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The Golden Gizmo
By Jim Thompson
Foreword by James Sallis
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Kent’s grinding out a paycheck buying gold on the cheap and selling it for the slimmest of profits when he stumbles into his latest, almost mythical discovery — pure, unadulterated gold in the form of a priceless watch he didn’t exactly mean to steal.
Soon Kent finds himself at the center of a whirlwind of danger involving everyone from the woman he can’t seem to shake, bail bondsmen who get word of Kent’s discovery, the Treasury Department, his pawnbroker, and a devious old man with a dog that may or may not be able to speak English, in a rip-roaring comedy of errors and would-you-believe-it bad luck unlike anything you’ve ever read.
Who ever knew one lousy watch could bring so much trouble? And how many times can Kent avoid getting killed before his luck runs out for good?
Table of Contents
Preview of The Transgressors
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It was almost quitting time when Toddy met the man with no chin and the talking dog. Almost three in the afternoon.
House to house gold-buyers cannot work much later than three nor much before nine-thirty in the morning. The old trinkets and jewelry they buy are usually stored away. Few housewives will interrupt their after-breakfast or pre-dinner chores to look them up.
Toddy stopped at the end of the block and gave the house before him a swiftly thorough appraisal. It was the last house in this neighborhood. It stood almost fifty yards back from the street, a shingle and stucco bungalow virtually hidden behind an untended foreground of sedge and cedar trees. Crouched at the end of the weed-impaled driveway was a garage, or, rather, Toddy guessed, one end of a three-car garage. An expensive late-model car was in view, and a highly developed sixth sense told Toddy that the other stalls were similarly occupied.
Hesitating, wanting to quit work for the day, Toddy flipped open the lid of the small wooden box he carried and looked inside.
In the concealed bottom of the box were the indispensables of the gold-buying trade: a set of jeweler's scales and weights, a jeweler's loupe—magnifying eyepiece—a small triangular-faced file and a tiny bottle of one hundred percent pure nitric acid. In the tray on top was a considerable quantity of gold-filled and plated slum, mingled with the day's purchases of actual gold. The latter included almost an ounce of high-karat dental gold—bridges, crowns and fillings—plus an approximate two ounces of jewelry, most of it also of above-average quality.
A man who buys three ounces of gold a day is making very good money… if he buys at the "right" prices. And Toddy had bought right. For an investment of twenty-two dollars, he had acquired roughly eighty dollars' worth of gold.
It had been a good day, as good as the average, at least. He was under no financial pressure to work longer. If he knocked off now, just a little early, he could miss that clamoring and hopeless chaos which is Los Angeles during rush hours. He could be back in town inside an hour or less.
Elaine always slept late—of necessity. If he got back to the hotel early enough, he might be there before she started stirring around. Before she had a chance to raise any of that peculiarly hideous hell of which only she was capable.
Toddy lighted a cigarette fretfully, all but decided to begin the long trudge back to the bus stop. Still, if he quit early today, he would do it again. It might become a habit with him, complemented by the equally dangerous habit of starting to work late. Eventually, he would be working no more than an hour a day. And then the day would come when he would not work at all. That would be the end, brother. The end for him and a much quicker and more unpleasant end for Elaine. For regardless of her vain and frequent boasting, no one else but he would put up with her indefinitely.
With a shrug, he ground out the cigarette beneath his heel and took a decisive step up the walk. Swearing silently, he stopped again. Dammit, it was almost three—only ten minutes of. And it was such a hell of a gloomy day. Smog had settled over the city like a sponge. Gray, dank, sun-obscuring smog. Even if Elaine was all right when she awakened, the smog would start her off. She'd be depressed and blue, and if he wasn't there…
Not only that, but he would be wasting his time at this particular house. Obviously, wealthy people lived here, despite the air of desolation. And wealthy people, even when they were inclined to dispose of their old gold, usually knew its value too well to make the transaction profitable.
"Sharp" gold-buyers have no contact with the law… willingly. The law, as they well know, takes a very dim view of their activities. Their licenses may be in order; they may have done nothing provably illegal. Still, a steady stream of complaints flows in their wake, and the police become irritated. The police reason that a man who persuades a housewife to sell him a hundred-dollar watch for five possesses no very high moral tone. He need get out of line very little, rub them the wrong way in the slightest, to be jailed for investigation and eventually "floated" out of town.
