By Jim Thompson
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But now Ellen has returned to Pacific City, and she’s ready to do whatever it takes to get Brown back. Even if it means exposing his deepest secret … a painful truth Brown would do anything to stop from coming to light. He’d kill a whole lot of people just to keep this one thing quiet–and soon enough, the bodies just happen to start piling up around him…
THE NOTHING MAN is Thompson at his most psychologically astute, in a deeply suspenseful and tragic portrait of one man’s journey through the dark side of the Postwar Boom.
Well, they are all gone now, all but me: all those clear-eyed, clear-thinking people—people with their heads in the clouds and their feet firmly on the ground—who comprise the editorial staff of the Pacific City Courier. Warmed with the knowledge of a day's work well done, they have retired to their homes. They have fled to the sweet refuge of their families, to the welcoming arms of brave little women and the joyous embrace of laughing kiddies. And with them has gone the clearest-eyed, clearest-thinking of them all, Dave Randall, none other than the Courier's city editor.
He stopped by my desk on his way out, his feet firmly on the ground—or, I should say, the city room floor—but I did not look up immediately. I was too shaken with emotion. As you have doubtless suspected, I have a poet's heart; I think in allegories. And in my mind was an image of countless father birds, flapping their weary wings to the nests where the patient mother birds and the wee little birdies awaited them. And—and I say this unashamed—I could not look up. All the papa birds flapping toward their nests, while I—
Ah, well. I forced a cheery smile. I had my family; I was a member of the happy Courier family—clear-eyed, clear-thinking. And what bride could be finer than my own, what better than to be wed to one's work?
Dave cleared his throat, waiting for me to speak; then he reached over my shoulder and picked up an overnight galley on my column, Around the Town With Clinton Brown. The Courier is generous in such matters, I should say. The Courier believes in giving its employees an opportunity to "grow." Thus, desk men may do reporting; reporters may work the desk; and rewrite men such as myself may give the fullest play to the talents which, on so many newspapers, are restricted and stunted by the harsh mandates of the Newspaper Guild.
We take no dictation from labor bosses. Our protector, our unfailing friend and counselor, is Austin Lovelace, publisher of the Courier. The door to his office is always open, figuratively speaking. One may always take one's problems to Mr. Lovelace with the assurance that they will be promptly settled. And without "outside interference."
But I shall touch on these things later. I shall have to touch upon them since they all figure, to an extent, in what the head-writers term the Sneering Slayer murders, and this is the story of those murders. For the nonce, however, let us get back to Dave Randall.
He laid the column galley back on my desk, clearing his throat again. He has always—well, almost always—had trouble in talking to me; and yet he insists on talking. One almost feels at times that he has a guilty conscience.
"Uh, working pretty late, aren't you, Brownie?"
"Late, Colonel?" I said. I had gained control of myself at last, and I gave him a brave, clear-eyed smile. "Well, yes and no. Yes, for a papa bird with a nest. No, for a restless, non-papa bird. My work is my bride and I am consummating our wedding."
"Uh…I notice your picture is pretty badly smudged. I'll order a new cut for the column."
"I'd rather you didn't, Colonel," I said. "I think of the lady birds, drawn irresistibly by my chiseled, unsmudged profile, their tail feathers spread in delicious anticipation. I think of their disappointment in the end—you should excuse the pun, Colonel. As a matter of fact, I believe we should dispense with my picture entirely, replace it with something more appropriate, a coat of arms say—"
"Brownie—" He was wincing. I had barely raised the harpoon, yet already he was wincing. And there was no longer any satisfaction in it for me—if there had ever been any—but I went on.
"Something symbolic," I said. "A jackass, say, rampant against two thirds of a pawnbroker's sign, a smug, all-wise-looking jackass. As for the device, the slogan—how is your Latin, Colonel? Can you give me a translation of the phrase, 'I regret that I had only his penis to give to my country'?"
