Foreword by Chelsea Cain
By Jim Thompson
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William "Kid" Collins was once a respected boxer. Now he's a drifter, on the run after escaping from a mental institution.
One afternoon he meets Fay, a beautiful young widow. She is smart and decent — at least when she's sober. Soon Collins finds himself involved in a kidnapping scheme that goes drastically wrong almost before it even begins. Because the kid they've picked up isn't like other kids: he's diabetic and without insulin, he'll die. Not the safest situation for Collins, a man for whom stress and violence have long gone hand-in-hand.
After Dark, My Sweet once again displays Jim Thompson as the undisputed master of American noir. The basis of James Foley's critically acclaimed film of the same name, with the sweep of an epic tragedy, Thompson's classic limns the dangerous territory of honest people all-too-easily sucked into wickedness, with no way out but down.
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I rode a streetcar to the edge of the city limits, then I started to walk, swinging the old thumb whenever I saw a car coming. I was dressed pretty good—white shirt, brown slacks and sport shoes. I'd had a shower at the railroad station and a hair-trim in a barber college, so all in all I looked okay. But no one would stop for me. There'd been a lot of hitchhike robberies in that section, and people just weren't taking chances.
Around four in the afternoon, after I'd walked about ten miles, I came to this roadhouse. I went on past it a little ways, walking slower and slower, arguing with myself. I lost the argument—the part of me that was on-the-beam lost it—and I went back.
The bartender slopped a beer down in front of me. He scooped up the change I'd laid on the counter, sat down on his stool again, and picked up a newspaper. I said something about it was sure a hot day. He grunted without looking up. I said it was a nice pleasant little place he had there and that he certainly knew how to keep his beer cold. He grunted again.
I looked down at my beer, feeling the short hairs rising on the back of my neck. I guessed—I knew—that I should never have come in here. I should never go in any place where people might not be nice and polite to me. That's all they have to do, you know. Just be as nice to me as I am to them. I've been in four institutions, and my classification card always reads just about the same:
William ("Kid") Collins: Blond, extremely handsome; very strong, agile. Mild criminal tendencies or none, according to environmental factors. Mild multiple neuroses (environmental) Psychosis, Korsakoff (no syndrome) induced by shock; aggravated by worry. Treatment: absolute rest, quiet, wholesome food and surroundings. Collins is amiable, polite, patient, but may be very dangerous if aroused…
I finished the beer, and ordered another one. I sauntered back to the restroom and washed my face in cold water. I wondered, staring at myself in the mirror, where I'd be this time tomorrow and why I was bothering to go anywhere since every place was just like the last one. I wondered why I hadn't stayed where I was—a week ago and a thousand miles from here—and whether it wouldn't be smart to go back. Of course, they hadn't been doing me much good there. They were too overcrowded, too under-staffed, too hard up for money. But they'd been pretty nice to me, and if I hadn't gotten so damned restless, and if they hadn't made it so easy to escape… It was so easy, you know, you'd almost think they wanted you to do it.
I'd just walked off across the fields and into the forest. And when I came out to the highway on the other side, there was a guy fixing a tire on his car. He didn't see me. He never knew what hit him. I dragged him back into the trees, took the seventy bucks he was carrying and tramped on into town. I caught a freight across the state line, and I'd been traveling ever since… No, I didn't really hurt the guy. I've gotten a little rougher and tougher down through the years, but I've very seldom really hurt anyone. I haven't had to.
I counted the money in my pocket, totting it up mentally with the change I'd left on the bar. Four bucks. A little less than four bucks. Maybe, I thought, maybe I ought to go back. The doctors had thought I was making a little progress. I couldn't see it myself, but…
I guessed I wouldn't go back. I couldn't. The guy hadn't seen me slug him, but what with me skipping out about that time they probably knew I'd done it. And if I went back they'd pin it on me. They wouldn't do it otherwise. They probably wouldn't even report me missing. Unless a guy is a maniac or a kind of big shot—someone in the public eye, you know—he's very seldom reported. It's bad publicity for the institution, and anyway people usually aren't interested.
I left the rest room, and went back to the bar. There was a big station wagon parked in front of the door, and a woman was sitting on a stool near mine. She didn't look too good to me—not right then, she didn't. But that station wagon looked plenty good. I nodded to her politely and smiled in the mirror as I sat down.
