For Your Reading Pleasure: The Cheaters

The full text for you to eyeball…

Chapter One

I wanted a job tending bar about as much as I wanted three legs in my pants but when you’ve got ten bucks in your pocket and a girl waiting for you in a rented room you don’t argue with anything that comes your way.

“Seventy-five a week,” the girl in the employment office said. “And a day off. It could be worse.”

“Oh, sure.”

The girl was rather attractive, probably in her middle twenties, and when she smiled her teeth were very white.

“And you won’t have to pay any fee,” she assured me. “Mr. Fletcher will do that. He only asked us to get somebody big and strong—I guess there’s trouble in the bar off and on—and he told me he would take care of the rest.”

“It must be some dump.”

“Well, it’s in The Dells—on the corner of Fourth Street and Main—and when you’re in The Dells you’re in the slums.” Her eyes brightened. “But it isn’t bad pay, Mr. Mayer. The uptown bars wouldn’t pay more than sixty a week for a bartender.”

This was my second day in Wilton and although I had been to a lot of places this was my first real chance for a job. Ann and I had left the Catskills, around Monticello, because there hadn’t been anything doing, not even table work for her or odd jobs for me, and I had to take whatever was thrown in my direction.

“Okay,” I said. “You give me a note or something and I’ll hop down there.” The address she had mentioned was only a couple of blocks from the room Ann and I had taken on Clay Street in a run-down rooming house where the woman hadn’t cared whether we were married or not. “I have to have something, don’t I?”

“No, I’ll call him while you’re on your way and he’ll be expecting you. We’ve done business with Mr. Fletcher before.”

“I see.”

“He gets a bartender and the man stays a while and then the man leaves.” She favored me with another smile. “Perhaps you’ll be different. Perhaps you’ll stick.” She glanced at the card I had filled out. “Not that you’ve stuck very long at anything before. You haven’t. But then the most you ever made was sixty-five a week and the added ten may make a difference.”

“Time will tell.”

“If you’re hired we’ll get our fee, anyway.”

“Naturally.”

About five minutes later I got out of there, the girl promising to phone this Fletcher mat I was coming, and I walked down the street, smoking as I walked.

Wilton is a city of about twenty thousand and most of the men in it work on the railroad, in the factories or along the docks. I had tried some of the factories but they hadn’t been hiring, nearly all of them telling me they were going to lay off help, and the same thing had been true of the docks and the railroad.

“We can’t live long on ten bucks,” I had said to Ann that morning. “Something has to break and break fast.”

“I’ll try the restaurants and diners today.”

“You do that and I’ll hit the employment agencies. One of us is bound to come up with a little work.”

She had beamed and the slash of her lips, curving upward at the corners, had been as red as her red hair.

“Maybe if we both get jobs we can get married, Clint.”

I hadn’t made any direct reply to this but I had kissed her —she had been naked and warm there in the double bed— and she had apparently taken my action to mean I felt the same way about it as she did. The only hitch was that after sleeping with her for almost two years I still wasn’t sold on the idea of spending the rest of my life with her.

I walked along, thinking that I might be a heel, but I decided that if it hadn’t been me it would have been somebody else. We had both been born and brought up in Beaverkill —that isn’t very far from Roscoe, also in the Catskills—and our farms had been side by side. The first time I had been with her, four years before, she had been sixteen and I had been twenty. She hadn’t had any previous experience with a boy and I had hurt her, making her cry out in the back of the car.

“You could have given me a baby,” she had said afterward. “A girl in school did it once and got a baby.”

“Rest easy. I took care of that.”

“How?”

“Don’t tell me you’re that dumb.”

Nights that I could get the family car, following this, we parked and made love. This went on for two years and then after her father, Arch Stempert, got my oldest sister Olive in a family way we pulled out and left the mess behind us. For the next two years we had worked the resort hotels, doing all right during the summer months but practically starving to death during the winter. This past winter had been worse than ever and we had decided to try our luck in Wilton.

“I worry every month,” she kept saying. “Some night we’re going to get drunk and careless and I’m going to end up with something growing inside of me.”

“My sister got rid of hers.”

“And it cost my father three hundred dollars. I’d never have an abortion, Clint. Never. If you give me a baby it’s going to live.”

I continued walking down Main Street, thinking of these things and wondering where it would all stop. At the age of twenty-four I didn’t have an actual trade that I could follow except farming, if you can call that a trade, and I had no desire to go to work on a farm. I had had all of a farm that I wanted back in Beaverkill. You worked six or seven days a week and if you figured the hours you put in you made peanuts for every hour that you broke your neck. If you owned the farm it was a different story—my father and Arch Stempert did okay—but you don’t buy a farm with ten bucks.

The further I got down Main Street the more ugly the buildings looked, every one of them in need of some sort of repair. Kids, ragged and dirty, played in the street, jumping to the sidewalk to avoid the passing cars, and a drunk lay sleeping in a doorway. There was an empty wine bottle near the drunk and a package of unopened cigarettes.

I couldn’t figure out why anybody would pay seventy-five dollars a week for a bartender in this miserable neighborhood but if it was what the man paid it was what he paid. Seventy-five was a lot better than fifty or sixty.

I crossed Clay Street, thought about going down to the rooming house to tell Ann, and decided that she would be out. Besides that, I didn’t have the job yet. It could be just a bum lead and I’d be right back where I had started from.

I saw the bar long before I got to it. It was on the corner, in a brick building, and there were several neon beer signs burning in the windows. From where I was I could look to the end of Main Street and see the start of the docks with the river in the background. A freighter was moving slowly up the river and overhead the sky was a pale blue. Even if I didn’t get the job, I thought, the guy might give me a free drink. And I needed a drink. This business of jumping from job to job isn’t any good and you’re always on edge. I had thought of getting a bottle the night before but food comes first and you can’t stretch money.

The only person in the bar when I entered was a fat man sitting at a table and he glanced at me.

“You must be from the employment agency,” he said. “The girl said you were a big guy and, if you’re the one, she wasn’t lying about it.”

I walked over to the table.

“That’s me,” I said.

He got up and held out his hand. He was short, bald as a board and he had a red face. I judged him to be fifty and maybe a few years older.

“Just call me Charlie.”

I shook his hand. It was fat and flabby.

“I’m Clint.”

He looked up at me.

“How tall are you?”

“Six-four.”

“Weigh about two hundred?”

“One ninety, give or take a pound one way or the other.”

“Ever tend bar before?”

“A couple of times.”

He walked toward me with the beer and I noticed that he had a slight limp but I couldn’t tell whether it was his right leg or his left leg that was doing it.

“Care for a drink?”

“A beer would be fine.” I would have rather had a shot but I didn’t want him to think I was a whiskey hound.

While he drew the beers, I looked the place over. The bar was quite long and there were some booths in the back, bordering a small area that could be used for dancing. The walls and ceiling didn’t appear to have been done over in a long while but there was a good back bar, well stocked, and two large mirrors. Between the mirrors stood a tank containing tropical fish.

“Not much doing this time of the day,” he said, putting a glass of beer in front of me. “We don’t hit our stride until the people get out of work and then we boom along until closing time at three.”

“You always stay open until three?”

He nodded and reached for a cigar.

“Every night of the week. While we may not do much after midnight—mostly uptown guys looking for girls—our customers expect it and we have to please them. About two you get the girls—they’re usually finished for the night then —and they’re heavy drinkers.”

“Girls?”

“That’s what I said. There are four of them who work out of here and they have rooms up the street. It may not be legal but it’s good for business. We get some big spenders who make dates with the girls. If the girl they want is busy they hang around and wait and the cash register rings.”

It followed. He didn’t have a dive in the slums for nothing. The girls probably gave him a cut and that could amount to a considerable sum of money. I had worked one place in Sullivan County where they could have given the booze away free and still cleaned up plenty on the prostitutes. But the police had caught up with the owners and I’d been out of a job in less than a month.

“What about the cops?” I asked, taking a drink of the beer. “You pay off to stay out of trouble?”

“I do and the girls do. The detective, Red Brandon, who works this section, knocks the girls down for all they can afford. I even heard that last year he knocked one of them up but you can’t prove it by me. She don’t come around no more. Some say she went to Florida with a salesman and that she stuck him with the kid.”

“Nice people,” I said, lighting a cigarette.

“None of them that come in here are nice. You get a husband at one end of the bar and a wife at the other end and they’re both playing around with somebody else. If you ask me, half the kids in The Dells are bastards.”

“Any of them yours?”

“Have another beer,” he said without answering.

He drew a couple of more and he was very good at it. There was just the right amount of head. If there’s anything that burns me up, even though I’m not paying for it, is to have a beer that’s half foam.

“I need a big guy,” he said, resting his weight on his elbows. “Some of those dockers are nuts and they can get out of hand. They don’t bother me none because I own the joint but if a bartender can’t take his own part they’ve got no respect for him. I don’t allow no fighting in here. If they want to fight they’ve got the street.” He shrugged. “You know how some people get when they’re tanked up. They either want to pick up some dame or they want to mix it with the rough stuff. The dames I don’t mind. Half of the single girls and wives in The Dells are nothing but whores. You’ll see what I mean if I take you on. There isn’t a form of creep in the world who hasn’t been in here at one time or another.”

I assured him that I wasn’t afraid of anybody and that I could take care of myself. I remembered a guy in Roscoe who would be willing to attest to that fact. I had busted his jaw in three places with one smash.

“You honest?” Charlie Fletcher asked me.

“All I want is my seventy-five a week.”

“That was what the last fellow, Barney, said, but he clipped me right and left.” He paused. “My wife, Debbie, takes care of the cash in the morning and she discovered it. Let me tell you you don’t fool Debbie none. She’s got an eye out for the buck and what she misses isn’t worth finding.” He laughed, obviously pleased that he had such a competent wife. “You try knocking down and she’ll catch you every time.”

“She won’t catch me because I won’t do it.”

“I just told you that’s what Barney said. So did a couple of others.”

“And I said what I said. You have to take it or leave it.”

He seemed to accept my statement and he began telling me a few things about himself. Debbie was his second wife —his first one had died of cancer of the breast—and he had a daughter who was twenty-eight.

“But Ruth don’t want no part of this business,” he explained. “She’s got a nice house and nice kids—four of ’em— and her husband has a big garage. Of course,” he added, “I own part of the garage. When you get right down to it I own parts of lots of things. I even got an interest in a housing development—middle class homes—and they are just some of the reasons I have to have somebody take over nights for me. Days we aren’t very busy and I can get along but the nights are hell. It starts at five o’clock and goes for about seven hours and I’ve had enough of it—close to twenty years suffering through people’s remarks.” He leaned forward. “The right kind of a guy can feather his nest here, Clint. You get a fair pay for doing your job and if you show me that you’ve got the right sort of interest in it I’d consider selling out.”

“With ten dollars in my pocket I’m not a likely prospect.”

“Oh, it wouldn’t have to be cash. We could work out some kind of an arrangement where you could pay me off by the month. That works out better from a tax standpoint for me. You could earn a nice living by working part of the shift yourself and hiring somebody else to work the other part.”

