Pulp Fiction by William LashnerThe Strange Case of Hodgson Fell
The Strange Case of Hodgson Fell
Some of my heroes are the old pulp fiction writers, authors who pumped out thrilling and lurid tales in magazines such as AMAZING STORIES, SPICY WESTERN STORIES, and THE BLACK MASK. Many of these writers did much to define what it is to be an American, whether on the frontier, on the playing field, or in class stratified urban centers where crime lords mixed with high society. It's hard, really, to talk about an American style without mentioning writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Paul Gallico, Max Brand, James M. Cain, the inimitable Robert E. Howard, and of course the two giants of American detective fiction, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
If you look at the old pictures of the BLACK MASK dinners, if you look past the haggard visage of Hammett or the scholarly presence of Chandler, you might notice a figure in the back, with a high forehead, narrow eyes, and his ubiquitous pipe. His name is C. Hodgson Fell, and of all the pulp writers he is the one whom I read as a child and whose writing had the most effect on me.
Fell is best known for his hard-boiled detective Rex Salmon, who appeared in Fell's most popular novel THE BLOOD STONE OF RANGOON. The Blood Stone was an ancient jewel that granted it's bearer any wish, but at a horrific cost. When it came ashore in San Francisco, off a freighter from the Orient, Rex Salmon was on its trail. I can still remember reading an old copy I found in a box in the attic, flashlight under the blankets, following Rex's trail as he moved ever closer to grabbing the terrible Blood Stone for himself. The book was bought by MGM for one of their rising stars, but the star mysteriously died in the middle of filming and production was halted and never completed. None of Fell's other stories were ever turned into films.
Just before the Second World War, Fell's stories disappeared from the pulp magazine world. Rumors circulated that he had dedicated himself to some great literary project and was now feverishly at work on completing the Great American Novel. Those lucky few who had seen glimpses of the work, a paragraph here, a chapter there, had declared it brilliant and revolutionary. It was going to change the entire direction of American fiction. But, tragically, C. Hodgson Fell died in 1954, from the effects of the chronic alcoholism that plagued his later years, without ever having published the book. The manuscript, to this day, has not been found.
A few years back I was able to purchase the copyrights to some of Fell's classic short stories and every few months or so I'll put one up on the website for you to enjoy. The first, "Frisco Ho," is a western that is typical of his work. Fell would take an archetypal pulp situations and then tell it with an atypical slant. Here, a gunfight is told from the point of view of a waitress in a second rate restaurant in a second rate boomtown, but Fell was also writing about the price he himself was paying by turning his back on his more literary dreams to make a living writing for the pulps.
The boy rode into South Pass City on a broad-chested roan far too large for him. He was as dusty as the road and just as unremarkable, no longer young enough to incite the maternal instincts of the woman passing on the street, too young still to have the presence of power and danger that is rightfully carried by a man. So he rode in unnoticed, except by the girl just a few years older who worked Robinson's boarding house on the eastern edge of the main street. She stopped her porch sweeping and watched as he rode right through to the far edge of the town and then swung his horse around to retrace his path.
The boy unhorsed in front of the Clairmont House, took off his hat, slapped the dust off his wool jacket and brown canvas pants, stepped into the hotel. The girl leaned on a porch post and counted. Before she reached eight he was back on the street, hat on head, grabbing hold of his saddle horn and pulling himself back onto his mount. He meandered back down the street until he stopped right in front of her.
He leaned forward, pushed his hat off his face. "You serving dinner, ma'am?"
"It's late, but I reckon we could rustle up something," she said.
"How much would it set me back?"
"About a third of what they'd clip off you at the Clairmont."
"That's about a third more than I was hoping, but I suppose that's the way it is in a boomtown."
She pushed herself off the post. "Come on in, I'll set you a place."
"I'd be much obliged, ma'am," he said as he jumped down off his horse and hitched it to a rail.
She turned around. "I'm not your mother's age," she said. "You don't need be calling me ma'am."
"No ma'am," he said.
She stood safely off to the side in the small dining room as he wolfed down the slumgullion with three fried eggs on top, corn mash, fried apples, pilot bread slathered with butter. Watching him eat was like watching the locusts take over a field of wheat in time of drought, and she found his seriousness at the effort endearing. He was a blonde boy with soft features and blue eyes. It looked like he had started shaving without needing to. Just looking at him made her feel older, suddenly conscious of the width of her hips and upswell of her breasts beneath her calico dress and apron. While he dug his fork into the remains of his molasses pie she poured him another cup of coffee.
"How long you been on the road, cowboy?" she asked.
"What have you been eating?"
"Beans and stick biscuits," he said, "except when it's stick biscuits and beans."
"You need a room?"
