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Texas by the Tail
By Jim Thompson
Read by Jeff Brick
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At first, Mitch was sure Texas would be the perfect place for him and Red to run their game — there are players in nearly every back room and side-street across the state and here, the pockets run just a little deeper. But Corley forgot about one thing: Texans don’t forgive easily. And there’s nothing they hate more than a cheater.
Lint-like threads of cigarette smoke cloyed around the four men, mingling with the faint fumes of very good whiskey, occasionally swirling away from them with the soft explosions of some very bad words. It was the night of the last day of Fort Worth's internationally known Rodeo and Fat Stock Show. The room was one of the hotel's best, a bargain—by its tenant's standards—at thirty dollars a day.
As the man next to him crapped out, Mitch Corley took out his wallet and peered into it deliberately through old-fashioned, steel-rimmed spectacles. He was playing the rube here in Fort Worth, the big frog from a little puddle, the small-town rich man. He wore a ranch-style hat, an ill-fitting suit, and a pongee shirt with a string tie (and mannerisms to match). Glancing cautiously from his wallet to the three other men, he looked fifteen years older than his thirty-five.
"All right with you fellas," he said, "if I shoot two hundred?"
"Two hundred?" The red-faced drilling contractor groaned. "Jesus Christ, shoot two thousand if you want to!"
"Yeah, what the hell?" frowned the cattle buyer. "I thought you were a crapshooter, Pops. God knows you talk a big game!"
Mitch hesitated, letting their irritation mount, then slowly counted five twenties onto the bed. "Reckon I just better stick to a hundred," he said. "Don't feel so lucky tonight."
There was a chorus of groans and curses. With dogged patience, the lease dealer suggested that Mitch might do well to pull out. "I reckon the game's a little too fast for you, Corley. Maybe you better go back to Pancake Junction or wherever you came from, and match pennies with the mayor."
"Now, don't you go a-pokin' fun at me," Mitch grumbled. "I done lost three hundred dollars tonight, an' I aim to get it back."
"Then, shoot for Christ's sake! Crap or get off the hole!"
Mitch said that he was going to shoot, and he was going to make it two hundred after all. He again opened his wallet, glancing at his watch as he counted out another hundred. Almost eight minutes yet: eight minutes before the payoff and the take-out. He would have to stall a little.
Clumsily picking up the two dice, he let one fall to the floor. That took care of a minute, in all, which left him approximately seven more to kill. Again—for the third time, now—he took out his wallet.
"Holy God!" The drilling contractor slapped his forehead. "What now?"
"I'm goin' to shoot another hundred, that's what! You think I'm a piker, I'll show you."
"Shoot it! Shoot five hundred, if you want to!"
"I reckon you think I won't." Mitch glared at him crankily. "I reckon you think I ain't got five hundred."
"Pops," the cattle buyer said wearily. "For God's sake, Pops."
"All right!" Mitch slammed more bills onto the bed. "I'm shootin' five hundred!"
He picked up the dice, setting them with an invisible movement of his fingers; fixing them to the necessary position. He rattled them—or appeared to. Actually, the dice remained set: he was only clicking one against the other. He threw them with feigned awkwardness.
The red cubes spun down on the bed's tightly stretched blanket. Came up on a six and an ace.
"The man sevened," intoned the lease dealer. "Want to shoot it all, Corley?"
"You mean a whole thousand? A whole thousand dollars?"
"Goddammit!" The contractor hurled his hat across the room. "Shoot something! Shoot or pass the dice!"
Mitch went for the grand. He came out with a six-five. He was taunted and jeered and cursed into going for the two thousand.
"Why not? You're shooting with our money!"
"All right, by gosh! I'll do it!"
He spun the dice out again. A four-trey faced up on the blanket. As the others groaned, he reached for the money.
"I reckon I just better shoot a hundred this time," he said. "Or maybe just fifty. If that's all right with you fellas."
It was damned well not all right with the fellas, and they made him know it. The hell he'd drop the bet to peanuts while he held a bale of their money!
"But four thousand dollars," Mitch protested. "Four thousand dollars!"
"You're covered," the cattle buyer said coldly. "Shoot!"
