Authors: James M. Cain
JAMES M. CAIN: Introduction by Otto Penzler
The Baby in the Icebox
Two O'clock Blonde
The Birthday Party
Career in C Major
Death on the Beach
The Girl in the Storm
Joy Ride to Glory
Mommy's a Barfly
The Taking of Montfaucon
The Money and the Woman (The Embezzler)
JAMES M. CAIN
Introduction by Otto Penzler
ames M. Cain, the quintessential hard-boiled writer, claimed he didn't know what the term meant, and he wasn't alone. So what is it? They are realistic works of fiction in the sense that people who go out to get a private investigator license are hired to solve crimes, even if they are committed by tough guys (who, in fact, commit most violent crimes), which is more than the village vicar or the head of the gardening club can say. Since they are not part of an official police force, they have a lot more freedom to get information in whatever manner works best for them. This is true only in fictional accounts, of course.
The reason Cain never wrote a detective novel is that he didn't like the notion of a criminal being caught in a neat ending with all loose ends tied together. His stories are mainly concerned with murder and love, and are told primarily from the criminal's point of view.
Born in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1892, he was the son of James William Cain, a professor, and Rose Mallahan Cain, an opera singer. James also wanted a career in opera until he was told emphatically (by his mother) that he didn't have the voice for it. His father later became president of Washington College in Chesterton, Maryland, where James received his bachelor of arts degree in 1910 at the age of eighteen, and a master's degree in 1917 after teaching mathematics and English at the college for four years.
Eschewing a promising academic career, Cain decided to become a reporter and worked for the
, with time out for two years in the Army during World War I. He was encouraged by H.L. Mencken in Baltimore and later by Walter Lippman at the
New York World
, where he wrote political columns of a relatively uncontroversial nature. There were so many taboos, Cain said, that as an independent columnist “all you could condemn was the man-eating shark, and all you could praise was your favorite flower.”
His magazine articles and short stories began to appear in the 1920s and he started to write screenplays in Hollywood in 1931 and continued to write them with increasing success, both artistically and financially, for seventeen years. He became a best-selling author with his first novel,
The Postman Always Rings Twice
As a California writer, Cain inevitably faced comparison with Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and, to a lesser degree, Ross Macdonald. They are “tough guy” writers in the same way that John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Horace McCoy, and B. Traven were. The noted critic Edmund Wilson called Cain and his peers “poets of the tabloid murder” because they forced a new style of literature to be taken seriously.
Cain broke precedent with past literary works by producing a sensationally popular novel (later a play and twice a motion picture) in which both leading characters are repulsive. After the success of
The Postman Always Rings Twice
, he repeated the formula in
(1943). Displaying exceptional psychological insight in these and other works, such as
(1941), Cain was able to uncover and articulate the beginnings of the thought processes leading to the entangled schemes that ultimately result in the commission of murder.
Whereas Hammett and Chandler wrote about good/bad, soft/tough detectives who tried to unravel the messes that someone else caused by a violent or greedy act, Cain created two-dimensional characters interested only in themselves and who were motivated by their lust for money or sex or by some form of snobbery. They are flawed as characters because they are too thoroughly evil and Cain shows them no mercy. He is, as David Madden wrote in his biography, “the twenty-minute egg of the hard-boiled school.”
Although Cain wrote eighteen novels, he was essentially a short story writer, especially if one remembers that most of his novels were really novellas, extremely compact, coming in about half the length of conventional novels.
was only 35,000 words,
only 29,000, and his best-selling
(1947) was so slim that Cain added a twelve-page introduction to try to give it a bit more heft. He edited an anthology,
For Men Only
(1944), in the introduction to which he extolled the virtues of the short story: “It is greatly superior to the novel, or at any rate, the American novel. It is one kind of fiction that need not, to please the American taste, deal with heroes. Our national curse, if so perfect a land can have such a thing, is the âsympathetic' character â¦ The world's greatest literature is peopled by thorough-going heels.”
Cain's literary style is a paragon of spare prose. In the wardrobe of literature, he is a thong. Along with George V. Higgins and Ernest Hemingway, Cain was identified by Elmore Leonard as one of his greatest literary influences. When you read these wonderfully taut stories, you will see that he followed Leonard's advice long before it was givenâCain left out the parts that people tend to skip.
The Baby in the Icebox
f course there wasÂ plenty pieces in the paper about what happened out at the place last summer, but they got it all mixed up, so I will now put down how it really was, and 'specially the beginning of it, so you will see it is not no lies in it.
Because when a guy and his wife begin to play leapfrog with a tiger, like you might say, and the papers put in about that part and not none of the stuff that started it off, and then one day say X marks the spot and next day say it wasn't really no murder but don't tell you what it was, why, I don't blame people if they figure there was something funny about it or maybe that somebody ought to be locked up in the booby hatch. But there wasn't no booby hatch to this, nothing but plain onriness and a dirty rat getting it in the neck where he had it coming to him, as you will see when I get the first part explained right.
Things first begun to go sour between Duke and Lura when they put the cats in. They didn't need no cats. They had a combination auto camp, filling station, and lunchroom out in the country a ways, and they got along all right. Duke run the filling station, and got me in to help him, and Lura took care of the lunchroom and shacks. But Duke wasn't satisfied. Before he got this place he had raised rabbits, and one time he had bees, and another time canary birds, and nothing would suit him now but to put in some cats to draw trade. Maybe you think that's funny, but out here in California they got every kind of a farm there is, from kangaroos to alligators, and it was just about the idea that a guy like Duke would think up. So he begun building a cage, and one day he showed up with a truckload of wildcats.
