Read by Kevin T. Collins
By Jim Thompson
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Originally, the place had been one of those old-time cattle towns, the kind you see throughout West and Far West Texas. Just another wide place in a dusty road, a sun-baked huddle of false-fronted buildings with sheet-iron awnings extending out to the curb. Then, a guy with a haywire drilling rig had moved in—a wildcatter. And he optioned a lot of leases on his guarantee to drill, and then he predicated the leases for high interest loans. And what with one thing and another—stealing, begging, kiting checks, angling "dry hole" money from the big companies who wanted to see the area tested—he managed to sink a well.
The well blew in for three thousand barrels of high-grade paraffin-base oil a day. Overnight, the town bulged like a woman eight months gone with triplets. A make-do type of woman, say, a to-hell-with-how-I-look type. For the demand for shelter was immediate, and building materials were hard to come by out here in the shortgrass middle of nowhere. Not only that, but it just isn't smart to put much money into boom-town property. Booms have a way of fizzling out. A lake of oil can go dry the same as any other kind of lake.
So practically all the new structures were temporary—built as cheaply as possible and as quickly as possible. Shacks of wallboard and two-by-fours. Rough-planked, unfinished and unpainted sheds. Houses—and these predominated in the makeshift jungle—that were half frame and half canvas. Tent-houses they were called, or more commonly, rag-houses. And gnawed at by sulphur and salt-spray, they had the look of rags. They stretched out across the prairie in every direction, squatting and winding through the forest of derricks. Shabby, dingy, creaking with the ever-present wind, senile while still in their nonage: a city of rags, spouting—paradoxically?—on the very crest of great riches.
That was the general order of things. The outstanding exception to it was the fourteen-story Hanlon Hotel, built, named after, and owned in fee simple by the wildcatter who had brought in the discovery well. Most people regarded it as proof that all wildcatters are crazy, their insanity increasing in proportion to their success. They pointed to the fact that Hanlon had been blasted out of his drilling rig by the first wild gush of oil, and that the subsequent sixty-foot fall had doubtless been as injurious to his brain as it was to his body.
They may have been right, at that; Mike Hanlon guessed that they might be, sometimes, when his head got to hurting. But just as he'd always been a hell-for-leather guy, not giving a good goddamn for what, he didn't give one now. His wildcatting days were over. Death had claimed his legs, and it was creeping slowly but implacably upward. Still, he'd wanted to stay near the oil, his oil, the oil that all the damned fools had said wasn't there. And he wanted to live right for a change, in something besides a crummy flea-bag or cot-house.
So he built the hotel—simply because he wanted to, and because his money was certain to outlast his ability to want. For the same reason he acquired a good-looking wife, marrying a gal who applied for a hostess job. That she was something less than virginal he was sure. Male or female, none but the sinners sought jobs in a ragtown hotel. And Joyce—to give her name—had probably wiggled further on her back than he had traveled on foot.
But what of it, anyway? shrugged Mike Hanlon. He himself had slept with practically everything that couldn't outrun him. Such activities were denied him now, by virtue of his accident, but he saw not a reason in the world why she should share his deprivation. Just so long as she was decent about it—careful—it was okay with him. Just so long as she didn't cause talk, make him look like a damned fool.
That was all he asked or expected of her. That and, of course, looking pretty, and being nice to him. Chewing the fat with him, you know. Cracking a jug with him when he got the blues. Wheeling him around the hotel, now and then, so that he could see how much the goddamned thieves, his employees, were stealing from him…Mike was very much opposed to thieves, and, fortunately for them, he'd caught none redhanded yet. Having been a clever thief himself, he knew the very serious danger they represented to men of property.
But getting back to Joyce. He expected little of her, and asked less; not even that she should occupy the same suite that he did. And on a not-too-distant someday, she would inherit everything he owned. So he was sure that their arrangement would work out fine. Why wouldn't it? he asked himself. Why shouldn't she be satisfied?
There was no reason that he could think of. She was riding a good horse, and she should have been content to stick with it for the distance. But, gradually, he became aware that she wasn't. Not that she was guilty of any overt acts. There was nothing he could put his finger on. Still, he knew; he had a hunch about her. And with good reason, he trusted his hunches.
