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A Hell of a Woman
By Jim Thompson
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Soon Dolly and Mona find themselves involved in a scheme of robbery, murder and mayhem that makes Dolly’s blood run cold. As Dolly’s plans begin to unravel, his mind soon follows.
In A Hell of a Woman, Jim Thompson offers another arresting portrait of a deviant mind, in an ambitious crime novel that ranks among his best work.
Table of Contents
Preview of Bad Boy
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I'd gotten out of my car and was running for the porch when I saw her. She was peering through the curtains of the door, and a flash of lightning lit up the dark glass for an instant, framing her face like a picture. And it wasn't a pretty picture, by any means; she was about as far from being a raving beauty as I was. But something about it kind of got me. I tripped over a crack, and almost went sprawling. When I looked up again she was gone, and the curtains were motionless.
I limped on up the steps, set my sample case down and rang the bell. I stepped back from the door and waited, working up a big smile, taking a gander around the yard.
It was a big old-fashioned dwelling, a half-mile or so beyond the state university campus and the only house in that block. Judging by its appearance and location, I guessed that it had probably been a farmhouse at one time.
I punched the bell again. I held my finger on it, listening to its dimly shrill clatter inside the house. I pulled the screen open and began pounding on the door. You did things like that when you worked for Pay-E-Zee Stores. You got used to people who hid when they saw you coming.
The door flew open while I was still beating on it. I took one look at this dame and moved back fast. It wasn't the young one, the haunted-looking babe I'd seen peering through the curtains. This was an old biddy with a beak like a hawk and close-set, mean little eyes. She was about seventy—I don't know how anyone could have got that ugly in less than seventy years—but she looked plenty hale and hearty. She was carrying a heavy cane, and I got the impression that she was all ready to use it. On me.
"Sorry to disturb you," I said, quickly. "I'm Mr. Dillon, Pay-E-Zee Stores. I wonder if—"
"Go 'way," she snarled. "Get out of here! We don't buy from peddlers."
"You don't understand," I said. "Of course, we would like to open an account for you, but what I really stopped by for was some information. I understand you had a Pete Hendrickson working here for you. Did some yard work and so on. I wonder if you could tell me where I can find him."
She hesitated, squinting at me craftily. "He owes you some money, huh?" she said. "You want to find him an' make him pay."
"Not at all," I lied. "It's the other way around, in fact. We accidentally collected too much from him, and we want to—"
"I bet you do!" She let out with an ugly cackle. "I just bet you collected too much from that drunken, lazy bum! No one never got nothing from Pete Hendrickson but a lot of sass and excuses."
I grinned and shrugged. Usually, you had to do it the other way, because it's damned seldom that even a man's worst enemies will tip him off to a bill collector. But once in a while you find someone real low down, someone who just naturally likes to see a guy get it in the neck. And that's the way it was with this old witch.
"Mean and lazy," she said. "Wouldn't do nothing and wanted two prices for doing it. Sneaks off an' gets hisself another job when he's supposed to be workin' for me. I told him he'd be sorry…"
She gave me Pete's address, also the name of his employer. It was a greenhouse out on Lake Drive, only a few blocks from where I was now, and he'd been working there about ten days. He hadn't made a payday yet, but he was just about due.
"He came whinin' and beggin' around here last night," she said. "Tryin' to borrow a few dollars until he could get his wages. I guess you know what I told him!"
"I can imagine," I said. "Now, as long as I'm here, I'd like to show you some very special items which—"
"Huh-uh! No, sir-ee!" She started to close the door.
"Just let me show them to you," I said, and I stooped down and flipped the sample case open. I laid the stuff out in the lid, talking fast, watching her face for an expression of interest. "What about this spread? Make you a very nice price on that. Or this toilet set? We're practically giving it away, lady. Well, some stockings? A shawl? Gloves? House slippers? If I don't have your size here, I can—"
"Huh-uh. Nope." She wagged her head firmly. "I got no money for such fol-de-rol, mister."