"Well, all right," Mitch said nervously. "All right, dang it!"
He rubbed his hand against his pant leg, wiping the sweat from it before picking up the dice. His nervousness was not entirely feigned. Once, even with the best of surgeons, the scalpel may slip. Once the most skilled of knife-throwers may throw a little too close. Once—only once—the high-wire walker may misstep to eternity. So with the dice handler.
No amount of skill or practice is completely impregnable to luck. There is no statute of limitations on the law of averages.
Two minutes to go. Eight thousand dollars on the bed. Just about all they were carrying, Mitch guessed. Certainly all that it was safe to take away from a group like this. And the taking would have to look very good. No sevens or elevens this time. Nothing that a square might do legitimately. An Honest John might make seven or eight straight passes in a row, but a hustler had to play it cute.
He clicked the dice. He threw them awkwardly. Then stood chagrined as the others snorted with laughter.
"Up jumped the devil! You got a big four, Pops."
"Now, god-dang," Mitch whimpered. "God-dang it, anyways!"
"Want to bet a little more, Corley? Give you six to five."
"Danged if you won't," Mitch grumbled; and they laughed again.
Joe, of course, is the lowest point on the dice. Above it are Phoebe Five (a hard gal to know), Easy Six (three combinations), Craps (three), Eighter-Decatur (three), Quinine (a bitter two), Big Dick (two) and the fielders, Heaven-eleven and Boxcars, which have no bearing after the initial roll. The theoretical odds against five and nine are approximately three to two, as opposed to six to five for six and eight. The odds are two to one against ten and four, but any crapshooter will swear that ten is an easier point to make.
Obviously, Little Four has little going for him. As if recognizing the fact, he normally stays out of sight after showing his luckless little face.
"Roll 'em, Pops! Let's see some craps!"
"Don't rush me," Mitch whined. "I'm rollin' these here dice!"
He threw them. A big ten (four on the bottom). He threw again—nine. Then, eight and five and six. Where the hell was Red? What the hell was she waiting on? With so much riding, these guys could be hard to handle. He was getting tense, and tension was hell on control, and—
There it was! The signal. The muted, familiar cough, coming from just outside the door. It went unheard by the others, lost in their own noise.
"Seven dice! Let's see a six-ace!"
"Come on, Pops! What the hell you waitin' for?"
"Give me time, dang it! Stop rushin' me!"
He wiped his hand against his pant leg again. He picked up the dice, set them, clicked them. And threw.
Nerves whispered that it was a bad throw. Screamed silently that he'd goofed off a week's careful finagling and a wad of expense money in one bad moment.
He watched hopelessly as the cubes spun across the blanket, seeming to spin forever and ever. An eternity—a split second. They turned over twice in unison. Stopped with an imperceptible backspin.
Two deuces peeked up from the blanket.
Before the three men could react, there was a sudden furious banging on the door. They turned toward it automatically, and Mitch swept up the money and stuffed it into his pockets.
It was the contractor's room. With a curse, he strode to the door and yanked it open. "Now, what the goddam hell—?"
"Wh-at? What! Don't you curse me, you—you thing!"
Red stormed into the room, giving the contractor a shove that sent him stumbling backward. Her angry gaze scorched the other two men, then settled witheringly on Mitch, who seemed to wilt beneath it.
"Uh-hah! There you are!" She allowed herself to see the dice. "And up to your old tricks again! You just wait until I tell papa! You just wait!"
"Aw, now, sis—" Mitch squirmed childishly. "These here fellas are just—"
"Bums, that's what they are! Just bums like you! Now, you march right out of here! March!"
With her red hair, her white high-cheekboned face, she was every inch the termagant; obviously a dame to steer clear of. But there was a fidget of protest from the three losers. Mitch had almost all their money, and they were entitled to a chance to win it back. And the lady could see that for herself, couldn't she? And she could see that they weren't bums, either.
"I've got offices in Amarillo and Big Spring, and—Ouch!" The contractor fell back, rubbing the side of his face.
Red ran at the other two, hands wickedly clawed. Voice rising, she threatened to scream. "I'll do it!" Her eyes blazed insanely. "I'll call the police!"