We seemed to hit it off right away but it was more on his side than it was on mine. I never had much use for any man who sold female flesh, or had anything to do with it, and I didn’t draw the line with him. To me, a girl was somebody to be pursued, conquered and enjoyed. You buy fish by the pound on Friday, or any other day of the week, but that, in my book, didn’t go for a girl. I had been with several girls who sold their favors for money but it wasn’t quite the same as getting it for nothing. When you get it for nothing it’s because the girl wants to and it’s better that way. That was one thing about Ann—she had a bed for a mind and that’s where she put her body.

“You married?” he asked me.

“No.”

“Girl?”

“Yeah, I’ve got a girl.”

“She with you?”

“We’ve got a room on Clay Street.”

“You might call her and tell her you’ve got a job.”

I was slightly surprised.

“So soon?”

“I make up my mind fast. You’ve got the build to command respect and I might as well take a chance on you—if you prove out—as take a chance on somebody else. Right now you don’t know much about me and I don’t know much about you so that makes us even.”

I listened to him while he resumed talking about himself. He was fifty-two—I had come close to guessing his age—and he lived with his wife in the apartment over the bar. His wife didn’t have much to do with the business, only took care of the money, and once in a while she came down to have a drink before closing time. When he was free at night —my hours would be from six until three the next morning—he went to meetings uptown and took care of his other affairs. I was to have Tuesday off—Tuesday, he said, was slow in The Dells—and if he had me work any extra time I would get paid for it.

“When can you start?” he asked me.

“Right now.

He smiled.

“Well, that’s what I like to hear. I don’t go for guys who have excuses. If you need a job you need a job and there’s no two ways about that.”

“True.”

“I can work with you tonight for a few hours and show you the ropes. There isn’t much to learn, only where I keep the money to cash pay checks and like that. Beer is ten cents and shots are thirty. So is gin. We sell a lot of gin. You won’t get asked for any fancy drinks because most of our customers—I don’t mean the guys from uptown— never heard of them.”

“Sounds easy.”

“It is and there’s money to be made here. Some of the drunks leave their change on the bar and that belongs to you. There was a time that I tried to keep it separated for them but I gave up on that fast.”

My glass was empty and he drew me another beer, more head than it had been the last time but it was still all right. I noticed the taps were all one brand and I asked him about that.

“These people will drink anything,” he said. “Why put up with three or four salesmen when you can get all you need from one?”

“Sounds logical.”

He didn’t draw a beer for himself.

“I’ve got sugar,” he said. “I shouldn’t touch the stuff. All I have to do is get high and I suffer the next day.”

“The beer isn’t the best brand,” I observed. “You must save about two dollars on each half that you buy.”

He grinned.

“You catch on fast, but at ten cents a glass you have to cut corners.”

“Naturally.”

“There’s a phone under the bar if you want to call your girl.”

“Thanks, but I don’t remember the name of the woman who has the rooming house. And my girl won’t worry. She’ll know that I got something or I would have been back.”

“Trusting soul, huh?”

“Not so trusting but what can she do about it?”

I broke the ten to get change for cigarettes and he kept on talking about himself. It was true that I had only met the man a short time before but there was something about him that I didn’t like. It may have been because he made money from girls or it may have been that he seemed so sure of himself. I didn’t know just what it was but for the chance of a job I would have gone to work for the devil and not thought twice about it.

“We’ll get along,” he said finally.

“Sure.”

I wondered if we would and for how long.

Chapter Two

The girl in the employment office had been right about The Dells being a slum area. After the day shift on the docks and in the factories ended they started coming into the bar, most of them in their working clothes and all of them drinking fast and hard. A lot of them hit the wine—that was twenty-five cents a glass—a few went for whiskey but a large majority stuck to beer or gin.

“It’s a long bar,” Charlie Fletcher said.

“Long enough.”

“But you cover it fast. And you don’t let the empty glasses set. That’s important. They come in here to drink and you can’t make any money from an empty glass.”

It took me a while to get used to the cash register—it wasn’t a new one—and he showed me where he kept the money for cashing checks. He had the money in a fishing tackle box in one of the cabinets under the back bar, all sorted out in singles and fives and tens and twenties.

“No personal checks,” he said. “You cash a personal check down here and you might as well throw the paper away.”

At seven one of the taps ran out and I had to go down cellar with him to prove that I could tap a half.

“Slick,” he said when I had finished with the job.

“I told you I could, didn’t I?”

“So did some of the others but when it came right down to it they didn’t know what they were doing.”

He stayed with me about half an hour longer and before he left he gave me a combination to the safe.

“Before you close put all of the bills from the register and that check cashing box in the safe. I don’t care about the change in the drawer. If anybody breaks in here they can have the god-damned change.”

I hit a lull about eight but a few minutes after that it began to pick up again. Some of the men who had been in earlier had been home for supper and now they were back. Most of them hadn’t changed their clothes and they talked about their work on the railroad or on the docks or how they were getting pushed around in the factories.

“You gotta have a union,” one man said. “You work in a shop without no union and you might as well go out and hang yourself.”

“The unions are a lotta crap,” his companion said. “The guys in charge get you a ten-cent raise, boost your dues a buck a month and ride around in Caddys.”

There were a few women at the bar—apparently they had come in with their husbands—but they were playing the field and nobody seemed to care.

“You couldn’t be no worse than my old man,” one woman said to the elderly male sitting beside her. “He ain’t been with me that way in over six months. You’d think I had something wrong with me.”

It kept me busy bouncing up and down the bar but it was good to be working again. The ten wouldn’t last us long, or what was left of the ten, and I’d have to ask Charlie Fletcher for an advance in the next day or so. I didn’t think that he would refuse me. Almost anybody who starts on a new job needs some help in the beginning. Of course, there was plenty of chances to knock down—the people at the bar weren’t paying any attention to what I was doing—and I won’t say that I didn’t think about it. But I quickly pushed the idea aside. I needed this job, needed it badly, and I couldn’t run any risk of being caught. I didn’t know his wife but she was probably a prying old bitch with the mind of a hawk and the suspicions of a female dog with a new litter of pups. For all I knew she might be one of the women at the bar. I hadn’t met her and I didn’t know her from a bale of straw.

By eleven I had a full house, both the bar and the booths in back, and I had to put on all the steam I had to keep up with the demands of the customers. It was easy to understand how he had made money in such a dump and it was just as easy to understand why he wanted to get out of it.

“You don’t know me,” one girl at the bar said as I poured her a shot of rye.

“How would I? I just started here.”

“I’m Martha Foster.”

“So okay.”

“Didn’t Charlie tell you about the girls?”

“He told me.”

“Well, I’m one of them.” She smiled at me. “You help steer some men my way and I could be very nice to you.

She didn’t look older than eighteen and she had a tight little body that was probably very good. Her dress was low in front and she had a nice cleavage, not the deep kind that you sometimes see but the wide cleavage of breasts that were far apart.

“I’ll do what I can,” I said.

She was still smiling at me.

“I’ll bet there’s one thing that you can do—and do well.”

I left her alone and it wasn’t long before she left with a man. I didn’t want to have anything to do with her. I had all I could take care of in the rooming house on Clay Street.

For the rest of the night, or a part of it, anyway, girls kept coming in and going out with men, but by midnight most of the working people had left. There was only one argument, something about baseball, but it didn’t amount to anything. I just told the guys to shut up and they shut up.

By midnight there were only two men at the bar and I had a couple of drinks, whiskey this time, and talked to them. They were from uptown and they wanted a little fun before they went home. I mentioned Martha Foster and the one man said he had been with her once.

“She’s good,” he said. “She don’t rush you and if you want something out of the ordinary she’s willing.”

About half an hour later Martha returned, joining the two men, and they soon went out together. It wasn’t long after this that three girls came in and ordered shots, two rye and one scotch over the rocks.

I had seen all of the girls during the evening, going and coming from the bar, but now that we were alone they introduced themselves. One was Gloria Forbes, another Jennie Corby and the third said she was Kathy Nelson. Of the three Kathy was the best and she didn’t look much older than Martha, possibly a year or, at the most, two. They made no excuses about what they did for a living and they got a big kick out of comparing the men they had been with that night.

“He got in bed with me and then he couldn’t,” Kathy said. “I told him he should take some of those pep pills they advertise. But he paid me and said he would be back again. Can you make ten bucks any easier?”

They stayed about an hour and they drank steadily. A few men stopped in at the bar but all they were after were quick drinks and they didn’t bother with the girls. When the girls said goodnight they went out alone.

For the next half-hour I sat at the end of the bar, belting the booze, and thinking about what good luck I had had! Maybe Charlie’s place left a lot to be desired but it was a job and you don’t start out at seventy-five a week on many jobs. I hadn’t found any change on top of the bar, not as he had said I might, but most of the people hadn’t been loaded enough to forget what belonged to them.

I was on a double shot of rye, still thinking, when the door opened and this girl came in. With the red sweater that she was wearing and the way she filled it out I didn’t pay much notice to her face. Ann was thirty-six at the bust but this girl was a hell of a lot bigger. My guess was that if she wasn’t forty she wasn’t anything at all. And the bounce to them as she came toward the bar sort of took my breath away. They were tilted and high, sticking straight out, but there was a fullness to them like I had never seen before. I swallowed hard and looked at the rest of her. She had a flat stomach, hardly anything to it at all, but when I glanced at her hips under a gray skirt I saw that they were alive and moving, the kind of generous hips that could drive you out of your mind if you stared at them long enough.

“Hello,” she said, sitting on a stool that was close to me.

I got up and moved behind the bar. “Hi.”

She was blonde, her hair long and almost down to her shoulders. She shook her head, fluffing out her hair, and those blue eyes of hers were deep pools of mystery. She had full lips and as she smiled I saw that her teeth were very white and even. I guess I could say she had the face of a movie doll and not miss the target by much.

“Scotch and soda,” she said. “And make it light on the soda.”

“Okay.”

I took the best scotch in the house—Charlie hadn’t told me how much to charge for scotch so I had been charging only thirty cents—and fixed the drink. My hand trembled slightly but I didn’t think anything about that. Any guy was apt to be unsteady when a dame like this walked in on him. You took one look at her and you saw a bedroom. In fact, you saw more than that. You saw her in the bedroom, naked and waiting for you, her voice low and soft as you went to her.

“You must be Clint,” she said as she stirred the drink.

I didn’t know how she knew my name.

“I’m Clint.”

She sat there for a moment, thoughtful and silent. I was looking down into those blue eyes again and that bedroom didn’t seem to be very far away at all. She lowered her eyes briefly, picking up the drink, and my glance wandered to her breasts. My throat was dry and hot. The sweater was tight, probably about two sizes too small for her, and the weave in the material parted just enough so that I could tell that she wasn’t wearing any bra underneath. She was a woman up there, all woman, and she needed support for them like I needed a second head.

“I’m Debbie,” she said, putting the glass down and looking up at me once more. “Debbie Fletcher. Did my husband tell you about me?”

I had to have a drink and I reached for the rye. Hell, she wasn’t half his age and all along I’d been thinking that she was some old slob. Suddenly, and for a reason I didn’t understand, I felt a burning dislike for him, even worse than it had been before. He had this beautiful number all to himself in the apartment over the bar and when he got the urge he took her to bed. Somehow it didn’t seem right.