"You don't need any," I said. "Hardly any. Just a very small payment now on any or all of these items, and you can set your own terms on the balance. Take as long to pay as you like."
"I'll bet," she cackled. "Just like Pete Hendrickson, huh? You better go on, mister."
"What about the other lady?" I said. "That other young lady? I'm sure there's something here she'd like to have."
"Huh!" she grunted. "And how do you figger she'd pay for anything?"
"I figured she'd probably use money," I said. "But maybe she's got something better."
I was just being snotty, understand. I didn't like her and I'd gotten everything out of her that I was going to get. So why be polite?
I started repacking the stuff, jamming it in any old whichway because that junk was hard to hurt. Then, she spoke again, and there was a sly wheedling note to her voice that brought my head up with a start.
"You like that niece o' mine, mister? You think she's pretty?"
"Why, yes," I said. "I thought she was a very attractive young lady."
"She minds good, too, mister. I tell her to do somethin' and she does it. No matter what."
I said that was swell or fine, or something of the kind. Whatever a guy does say in a situation like that. She pointed down at the sample case.
"That chest of silverware, mister. How much you gettin' on that?"
I opened the chest and showed it to her. I said I really hadn't intended to sell it; it was such a bargain I was saving it for myself. "Service for eight, lady, and every piece of it solid heavy-Sterling plate. We usually get seventy-five dollars for it, but we're closing out these last few sets at thirty-two ninety-five."
She nodded, grinning at me slyly. "You think my niece… You think she could pay for it, mister? You could fix it up some way so's she could pay for it?"
"Why, I'm sure of it," I said. "I'll have to talk with her first, of course, but—"
"You let me talk to her first," she said. "You wait here."
She went away, leaving the door open. I lighted a cigarette, and waited. And, no, I'll swear to it on a stack of Bibles, I didn't have any idea of what the old gal was up to. I knew she was pretty low down, but I'd never known many people who weren't. I thought she was acting pretty goofy, but most of Pay-E-Zee's customers were goofs. People with good sense didn't trade with outfits like ours.
I waited, wincing a little when there was a sudden flash of lightning, wondering how many more goddamned days it was going to go on raining. It had been raining for almost three weeks straight, now, and what it had done to my job was murder. Sales way to hell down, collections way to hell off. You just can't do good door-to-door work in rainy weather—you can't get the people to open up. And with accounts like mine, a lot of day laborers and the like, it didn't do much good when they did open up. They'd been laid off on account of the weather. You could cuss them and threaten them, but you just couldn't get what they didn't have.
I was getting fifty a week salary, just about enough to run my car. My earnings had to come from commissions, and I hadn't been pulling down any. Oh, I was making something, sure, but not nearly enough to get by on. I'd kept going by doctoring my accounts, pocketing part of the collections and altering the account-cards accordingly. Right now I was in the hole for better than three hundred dollars, and if someone should squawk before I could square up…
I swore under my breath, flipping my cigarette into the yard. I turned back to the door, and there she was—the girl.
She was in her early twenties, I believe, although I'm not the best judge of ages when it comes to women. She had a mass of wavy blonde hair, kind of chopped off rather than bobbed, and her eyes were dark; and maybe they weren't the biggest eyes I'd ever seen on a gal, but in that thin white face they seemed to be.
She was wearing a white wrap-around, the sort of get-up you see on waitresses and lady barbers. The neck of it came down in a deep V, and you could see she had plenty of what it takes in that area. But below that, huh-uh. Out around the ag college—I had an account or two out there—the guys would have said she was poor for beef, fine for milk.
She pushed the screen door open. I picked up the sample case, and went in.
She hadn't spoken to me yet, and she didn't now. She'd turned and was walking down the hall almost before I got inside. Walking with her shoulders kind of slumped, as though she were tipping forward. I followed her, thinking maybe she didn't have much there in the rear but there wasn't anything wrong with the shape of it.
