying to get rid of him, but he didn't quite have the heart to say no to a cripple. In my mind, that clinches it. It's a clear case of suicide. You can't take any other view of it."
"Our next step is the inquest. We can't appear there, of course, because if a jury finds out a dead man is insured... We can send an investigator or two, perhaps, to sit in there, but nothing more than that. But Jackson says he'll be glad to appear and tell what he knows, and there's a chance, just a chance, but still a chance, that we may get a suicide verdict anyway. If we do, we're in. If we don't, then we've got to consider what we do. However, one thing at a time. The inquest first, and you can't tell what the police may find out; we may win right in the first round."
Keyes mopped his head some more. He was so fat he really suffered in the heat. He lit a cigarette. He drooped down and looked away from Norton like it was some schoolboy and he didn't want to show his disgust. Eventually he spoke. "Mr. Norton, I'll give you ten to one odds that inquest returns an accidental death verdict."
"We'll see", spat Norton as he filed out of the office. I followed him, trying to avoid Keyes' murderous glances on my way out.
I took the next day off. I knew I shouldn't have, but I just couldn't face the office. I couldn't face anything, starting with my face in the mirror in the morning. Cheryl cleared out my schedule for me, then late afternoon she called to see if I needed anything. I had been slumbering, an agitated, restless sleep punctuated with cold sweats and strange fevers, like a train journey through the mists from one nightmare to the next. I didn't need anything. She let me know there's a meeting in Mr Norton's office the next day at ten, and I must show up he says. I confirmed I would, and then pulled the covers over my head.
We couldn't meet, of course. Neither with Phyllis nor with Lola, it was out of the question. Neither called, neither showed up. I wondered if it was because we couldn't. Maybe they didn't want to, anymore. Before, I was afraid Phyllis might go to pieces a little, after we did it ; but it was becoming clear where the weak link was. She was perfect, no nerves, no tear. Not even a blink of the eyes. I had to pull out of it, I had to.
Nothing had slipped. Nothing had been overlooked. There was nothing to give us away. What's more, the only man in the whole world we had reason to fear was playing on our side. And yet... as I was pacing around the bed it suddenly came over me that everything would go wrong.
"Oh, hi Walter."
"Come along then. The big boss wants to see us. In his office."
"The Nirdlinger case huh."
"What's the inquest returned ?"
"Accidental. Took 'em all of half an hour."
I didn't go to the inquest, obviously. Neither did Norton, nor Keyes. No insurance company can afford to let a jury know, whether it's a coroner's jury or any other kind of jury, that a dead man is insured. It just doesn't work out well for it, if that comes out. Two investigators were sent over, guys that look like everybody else and sit with the newspaper men. We got what happened from them. Everyone identified the body and told their story : Phyllis, the two conductors, the red-cap, the porter, a couple of passengers, the police, and especially this guy Jackson, that pounded it in that I had tried to get rid of him. The jury brought in a verdict "that the said Herbert S. Nirdlinger came to his death by a broken neck received in a fall from a railroad train at or about ten o'clock on the night of June 3 in a manner unknown to this jury." It took Norton by surprise. He really hoped for a suicide verdict. It didn't surprise me any. The most important person at the inquest never said a word, and I had beat it into Phyllis' head long before that he had to be there, because I had figured on this suicide stuff, and we had to be ready for it. That was the minister that she asked to come with her, to confer with the undertaker on arrangements for the funeral. Once a coroner's jury sees that it's a question of burial in consecrated ground, the guy could take poison, cut his own throat and stab himself in both eyes with the same serving fork, they'll still call it "in a manner unknown to this jury."
"Too bad he hadn't any money on it with you."
"Not with me, no. But I think he had some money on it nevertheless."
"Alright, thank you very much, gentlemen." The legal department folks were just clearing out of Norton's office. Then he looked at us, "Come in, Mr. Keyes. You too, Mr. Huff. Do you find this an uncomfortably warm day, Mr. Keyes ?"
"I'm sorry, Mr. Norton, I did not know this was a formal affair."
"Sit down gentlemen. Thank you."
"Any new developments ?"
"Not so much. As you know, the inquest verdict was accidental death." Norton glared at Keyes. "There's a widespread notion that just because a man has a large office -- " but his phone rang. "Yes ? Have her come in please." then he got back to us. " -- just because a man has a large office he must be an idiot. I'm having a visitor if you don't mind." We both stood up to leave, taking the meeting for over, but he interrupted us, "No, no. I want you two to stay and watch me handle this."
Then the door opened and Phyllis came in. She didn't look at me any, but she looked swell. She looked fine.
"Mrs. Nirdlinger, thank you very much for coming. I assure you I appreciate it. This is Mr. Keyes."
"How do you do ?"
"How do you do." she offered, faintly.
"And this is Mr. Huff."
"I've already met Mr. Huff", she said, glancing at me briefly. "How do you do."
"Mrs. Nirdlinger." I said, without a note in my voice. Her presence had a strange, hypnotic effect on me.
"May I extend our sympathy in your bereavement ?" Norton wasn't going to let anyone have any doubts as to who's in charge there. That was the problem with him, always too focused on the little things. "I hesitated before asking you to come here so soon after your loss. But now that you're here I hope you won't mind if I plunge straight into business."
"Do you not know why we asked you to come, Mrs. Nirdlinger ?"
"No. Your secretary nevertheless made it sound very urgent."
"Your husband had an accident policy with this company. Evidently you didn't know that, Mrs. Nirdlinger ?"
"No. I remember some talk at the house, but he didn't seem to want it."
"You'll probably find the policy among his personal effects."
"Please Mrs. Nirdlinger, I don't want you to think you're being subjected to any questioning, but there are a few things we should like to know."
"What sort of things ?"
"We have here a copy of the report of the coroner's inquest. Accidental death. We are not entirely satisfied. In fact, we are not satisfied at all. Frankly, Mrs. Nirdlinger, we suspect... we believe your husband might have... well..."
"I don't follow you, Mister."
"In a word, it's as clear a case of suicide as anyone in this room ever laid eyes on. I'm sorry. Would you like a glass of water ?"
"Had your husband been depressed or moody lately, Mrs. Nirdlinger ? Did he have financial worries, for instance ?"
"He was perfectly alright and I don't know of any financial worries."
"Let us examine this so-called accident. First, your husband takes out this policy in absolute secrecy. Why ? Because he doesn't want his family to suspect what he intends to do."
"Go to his class reunion ?"
"Next, he undertakes that trip entirely alone. He has to be alone. He hobbles all the way out to the observation platform. Very unlikely with his leg in a cast, unless he has a very strong reason."
"Yes, I asked him to. That way I wouldn't have to worry about getting off the train before it rolled out and end up having to take a bus back to the car. It's happened to me before."
"I see. Then once there, he finds he is not alone. There is a man there. What was his name, Keyes ?"
"His name was Jackson. I expect it still is."
"So he gets rid of this Jackson with some flimsy excuse about misplaced tickets."
"He told me not to put his ticket in his case, to put it in his jacket pocket. I forgot." and she seemed for a moment to break up and start crying, but she caught herself, dabbed her eyes and glared at Mr. Norton. Boy I didn't want to be in his shoes right about now.
"And then he is alone. And then he does it."
"Does what ?"