I wasn't there when they unloaded them. It was two or three cars waiting and I had to gas them up. But soon as I got a chance I went back there to look things over. And believe me, they wasn't pretty. The guy that sold Duke the cats had went away about five minutes before, and Duke was standing outside the cage and he had a stick of wood in his hand with blood on it. Inside was a dead cat. The rest of them was on a shelf, that had been built for them to jump on, and every one of them was snarling at Duke.
I don't know if you ever saw a wildcat, but they are about twice as big as a house cat, brindle gray, with tufted ears and a bobbed tail. When they set and look at you they look like a owl, but they wasn't setting and looking now. They was marching around, coughing and spitting, their eyes shooting red and green fire, and it was a ugly sight, 'specially with that bloody dead one down on the ground. Duke was pale, and the breath was whistling through his nose, and it didn't take no doctor to see he was scared to death.
“You better bury that cat,” he says to me. “I'll take care of the cars.”
I looked through the wire and he grabbed me. “Look out!” he says. “They'd kill you in a minute.”
“In that case,” I says, “how do I get the cat out?”
“You'll have to get a stick,” he says, and shoves off.
I was pretty sore, but I begun looking around for a stick. I found one, but when I got back to the cage Lura was there. “How did that happen?” she says.
“I don't know,” I says, “but I can tell you this much: If there's any more of them to be buried around here, you can get somebody else to do it. My job is to fix flats, and I'm not going to be no cat undertaker.”
She didn't have nothing to say to that. She just stood there while I was trying the stick, and I could hear her toe snapping up and down in the sand, and from that I knowed she was choking it back, what she really thought, and didn't think no more of this here cat idea than I did.
The stick was too short. “My,” she says, pretty disagreeable, “that looks terrible. You can't bring people out here with a thing like that in there.”
“All right,” I snapped back. “Find me a stick.”
She didn't make no move to find no stick. She put her hand on the gate. “Hold on,” I says. “Them things are nothing to monkey with.”
“Huh,” she says. “All they look like to me is a bunch of cats.”
There was a kennel back of the cage, with a drop door on it, where they was supposed to go at night. How you got them back there was bait them with food, but I didn't know that then. I yelled at them, to drive them back in there, but nothing happened. All they done was yell back. Lura listened to me awhile, and then she give a kind of gasp like she couldn't stand it no longer, opened the gate, and went in.
Now believe me, that next was a bad five minutes, because she wasn't hard to look at, and I hated to think of her getting mauled up by them babies. But a guy would of had to of been blind if it didn't show him that she had a way with cats. First thing she done, when she got in, she stood still, didn't make no sudden motions or nothing, and begun to talk to them. Not no special talk. Just “Pretty pussy, what's the matter, what they been doing to you?”âlike that. Then she went over to them.
They slid off, on their bellies, to another part of the shelf. But she kept after them, and got her hand on one, and stroked him on the back. Then she got ahold of another one, and pretty soon she had give them all a pat. Then she turned around, picked up the dead cat by one leg, and come out with him. I put him on the wheelbarrow and buried him.
Now, why was it that Lura kept it from Duke how easy she had got the cat out and even about being in the cage at all? I think it was just because she didn't have the heart to show him up to hisself how silly he looked. Anyway, at supper that night, she never said a word. Duke, he was nervous and excited and told all about how the cats had jumped at him and how he had to bean one to save his life, and then he give a long spiel about cats and how fear is the only thing they understand, so you would of thought he was Martin Johnson just back from the jungle or something.
But it seemed to me the dishes was making quite a noise that night, clattering around on the table, and that was funny, because one thing you could say for Lura was: she was quiet and easy to be around. So when Duke, just like it was nothing at all, asks me by the way how did I get the cat out, I heared my mouth saying, “With a stick,” and not nothing more. A little bird flies around and tells you, at a time like that. Lura let it pass. Never said a word. And if you ask me, Duke never did find out how easy she could handle the cats, and that ain't only guesswork, but on account of something that happened a little while afterward, when we got the mountain lion.
A mountain lion is a cougar, only out here they call them a mountain lion. Well, one afternoon about five o'clock this one of ours squat down on her hunkers and set up the worst squalling you ever listen to. She kept it up all night, so you wanted to go out and shoot her, and next morning at breakfast Duke come running in and says come on out and look what happened. So we went out there, and there in the cage with her was the prettiest he mountain lion you ever seen in your life. He was big, probably weighed a hundred and fifty pounds, and his coat was a pearl gray so glossy it looked like a pair of new gloves, and he had a spot of white on his throat. Sometimes they have white.
“He come down from the hills when he heard her call last night,” says Duke, “and he got in there somehow. Ain't it funny? When they hear that note nothing can stop them.”
“Yeah,” I says. “It's love.”
“That's it,” says Duke. “Well, we'll be having some little ones soon. Cheaper'n buying them.”
After he had went off to town to buy the stuff for the day, Lura sat down to the table with me. “Nice of you,” I says, “to let Romeo in last night.”
“Romeo?” she says.
“Yes, Romeo. That's going to be papa of twins soon, out in the lion cage.”
“Oh,” she says, “didn't he get in there himself?”
“He did not. If she couldn't get out, how could he get in?”
All she give me at that time was a dead pan. Didn't know nothing about it at all. Fact of the matter, she made me a little sore. But after she brung me my second cup of coffee she kind of smiled. “Well?” she says. “You wouldn't keep two loving hearts apart, would you?”
So things was, like you might say, a little gritty, but they got a whole lot worse when Duke come home with Rajah, the tiger. Because by that time he had told so many lies that he begun to believe them hisself, and put on all the airs of a big animal trainer. When people come out on Sundays, he would take a black snake whip and go in with the mountain lions and wildcats, and snap it at them, and they would snarl and yowl, and Duke acted like he was doing something. Before he went in, he would let the people see him strapping on a big six-shooter, and Lura got sorer by the week.