"No thank you ma'am, I'll do with my prairie feathers. A real bed on top of a meal like this is more luxury than I could stand."
"More than you could stand or your wallet?"
"Both of us. I'd get so spoiled next thing you'd know I'd be asking for a bath."
"And what a tragedy that would be to the flea population of Wyoming."
"You might be right there, ma'am. Can you tell me, you hear of a man coming through this way name of Bob Olive?"
She didn't answer.
"He's tall, with a long mustache and a mustard yellow jacket. Rides a sweet black Morgan with a sock on its left foreleg."
"Does he sport a bangled band about the crown of his hat?"
"That's the one."
"Never heard hide nor tail of him. And if you know what's best for you, you never heard of him neither."
He pushed his chair back from the table, leaned back so it balanced on its rear legs, took a pouch of tobacco and a roll of papers out of his vest. As he rolled his cigarette he said, "You may be right about that ma'am, but since I've been tracking him the last four months, it's about time he got found." He slipped the rolled cigarette all the way into his mouth to moisten it and then held it up to her. "You want to join me?"
Her shock gave way to a strange thrill. She had never before been offered a cigarette by a man. Billy would never dare to imagine she smoked, he had her too high on his pedestal. He even got tongue tied just saying, "Hello, Miss Blue, what a fine day it is today." But this boy leaned back, licked the roll, and offered it to her just like that. She glanced quickly about the dining room. It was late enough so there were no other patrons, and Mrs. Robinson was upstairs taking her daily beauty rest, fat good it would do her. She looked again at the boy leaning back with the cigarette in his fingers. He was maybe a little older than she had first thought, and better looking too. She pulled the chair out from the other side of the table, sat down, and snatched the cigarette out of his hand.
"I'm Hillary," she said, leaning forward to light the cigarette on the match he had just struck on his boot sole. "Hillary Blue."
"Lloyd, can I give you some advice."
"Yes you can, ma'am," he said as he rolled another for himself.
"Go back to Iowa."
"Nebraska, ma'am. We got ourselves a spread out in Jefferson County."
"Nebraska, even better. Lloyd, go back to Nebraska, back to your land, forget all about Bob Olive with his mustard jacket and bangled headband. Go back to your farm and let him be."
He struck another match and lit his cigarette. "Can't do that, ma'am."
"He's a killer, pure and simple. He's got nothing but death in his eyes. I've looked into them, they were like a chill wind blowing right down my spine. Go home."
"Can't. You said you saw him."
"No I didn't. I never saw him, ever."
"Well, assuming you never had seen him, where wouldn't you be seeing him now?"
"Go home, Lloyd."
"It's too late, ma'am."
He squeezed the end of his cigarette, dropped the butt into his tobacco pouch, slammed the front legs of his chair to the floor and stood. "How much do I owe you?"
"Eighty five cents."
He took another pouch out of his vest, pulled out a silver dollar, laid it on the table. "It was a pleasure, ma'am. Thanks for the company."
She wasn't looking at him as he made his way around the tables and headed out the door. She was looking out the window at the street, dry and dusty, near empty in the harsh afternoon light. "He's playing Faro in the back of Lindsey's saloon between here and the Clairmont."
Lloyd stopped. "Thank you, ma'am."
"Don't thank me, Lloyd. I'm doing you no favor. And you, not even carrying a gun."
"No, ma'am," said Lloyd Ketchum. "Not yet."
She cleared the dishes, washed and dried, set the dining room for the small supper crowd. When she returned to the porch to finish her sweeping the street was empty, even his horse was gone. She thought for a moment that maybe he'd taken her advice and gone off back to Nebraska, and was surprised that she felt bereft at the prospect. But then the shutter doors of Lindsey's banged open and someone flew through the doorway landing hard onto the dirt of the street, dust rising about him.
She started after the young fool but stopped as he dragged himself to his feet. He rubbed his shoulder, wiped the blood off his face and slowly, without turning back to the saloon, limped for the livery. Good, he had learned his lesson, was heading home. She felt a strange urge to run out to the street, to stop his horse when he started riding back east, to tell him to grab a hold of her and take her out of this dying boomtown. But he didn't leave the livery with his horse, he left with just a saddlebag riding his shoulder, and he made his way toward her.
"Your face is a mess," she said when he stopped before her on the porch.
"So I been told."
"Come inside, I'll wash it clean and fix what I can fix."
"Thank you, ma'am."
She took a rag and washed the blood from off his lip and out of the gash beneath his eye, while he sat stiffly on a chair and winced, but let out not a sound. When she was finished the cleaning she dusted the wounds with carbolic they stored in a jar in the kitchen.
"Guess you learned your lesson now, boy. You're lucky he didn't kill you."
"Not yet at least."