He tried easing up on his already few demands. That wasn't the answer. He became more demanding, clamping down hard in the dough department. Instinct—his hunch—told him that he still wasn't scoring. He couldn't get at it, somehow, the impatience or sheer orneriness or whatever it was that was prodding her toward murder. And, no, he simply couldn't kick her out. Or, rather, he couldn't do it without giving her a fifty-fifty split of his wealth. Their marriage contract so stipulated, and the contract couldn't be broken.
If he divorced her—fifty-fifty. If she divorced him, or "otherwise separated herself from his place of domicile," she was to receive nothing, "the dollar and other valuable considerations already paid over to be considered a full and equal half of the said Mike Hanlon's estate."
Well, of course, Mike wasn't even about to buy his way off of the spot. He'd never done it before, and he sure as hell wasn't going to begin at his age. Anyway—anyway, he thought bitterly—she probably wouldn't go for half split. She struck him as a whole-hog player, that little lady. If he offered her less, gave her reason to believe that she was going to get less, she might drop the drill on him immediately. So he rocked along, worrying and wondering. Getting as jumpy as a bit on granite.
Finally, he made a hypothetical exposure of his problem to the chief deputy sheriff, who, practically speaking, was the sheriff and all law in the county as well. The interview was something less than reassuring.
The chief was West Texas "old family," a guy named Lou Ford. For a man who was almost perpetually smiling, he was undoubtedly the most aggravating, disconcerting son-of-a-bitch of all the sons-of-bitches Hanlon had known.
"Well, let's see now," he drawled. "You say this fellow's wife is out to get him. But she's never done nothing against him so far, and he's got no proof that she plans to. So the question is, what can he do about it. I got the straight of it, Mr. Hanlon?"
Ford frowned, shrugged, and shook his head with smiling helplessness. "Let me ask you one, Mr. Hanlon. If a bitch wolf can couple with a dog and a half in a day and a half, how long does it take her to come in heat on a rainy morning?"
"Huh? Wh-aat?" Hanlon roared. "Why, you goddamned snooty bastard! I—Wait! Come back here!"
"Just as soon as I borry a gun," Ford promised, on his way to the door. "Don't never carry one myself."
"A gun? But—but—"
"Or maybe you'd like to take back that 'bastard'? Sure wish you would. Don't seem quite right somehow shootin' a fella in a wheelchair."
There was a wistful note in his voice, sudden death in his eyes. He looked at Hanlon, smiling his gentle smile, and an icy chill ran up the wildcatter's spine. Grudgingly he made an apology, tacking on an insult at its end.
"Should have known you wouldn't do anything. Too damned busy taking graft."
"Aw, Mis-ter Hanlon." The chief deputy appeared shocked. "You mean you don't think I'm honest, Mis-ter Hanlon?"
"Think, hell! I know! You're the bag-man for that whole stinking courthouse crowd. Wouldn't surprise me a damned bit if you and her were in this deal together."
"Aw, heck. Gosh all fish-hooks. Gee willikers," drawled Ford. "And here we-all thought we had you fooled!"
"You won't get away with it, by God! I'll show you! I'll call in the Texas Rangers!"
"About what, Mis-ter Hanlon? What are you goin' to tell 'em?"
"Well—well, dammit, I told you! I—"
"Didn't hear nothing but a riddle myself. Didn't hear no complaint, or nothing to make a complaint out of."
"So all right, dammit! I can't make one. She hasn't actually done anything to complain about. But—but there must be something…" He scowled at the deputy, his voice trailing away helplessly.
Ford shook his head in a grotesque mockery of sadness. "Now, it sure seems like there ought to be somethin' to do, don't it?" he said. "Yes, sir, it sure does, and that's a fact. Too bad I'm so dadblamed dumb."
"Get out!" said Hanlon hoarsely.
"You sure you want me to? You wouldn't just like to laze around and swap riddles?"
"I said to get out!"
"Well, maybe I better," Lou Ford nodded agreeably. "Got a gambling house I ain't shook down yet today."