For one thing, he looked so silly. She couldn't see nothing to going in with the cats, and 'specially she couldn't see no sense in going in with a whip, a six-shooter, and a ten-gallon hat like them cow people wears. And for another thing, it was bad for business. In the beginning, when Lura would take the customers' kids out and make out the cat had their finger, they loved it, and they loved it still more when the little mountain lions come and they had spots and would push up their ears to be scratched. But when Duke started that stuff with the whip it scared them to death, and even the fathers and mothers was nervous, because there was the gun and they didn't know what would happen next. So business begun to fall off.
And then one afternoon he put down a couple of drinks and figured it was time for him to go in there with Rajah. Now it had took Lura one minute to tame Rajah. She was in there sweeping out his cage one morning when Duke was away, and when he started sliding around on his belly he got a bucket of water in the face, and that was that. From then on he was her cat. But what happened when Duke tried to tame him was awful. The first I knew what he was up to was when he made a speech to the people from the mountain lion cage telling them not to go away yet, there was more to come. And when he come out he headed over to the tiger.
“What's the big idea?” I says. “What you up to now?”
“I'm going in with that tiger,” he says. “It's got to be done, and I might as well do it now.”
“Why has it got to be done?” I says.
He looked at me like as though he pitied me.
“I guess there's a few things about cats you don't know yet,” he says. “You got a tiger on your hands, you got to let him know who's boss, that's all.”
“Yeah?” I says. “And who is boss?”
“You see that?” he says, and cocks his finger at his face.
“See what?” I says.
“The human eye,” he says. “The human eye, that's all. A cat's afraid of it. And if you know your business, you'll keep him afraid of it. That's all I'll use, the human eye. But, of course, just for protection, I've got these too.”
“Listen, sweetheart,” I says to him. “If you give me a choice between the human eye and a Bengal tiger, which one I got the most fear of, you're going to see a guy getting a shiner every time. If I was you, I'd lay off that cat.”
He didn't say nothing: hitched up his holster, and went in. He didn't even get a chance to unlimber his whip. That tiger, soon as he saw him, begun to move around in a way that made your blood run cold. He didn't make for Duke first, you understand. He slid over, and in a second he was between Duke and the gate. That's one thing about a tiger you better not forget if you ever meet one. He can't work examples in arithmetic, but when it comes to the kinds of brains that mean meat, he's the brightest boy in the class and then some. He's born knowing more about cutting off a retreat than you'll ever know, and his legs do it for him, just automatic, so his jaws will be free for the main business of the meeting.
Duke backed away, and his face was awful to see. He was straining every muscle to keep his mouth from sliding down in his collar. His left hand fingered the whip a little, and his right pawed around, like he had some idea of drawing the gun. But the tiger didn't give him time to make up his mind what his idea was, if any.
He would slide a few feet on his belly, then get up and trot a step or two, then slide on his belly again. He didn't make no noise, you understand. He wasn't telling Duke, “Please go away”; he meant to kill him, and a killer don't generally make no more fuss than he has to. So for a few seconds you could even hear Duke's feet sliding over the floor. But all of a sudden a kid begun to whimper, and I come to my senses. I run around to the back of the cage, because that was where the tiger was crowding him, and I yelled at him.
“Duke!” I says. “In his kennel! Quick!”
He didn't seem to hear me. He was still backing, and the tiger was still coming. A woman screamed. The tiger's head went down, he crouched on the ground, and tightened every muscle. I knew what that meant. Everybody knew what it meant, and 'specially Duke knew what it meant. He made a funny sound in his throat, turned, and ran.
That was when the tiger sprung. Duke had no idea where he was going, but when he turned he fell through the trapdoor and I snapped it down. The tiger hit it so hard I thought it would split. One of Duke's legs was out, and the tiger was on it in a flash, but all he got on that grab was the sole of Duke's shoe. Duke got his leg in somehow and I jammed the door down tight.
It was a sweet time at supper that night. Lura didn't see this here, because she was busy in the lunchroom when it happened, but them people had talked on their way out, and she knowed all about it. What she said was plenty. And Duke, what do you think he done? He passed it off like it wasn't nothing at all. “Just one of them things you got to expect,” he says. And then he let on he knowed what he was doing all the time, and the only lucky part of it was that he didn't have to shoot a valuable animal like Rajah was. “Keep cool, that's the main thing,” he says. “A thing like that can happen now and then, but never let a animal see you excited.”
I heard him, and I couldn't believe my ears, but when I looked at Lura I jumped. I think I told you she wasn't hard to look at. She was a kind of medium size, with a shape that would make a guy leave his happy home, sunburned all over, and high cheekbones that give her eyes a funny slant. But her eyes was narrowed down to slits, looking at Duke, and they shot green where the light hit them, and it come over me all of a sudden that she looked so much like Rajah, when he was closing in on Duke in the afternoon, that she could of been his twin sister.
Next off, Duke got it in his head he was such a big cat man now that he had to go up in the hills and do some trapping. Bring in his own stuff, he called it.
I didn't pay much attention to it at the time. Of course, he never brought in no stuff, except a couple of raccoons that he probably bought down the road for two dollars, but Duke was the kind of a guy that every once in a while has to sit on a rock and fish, so when he loaded up the flivver and blew, it wasn't nothing you would get excited about. Maybe I didn't really care what he was up to, because it was pretty nice, running the place with Lura with him out of the way, and I didn't ask no questions. But it was more to it than cats or 'coons or fish, and Lura knowed it, even if I didn't.