Toddy had stayed clear of the police so far, and he intended to keep right on doing so. There'd be no floater for him if he was ever picked up. Once they fingerprinted him, they'd be passing him from city to city until he got train sick. He couldn't remember all the places where he was wanted, but he knew there were a great many.
But—and he hated to admit it, in this instance—he was in little danger from the police unless he deliberately and flagrantly annoyed them. If he had run out of cards, the situation would have been different. But he had not run out; he was always careful to keep supplied. His reluctant fingers found one now, drew it from the breast pocket of his smart tweed coat.
Mr. Toddmore Kent
LOS ANGELES JEWEL & WATCH CO.
Gold Silver Platinum
The Los Angeles Jewel & Watch Co. was a side-street watch-repair shop. Its owner was a beer-loving, bighearted little Dutchman named Milt Vonderheim.
Most wholesale buyers of precious metals give their door-to-door men the same kind of skinning that the latter deal out to their clients. They downgrade your ten-karat gold to eight; they weigh coin and sterling silver together; they "steal" your platinum at a price merely twice as high as that of twenty-four-karat gold. But tubby little Milt, with his beer breath and perpetual smile, was the golden exception to the base rule of other buyers.… So a man needed his money every night—was that a reason to rob him blind? So he had no regular residence in the city and was at the mercy of one who did—should you charge him a profit for not speaking to the police?
Milt didn't think so. Milt's prices were only a few cents lower than those of the U.S. Mint, to whom he sold the stuff which Toddy and a number of other young men sold to him. Milt paid five dollars a pennyweight—one twentieth of a troy ounce—for platinum. If you'd have a lean day, he was very apt to upgrade your stuff; pay you fourteen-karat prices, say, for ten.
Nor was that all Milt did: fat, shabby little Milt, edging deeper and deeper into poverty. Milt supplied these cards which were literally worth their weight in gold if a cop stopped you. A cop wouldn't bother you when you showed that card, unless he had to. A transient gold-buyer was one thing. A special representative of a long-established local firm, no matter how small, was something else.
Milt had started Toddy out as a gold-buyer a year ago. He had trained him, stood by him through the perils that beset the trade. He had trained other men, too, Toddy knew, most of those who now sold to him, and he stood by them also. But he did not treat them quite the same as he did Toddy. He was always inviting Toddy back into his shop apartment for a beer or a chat. He was always bragging of him.
"That Toddy," he would boast to the other buyers, "from him you could well take a lesson. Regularity, steadiness, that iss the lesson vot Toddy should give you. While you boys are putting on your pants or drinking coffee, Toddy has already made fife dollars."
Toddy's lean face flushed a little as he remembered those boasts. Resolutely, he brushed a bit of cigarette ash from his whipcord trousers, made a slight adjustment on the collar of his tan sports shirt, and turned his pebbled-leather brogans up the walk to the house.
It was even farther away than it had appeared from the street, and he had an uneasy feeling of being watched from the dark interior behind the rusted screen door. But, hell, what was there to be nervy about? He wasn't giving the police any trouble and they weren't giving him any. And what else was there besides a slammed door or a dog? If he was starting to let things like that bother him, he might as well do a high brody right now. He and Elaine together.
He stepped lightly across the porch, splattered with green segments from the cedars, and raised his hand to knock. He jerked it back, startled.
"Yes?" said a man's sharp-soft voice. "What is it? You are selling something, please?"
The man must have been standing right in the door, hidden by the rusted screen and the shadowed room inside. Toddy blinked his eyes, trying to get the daylight out of them, but he still couldn't see the guy. All he knew about him was his voice—a Spanish-sounding voice.
"Not at all, sir," said Toddy, with energetic joviality. "I'm not selling a thing. A friend of yours suggested that I call on you. If I can give you my card…"
The screen opened and a bony, hair-tufted hand emerged. Deftly, it plucked the card from his fingers and disappeared. Toddy shifted uncomfortably.
This was all wrong, he knew. The spiel was off-key here, the gimmick was out of place. He had learned to use the card as a door-opener—to get 'em curious. To force them outside, or to get him in. He had learned to mention a neighbor, or, better still, a "friend." If they fell for it—and why shouldn't some neighbor or friend have suggested a call?—it was all to the good. If they got funny or sharp, he could have the "wrong house," lie out of it some way.
You had to do those things.
Toddy wished that he hadn't done them here.
He looked behind him, down the long inviting walk. He gave a slight hitch to his trousers and snuggled the box firmly under his arm. He'd give some excuse and beat it out of here. Or just beat it without saying anything. After all, he—he—
The screen door swung open, wide.