"Rather a warm day," I said. "Really develops a person's thirst, doesn't it?"
She turned her head and looked at me. Taking her time about it. Looking me over very carefully from head to foot.
"Well, I'll tell you about that," she said. "If you're really interested in that, I'll give you my theory on the subject."
"Of course, I'm interested. I'd like to hear it."
"It's a pronoun," she said. "Also an adverb, conjunction and adjective."
She turned away, picking up her drink again. I picked up my beer, my hand shaking a little.
"What a day," I said, kind of laughing to myself. "I was driving south with this friend of mine, Jack Billingsley—I guess you know the Billingsleys, big real estate family?—and our car stalled, and I walked back to a garage to get help. So I get back with the tow-truck, and darned if that crazy Jack isn't gone. I imagine what happened is—"
"—Jack got the car started himself," she said. "That's what happened. He started looking for you, and somehow you passed each other on the highway. Now he doesn't know where you are, and you don't know where he is."
She finished her drink, a double martini, and motioned to the bartender. He fixed her another one, giving me a long hard glare as he placed it in front of her.
"That darned crazy Jack," I said, laughing and shaking my head. "I wonder where in the world he can be. He ought to know I'd come in some place like this and wait for him."
"He probably had an accident," she said. "In fact, I think I read something about it."
"Huh? But you couldn't—"
"Uh-huh. He and a young lady called Jill. You read about it too, didn't you, Bert?"
"Yeah." The bartender kept on staring at me. "Yeah, I read about it. They're all wet, mister. They got their heads busted. I wouldn't wait around for 'em much longer, if I was you."
I played it dumb—kind of good-natured dumb. I said I certainly wasn't going to wait very much longer. "I think I'll have just one more beer, and if he hasn't shown up by then I'm going to go back to the city and catch a plane."
He slopped me out another beer. I started to drink it, my eyes beginning to burn, a hedged-in feeling creeping over me. They had my number, and hanging around wasn't going to make me a thing. But somehow I couldn't leave. I couldn't any more than I could have walked away from the Burlington Bearcat that night years ago. The Bearcat had been fouling me, too, giving it to me in the clinches, and calling me all kinds of dirty names. He'd kept it up—just like they were keeping it up. I couldn't walk away from him, just like I couldn't walk away from them, and I couldn't get him to stop, just like I couldn't get them to stop.
It came back with neonlike clarity. The lights were scorching my eyes. The resin dust, the beerish smell of ammonia, were strangling me. And above the roar of the crowd, I could hear that one wildly shrieking voice. "Stop him! Stop him! He's kicking his brains out! It's murder, MURDER!"
Now I raised my glass and took the rest of the beer at a gulp. I wished I could leave. I wished they'd lay off of me. And it didn't look like they would.
"Speaking of planes," she was saying. "I heard the funniest story about a man on a plane. Honestly, I just thought I'd die laughing when I—" She broke off, laughing, holding her handkerchief to her mouth.
"Why don't you tell it to him?" The bartender grinned, and jerked his head at me. "You'd like to hear a real funny story, wouldn't you, mister?"
"Why, yes. I always enjoy a good story."
"All right," she said, "this one will slay you. It seems there was an old man with a long gray beard, and he took the plane from Los Angeles to San Diego. The fare was fifteen dollars but he only had twelve, so they dropped him off at Oceanside."
I waited. She didn't say anything more. Finally, I said, "Yes, ma-am? I guess I don't get the point."
"Well, reach up on top of your head. Maybe you'll feel it."
They both grinned at me. The bartender jerked his thumb toward the door. "Okay, Mac. Disappear."
"But I haven't done anything, I've been acting all right. You've got no right to—"
"Beat it!" he snapped.
"I haven't asked you for anything," I said. "I came in here to wait for a friend, and I'm clean and respectable-looking and polite. And—and I'm an ex-serviceman and I've been to college—had a year and a half of college and—and—"
The veins in my throat were swelling. Everything began to look red and blurred and hazy.