We went through the living room, the dining room, the kitchen. Her in the lead, me walking pretty fast to keep up with her. There was no sign of the old woman. The only sound came from our footsteps and the occasional clashes of thunder.
I began to get an uneasy, sickish feeling in the pit of my stomach. If I hadn't needed to make a sale so badly, I'd have walked out.
There was a door leading off the kitchen. She went through it and I followed her—kind of edging around her, keeping my eyes on her. Wanting to say something and not knowing what the hell it would be.
It was a small bedroom; a room with a bed in it, rather, and a washstand with an old-fashioned bowl and pitcher. The shades were drawn, but quite a bit of light seeped in around their edges.
She closed the door and turned her back; started fumbling with the belt of the wrap-around. And I got the pitch then, of course, but it was too damned late. Too late to stop her.
The dress fell to the floor. She had nothing on underneath it. She turned back around.
I didn't want to look. I felt sick and sore and ashamed—and, me, I don't get ashamed easy. But I just couldn't help myself. I had to look, even if I never looked at anything else again.
There was a welt across her like a hot iron might make. Or a stick. Or a cane… And there was a drop of blood…
She stood, head bowed, waiting. Her teeth were clenched tightly, but I could see the trembling of her chin.
I said, "God. God, honey…" And I stooped and picked up the wrap-around. Because I wanted her—I guess I'd wanted her right from the moment I'd seen her at the door, a picture lit up by lightning. But I wouldn't have taken her this way if I'd been paid to.
So I started to get this doohickey back around her, but the way things worked out I didn't quite get the job done. Not right at the moment, anyway. I was fumbling with the damned thing, telling her not to cry, she was a baby girl and a sweet child and I wouldn't hurt her for the world. And finally she looked up into my face, and I guess she must have liked what she saw there as well as I liked what I saw in her.
She leaned into me, snuggled up against me with her head buried against my chest. She put her arms around me, and I put mine around her. We stood there together, holding on to each other for dear life; me patting her on the head and telling her there wasn't a goddamned thing to cry about. Telling her she was a baby girl and a honey child and old Dolly Dillon was going to take care of her.
It seems funny as hell, now that I look back on it. Strange, I mean. Me—a guy like me—in a bedroom with an armful of naked woman, and not even thinking about her being naked. Just thinking about her without thinking about her nakedness.
That's the way it was, though. Exactly the way it was. I'll swear to it on a stack of Bibles.
I got her soothed down, finally. I helped her back into the dress and we sat down on the edge of the bed, talking in whispers.
Her first name was Mona, her last was the same as her aunt's, Farrell. So far as she knew, that is. All she had to go on was what the old bitch told her. She couldn't remember living with anyone else. She didn't have any other relatives that she knew of.
"Why don't you clear out?" I said. "She couldn't stop you. She'd get in plenty of trouble if she tried to."
"I…" She shook her head, vaguely. "I wouldn't know what to do, Dolly. Where to go. I—I just wouldn't know."
"Hell, do anything," I said. "There's plenty of things you could do. Slinging hash. Ushering in a movie. Sales clerking. Housework, if you couldn't find anything else."
"I know, but—but—"
"But what? You can swing it, honey. Don't tell her you're leaving if you don't want to. Just pull out and don't come back. You get out now and then, don't you? She doesn't keep you inside all the time?"
No—yes, she nodded. She got out quite a bit. Downtown and around the neighborhood to shop for the old woman.
"Well, then?" I said.
"I c-couldn't, Dolly…"
I sighed. I guessed she couldn't either. She was too beat-down, completely lacking in confidence. If there was someone to take her away from here, keep her going until she was built up a little…
She was looking at me apologetically. Humbly. Begging me with her eyes. I looked down at the floor.
What the hell did she expect me to do, anyway? I was already doing a damned sight more than I should.
