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By Jim Thompson
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Nothing anything like this has ever happened to Britt before–and while Manuela’s never around when the so-called “accidents” happen, neither can Britt prove she’s behind the many threats on his life. Is a rival for Manuela’s affections trying to chase him away? Is there more to Manuela herself than meets the eye? Whatever it is, Britt better find out fast–before whoever’s after him hits their mark, and the man who never thought he’d land the ultimate girl ends up paying the ultimate price.
I didn't hear her until she was actually inside the room, locking the door shut behind her. Because that kind of place, the better type of that kind of place—and this was the better type—has its taproot in quiet. Anonymity. So whatever is required for it is provided: thick walls, thick rugs, well-oiled hardware. Whatever is required, but no more. No bath, only a sink firmly anchored to the wall. No easy chairs, since you are not there to sit. No radio or television, since the most glorious of diversions is in yourself. Your two selves.
She was scowling agitatedly, literally dancing from foot to foot, as she flung off her clothes, tossing them onto the single wooden chair where mine were draped.
I laughed and sat up. "Have to pee?" I said. "Why do you always hold in until you're about to wet your pants?"
"I don't always! Just when I'm meeting you, and I don't want to take time to—oops! Whoops! Help me, darn it!" she said, trying to boost herself up on the sink. "Hall-up!"
I helped her, holding her on her porcelain perch until she had finished. Then I carried her to the bed, and lowered her to it. Looked wonderingly at the tiny immensity, the breathtaking miracle of her body.
She wasn't quite five feet tall. She weighed no more than ninety-five pounds, and I could almost encompass her waist with one hand. But somehow there was no skimpiness about her. Somehow her flesh flowed and curved and burgeoned. Extravagantly, deliciously lush.
"Manny," I said softly, marvelling. For as often as I had seen this miracle, it remained new to me. "Manuela Aloe."
"Present," she said. "Now, come to bed, you good-looking, darling son-of-a-bitch."
"You know something, Manny, my love? If I threw away your tits and your ass, God forbid, there wouldn't be anything left."
Her eyes flashed. Her hand darted and swung, slapping me smartly on the cheek.
"Don't you talk that way to me! Not ever!"
"What the hell?" I said. "You talk pretty rough yourself."
She didn't say anything. Simply stared at me, her eyes steady and unblinking. Telling me, without telling me, that how she talked had no bearing on how I should talk.
I lay down with her; kissed her, and held the kiss. And suddenly her arms tightened convulsively, and I was drawn onto and into her. And then there was a fierce muted sobbing, a delirious exulting, a frantic hysterical whispering…
"Oh, you dirty darling bastard! You sweet son-of-a-bitch! You dearest preciousest mother-loving sugar-pie…"
I wondered how I could love her so deeply, and be so much afraid of her. So downright terrified.
And I damned well knew why.
After a while, and after we had rested awhile, she placed her hands against my chest and pushed me upward so that she could look into my face.
"That was good, Britt," she said. "Really wonderful. I've never enjoyed anything so much."
"Manny," I said. "You have just said the finest, the most exciting thing a woman can say to a man."
"I've never said it to anyone else. But, of course, there's never been anyone else."
"Except your husband, you mean."
"I never said it to him. You don't lie to people about things like this."
I shifted my gaze; afraid of the guilt she might read in my eyes. She laughed softly, on a submerged note of teasing.
"It bothers you, doesn't it, Britt? The fact that there was a man before you."
"Don't be silly. A girl like you would just about have to have other men in her life."
"Not men. Only the one man, my husband."
"Well, it doesn't bother me. He doesn't, I mean. Uh, just how did he die, anyway?"
"Suddenly," she said. "Very suddenly. Let me up now, will you please?"
I helped her to use the sink, and then I used it. It couldn't have taken more than a minute or two, but when I turned around she had finished dressing. I was startled, although I shouldn't have been. She had the quick, sure movements characteristic of so many small women. Acting and reacting with lightning-like swiftness. Getting things done while I was still thinking about them.