He left, rocking in his high-heeled boots. Hanlon guessed that he'd really made a mess of things. That Ford was a grafter, he was positive. But it had been stupid to say so. These West Texans were a breed apart, prideful, easily offended, steadfast friends and the bitterest of enemies. They were at once blunt and delicate of speech. They had their own code of ethics, their own standards of what was right and wrong. Unbendingly intolerant of some transgressions, they blandly overlooked others that were nominally worse.
Only recently, for example, a man had received a two-year prison sentence for beating a horse. In the same week, a case of burglary was dismissed against a man who had broken into a liquor store. He was broke, you see, and he had a Godawful hangover—that which, as everyone knew, there is nothing worse. So he had broken into the store to get a drink, because he really needed a drink, you know. And maybe it was kind of the wrong thing to do—kind of against the law, maybe—but a fella that really needs a drink ain't rightly responsible for what he does…
Yea, Hanlon thought drearily. I really botched things with Ford. I should have been extra-nice to him, asked how he was feeling, asked what he thought about the weather. Complimented him on everything I could think of. Bragged up him and his stinking ancestors clear back to the days of the Spaniards. If I'd done that, if I hadn't hedged with him, if I'd come right out in the open to begin with—
It wouldn't have made a damned bit of difference, Hanlon decided. Ford had been down on him before the interview; all the regular pre-boom residents of the community were down on him. They'd been swell to him when he first came here—the most likable, open-handed people he'd ever known. But then he'd had to start cutting corners, stretching the truth, making promises that he didn't keep. And, hell, they shouldn't have got sore about it. They should have understood that it was just business, and that every man has to look out for himself in a business deal. But they didn't understand. They didn't, and they would have no part of apologies or explanations. As far as they were concerned, he didn't exist. He was just a something that was beneath notice or contempt, the stuck-up, stiff-necked, high-faluting—!
Hanlon snatched up the whiskey decanter and shakily poured himself a huge drink. He threw it down and poured another. And gradually he began to calm. A man can't stay in an uproar all the time. He can worry just so much, and then he has to stop.
A few days later, Joyce ushered a man named McKenna into his suite.
He was somewhere in his late thirties, burly, surly-faced. He had the kind of eyes that always look like they've been crying. He was applying for the job of house detective.
"How about references?" Hanlon asked. "What's your background?"
"What about your references?" McKenna said. "What did you do before you latched on to all this?"
Hanlon laughed sourly. "Look kind of pale. Wouldn't have been cooped up somewhere, would you?"
"You want a straight answer, you better ask a straight question," McKenna said roughly. "Sure, I've been in the pen—five years for killing a boob. And before that I did six months in jail for beating up my wife. And before that I served two years in an Army stockade for taking a shot at a general. And—well, to hell with it, and you too. I'm not making any apologies or asking any favors, so you can take your two-bit job and—"
"Easy," said Hanlon. "Take it easy, McKenna."
It was a trick, of course. No bona fide applicant for a job would be so brutally frank and deliberately unpleasant. Still, the house dick's job was open, and it would have to be filled. And the next applicant…what about him? How could one be sure that he was simply after a job and not a life?
And—and here was a hell of a note—Hanlon liked the guy. Yeah, he actually liked this wife-beater and brig-bird, this man who had killed once, and was doubtless all primed to kill again.
"I don't mean to pry, Mr. McKenna," he said politely, "but where is your wife, now?"
"I don't know…" Immediately there was a subtle change in McKenna's manner. "I'm no longer married to her—sir."
"Well, that's good. I mean, the house detective lives in here—he's subject to call at all times—and it doesn't work out very well for a married man."
"But"—McKenna looked at him with a mixture of hope and suspicion. "You mean—I get the job?"
"What else? Any reason why you shouldn't get it?" Hanlon said.
And he laughed quietly to himself, at himself, as only a man can laugh when there is nothing else to do.
McKenna's first name was David, but he had been called Bugs for practically as far back as he could remember. It fitted the awkward lummox of a kid who, though only ten years old, was almost as big as his fifth-grade teacher. It fitted the actions of the frightened child, the self-doubting, insecure youth, and the introverted, defensively offensive man. He seemed to have a positive knack for doing the right thing at the wrong time. For distrusting his friends, and trusting his enemies. For being ridiculously uncompromising over the trifling, and seemingly indifferent to the nominally vital.