“I see,” I said.

Her laughter was filled with music.

“You act surprised. Why?”

“Well, there’s a big difference in ages.”

“Thirty years, almost to the day. His birthday is one week and mine is the next.” She toyed with the glass. “Is it a crime to marry somebody old enough to be your father?”

“No, I guess not.” The rye went down easily and quickly. “If you love somebody the age doesn’t have much to do with it.”

“My parents didn’t think so.”

“You can’t always satisfy parents. They get something into their heads and you can’t get it out short of cutting their heads off.”

She had another drink and lit a cigarette, taking the cigarette from a pack I had lying on the bar.

“How did it go tonight?” she asked.

“All right.”

“Any trouble?”

“Not to speak of.”

“The girls in?”

“They were here.”

“What do you think of the girls?”

“It isn’t my job to think. They spend their money and they bring business to the bar. What they do is their business. I don’t have anything to say about the matter.”

“I wish he would get out of it.”

“Then talk to him.”

“I have but it doesn’t do any good. He figures he makes forty or fifty dollars a night from them and that’s good money.”

“It won’t do him any good if they put him in jail because of it.”

“That’s what I’ve said but he won’t listen to me. Charlie is a funny man. The more he makes the more he wants. Every night he’s out on some sort of a deal and I sit upstairs by myself. A girl gets tired of that You turn on the television and all you see are westerns. You read magazines and it’s the same old junk. A girl—any girl—wants more out of marriage than that.”

I got the impression that he wasn’t living up to his physical obligations with her and that interested me. I poured another slug of rye for myself and decided that. If I was married to her she would have to beg me to stop—and then I wouldn’t stop.

“What does a girl want out of marriage?” I inquired.

Her eyes were very frank.

“Pretty much the same as a man should want.”

“Oh?”

“If she’s young and healthy—and I’m both, I think—she wants to be loved and have a family. But he says he’s too old for children. He’s already got a daughter older than I am. Can you tie that? I’m a stepmother and my stepdaughter was born six years before I was.”

“Novel, to say the least.”

“And don’t think Ruth hasn’t reminded me of it.” She didn’t stop drinking and I poured the shots for her.

After the fifth or sixth one she didn’t want any soda and that made it easy. I wasn’t doing so badly on the rye and it wasn’t long before I began to feel what I had consumed. Even a bartender can’t belt the bottle and stay sober forever.

“Wonder where he could be at this hour,” she said at one point.

“Beats me.”

“I could make a guess and be a hundred percent right.”

“Which puts you a hundred percent ahead of me.”

“You met that Kathy Nelson, didn’t you?”

“I met her.”

“Well, he’s got a yen for that. Don’t ask me why. You’d think he had enough at home to keep him satisfied.”

“I’d say so.”

I stayed until three but not many people came in. One guy was so drank I wouldn’t serve him and he called me a dirty bastard. Most of the time we just drank and talked. She said that she would be glad when he sold the bar, if he ever did, and that she had the desire to travel.

“Florida,” she added. “Have you ever been there?”

“No.”

“Neither have I but from what I’ve heard it’s for me. Give me a sandy beach and a bathing suit and I wouldn’t ask for anything else.”

I figured that she wouldn’t have to ask for anything once she put on a bathing suit. Somebody would give it to her and give it to her good. While her old man was chasing some whore a guy would be giving her what came natural. I just wished that I was that guy and the more I talked to her and the more I saw of her the more I wished that I could have just ten minutes with her.

She helped me with the money, putting rubber bands around the bills, and when we walked to the safe, me carrying the check cashing money, we bumped together. A strange sensation crawled up and down my spine at the contact and I had all I could do to keep myself from going after her right then and there.

As soon as we had the money locked up we had another drink before turning out the lights.”

“I hope you stay,” she said.

“Why?”

She was slow in replying.

“Because I kind of like you. Charlie said you were big but I didn’t think you were as big as you are. We’ve had some big bartenders before—none as big as you—but they didn’t last.”

“How come?”

“They had light fingers.”

“You won’t have to worry about that with me.”

“I hope not.”

I switched off the lights—she said to leave the small one over the cash register burning—and I snapped the lock into position as we went outside. The entrance to the apartment upstairs was at one end of the building and I parted from her there. I’d have given all of my left arm and half of my right to have gone up there with her. If I knew anything about girls she was in the mood to be loved and I was in the mood to make love, endless love that would come to a climax in a world all of its own.

“See you,” I said as I started down the street.

“You can count on that.”

I should have been tired but I didn’t feel like going to the room. It would be a bigger thrill to just walk the streets and think about that Debbie Fletcher. She would be good and I knew she would be good. She would be the best that a man could have—and then some. She would drain a man of all need, all fury, and then she would cry for more and more.

I wiped the sweat from my forehead and walked toward Clay Street. I decided that I must be going nuts. We had had a nice talk together but she hadn’t said anything really out of the way. She hadn’t acted like a girl on the make—and, yet, there had been that look in her eyes, a look that had held something between a promise and a challenge.

When I got to Clay Street I turned left and I had a little difficulty finding the rooming house. The only way I could distinguish it—there were several houses that all looked alike —was because half of the railing for the front porch was lying on the ground.

It was getting late, probably close to four o’clock, and I didn’t think Ann would be up but she was. She was sitting on the bed, wearing a thin yellow negligee that contrasted well with her red hair, and she smiled at me when I came in. I walked over to her, bent down and kissed her, feeling her quick response and her arms that crept up around my neck.

“I thought you left me,” she said.

I sat down beside her.

“What made you think that?”

“Because I knew how little money you had left and you were very depressed. People do funny things sometimes.”

“I got a job.”

“So did I. In a diner uptown. And I worked.”

“The hell.”

“I made almost ten dollars in tips.”

“Not bad.”

“But on the way down I wasted some of it. I thought you would want a drink and I was fairly sure that you wouldn’t use any of the ten to buy it. I got a pint of rye.”

“I’ve already had plenty to drink.”

“I know. I can smell it. And I could taste it when you kissed me.”

I told her about the job, about the seventy-five dollars a week, and she was pleased. The diner where she had hired out, she said, was modern and the tips excellent. Some of the girls working there had told her they knocked out a hundred dollars or more a week.

“We made a wise move coming down here,” I said.

“Didn’t we though?”

“You can starve to death in that god-damned Sullivan County at this time of the year. Your only chance is to get a job in a hotel that doesn’t close and those jobs are hard to come by.”

“We had one once,” she reminded me.

“So we did.”

“Until the man who owned it tried to take me to bed and I slapped his face for getting fresh.”

I remembered the place and I remembered the man. It had been a fairly large hotel and the man who made the mortgage payments had, at one time or another, slept with nearly all of the waitresses. He had been attracted to Ann right from the start—I had been helping in the kitchen and I had been able to see him follow her around, patting her fanny and things like that—and we had only lasted a month. He had followed her into the storeroom one night as we were getting ready to close, shutting the door behind him—there hadn’t been any lock on the door—and I had heard her hollering at him. She had already been fired by the time I busted in and I had lost my own job by clipping him one on the jaw. The only good thing about it had been the fact that he had paid us that morning and that we didn’t have any pay coming.

“We can get an apartment,” she was saying.

“Huh?”

“Well, with what you’re making and what I make we can swing it. How much do you have to pay for a furnished apartment?”

“I don’t know.”

“It wouldn’t be much more than sixty or seventy dollars a month, would it?”

“I wouldn’t think so.”

“You’ll be getting seventy-five a week and I’ll make at least that. We can even put a little away.” She yawned and lay back on the bed. “Gee, isn’t it wonderful? This morning we were almost broke and now we’ve got the best break we’ve ever had. It just goes to show you that if you keep on trying you’re bound to make out.” She laughed. “What if the folks could see us now? They wouldn’t say we were nuts, would they?”

“It’s more than they make on the farms, for all of their hard work.”

I got up from the bed and found the bottle of rye, still wrapped in brown paper, standing on the dresser. I unwrapped the bottle and twisted the cap loose. There weren’t any glasses around but the bottle was fine with me.

“This room is a dump,” she said, sitting up, her breasts rising and falling beneath the thin material.

It was a dump but for five dollars a week we couldn’t expect much more than that. The walls hadn’t been papered in years and there were big cracks in the ceiling. Some of the plaster from the ceiling had dropped down onto the faded carpet and nobody had bothered to clean it up. The furniture was old—what there was of it—and the bed had a big hollow in the center that made two people sleep very close together.

We sat on the bed and drank from the bottle, smoking cigarettes and talking. I should have been paying attention to her but I wasn’t. I was thinking of that Debbie Fletcher, those big breasts of hers, and those blue eyes that had held some meaning that I hadn’t understood. While I was sitting in a rented room on Clay Street she was in her apartment, either alone or with Charlie. I had more or less indicated to her that I didn’t think there was anything strange about a young girl being married to an older man but this marriage I didn’t quite figure. She had so much to offer a man that it didn’t make sense that he should stray so far away from the nest.

“We could even get married,” Ann said.

. I tried to clear my mind and focus it on the present. She had been on that kick ever since we had left Beaverkill but I couldn’t really blame her for it. I was getting mine and she Wanted a ring on her finger. But what girl doesn’t? You give her the business a few times and she thinks she’s got you for life.

“It’s better to wait,” I told her. “Things look good right now but you don’t know how they’ll look next week. A couple of times before we thought we had it solid and then it blew apart.”

She was silent for a moment.

“I’m tired of putting it off, Clint.”

“Let’s see how things turn out.”

“It wouldn’t cost us any more to live together married than it costs us now.”

“I suppose not.”

“And every month I’m scared to death that I’m going to turn up pregnant. I wouldn’t mind getting pregnant if I was married to you but I don’t want to get pregnant while I’m single. It just doesn’t seem right.”

“I never gave you any reason to worry about getting pregnant, have I?”

“No, I guess not but how do you know that we won’t get to drinking and go too far some night? Other couples have done it and we aren’t any different. All it takes is once at the right time.”

“Or the wrong time.”

We killed the bottle and I wasn’t feeling any pain by the time it was done. You might even say that I had a heavy load on and that I was pulling the whole works uphill.

A few minutes later I turned out the light, undressed and went to bed. But I didn’t touch her that night. All I did was kiss her and wish her sweet dreams. I couldn’t touch her.

All I could do was think of that Debbie Fletcher and wish that she were there in that bed with me.

Some day, I promised myself as I drifted off to sleep, my wish would come true. The big question was when.

Chapter Three

It went along pretty good for the next week. I got to know most of the people who came, into the bar and none of them gave me any trouble. The register was usually right—once or twice it was off a few cents, one way or the other—and Charlie was pleased.

“You’re honest,” Charlie told me one day. “I’m sold on that.”

“All I want is my pay.”

“I might even give you an extra ten. It’s worth it to me to know that the joint is running smoothly.”

It wasn’t necessary for me to get an advance from him. Ann made from ten to fifteen dollars a day in tips at the diner and she gave me what little money I needed. I saw very little of her, since she was working days and I was working nights, and most of the time she was asleep when I got to the room. One night, about the third night, she came down to the bar for a while but she didn’t stay long.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said when I crawled into bed beside her. “How do you stand it down there, Clint? It’s obvious that most of the girls just hang around the bar to pick up men.”