"Not yet? You're going to give him a chance to finish it?"
"We're meeting in the street in thirty minutes."
"You are a fool. Well I'm not going to work any more on a face that'll be laying in the dirt a half hour from now."
"I don't blame you, ma'am."
"Go home, Lloyd."
"He killed my daddy."
"Oh, Lloyd. No. I'm sorry."
"It was him, not you. You ain't got no call to be sorry. But he killed my daddy, and where we was raised you just can't let that be."
"What about the law? Let a marshall take care of it."
"Law said it was self defense, but it warn't. Olive came in to help his brother deal with a problem. His brother owns the law as well as most of the town where my daddy brought us. Bob Olive solved the problem and my daddy lay dead with a bullet in his heart. Shot through the back and still the marshall called it self defense. I got no choice but to do something about it."
"So he'll kill the son as well as the father."
"He'll try, but it won't be so easy as he thinks."
"He already beat you bloody. What's going to stop him from going all the way."
"I wanted him to beat me. I wanted him to think he can have hisself a few drinks and laugh with his buddies and still not give me more than a moment's thought. I wanted him to think I was a young fool with nothing but a false bravado holding him up."
"And you're not?"
"No ma'am," he said, as he reached for the saddlebag slung over the chair. From out of the bag he pulled a gun belt and a gun. He stood, strapped the belt around his hips with the gun butt facing forward. He pulled out the gun, spun the cylinder slowly to check the chambers, and holstered it again.
"Oh Lord, save us now," she said. "You ever kill anyone with that thing?"
"No ma'am, but I sure have sent tin flying."
"It might be a little different with a man."
"Don't know why it would."
"Cause he'll be shooting at you."
"He'll try. If something happens to me, Miss Blue, there's some money in the bag and the address of my family. Will you send them word of what happened and use the money to keep my horse till one of my brothers shows to pick him up. He's a good horse, they'll need him at the farm."
"Why aren't your brothers here instead of you?"
"They're good with the plow, but never took to the gun."
"And you did."
"My daddy taught me."
"So you think you're fast, Lloyd, is that it?"
"Yes ma'am. You ever see a buzzard's eye twitch in the wind."
"No, I haven't."
"That's cause it happens too fast to see."
"I swear, Lloyd," she said. "You seem to have grown ten years in the last ten minutes."
"You'll take care of the horse?"
"I'll take care of the horse."
"Thank you, ma'am. His name is Tornado. He's a good horse. Give him a brushing every now and then, he likes that. I'll be leaving now, if that's all right."
"No, it's too soon." She was surprised at the desperation in her voice. "You said you had a half hour."
"I do, but I want to be on the west side if I can help it. It's better having the sun behind me."
"Good luck then, Lloyd."
"No such thing anymore."
"I don't understand."
"If he kills me I'll be dead. If I kill him his brother will send someone after me and it will start all over again. Man who kills Bob Olive isn't going to have a moment's peace what's left of his natural born life. Either way, I'll never be able to go back to what I was, which is all I really want."
"Then go home. Just go."
"Can't. If I go home without trying, it won't be the same neither. Thanks for everything, ma'am."
"Stop calling me ma'am."
She rushed to the porch and gripped the post as she watched the boy walk away from her, into the setting sun. It was one of the saddest sights she had ever seen in her life. That boy and his earnest march to his doom touched her in a way she couldn't fathom. He reached Lindsey's saloon and kept walking until he found a spot that satisfied him and turned around. He cast a long shadow in the late afternoon sun.
The streets were strangely empty, the word had already been passed. The Town Marshall was on business in Atlantic City, and even if he was here, he would dither about like a fool until it was too late to step in. No one was going to stop this, no one. Lloyd stood at the end of the road waiting, calmly, one hand resting on his belt. With the sun low like it was she could only make out his silhouette and in silhouette he looked not like a boy but like a man, a short man, true, but still a man, powerful and dangerous.
"Come inside, Hillary."
She spun around. It was Mrs. Robinson swathed in her horrid orange robe.
"No ma'am," she said.
"Do what I say, girl. Come inside this instant. Don't disobey me or they'll be consequences."
"Do what you got to do, ma'am. I mean to watch."
Mrs. Robinson turned crimson and stared at her for a long moment before she closed the door hard. When Hillary turned back to the street Bob Olive was outside, his mustard coat cinched at the waist with his gun belt. Hillary hid as much of her body as she could behind a porch post, only her head poking out so she could see. Her breath caught in her throat at the scene. Olive swayed slightly as he took his position about twenty-five yards from the boy.
"I want it to be noted that I didn't start this," Olive shouted out in his high scratchy voice, like a crow's caw. He waved his arm at the empty street and shuttered windows as if there were crowds gathered round. "I want it to be noted that I was minding my own business when this boy came at me. And I also want it to be noted that I won't be drawing first. I'll let this boy make the first move so there ain't no question when I kill him that I killed him in self-defense."