"Running off mad?" I said; and then, comprehending, or thinking that I did, "Well, don't fall in, honey. I've got some plans for you."
She frowned at me reprovingly, and, still playing it light, I said she couldn't be going to take a bath. I'd swear she didn't need a bath; and who would know better than I?
That got me another frown, so I knocked off the kidding. "I like your dress, Manny. Paris job, is it?"
"Tsk, tsk, such extravagance," I said. "And you were right there in Italy, anyway, to pick up your shoes."
She laughed, relenting. "Close, but no cigar," she said, pirouetting in the tiny spike-heeled pumps. "I. Pinna. You like?"
"Like. Come here, and I'll show you how much."
"Gotta go now, but just wait," she said, sliding me a sultry glance. "And leave the door unlocked. You'll have some company very soon."
I said I wondered who the company could be, and she said archly that I should just wait and see; I'd really be surprised. Then, she was gone, down the hall to the bathroom I supposed. And I stretched out on the bed, pulling the sheet up over me, and waited for her to return.
The door was not only unlocked, but ever-so-slightly ajar. But that was all right, no problem in a place like this. The lurking terror sank deeper and deeper into my mind, and disappeared. And I yawned luxuriously, and closed my eyes. Apparently, I dozed, for I suddenly sat up to glance at my wristwatch. Automatically obeying a whispered command which had penetrated my subconscious. "Watch."
I said I sat up.
I only started to, had barely lifted my head from the pillows, when there was a short snarling-growl. A threat and a warning, as unmistakable as it was deadly. And slowly, ever so slowly, I sank back on the bed.
There was a softer growl, a kind of gruff whimper. Approval. I lay perfectly still for a time, scarcely breathing—and it is easy to stop breathing when one is scared stiff. Then, without moving my head, I slanted my eyes to the side. Directly into the unblinking stare of a huge German shepherd.
His massive snout was only inches from my face. The grayish-black lips were curled back from his teeth. And I remember thinking peevishly that he had too many, that no dog could possibly have this many teeth. Our eyes met and held for a moment. But dogs, members of the wolf family, regard such an encounter as a challenge. And a rising growl jerked my gaze back to the ceiling.
There was that gruff whimper again. Approval. Then, nothing.
Nothing but the wild beating of my heart. That, and the dog's warm breath on my face as he stood poised so close to me. Ready to move—decisively—if I should move.
"Watch!" He had been given an order. And until that order was revoked, he would stay where he was. Which would force me to stay where I was…lying very, very still. As, of course, I would not be able to do much longer.
Any moment now, I would start yawning. Accumulated tension would force me to. At almost any moment, my legs would jerk; an involuntary and uncontrollable reaction to prolonged inactivity. And when that happened…
The dog growled again. Differently from any of his previous growls. With the sound was another, the brief thud-thud of a tail against the carpet.
A friend—or perhaps an acquaintance—had come into the room. I was afraid to move my head, as the intruder was obviously aware, so she came around to the foot of the bed where I could see her without moving.
It was the mulatto slattern who sat behind the desk in the dimly lit lobby. The manager of the place, I had always assumed. The mock concern on her face didn't quite conceal her malicious grin; and there was spiteful laughter in her normally servile voice.
"Well, jus' looky heah, now! Mistah Britton Rainstar with a doggy in his room! How you doin', Mistah High-an'-mighty Rainstar?"
"G-Goddam you—!" I choked with fear and fury. "Get that dog out of here! Call him off!"
She said, "Shuh, man." She wasn't tellin' that dog to do nothin'. "Ain't my houn'. Wouldn't pay no attention to me, 'ceptin' maybe to bite my fat ass."
"But goddam it—! I'm sorry," I said. "Please forgive me for being rude. If you'll get Manny—Miss Aloe, please. Tell her I'm very sorry, and I'm sure I can straighten everything out if she'll just—just—"
She broke in with another "Shuh" of disdain. "Where I get Miss Manny, anyways? Ain't seen Miss Manny since you-all come in t'day."
"I think she's in the bathroom, the one on this floor. She's got to be here somewhere. Now, please—!"