Anyhow, it was while he was away on one of them trips of his that Wild Bill Smith, the Texas Tornado, showed up. Bill was a snake doctor. He had a truck, with his picture painted on it, and two or three boxes of old rattlesnakes with their teeth pulled out, and he sold snake oil that would cure what ailed you, and a Indian herb medicine that would do the same. He was a fake, but he was big and brown and had white teeth, and I guess he really wasn't no bad guy. The first I seen of him was when he drove up in his truck, and told me to gas him up and look at his tires. He had a bum differential that made a funny rattle, but he said never mind and went over to the lunchroom.
He was there a long time, and I thought I better let him know his car was ready. When I went over there, he was setting on a stool with a sheepish look on his face, rubbing his hand. He had a snake ring on one finger, with two red eyes, and on the back of his hand was red streaks. I knew what that meant. He had started something and Lura had fixed him. She had a pretty arm, but a grip like iron, that she said come from milking cows when she was a kid. What she done when a guy got fresh was take hold of his hand and squeeze it so the bones cracked, and he generally changed his mind.
She handed him his check without a word, and I told him what he owed on the car, and he paid up and left.
“So you settled his hash, hey?” I says to her.
“If there's one thing gets on my nerves,” she says, “it's a man that starts something the minute he gets in the door.”
“Why didn't you yell for me?”
“Oh, I didn't need no help.”
But the next day he was back, and after I filled up his car I went over to see how he was behaving. He was setting at one of the tables this time, and Lura was standing beside him. I saw her jerk her hand away quick, and he give me the bright grin a man has when he's got something he wants to cover up. He was all teeth. “Nice day,” he says. “Great weather you have in this country,”
“So I hear,” I says. “Your car's ready.”
“What I owe you?” he says.
He counted it out and left.
“Listen,” says Lura, “we weren't doing anything when you come in. He was just reading my hand. He's a snake doctor, and knows about the zodiac.”
“Oh, wasn't we?” I says. “Well, wasn't we nice!”
“What's it to you?” she says.
“Nothing,” I snapped at her. I was pretty sore.
“He says I was born under the sign of Yin,” she says. You would of thought it was a piece of news fit to put in the paper.
“And who is Yin?” I says.
“It's Chinese for tiger,” she says.
“Then bite yourself off a piece of raw meat,” I says, and slammed out of there. We didn't have no nice time running the jointÂ
Next morning he was back. I kept away from the lunchroom, but I took a stroll and seen them back there with the tigers. We had hauled a tree in there by that time for Rajah to sharpen his claws on, and she was setting on that. The tiger had his head in her lap, and Wild Bill was looking through the wire. He couldn't even draw his breath. I didn't go near enough to hear what they was saying. I went back to the car and begin blowing the horn.
He was back quite a few times after that, in between while Duke was away. Then one night I heard a truck drive up. I knowed that truck by its rattle. And it was daylight before I heard it go away.
Couple weeks after that, Duke come running over to me at the filling station. “Shake hands with me,” he says, “I'm going to be a father.”
“Gee,” I says, “that's great!”
But I took good care he wasn't around when I mentioned it to Lura.
“Congratulations,” I says. “Letting Romeos into the place seems to be about the best thing you do.”
“What do you mean?” she says.
“Nothing,” I says. “Only I heard him drive up that night. Look like to me the moon was under the sign of Cupid. Well, it's nice if you can get away with it.”
“Oh,” she says.
“Yeah,” I says. “A fine double cross you thought up. I didn't know they tried that any more.”
She set and looked at me, and then her mouth begin to twitch and her eyes filled with tears. She tried to snuffle them up but it didn't work. “It's not any double cross,” she says. “That night I never went out there. And I never let anybody in. I was supposed to go away with him that night, butâ”
She broke off and begin to cry. I took her in my arms. “But then you found this out?” I says. “Is that it?” She nodded her head. It's awful to have a pretty woman in your arms that's crying over somebody else.
From then on, it was terrible. Lura would go along two or three days pretty well, trying to like Duke again on account of the baby coming, but then would come a day when she looked like some kind of a hex, with her eyes all sunk in so you could hardly see them at all, and not a word out of her.
Them bad days, anyhow when Duke wasn't around, she would spend with the tiger. She would set and watch him sleep, or maybe play with him, and he seemed to like it as much as she did. He was young when we got him, and mangy and thin, so you could see his slats. But now he was about six years old, and had been fed good, so he had got his growth, and his coat was nice, and I think he was the biggest tiger I ever seen. A tiger, when he is really big, is a lot bigger than a lion, and sometimes when Rajah would be rubbing around Lura, he looked more like a mule than a cat.
His shoulders come up above her waist, and his head was so big it would cover both legs when he put it in her lap. When his tail would go sliding past her it looked like some kind of a constrictor snake. His teeth were something to make you lie awake nights. A tiger has the biggest teeth of any cat, and Rajah's must have been four inches long, curved like a cavalry sword, and ivory white. They were the most murderous-looking fangs I ever set eyes on.
When Lura went to the hospital it was a hurry call, and she didn't even have time to get her clothes together. Next day Duke had to pack her bag, and he was strutting around, because it was a boy, and Lura had named him Ron. But when he come out with the bag he didn't have much of a strut. “Look what I found,” he says to me, and fishes something out of his pocket. It was the snake ring.
“Well?” I says. “They sell them in any ten-cent store.”
“H'm,” he says, and kind of weighed the ring in his hand. That afternoon, when he come back, he says: “Ten-cent store, hey? I took it to a jeweler today, and he offered me two hundred dollars for it.”
“You ought to sold it,” I says. “Maybe save you bad luck.”