There was no response from the empty street.
"You ready boy," shouted Olive, "to meet the devil?"
"I done met him already," said Lloyd in a voice that barely reached to Hillary.
"Do your worst, then, boy," said Olive.
The two stood motionless in the street, facing one another, still as statues, motionless, not even a tremor passing through them.
Then Olive's right hand darted for his gun.
A shot rang.
Olive's body jerked, staggered, and dropped like a stone.
It all happened so quickly she couldn't comprehend what had occurred until she realized, suddenly, that she knew now how fast a buzzard's eye twitched in the wind.
The boy put his gun back in his holster and walked deliberately toward the dead man in the middle of the road. Slowly townsfolk started appearing in the street, first one, then the next, then the next, stepping out of doorways that had been tightly closed just moments before. The boy ignored them all as he made his way to the dead man. When he reached him he stooped onto his haunches at the edge of the puddling blood and put his hat in his hands. A moment later Hillary stooped by his side and took hold of his arm. She didn't want to look at the dead man, so instead she looked at the boy. He was crying.
"My daddy taught me a game he learned in the war," he said. "We used to play it some in the field after the hay harvest. You carve a hickory limb all smooth and then someone throws a ball of stuffed horsehide and you try to hit it as far as you can. I loved playing that game. I meant to teach it to my own son in that very same field."
"You'll do it. I know you'll do it."
"It's nice to think so, isn't it," he said.
"Excuse me sir, can I have a word."
It was a tall thin man, standing behind them, in a three piece suit and bowler hat. He had long thin fingers that fluttered about. The boy stood and faced the man and nodded.
"I was here to speak to Mr. Olive," continued the man, "which of course now is impossible. But after your impressive display we've decided you might be an even better choice. I come here from Logan Utah, just through the Hastings Cutoff. Beautiful country, God's country, but we're having some problems with a group of ruffians that have endangered everything we've been working for. What we need sir is someone to enforce the laws as they've been written. We're not going to stand by niceties, no sir, but we do need the law enforced and we need a man who can do the enforcing. The pay, needless to say, will be substantial, and you will be doing the good citizens of Logan a great favor. I wonder, sir, if we could talk about our situation over supper."
The boy looked at Hillary for a moment before replying. "That would be fine."
"Splendid," said the man. "We're staying at the Clairmont. Do you need a room, we could hire you a room."
"Under what name should we register you?"
"Ketchum. Lloyd Ketchum."
"And your hometown sir?"
The boy thought a moment. "Don't have one no more." He nodded at Hillary. "I'll be around to pick up the saddlebags," he said before following the man towards the Clairmont.
Hillary watched him enter the fancy hotel and then turned away just as the undertaker's cart was rounding the bend. Inside the boardinghouse she ignored Mrs. Robinson's hectoring and climbed the stairs to her room, closing the door behind her and locking the clasp.
From a hollowed place in her bureau she took out a wad of bills and counted. Ninety-seven dollars, all she had saved from her work in South Pass City and now it was time to put it to use. She had thought she would buy a wedding dress and a trousseau. Billy Owen was sweet on her and with the right prodding she could muster his courage enough for him to ask. His spread was going strong and she thought that someday Billy was going to be the most successful rancher in the territory. Still, he wasn't much one for words, was Billy, and the Wyoming winters could be long and dark. She counted the money once more.
You don't see what she saw that day and stand still. You don't see a man die and a boy's fate shift in the twitch of a buzzard's eye and stand still. You step forward or step back, one or other, that's all you can do. Billy was a step back, and nothing wrong with that. But that's not why she ran from her aunt's house in Illinois and changed her name from Talloway to Blue.
If she took a stage to Rock Springs and then caught the Union Pacific, west, she could be in San Francisco in less than a fortnight. She just happened to know the costs, just happened to spend nights with her candle studying the schedules and the fees. She could calculate the price to the penny.
She had heard things. It was a wild city, overrun with miners and gold tycoons. Dance halls, theaters, hurdy-gurdy houses. Couldn't she step lightly, couldn't she sing like a winged angel. The opportunities were endless. She could be in San Francisco in a fortnight and still have maybe forty dollars to get started on. It wouldn't be much, but it would be enough, and when it ran out she'd do what she had to do. Whatever she had to do. No sin there, Lloyd had taught her that,
She had never seen the ocean before. She wondered if you could spy China from San Francisco Bay. She was ready to bet her life that you could.
C. Hodgson Fell
It wasn’t much of a job, for a gunsel.