"He jumps. Suicide. In which case the company is not liable. You know that, of course. Now, we could go to court --"
"I don't know anything. I don't even know why I came here. Apparently it was so as to have some perfect strangers point it out to me again that my husband's last words went to complain, rightfully, about something I did wrong."
"Just a moment, please. I said we could go to court. I didn't say we want to. Rather what I would suggest is a compromise on both sides. A settlement for a certain sum, part of the policy value."
She glared at him, an icy stare that turned even rosy Keyes a little pale. "Don't bother, Mr. Morton. When I came in, I had no idea you owed me any money. Then you told me you did, but wouldn't say how much, then you told me you didn't, as I supposedly know, and now you come to telling me you want to pay a part of an unknown sum you don't owe me. I don't like your insinuations about my husband, and I don't like your approach to what I suppose you think passes for business. In fact, I don't like you at all, Mr. Morton. Good bye, gentlemen."
We watched the door that had closed behind her in silence for a few moments. Eventually Keyes tore it.
"Nice going, Mr. Norton. That was indeed uncomfortably chilly."
"What are you talking about. It's a clear case of suicide."
Keyes walked over to one of the large bookcases adorning Norton's office, opened up the glass doors violently and began throwing thick books in the general direction of his ministerial oaken desk, like a Spanish galleon aiming to sink a port and the land it sits on altogether. They counted for ten pounds a shot or more, and I had to duck out of the way of at least a few of them.
"Mr. Norton, here's what the actuaries have to say about suicide. You study them, you might find out something about the insurance business."
"I was raised in the insurance business, Keyes."
"You were raised in private schools, Groton, and Harvard. While you were learning how to pull bow oars there, I was studying these tables. Take a look at them. Here's suicide by race, by color, by occupation, by sex, by locality, by seasons of the year, by time of day when committed. Here's suicide by method of accomplishment. Here's method of accomplishment subdivided by poisons, by firearms, by gas, by drowning, by leaps. Here's suicide by poisons subdivided by sex, by race, by age, by time of day. Here's suicide by poisons subdivided by cyanide, by mercury, by strychnine, by thirty-eight other poisons, sixteen of them no longer procurable even at prescription pharmacies, and then grouped again, corrosive, irritant, systemic, gaseous, narcotic, and on it goes. And here -- here, Mr. Norton -- are the leaps. Subdivided by leaps from high places, under wheels of moving trains, under wheels of trucks, under the feet of horses, from steamboats and from fortifications and bathroom windows and into remarkably large rabbit holes. There's everything in here that you could dream of, except for one thing. There is not one single case here out of all these millions upon millions of cases of a leap from the rear end of a slow moving train. That's just one way they don't do it."
"Your case is whether they would, not whether they could, Mr. Norton. For all you know they could read fortunes, see the future, or commune with the dead -- and yet they don't. Before planes were invented people could fly just as well as they can now, in the same way exactly, only -- they didn't. But even leave the broader point aside, indeed could he have ? That train, at the point where the body was found, moves at a maximum of fifteen miles an hour. Could any man jump three feet off a platform doing fifteen miles an hour with any real expectation of killing himself?"
"He might dive off. This man had a broken neck."
"Don't trifle with me. This Nirdlinger wasn't some kind of an acrobat. He was two hundred and nineteen pounds' worth of office furniture."
"Then what are you trying to tell me? That it was on the up-and-up?"
"Listen, Mr. Norton. When a man takes out an insurance policy, an insurance policy that's worth $50,000 in indemnities if he's killed in a railroad accident, and then nine weeks later he is killed in a railroad accident of a kind that's not even in the books, it's not on the up-and-up. It can't be. If the train got wrecked it might be, but even then it would be a mighty suspicious coincidence. A mighty suspicious coincidence. No, it's not on the up-and-up. But it's not suicide."
"Then what do you mean?"
"You know what I mean."
"Yes, Mr. Norton, that's what I mean. I mean murder."
"Well wait a minute, Keyes, wait a minute. Wait 'til I catch up with you. What have you got to go on?"
"You must have something."
"I said nothing. Whoever did this did a perfect job. There's nothing to go on. Just the same, it's murder."
"Do you suspect anybody?"
"The beneficiary of such a policy, so far as I am concerned, is automatically under suspicion."
"You mean the wife?"
"I mean the wife."
"She wasn't on the train."
"Wasn't she ?"
"They're positive..." offered Norton, stupefied. But Keyes wouldn't have any of it.
"Then somebody else was."
"Have you any idea who?"
"None at all."
"And this is all you have to go on?"
"I told you, I have nothing to go on. Nothing but those tables and my own hunch, instinct, and experience. It's a slick job, but it's no accident, and it's no suicide." then he turned to me, suddenly, and I could almost hear the next words out of his mouth. But he surprised me : "was this a general indemnity policy ?"
"No", I managed after clearing my throat of what seemed like three saddlesatchels' worth of dust. "Named beneficiary." His idea was that maybe the daughter stood to benefit through inheritance, and then maybe that was a lead. But Lola was not involved.
"Then what are we going to do?"
"I don't know. There's only one thing you could do. It's against practice, and in some other case I'd oppose it on ethical and moral grounds. But not here. There's a couple of things about this case that make me think that practice is one of the things they're well aware of, and counting upon to use to their advantage. Practice in a case like this is to wait, and make them come to you, isn't it? I advise against that. I advise jumping in there at once. Throw all the chips at it, tonight if possible, and if not tonight, then certainly in the morning. File a complaint against that woman. I advise filing an information of suspected murder against her, and smashing at her as hard and as quick as we can. I advise that we demand her arrest, and her detention too, for the full forty-eight hours incommunicado that the law allows in a case of this kind. I advise sweating her with everything the police have got. I particularly advise separating her from this accomplice, whoever he is, or she is, so we get the full value of surprise, and prevent their conferring on future plans. Do that, and mark my words you're going to find out things that'll amaze you."
"But -- based on what?"
"Based on nothing."
"But Keyes, we can't do a thing like that. We just can't. Let's say we don't find out anything. Let's say we sweat her and get nothing. Let's say it is on the up-and-up, even, Joseph and Mary only know how. Look where that puts us. She could murder us in a civil suit, and most any jury will give her every nickel she asks for, which will be every nickel we've got. I'm not sure they couldn't get us for criminal libel to top it off. And then look at the other side of it. We've got an advertising budget of $17,300 a year. We describe ourselves as the friend of the widow and orphan. We spend all that for goodwill, and then what? We lay ourselves open to the charge that we'd accuse a woman of murder even, rather than pay a just claim."
"It's not a just claim."
"Unless we prove different it will be, especially after all that."
"Alright. What you say is true. I started it off by saying it's against practice, and it's against practice for good reason. But let me tell you this, Mr. Norton, and tell you clearly and right now : whoever pulled this was no punk. He, or she, or maybe the both of them, or the three of them or however many it took -- knew what they were doing. They're not going to be caught just by your sitting around hoping for clues. They thought of clues. There aren't any. The only way you're going to catch them is to move against them. I don't care if it's a battle or a murder case, or whatever it is, surprise is a weapon that can work. I don't say it will work. But I say it can work. And I also say this : nothing else is going to work here. Nothing."
"But Keyes, we can't do things like that."
"Keyes, we've been over that a million times, every insurance company has been over it a million times. We have our practice, and you can't beat it. These things are a matter for the police. We can help the police, if we've got something to help with. If we discover information, we can turn it over to them. If we have our suspicions, we can communicate them to them. We can take any lawful, legitimate step -- but as for this --"
He stopped. Keyes waited, but he never finished.