Duke went away again right after Lura come back, and for a little while things was all right. She was crazy about the little boy, and I thought he was pretty cute myself, and we got along fine. But then Duke come back and at lunch one day he made a crack about the ring. Lura didn't say nothing, but he kept at it, and pretty soon she wheeled on him.
“All right,” she says. “There was another man around here, and I loved him. He give me that ring, and it meant that he and I belonged to each other. But I didn't go with him, and you know why I didn't. For Ron's sake, I've tried to love you again, and maybe I can yet, God knows. A woman can do some funny things if she tries. But that's where we're at now. That's right where we're at. And if you don't like it, you better say what you're going to do.”
“When was this?” says Duke.
“It was quite a while ago. I told you I give him up, and I give him up for keeps.”
“It was just before you knowed about Ron, wasn't it?” he says.
“Hey,” I cut in. “That's no way to talk.”
“Just what I thought,” he says, not paying no attention to me. “Ron. That's a funny name for a kid. I thought it was funny, right off when I heard it. Ron. Ron. That's a laugh, ain't it?”
“That's a lie,” she says. “That's a lie, every bit of it. And it's not the only lie you've been getting away with around here. Or think you have. Trapping up in the hills, hey? And what do you trap?”
But she looked at me and choked it back. I begun to see that the cats wasn't the only things had been gumming it up.
“All right,” she wound up. “Say what you're going to do. Go on. Say it!”
But he didn't.
“Ron,” he cackles, “that's a hot one,” and walks out.
Next day was Saturday, and he acted funny all day. He wouldn't speak to me or Lura, and once or twice I heard him mumbling to himself. Right after supper he says to me, “How are we on oil?”
“All right,” I says. “The truck was around yesterday.”
“You better drive in and get some,” he says. “I don't think we got enough.”
“Enough?” I says. “We got enough for two weeks.”
“Tomorrow is Sunday,” he says, “and there'll be a big call for it. Bring out a hundred gallon and tell them to put it on the account.”
By that time I would give in to one of his nutty ideas rather than have an argument with him, and besides, I never tumbled that he was up to anything. So I wasn't there for what happened next, but I got it out of Lura later, so here is how it was:
Lura didn't pay much attention to the argument about the oil, but washed up the supper dishes, and then went in the bedroom to make sure everything was all right with the baby. When she come out she left the door open, so she could hear if he cried. The bedroom was off the sitting room, because these here California houses don't have but one floor, and all the rooms connect. Then she lit the fire, because it was cool, and sat there watching it burn. Duke come in, walked around, and then went out back. “Close the door,” she says to him. “I'll be right back,” he says.
So she sat looking at the fire, she didn't know how long, maybe five minutes, maybe ten minutes. But pretty soon she felt the house shake. She thought maybe it was a earthquake, and looked at the pictures, but they was all hanging straight. Then she felt the house shake again. She listened, but it wasn't no truck outside that would cause it, and it wouldn't be no state-road blasting or nothing like that at that time of night. Then she felt it shake again, and this time it shook in a regular movement, one, two, three, four, like that. And then all of a sudden she knew what it was, why Duke had acted so funny all day, why he had sent me off for the oil, why he had left the door open, and all the rest of it. There was five hundred pound of cat walking through the house, and Duke had turned him loose to kill her.
She turned around, and Rajah was looking at her, not five foot away. She didn't do nothing for a minute, just set there thinking what a boob Duke was to figure on the tiger doing his dirty work for him, when all the time she could handle him easy as a kitten, only Duke didn't know it. Then she spoke. She expected Rajah to come and put his head in her lap, but he didn't. He stood there and growled, and his ears flattened back. That scared her, and she thought of the baby. I told you a tiger has that kind of brains. It no sooner went through her head about the baby than Rajah knowed she wanted to get to that door, and he was over there before she could get out of the chair.
He was snarling in a regular roar now, but he hadn't got a whiff of the baby yet, and he was still facing Lura. She could see he meant business. She reached in the fireplace, grabbed a stick that was burning bright, and walked him down with it. A tiger is afraid of fire, and she shoved it right in his eyes. He backed past the door, and she slid in the bedroom. But he was right after her, and she had to hold the stick at him with one hand and grab her baby with the other.
But she couldn't get out. He had her cornered, and he was kicking up such a awful fuss she knowed the stick wouldn't stop him long. So she dropped it, grabbed up the baby's covers, and threw them at his head. They went wild, but they saved her just the same. A tiger, if you throw something at him with a human smell, will generally jump on it and bite at it before he does anything else, and that's what he done now. He jumped so hard the rug went out from under him, and while he was scrambling to his feet she shot past him with the baby and pulled the door shut after her.
She run in my room, got a blanket, wrapped the baby in it, and run out to the electric icebox. It was the only thing around the place that was steel. Soon as she opened the door she knowed why she couldn't do nothing with Rajah. His meat was in there; Duke hadn't fed him. She pulled the meat out, shoved the baby in, cut off the current, and closed the door. Then she picked up the meat and went around the outside of the house to the window of the bedroom. She could see Rajah in there, biting at the top of the door, where a crack of light showed through. He reached to the ceiling. She took a grip on the meat and drove at the screen with it. It give way, and the meat went through. He was on it before it hit the floor.
Next thing was to give him time to eat. She figured she could handle him once he got something in his belly. She went back to the sitting room. And in there, kind of peering around, was Duke. He had his gun strapped on, and one look at his face was all she needed to know she hadn't made no mistake about why the tiger was loose.
“Oh,” he says, kind of foolish, and then walked back and closed the door. “I meant to come back sooner, but I couldn't help looking at the night. You got no idea how beautiful it is. Stars is bright as anything.”
“Yeah,” she says. “I noticed.”
“Beautiful,” he says. “Beautiful.”
“Was you expecting burglars or something?” she says, looking at the gun.