The guy was just nuts, people said, as bugsy as they came. He couldn't take a joke. He didn't want to be friendly. He'd climb a tree to make trouble when he could stand on the ground and have peace. That's what they said about him, the man he eventually became. And it was reasonably descriptive of that scowling, sullen, short-tempered man. Only his eyes belied the description; angrily bewildered eyes. Eyes that seemed wet with unshed tears, as, perhaps, they were.
When he finished his five-year prison stretch—and he served every minute of it, thanks to the outraged and insulted parole board—Bugs McKenna drifted into Dallas. He got a job as night dishwasher in a greasy spoon. He spent most of his daytime hours in the public library. It was a good way of keeping out of trouble, he thought. Moreover, it didn't cost anything, and there was nothing that he would rather do.
Well, though, there was a "furtive" look about him, in the opinion of the librarian. Also, as she pointed out to the police, he couldn't possibly have any interest in the books he selected, Kafka, Schopenhauer, Addison and Steele—now, really, officers!
The cops asked Bugs a few questions. Bugs responded with a wholly impossible suggestion involving their nightsticks and a certain part of their anatomy.
Skip the details. Bugs got a rough roust out of Dallas, leaving town with new knots on his head and fresh bruises to his spirit.
Walking through the outskirts of Fort Worth, he saw a little girl fall off her tricycle. He picked her up, and dusted her off. He hunkered down in front of her, joking with her tenderly, getting her to smile. And a patrol car drifted into the curb…
Bugs spent two weeks in the Fort Worth jail. At Weatherford, the next town west, he was jugged for three days. In Mineral Wells, he drew another three days of "investigation." He was spitting blood when he emerged from it, but it hadn't softened him a bit. His last words to the cop who escorted him to the city limits were of a type to curl the hair on a brass monkey.
Still, he knew he couldn't take much more; not without a little rest anyway. He had to get the hell away from the cities, the heavily settled areas, and do it fast or he'd damned well be dead. So he left the highways, and took to the freights. He stuck with them, moving inconspicuously from freight to freight, moving steadily westward. And eventually he arrived at the place called Ragtown. That was about as far west as a man could go. As anything but a jack rabbit or a tarantula would have reason for going.
Thirty minutes after his arrival he was in jail.
It was partly his own fault, he admitted reluctantly. Just a little his own fault. Having dropped off the freight, he was in the station rest-room washing up, when a leathery-faced middle-aged man walked in. A silver badge was clipped to his checked shirt. He wore a gunbelt and an ivory-handled forty-five.
As he started to bend over the drinking fountain, Bugs turned from the sink and faced him. He stared at the man, his eyes hard and hateful. Leather-face straightened slowly, a puzzled-polite frown building up on his face.
"Yeah, stranger?" he said. "Something on your mind?"
"What do you mean, what's on my mind?" Bugs said. "I'm not stupid. You saw me drop off that freight. You've got me tagged for a bum. So, all right, let's drop the dumb act and get on with the business. I'm David McKenna, alias 'Bugs' McKenna; last permanent address, Texas State Penitentiary; recent addresses, Dallas city jail, Fort Worth city jail, Weatherford city jail, Mineral Wells city—"
"Now, looky"—the man made a baffled gesture. "I mean, what the hell?"
"Come on! Come off of it! I suppose you just followed me in here to get a drink, huh?"
The man started to nod. Then, his squinted gray eyes turned frosty, and his voice dropped to a chilling purr. "Lookin' for trouble, eh?" he said, the words cold-edged but soft. "Just ain't happy without it. Well, I always like to oblige."
The gun whipped up from his hip. Bugs hesitated; nervous, oddly ashamed, wondering why it was that he always had to be in such a hell of a hurry with the mouth.
"Look," he mumbled. "I-I've been catching it pretty rough. I didn't mean to—"
"You look." The hammer of the gun clicked. "Look real good. Now, you want to move or do you want me to move you?"