It came to me like any job it came to me. I was sitting in the back room of the club, playing cards with the rest of them boys, when Primo ran in and said the Boss wanted to see me. He came at a good time, since the hand I was holding was garbage. It was all I ever seemed to get when I played with the boys, garbage. So when Primo brought the word, I didn’t mind none. I kicked back my chair and stood up in one motion, threw down the hand.
“Don’t leave yet, George,” said Gallagher. “You still gots a couple quarters we ain’t snatched from yous yet.”
The boys all broke up at that. I took it, like I always took it. They were good guys, and they could laugh if they wanted, but they knew better than to laugh too much. I took my piece out from my holster and put it on the rack, no pieces in the boss’s office. That was rule number one. Then I took the jacket from off the chair, slipped it on, tightened my tie, popped my fedora onto my skull. You had to look sharp when it was time to see the Boss. That was rule number two.
To get to the Boss’s office I had to go through the kitchen. Frankie asked me if I wanted a chop one of the mopes had sent back for being overcooked. Frankie was the grill man and was always taking care of me that way. It’s cause what I did that time to the creep that was trying to slip it to his wife.
“Sure, Frankie,” I said. “The Boss wants me, but I’ll be back in a minute.”
“I’ll heat it up for you, George. With a couple of bakes.”
“Don’t forget the sour cream.”
“I won’t, George.”
“You know how I love the sour cream.”
Through the kitchen was the showroom. When I pushed through the swinging doors I stopped and did my usual look-see. It was the tail end of a slow night. Only about a third of the tables had mopes sitting at them. The band was on a break, the place was hushed. I noticed right away the guy in the corner. He was sitting alone without looking lonely. He had shoulders and a scar on his cheek and that look in his eye, the look that says it would be a battle if it came to it and he was maybe hoping it came to it.
“Hey, Trixie,” I said to the girl, sitting behind a tall plant, rubbing her foot, cigarette box on the floor in front of her. “Who died?”
“A morgue would be livelier then this dump tonight,” she said. “Things don’t get better soon, I’m gonna have to go back to earning an honest living.”
“Who’s the big fellah in the corner?”
“Don’t know, but I’d like to. Smokes L&M’s, tips like a prince, and keeps his palms to himself.”
“A real gentleman,” I said.
“Like you, George,” said Trixie, which made me feel nice. The boys they all kidded Trixie and grabbed at her whenever she walked by, but she was a nice girl. The Boss thought so too for a while there, but not no more. Now she was with Mr. Malto, but that wasn’t going to last neither. I guess I still had hopes.
At the far end of the showroom, hidden from the mopes at the table, was the stairway that led up to the Boss’s office. Was always a gun at the foot of the stairs, keeping the riff-raff away. Tonight it was Anglethorp, a young thug with soft hands. He used some lotion or other and they was always oily. The girls liked Anglethorp. It got me to wondering if maybe I’d have a better chance with Trixie I lathered on the Vaseline.
“He’s waiting on you,” said Anglethorp. “Said you should knock first.”
“I always do,” I said as I raised my hands and turned around.
Anglethorp reached into my jacket to check that the holster was empty and then patted down my chest, my back, ran his hands up and down my legs. He was rougher than usual, and when I turned around again he gave me a sneer like he was sending some sort of signal. But I don’t got the hours to read no signals, you got a message for me you best spell it out.
“You got something to say?” I said.
“Not to lunk like you,” he said. “Go on up.”
I climbed the stairs and then knocked at the door. After a moment I pushed it open. The Boss was sitting behind his desk in the office, with his tuxedo jacket still on. A couple of the big mugs was sitting on the other side, Farnsworth and Mr. Malto. They had been talking about something, I could hear it through the door, but they stopped as soon as I walked in. Which is the way of it when you’re a gunsel. There’s always big things going on over and above you, plots and plans, which don’t concern you none at all. Some of the other guys fret and fuss over the meaning of it all but I always figured it wasn’t worth my while. Keep your head down, do your job, pocket your pay, throw it away on a dame, show up the next day with your tie tight and your piece oiled, that’s the ticket. Keeping it simple always worked best with me.
“George, we got a situation that needs handling,” said the Boss. He was a fat man, the Boss, wide as a warehouse, but he didn’t have the jolly kind of fat that wiggled and bounced when he laughed. He wasn’t looking at me when he spoke, he was looking at the Cohiba he was rolling in his thick fingers. Boss always smoked Cohibas, had them flown in special from Cuba. Word was he done that Batiste fellow a favor and now had himself a steady supply. The Boss was like that, always doing favors, always collecting his returns.
“You see that fellow sitting in the club, with the scar on his cheek, looking like a steaming pile of trouble?” said Farnsworth. Farnsworth had a trim little moustache of which he was a little too proud. It danced like a worm above his cigarette as he spoke.