"What's unlawful about this, Mr. Norton?"
"Nothing. It's lawful enough -- but it's wrong. It puts us out in the open with our pants down. It leaves us with no defenses in case we miss on it. I never heard of a thing like that. It's... it's tactically wrong, that's what I'm trying to say."
"But it's strategically right."
"We've got our strategy. We've got our ancient strategy, and you can't beat it. Listen, it can be suicide. We can affirm our belief that it's suicide, at the proper time, and we're safe. The burden of proof is on her, and let her carry it. That's what I'm trying to say. Believe me, on a keg of dynamite like this, I don't want to get myself in the position where the burden of proof is on us."
"So you're not going to move against her?"
"Not yet, Keyes, not yet. Maybe later, I don't know. But so long as we can do the conservative, safe thing, I don't get mixed up with the other kind."
"Mr. Norton, this woman has managed to force upon you the choice between war and dishonour. You're choosing dishonour, and you will have war. She has no burden to carry, she just needs the time to light the fuse on those kegs you're seated upon. Your father --"
"Would have done the same thing. I'm thinking of him."
"He would not. Old Man Norton could take a chance."
"Well I'm not my father!"
"That you are not. But it is nevertheless your responsibility to be your father, now and again. At times like this."
There was a pause. Eventually Norton spoke again. His voice was cracked.
"Well Keyes... we're no worse off if we wait a few days."
"You're no better off for it, either."
"Anyway, we haven't done anything foolish yet."
"Now? Now I follow practice. I wait her out. I deny liability, on the grounds that accidental death is not proven, and I make her sue. When she sues, then we'll see what we see."
"I know I'm sunk, but that's what I'm going to do."
"What do you mean you know you're sunk?"
"Well, I've been talking to the police about this, too. I told them we suspect murder. They said they did too, at first, but they've given up that idea. They've gone into it. They've got their books too, Keyes. They know how people commit murder, and how they don't. They say no-one has ever heard of a case where murder was committed, or even attempted, by pushing a man off the rear end of a slow-moving train. They say the same thing about it you say. How could a murderer, assuming there was one, be sure the man would die? Suppose he only got hurt? Then where would they be? No, they assure me it's on the up-and-up. It's just one of those freak things, that's all."
"Did they cover everybody that was on that train? Did they find out whether there was a single one of them that was acquainted with his wife? For Pete's sake Mr. Norton, don't tell me they gave up without going into that part. I tell you, there was somebody else on that train!"
I figured it was high time for me to say something. I turned to Keyes,
"Listen, Keyes, listen to this. So nobody in his right mind would throw someone from a train like that with the intention it'd kill him, because like they say, it likely won't, and then where will he be. But it might knock him out, mightn't it ?"
"Sure, it might."
"And he had a game leg anyway, didn't he ?"
"Yes, he had a game leg."
"Suppose it's not one, but two. Apart from the woman, I say. There's two. One gets on the train and pushes him out. The other was waiting all along at a spot agreed-upon in advance, and once his package lands..."
"He twists his neck ?"
"The dame said so herself, she lured the guy out on the observation platform, right ?"
"That's a thought..." Keyes looked straight through me, as if I wasn't even there. "That's a thought", he repeated. But then he shook his head. "Suppose your package screams ?"
Norton would have none of it either. "You're barking up a tree that's not even there, Huff. The police talked to the observation car steward. He took a seat right by the door, to mark up his slips for the beginning of the trip, and he's certain nobody was out there with Nirdlinger, because if anybody had passed him he would have had to move. He remembers Jackson going out there, about fifteen minutes before the train pulled out. He remembers the cripple going by, a few minutes later. He remembers Jackson coming back, right after the train started. He remembers Jackson going out there again with the briefcase, and Jackson coming back, the second time. Jackson didn't report the disappearance right away. He just figured Nirdlinger went in a washroom or something, and as a matter of fact it wasn't 'til midnight, when he wanted to go to bed and he still had the briefcase with Nirdlinger's ticket in it, that he said anything to the conductor about it. Five or ten minutes after that, at Santa Barbara, was where the Los Angeles yard-master caught the conductor with a wire and he impounded Nirdlinger's baggage and began taking names. There was nobody out there to push him. If the guy didn't actually fall off he might as well have, for all the good it does us. That's it, we're sunk. It's on the up-and-up."
"If it's on the up-and-up, why don't you pay her outright? Put it on the advertising budget, too. Let every grifter from the Salton Sea to the Pacific Ocean know this is the mark to hit. Maybe put a big advertisement on the door, too, 'phoney claims honored here', why the hell not."
"Every company in this business pays out on some phoney claim now and again."
"Are you kidding me ? This whole outfit ain't worth $50`000 net, and you know it."
"Our credit's still good."
"How long will it stay that way ? I never heard of a concern yet that managed to stay in business by borrowing money to pay out to con-men and criminals. Apart from the federal government, maybe."
"Well, wait a minute. I didn't say that's what I think. That's what the police think. But there's still considerable evidence of suicide --"
"Not a scrap."
"Enough, Keyes, that I owe it to my stockholders to throw the thing into court, and let a jury decide. I may be wrong. The police may be wrong. Before that suit comes to trial, we may be able to turn up plenty. That's all I'm going to do. Let a jury decide, and if it decides we're liable, then I pay her, and do it cheerfully. But I can't just make her a present of the money."
"That's what you'll be doing, if you allege suicide."
"Yeah, we'll see. It wouldn't be the first time we'll see, either."
I walked back with Keyes to his office. He snapped on the lights.
"He'll see, alright. I've handled too many cases, Huff. When you've handled a million of them, you know, and you don't even know how you know. This is murder... So they covered the porter, did they. Nobody went out there. How do they know somebody didn't swing aboard from the outside? How do they know --"
He stopped, looked at me, and then he began to curse and rave like a maniac. "Didn't I tell him? Didn't I tell him to drive at her right from the start? Didn't I tell him to have her put under arrest? Didn't I tell him --"
"What do you mean, Keyes?" My heart was pounding, plenty.
"He was never on the train!" He was yelling now, and pounding the desk. "He was never on the train at all! Somebody took his crutches and went on the train for him! Of course that guy had to get rid of Jackson! He couldn't be seen alive beyond the point where that body was to be put! And now we've got all those sworn identifications against us --"
"Those what?" But of course I knew what he meant. Those identifications at the inquest were something I had figured on from the start, and that was why I took such care that nobody on that train got a good look at me. I figured the crutches, the foot, the glasses, the cigar, and imagination would be enough. They were enough. Plenty enough.
"At the inquest! How well did any of those witnesses see this man? Just a few seconds, in the dark, three or four days ago. Then the coroner lifts a sheet on a dead man, the widow says yes, that's him, and of course they all say the same thing. And now look at us! If Norton had thrown the gaff into her, all those identifications and everything else about it could have been challenged, the police would have woken up, and we might be somewhere. But now--! So he's going to let her sue! And just let him try, now, to break down those identifications. It'll be impossible. So that's being conservative's like! That's playing it safe! That's doing what the old man would have done!"
"You only told him to do that a moment ago, Keyes." I managed, sideways into his deluge.