Through it, with stately but threatening grace, stalked the biggest dog Toddy had ever seen. He did not realize just how big it was until a moment later.
He knew very little about dogs, but he recognized this one as a Doberman. Slowly, it lowered its great pear-shaped head to his feet and examined each in turn. With awful deliberation, the animal sniffed each leg. It looked up at him thoughtfully, appraising him.
Silently, it reared up on its hind legs.
The front paws came down on Toddy's shoulders. The black muzzle almost rested against his nose.
Toddy stared into the beast's eyes. He stared unwinkingly, afraid to move or speak. He stopped breathing and was too fear-stricken to know it.
The screen door closed, slammed at last by its aged spring. As from a great distance, Toddy heard the man's amused chuckle, a seemingly unending chuckle; then, a sharp "Perrito!"—Spanish for "little dog."
The dog's ears pricked to attention. "Ssor-ree," the dog said courteously. "Ssss ssor-ree."
"D-don't m-mention it," Toddy stammered. "A mistake. I m-mean—"
The dog dropped back down to the porch and took up a position behind him. The screen door opened again.
"Please to come in," said the man.
"I don't—that d-dog," said Toddy. Dammit, was he dreaming this? "Won't he… will he hurt anyone?"
"On the contrary," the man said, and, helplessly, Toddy stepped inside. "He kills quite painlessly."
Todd Kent (the more was phony) had been born with a gizmo. That—the GI term for the unidentifiable—was the way he had come to think of something that changed in value from day to day, that was too whimsical in its influence to be bracketed as a gift, talent, aptitude or trait.
For most of the thirty years of his life, the gizmo had pushed him into the smelly caverns where the easy money lay. All his life—and always without warning—it had hustled him out through soul-skinning, nerve-searing exits.
A runaway from a broken home, Todd had first hit the big dough when he was sixteen. He had landed as a bellboy in a big hotel. From that he advanced to bell captain, and he was in; the gizmo went to work. Before it was all over the job of bellboy in that hotel was priced at one thousand dollars—a sum which the purchasers grimly went about recovering (along with considerably more!) in various shady ways. Before it was all over—when the beefs flowed over Toddy's young head and those of the minor executives he had fixed—many of the bellboys were in jail and the hotel had a thoroughly bad name.
Toddy was too young to prosecute on a job-selling rap. But there was such a thing as a juvenile authority which could take charge of him until he was twenty-one. Not at all pleased with this prospect, he had a confidential talk with the hotel's lawyers. The result was that he left town… but without his spanking new Cadillac, his diamond rings and the contents of his safety deposit box.
In a trackside jungle, he watched an ancient and browbeaten bum toss dice from a rusted can. The bum put the dice in the can, shook them vigorously and threw a point. Then he reshook them, rolled them again, and there was his point. Not immediately—it usually took several throws—and not always. But almost always. Often enough.
Toddy's gizmo swung into action.
Yeah, the flattered bum agreed, it was quite a trick. Any hustler could throw hot dice from his hand, but who'd ever seen it done from a cup? Many big gambling houses insisted on cup shots, particularly where there was heavy money down. They were supposed to be hustler-proof.
No, he'd never got a chance to put the shot to work; stumbled onto it too late for that. But if a guy had the front, the dough, this was how it was done…
You held one die on your point. You didn't put it inside the cup. You palmed it and held it outside, pressed against the cup in your shooting hand. Say you were shooting for Phoebe, little five. You held on to three of it, then you rolled, letting the held die spin down at the exact moment the other shot came from the cup. Yeah, sure; maybe fever didn't make. Maybe the free die came out on four and you'd crapped. But you'd lowered the odds against yourself, see, kid? You'd knocked hell out of 'em. And how you could murder them big joints on come and field bets!
Months later… but this episode shall be cut short. Months later, in the secluded parlor of a Reno gambling house, a lean taffy-haired young man sat watching a slow-motion picture of himself. The picture had been shot, apparently, from a concealed camera above the crap table, and it showed little but the movements of his hands. But that was enough. That was more than enough. Before the film was half-unwound, Toddy was drawing out his wallet, his bank passbook, and—oh, yes—the keys to a spanking new Cadillac.
He moved into the con games as naturally as a blonde moving into a mink coat. He rode them through Dallas, Houston, Oklahoma City, St. Louis, Omaha, Cleveland, New Orleans, Memphis.… He rode them and was ridden, to use a police term. The gizmo was fickle, and he was ridden, rousted and floated.