“All I do is work there. I don’t ask any questions and nobody gives me any answers.”

“They need a short order cook in the diner. “You’ve done that work before. It would be almost as much money and we could be on the same shift.”

“I’m doing okay where I am.”

“Maybe you like the place.”

“Maybe I do.”

I didn’t like the place. What I liked was the hour before closing when Debbie always came down from the apartment to have a few drinks. She usually wore a skirt and sweater but one night she had on a white blouse and it was very easy to tell that she didn’t have a bra on underneath it. I could look right through the material and see the dark centers of her breasts and when she took a deep breath they pushed out hard and full against the blouse.

“Free show?” she asked me.

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“You know what I mean. If I girl doesn’t have it up here you men just aren’t interested.”

I poured the scotch for her.

“Charlie’s lucky,” I said.

“Only he doesn’t take advantage of his luck. He’s out every night. You know that. He takes a shot for his sugar, changes his clothes and disappears. Sometimes I think I’m losing my appeal.”

“You haven’t lost anything.”

We got to know each other fairly well during these talks and she told me how she had met Charlie. She had won a beauty contest—no big money in it—and because she could sing one of the uptown clubs had put her on the bill.

“They wanted more than singing. They wanted me to do a dance and then they wanted a breast show. I was just a dumb kid and I went along with it. I sang a couple of numbers, stripped out of my gown, did a dance and then took off my bra, not just down to a flesh colored bra but all the way to the skin. Charlie caught the show one night and he asked me over to his table. It was a rule of the management that the girls had to accept invitations from men who wanted to meet them—they made a neat profit off the drinks they sold—and I met Charlie. The others who had met me only wanted to take me to bed but Charlie played it very cool. Nights that he couldn’t be at the club he sent roses and the nights he came he brought me presents. When the police raided the club and picked me up for indecent exposure Charlie hired a lawyer for me and the lawyer got me off. I was out of work at the time—I didn’t know what I wanted to do—and I just drifted into marriage with him.”

This was all very interesting, of course, but it wasn’t getting me what I was after. I tried to hide my desires but she was smart enough to recognize them.

“I know what you’d like to do,” she said one night.

“What?”

She put it straight on the line.

“You’d like me to take you to bed.”

“Well, you’re a very beautiful girl.”

“Think so?”

“I know so.”

“What about your girl?”

“She’s just a girl.”

“And I’d merely be another one?”

“I doubt that very much.”

“Why do you doubt it?”

“Because there’s something special about you.”

But I didn’t get up to her apartment and once when I tried to kiss her before I left for the night she put me off.

“Maybe I’d like for you to do it,” she said, smiling up at me. “But I’m married and I have to remember that.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

That was one night when I woke Ann up when I got into bed. I had to have her, had to have somebody, and if I couldn’t have Debbie Fletcher I would take the next best thing.

“Don’t,” she said after I had crushed my mouth down over her lips. “Don’t, Clint.”

“Don’t tell me you don’t want to.”

She returned my kiss and her lips were blazing, her naked body coming in against me.

“Oh, I want to. It isn’t that.” She kissed me again. “I’ve missed you so damned much and now I want all of you. You know what that means, don’t you? I don’t want you to be careful. I want you time after time, hour after hour, until you no longer can give me what we both have to have.”

She got her wish, got it with all of the violence of the male hungry for the female, and when we woke up we were locked in each other’s arms.

“You may have done it,” she said.

“Time will tell.”

“Don’t ever leave me if you did. I could stand a lot of things alone but not that.”

I attempted to cheer her up.

“Just because there’s lightning in the sky doesn’t mean that a tree is going to be struck.”

“I hope you’re right. I was a little beside myself last night.”

“I wasn’t far behind you.”

“But I’ve got no complaint. I asked for it.”

Some afternoons when there wasn’t anything to do—I hated staying in the room alone—I went down to the bar and hung around. Almost every other afternoon Debbie went to the hairdresser—it didn’t seem to me that it was necessary for her to go so often—and sometimes when she was away from the apartment Charlie took one of the prostitutes upstairs. While this was going on I took over the bar or helped myself to a few slugs of whiskey.

“You’ve gotta get it out of your system,” Charlie explained. “Man was made for woman and woman was made for man.”

“Seems to me your wife is all the woman that you need.”

“Outwardly, yes, but when you tangle in the sheets with her she’s like a block of ice.”

I couldn’t believe that but I didn’t argue with him about it. He was married to her and he should know more than I knew. There are plenty of girls who look like sex pots and who are frigid. To my way of thinking it would take a man to wake her up and Charlie wasn’t the man.

It was a funny thing but this possibility, that she was frigid, only served to make my desire for her deeper and deeper. I simply had to look at her, or think about her, and I wanted to see all that she was, all that she could offer. I wanted to make love to her as no other man had ever made love to her, to feel her body respond in a wild and glorious passion.

I was behind the bar one afternoon—Charlie was upstairs with Martha Foster—when this redheaded man came in and sat down on one of the stools. He was big, not as big as I was, but big, and he ordered a beer. I made change from a dollar and he stood a quarter on end.

“You the new bartender around here?”

“That’s right.”

“How do you like it?”

“It’s okay.”

“He pay you all right?”

“I’ve got no word against that.” I took a quarter out of my pocket and matched his effort. “But I don’t think it’s anybody’s business how he treats me except mine.”

His eyes, gray and pale, drilled my face.

“I make it my business,” he said.

I shrugged my shoulders.

“Go ahead. It won’t get you far.”

“You’d be surprised how far I can get.”

“Well, I can’t stop you from trying.”

“Got some salt for the beer?”

“Why not?”

I got him the salt. A lot of the people who came into the bar used salt in their beer. Personally, I could never go for it.

“Guess you don’t know me,” he said, lighting a cigar.

“No reason why I should. You haven’t been in here while I’ve been working.”

He gave me the same kind of a look again.

“I’m Red Brandon.”

I knew who he was then. I had heard a lot about Brandon from some of the customers. The Dells was his territory and he was a tough cop. He was also dishonest. And he was brutal. If a guy gave him any trouble he lumped him with his billy and then hauled him in for assaulting an officer. The victim could bury himself in lawyers and it wouldn’t do him any good. The Dells was the slum of the city and anybody who came from the slum wasn’t any good at all.

“Okay,” I said. “You’re Red Brandon.”

The tone of my voice, edged with a sneer, didn’t bother him a bit.

“They say your name is Clint.”

“That’s right.”

“And you live with a dame in a rooming house on Clay Street.”

I decided that Charlie had been talking to him.

“We’ve got a room,” I admitted.

He finished his beer but when I went to draw another one he said he didn’t want any.

“She put out?” he asked.

I rinsed out the glass and took my time about replying to him.

“You’re off base,” I said, turning the glass upside down underneath the bar so it would drain. “You just hit a ball over the foul line in left field.”

“Don’t get smart with me.”

“Who’s getting smart?”

“You are. I don’t care if she sleeps with you or not. What would a guy live with a dame for if she didn’t sleep with him? All I care about is whether or not she sells it.”

“She doesn’t.”

“Sure about that?”

It was one of the things that I was sure of.

“Ask her yourself and find out,” I suggested.

“I’m asking you.”

“And I told you she doesn’t.”

He told me he wanted another beer and I drew it. People like that burn you up. They dirty one glass, you wash it and then they dirty a second one.

“I get a cut out of every dame working The Dells, fellow, and don’t forget it. If she’s on the make and you try to count me out it’ll go rough for you. I get fifty bucks a week from each girl for her protection and there’s no fooling about it.”

“You’re a hell of a police officer,” I said. “The people hire you to enforce the laws and you turn around and break them.”

“Don’t blame me. Blame the people who set the pay scale. I get five thousand a year to go out and risk getting a bullet in my guts. And don’t think it hasn’t been close a couple of times. It has. If I didn’t take the money from the girls somebody else would. Take this bar away from them and they’d have to have a pimp. A pimp costs money. I might as well get my share and be happy with it.”

“It’s no affair of mine.”

“And don’t make it one. Guys come in here, strangers, and they want to make a connection. It’s all right for you to tell them about the girls but don’t try getting a slice of the dough. If everybody gets their finger in the pie they’ll be driven out and I don’t want that to happen.”

“I won’t.”

“You hadn’t better.”

He left shortly after that and I washed out the second glass. The way I added it up he wasn’t doing badly. There were four regular girls and if he got fifty a week from each one of them that was two hundred dollars. I had already found out that there were other girls on the street—some of them came into the bar—and they were all available for a price. They were all afraid of Red Brandon, though, afraid of getting pinched, and they had to be careful. They usually spent the whole evening with the same man and they took what they could get for their favors. Many of them just did it for drinks and they didn’t charge. A few of them were married but most of them were single and about twenty and they worked days in the factories.

When Charlie came down from upstairs I told him that Brandon had been in. He wasn’t very happy about it.

“He doesn’t trust anybody,” Charlie said. “The girls pay him off every week and so do I. What’s he worrying about? ‘

“I don’t know.”

“I own the house where the girls take the men and they pay me so much a trick. Out of that I have to pay him. Christ, does he want it all?”

“He wouldn’t refuse it and that’s for sure.”

“Gimme a shot, Clint.”

“What about your sugar?”

“The hell with my sugar.”

I gave him the best rye in the house and he swallowed it in a hurry.

“You mind taking over right now?”

“Not at all.”

“I’ll pay you for it.”

“Thanks.”

“I got a million things to do uptown. There’s a man who wants to buy most or my property and I’ve got a good notion to sell it to him. I don t mean the bar. The bar could become something between you and me.”

“Whatever you say.”

“Just watch out for that Red Brandon. He could frame you faster than you could down a glass of beer.”

I watched him go. I wasn’t worried about Brandon any. What could he do to me? And why would he do it? I was only a fool who worked for a living and I didn’t have anything that anybody wanted.

Up to a certain point, it was a normal night in the bar. The girls arrived about nine and they made dates right away. From then until after midnight they kept coming and going, picking up the men who were waiting for them. The longer the men waited the better it was for business. They were from uptown, salesmen and guys like that, and they drank the hard stuff. A few of them went out and forgot to take their change with them. I made two of three dollars that way.

At two o’clock I was alone in the bar and I dug into the rye, watching the door and waiting for Debbie, promising myself that she wasn’t going to get away from me that night. I had my pay—Charlie had given it to me when I had arrived, plus an additional ten—and she had the time. For a whirl with that hunk of flesh I was willing to spend my last dime. She might be cold to Charlie but she didn’t look cold to me. She looked like a furnace fire to me, a fire that only needed to have the draft turned on.

At two-thirty the door swung open but it wasn’t Debbie. It was Kathy Nelson and she gave me a full smile, just as she had been giving me a full smile ever since I had been working there.

“You alone?” she asked.

“See anybody else?”

She was wearing a close-fitting white dress, low enough to be inviting in front, and she had a good shape. Of all of the girls I had found it more difficult to understand how she could sell herself.

“Gin,” she said, sitting down at the bar. “Nothing else. Just gin.”