He bit his lip, his thin face sick and worried. I took the bottle from my desk and drank long and thirstily.
"Brownie, for God's sake! Won't you ever give it up?"
"Yes," I nodded. "Word of honor, Colonel. Once this bottle is finished I shall not drink another drop."
"I'm not talking about that. Not just that. It's—everything else! You're getting too raw. Mr. Lovelace is bound to—"
"Mr. Lovelace and I," I said, "are spiritual brothers. We are as close as two wee ones in the nest. Mr. Lovelace would think my motives lofty, even should I turn into a pigeon and void on his snowy locks."
"You'll probably do it," said Dave, bitterly.
I hate to see a man bitter. How can you have that calm objectivity so necessary to literary pursuits if you are bitter?
"Yes, you'll do it," he repeated. "You won't stop until you're fired. You'll keep on until you're thrown out, and I have to—"
"Yes?" I said. "You mean you'd feel it necessary to leave also? How touching, Colonel. My cup runneth over with love—of, need I say, a strictly platonic nature."
I offered him a drink, jerking the bottle back as he tried to knock it from my hands. I took a drink myself and advised him to flee to the bosom of his family. "That is what you need, Colonel," I said. "The cool hand of the little woman, soothing away the day's cares. The light of love and trust that shines from a kiddie's—"
"Goddam you, shut up!"
He yelled it at the top of his lungs. Then he was bending over my desk, bracing himself with his hands, and his eyes and his voice were tortured with pleading and helplessness and fury. And the words were pouring from his mouth in a half-coherent babble.
Goddammit, hadn't he said it was a mistake? Hadn't he admitted it was a boner a thousand times? Did I think he'd deliberately send a man into a field of anti-personnel mines?…It was a tragedy. It was a hell of a thing to happen to any man, and it must be ten times as hard when the guy was young and good-looking, and—and it was his fault. But what more could he do than he'd already done? What did I want him to do?
He choked up suddenly. Then he straightened and headed for the door. I called after him. "A moment, Colonel. You didn't let me finish."
"You're finished!" He whirled, glaring at me. "That's one thing you're finished with. I warn you, Brownie, if you ever again call me Colonel, I'll—I'll—Well, take my tip and don't do it!"
"I won't," I said. "That's what I wanted to tell you. I'm cutting it all out. Everything. After all, it was just one mistake in a war full of mistakes. You'll never have any more trouble with me, Dave."
He snorted and reached for the door. He paused and looked at me, frowning uncertainly. "You—you almost sound like you meant that."
"I do. Every word of it, Dave."
"Well"—he studied me carefully—"I don't suppose you do, but—"
He grinned tentatively, still studying me. Slowly the suspicion went out of his eyes and the grin stretched into a broad, face-lighting smile. "That's great, Brownie! I'm sorry I blew my top a moment ago, because I do know how you feel, but—"
"Sure," I said. "Sure you do. It's all right, Dave."
"Why don't you knock off for the night? Come out to the house with me? I'll open a bottle, have Kay cook us up some steaks. She's been after me to bring you home to dinner."
"Thanks," I said. "I guess not tonight. Got a story I want to finish."
"Something of your own?"
"We-ell, yes," I said. "Yes, it's something of my own. A kind of melodrama I'm building around the Sneering Slayer murders. I suppose it'll baffle hell out of the average who-dunit reader, but perhaps he needs to be baffled. Perhaps his thirst for entertainment will impel him to the dread chore of thinking."
"Great!" Dave nodded earnestly. He hadn't, of course, heard anything I'd said. "Great stuff!"
He was looking happier than I'd seen him for a long time. I think he'd have looked happy even if I'd taken him up on the dinner invitation.
"Well—ha, ha—don't work all night," he said.
"Ha, ha," I said. "I'll try not to."
He clapped me on the back, clumsily. He said good night and I said good night, and he left.
I studied the page in my typewriter, ripped it out and put in another one.