She threw back her head, mouth opened to its widest. Mitch grabbed her in the seeming nick of time.
"I'll go! I'm comin' right now, sis! Just you calm down, an'…" He urged her toward the door, grimacing over-the-shoulder apologies. "Sorry, fellas, but…"
But they could see how it was, couldn't they? What could you do with a crazy woman like this?
He closed the door on the dazed silence behind him. He and Red went swiftly down the hall to the elevator.
She had already checked them out of their rooms, of course, and a black-shirted porter stood waiting with their baggage at the side entrance of the hotel. As a cab sped them toward the railroad station, she moved close on the seat to whisper to him.
"I got us a stateroom together. Okay?"
"What?" He scowled in the darkness. "We're registered as brother and sister, and you—"
"Now, honey…" She was a little hurt. "I didn't get it through the hotel."
"You were late tonight."
"Me? Why, I don't see how I could have been."
"What difference does it make whether you see it?"
She moved away from him. It would take very little more to get her truly angry. Which would not be something to enjoy. But he was pretty burned up himself. She'd been late on the take-out, dammit, a whole two minutes late. He'd had to sweat, in danger of losing the dough and getting a schlamming, just because she couldn't be bothered to check the time. What the hell had she been doing, anyway? What was she—a woman with a kid's head?
Red said very quietly, "You'd better shut up, Mitch."
"But, goddammit, you were late! I don't mean to talk rough to you, honey, but—"
"And don't honey me!"
As they followed the redcap to their train, he looked up at the station clock, then took a startled glance at his watch. Fast—by almost two minutes. So the mix-up was his fault. Red hadn't taken him out late, as he should have known. As he had known. But hustling the heavy scores kind of drained a man dry, and until he filled up again he didn't have anything but crap for anyone. Probably, Mitch supposed, it was that way with any big-time frammis, even the legitimate ones. At least, most of the big-timers he knew had screwed up personal lives. If you were willing to settle for some gig like working for the park department and saving tinfoil as a hobby, you could stay loose. But on the hard-hustle, uh-uh. No matter how much you had on the ball, there was still a limit to it. And if you blasted it off, you couldn't spread it out.
In their stateroom, with the roadbed whispering swiftly beneath them, his hunger for Red suddenly became a raging thing. And knowing that it was no use, he began a roundabout apology, mentioning acquaintances, real and imaginary, whom stress also made unreasonably unreasonable.
"There was my dad, God rest him.…" He forced a reminiscent chuckle. "He was a special-editions promoter, you know; traveled around the country putting out special editions of newspapers. He'd run a boiler room all day, bossing a bunch of phone men and closing the tough babies himself, and by the time night came you could hardly say hello to him without getting socked. Why, I remember…"
Mitch sighed, letting his voice trail away, silently cursing her for being as she was. He'd hardly said a thing to her—nothing at all compared to the guff he had to take from people. Yet apologies, coaxing, were obviously a waste of time.
She intended to stay sore; the well-stocked commissary of her flesh was closed until further notice. He was sure that she wanted him as badly as he wanted her. That was apparent from the single stateroom she had booked. But it was also apparent, from her manner of undressing, that she was prepared to make him suffer, and to hell with her own sufferings.
Normally, she was almost prudishly modest. Forced to undress in close quarters, she would do so under her nightgown, primly urging him not to peek as she worked out of her clothes. But when she didn't intend to let him have anything, then she put it all on display, everything that she wasn't going to let him have.
No pro could do a more tantalizing strip tease than an offended Red (right name Harriet, for God's sake!). She would pull her panties halfway down around her hips, casually turning this way and that to give him a glimpse of what could be glimpsed, fore and aft, with her panties pulled halfway down. Then, the brassiere was loosened, and the breasts carelessly allowed to come into view. Pink-tipped, traced through with fine blue veins—their abundance seeming to bow her frail-looking shoulders. (She damned well wasn't frail!) Then, if she was feeling particularly mean, she would lift them up and examine them, critically and lengthily, until his tongue felt as big as a ball bat.