I gave her the gin and she put a five on the bar. I didn’t pick up the five.

“On the house,” I said.

“Thanks.”

“You girls spend enough here.”

“Does Charlie think so?”

“I don’t know what he thinks but I would guess that he’s happy about it.”

He’s a pig.”

“Suit yourself.” I looked down the front of her dress and saw what I wanted to see.

“And his wife is a bitch.”

“Those are harsh words.”

She favored me with another smile.

“You’ll find out. Give yourself enough time and I won’t have to draw you a picture. She’s the biggest whore on the street and—”

“Shut up!”

She laughed at me.

“You must like those big bubbies of hers.”

“I said to shut up.”

She drank the gin and left without saying another word After she had gone I noticed the five was still on the bar. I picked it up and put it in my pocket. She could go to hell.

At three o’clock I put the money in the safe, turned off the lights and put the lock into position on the way out.

I walked up the street, as lonely as a man on a deserted island.

This, I concluded, just wasn’t my night.

But, I further concluded, I would have my night.

And it would be something out of this world.

Chapter Four

During the following month one day was about the same as another day. I got up at one o’clock, sometimes two, and had coffee and a couple of rolls in a diner up the street. There was a liquor store near the diner and I frequently bought a bottle and took it back to the room, drinking the liquor straight, and wondered why Debbie Fletcher was obviously avoiding me. She had stopped coming into the bar prior to closing and I missed her. Once in a while she came in during the evening, taking a few bucks from the cash register, but I didn’t have any chance to talk to her then and that hurt. Nights when I returned to the room I was slopped and when I had a day off I found a nice quiet bar uptown and knocked myself out.

“You’re drinking too much,” Ann told me. “You drink on the job and you drink off the job and you throw your money away like water.”

“So whose money is it?”

“I thought it was ours. I thought we agreed to put half of our pay in the bank every week and save for an apartment. I’m doing my share. There isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t go to the bank with fifty dollars.”

But nothing she said did any good. I’d get up, promise myself that I wouldn’t touch a drop that day and then, even before I realized it, I would be back at the stuff worse than ever. It got so that I thought Charlie would bawl me out for being half lit most of the time but he never said a word. He was busy with his property and any of the prostitutes who would go to bed with him and he didn’t seem to care what shape I was in as long as I could do the work.

A few nights, drunk and disgusted, I took Kathy Nelson to her room and she wasn’t bad. She didn’t charge me anything.

“You do it for money but there comes a time when you want to do it because you want to do it,” she explained after our first session. “I kind of like you and you’re certainly as much as a girl could ask for.”

“Well, thanks.”

“These other men don’t mean anything. It’s purely mechanical. You go to bed with them and they give you money for it. They buy you like they would buy a tank of gas for their cars.”

Red Brandon didn’t bother me any but he worked over one of the girls who had spent her money one week and couldn’t pay him. He gave her a black eye and cut her lower lip to such an extent that she had to have a couple of stitches taken in it. Not many of the men would have anything to do with her, not when she was looking like that, and before her next payment was due to Brandon she dropped out of sight.

“Gloria was about at the end of her string,” Kathy told me. “She was thirty-one and that’s old in this business. She started when she was sixteen and being a whore had its price. You’re good for about eight or ten years, getting as much sex as most girls get in a lifetime, and then your price drifts down to two dollars. Usually you’re on the booze and if you can’t get two dollars you’ll do it for drinks. You’re used merchandise and nobody wants you.”

“It ought to be something for you to think about.”

“I have thought about it and one of these days I’m going to break loose. All I need is the guts to go out and make an honest living.”

When she told me that Red Brandon often went up to the apartment over the bar to visit Debbie Fletcher I didn’t believe her. In my liquor-twisted mind Debbie had become some sort of a goddess to me and I couldn’t imagine her having a relationship with a man like Brandon. Brandon was no better than the lowest scum in The Dells—lower, perhaps, because of the way he abused his position—and I didn’t figure her to be the type who would go for just any man.

One night, however, after I had locked up—Kathy hadn’t shown and I was alone—I almost ran into him as he was coming out of the door leading to the stairs to the apartment.

“Don’t get any ideas,” he said, picking at his teeth with a toothpick. He had a habit of doing that, of chewing on the toothpick and then spitting it out. “I just came from some very private property.”

“Charlie’s private property,” I corrected him.

He spit out the toothpick and he didn’t try to miss my feet.

“Nuts to Charlie. He’s got so many dames to play with he don’t know where to stop or where to start.

I was off the next day and I killed a fifth of rye before Aim got home from work. It was true about Brandon and I had to accept it. He was getting what I wanted and I hated him for it. It was strange that my hate didn’t reach as far as Debbie. He was probably forcing himself on her, standing behind his shield and using it as a lever.

Aim was late getting in and I didn’t have to look twice at her eyes to see that she had been crying.

“We’ve got to get married,” she said, pulling the white uniform over her head. She threw the uniform on a chair, standing there in a half slip and bra. “That is, if you ever stay sober enough to stand up in front of a justice of the peace.”

“Tell me why.”

“Because I think I’m that way.”

“Oh, Jesus!”

“I stopped and saw a doctor and he said there’s a good chance that I am. I have to go back in about a month and then he can tell me for sure.

“So we’ll wait and see what you find out.”

“But I don’t want to wait.” There were fresh tears in her eyes. “Why should we wait? I’ve got enough saved so that we can rent an apartment and get most of the things that we’ll need.”

I waved the suggestion aside.

“There’s pills you can get to take to get rid of it.” I said. “I don’t know anybody in a drug store but some of the girls who come to the bar use them off and on and they seem to work. I could get some for you.”

“I’d never do that.”

“Why not?”

She let the half slip fall to the floor. She had on a new pair of panties, very brief, and they didn’t hide much.

“You don’t realize that I want your baby,” she said slowly. “We keep talking about getting married but we never do anything about it. Now it’s time that we did. A baby would be good for both of us. We’ve been growing apart, Clint, and nobody has to tell me that. Mornings when you don’t come home until five or six o’clock I know you’ve been with somebody else. What you need is some responsibility and another job.”

“Where could I get paid as much?”

“It isn’t what you get paid, it’s what you spend that counts, They still need somebody in the diner, the same as I told you before. You wouldn’t be paid as much, that’s true, but you’d be away from the liquor and you need that. It’s pulling you down but you don’t seem to know it. I like a drink, too—as much as the next one—but there is a limit to it.”

“It relaxes me.”

“That’s just an excuse. If we had a regular home you’d get interested in other things. And after the baby comes you’ll have something to work for. Other men have done it. Why can’t you?”

We argued for a long time that night. She wanted marriage and she wasn’t willing to settle for anything short of it. As for myself I didn’t know. She would make a good wife, a fine mother, but things had changed for me since we had arrived in Wilton. I couldn’t think without thinking about Debbie Fletcher and when I was taking Kathy or Ann physically I still thought about her. Yet I knew that I was reaching for a straw in the wind. Debbie wasn’t interested in me or she wouldn’t have quit coming down to the bar and having a few drinks before I closed up. “Things will work out,” I assured Ann. “They will if we make them work. All it takes is a few dollars and a ring. We could even stay here in this room for a while, much as I dislike it. That would give us a chance to save some more money.”

I don’t know what time I fell asleep but she was still talking when I did. When I got up the next day about noon she had long since left for work.

I didn’t stop at the diner for coffee or anything to eat—I was worried about her condition—and I went straight down to the bar. Charlie was glad to see me.

“Got to go to New York,” Charlie said. “I won’t be back until late tomorrow afternoon and I’m wondering if you’d take over for me today and open up the joint about noon tomorrow.”

“Okay.”

“It’s extra pay for you.”

“Thanks.”

He poured a shot of scotch for himself.

“Remember I was telling you that I was dickering to sell my other properties?”

“I remember.”

“Well, I think it’s going through. I’m going to New York with this guy and he’s going to raise the down payment from a brother.” One shot of scotch wasn’t enough for him so he had the second one. “After I get back we can talk about the bar. You’ve been here long enough to know the score and you can see that there’s money to be made. I wouldn’t be living in the apartment and you could use that for the girls. You’d pay off Brandon the same as I have and before you know it you’ll be rolling in dough. Give yourself a year and you can buy some dame a mink and think nothing of it.”

Sounds great.”

I wasn’t busy that afternoon and I stayed away from the liquor. I had plenty of time to ponder the situation and the more I thought about it the better it seemed to be. The only hitch was that I would have to do business with Red Brandon but if Charlie had gotten along with him I guessed that I could. The other problem was Ann. She would kick up a storm if I took over the bar, no matter how much money it meant, but that didn’t change my mind in the least. There was a good possibility that she wasn’t pregnant, that nature was just fooling her, and there was also a good possibility that I wouldn’t marry her if she was. I didn’t know. I had an opportunity here to make a fat killing and I was going to take advantage of it.

It was a slow night, slower than usual, and the girls didn’t get many tricks. They sat at the bar, drinking and talking, but when Brandon came in for a short beer they were silent and resentful. There was hate in their silence, a deadly hate that could have plunged a knife straight into his belly.

By two I was alone—Kathy had picked up a late date—and I sat at the bar drinking, going over in my mind how I would work it if I owned the bar. Three girls weren’t enough to handle the normal traffic and there were plenty of good-looking ones in The Dells who might be in line to earn a good income. There was no reason why I couldn’t get a five for giving a guy a good address and if it was done with any degree of sense Brandon didn’t have to be cut in. I wasn’t frightened of him. He made his nut from the girls who used the bar and I couldn’t see that he had any more than that coming. If Charlie and his wife weren’t living in the apartment upstairs the whole operation could be easier and faster. Maybe I would get a couple of girls to work on the same basis, just to make Brandon feel good, and the others could do their stuff on the quiet. From what I had seen of the girls in The Dells they were all putting out and they might as well get paid for their services.

I don’t know what time she came in—I guess it was about two-thirty—but she was wearing shorts and her legs were bare and the halter made only a feeble attempt of concealing her breasts. She looked better this way than she did in a dress or a skirt and sweater and when I stood up I could see right down inside the front of her halter.

“You think I died?” Debbie asked me, sitting down on a stool.

“No, but I thought I had the crud or something.”

She laughed and smiled up at me.

“How about some scotch? A double.”

“Anything you want.”

I got her the drink, pouring it over ice, and a dull ache began pounding over my eyes. Her husband was in New York and he wouldn’t be home that night. She was lonely, or she wouldn’t have been there with me, and if she got an edge on there was no telling how far we could go.

“He’s away for tonight,” she said.

“Yeah.”

“He’s selling out everything he owns.”

The first drink didn’t last her any time at all and I poured her another one, adding half a shot for good luck.

“So I understand.”

She lit one of my cigarettes and inhaled the smoke. What she didn’t do to that halter when she inhaled isn’t anything to write about. They got bigger than ever and they pushed up and out. I had a crying need inside of me to reach across the bar and grab them and hurt them, to drive the pain so far into her that it would never leave.

“He told me about the bar.”

“It’s a good deal for me.”

“If you go for this sort of thing.”

I didn’t measure the rye when I slopped it into a glass.