"Huh-uh! Sure ain't callin' her out of no bathroom. Not me, no, sir! Miss Manny wouldn't like that a-tall!"
"B-but—" I hesitated helplessly. "Call the police then. Please! And for God's sake, hurry!"
"Call the p'lice? Here? Not a chance, Mistah Rainstar. No, siree! Miss Manny sho' wouldn't like that!"
"To hell with what she likes! What's it to you, anyway? Why, goddam it to hell—"
"Jus' plenty t'me what she likes. Miss Manny my boss. That's right, Mistah Rainstar." She beamed at me falsely. "Miss Manny bought this place right after you-all started comin' here. Reckon she liked it real well."
She was lying. She had to be lying.
She wasn't lying.
She laughed softly, and turned to go. "You lookin' kinda peak-id, Mistah Rainstar. Reckon I better let you get some rest."
"Don't," I begged. "Don't do this to me. If you can't do anything else, at least stay with me. I can't move, and I can't lie still any longer, and—and that dog will kill me! He's trained to kill! S—So—so—please—" I gulped, swallowing an incipient sob, blinking the tears from my eyes. "Stay with me. Please stay until Miss Manny comes back."
My eyes cleared.
The woman was gone. Moved out of my line of vision. I started to turn my head, and the dog warned me to desist. Then, from somewhere near the door, the woman spoke again.
"Just stay until Miss Manny come back? That's what you said, Mistah Rainstar?"
"Yes, please. Just until then."
"But what if she don' come back? What about that, Mistah Rainstar?"
An ugly laugh, then. A laugh of mean merriment. And then she was gone. Closing the door firmly this time.
And locking it.
The terror had begun three months before.
It began at three o'clock in the morning with Mrs. Olmstead shaking me into wakefulness.
Mrs. Olmstead is my housekeeper, insofar as I have one. An old age pensioner, she occupies a downstairs bedroom in what, in better times, was called the Rainstar mansion. She does little else but occupy it, very little in the way of housekeeping. But, fortunately, I require little, and necessarily pay little. So one hand washes the other.
She wasn't a very bright woman at best, and she was far from her best at three in the morning. But I gathered from her gabbling and gesturing that there was an emergency somewhere below, so I pulled on some clothes over my pajamas and hurried downstairs.
A Mr. Jason was waiting for me, a stout apoplectic-looking man who was dressed pretty much as I was. He snapped out that he just couldn't have this sort of thing, y'know. It was a god damn imposition, and I had a hell of a lot of guts giving out his phone number. And so forth and so on.
"Now, look," I said, finally managing to break in on him. "Listen to me. I didn't give out your number to anyone. I don't know what the hell it is, for Christ's sake, and I don't want to know. And I don't know what you're talking about."
"Yeah? Y'don't, huh?" He seemed somewhat mollified. "Well. Better hurry up. Fellow said it was an emergency; matter of life and death."
He lived in an elaborate summer home about three miles from mine, in an area that was still very good. He stopped his car under the porte cochere, and preceded me into the entrance hall; then withdrew a few feet while I picked up the telephone.
I couldn't think who would be making a call to me under such circumstances. There just wasn't anyone. No one at the Foundation would do it. Except for the check which they sent me monthly, I had virtually no contact with the Hemisphere Foundation. As for Constance, my wife, now a resident, an apparently permanent one, at her father's home in the Midwest…
Constance had no reason to call. Except for being maimed and crippled, Constance was in quite good health. She would doubtless die in bed—thirty or forty years from now—sweetly smiling her forgiveness for the accident I had caused.
So she would not call, and her father would not. Conversation with me was something he did his best to avoid. Oh, he had been scrupulously fair, far more than I would have been in his place. He had publicly exonerated me of blame, stoutly maintaining to the authorities that there was no real evidence pointing to my culpability. But without saying so, he had let me know that he would be just as happy without my company or conversation.
"Yes?" I spoke into the phone. "Britton Rainstar, here."