"Well," I said, "you'll be all right for the present. I'll leave the silverware here for you. The old girl won't know that—that—she'll lay off of you for a while."
"Maybe you'd better make it Frank," I said, trying to steer her away from the important thing. "Dolly"—I laughed at myself. "Now, ain't that a hell of a handle for a big ugly guy like me to have?"
"You're not ugly," she said. "You're pret… Is that why they call you that? Because you're so—so—?"
"Yeah," I said. "I'm a real pretty guy, I am. Pretty damned tough and ornery, and pretty apt to stay that way."
"You're nice," she said. "I never met anyone who was nice before."
I told her the world was full of nice people. I'd have hated to try to prove it to her, but I said it, anyway. "You'll get along swell, once you're away from here. So why don't you give yourself a break, honey? Let me give you one? I can tell the cops what—"
"No!" She gripped my arm so hard I almost jumped. "No, Dolly! You've got to promise."
"But, baby," I said. "That's all bushwa, she's handed you. They won't do anything to you. She's the one that—"
"No! They wouldn't believe me! She'd say I was lying and she'd make me say it, and a-afterwards—afterwards when she got me alone…"
Her voice trailed off into terrified silence. I put my arm back around her.
"All right, honey," I said. "I'll think of something else. You just sit tight, and…" I paused, remembering how quick the old woman had come out with her offer. "Have you had to do anything like this before, Mona? Has she made you?"
She didn't speak, but her head moved up and down. A faint flush spread under the delicate white of her face.
"Just people stopping by, like I did?"
Again a reluctant nod. "M-mostly…"
That was good, if you know what I mean. Her aunt would pull that on the wrong guy—the right one, rather—and she'd be in the jug, but fast.
"Well, she won't do it any more," I said. "No, I won't give you away. So far as she'll know everything went off per schedule. That's the angle, see? I'll be coming back with plenty of other nice things, and I don't want you bothered."
She raised her head again, and her eyes searched my face. "Will you, Dolly? W-will you come back?"
"Didn't I say so?" I said. "I'll be back, and I'll get you away from here just as soon as I do. It's going to take a little working out, know what I mean? It's kind of complicated the way I'm set up. You see—well, I'm a married man."
She nodded. I was married. So what? It didn't mean anything to her. I guess it wouldn't mean anything, after what she'd been through.
"Yeah," I went on. "Been married for years. And this job I got, it keeps me humping to make a living."
That didn't register, either. All she knew was that I had a hell of a lot more than she had.
It made me a little sore, the way she was acting, but yet I kind of liked it. She was so damned trusting, so sure that I'd work things out no matter how tough they were. I hadn't had many people believe in me like that. Many? Hell, any.
She smiled at me, shyly, the first time she'd really smiled since I'd met her. She took my hand and moved it over her breast.
"Do you… want to, Dolly? I wouldn't mind with you."
"Maybe next time," I said. "Right now, I think I'd better be shoving off."
The smile faded. She started to ask me if I minded about the others. I said why would I mind for God's sake, and I gave her a kiss that made her gasp.
Because I did want her, and I wasn't coming back. And when a girl offers you that—all that she has to offer—you ought to be damned careful how you turn it down.
I took the silver chest out of my case, and put it on the dresser. I gave her another kiss, told her not to worry about a thing, and left.
The old hag, her aunt, was in the hallway, grinning and rubbing her hands together. I wanted to bat her in her goddamned rotten puss, but of course I didn't.
"You got something there, lady," I told her. "Take good care of it, because I'm going to be back for more."
She cackled and smirked. "Bring me a nice coat, huh, mister? You got some nice winter coats?"
"I got more coats than you can stack in a barn," I said. "Nothing second-hand, get me, and I'm not trading for anything second-hand. I come by here and find someone else in the sack, it's no deal."
"You leave it to me, mister," she said eagerly. "When'll you be back?"