“Well, somebody is going to run it, aren’t they? That somebody might as well be me. I’ve worked for peanuts long enough.”

“So have I.”

“You’re doing all right.”

“You call twenty-five dollars a week all right?”

I was surprised.

“Is that what he gives you?”

The halter had slid down some but she didn’t bother to adjust it. The space between her breasts was deep and dark, the sort of thing you see in the girlie magazines.

“That’s what he gives me,” she said. “Out of that I have to pay the hairdresser and for anything else that I need. You’d think I was married to a man who was broke instead of a man who is up to his shoulders in money.”

We were both dry and we had a couple of more drinks. When she reached for another cigarette I flicked my lighter and leaned over the bar to give her a light. I got a good peek that time and the pound in my head increased. I didn’t know what I had to do but I had to have this girl, had to have her as much as the air that kept me alive. Her husband had said that she was frigid but if I was any judge of a girl she could come alive and savage if she was treated right.

“Did he say anything about me?” she inquired.

“No.”

“Not that he’s going to divorce me?”

I couldn’t believe it.

“Divorce you?”

“Yes. He said the marriage was a mistake, that everything about us was a mistake. He wants to be free and live his own life.”

“That’s a hell of a thing to do.”

Her shoulders lifted and fell and the halter went lower and from where I stood I could see the side swells of full and rounded breasts.

“I guess I came down here tonight because I had to have somebody to tell my troubles to.”

“That’s all right.”

“Before we were married there wasn’t anything that he wouldn’t buy, nothing that he wouldn’t do. The week after we were married he named me on all of his insurance policies. They come to hundred and fifty thousand.”

“That’s a lot of insurance.”

“I know it is but in a month he changed. He was out with other women and I was left alone every night. It’s been the same way since. One night he even brought a girl home with him and he took her in the spare bedroom. How do you think I felt?”

“The bastard.”

“I called him that, too, but he didn’t care. He just laughed at me. He said I married him for what I could get and that I wouldn’t get very much. I haven’t. A girl needs love and affection and what’s left in him has been for other girls.” She finished her drink. “Thanks for listening to my tale of woe.”

“You’re welcome.”

We drank until three and then I turned off all of the lights, all except the one over the cash register. I didn’t even bother to put the money in the safe. This hunk of flesh was for me and I had to make her understand that.

We sat at the bar, a bottle in front of each one of us, and we continued to drink. We talked about her husband, how he treated her and the things he did, and she asked me about the girl I was living with.

“It’s nothing serious,” I said. “We left home together and we’ve traveled that way. You know how those things are. You just get into a situation but because you’re in it, it doesn’t mean that it’s important.”

“Have you any plans for getting married to her?”

“None at all.”

I don’t know how long we sat there but I finally suggested that we move back to one of the booths. Anybody outside could look in and see us at the bar and some of the drunks might try to come in and have a drink. The law says that you close at three and the law means just that. If you get caught serving booze after that hour you can lose your license. I knew that Red Brandon wouldn’t bother us but the state has snoops out and they don’t play mumbo jumbo with you.

Once we were in the booth, one of those way in the back, we were close together and when I was half-way through my drink I dropped my right hand down and let it rest on her bare leg. She didn’t object and the contact with her skin charged me up as though I had just grabbed hold of a thousand volt wire.

“I like you more than I should,” she said.

“Do you?”

“That’s one reason I’ve stayed away from the bar as much as I could. I know my marriage is shot but I knew what you were thinking about me and I don’t want a cheap affair.”

“Love isn’t cheap.”

“It is if it’s just physical.”

My hand moved over to feel the inside of her thigh. Only then did she put a hand down to restrain me.

“It doesn’t have to be cheap,” I said, bringing my hand up to fumble for a cigarette.

“What do you call it when you live with a girl who isn’t your wife?”

I lit two cigarettes, one for each of us.

“And what do you call it when Red Brandon sneaks up to your apartment?” I countered.

“So you know about that?”

“I hear things.”

She smoked in silence and then she took a long drink of the scotch.

“He’s been after something that he’ll never get,” she said, taking my hand and putting it right back where it had been, maybe an inch or so higher. “He tried to force himself on me but he didn’t get very far. All we did was talk.”

“What about?”

“How he has a wife and he wants to leave her. He’s made a lot of money, saved most of it—so he claims—and he promised me the other side of the world. It didn’t make sense and I didn’t believe him. He’s nothing but a crooked cop and he’s making so much money down here that he would never give it up. I told him to get what he was after from one of the other girls and to leave me alone.”

I believed her and I felt better. Brandon had never done anything to this girl and she wasn’t the kind to permit him to enjoy her favors. She was lonely and lost, more than a little confused, and all she needed was a man to love her.

It was only natural that I would eventually kiss her, that I would mash my mouth down over her lips and crush her in my arms. She hesitated for a second and then she let out a little cry, deep from within. Her mouth opened up, filling my blood with excitement, and her arms came up around my neck, pulling me in close and warm. I brought one of my hands to the front, pushing it between us, my fingers seeking the glorious treasures that were now only partially covered by the halter.

“Don’t untie it,” she whispered as we broke apart, both of us breathing heavily.

“There are two good reasons why I want to.”

She kissed me, laughing some. It was only a short kiss but while it was going on my fingers found what they wanted to find. She was round and full and the centers were hard and swollen.

“You can do it upstairs,” she promised me.

“What about Brandon?”

“He’s off tonight.”

“He was in the bar earlier.”

“I know. He came up to the apartment but he went home.” She kissed me on one cheek and it was a wet kiss. “He tried to get what you’re going to get.”

“The hell with him.”

“The hell with him is right.”

She had to remind me to snap the lock on the way outside. I had waited for her so long, wanted her so much, that there was only one thing I could think about. In a matter of minutes I would hold her naked and alive and she would be mine.

We rounded the building and I saw a figure lurking in the shadows on the other side of the street. It looked very much like Red Brandon but in that instant a dozen Red Brandons couldn’t have stopped me short of my goal. She might be another man’s wire but her husband was away and he was probably burning out his clutch with some other dame. What was right for one was right for the other and tonight, the wonderful hours of it, would be mine.

The apartment was modern—I hadn’t been in it before— but I didn’t pay much attention to anything. I just followed her into the bedroom, waited for her to turn on the light, and then I was kissing her again. This time I untied the halter, almost ripping it loose when I had trouble with the bow, and, listening to her cry out, I kissed her where every girl wants to be kissed.

“You like?” she wanted to know, teasing me.

“They drive me insane.”

“And you’re driving me that way.”

Jesus, they were big, big and ripe, ripe as fresh fruit on a tree. I went from one to the other and a long moan came from her. She dug her fingers into my hair as I pushed her toward the bed and the pain almost blinded me.

“Don’t keep me waiting,” she begged. “Please don’t!”

I didn’t keep her waiting. I helped her with her shorts, stripping her naked, and then she was down there on the bed. She was a blonde all right, blonde and lovely, and I didn’t even take the time to get out of my clothes. I did what I had to do, did what I should have done that one night with Ann, and then I was after her, after her with a need that was greater than all else.

Charlie had told me that she was cold but she was far from being that. She responded to me as no other girl had ever responded, time after time, again and again, lifting herself to me in a frenzy of passion that left me weak and nearly helpless.

“I love you,” I said long after, lying beside her.

“How much, Clint?”

“All the way.”

“Enough to do anything for me?”

“Anything. Anything at all.”

I didn’t know what she meant by that but I didn’t give it a second thought. All I could think of was that I was with her, that she had been mine and that this moment would never end.

And it didn’t end.

Not until noon the next day.

It was great.

Chapter Five

Charlie got back from New York about the middle of the afternoon and he was in a terrible mood. The man’s relative had been unwilling to put up the necessary cash and the deal had fallen through.

“And to think of the time I wasted with that bastard,” Charlie said, downing a drink. “Not to mention the booze I bought him in some of the best joints in town.”

“You’ll find somebody else.” I drew a beer and it was running wild. “If you don’t land one sucker you can always find another one.”

“I don’t know. Most of the stuff I want to sell is here in The Dells and a lot of people don’t want to invest in the slums. There’s been talk or urban renewal—lots of towns are doing it—and that would mean that the buildings down here, or most of them, would be destroyed. That’s one of the big reasons that nobody makes any improvements. They figure to sit it out and see what happens.”

We were alone in the bar and as far as I knew he hadn’t been upstairs yet. I drank some of the beer and decided that he didn’t have anything to go up there for. His wife had gotten her sex the night before and that morning and she had gotten plenty of it. She had been like a bomb exploding the last time and if I hadn’t been afraid to have stayed longer I wouldn’t have left her, not even to open up the place. He had told me that she was cold but I had found her to be a bundle of fire that had risen to me in the flames of passion.

“How many buildings have you got?” I asked him.

“There’s nine and all of them are rented full.”

“That’s a lot.”

“It is when I think about what I had when I started. Did I ever tell you about that?”

He hadn’t and I didn’t give a damn.

“No,” I said.

He waved for another drink and I poured him one. He was going to do some talking and I couldn’t stop him. Of course, I could have told him that I wasn’t interested but you don’t offend a man who is in a position to help you. He could set fire to all of the buildings that he owned for all I cared. What I was interested in was the bar.

“I was born here, Clint. In The Dells. I grew up on the streets and I saw all the poverty there was to see. I saw guys gutted and girls raped and all of the other things that went with it. I made up my mind that I would do better than the others were doing and when I was eighteen I was working nights in a factory, running a stubborn machine and busting my back for a few dollars a week. One night I was coming home—I got finished at two in the morning—and this cab came out of a side street and ran me down. Both of my legs were broken but the right one was pretty bad, the bone shattered and sticking right out through he skin. That’s why I limp today. Well, I was in the hospital a long time, several months, and while I was there I got to thinking. I wasn’t going to go on working for peanuts. I’d sue the god-damned cab company and I would use the money I got to go into business. It was there that I met my first wife. She was a nurse, a cute little number, and she felt the same way about me that I felt about her. I had a private room and she was working nights. Before I left the hospital she used to come into the room, close and lock the door and we made our time together. A couple of months after I got out of the hospital she was knocked up and I married her. I didn’t do much for quite a while—my legs were all right but I couldn’t stand on them very long—and she kept on with her job. Finally she got so big she got in her own way and she had to give it up. A month before Ruth was born the insurance company came across with a twenty-thousand-dollar settlement and I bought a little store that sold magazines and newspapers and candy and that kind of junk. I did all right but not with the junk that the previous owner had been selling. One day a guy came through selling dirty books, the kind with pictures in them that you keep under the counter, and the money began piling up in the bank. There were some young girls who hung around the joint and I fixed them up with guys from uptown—for a fee. I was going strong when I met Brandon and he started milking me. The son-of-a-bitch has been doing it ever since.”

“You did all right for yourself,” I said, thinking of the money he had received for his busted legs.

He motioned for another drink and I gave it to him.