"Why, Huff, Old Man Norton would have had a confession out of that woman by now. He'd have had a plea of guilty out of her, and already on her way to do a life stretch in Folsom. And now look at us. Just look at us. The very crux of the thing is over already, and we've lost it. We've lost it... Let me tell you something. If that guy keeps on trying to run this company, the company's sunk. You can't take many body blows like this and last. Christly damnation, fifty thousand bucks, and all from dumbness. Just sheer, willful stupidity!"
The lights began to look funny in front of my eyes. He started up again, checking over how Nirdlinger got knocked off. He said this guy, whoever he was, had left his car at Burbank, and dropped off the train there. He said she met him there, and they drove down in separate cars, with the pre-made corpse in one of them, to the place where they put the body on the track. He figured it up that she would have time to get to Burbank, and then get back in time to buy a pint of ice cream at the drugstore at 10:20, when she showed up there. He even had that. He was all wrong on how it was done, but he was so close to being right it had the strangest effect on me. It was... soothing. Five minutes with Keyes, listening to his checkout of the Nirdlinger murder took every last grain of nerves out of me. I suppose it was akin to confession, except he saved me taking the trouble of doing anything about it, good ole Keyes. I don't know about judge or jury, but he sure made the finest bloodhound, and such a father confessor as no church yet ever produced -- imagine, one that can soothe your soul by recounting your sins for you, while you go to no trouble at all, just listen in as if it were another man's story.
"Well, Keyes, what are you going to do?"
"... Alright, he wants to wait her out, make her sue, that suits me fine. He's going to cover the dead man, find out what he can about why he maybe committed suicide. That suits me just as fine. In the meanwhile, I'm going to cover her. Every move she makes, everything she does, I'm going to know about it. Sooner or later, Huff, that guy's got to show. They'll have to see each other. There's nothing for it, a day maybe, a week at the most, but sooner or later he's showing up. And as soon as I know who he is, then watch me. Sure, let her sue. And when she goes on the witness stand, believe me, Huff, Norton's going to eat it. He's going to eat every word he's said, and the police may do some eating too. Oh, no. We're not quite through just yet."
His expression was fierce. For good cause, too. He had me, and I knew it. If she sued, and lost her head on the witness stand then God almighty alone knows what would happen. But whatever it might turn out to be, it'd have to come out of a sack with nothing good inside of it. If she didn't sue, that would be still worse. Her not trying to collect on that policy, that would look so bad it might even pull the police in just on its own weight alone. Except, of course, if she... didn't have it. Suppose the policy was never found, for whatever reason Nirdlinger took with him to his grave. Maybe he lost it. Maybe he was caught in the john without toilet paper and he figured the sixty dollar policy is a better loss than the twenty dollar pair of pants. In any case, she had to get rid of that piece of paper.
I went to the office the next day for one thing, and one thing only : guarding the phone between three and four. But I was there at nine nevertheless, pretending to be going through a "general review of my files". I had to say something, to cover up for why I wasn't going to go out on a job anymore. Not ever again. I knew this was going to wash with both Keyes and Norton. It made perfect sense -- their top salesman wrote a piece of paper that damn near sunk the firm, or still might, at any rate. Even if it wasn't in any sense his fault it's still the right move to go through the whole pile with a new eye, refined by experience. Wouldn't you say ?
By ten in the morning I had Cheryl digging stuff out of the archives with a list that'd have stood taller than her, and little expectation she'd emerge before the day was over. I was reading actuarial tables, idly, mechanically, just for something to do, when the phone rang. It shocked me. It wasn't three. It wasn't even noon. Holy smokes.
"General Fidelity, good afternoon."
"Mr. Huff ?"
"This is Lola."
I did not know what to say.
"Lola Nirdlinger. Don't you remember me ?"
"Yes, of course."
"Could I talk with you just a few minutes ? Somewhere where we could be alone ?"
"Oh yes. Sure. Come into my office, why don't you."
She must have been calling from across the street, because she was at the door in all of five minutes.
"Is it something about what happened ?"
"Yes. It's about my father's death."
"I'm terribly sorry, kid."
"Look at me, Mr. Huff. I'm not crazy. I'm not hysterical. I'm not even crying. But I have the awful feeling that something's not right... that nothing is right."
I grabbed her in my arms, because what could I do ? We never had done anything like this before. It was always rough, but somehow always distant with her. Always seated in the car, or leaning into her as she was splayed atop the engine cover, maybe once or twice against a tree... I fucked this teenaged girl who even knows how many times, but I never held her in my arms before. She melted, instantly, seemingly turning into the consistency of water and sprouting generous amounts thereof through the cracks of her eyes.
Eventually she caught up with herself. "I had this feeling once before, you know. When my mother died."
"When your mother died ?"
"We were living at Lake Arrowhead back then. That was eleven years ago. It was winter and very cold. My mother was very sick, stuck in bed with pneumonia. Dad had arranged for a nurse for her. There were just the three of us in the house. One night I couldn't sleep. I had a bad feeling, like the whole world was going to end. I went up into my mother's room. She was delirious with fever. All the bed covers were on the floor, and the windows all wide open. The nurse wasn't in the room. I ran and covered my poor mother up as quickly as I could. I lay there, on her, crying. Then I heard the door open behind me. The nurse stood there. She didn't say a word, but there was a look in her eyes... A look I'll never forget."
She started sobbing again. I held her close and rubbed her back, trying to comfort the poor, misfortunate creature as best I could.
"Two days later, my mother was dead. Then two months later, the nurse became Mrs. Nirdlinger."
"It was a modest civil ceremony, out of state. They didn't even tell anyone until a year or more later. Over the years... well, I had to talk myself out of the idea she had anything to do with it, didn't I. But now it's all back again, now that my father is gone too."
"But what sense does this make ? Mr. Nirdlinger fell off a train."
"Yes. And do you know what Phyllis was doing, two days before he fell off that train ? I'll tell you : she was in her room, in front of a mirror, with a black hat on, pinning a black veil to it. As if she couldn't wait to see how she would look in mourning."
"What's outrageous is what she was wearing. Nothing but a scarlet cape. She was completely naked, except for the cape and the hat."
"Lola, honey. You've had a pretty bad shock. Aren't you just imagining these things ?"
"I caught her eyes in the mirror. They had the same look in them, the look of that time right before my mother died. I could only describe it as boundless, overwhelming glee."
"You don't like your step mother all that much, do you ?"
"I loathe her. Because of what she did, to my mother, and to me. To us. We were a happy family. But she did it. She did it for money. That's all she really cares about, money. Only... you aren't going to pay her, are you, Mr Huff ?"
"I mean the company."
I paused, to consider carefully my next word. How the hell did this kid know about any of that ?
"I don't know, honey. Nobody knows what they'll do, these big insurance companies. Not even people working there, half the time not even the big shot managers. I'm just a salesman."
"Well, she's not going to get away with it in any case. Not this time, because this time I'm not a little girl anymore. This time, I'm going to speak up."
"Lola, you have my full support. You know that, don't you ?"
"Thank you... thank you Walter."
"Only... you best be careful where you speak up, and when."
"How do you mean ?"
"Something like this, it's like a one shot pistol. You've gotta make sure you're in the right place, and at the right time, and pointing in the right direction before you pull the trigger. Otherwise, you waste the ammunition."
"You think she may come up with something, to save her tail ?"