"Tomorrow," I said. "Or maybe the next day. I'm liable to drop by any old time, so don't try any doubling-up on me if you want that coat."
She promised she wouldn't.
I opened the door, and ran back down the walk to my car.
It was still pouring down rain. It looked like it was going to rain forever. And I owed the company another thirty-three dollars. Thirty-two ninty-five to be exact.
"You're doing swell, Dolly," I told myself. "Yes, sir, Dillon, you're doing all right… You think this Staples character is stupid? You think that's how he got the job of checking on characters like you? You think he ain't the meanest, toughest son-of-a-bitch in the Pay-E-Zee chain?"
Goddamn, I thought. Double goddamn and a carton of hells.
Then, I shoved my car into gear and got going. It was only four-thirty. I had plenty of time to get out to the greenhouse and see Pete Hendrickson before he knocked off for the day.
And if Pete wasn't a real good boy…
Suddenly, I grinned to myself. Grinned and scowled at the same time… He'd gotten to that poor damned girl, Mona; I'd have bet money on it. The old woman would have tried to pay him off that way, and Pete wouldn't have turned it down. He'd let his bills go to hell—let me chase all over town hunting for him—and do that to her. And even if he hadn't he was still no good.
And I needed every nickel of what he owed us.
I parked in front of the greenhouse, in front of the office, that is. I reached into the pocket of the car, took out a sheaf of papers and thumbed through them rapidly.
I found his sales contract—a contract that was also an assignment of wages. You had to look for it a little because of the fine print, but it was there all right. All legal and air-tight.
I took it into the office, and presented it to Pete's boss. He paid off like a slot machine. Thirty-eight bucks and not a word of argument. He counted it out to me, and then I recounted it, and while I was still standing there he told a clerk to go and get Pete.
I finished the count fast, and beat it.
Wage assignments and garnishees—employers just naturally don't like the things. They don't like to be bothered with them, and they don't like employees who cause them to be bothered. Pete was going to get the gate. I figured I'd better be some place else when he did.
I drove down the street a few blocks to a beer joint. I ordered a pitcher of beer, carried it back to a rear booth and took down half of it at a gulp. Then, I spread a blank contract out on the table, and made out a cash sale to Mona Farrell for thirty-two ninety-five.
That was one thing off my mind. That took care of the silver, with five bucks left over. Now, if this rain would only stop and I could get in a few good weeks in a row…
I began to feel a little better. Not quite so damned blue and hopeless. I ordered another pitcher of beer, sipping it slowly this time. I thought what a sweet kid that Mona was, and I wondered why I couldn't have married her instead of a goddamned bag like Joyce.
That Joyce. Now, there was a number for you. Kid Sloppybutt, Princess Lead-in-the-Tail, Queen of the Cigarette Girls and a free pinch with every pack. I'd thought she was hot stuff, but it hadn't been recently, brother. I may have been stupid to begin with, but I wised up fast. Joyce—a lazy, selfish dirty slob like Joyce for a wife.
Why couldn't it have been Mona?
Why was it that every time I thought I was getting a break it went sour on me?
I glanced at the clock. Ten minutes of six. I stepped to the telephone, and dialed the store.
Staples sounded just the same as usual. Smooth, oily, soft-voiced. I told him I was chasing a skip through the sticks, and I thought I'd wait until morning to check in.
"Quite all right, Frank," he said. "How's it going, anyway? Any lead yet on Hendrickson?"
"Nothing yet," I lied, "but I've had a fairly good day. I made a cash sale on that silver special."
"Good boy," he said. "Now, if you can just get a line on Hendrickson."
His voice lingered over the name. Underlined it. He was more than five miles away, but I felt like he was right there. Grinning at me, watching me, waiting for me to trap myself.
"What about it, Frank?" he said. "What about that thirty-eight dollars Hendrickson owes us?"
- On Sale
- Mar 1, 2012
- Page Count
- 208 pages
- Mulholland Books