“Maybe, but I played it smart. As soon as I had enough saved I bought a building, took out a mortgage on it, and jacked up the rents so that it would show a profit. This was before the war and you couldn’t have done it then but I already had my rents established and what could they do to me? Later, I sold the store for a good profit and took over this dive. The war brought business to the docks, business all over town, and at one time I had twelve girls working out of here. Money didn’t mean anything and I cleaned up. My wife didn’t approve of what I did but she never said much. She put up with it and then she got that cancer. I took her all over, spending a young fortune, but it didn’t do any good. The cancer just wasn’t in her breast, but in a gland in back of the breast—I don’t know what they called the gland now—and it was only a matter of time. She put on weight after Ruth was born but when she died I don’t think she weighed more than eighty pounds. Jesus, what a way to die, I tell you. If the crazy bastards in Washington spent half as much doing something about cancer as they do in getting rockets into the air they’d be able to pat themselves on the back.”

I left him at the end of the bar to wait on a customer who had just come in but all the guy wanted was for me to cash a personal check. I told him I couldn’t. He came in almost the same time every day and I always told him the same thing.

“It’s good,” he protested.

“Then take it to a bank.”

“But my bank is uptown.”

“So you should be uptown.”

I left him and drew a beer for myself and the guy left.

“A paperhanger,” Charlie said when I joined him. “I’ve got a check of his somewheres in the safe. I should burn it up and just watch the smoke.” He pushed his glass toward me. “Load it up, huh?”

“What about your sugar? Isn’t this bad?”

“To hell with the sugar. I got problems enough without worrying about any sugar. Most people who work in these places get it sooner or later. That’s why life insurance rates are so high for us. Doesn’t seem fair to me. Some of the guys on the other side of the bar drink more than we do.”

“Yeah, but not steady.”

He shook his head.

“You’re wrong. I know plenty of guys in The Dells who just live for the bottle. In a way, you can’t blame some of them. They have slobs for wives and their kids are always dirty. They go home and they find nothing but dumps. Coming down here is a way of getting away from it. If it’s payday and they’re flush they may take on one of the girls or they may make out with something young for free.”

“I guess you’re right.”

“I know I’m right. This world is made up of sex, Clint, and don’t let anybody tell you differently. A guy marries a woman but he still wants a change. And so does the woman. They both get tired of the same old approach, the same love, the same satisfaction. Just being beautiful doesn’t mean much. A girl can be like a living doll to look at and she can be like a dead person in bed. I ought to know. I married one of them.”

I lit a cigarette and watched the smoke curl upward toward the ceiling, a buff-colored ceiling that had been stained by the smoke of thousands of cigarettes. He didn’t know what he was talking about. That wife of his was so hungry for sex that she was like an animal caught in a trap. I could still feel where her fingernails had raked me along the back, where her lips, demanding and hot, had crushed against my mouth.

“I’m going to divorce her,” Charlie said. His eyes found my face. “Did she say anything to you about that?”

“No,” I lied.

He lifted his drink and put it down again.

“You don’t know what it was like after my wife died I finished bringing Ruth up, sent her to college—God only knows what she did with her education—and after she was married I put her husband in business.”

“You own part of it, don’t you?”

“Yes, but I don’t take anything from it, if that’s what you mean. They’re young and they need the money and I don’t need it. I own the building but someday it will belong to them.”

“What about the bar?” I asked.

“I started to tell you about Debbie.”

“So you did.”

“After I was all alone I used to wander from place to place, picking up a girl here and there and paying her for what she did for me. I guess it didn’t make much sense. I could have had anything I wanted down here then—and now—and some of them aren’t so bad. But I caught her strip act one night—a customer who came in here said how good she was—and I went breast happy. I didn’t use my head. I did everything I could for her, even to getting her out of a jam with the law. I tried to make time with her—I won’t say that I didn’t—but she put me off. I thought she was a nice girl and the next thing I thought was that I was in love with her. The only way I could get her was to marry her and I did. I married her and we went to Atlantic City for a week to tear a bed apart.”

I hated to think of him of having been with her, of anybody having been with her. I wanted to think that I had been the first, that it had been real between us, that what we had shared together was the kind of love that you read about.

“I didn’t have sugar then,” he went on. “Or, anyway, nobody knew it if I did. It bothered me because I was so much older than she was, that I had to protect her in case I died, so I took out some big insurance. The insurance man who sold it to me said it was better if she owned the insurance on my life and that she paid the premiums. He explained that in this way the insurance money would go to her tax free and that only the rest of my holdings would be taxed, giving her cash when she needed it and not forcing her to sell anything else I had at a loss. The idea was good at the time—I won’t say that it wasn’t—but right now it isn’t any good. I can’t get additional insurance because of my sugar and she refuses to give up the ownership of the policy. She says that it belongs to her and that she’s going to keep it. What do you do with a dame like that?”

“I don’t know.”

“What I want to be is free of her and leave Ruth everything.” He hadn’t had much to drink but he probably hadn’t eaten and he was feeling them. “She’s a bitch, Clint. She’s all bitch. I’ve lived with her long enough to know and she’s all bitch. If she was what she seems to be I wouldn’t be running around with other dames, not the way I do. I’d cut down on the booze and I’d give her a jolt every time she turned over in bed.”

I decided that he was stupid, for all of his money-making and the financial success he had made of himself. She had enough woman in her for two men and that was no fooling.

“What about the bar?” I asked him again.

“I don’t think you’ve listened to a thing that I’ve said.”

“I’ve listened.”

He watched the flow of liquor as I poured it into his glass.

“You like it here, Clint?”

“It’s okay.”

“What about the girls?”

“I didn’t like that much at first but it seems to be a part of the business. If they don’t make their contacts here they’ll make them someplace else.”

“You’d have to pay off Brandon.”

“That’s understood.”

I thought he was going to drink the drink when he lifted the glass but he didn’t. He threw it against the back bar and it smashed in a million pieces.

“I hate Brandon’s guts,” he said, his face red. “I hated him at the start and I hate him now. He’s no cop. He puts me in mind of the sewage you see along the docks. Ever been down there?”

“Not all the way, no.”

“You see garbage and all that goes with it. Brandon is garbage. He stinks.”

“He’s got a lot of power in The Dells.”

“Sure, because of his shield. If he wasn’t a cop he wouldn’t be anybody at all. He’d be lucky to get forty dollars a week for scrubbing somebody’s floors.”

I had my own idea about how I could handle Brandon. He wasn’t in the bar all of the time and he didn’t know everything that went on. If I owned the dump I could line up some new girls and he wouldn’t have to know a thing about it. Some of them who came into the bar were young and pretty and it was a cinch they put out.

“How much do you want for this place, Charlie?”

He thought about it for a moment.

“I’d only sell you the business,” he said finally. “But I’d rent you the building. That would make it easier for you to buy.”

“Sounds fair enough.”

“I was offered forty thousand for it once.”

“That’s a lot of money. You should have taken it.”

“Maybe. But I wasn’t ready to sell them. Now I am ready. I would rather take less and get away from it.”

I leaned across the bar.

“How much less?”

He rubbed the side of his face with his hand.

“Say, thirty thousand, for the stock and fixtures.”

“There’d have to be a down payment,” I said. “Where the hell would I get it?”

“Forget the down payment. The more I take in in a year the more I have to pay in taxes and it’s better to spread it out over a longer period of time.” He gave it some more thought. “What if you paid me two hundred dollars a month for the building, including the use of the apartment upstairs, and five hundred a month toward the purchase of the business?”

He was talking money, big money, but I knew that it was there and that I could make it. Even if I couldn’t find somebody to help me right away I could get along. It would mean fifteen hours a day, if I opened up at noon, but I was young and I could stand it. All I had to do was stay away from the liquor and I would be all right.

“It’s a hell of a good chance for me,” I said.

“I think so.”

I should have felt kindly toward him because he was making it easy for me but I didn’t. I couldn’t look at him, or think about him, and find one thing that I liked. He was a big, fat hunk of flesh and I didn’t have any use for him.

“My lawyer can draw up the papers,” he went on. “If you’re serious about this you can take over right away, right this minute. The sooner I’m done with this god-damned business the better I’ll be satisfied. Let somebody else worry about Brandon and the girls. I’ve had enough of it. As soon as I’ve gotten rid of my other properties—and I will—I’ll sink my cash in that housing development and that’ll be my retirement. That and what you pay me. If I don’t end up pulling in three grand a month I’ll hang myself just to see what it feels like.” He considered the remark he had made and laughed. “No, I won’t either. If I hang myself that bitch will get a hundred and fifty thousand bucks and I don’t intend to give her anything. Once I’m away from her she won’t be able to pay the premiums—I’m sure I won’t pay them—and the insurance will go to pot. She’ll be right back where she started, stripping in some cheap club and showing the boys how big her bubbies are. By the time she’s thirty she’ll be taking them on for two bucks a throw.”

I walked to the tap and drew a beer for myself and it still had more head than I liked. If he divorced her it would be a good thing and then we would be able to find something real together. She could take care of the money and the bills and I would operate the business. In a year we would be in clover and he could go to hell. During those few moments I thought of Ann only vaguely. We had practically grown up together, ran away together, but there wasn’t any more to it than that. If she was going to have a kid she was going to have a kid but it didn’t have to ruin my life. Here was a chance to add up the chips in a big way and nobody was going to stop me. She was a pretty girl, a nice girl, and she would eventually find somebody else. If she had a kid she could tell the guy that she was divorced and he wouldn’t know the difference.

“I’ll take you up on that deal,” I said, returning to stand in front of him. You want out and I want in. You made your nut here and I can do the same. What do I care what kind of a dump it is?”

We shook hands, my big hand closing over his thick fingers, and he said he had to go uptown to take care of some business. He knew a man who hid money who was buying a lot of properties around town and he thought he might be able to interest the man in what he had.

“Luck,” I said as he went out.

I didn’t care whether he had any luck or not. All I knew was that I was in line to make some big money and I was all for it. Give me a year and I would be driving a Caddy instead of walking. Who could ask for more?

I thought of having a belt of rye, just one to celebrate, but I stuck to the beer. If I once got into the whiskey I would stay on it and I had a long night ahead of me. Just what I was going to say to Ann when I returned to the room on Clay Street wasn’t clear in my mind but I knew that it was all over between us. What I had felt for her hadn’t been love, just the need for sex, and I no longer had that need. I could get all I had to have in that direction from Debbie Fletcher and I wouldn’t have to worry about her husband. They were as far apart as a tax collector and a tax-payer and all I had to do was to take what I wanted to take when I wanted to take it.

I watched people moving along the street outside and I wondered how I could increase the afternoon business. There didn’t seem to be much way of doing it except by using girls. I doubted if the girls who worked nights would want to work during the day but if I could get some others, girls who lived along the street, I might be able to attract businessmen from uptown who would spend a few bucks with me and get a little play on the side. I knew that a lot of executives did that in other places. They had to be home at night but they could get away during the day and they had their fun then. Not long before that there had been an article in a magazine about the call girls who worked the afternoon shift in New York and there was no reason why I couldn’t do the same thing. I would have to start out on a small scale, building it up, but I felt that it would only be a short time before I had money pouring in from that sort of a pitch. Brandon wasn’t around The Dells in the afternoon, just at night, and if I sent the men to the girls, for a five-dollar fee, he wouldn’t have to know anything about it.