"Rainstar"—a husky semi-whisper, a disguised voice. "Get this, you deadbeat fuck-off. Pay up or you'll die cryin'. Pay up or else."
"Huh! Wh—aat?" I almost dropped the phone. "What—Who is this?"
"I kid you not, Rainstar. Decorate the deck, or you'll be trailing turds from here to Texas."
I was still sputtering when the wire went dead.
Jason glanced at me, and looked away. "Bet you could use a drink. Always helps at a time like this."
"Thanks, but I guess not," I said. "If you'll be kind enough to drive me home…"
He did so, mumbling vague words of sympathy (for just what, he didn't know). At my house, with its crumbling veranda and untended lawn, he pressed a fifty dollar bill into my hand.
"Get your phone reconnected, okay? No, I insist! And I'm sorry things are so bad for you. Damned shame."
I thanked him humbly, assuring him that I would do as he said.
By the time Mrs. Olmstead arose and began preparing breakfast, I had had two more callers, both crankily sympathetic as, like Jason, they brought word of a dire emergency.
I went with them, of course. How could I refuse? Or explain? And what if there actually was an emergency? There was always a chance, a million-to-one chance, that my caller might have a message of compelling importance. So it was simply impossible—impossible for me, at least—to ignore the summons.
The result was the same each time. An abusive demand to pay up or to suffer the ugly consequences.
I accepted some weak, lukewarm coffee from Mrs. Olmstead; I even ate a piece of her incredible toast and a bite or two of the scrambled eggs she prepared, which, preposterous as it seems, were half-raw but over-cooked.
Ignoring Mrs. Olmstead's inquiries about my "emergency" calls, I went up to my room and surrendered to a few hours of troubled rest. I came back downstairs shortly after noon, advised Mrs. Olmstead that I would fix my own lunch and that she should do as she pleased. She trudged down the road to the bus stop, going I knew not where nor cared. I cleaned myself up and dressed, not knowing what I was going to do either. And not caring much.
From the not-too-distant distance came a steady rumbling and clattering and rattling; the to-and-fro passage of an almost unbroken parade of trucks. Through the many gabled windows, their shutters opened to the spring breeze, came the sickly-pungent perfume of what the trucks were carrying.
I laughed. Softly, sadly, wonderingly. I jumped up, slamming a fist into my palm. I sat back down, and got up again. Aimlessly left the room to wander aimlessly through the house. Through the library with its threadbare carpet, and its long virtually empty bookshelves. Through the lofty drawing room, its faded tapestry peeling in tatters from the walls. The grand ballroom, its parquet floor inclining imperceptibly but ominously with the vast weight of its rust-ruined pipe organ.
I came out onto the rear veranda, where glass from shattered windows splattered over the few unsaleable items of furniture that remained. Expensively stained glass, bright with color.
I stood looking off into that previously mentioned not-too-distant distance. It was coming closer; it had come quite a bit closer since yesterday, it seemed to me. And why not, anyway, as rapidly as those trucks were dumping their burden?
At present, I was merely—merely!—in the environs of a garbage dump. But soon it would be right up to my back door. Soon, I would be right in the middle of the stinking, rat-infested horror.
And maybe that was as it should be, hmm? What better place for the unwanted, unneeded and worthless?
Jesus! I closed my eyes, shivering.
I went back through the house, and up to my bedroom. I glanced at myself in a floor-length mirror, and I doubt that I looked as bad as my warped and splotched reflection. But still I cursed and groaned out loud.
I flung off my clothes, and showered vigorously. I shaved again, doing it right instead of half-assed. And then I began rummaging through my closets, digging far back in them and uncovering items that I had forgotten.
An hour later, after some work with Mrs. Olmstead's steam iron, some shoe polish and a buffing brush, I again looked at myself. And warped as it was, the mirror told me my efforts were well-spent indeed!
The handmade shoes were eternally new, ever-magnificent despite their chronological age. The cambric shirt from Sulka, and the watered-silk Countess Mara tie, were new—long-ago Christmas presents which I had only glanced at, and returned to their gift box. And a decade had been wonderfully kind to the Bond Street suit, swinging full circle through fads and freakishness, and bringing it back in style again.