Since he shunned working with others, he was confined to playing the "small con"—the hype and the smack and the tat. Those, however, with the new twists he added to them, were more than sufficient to provide him with a number of pleasant possessions, not the least of which was a substantial equity in another Cad.
Then, the gizmo becoming frivolous again, it removed these belongings and added his biography (handsomely illustrated) to a volume compiled by the Better Business Bureau. It also left him wanted on seven raps in Chicago, his then base of operations.
That was the gizmo for you. Pushing you into clover one day, booting you into a weedpatch the next.
The gizmo pushed him into the Berlin black market and sixty-three grand in cash. But, naturally, it didn't let him out of the Army with it. What it let him out of the Army with was a six-months' brig tan and a dishonorable discharge.
He wandered out to Los Angeles, hating the gizmo, determined to be rid of it. But the gizmo was stubborn. Wash dishes, drive a cab, peddle brushes?—don't be foolish, Toddmore. Use your head. You can always see a turn if you look for it.… What about all these winos and bums? The town's full of 'em, and they'd sell you their right legs for a buck. They'd sell you their—blood! The big labs pay twenty-five a pint for blood. If you did the fronting, sold for fifteen and bought for five…
Toddy was in and out of the blood business fast. He stayed only long enough to get a roll. The scheme was entirely legal. For the first time in his life he was playing something strictly legit… and he couldn't take it. If it was legal to nourish the desire to drink with a man's own blood, then he'd go back to his own side of the fence.
He was resting on his roll, deliberating over his next move, when the gizmo shoved Elaine at him. He hadn't had a real roll or even time to take a deep breath since then. He couldn't make enough, no matter what he made, to do the thing that Milt, the gizmo having introduced them, persuaded him he should do. There was good money, legit money, in buying from dentists and other commercial users of gold.
Toddy couldn't have the dough and Elaine, too. Somehow, though he knew Milt was right in so advising him, he couldn't bring himself to boot her out on her tail.
… So, now, now the gizmo had led him into this house, into the money or. And he had a sneaking hunch that this was going to be something fantastic, even for the gizmo, in the way of ors.
For the size of the House, the affluence which it outwardly bespoke, it—this living room, at least—was badly, even poorly, furnished. The few chairs, the undersize divan, the table, all were of maple, the cheapest thing on the market. Except for a throw rug or two, the floor was bare.
Toddy looked at the table, where, as a matter of habit, he had placed his open box. He saw now that there was another box on it, a kind of oblong wooden tray. A set of tong-type calipers partly shielded the contents; but despite this and the deep gloom of the room, Toddy could see the outline of a heavy gold watch.
He had taken this in at a glance, his gaze barely wavering from the man. The guy was something to look at. He was the kind of guy you'd automatically keep your eyes on when he was around.
He had no chin. It was as though nose and eyes and a wide thin mouth had been carved out of his neck. Either a thick black wig or a mopline bowl of natural hair topped the neck.
He stared from Toddy to the card, then back again. He waited, a faint look of puzzlement on his white chinless face. He smiled, suddenly, and held the card out to Toddy.
"I can read nothing without my glasses," he smiled, "and, as usual, I seem to have misplaced them. You will explain your business please?"
Toddy retrieved the bit of pasteboard with a twinge of relief. There was something screwy here. It was just as well not to leave his or Milt's name behind him.
"Of course, sir," he said. "I—that dog of yours took my breath away for a moment. I didn't mean to just stand here, taking up your time."
"I am sure of it." The man nodded suavely. "I am certain that you do not mean to do it now. Perhaps, now that you have recovered your breath, Mr.—?
"—Clinton," Toddy lied. "I'm with the California Precious Metals Company. You've probably seen our ads in the papers—world's largest buyers of scrap gold?"
"No. I have seen no such ads."
"That's entirely understandable," Toddy said. "We've discontinued them lately—well, it must have been more than a year ago—in favor of the personal contact method. We—we—"
He stopped talking. He'd seen plenty of pretty girls in his time, many of them in a state which left nothing of their attributes to the imagination. But this… this was something else again… this girl who had come through the doorway to what was apparently the kitchen. She wore blue Levi's and a worn khaki shirt, and a scuffed pair of sandals encased her feet; and if she had on any make-up Toddy couldn't spot it. And, yet, despite those things, she was out of this world. She was mmmm-hmmmm and wow and man-oh-man!
Toddy stared at her. Eyes narrowing, the man spoke over his shoulder. "Dolores," he said. And as she came forward, he caught her by the bodice and pivoted her in front of Toddy.