She was very down on him tonight, so he got the breast bit in full. Then, disdainfully, she discarded the last wispy fragment of her underthings, and stood naked with her feet slightly apart, her head thrown back to let the red mass of hair spill down around her shoulders. She raised her hands and began to fluff it, her breasts moving delicately with the movements of her arms. Finally, she ducked her head forward, bringing her hair over her shoulders, letting it spread silkily over her breasts. It parted perfectly on either side of her beautifully shaped head, and at last she looked at him; the look of a wicked angel. And spoke to him huskily.
"How'd you like to have a little?"
Mitch knew it was strictly zilch. He said two words, one a personal pronoun and the other a very naughty verb.
"Oh? Not even a teensy bit?" She measured an amount on her finger. "Not even a teensy-eensy-weensy bit?"
Mitch groaned and reached for her, surrendering.
Red said the same two words that he had said.
Then she hoisted herself into the upper berth and pulled the covers over her.
Eventually, Mitch fell asleep in the lower berth, dreaming not of Red, strangely, but of his father. Dreaming that the old man was sore at the statement that he was a hard guy to get along with. He wasn't at all unreasonable, his father said. Not a goddamned bit.
And he certainly wasn't. All things considered…
There was almost no time of complete relaxation in the life of Mr. Corley, Sr. If he was not driving a crew of high-powered telephone salesmen—and doing twice the work of any two of them—then he was "working advance," attempting to line up a publisher for the special-edition routine. And here was a job to make the saintliest of men curse with frustration.
They were invariably hard-heads, those publishers: chronic cynics with a talent for poking holes in the smoothest promotional pitch. Mitch knew, because he and his mother—peppery, nervous, fast-talking—usually accompanied his father on the initial visit to the publisher. Mr. Corley wanted them along (or so he explained to the publisher) to show him the kind of folks who were coming into his community. No fly-by-nights, sir. Just a plain old-fashioned American family. This last was Mitch's signal to grab the guy's hand, winsomely inquiring whether he had any little boys. Then stepping aside quickly, he allowed his mother to move in. And she practically straddled the guy, pushing herself right up against him as she gushed out a torrent of flattery. And then, before the chump could run and hide (yes, some of them actually tried to do that), Mr. Corley drove in for the sell.
He was a hard man to say no to, although it was said to him three times out of five. The points he made were not only virtually irrefutable, but put forth with mannerisms which were almost mesmeric.
He would not let a prospect look away from him. If one tried to, alarmed by the purring, pounding, perfectly enunciating voice, Corley would shift in his chair, assuming whatever position was necessary—bending practically to the floor if he had to—until he again had the man's eye. Then, his own gaze unblinking, he would begin an imperceptible wagging of his head, moving it with the rhythm of his words; back and forth, talking steadily all the time, wag-word, wag-word, to and fro, to and fro. And Mitch, until he learned to look away—to cut off the sight and sound of his father—would feel his eyes glazing and a strange numbness creeping over him.
For that matter, he did not need to look or listen to follow the pitch. It was pretty well standardized, the gradually put-together product of years of attack and counter-attack on the same general issues.
"Why, certainly, sir," Mr. Corley would say. "Certainly, you could put out a special edition yourself. You could make yourself a suit of clothes, too, I suppose, or build your own house. But you don't do those things; you don't do them, because you're not an expert at them. And you know and I know and we all know that when you want something done right, you go to an expert.…"
Or knocking down another sore point:
"I'm glad you mentioned that, sir. Glad. Very glad. It's quite true that some advertising departments can't sell an inch of space behind a special edition. They've had it for a year afterward. Their explanation is that there's just so much ad money in a town, and if you take it out on a special, you can't get it day-to-day. Oh, yes, I've seen advertising departments like that—alibi departments, I call them. And I've seen publishers who let them get away with it. Soft-headed types, you know: men who ought to be running a soup kitchen instead of a newspaper. But if you were that type, as of course you're not, and if you did have that kind of advertising department, you'd still be ahead with a special. You've got it made in a wad, instead of having it spread over a year and…"
And still another:
"Why, that's wonderful, sir. Just about makes you unique. All the business you can handle, all you need. So much that you're not even interested in a time-tried and proved proposition which has earned the whole-hearted endorsement of almost two hundred daily newspapers. My congratulations, sir. I can only hope that some of my less fortunate publisher friends don't move in on your bonanza. Now, I was talking to a man just last week who was looking for another location.…"
And so on and so on.