I heard a voice, her voice, say, "Aah, take it easy, boy. Don't race your motor, kid." And from what I could see of her through the haze, she didn't look so bad. Now, she looked rather gentle and pretty—like someone you'd like to have for a friend.
The bartender was reaching across the counter for me. "Don't, Bert! Leave the guy alone!" she said, and then she let out a scream. Because he'd grabbed me by the shirt front, and when he did that I grabbed him. I locked an arm around his neck and dragged him halfway across the counter. I slugged him so hard it made my wrist ache.
I let go of him. He slid down behind the counter, and I ran.
It's funny how wrong your first impressions of people can be. Me, now, the first impression I'd had of her was that she wasn't much to look at—just a female barfly with money. And she did hit the booze too hard. Even I could see that. But I was all wrong about her looks. She was young. I'm thirty-three and she couldn't have been any older. She was pretty—beautiful, I should say—when she dolled herself up a little. She'd led a hard life for a long time, and it told on her face. But she had the looks, all right, the features and the figure. And sometimes—well, quite a bit of the time—she could act just as nice as she looked.
I'd only got down the road a few hundred yards when the station wagon drew up beside me and she swung the door open. "Get in," she said, smiling. "It's all right. Bert isn't going to make any trouble for you."
"Yeah? Well, he's not going to get the chance, lady. I just stopped in there for a minute, and now I'm going on."
"I tell you it's all right. Bert's the last person in the world to holler for the cops. Anyway, we're not going back there. I'm taking you home with me."
"Home with you?" I said.
"It's not far from here." She patted the seat, smiling at me. "Come on, now. That's a good boy."
I got in rather uncertainly, wondering why she was acting so friendly now when she'd been so ornery a little while ago. She answered the question just as I started to ask it.
"I had a couple of reasons," she said. "For one thing, I didn't want Bert to know that I might be interested in you. The less a man like Bert knows about my business the better I like it."
"The other reason… well, I wanted to see what you would do; how nervy you were. Whether you were really the kind of guy I thought you might be."
I asked her what kind of guy that was exactly. She shrugged, a little impatiently.
"Oh, I don't know! Maybe… probably it doesn't make any difference, anyway."
The highway dipped down through a grove of trees with a narrow lane leading off to the south. She turned the car into the lane, and after about a quarter of a mile, just over the crest of a little hill, we came to her house.
It was a big white cottage standing in a clearing among several acres of trees. It looked like it might have been a nice place at one time. It still was fairly nice, but nothing like it could have been. The paint was peeling and dingy. Some of the front steps were caved in. Bricks from the chimney were scattered over the roof, and there were big rusted-out holes in some of the screens. The lawn didn't look like it had ever been cut. The grass was so high you could hardly see the sidewalks.
She sat looking out the window for a moment after we'd stopped. Then, she sighed and shook her head, murmuring something about work being the curse of the drinking classes.
"Well, here we are." She opened the door. "By the way, I'm Mrs. Anderson. Fay Anderson."
"I'm very happy to meet you, Mrs. Anderson."
"And I'm very happy to meet you. It's a unique privilege. I don't believe I've ever met a man before who didn't have a name."
"Oh, excuse me," I laughed. "I'm Bill Collins."
"No! Not the Bill Collins."
"Well, uh, I don't know. I guess maybe I am."
"Well, don't you feel bad about it. It's your story so you stick with it."
She was changing again, getting back to the orneriness. She was on and off like that all the time, I found out—nice to you one minute, needling you the next. It all depended upon how she felt, and how she felt depended upon how much booze she had in her. With just the right amount—and that changed, too, from hour to hour—she was nice. But if she didn't have it, if she had a little too much or not quite enough, she got mean.
"Well, come on!" she snapped. "What are you waiting for, anyway? Do you want me to carry you piggy-back?"
I hesitated, kind of fumbling around for something to say. She swore under her breath.
"Are you worried, Mr. Collins? Are you afraid I'll rob you of your money and valuables?"
I laughed and said, no, of course not. "I was just wondering… well, what about your husband? You said you were—"
"He won't rob you either. They only let him out of his grave on national holidays."
She slammed out of the car and flounced away a few steps, then she kind of got control of herself, I guess, and she came back.