"Very nice, eh?" His eyes pointed to her buttocks. "A little full, perhaps, like the breasts, but should one quarrel with bounty? Is not the total effect pleasing? Could one accept less after the warm promise of the mouth, the generous eyes, the sable hair with—"
"Scum," said the girl in almost unaccented English. "Filth," she added tonelessly. "Carrion. Obscenity."
"¡Vaya!" the man took a step toward her. "¡Hija de perro! I shall teach you manners." He turned back on Toddy, breathing heavily, eyes glinting. "Now, Mr.… Mr. Clinton, is it? I have allowed you to study my ward to the fullest. Perhaps you will confine your attention to me for a moment. You said you were sent to me by a friend?"
"Well, I'm not sure she was a friend exactly, but—"
"A neighbor of yours. Right down the street here. I—"
"I know none of my neighbors nor are they acquainted with me."
"I—well, it's this way," said Toddy, and his gaze moved nervously from the man to the dog. The big black animal had been lying down. Now he had risen to stand protectively in front of the man, and there was a look about him which Toddy did not like at all.
"I buy gold," said Toddy, flipping open the lid of his box. "I—I—"
"Yes? And just what led you to believe I had any gold to sell?"
"Well, uh, nothing. I mean, a great many people do have and I just assumed that, uh, you might."
The man stared at him unwinkingly, the dog and the man. The silence in the room became unbearable.
"L-look," Toddy stammered. "What's wrong, anyway? Like I say, I'm buying gold—" He picked up the watch on the table. "Old, out-of-date stuff like this—"
That was all he had a chance to say. He was too startled by what followed to realize, or remember, that the watch was ten times heavier than it should have been.
Cursing, the man lurched forward and aimed a kick at Toddy.
Then the dog called Toddy an unpleasant name, the same name the man had called him.
"¡Cabrone!" it snapped. Bastard!
And then the dog howled insanely and leaped—at the man. For he had received the kick intended for Toddy and in a decidedly tender place.
The watch slid from Toddy's nerveless fingers. He slammed the lid of his box and dashed for the door.
In his last fleeting glimpse of the scene, the dog was stalking the man and the man was kicking and shouting at him. And in the doorway to the kitchen, the girl clutched herself and rocked with hysterical, uncontrollable laughter.
"I," said Toddy, grimly, as he raced toward the Wilshire line bus, "am going to call it a day."
The box seemed unusually heavy, but he thought nothing of it. Late in the day, like this, it had the habit of seeming heavy.
Like most people with a tendency to attract trouble, Toddy Kent had a magnificent ability to shake it off. Hot water, figuratively speaking, affected him little more than the literal kind. He forgot it as soon as the moment of burning was past.
This afternoon, then, he was not only troubled and worried but troubled and worried at being so. Sure, he'd had a bad scare, but that had been more than an hour ago. An hour in which he'd ridden into town and had three stiff drinks. Why keep kicking the thing around? What was there to feel blue about? It was even kind of funny when you looked at it the right way.
Irritated and baffled by himself, Toddy turned in at the twelve-foot front of the Los Angeles Jewel & Watch Co.
Most of the shop was in darkness, but the door was unlocked and a light burned at the rear. Milt was reading off a buyer, one of the new ones. And his brogue was as broad as the young man's face was red.
"So! Yet more of it!" Milt slapped aside his brilliant swivel lamp and jerked the jeweler's loupe from his eyes. "Did you look at dis, my brilliant young friend? Did you feel of it, heft it—dis bee-yootiful chunk of eighteen-karat brass?"
"Why—why, sure I did, Milt! I—"
"You did not!" the little wholesaler proclaimed with mock sternness. "I refuse to let you so malign yourself! Better I have taught you. Better you would have known. I vill tell you what you felt, my friend, vot you looked at! It was dis bee-yootiful young housewife, was it not? Dot vas where you were feeling and looking!"
A chuckle arose from the other buyers. The young man's voice rose above it.
"But it's stamped, Milt! It's got an eighteen-karat stamp right on it!"
Milt threw up his hands wildly. "Vot have I told you of such? On modern stuff, yess. The karat stamp is good. It means what it says. But the old pieces? Bah! Nodding it means because dere vas no law to make it. It means only dot you must have good eyes. It means only dot you have a file in your box and a vial of acid, and better you should use dem!"
- On Sale
- Jul 1, 2012
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Mulholland Books