"It's possible. I'll tell you something, cases like this, they're almost always paid out after a trial. A lot of money is involved, that comes out of a lot of pockets. All those people want a show for their money, and they usually get it. If you show up on the stand all innocent, and drop the bomb there, it will be worth its weight in gold. If the opposition lawyers know what you're going to say in advance... well, they'll dig up all sorts of bits and pieces to try and cast you aside."
"Surprise is the first weapon, is that it, Mr. Huff ?"
"Something like that, yes. Who else have you told all this you've told me ?"
"How about your stepmother ?"
"I've moved out. I'm not living at home anymore."
"And you haven't told that boyfriend of yours ? Zachetti ?"
"Oh, him. No, I'm not seeing him anymore. We had a... he left me. I got myself a little apartment in Hollywood now."
"Four walls, and there you sit looking at them ?"
"Yes, Mr Huff."
"Leave me the address, I'm going to drop by, take you out for dinner sometime."
"Oh, Mr. Huff, you always make me feel so much better." she cooed sweetly at me.
"You're a smart young lady, Lola."
"But am I pretty, too ?" she asked, childish coquettry in her voice, but determined routine in her gestures. Her blouse was open before I could say a word, her brasiere nowhere to be seen, and from there...
She was out of my hair a bit after noon. That was Lola, all quick and business like, never a moan out of her. She worked like an engine piston, ten thousand pounds of force and a hundred-fifty revolutions a minute but not as much as a moan out of her. I know, it's crazy to take risks like that. Sex in the middle of the workday with some school girl right in your office ? Keyes, or any other of a dozen people could have mosied in any time, for any reason or no reason at all. Then where I'd be ?
It was madness. But what could I do ? She didn't weigh much more than a hundred pounds, but they were a hundred percent dynamite, and I don't just mean in the sack. As Keyes said, "suppose she screamed ?" How was I going to explain an angry teenaged orphan in my office, buttons undone ? Or before that, how would I have got out, to meet her somewhere else, and leave the phone ? No, the only way was to go along with her, and hope to come out at the other end. Is it still madness if you don't get a choice in the matter ?
Sure enough the phone rang a minute after three. On the dot. A woman's voice wanted to know if this was the Mason Theatre. I was afraid it wasn't, and six minutes later I was buying things I didn't need across the street, waiting for the booth to clear. Soon enough an old lady stepped out of it, and I moved in. I was going to wait in there for more than a quarter hour, come hell or high water. I wasn't taking any chances with this call.
"Hello, I'd like to speak to Mr. Corgrave." That was the deal, names made up on the spot. What do you need names for when you know who's on the other end of the line ?
"It's me, darling."
"Oh, darling! I hope you're not sore with me. I hope you'll forgive --"
"There's nothing to forgive, baby. I should apologize for the way I've been --"
"Oh no, you were right, you were right. I needed to hear it. How I wish I could hear it one more time, just one more time --"
"You were wonderful at the restaurant!"
"Oh, was I ?"
"Perfect. Just perfect."
"I thought your parents might have their reservations..."
"They did at first, certainly, certainly. But you cut right through it."
"Like you taught me, right ? Audacity ?"
"That's right. However... we have a problem."
"What's the matter ?"
"Everything's the matter. They aren't going to pay."
"How come ?"
"They want to wait for you to sue them."
"So I sue them."
"No, you can't sue them."
"What've they got to stop me ?"
"Plenty. They figured it out, for one. Not all of it, but most of it. Enough of it, really."
"I need to see you, Bill."
"Yeah, that's the other thing. Look around you, got a tail ?"
Her voice turned to a barely audible whisper "Yeah, this ugly dick with a moustache. I didn't want to shake him because I didn't want him to figure I spotted him."
"If you come to meet me and they see me, we're cooked. If you come to see me but you shake the tail first, they'll know you shook it and you might never be able to do that again."
"Now talk nonsense at me for a while and I'll explain the whole set-up to you."
She went right into it, without skipping a beat "Oh, that was a lovely dress, wasn't it ?"
"Norton's not worth shooting, he bought that whole suicide line of crap because he doesn't have any guts, and he knows it. Keyes, you see, he's the bulldog. He figured out it was an identification case."
"He wanted to send the whole circus after you, fill in a suspicion of murder information on you and everything, the works. Norton wouldn't back it, and I tried to throw him off, but lightly, see. It didn't take, half hour later he had the whole set-up."
"I think I liked the red one better, honestly."
"Anyway, their plan is to wait for you to file your claim, then turn it down, then wait for you to sue them, then claim suicide and see what happens. Meanwhile Norton is chasing snipes looking for the dead man's sad thoughts, and Keyes is having you tailed. And his guys are good, make no mistake about it."
"I don't know how good, he just went outside and is smoking on the sidewalk now. Can't hear a thing."
"They don't suspect your brain works, yet. Let's try and keep it that way as long as we can."
"So what's the plan ?"
"Go hire a lawyer. Someone cheap and with no practice. Explain to them that you think your husband had insurance, but you can't find the policy anywhere in the house. Tell him the whole set-up from the office. Send him over to make inquiries."
"What's that do ?"
"It buys us time. Otherwise, not claiming on that policy looks real bad."
"Tell me about it."
"But claiming on it may well turn out worse. We've got to stall them."
"I'm not afraid of them."
"Listen to me. Time is going to our advantage here. Their plan is to wait for you to sue, and it is going to sink them. They know it, I know it, it's plain. Supposedly you have to prove that it wasn't suicide, but you're proving before a civil jury, where preponderence of evidence is enough. You have the inquest saying it's not suicide, they've got nothing, you're winning. Every day that goes by, their expenses grow, and all that dough buys them nothing. Meanwhile people forget, things get misplaced, their chances to mount any sort of opposition melt away like snow in the Sun."
"Every day that goes by without you is torture. You hear me ? You don't know what I'm going through."
"Yeah, baby. I miss you too."
"Yeah, you miss me too. Meanwhile you have Lola to keep you company."
"You gave her 250 dollars, didn't you ?"
"No... I... it was a loan."
"Yeah, I'm sure it was. And you didn't say a word about it, either. Did you ?"
"Well did you ?"
"No, I didn't. Listen to me... if we fall apart now..."
"Listen to you. You listen to me. You don't know what I have to put up with here, with this horrible rattlesnake. She showed me, you know ? The very next day, she was all over me, 'Look Ma, he gave me two hundred fifty dollars. He takes your dough, but he pays me.'"
"You did it, didn't you ?"
"I did. Listen, we have to meet."
"That's what I was saying."
"There's a way to do it. It'll only work once, but it'll work alright. After you hang up, you get in your car and go lawyer shopping. Make sure you hire one. At half past five, quarter to six, you turn the car around towards downtown, and drive it straight here. The tail will think he got paydirt and not look around that much, but Keyes will know better. Too good to be true and all that. The story's you can't find the policy, and came to me for advice."
"Is it tight enough ?"
"See you before seven."
And with that, the line clicked. Now I had to burn another couple of hours at the office, then see what Cheryl dug up and roll myself a monster ballot of paperwork for home. But before that, I'd make sure to ask Keyes if "she filed yet". He'd know what I mean, and he'd tell me she hadn't, and then we'd wonder together why not. Only then I could be on my way. On my way to meet Phyllis. I dreaded seeing her like I didn't dread seeing anyone, besides perhaps the dentist, back when I was ten years old. But there was no helping it. We had to see each other.