“I spotted him,” I said.
“His name’s Salmon, Rex Salmon, he’s a shamus with loose lips and no good intentions. We want to know what he’s after.”
“I’ll put the question,” I said.
“Not so fast, George,” said the Boss. “He thinks he’s a brick wall, you get the idea. I want this done right.”
“First off you follow him out,” said Farnsworth. “He didn’t bring a car, so it will be on foot. Don’t be in no hurry, we need this done away from the club, so as not to scare the paying customer. Second, whatever you get out of him, make sure he doesn’t come around again.”
“If he ends up with a face even his mother wouldn’t recognize,” said the Boss, “we won’t be crying.”
“I understand,” I said.
“Good boy,” said the Boss.
I turned to leave, but just as I wrapped my mitt around the crystal doorknob, Mr. Molto piped up in his pretty little voice.
“Heard something on the street that might interest you, George.”
Hand still on the knob, I turned my head. Mr. Molto wasn’t looking at me, he was looking at his manicure.
“It’s not my place to spread rumors,” said Mr. Molto, “but word is this Salmon character was neck deep in what happened to Alex. Word is, he might even have pulled the trigger.”
That’s when I felt the quake. It’s funny how it happens.
It feels as if the earth is trembling. Everything turns red before going blank. When I can see again there is usually someone on the ground and blood on my knuckles.
“Is anything wrong, George?” said the Boss.
The Boss’s voice snapped me out of it. I was relieved to see the Boss and Farnsworth and Mr. Molto were all still in their seats. But they was now looking at me as if I were some freak in a carnival sideshow. I glanced down at my hand. The ridges of the doorknob were impressed into my palm, as if I had tried to grind the crystal into dust.
“No,” I said. “Nothing’s wrong.”
“Then get on it. Keep Farnsworth up to date. That’s all.”
I closed the door behind me and stood on the landing for a moment. I could hear them talking again inside, could hear the crackle and hum of their voices, but the words remained out of reach. I eyed the club. The stranger was still there at his table, leaning back and smoking. It looked like he was looking at me, but that didn’t bother me none. With my size, I been stared at all my life. I shucked my shoulders and headed down the stairs. Anglethorp sniggered as I passed by, like he knew something I didn’t, but I ignored him. I took care of every Joe who knew something I didn’t, there wouldn’t be time enough to crap.
“Hey, Trixie, do me a favor why don’t you,” I said as I passed her while heading back into the kitchen.
“Come get me when the Joe with the scar, he up and leaves.”
The chop was waiting for me on the wooden butcher block. The meat was burnt, which was the way I liked it, and the potato was fat and slathered with sour cream. I took off my hat, tucked a napkin into my shirt collar, and went at it. I was halfway through when Trixie came to get me.
“Your boy dumped a pile of cash on the table,” she said.
I grabbed a final bite of meat, pulled the napkin out my collar, wiped my mouth, put the hat back on. Then I went on after the creep that word on the street said had set-up Alex.
* * *
Alex was the smart one. He was always explaining to me how water flowed uphill or why the guy in the baseball game was out even before the shortstop caught the pop-up. All these things that were a mystery to me made perfect sense to him, but he never made me feel like the boys in the back room at the club sometimes make me feel, like I was something to laugh at. Alex he made me feel like a hero. Maybe it was that he remembered the way I played football in school before I up and quit, played like a pure killer. Or he remembered the way I took care of him when that Terrelli kid bloodied his lip. Or maybe it was just because I was his big brother. That’s something you take seriously in this world, being a big brother. It’s a responsibility that don’t end when your little brother finds himself on the wrong end of a Tommy gun and catches a jawful of lead.
It didn’t take me long to figure out that this guy Salmon wasn’t all too swift himself. Following him was like following a bus. He was walking slow enough to catch cob-webs, and he seemed to move from streetlight to streetlight. I stayed in the shadows, kept my distance even as I kept my eye on his broad shoulders and fedora. He walked me through the rusting industrial district, through Chinatown, alive with its greasy smells and crowds like a sea that came up to our chests, through a fancy residential district and then a less fancy residential district. Here and there, when we reached a deserted stretch, I got the idea to make my move, but somehow he seemed to jolt father ahead. Which was okay by me. As much as his piece, a gunsel needs his patience. My time would come.
And it did, when he turned into an alley beside a squat brown building. I took out my piece and followed him in. You see there wasn’t going to be any rough-up or warning like the Boss had said, not for the pug who set up my kid brother.