I had got off on the wrong foot. I had begun the story with Deborah Chasen when, naturally, it had to begin with me. Me—sitting alone in the city room, with a dead cigarette butt in my lips and an almost full quart of whisky on my desk.
The two Teletype machines began to click and clatter—first the A.P.'s, then the U.P.'s. I strolled over and took a look at them.
Pacific City, in the words of our publisher, is a "city of homes, churches, and people"—which translated from its chamber-of-commerce lingua franca means that it is a small city, a nonindustrial city, and a city where little goes on, ordinarily, of much interest to the outside world. The Courier is the only newspaper. The wire services do not maintain correspondents here but are covered, when coverage is necessary, by our staffers.
I ripped the yellow flimsies from the Teletypes and read:
LOS ANG 6OIPM SPL AP TO COURIER
PACITY CHF DET LEM STUKEY REPTD MISSING
OVER TWENTYFOUR HOURS. TRUE? UNUSUAL?
POSSIBLE CONNECTION SNEERING SLAYER CASE?
LET'S HEAR FROM YOU COURIER. THATCHER AP LA
LA CAL 603 PM UP TO COUR
RADIO REPTS DETEC CHF LEM STUKEY MISSING.
HOW ABOUT THIS COURIER? WHY NOT
MENTIONED ANY YOUR EDITIONS? UNIMPORTANT?
OFTEN MISSING? ANSWER DALE (SIG) LOS ANG UP.
I tossed the flimsies into a wastebasket and strolled over to a window.…True? Yes, the report was true enough. Pacific City's Chief of Detectives Lem Stukey had been missing for more than a day.…Unusual? We-ell, hardly. The police department wasn't alarmed about it. They hadn't been able to locate him in any of the blind pigs or whorehouses where he usually holed up, but he could have found a new place. Or, perhaps, someone had found a place for him.…
Anyway, the wire services couldn't expect us to follow up on a query at this hour. We were an afternoon paper. Our "noon" edition hit the streets at ten in the morning, our "home" at noon, and our "late final"—a re-plate job—at three in the afternoon. That was more than three hours ago, so to hell with A.P. and U.P. To hell with them, anyway.
I stared out the window—out and down to the street, ten stories below. And I was sad, more than sad, even bitter. And all over nothing, nothing at all, really. Merely the fact that the last line of this story will have to be written by someone else.
I turned from the window and marched back to my desk. I successfully matched myself for two drinks and received another on the house.
I looked back through what I had written. Then, I lowered my hands to the keys and began to type:
The day I met Deborah Chasen was the same day I got the letter from the Veterans' Administration. It was around nine of a morning a couple of months ago, and Dave Randall…
Dave had, on that morning, brought it over to my desk. He stood lingering a moment afterward, trying to look friendly and interested. He mumbled something about "Good news, I hope," and I opened the letter.
It was, as I've said, from the Veterans' Administration. It announced that my disability compensation was being increased to approximately eighty dollars a month.
I shoved back my chair. I stood up, clicked my heels together, and gave Dave a snappy salute.
"Official communication, sir! Sergeant Brown respectfully requests the colonel's instructions!"
"Carry on." He looked nervously around the office, that sickly smile on his face. "Brownie, I wish—"
"Thank you, Colonel. The hour for the morning patrol approaches. Do I have the colonel's permission to—?"
"Do any goddamned thing you want to," he said, and he strode back to his desk.
I sat down again. I winked at Tom Judge, who worked the rewrite desk opposite me. I gave him a smile, a very cheery smile considering that I hadn't had a drink since breakfast.
Tom didn't smile back. "Why do you keep riding him?" He scowled. "Why make things tough on a good guy?"
"Why, Tom," I said. "You mean you and the colonel are—like that?"
"I mean I like him. I mean if I were in his place I'd straighten you out or kick your ass out of here. Boy"—he shook his head disgustedly—"talk about justice! Where the hell do you get off drawing a pension anyway?"