I was home before six. I had the boy serve and let him go right after. I told him I had a lot of work to do, and didn't want anyone around. He could come in the morning to clean. He didn't object any, and was out of the house before I got through the soup. I dropped the blinds. Then I went back down to the car, to pick up a little package I had left there, waiting for me, by the name of Lola Nirdlinger. I sat her on the little stool I had placed in the wardrobe for her, and slid the door closed almost all the way.
Phyllis was ringing the doorbell about quarter to. I let her in, then closed the door behind her. For a short while we just stood there, like two strangers, measuring one another. Then we jumped at each other. It was electric, all that tension melting itself into a million kisses in one go. It never looked like it would, but it did.
"But where's your cape, you silly goose."
"What cape ?"
"The scarlet cape, to go with your black hat."
"What are you talking about ?"
"Lola has quite the story about you."
"How much of her have you been seeing ?"
"All of it, really. Twice a week or so since that day."
"When she came to your car ?"
"When you sent her to my car."
"Why didn't you ever say a word of it ?"
"You never asked."
"And the money ?"
"She came to the office with some kid."
"That's right. He wanted a loan on his car, mind you. Some sob story about university degrees and diplomas and whatnot. What was I going to do ?"
"That poor kid. You know she took it all ? He never saw a dime of that money."
"She told me he left her."
"She's just using him, like a goat. Milks him now and again."
"Did you kill her mother ?"
"Did you or didn't you ?"
"Walter, it's complicated."
"I've got time. And you'd better come clean, this might be the only chance we get."
She gave me a look, that said "you'd better sit down", so I dragged her into the bedroom and sat beside her. There the story came rolling out of her. It all came back to Nirdlinger, the way she told it. Old man Herbert, dirty ol' man Herbert. It turns out, he wasn't actually Lola's father. He was her stepfather too. Her real mother died at Lake Arrowhead, when Lola was about eight. At that point, Phyllis had been Charlotte's nurse for about six months... but she had been Lola's nurse for over two years.
Let that sink in for a minute.
What's a little girl of about eight need a nurse for ? It turns out, good ol' Herbert hadn't married Charlotte for Charlotte, not at all. Instead, he married her for Lola, for being with Lola, for playing with Lola, for being involved in the education of Lola... He had a thing for little girls, you see. Really little girls. He couldn't do it all by himself, of course, and so before she was six little Lola Nirdlinger was already enrolled in a very special medical programme, thought-out by her father, but worked into her by the head nurse of the Verdugo Health Institute. It included masturbation, and... other activities. Ever more activities, as time went on.
Charlotte was dim, but not that dim, and a couple of years down the line had started to wise up to the set-up, or so they thought. So Nirdlinger wanted her out of the way, and Phyllis saw to it that she was out of the way. While she lived, the girl couldn't stand her mother much, nor was Charlotte all that into her little daughter ; but somehow something had snapped in her with the funeral. She didn't exactly hate her adoptive father, but she became ever more difficult. It really looked like she despised him.
"What about you ?"
"Oh, she loves me."
"She does ?"
"Oh, yes. She's my little baby, and she'll do anything I tell her to."
That had an unexpected effect. With a cry of "Mommy, mommy!", a completely naked Lola jumped out of my wardrobe and into my bed, atop Phyllis. She was crying maybe, or who knows, all red in the face as if she had been holding her breath for a long time. Phyllis inhaled sharply, then kissed the little bundle of joy on the head, and patted her back, and whispered "Baby, it's okay" in her ear. Then she continued.
"I loved him. I truly did. He was the only man that saw through me, that understood what I needed. Until..."
I looked at her, saying nothing. She continued.
"Things had been bad for a while, and they were getting worse. He wouldn't touch me. I loved him so, but he wouldn't have anything to do with me. He used to play with Lola, when she was younger, but by the time she was twelve or so that pretty much ceased also. We'd play together, me and her, at first. But then, later, as she grew older, and to get back at him I turned her out to men. Occasional at first, and rarely, but then she got more and more into it. Didn't you baby ?"
"She works regular now, between Long Beach and Wilmington. She only does the guys the other girls can't take, the ones that last, the ones that hurt... isn't that right, sweetie ?"
Lola nodded her head violently.
"She's a real gangbang queen."
My mouth opened and closed. I didn't know what to say. This was a new angle, this was something I never heard the like ever before. Eventually I just shook a hand in their direction and got back to pressing business.
"So you're not going to blow her out in open court, you little deceiver you ?"
"Is this why she had you be the witness when I sold your father ?"
"Yes, sir. Mommy knows I'll do anything she tells me to. Anything."
"Such as for instance, pretend like you never heard a word of it, if need be ?"
"Now Walter! You can't hold precaution against me. I didn't know you back then. I didn't know you at all."
"Mommy's right, sir. And you're right too. She had me there just in case she needed some help. But it was just for protection. You understand."
"And that night you waited in my car... she told you to put out, didn't she."
"Did you like it ?"
"That's alright, baby. Go ahead and tell him."
"I don't like it with men, Walter. I only like it when Mommy does it to me."
"Can you do it now ?" I asked Phyllis.
"Let's see... There, there, baby. Relax. That's right. Relax. Show Walter how it goes with you. There." Lola was on her back, her soles together but her knees wide apart, and Phyllis rubbed her slowly, with a soft circular motion of her whole forearm while speaking softly to her. Two minutes later, if that, Lola was shaking in the throes of the small death, something I hadn't even seen before in her. Why do they call it that, anyway ? It's very distant from death in any sense, especially in young people. Lola was positively energized afterwards, could barely contain herself.
"Alright, well, we're back on the horse." I said. "Either let the lawyer start a scrape with them if he seems any good at it or else find the policy and start the scrape for him. You can't lose either way, and hiring a good one doesn't look that great, especially not right out of the gate."
"What about her story ?"
"You mean, take it to Keyes ?"
"Terrible idea. They'll have you recite it before lawyers, then when you switch at trial it'll look very queer. Throws a shadow on the whole thing, makes it complicated where it doesn't need it any. Forget about it."
"Alright. I... I have to go now, don't I ?" asked Phyllis, sheepishly.
"And she can stay, can't she ?"
"She'll have to, until tomorrow."
"Can I... can I get fucked before I have to get lost ?"
What could I say ? We got to it, Lola playing with her hair all the while, stopping to kiss me now and again. Then she split, and I called Keyes, at home, from my bed, with Lola wrapped all around me. If only the old fatso could see us...
"Keyes ? Huff. Listen."
"You won't believe who was just here."
"Oh, just your favourite gal in this whole wide world. A certain Mrs. Nirdlinger."
"She came to you at home ?!"
"She just left one minute ago."
"How did she know where you live ?"
"I was hoping you'd tell me that."
"What did she want ?"
"Apparently, she can't find the policy."
"She what ?!"
"She can't find it. That's why she hasn't filed yet, she can't find the policy and she thinks that makes one hoot of difference."
"This is the queerest thing..."
"So she wanted to see if I had a copy."
"What did you tell her ?"
"What could I tell her. You understand, I can't stonewall her. I'd lose my license if the board ever heard of this."
"Yes, yes. Of course."
"I suggested she come by the office, but she didn't want to hear of it. Apparently she really dislikes Norton."
"What are you going to do ?"