"I've got a big steak in the refrigerator. I've got some cold beer and just about everything else in the beverage line. I've got some pretty good suits that belonged to my husband, and—But let it go. Do whatever you want to. Just say the word and I'll drive you back to the highway."
I said I wasn't in any particular hurry to get back to the highway. "I was just wondering—I mean, what can I do for you?"
"How do I know?" Her voice went brittle again. "Probably nothing. What's the difference? Who are you to do anything for anyone?"
"Well, I guess I will come in for a little while."
We went in through the back door. She got busy in the kitchen fixing drinks, and I went on into the living room. Everything was kind of torn up and messy in there, like it was in the kitchen. The furniture was good—or rather it had been good—but there wasn't a whole lot of it. It looked incomplete, you know, like there might have been more at one time.
I kind of sauntered around, looking things over. I picked up some newspaper clippings from the sideboard and began to turn through them. They were all pictures of the same boy, a little seven-year-old youngster named Charles Vanderventer III. I tossed them back on the sideboard and sat down.
She came in with the drinks, bringing the bottle with her. While I was having one drink she had three.
"Bill Collins," she leaned back and looked at me. "Bill Collins. You know, I think I'll call you Collie."
"All right. A lot of people do call me Collie."
"That's because you look like one. Stupid and shaggy and with a big long nose to poke into other people's business. Just what was the idea in snooping around those clippings?"
"I wasn't snooping. They were just lying there so I picked them up and looked at them."
"Uh-huh. Oh, sure. Naturally."
"He's, uh, his family are friends of yours?" I was just making conversation; trying to steer her away from the orneriness. "You're related in some way?"
"He's my great-great grandson," she said. "One of the poorer branches of the family. I know you won't believe it, but they only have a paltry forty million dollars."
She poured another drink, filling her glass half full of whiskey. She leaned back again, face flushed, her narrowed black eyes sparkling with meanness.
"You're very fast with your mitts, Collie. Fast and efficient. Did you ever fight professionally?"
"A little. A long time ago I had a few fights."
"What happened? Stop a few too many with your head?"
"There's nothing wrong with my head," I said. "I got out of it before there was anything wrong."
"And when did you get out of jail? The last time, that is."
I tried to keep smiling. I said that, well, as a matter of fact I had had a few brushes with the police. Just like any citizen would. Never anything serious. Just little misunderstandings and traffic tickets and so on.
"Oof!" She rolled her eyes. "Run for the hills, men!"
"I'll tell you something, Mrs. Anderson. I'd like to correct an erroneous impression you seem to have about me. I'm not at all stupid, Mrs. Anderson. I may sound like I am, but I'm really not."
"You'll have to swear to that, Collie. You give me your sworn statement, signed by two witnesses, and I'll take it under consideration."
"I'm not stupid. I don't like for people to treat me like I am. Most of my life I've been in—I've worked in places where it was hard to converse with anyone on an equal footing. It was hard to carry on an intelligent conversation, so I kind of lost the knack."
"Roger, Wilco. Collins coming in on the beam."
"I'm trying to explain something. Why don't you be polite and listen? I was saying that when you don't get to talk much, you get to where you sound kind of funny when you do talk. Kind of stilted and awkward, you know. You're not sure of yourself."
"Dammit, will you shut up? There's somebody coming!"
She jumped up and ran into the kitchen. I followed her. I watched as she opened the back door and stepped out onto the porch. It was getting dark now. The lights of a car swept over the trees and blinked out. The driver tapped out a shave-and-a-haircut on his horn.
Fay Anderson laughed and swayed down the steps.
"It's all right, Collie. It's just Uncle Bud."
"Uncle… Uncle Bud?"
"Fix yourself another drink. Fix three of them. We'll be in in a minute."
It wasn't a minute. It was a lot nearer, I'd say, to thirty minutes. And I couldn't hear their conversation, of course, but I had a strong hunch that I was the subject of it.
I fixed three drinks, and drank them.
His real name was Stoker, Garret Stoker. He wasn't her uncle and I doubt that he was anyone's, but everyone called him Uncle Bud. He was a man of about forty, I think. He had snowy, prematurely gray hair, and warm friendly eyes, and a smile that made you feel good every time he turned it on. I don't know how she'd gotten acquainted with him, and probably she didn't either. Because that's the kind of a guy he was, if you know what I mean. You meet guys like Uncle Bud once—just over a drink or a cup of coffee—and you feel like you've known them all your life. They make you feel that way.