"It is puzzling," I said, "isn't it? Obviously I am not disabled for employment. Obviously I have suffered no disfigurement. I am even more handsome than on the day I was born, and my mother boasted—with considerable veracity, I believe—that I was the prettiest baby in town."
His eyes narrowed. "I get it. You're a fairy, huh?"
"Is that an assertion," I said, "or merely a surmise?"
"Don't think I'm afraid of you, Brown!"
"Aren't you?" I said. "Then perhaps you'd like to do something about my statement, made herewith, that you are a nosy, dull-witted son-of-a-bitch and a goddamned lousy newspaperman."
His face went white and he made motions at getting up from his chair. I got up and walked into the john.
A moment later he followed me in.
I could see that he was still sore, but he was trying to cover up. He would wait for a better time to pay me off.
"Look, Brown. I didn't mean t-to—"
"And I," I said, "apologize for calling you a son-of-a-bitch."
"About the pension, Brownie. Not that it's any of my business but—well, I guess it must have something to do with your nerves, huh?"
"That's it," I nodded soberly. "That's it exactly, Tom. A considerable portion of the nerves—kind of a nerve center—was completely destroyed."
I watched him carefully, afraid for a moment that I might have said too much, wondering what he would do—and what I would do—if the truth did dawn on him. Because there is something hideously funny about a thing of that kind. People laugh about it, privately perhaps, but they laugh. They give you sympathetic smiles and glances, their faces tight with laughter restrained. And even when they do not laugh you can hear them…Poor guy! What a hell of a—ha, ha, ha—I wonder what he does when he has to…?
You can't work. You can't live. You can't die. You are afraid to die, afraid of the complete defenselessness to laughter that death will bring.
But I needn't have worried about Tom Judge. He lacked the inquiring mind, the ability to follow up on a lead. He was, to mention a statement I had not retracted, a goddamned lousy newspaperman.
"Gosh, I'm sorry, Brownie. I guess that would make you pretty edgy. I still think you're pretty tough on Dave, but—"
I told him I didn't mean anything by it. "Not only is he my friend," I said, "but I respect him professionally. I wouldn't want to embarrass him by repeating the compliment, but Dave strikes me as typifying the genus Courier. Clear-eyed, clear-thinking, his feet firmly on the ground and his head—"
Tom laughed halfheartedly. "Okay," he said, "you win."
He returned to the rewrite bank.
I, because the Courier's first deadline was past, went out on my morning patrol.
It was one of my better patrols. The officer of the day was at his post, and the heavy artillery stood waiting and ready.
"All secured?" I said.
"All secured," said Jake, the Press Club bartender.
"Proceed with maneuvers," I said.
He bent his wrist smartly. Bottle tilted over glass in a beautifully executed movement.
"Excellent," I said. "Now, I think we shall have close-order drill."
"Beggin' your pardon, sir, but—"
"You only had—I mean you ain't completed the barrage."
"A new tactic," I said. "The remainder of the barrage will follow the drill."
"Okay. But if you fall on your face, don't—"
"Forward, march!" I said.
He lined three one-ounce shot glasses up on the bar, placed a two-ounce glass at the end of the line, and filled all four.
I disposed of them with dispatch and dipped into the bowl of cloves. "Reports or inquiries?" I said.
"I don't know how you do it," he said. "I swear, Mr. Brown, if I tried that I'd—"
"Ah," I said, "but I have youth on my side. Wondrous youth, with the whole great canvas of life stretching out before me."
"You always drink like that?"
"What's it to you?" I said, and I went back to the office.
I was experiencing that peculiar two-way pull that had manifested itself with increasing frequency and intensity in recent months. It was a mixture of calm and disquiet, of resignation and frantically furious rejection. Simultaneously I wanted to lash out at everything and do nothing about anything. The logical result of the conflict should have been stalemate, yet somehow it was not working out that way. The positive emotions, the impulse to act, were outgrowing the others. The negative ones, the calm and resignation, were exercising their restraining force not directly but at a tangent. They were not so much restrictive as cautionary.