"She said she hired a lawyer, she told me the name, some guy I never heard of. I doubt he ever was in an insurance case in his life. Anyway, I guess I'm giving him a copy when he shows up at the office, what can I do ?"
"That's right, Walter. You do just that."
"Alright, well... See you tomorrow."
That was that. Soon he'd be getting word from his dick, if he hadn't already, and think nothing of the whole thing, much to the dick's despair.
"Mr. Huff... are you going to hurt Mommy ?"
"Not unless she wants me to."
"How about me ? Are you going to hurt me ?"
"Not unless you want me to, Lola."
"What if she wants you to ?"
"But what if she did ?"
"If she did that would be her problem, now wouldn't it."
"What if you want to ?"
"Oh, if I want to you're definitely getting it. Come here, you!"
The next day went by in a blur. I went out and saw a few prospects, I worked a little on some files, then sometime after six I went back home. The girls were both long gone, not to return for a while. For a long while, as far as Phyllis was concerned. The apartment felt empty, and by something past eight I got bored enough I went back in the office to work. As soon as ol' Joe made his nine o'clock round on my floor I went to Keyes's office. I tried his desk. It was locked. I tried his steel filing cabinets. They were locked. I tried all my keys on them, but none worked. I was about to give it up when I noticed the dictation machine. He uses one of them. I took the cover off it. A record was still on. It was about three quarters filled. I checked to make sure Joe was downstairs, then came back, slipped the ear pieces on and started the record. First a lot of dumb stuff came out, letters to claimants, instructions to investigators on an arson case, notification of a clerk that he was fired. Then, all of a sudden, came this:
Memo, to Mr. Norton
Re. Agent Walter Huff
With regard to your proposal to put Agent Huff under surveillance for his connection with the Nirdlinger case, I disagree absolutely. Naturally, in this case as in all cases of its kind, the agent is automatically under suspicion, and I have not neglected to take necessary steps with regard to Huff. All his statements check closely with the facts and with our records, as well as with the dead man's records. I have even checked, without his knowledge, his whereabouts the night of the crime, and I am satisfied beyond doubt that he was at home all night. This in my opinion lets him out. A man of his experience can hardly fail to know if we attempt to watch his movements, and we should thus lose the chance of his cheerful cooperation on this case, which so far has been valuable, and may become imperative. I point out to you further his record, which has been exceptional in cases of fraud. I strongly recommend that this whole idea be dropped.
I lifted the needle and ran it over again. It did things to me. I don't only mean it was a relief. It made my heart swell. It put the faint scent of victory in the back of my mouth.
The suit was to come up for trial in the early fall. All during that month, three or four nights a week, I was seeing Lola. I would call for her, at the little apartment house where she was living, and we would go to dinner, and then for a drive. She had got a little car, but we generally went in mine. I was gone, completely nuts about her. There was something so sweet about her, and we got along so nice, I mean we felt so happy when we were together. Anyway I did. She did too, I knew that. But then one night something happened. We were parked on the ocean road, about three miles above Santa Monica. They have places where you can park and sit and look. We were sitting there, watching the moon come up over the ocean. That sounds funny, doesn't it, that you can watch the moon come up over the Pacific Ocean? You can, just the same. The coast here runs almost due east and west, and when the moon comes up, off to your left, it's pretty as a picture. As soon as it lifted out of the sea, she slipped her hand into mine. It took it, but she took it away, quick.
"I mustn't do that."
"I don't know."
"You like me, don't you?"
"I'm crazy about you."
"I'm pretty crazy about you too, kitten. I don't know what I'd have done without you these last few months."
"Is that true ?"
"What about Phyllis ?"
"What about her ?"
"You love her, don't you ? Love her enough to kill a man ?"
"And you're crazy about me ?"
"Both of us ?"
"That's..." she wiped a tear from her eye, "That's beautiful. It's so beautiful I could cry."
"So cry." And I held her while she bawled her eyes out, soaking my shirt all the way through under that huge hunk of yellow cheese up in the sky.
"I wish she could be here, with us."
"She's just a little busy right now, that's all. She'll be back with us soon enough."
"I visit her now and again, you know. Sometimes she comes by my place, too." She paused. "I tell her all about it. All about us. How we make it, and how you love me. I tell her she can't see you, just to make her jealous and sad. I'm mean to her, and pester and humiliate her until she cries..."
"And then ?"
"Then I comfort her, and we hug, and... you know."
"Is she sad a lot ?"
"I think so."
"Tell her we were thinking of her, here under the moon. Will you ? Instead of being mean to her next time you see her, tell her we just sat here, watching the moon, and talking about how much we miss her."
As the Nirdlinger suit was coming up it became obvious to me what I had to do. But first things first -- I paid Cheryl a little visit. We went together to her place, after office hours, like in the old days. It was six months or so, and she tried to make conversation while I drove, but she kept her eye on me the whole time. It just didn't check out with her, this whole thing, that's all.
Somewhere around Pomona I parked the car. The road slithered down in front of us, and the stars were starting to come out. She just looked at me, but said nothing.
"Listen, Cheryl, there's some things I've got to say to you." I started, shakily. She could tell something was coming, alright. "In the first place, I want you to know you're a swell girl. I don't just mean you're the best god damned secretary anyone could ever dream of. I mean it straight down the line, you're just swell."
"Thank you, Walter." she said, simply.
"In the second place, I want you to be the first to know this, and I haven't told anyone. I'll be hanging it up with the company." I could tell the news blew her away. "That's right, I'm turning it all in."
"What's next ?"
"Some friends from back in the day have a concesion in Peru, a mining thing. I'm going to go down there and see what it's like to take a risk for once in my life, rather than just go around all day by people's offices trying to spook them into paying me to take them away."
"You want me to come ?"
"I'm afraid I can't take you, Cheryl. Down there... it's savage land, you know. It's no place for a woman."
"I see." she said, as simple as that.
"And in the third place, there's a cheque here" and I reached into my pocket, "for one thousand dollars, made out to you."
"Walter! You know I could never accept that."
"You can, and you will accept it. Why not ? I know what I'm doing, and you'll just go along with it now, you hear ? You've earned it, and you deserve it, and here it is. Get yourself a nice car, or a closer apartment, or sixty nine new dresses. Get whatever it is you want."
"Can I get you to stay put, Walter ?"
"Not that, I'm afraid."
"Ah well," she sighed, and her eye got a little misty. Just like mine. But she wiped hers, and then she wiped mine, too, and then she sighed again, folded the cheque and stuffed it down her blouse and into her bra.
"And now, what I want to ask you... I'd love to come around your old kitchen, and have one of your plates of pasta, with the sauce, like in the old days. And then go with you to your bedroom, too, and..."
"So what's the question ?"
"Well, are we going ?"
"Sure, we're going. You're welcome anytime, Walter. You know that."
"Yeah, I guess I know that."
I got the car into gear and for the rest of the way she clinged on me, leaned over into her seat, her left arm under my neck and her right hanging off my shoulder. It was a pleasant way to drive, and if I kissed her now and again, only the stars know. But the stars don't ever tell.
I spent the night at Cheryl's place, for the first time since we knew each other. She moved the ringer on her antique alarm clock from 5:15 to 6:45. "That'll give us plenty of time", she said, but it barely didn't because as she was fixing breakfast wearing nothing besides my shirt it occured to me I had absolutely got to have her, right then and there -- and I did. I could tell, later, by the dreamy expression in her eyes that this was a ride she thought of before, and more than once at that.