The first thing you know they're writing down your address and telephone number, and the next thing you know they're dropping around to see you or giving you a ring. Just being friendly, you understand. Not because they want anything. Sooner or later, of course, they want something; and when they do it's awfully hard to say no to them. No matter what it is. Even when it's like something this Uncle Bud wanted.
He wrung my hand, and said it was a great pleasure to meet me. Then, still hanging onto my hand, giving it a little squeeze now and then, he turned around to Fay.
"I just can't understand it, Fay. I still believe you're joking with me. Why, I'd have bet money that there wasn't a man, woman or child in the United States who hadn't heard of Kid Collins."
"Bet me some money," she said. "I'll give you seven to five."
"Well…" He laughed and released my hand. "Ain't this little lady a case, Kid? Never serious for a moment. But she's true-blue, understand, a real little pal, and the kidding's all in fun. She don't mean a thing by it."
"Yes, sir, I understand."
"Let's see, now. When was that last fight of yours, the big one? Wasn't it in, uh—?"
"It—it was in 1940. The Burlington Bearcat. He was—" My voice trailed away. "I mean it wasn't a very big fight, sir."
"Sure sure. A preliminary bout. But it was still a mighty big fight. Uh, it was in—I was arguing with a fellow about it the other day, and he claimed it was held in Newark. I said it was in, uh—"
"It was in Detroit," I said.
"That's right. That's exactly right!" he exclaimed. "Detroit, 1940, a four-round prelim. What did I tell you Fay? Didn't I tell you I knew the Kid's record backwards and forwards?"
Fay groaned and slapped herself on the forehead. Uncle Bud winked at me, and I grinned and winked back at him.
I began to like him a lot.
Fay said that if we wanted any dinner, we could darned well fix it ourselves. So that's what we did. Uncle Bud pounded the steak and put it on to broil, and I peeled and sliced potatoes. He opened some cans of peas and apple sauce, and I made coffee and ice water.
"Well, Kid," he said, while we were waiting for the stuff to cook, "I'm glad you've decided to settle down for a while. Now, that you've found friends—people who admire you and really take an interest in you—"
"Settle down?" I blinked. "Settle down where?"
"Why right here—where else?" he said firmly. "Our little lady kind of needs someone to keep an eye on her, and there's a nice little apartment out over the garage. Yes, sir, you just move right in, Kid. Just take it easy for a few days. Get rested up and keep Fay out of trouble and I'll see what I can stir up for you. I got an idea that I might be able to put you next to something pretty good."
He nodded to me, giving the steak a turn.
I said, maybe he already had his eye on something he could put me next to.
"Sharp." He laughed. "I told Fay you were. I said, 'Now, Fay, maybe the guy's had a rough time, but if that's Kid Collins you've got with you, he's nobody's fool. He's nervy and he's sharp,' I said. 'He'll know a good angle when he sees one and he'll have what it takes to carry through on it. And you treat him right, and he'll treat you right.' "
"Look, sir. Look, Uncle Bud…"
"Yeah, Kid? Go right ahead and get it off your chest."
"Well, I appreciate your kindness, the compliments and all, but—but you don't really know anything about me. You couldn't. You're just trying to be nice, and probably if you really knew the kind of guy I was, you wouldn't feel like this."
- "The best suspense writer going, bar none."—The New York Times
- "My favorite crime novelist-often imitated but never duplicated."—Stephen King
- "If Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Cornell Woolrich would have joined together in some ungodly union and produced a literary offspring, Jim Thompson would be it...His work...casts a dazzling light on the human condition."—Washington Post
- "Like Clint Eastwood's pictures it's the stuff for rednecks, truckers, failures, psychopaths and professors ... one of the finest American writers and the most frightening, [Thompson] is on best terms with the devil. Read Jim Thompson and take a tour of hell."—The New Republic
- "The master of the American groin-kick novel."—Vanity Fair
- "The most hard-boiled of all the American writers of crime fiction."—Chicago Tribune
- On Sale
- Nov 1, 2011
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Mulholland Books