“Oh, that,” he says. “No. Cat's been kicking up a fuss. I put it on, case I have to go back there. Always like to have it handy.”
“The tiger,” she says. “I thought I heard him, myself.”
“Loud,” says Duke. “Awful loud.”
He waited. She waited. She wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of opening up first. But just then there come a growl from the bedroom, and the sound of bones cracking. A tiger acts awful sore when he eats. “What's that?” says Duke.
“I wonder,” says Lura. She was hell-bent on making him spill it first.
They both looked at each other, and then there was more growls, and more sound of cracking bones. “You better go in there,” says Duke, soft and easy, with the sweat standing out on his forehead and his eyes shining bright as marbles. “Something might be happening to Ron.”
“Do you know what I think it is?” says Lura.
“What's that?” says Duke. His breath was whistling through his nose like it always done when he got excited.
“I think it's that tiger you sent in here to kill me,” says Lura. “So you could bring in that woman you been running around with for over a year. That redhead that raises rabbit fryers on the Ventura road. That cat you been trapping!”
“And 'stead of getting you he got Ron,” says Duke. “Little Ron! Oh my, ain't that tough? Go in there, why don't you? Ain't you got no mother love? Why don't you call up his pappy, get him in there? What's the matter? Is he afraid of a cat?”
Lura laughed at him. “All right,” she says. “Now you go.” With that she took hold of him. He tried to draw the gun, but she crumpled up his hand like a piece of wet paper and the gun fell on the floor. She bent him back on the table and beat his face in for him. Then she picked him up, dragged him to the front door, and threw him out. He run off a little ways. She come back and saw the gun. She picked it up, went to the door again, and threw it after him. “And take that peashooter with you,” she says.
That was where she made her big mistake. When she turned to go back to the house, he shot, and that was the last she knew for a while.
Now, for what happened next, it wasn't nobody there, only Duke and the tiger, but after them state cops got done fitting it all together, combing the ruins and all, it wasn't no trouble to tell how it was, anyway most of it, and here's how they figured it out:
Soon as Duke seen Lura fall, right there in front of the house, he knowed he was up against it. So the first thing he done was run to where she was and put the gun in her hand, to make it look like she had shot herself. That was where he madeÂ
Â mistake, because if he had kept the gun he might of had a chance. Then he went inside to telephone, and what he said was, soon as he got hold of the state police: “For God's sake come out here quick. My wife has went crazy and throwed the baby to the tiger and shot herself and I'm all alone in the house with him andâ
oh, my God, here he comes!”
Now that last was something he didn't figure on saying. So far as he knowed, the tiger was in the room, having a nice meal off his son, so everything was hotsy-totsy. But what he didn't know was that that piece of burning firewood that Lura had dropped had set the room on fire and on account of that the tiger had got out. How did he get out? We never did quite figure that out. But this is how I figure it, and one man's guess is good as another's:
The fire started near the window, we knew that much. That was where Lura dropped the stick, right next to the cradle, and that was where a guy coming down the road in a car first seen the flames. And what I think is that soon as the tiger got his eye off the meat and seen the fire, he begun to scramble away from it, just wild. And when a wild tiger hits a beaverboard wall, he goes through, that's all. While Duke was telephoning, Rajah come through the wall like a clown through a hoop, and the first thing he seen was Duke, at the telephone, and Duke wasn't no friend, not to Rajah he wasn't
Anyway, that's how things was when I got there with the oil. The state cops was a little ahead of me, and I met the ambulance with Lura in it, coming down the road seventy mile an hour, but just figured there had been a crash up the road, and didn't know nothing about it having Lura in it. And when I drove up, there was plenty to look at all right. The house was in flames, and the police was trying to get in, but couldn't get nowheres near it on account of the heat, and about a hundred cars parked all around, with people looking, and a gasoline pumper cruising up and down the road, trying to find a water connection somewhere they could screw their hose to.
But inside the house was the terrible part. You could hear Duke screaming, and in between Duke was the tiger. And both of them was screams of fear, but I think the tiger was worse. It is a awful thing to hear a animal letting out a sound like that. It kept up about five minutes after I got there, and then all of a sudden you couldn't hear nothing but the tiger. And then in a minute that stopped.
There wasn't nothing to do about the fire. In a half hour the whole place was gone, and they was combing the ruins for Duke. Well, they found him. And in his head was four holes, two on each side, deep. We measured them fangs of the tiger. They just fit.
Soon as I could I run in to the hospital. They had got the bullet out by that time, and Lura was laying in bed all bandaged around the head, but there was a guard over her, on account of what Duke said over the telephone. He was a state cop. I sat down with him, and he didn't like it none. Neither did I. I knowed there was something funny about it, but what broke your heart was Lura, coming out of the ether. She would groan and mutter and try to say something so hard it would make your head ache. After a while I got up and went in the hall. But then I see the state cop shoot out of the room and line down the hall as fast as he could go. At last she had said it. The baby was in the electric icebox. They found him there, still asleep and just about ready for his milk. The fire had blacked up the outside, but inside it was as cool and nice as a new bathtub.
Well, that was about all. They cleared Lura, soon as she told her story, and the baby in the icebox proved it. Soon as she got out of the hospital she got a offer from the movies, but 'stead of taking it she come out to the place and her and I run it for a while, anyway the filling-station end, sleeping in the shacks and getting along nice. But one night I heard a rattle from a bum differential, and I never even bothered to show up for breakfast the next morning.