Some towns did not have to be promoted after the first time. They were sold solid and would go for a special every year or, more often, every two years. But this seemed only to increase the pace. There was lost time to make up for, hard times to be anticipated. And there were arrangements to make, the chiefest of which was the rounding up of personnel, the professional high-pressure salesmen who made up the special-edition breed.
When working, some of them made several thousand a month. When not working, which was about two-thirds of the time, they made for the nearest big city, there to live it up with booze and broads until they were broke and Corley or someone like him made contact. Often, Corley would send them money, never to see either it or them again. Often, they would arrive more fit for a hospital than work. Eventually, however, a crew would be put together, and things would start to jump.
On an average, there were from six to a dozen salesmen, depending on the size of the town. Headquarters was any empty storeroom which could be rented cheaply: the furniture—boxes, packing crates, and telephones. You had only to stick your head in the door to know why it was called a boiler room. You had only to listen to the constant clamor of the phones, the muted incessant roar of fast-talking voices, to understand the cursing, the chain-smoking, the opened bottles of whiskey convenient to every man's hand. Yet they seemed to enjoy what they were doing. They were all savagely good-natured.
In mid-conversation, a man would swiftly thrust his phone at Mitch. Want to piss in this guy's ear, kid? Or covering the mouthpiece of his phone a moment, Well, crap on you, Cicero! Sometimes there would be a screw-up, and top-of-the-head apologies were necessary. Oh, no, madam, that isn't at all what I said! You see, we have a very elderly gentleman here in the office who is taking a trip around the world—we fellows are sending him, as a matter of fact—and he was wondering which was the cheapest way to go. So I said, Oh, ship—s-h-i-p.…"
There was laughter, excitement. The sense of great things afoot, of vast sums pouring in. Of magic doors to be swung open by the quick and the glib. But being so close to his parents' affairs, Mitch knew that what he saw here was only the shadow and not the substance; the perilous periphery of the big time. Minds and bodies were being bet in a fixed race. You might beat it, sure, and you might also become rich by saving a dollar a day for a million days.
Mr. Corley strode in and out of the boiler room a dozen times a day, but mostly worked outside. His wife, Helen—Dutch (for Duchess) as she was usually called—worked the inside; keeping track of sales, occasionally taking over a phone, frequently circulating the room to see that nothing or no one got too far out of hand.
Although she was a small woman, her clothes never seemed quite large enough for her. Her round little rear-end was always molded against her skirt, her full little bosom strained constantly against her blouse. She moved around the room pepperily, her voice snappish, her quick movements making her jounce all over. Now and then, she leaned down, her hand resting impersonally (impersonally?) on a guy's shoulder as she lit her cigarette from his or listened in on a call. Occasionally, needing to get off her feet for a moment (or so she said), she sat down next to a guy, butting him over on his packing-box chair with a waspish little fling of her hips.
All day, day after day, the men were her life. All day, day after day, there was the salty talk of men, the rousing sight of men, the harsh-sweet smell of men, the roughly tender feel of men. And then at night, in the in-itself-suggestive hotel room, where even the towels and toilet, the thick tubes of the bedstead, the dangling knob of the chandelier, the table legs—where everything achieved a phallic symbolism—there were no longer any men. There was no man.
Corley and his wife played different roles, but essentially they shared the same life. Yet draining him dry, it simultaneously replenished her. Everything that had been taken from him seemed to have been given to her. And late at night, with Mitch supposedly asleep in the connecting room, they quarreled furiously and fruitlessly.
"Dutch, for Christ's sake…"
"Answer me, damn you! Do you know what this thing's for? Do you know what you're supposed to do with it?"
"No! No, by God! Don't you love me up unless you're going to go all the way!"
"Dutch, it's this goddamned life! The first good spot I see we'll settle down."
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- May 1, 2012
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