Alex followed me into a job working for the boss. I thought he be destined for better things, but the money was easy enough and he had his talents. But Alex wasn’t a gunsel like me. First he wasn’t big enough. Then he wasn’t dim enough. He was always one step ahead, my brother, a comer, rising up that ladder. He understood them things that flew over my head. It wasn’t long after he signed on that he was sitting in that room with the Boss and Farnsworth and Mr. Malto, hatching plots with the rest of them. He was going to own that club one day, we could all see it, and then I’d be on easy street. Until an operation twisted wrong and he ended up dead and I ended up looking for answers. But the Boss told me he’d take care of it, and I guess that’s what he did, because there I was, looking for Rex Salmon with my lips scowled and my piece loaded.
“Hold it right there,” I said when I saw him standing in the light of an alleyway door.
He turned around, his hands up, shadows falling like smears on his face. “Hello, George,” he said, his voice solid as slate. “I was hoping you’d show.”
“That’s a laugh,” I said. “No one hopes to run into the likes of me.”
“I did,” he said. “In fact that’s why I came to that club tonight. Hoping I’d run into you. I’ve got a promise I need to keep.”
“What kind of promise.”
“A promise I made to a friend.”
“I’m surprised you got any.”
“He was a very good friend,” said Salmon. “Your brother.”
“You’ll pay for that lie,” I said as the asphalt beneath my shoes began to tremble and the color rose in my sight until everything was red and getting darker fast. It all went blank just as I felt the gun spit and a cymbal crash slam up against my head.
* * *
When the darkness slipped away I expected to see a bloody heap of man on the alleyway in front of me, but all I saw was a huge bright light shining into my face, like I was headed straight for judgment day, and the way I been living I knew the light it wasn’t heavenly. And then I realized that something was digging into my wrists and my arms was fixed behind me and my legs was tied to a chair, which is not the way you meet your creator, not if anything I ever heard in church is right, so this was something very different. Which was a relief, actually. The light of judgment was something to be afraid of, this was just a predicament. I’ve been in an out of predicaments all my damn life.
“How’s it going, George,” said a voice, which I recognized as the quarry voice of that Rex Salmon.
“I thought you was dead,” I said as I tried to squirm out of my bindings. The cuffs was metal, police stuff that I wasn’t going to beat, but the ropes gave a little which gave a little hope.
“I almost was,” he said as he stepped into the light. He put a finger in a bloody hole on his jacket sleeve. “You just winged me. And I bought two pairs of pants with this jacket, too.”
“I used to be better shot.”
“You used to be a hell of a fullback from what your brother said.”
“You don’t need bring him into this.”
“But I do, George. It’s why you’re here.”
“I’m here because the Boss wanted to teach you a lesson.”
“And I wanted the Boss to want to teach me a lesson so he would send you to me.”
“You’re giving me a headache.”
The man smiled and it wasn’t a tricky little Farnsworth smile or the kind of malicious thing the Boss sometimes tried. It was warm as a summer’s day at the beach.
“I do that, sometimes,” he said. “I’m sorry you’re trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey, but I promised your brother I’d tell you the truth, and this is the only way you’d let me do it.”
“Don’t bother trying,” I said, as I struggled again to break the ropes, almost toppling the chair. The spaghetti held. “I heard enough lies in this life to last me.”
“I bet you have, working for the fat man and his little party of pickpockets. But what I’m giving you here is the straight dope. Why do you think your brother signed up with that gang in the first place?”
“Same reason any of us done, for the cash.”
“No, George. He signed up for you. He hated that you fell in with that crowd. How many times had he tried to get you to quit.”
“I never listened. How else was I going to pay for that college of his?”
“He knew, and it chewed at him. You’d been sticking up for him all his life, he figured it was time for him to stick up for you. So he joined up, even though you tried to keep him away. He joined up, and at the same time he made a deal with the cops.”
“Shut up, now. He wouldn’t do that. He wasn’t no stoolie.”
“He made a deal, George, and he made it through me, which is how I know. And this was the deal: He’d bring down the fat man as long as you got a free ride. He’d give them everything they needed to send them all away, so long as you got to walk. That’s the truth, and that’s what he wanted you to know,”
“Then why’d you kill him?”
“Me? Is that what they told you?”
“They killed him, George. Somehow they found out, there was a leak from inside the department. So that creep, Molto, he set him up. It was supposed to be an easy run for your brother, pick up an envelope, nothing more. And then they sliced him in two with their bullets.”
“You’re lying to save yourself.”
“If I was lying, would you still be alive?”
“My head hurts too much to figure.”
“What I’ve got,” said the shamus, reaching a hand into his jacket to where his holster would be, “is something for you.”
I tried the ropes again, thought maybe with a final lunge I could snap the things and then slam a shoulder into his smiling mug. But the damn things held, the chair teetered and fell, my head slammed hard into the floor.
I snarled as the creep pulled his hand back out. But there wasn’t no gun, just a piece of paper. He leaned down and waved the thing in my face.