I often wish I had. Maybe she left me a note.
met her a month ago at a little cafÃ© called Mike's Joint, in Cottage City, Maryland, a town just over the District line from Washington, D. C. As to what she was doing in this lovely honkytonk, I'll get to it, all in due time. As to what I was doing there, I'm not at all sure that I know as it wasn't my kind of place. But even a code clerk gets restless, especially if he used to dream about being a diplomat and he wound up behind a glass partition, unscrambling cables. And on top of that was my father out in San Diego, who kept writing me sarcastic letters telling how an A-1 canned-goods salesman had turned into a Z-99 government punk, and wanting to know when I'd start working for him again, and making some money. And on top of that was Washington, with the suicide climate it has, which to a Californian is the same as death, only worse.
Or it may have been lack of character. But whatever it was, there I sat, at the end of the bar, having a bottle of beer, when from behind me came a voice: “Mike, a light in that âphone booth would help. People could see to dial. And that candle in there smells bad.”
“Yes, Miss, I'll get a bulb.”
“I know, Mike, but when?”
“I'll get one.”
She spoke low, but meant business. He tossed some cubes in a glass and made her iced coffee, and she took the next stool to drink it. As soon as I could see her I got a stifled feeling. She was blonde, a bit younger than I am, which is 25, medium size, with quite a shape, and good-looking enough, though maybe no raving beauty. But what cut my wind were the clothes and the way she wore them. She had on a peasant blouse, with big orange beads dipping into the neck, black shoes with high heels and fancy lattice-work straps, and a pleated orange skirt that flickered around her like flame. And to me, born right on the border, that outfit spelled Mexico, but hot Mexico, with chili, castanets, and hat dancing in it, which I love. I looked all the law allowed, and then had to do eyes front, as she began looking, at her beads, at her clothes, at her feet, to see what the trouble was.
Soon a guy came in and said the bookies had sent him here to get paid off on a horse. Mike said have a seat, the young lady would take care of him. She said: “At the table in the corner. I'll be there directly.”
I sipped my beer and thought it over. If I say I liked that she was pay-off girl from some bookies, I'm not telling the truth, and if I say it made any difference, I'm telling a downright lie. I just didn't care, because my throat had talked to my mouth, which was so dry the beer rasped through it. I watched her while she finished her coffee, went to the table, and opened a leather case she'd been holding in her lap. She took out a tiny adding machine, some typewritten sheets of paper, and a box of little manila envelopes. She handed the guy a pen, had him sign one of the sheets, and gave him one of the envelopes. Then she picked up the pen and made a note on the sheet. He came to the bar and ordered a drink. Mike winked at me. He said: “They make a nice class of business, gamblers do. When they win they want a drink, and when they lose they need one.”
More guys came, and also girls, until they formed a line, and when they were done at the table they crowded up to the bar. She gave some of them envelopes, but not all. Quite a few paid her, and she'd tap the adding machine. Then she had a lull. I paid form my beer, counted ten, swallowed three times, and went over to her table. When she looked up I took off my hat and said: “How do I bet on horses?”
“â¦ You sure you want to?”
“I think so.”
“You know it's against the law?”
“I've heard it is.”
“I didn't say it was wrong. It's legal at the tracks, and what's all right one place can't be any holing outrage some place else, looks like. But you should know how it is.”
“Okay, I know.”
“Then sit down and I'll explain.”
We talked jerky, with breaks between, and she seemed as rattled as I was. When I got camped down, though, it changed. She drew a long trembly breath and said: “It has to be done by telephone. These gentlemen, the ones making the book, cant have a mob around, so it's all done on your word, like in an auction room, where a nod is as good as a bond, and people don't rat on their bids. I take your name, address, and phone, and when you're looked up you'll get a call. They give you a number, and from then on you phone in and your name will be good for your bets.”
“My name is Miles Kearny.”
She wrote it on an envelope, with my phone and address, an apartment in southeast Washington. I took the pen from her hand, rubbed ink on my signet right, and pressed the ring on the envelope, so the little coronet, with the three tulips over it, showed nice and clear. She got some ink off my hand with her blotter, then studied the impression on the envelope. She said: “Are you a prince or something?”
“No, but it's been in the family. And it's one way to get my hand held. And pave the way for me to ask something.”
“Are you from the West?”
“No, I'm not. I'm from Ohio. Why?”
“And you've never lived in Mexico?”
“No, but I love Mexican clothes.”
“Then that explains it.”
“How you come to look that way andâand how I came to fall for you. I am from the West. Southern California.”
She got badly rattled again and after a long break said: “Have you got it straight now? About losses? They have to be paid.”
“I generally pay what I owe.”
There was a long, queer break then, and she seemed to have something on her mind. At last she blurted out: “And do you really want in?”
“Listen, I'm over twenty-one.”
“In's easy. Out's not.”
“You mean it's habit-forming?”
“I mean, be careful who you give your name to, or your address, or phone.”
“They give theirs, don't they?”
“They give you a number.”
“Is that number yours, too?”
“I can be reached there.”
“And who do I ask for?”
“That all the name you got?”
“In this business, yes.”
“I want in.”
Next day, by the cold gray light of Foggy Bottom, which is what they call the State Department, you'd think that I'd come to my senses and forget her. But I thought of her all day long, and that night I was back, on the same old stool, when she came in, made a call from the booth, came out, squawked about the light, and picked up her coffee to drink it. When she saw me she took it to the table. I went over, took off my hat, and said: “I rang in before I came. My apartment house. But they said no calls came in for me.”
“It generally takes a while.”
That seemed to be all, and I left. Next night it was the same, and for some nights after that. But one night she said, “Sit down,” and then: “Until they straighten it out, why don't you bet with me? Unless, of course, you have to wait until post time. But if you're satisfied to pick them the night before, I could take care of it.”
“You mean, you didn't give in my name?”
“I told you, it all takes time.”
“Why didn't you give it in?”