My business for the day was simple enough -- I sat down at my desk, picked up a sheet of paper and wrote out, in longhand, a resignation letter for Mr. Norton. Then I signed my name to it, I folded it in half and took it over to his office. He had me wait with his secretary for twenty minutes or so, for no reason besides making whatever point he thought he was making -- I'm pretty sure he wasn't doing anything in that office of his all day long besides making imaginary points to imagined audiences. He clearly wasn't expecting anything like this, so he went down two or three different lines of nonsense, but I told him I'm going to Peru for a very promising mineral wealth speculation, stuck to it, and fifteen or so minutes later put an end to the idle blather.
Then I went down by Keyes' office. He was half buried in looseleaf, fuming from behind like a strange case of urban vesuvius.
"What is it ?"
"I've decided I'm taking a pay cut after all."
"You finally came to your senses, then ?"
"I suppose I have, at that."
"When do you start ?"
"About ten days from now, depending on the weather."
"What nonsense is that ? No, you can start right away. Here..."
"I can't possibly start right away, I have to sail there first."
"Sail where ?!"
"What in carnation are you talking about, Huff ?!"
"I quit, Keyes. Just handed young Morton my resignation. I'm off to Peru."
"What's in Peru ?"
"Nothing, yet. Mines, maybe, eventually."
"Lots of dough in that ?"
"With any luck."
"Well... I won't lie and say I don't mind. But in all honesty there's not so much to stay here for, that's a cinch."
"Getting murdered on the Nirdlinger case, are we ?"
"Pretty likely, yeah."
"Tell you what, if they ever figure out what auditing is down there, I'll send for you first thing."
"Too late for me, Huff. I'll be hanging the old hat soon. Maybe sooner than I'd have wanted, but..."
"See you around, Keyes."
"Take it easy, kid. Take it as easy as it comes."
That was pretty much it ; the rest of the day was eaten up with liquidating bits and pieces. I sold my car to my finance company, and my piece of the finance company to Ike Schwartz, to merge in with his. At the rate Norton was going, and considering how quickly the boys were amalgamating, the balance sheet of that sideline was going to exceed General Fidelity a few years down the line.
The grand total of my life's work up to that point came to three thousand eight hundred sixty nine dollars and some change, on top of Cheryl's grand and some odds and ends I had to take care of here and there. Then I went down and bought the tickets, and then sat down for dinner. Bagwis was teary throughout dinner, and when I was done he didn't really want to leave, but in the end found his way out. I had a pair of cufflinks for him, large agate stone captured in gold trestlework, but he wasn't getting it until I was out of there, for fear I might find him stowed away in my trunk or something.
Then around nine I went out and picked up Lola. I tried to break it to her easy like,
"Baby, we're going to Peru."
"Who is ?"
"I am, then you and Phyllis when she's done with the trial."
"You're leaving us ?!"
"Now look. Do you know what Peru is ?"
"And what do they do in Peru ?"
"I don't know."
"They dig things up. Out of the ground. There's nothing but mines everywhere. And what've they got, where there's a whole lot of mines ?"
"That's right, miners. And what do miners need ?"
"That's right, a little Lola for company. See ?"
"What will Phyllis do ?"
"You tell her I said so, that they'll need a head nurse there, and they won't care all that much if they lose a guy now and again. Especially if he was better off going than staying."
"A man's life is cheap, in Peru. That's the best thing, for the both of you."
"What will you do ?"
"I don't know yet. I'll figure something out."
- Double Indemnity, 1944, by Billy Wilder on a script butchered out of James M. Cain's pulp with the help of Raymond Chandler. That "Warren Beatty fill-in" that's Fred MacMurray is even more obnoxious than the eventual shithead the slot is named after, somehow -- much like that Ben Affleck of the 60s that's Jerry Lewis is actually way more obnoxious than the eventual insufferable jew the slot got named for. If this is the meaning of "progress" I'm all for it, the world could really do with more toning down of the pantsuit
- They evidently fucked up the sex scene, for one thing. [↩]
- If you're wondering what's happened since 2016, I'll tell you what happened : Western Pacific (1939, C. B. DeMille) fucking happened. Dumb bitch has less range than a fruit juicer is what happened. And that "Irish"... pshaw. [↩]
- PS. I was originally contemplating publishing this yesterday, but it turns out characters have a life of their own, and arguing it out with them takes time. What can you do ?
Anyway, the experience has clarified in my mind that I absolutely don't like Noir, for a very fundamental reason : the mind behind the script (and, I assume, the mind consuming the script, at least played straight) are very much the sort of failed male one'd encounter in a cuck-oo's nest. The entire rhythm of Noir is very much modelled after young Neil Simon masturbating in that ugly cheap house he shares with a bunch of poor Jews down in Brighton Beach, "oh my god Nurse Ratched's coming, she's coming, omg, she's going to catch me, omg, she's right here, oh, oh, oh" batshit insane nonsense.
It is, if you want, an early expression form of today's adolescent male transvestitism. These days the inept bois old enough to have wives become cucks while the inept bois young enough to not have wives become trannies ; back then the older set of failures became teetotallers / Pat O'Brien / Gary Cooper / John Wayne / etcetera (and Anthony Comstock, and every older male character in any novel published in English before that) while the younger set became Noir fans and generally rebels "without a cause", because hurr, why'd pantsuided Inca publicize the cause. [↩]
- Yeah, that's right. And it took me all of five minutes, also.
Choke on it. [↩]
- Period word for information, especially the sort that took effort to digest. Hence "straight dope".
"Being a dope" doesn't mean "being a sucker", as your usual process misled you to think. It means "being the kind of idiot who can't see the tits in front of his eyes for the stars behind them". You know who you are. [↩]
- Yep, there was a time when this is how that country ran. Back when it was still powerful, and still meant something, that's how it ran. [↩]
- Yeah, that's right, more than a decade before Nabokov. Eat your heart out, I got the better genesis. [↩]
- You'd think I added this in, right ? Only I didn't. It's right there, whole line straight from the original, published 1943.
If only you would read, back in the 40s, or at any point. It's not like people didn't try to warn you about pantsuits and their ultimate Hilarity. [↩]
- Get this : you're zeks because your handlers handle you in a certain way, and you play right into it. That's why you're a cow : because you move like a cow, sound like a cow, and overall think like a cow. So you're a cow. [↩]
- For a decade or two just around the turn of the century any male could kill any other, as plain as you'd like in the light of day, and then try and prove the dead was a home wrecker. If he managed to do it, he could expect not only to be acquitted, but actually lionized as a brave and noble homegrown hero. Look up Orlando Murray or something -- even the Thaw story. [↩]
- This is exactly right, and the fundamental drive of corruption by the Republic into the Empire. There's jack shit it can do, on the up and up, so it's stuck trying to cheat, in its usual, inept way, with police courts and mandatory minimums and all the rest of the nonsense -- the inept, counterproductive sort of cheating that takes more out of its own hide than it could ever hope to take out of the enemy's. [↩]
- Now you understand why being a gangster was the only thing to be for any self-respecting kid of the time ?
Being judged by naught else besides a jury of your peers, that's the only respectable way of life. Anything else is just dumb cunts queefing. [↩]
- Nobody calls it that -- except, of course, people from Los Angeles. [↩]