I frowned, studying my hair.
The shagginess was not too bad, not unacceptable, but a trim was certainly in order. The gray temples, and the gray streak down the center, were also okay, a distinguished contrast for the jet blackness. However, that yellowish tinge which gray hair shittily acquires, was not all right. I needed to see a truly good hair man, a stylist, not the barber-college cruds that I customarily went to.
I examined my wallet—twelve dollars plus the fifty Jason had given me. So I could properly finish the job I had started, hair and all. And the wonders it would do for my frazzled morale to look decent again, the way Britton Rainstar had to look…having so little else but looks.
But if I did that, if I didn't make at least a token payment to Amicable Finance—!
The phone rang. It had not been disconnected, as Jason had assumed. Calling me at other numbers was simply part of the "treatment."
I picked up the phone, and identified myself.
A cheery man's voice said that he was Mr. Bradley, Amicable comptroller. "You have quite a large balance with us, Mr. Rainstar. I assume you'll be dropping in today to settle up?"
I started to say that I was sorry, that I simply couldn't pay the entire amount, as much as I desired to. "But I'll pay something; that's a promise, Mr. Bradley. And I'll have the rest within a week—I swear I will! J—just don't do anything. D—don't hurt me. Please, Mr. Bradley."
"Yes, Mr. Rainstar? What time can I expect you in today?"
"You can't," I said.
"How's that?" His voice crackled like a whip.
"Not today or any other day. You took my car. I repaid your loan in full, and you still took my car. Now—"
"Late charges, Rainstar. Interest penalties. Repossession costs. Nothing more than your contract called for."
I told him he could go fuck what the contract called for. He could blow it out his ass. "And if you bastards pull any more crap on me, any more of this calling me to the phone in the middle of the night…"
"Call you to the phone?" He was laughing at me. "Fake emergency calls? What makes you think we were responsible?"
I told him why I thought it; why I knew it. Because only Amicable Finance was lousy enough to pull such tricks. Others might screw their own mothers with syphilitic cocks, or pimp their sisters at a nickel a throw. But they weren't up to Amicable's stunts.
"So here's some advice for you, you liver-lipped asshole! You fuck with me any more, and it'll be shit in the fan! Before I'm through with you, you'll think lightning struck a crapper…!"
I continued a minute or two longer, growing more elaborate in my cursing. And not surprisingly, I had quite a vocabulary of curses. Nothing is sacred to children, just as anything unusual is an affront to them, a challenge which cannot be ignored. And when you have a name like Britton Rainstar, you are accepted only after much fighting and cursing.
I slammed up the phone. Frightened stiff by what I had done, yet somehow pleased with myself. I had struck back for a change. For once, in a very long time, I had faced up to the ominous instead of ignoring or running from it.
I fixed the one drink I had in the house, a large drink of vodka. Sipping it, feeling the dullness go out of my heart, I decided that I would by God get the needful done with my hair. I would look like a man, by God, not the Jolly Green Giant, when Amicable Finance started giving me hell.
Before I could weaken and change my mind, I made an appointment with a hair stylist. Then, I finished my drink, dragging it out as long as I could, and stood up.
And the phone rang.
I almost didn't answer it; certain that it would get me nothing but a bad time. But few men are strong enough to ignore a ringing telephone, and I am not one of them.
A booming, infectiously good-natured voice blasted into my ear.
"Mr. Rainstar, Britt? How the hell are you, kid?"
I said I was fine, and how the hell was he? He said he was just as fine as I was, laughing uproariously. And I found myself smiling in spite of myself.
"This is Pat Aloe, Britt. Patrick Xavier Aloe, if you're going to be fussy." Another roar of laughter. "Look, kid. I'd come out there, but I'm tied up tighter than a popcorn fart. So's how about you dropping by my office in about an hour? Well, two hours, then."
"But—well, why?" I said. "Why do you want to see me, Mr. uh, Pat?"
- On Sale
- Aug 5, 2014
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Mulholland Books