“Okay, let's bet.”
I didn't know one horse from another, but she had a racing paper there, and I picked a horse called Fresno, because he reminded me of home and at least I could remember his name. From the weights he looked like a long shot, so I played him to win, place, and show, $2 each way. He turned out an also-ran, and the next night I kicked in with $6 more and picked another horse, still trying for openings to get going with her. That went on for some nights, I hoping to break through, she hoping I'd drop out, and both of us getting nowhere. Then one night Fresno was entered again and I played him again, across the board. Next night I put down my $6, and she sat staring at me. She said: “But Fresno won.”
“Oh. Well say. Good old Fresno.”
“He paid sixty-four eighty for two.”
I didn't much care, to tell the truth. I didn't want her money. But she seemed quite upset. She went on: “However, the top bookie price, on any horse that wins, is twenty to one. At that I owe you forty dollars win money, twenty-two dollars place, and fourteen dollars show, plus of course the six that you bet. That's eighty-two in all. Mr. Kearny, I'll pay you tomorrow. I came away before the last race was run, and I just now got the results when I called in. I'm sorry, but I don't have the money with me, and you'll have to wait.”
“Ruth, I told you from the first, my weakness isn't horses. It's you. If six bucks a night is the ante, okay, that's how it is, and dirt cheap. But if you'll act as a girl ought to act, quit holding out on me, what your name is and how I get in touch, I'll quit giving an imitation of a third-rate gambler, and we'll both quit worrying whether you pay me or not. We'll start over, andâ”
“What do you mean, act as a girl ought to act?”
“I mean go out with me.”
“On this job how can i?”
“Somebody making you hold it?”
“They might be, at that.”
“With a gun to your head, maybe?”
“They got 'em, don't worry.”
“There's only one thing wrong with that. Some other girl and a gun, that might be her reason. But not you. You don't say yes to a gun, or to anybody giving you orders, or trying to. If you did, I wouldn't be here.”
She sat looking down in her lap, and then, in a very low voice: “I don't say I was forced. I do say, when you're young you can be a fool. Then people can do things to you. And you might try to get back, for spite. Once you start that, you'll be in too deep to pull out.”
“Oh, you could pill out, if you tried.”
“How, for instance?”
“Marrying me is one way.”
“Me, a pay-off girl for a gang of bookies, marry Miles Kearny, a guy with a crown on his ring and a father that owns a big business and a motherâwho's your mother, by the way?”
“My mother's dead.”
We had dead air for a while, and she said: “Mr. Kearny, men like you don't marry girls like me, at least to live wit them and like it. Maybe a wife can have cross eyes or buck teeth; but she can't have a past.”
“Ruth, I told you, my first night here, I'm from California, where we've got present and future. There isn't any past. Too many of their grand-mothers did what you do, they worked for gambling houses. They dealt so much faro and rolled so many dice and spun so many roulette wheels, in Sacramento and Virginia City and San Francisco, they don't talk about the past. You go tot admit they made a good state though, those old ladies and their children. They made the best there is, and that' where I'd be taking you, and that's why we'd be happy.”
“Are you married, Ruth?”
“No, but it's out.”
“Why is it?”
“I'll pay you tomorrow night.”
Next night the place was full, because a lot of them had bet a favorite that came in and they were celebrating their luck. When she'd paid them off she motioned and I went over. She picked up eight tens and two ones and handed them to me, and to get away from the argument I took the bills and put them in my wallet. Then I tried to start where we'd left off the night before, but she held out her hand and said: “Mr. Kearny, it's been wonderful knowing you, especially knowing someone who always takes off his hat. I've wanted to tell you that. But don't come any more. I won't see you any more, or accept bets, or anything. Goodbye, and good luck.”
“I'm not letting you go.”
“Aren't you taking my hand?”
“We're getting married, tonight.”
Tears squirted out of her eyes, and she said: “Where?”
“Elkton. They got day and night service, for license, preacher and witnesses. Maybe not the way we'd want it done, but it's one way. And it's a two-hour drive in my car.”
“What aboutâ?” She waved at the bag, equipment, and money.
I said: “I tell you, I'll look it all up to make sure, but I'm under the impressionâjust a hunchâthat they got parcel post now, so we can lock, seal, and mail it. How's that?”
“You sure are a wheedling cowboy.”
“Might be, I love you.”
“Might be, that does it.”
We fixed it up then, whispering fast, how I'd wait outside in the car while she stuck around to pay the last few winners, which she said would make it easier. So I sat there, knowing I could still drive off, and not even for a second wanting to. All I could think about was how sweet she was, how happy the old man would be, and how happy our life would be, all full of love and hope and California sunshine. Some people went in the cafÃ©, and a whole slew came out. The juke box started, a tune called
Night and Day
, then played it again and again.
Then it came to me: I'd been there quite a while. I wondered if something was wrong, if maybe
had taken a powder. I got up, walked to the cafÃ©, and peeped. She was still there, at the table. But a guy was standing beside her, with his hat on, and if it was the way he talked or the way he held himself, as to that I couldn't be sure, but I thought he looked kind of mean. I started in. Mike was blocking the door. He said: “Pal, come back later. Just now I'm kind of full.”
“Full? Your crowd's leaving.”
“Yeah, but the cops are watching me.”
“Hey, what is this?”
He'd sort of mumbled, but I roared it, and as he's little and I'm big it took less than a second for him to bounce off me and for me to start past the bar. But the guy heard it, and as I headed for him he headed for me. We met a few feet from her table, and she was white as a sheet. He was tall, thin, and sporty-looking, in a light, double-breasted suit, and I didn't stop until I bumped him and he had to back up. Some girl screamed. I said: “What seems to be the trouble?”