“It’s your brother’s life insurance police, George. Made out to you. Left in my care so I could give it to you personally. A hundred grand. All yours. All you need to do, George, is quit. Your brother wanted you to take the money and head someplace warm and live out your life away from that pack of wolves. Find a wife, raise a kid, maybe call him Alex. That’s what he wanted for you.”
I wanted to spit, to spit into his face for all his lies, but only because from where I was, bound and on the ground, it wasn’t possible to spit into my own.
“Do you still want to kill me, George?” he said.
“I don’t know no more.”
“How about we get a beer together,” said Rex Salmon, “while you decide?”
“That sounds about right,” I said.
* * *
The next night when I came into the back entrance of the club, the boys was already there, playing cards in their shirtsleeves and suspenders. They stopped their playing when they saw me.
“You’re late,” said Gallagher.
“I had things,” I said.
“Boss wants to see you.”
“I figured,” I said as I walked by.
“Don’t forget your piece,” said Gallagher.
I stopped, turned around. The boys were all looking at me as I placed my gun on the rack. There were four other guns already laying there.
“He’d forget his wick, it wasn’t attached to the candle,” said Gallagher and the boys all laughed as they went back to their game. And I laughed with them. They were good guys, they deserved to laugh, for now.
On the way through the kitchen Frankie called out a hello. “I gots a sirloin for you if you want it, George,” he said.
“Sure, Frankie,” I said.
“And I’ll throw on some bakes.”
“How’s the wife?”
“As long as she’s complaining to you. Don’t forget the sour cream.”
“I won’t George.”
“You know how I love the sour cream.”
In the main room I spotted Trixie leaning over a grabby piece of beef in one of the booths. She was trying to sell a cigar, he was trying to buy the whole box. When she glanced in my direction I waggled my thumb. I waited until she brushed the mope off and came on over.
“How’s it going, George?”
“I got something for you,” I said, pulling out an envelope and putting it atop her box.
“Something like that.”
“You’re so sweet, George.”
“But you have to do me a favor, in addition.”
“Take a break.”
“Just go on. You been working too hard. Put on your coat and take a break outside.”
“It’s not time, yet.”
“For me, all right? You can open the envelope outside. I’ll square it with the Boss.”
“Sure, George, whatever you say. My dogs are barking and I could use a smoke.”
“’At a girl,” I said as she went into the kitchen to put down her box.
I watched her go, watched the swish of her backside. I thought about following her out then looked up and saw Anglethorp standing in the middle of the room, staring at me with his arms out and his lips curled into a sneer. Like he was asking me where the hell I had been. Like it was any of his damn business.
“The Boss has been waiting,” he said when I reached him and we walked together to stairway that led to the Boss. “And he ain’t happy. He’s asked for you three times already.”
“I got hung up,” I said as I raised my hands and turned around.
Anglethorp checked that my holster was empty and then patted my my chest and legs.
I sure wouldn’t want to be in your shoes right now, the mood the Boss is in,” said Anglethorp. “Just be sure to knock.”
“I always do,” I said as I turned around and stuck the shiv in Anglethorp’s throat.
There was surprisingly little blood as I pinned him against the wall, but even so, with those greasy hands of his he couldn’t get much purchase trying to pull my arm away. Then I jerked my arm and the knife ripped up his throat into his skull, and the blood came, and he stopped trying. While he was still upright I took the piece from his holster. Then I lowered him slowly so his dead body as it fell to the stairs made not a sound.
As I climbed the steps, I checked Anglethorp’s gun. A snub nose, fully loaded. I don’t know much about plots or plans but I do know guns. It would do the job.
And then I thought for a moment about Trixie, standing outside now in the cone of the yellow light, smoking her Winston and opening the envelope. It was in there, the policy, with my Hancock and the letter from the lawyer that made her the beneficiary. And the note too, the note that told her how nice a name Alex would be for a kid. I considered for a moment of turning tail and running out and scooping her up in my arms and heading south to some slow beach town. I let it play out in my mind for a moment, like one them movies at the Palisades. It was warm and bright and slavered with sour cream. It was the kind of life I could have lived if things had been different, if I hadn’t been so smart, if I hadn’t been so dim. Then I looked down, saw the blood on my hands, and fell back into my senses. I cocked the revolver and knocked on the door.
There was a least three of them inside. I’d have to move quick to get them all before one of them could draw. And then, to take care of the boys in the back, I’d need to load up again in the office. The way I figured, there’d be at least three pieces for me there, and maybe a Tommy gun in the desk. It would be enough, more than enough.
To some it might seem a foolhardy romp, but in truth it wasn’t much of a job, for a gunsel.
C. Hodgson Fell