The jail was in the basement of the ancient brick courthouse. The ventilation and the light were bad, but the bunks were clean, and the chow—brought in from one of the town's restaurants—was really first class. Each prisoner got three good meals a day, as opposed to the twice-a-day slop in most jails. He was also given a sack of makings or, if he preferred, a plug of chewing.
Bugs supposed there was a gimmick somewhere in the deal. Probably you'd have pay off with a road gang at twelve hours a day. But such, according to the other prisoners—no local talent, all floaters like himself—was not the case.
"These folks are different out here," an oilfield worker explained. "They throw you in jail, they figure they got to look after you. They might shoot a guy, but they won't starve him to death."
"What about the rough stuff? Working you over until you clean the slate for them?"
"Uh-uh. You ain't done nothin', they won't try to pin it on you. You won't get roughed unless you cut up rough yourself…At least," the man added carefully, "they've always played fair with me. This is my fifth time in for drunk and disorderly, and the boys have treated me real nice every time."
"But? There's more to the story?"
"We-el, no, not exactly. Not as far as the treatment of the prisoners is concerned. But the way this town is run"—he shook his head—"I got an idea that there's at least one of these laws, the chief deputy, Lou Ford, that'd just about as soon kill you as look at you. The place is wide open, see? Gambling houses, bootleg joints, honky-tonks. And some very bad babies runnin' 'em. But they don't give any backtalk to Ford. He rides herd on 'em, as easy as I can ride a walking beam."
"He's the chief deputy, you say. What about the sheriff?"
"Sick and old. Hardly ever see him except at election time. So Ford's the man, and I do mean the man. He's got the town and the county right in his pocket, and it don't do nothing without his say-so. The funny part about it is, he don't look tough at all. Young, good-looking, always smiling—"
"But a good gunhand, huh?"
"Uh-uh. The only law here that doesn't wear a gun. But, well," the man spread his hands helplessly, "I don't know how he does it; I mean, I couldn't explain. You'd have to see him in action yourself."
Bugs had been jailed early in the morning. The following afternoon, the turnkey took him out of the bullpen and up the stairs to the street floor. He assumed he was being taken into court. Instead, the turnkey handed him a ten-dollar bill and gestured him toward the door.
"That's from Lou Ford," he explained. "Wants to see you, and he figured you might want to spruce up first."
"But—well, what about the charges against me?"
"Ain't any. Lou had 'em dropped. He'll be out to his house when you're ready. Anyone can tell you where it is."
"Now, wait a minute!" Bugs bristled. "What does he want to see me about? What if I don't want to see him?"
"Easy to find out for yourself, mister. If you do see him or if you don't."
Bugs got a shave and a haircut. He bought a white shirt and a tie, and had his worn suit sponged and pressed. Boomtown prices being what they are, that took practically all of the ten. He used the remainder for a shoe shine and a package of cigarettes, and headed for Lou Ford's house.
There were two "old" residential sections. One was the traditional wrong-side-of-the-tracks settlement of the Mexicans and "white trash." The other was up the hill from, and overlooking the town: a few blocks of tree-lined streets, and roomy two-storied houses. Except for color difference—they were usually light blue, white or brown—the houses were almost identical, a comfortable combination of Colonial and Spanish-Moorish architecture. Each had a long porch ("gallery") extending across the front. Despite the area's always uncertain water supply, each had a deep shrub- and tree-shaded lawn.
Ford's house was on the corner. A new Cadillac convertible stood in the driveway. McKenna stepped up on the porch and knocked on the door. There was no answer. He punched the doorbell, discovering that it was out of order. He knocked again. Stooping, he studied the age-dulled brass plate affixed to the door:
Dr. Amos Ford
The doctor was Lou's father, Bugs had learned. An improvident, kindly man, he had died several years before, leaving nothing to his son but this house, heavily mortgaged at that. Obviously, the sign no longer meant what it said; for visitors to enter, that is. It had been left on the door out of sentiment or shiftlessness. On the other hand…
Well, there it was, wasn't it? And why shouldn't a stranger in town take it at its face value? What was he supposed to do—stand out here and beat the skin off his knuckles? He'd been told—ordered—to see Ford. Now this sign told him to enter.
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- Dec 25, 2011
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