They were pulling me off to one side, moving me down a course that was completely out of the world, yet of it.
I wondered if I was drinking too much.
I wondered how it would be—how I would manage to eat and sleep and talk and work: how to live—if I drank less.
I decided that I wasn't drinking enough, and that henceforth I should be more careful in that regard.
Dave Randall looked at me nervously as I sat down. Tom Judge jerked his head over his shoulder in a way that meant that Mr. Lovelace had arrived.
"And, Brownie," he leaned forward, whispering, "you should've seen the babe he had with him!"
"How, now," I said. "Much as it pains me, I shall have to report the matter to Mrs. Lovelace. The marriage vows are not to be trifled with."
"Boy, for some of that you could report me to my wife!"
"Let me catch you," I said, sternly, "and I shall."
It was an average morning, newswise. I did a story on the Annual Flower Show and another on the County Dairymen's convention. I rewrote a couple of wire stories with a local twist and picked up a few items for my column. So it went. That was the sort of thing—and about the only sort of thing—that got into the Courier.
Mr. Lovelace frowned on what he termed the "negative type" of story. He was fond of asserting that Pacific City was the "cleanest community in America," and he was very apt to suspect the credibility of reporters who produced evidence to the contrary. I could have done it and got away with it. For reasons that will become obvious, I held a preferred place in the "happy Courier family." But I was temporarily content with the status quo, and there was no one else. It had been years since any topflight reporter had applied for a job on the Pacific City Courier.
With my last story out of the way, I began to feel those twinges of mental nausea that always herald the arrival of my muse. I felt the urge to add to my unfinished manuscript, Puke and Other Poems.
I rolled paper into my typewriter. After some preliminary fumblings around, I began to write:
Lives of great men, lives en masse
Seem a stench and cosmic ruse.
Take my share, I'll take a glass
(no demi-tasse—it has to knock me on my ass)
Not good. Definitely not up to Omar, or, perhaps I should say, Fitzgerald. I tried another verse:
Sentience, my sober roomer,
Steals my warming cloak of bunk
(I'm sunk, sunk, sunk.)
Leaves me an impotent assumer
Of things that I can take when drunk.
Very bad. Far worse than the first stanza. Assumer—what kind of word was that? And when was I ever actually drunk? And the wretched, sniveling self-pity in that sunk, sunk, sunk.…
I ripped the paper out of the typewriter and threw it into the wastebasket.
I didn't do it a bit too soon, either.
Mr. Lovelace wasn't a dozen feet away. He was heading straight toward me, and the "babe" Tom Judge had mentioned was with him.
I don't know. I never will know whether she was a little slow on the uptake, a little dumb, as, at first blush, I suspected her of being, or whether she was merely tactless, unusually straightforward, careless of what she said and did. I just don't know.
I gave Mr. Lovelace a big smile, including her in the corner of it. I complimented him on his previous day's editorial and asked him if he hadn't been losing weight and admired the new necktie he was wearing.
"I wish I had your taste, sir," I said. "I guess it's something you have to be born with."
No, I'm not overdrawing it. It doubtless seems that I am, but I'm not. He couldn't be kidded. However good you said he was, it wasn't ever quite so good as he thought he was.
I poured it on, and he stood beaming and rocking on the balls of his feet, nodding at the woman as if to say, "Now, here's a man who knows the score." Even when she burst out laughing, he didn't catch on.
He looked at her a little startled. Then the beam came back to his face and he chuckled. "Uh—just finished telling Mrs. Chasen a little story. Kind of a delayed punch, eh, Mrs. Chasen?"
She nodded, holding a handkerchief over her mouth. "I'm s-sorry, but—"
- On Sale
- Aug 5, 2014
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Mulholland Books