I left the bar and walked around the place, looking it over. As soon as I had the money I would have it painted and the lights changed. The lights weren’t dim enough, not for the kind of operation I had in mind. If a guy was at a booth with one of the girls and he had wandering hands he didn’t want everybody to be able to see what he was doing. The same went for the girls. If a girl was on the make she would do things for a guy in the shadows that she wouldn’t do in the light. Even if she was selling herself she had to have some privacy.

Not long after this Debbie came in and she was wearing those shorts and that halter again.

“The fat slob got back,” she said, sitting down at the bar.

“Yeah.” I moved behind the bar, reaching for a shot glass and a bottle.

“He didn’t even come upstairs. Not that I give a damn. But I wouldn’t have known that he was here if I hadn’t seen his car parked at the curb. I was at the window, wearing nothing, and I got into this stuff fast.”

I decided to have a shot myself.

“His deal fell through,” I said.

Her eyes lifted to my face.

“Maybe I should cry, huh?” She swallowed the liquor and I poured her another one. “Did he say anything about me?”

“Well, he talked of a divorce.”

“What else?”

“He said you owned the insurance on his life.”

“True.”

“And that you wouldn’t be able to pay the premium after he left you, that it would all go for nothing.”

She shook her head and the ends of her blonde hair rubbed across her bare shoulders. She was wearing the halter tighter than she had the day before, up higher, and I couldn’t see much of anything.

“I’ll pay it,” she said. “And if I don’t pay it I’ll still be protected. I talked to an insurance man about that and he looked at the policy. There’s something about an extended insurance clause in it and if the premium isn’t paid he’d still be insured for almost another three years. My guess is that he won’t live much longer than that at the rate he’s going.”

“Forget about him,” I said.

“Why should I? He married me and I’m his wife. When he put this gold wedding band on my finger he bought me for keeps. He never gave me anything, only a few bucks every week, and he isn’t getting rid of me so easily. Maybe he doesn’t love me and I don’t love him but that hasn’t got anything to do with it. Part of what he has belongs to me and that’s the way it’s going to stay.”

I had three drinks, one after the other, and rinsed out the shot glass.

“Give him his divorce,” I said.

The bottle was in front of her and she helped herself to it.

“Tell me why, Clint.”

“Because I’m taking over the bar and I can make more than enough for both of us. You don’t need him. If he wants to be free let him be free.”

“It’s a good break for you,” she said.

“And for you, too. He made a bundle here and we can do the same thing.” I shouldn’t have been hitting the liquor so hard, not that early in the day, but I found another shot glass. “I wish you would divorce him. I wish to hell that you would, baby. I’d put a ring on your finger that would mean something for both of us.”

“Do you have any idea how much he’s worth?”

“Not in the least.”

“Close to three hundred thousand. Add to that a hundred and fifty thousand of insurance and it’s close to half a million. A good bit of that could be mine—the insurance would be mine, anyway—if he suddenly turned up dead.”

“He didn’t look like he was going to die when he left here.”

“How can you tell? How can you be sure? It happens every day to people who are in better health than he is. All you have to do is to read the papers and you know that it’s so. And what if he had an accident? That policy would pay double. You have to think of those things, Clint.”

“I’m trying to think about us.”

“I know you are but we don’t have to hurry. We have lots of time. We can always take a room in some hotel and do what we want to do. It doesn’t mean that we can’t be together. It just means that I have something that I don’t want to let go of.”

I talked to her, trying to make her see it my way, but it was no use. He was a guy with money and she was determined to get her share of it. I didn’t exactly blame her. She’d never had anything, no more than I had had, and she wasn’t willing to give up without getting what was coming to her.

I was as lonely as hell after she had gone, saying that she was going to get her hair fixed, and I did a job on the bottle. I wanted that girl and I wanted her bad. I wanted her in a room, all naked and yielding, and if I gave her something that would grow inside of her it wouldn’t bother me in the least.

About five the customers began drifting in and I was busy.

It was good to be busy.

I had so much on my mind I was going nuts.

Chapter Six

We had a big night in the bar. The men came down from uptown and the girls were kept busy, grabbing a drink here and there and taking the suckers to their rooms up the street, staying just long enough to earn their money and then returning for new prospects.

“You oughta get more than that for twenty bucks,” one man told me. “She was out of her clothes in six seconds and in bed in ten. Five minutes later I was out of the room and it was all over with.”

“Well, they have to catch the traffic while it’s moving.”

There were three girls at the end of the bar, drinking beer, and they had been coming in almost every night since I had been working for Charlie. You could tell that they were stuff and once in a while one of them picked up a man, drinking heavily when the man was paying and then going off someplace with him. They didn’t look to be more than eighteen or nineteen but I didn’t care as long as they were of legal age. I was pretty sure that they didn’t work, or if they worked they didn’t make much at it, and that a few easy dollars would come in handy for them.

It was midnight before I got a chance to talk to them. There weren’t many people in the bar by that time, a couple of drunks arguing about whether or not the wrestling matches on television were fixed, and a woman of about fifty, heavily painted, who was trying to get some young dock worker to go home with her.

“You won’t be sorry none,” she told the dock worker. “I may have lost most of my youth but there’s one thing I haven’t lost and that’s for god-damn sure.”

“What about your old man?”

“Oh, him. Who cares about him? He gets his from some sixteen-year-old girl on the second floor and he don’t care what I do.”

“What about the girl’s folks?”

“They both work nights.”

“Convenient.”

That was The Dells for you—sex, poverty and booze. If you didn’t feel like sleeping with your own wife you slept with somebody else. And if you didn’t have a wife you slept with somebody else, anyway.

I bought the girls a beer and they thanked me.

“How about a shot?” I asked them.

The one with a pert little nose gave me a wet smile.

“That on the house, too?” she asked.

“Sure.”

“Say, you’re all right. Old Charlie would never give a shot away. He said you either paid or you didn’t drink.”

“Well, I’m not Charlie.”

I gave them all shots and took one myself.

“You girls come in here a lot,” I said.

The one with the nose shrugged. She didn’t have a lot to offer in the way of a body but some of those without a dream shape can be very good. There was nothing to stop her from wearing falsies and after she got a guy into a room it would be too late for him to back out.

“So what else is there to do?” she wanted to know. “We live together, the three of us, and you get tired of looking at the crummy walls in the flat.”

“What do you do for a living? The three of you?”

“Sweater factory,” the girl in the middle answered. “That’s up on Eighth Street.”

“Do good at it?”

She frowned and even with the frown she was rather pretty. So was the third girl, but especially the third girl. Whenever she took a breath her breasts pushed out against her thin white blouse and I could see where the tips were.

“If you call thirty a week good,” the girl in the middle replied. “They pay you forty, a dollar an hour, but after everything is taken out you have thirty or thirty-one left. That’s why we live together. We couldn’t get along if we didn’t.”

“You’ve seen the girls that work out of here?”

“We’ve seen them. Who hasn’t?”

“They do very well—two or three hundred a week.”

“That is a lot,” the third girl said.

“Sure, it’s a lot.” I gave each one of them a second shot.

“You kids don’t fool me any. You drink beer while you’re paying but after you pick up a sucker you drink something else, like this. I’m not stupid. A man buys you a few drinks and he takes you home. Don’t tell me that he doesn’t score. I know better than that. You could be eating steak but you’re willing to settle for crackers and cheese. Does that make sense? If you’re going to go the limit with a man you might as well do it for money.”

It wasn’t hard to convince them. They were existing on the edge of nothing and you could have put the three of them together and they wouldn’t have had enough morals for one girl. I told them that they could get fifteen and twenty dollars a shot and that I would get my cut from the men I sent to them. It wasn’t what I wanted, not an afternoon fix, but if I could steer enough men their way they wouldn’t stay in the factory very long and I would be able to build up an afternoon business.

“Don’t tell Brandon,” I cautioned them. “And don’t tell anybody who might tell him. If this operation is very quiet it can be highly successful.”

They agreed and we had a drink on it. I wrote down the address, the number of the fiat, and they said they would stay in the following night and that they would take on anybody I sent them As they departed I watched them go and I didn’t feel sorry for what I had done. They would have drifted into prostitution anyway and I had only made the road easier for them.

The bar was empty by one and I sat down on a stool, smoking and drinking. I wished that Debbie would come in so that we could be together. I hadn’t gone to the room to stay with Ann the night before and I didn’t care whether I ever went there again. If I didn’t show up she would come to know that we were finished. The few clothes I had there weren’t important. I could always get more clothes and none of the things were much good.

I thought a little bit about my folks back on the farm but I didn’t waste too much time on it. It was almost as though I had never been a part of the family, that I hadn’t grown up milking cows and pitching hay and walking a quarter of a mile to the school bus stop. They had their lives and I had mine and I doubted very much if we would ever cross again. My folks were satisfied with what they had but I had never been satisfied on the farm. I wanted a fast car and a fast woman and a fast way of life. Running the bar would make all of this possible. Running the bar would buy the car and it would buy all of the best things for Debbie, things that she had never had before.

“You’re like a bull,” she had told me that morning. “You must have your batteries overcharged or something.”

“Is that bad?”

“Bad?” she had demanded. “It’s good, you crazy fool.”

“I’ll have to go down to the drug store,” I had said.

“For what?”

“You know what.”

“Try the dresser. You’ll find what you want in there. The top drawer on the left-hand side.”

I lit another cigarette and wished that she were with me, that I could take her in my arms and mash my mouth down over her lips, to run my hands over her glorious body, to give to her a moment of pain and a moment of living.

I was still thinking about her, sweating all over, the sweat of a man on fire, when the door opened and somebody came in. I glanced up expectantly and then let out a groan. It was Red Brandon.

“Dead,” he said as he sat down on a stool beside me.

“We had a busy night but it all came in a few hours.”

“That’s the way it goes.”

“I guess so.”

He got out a toothpick and began chewing on the end of it.

“I want a hundred bucks,” he said.

“For what?”

“Because I want it.”

“Hell, you must have a reason.”

He spit out the toothpick and it hit me right in the face, just under one eye.

“Sorry,” he said.

“I’ll bet, you bastard.”

His eyes grew hard and deadly.

“How about the hundred?”

“Get it from Charlie.”

He laughed at me.

“But I want it from you.”

“Why?”

“Because I saw Charlie and he said you were taking over, that’s all.” He dug for another toothpick but apparently he didn’t have one.”

“This is payday, fellow. I get twenty-five dollars a week for each girl.”

“There are only three right now.”

“Is that my fault? She cheated on me and I gave her a going over. She had it coming to her. The other girls shell out and she’s no different. But because she isn’t here it doesn’t mean that your rate goes down. It stays the same, winter and summer, twelve months out of the year. If you don’t like paying a hundred for three girls go out and get another girl.”

“Maybe I will. You know how much liquor you have to sell to clear a hundred bucks? For Christ sakes, it doesn’t make sense. I break my rear in here and you come around and grab the profits.”

“Don’t tell me your troubles,” he said. “I’ve got no time to listen to troubles. I got enough of my own. And, just to set the record straight, I don’t think you’re operating with three girls. I was standing outside a while ago, looking in, and I saw you talking to three more. I know them. They’re out for money and they don’t care how they make it. My guess is that you’re going to line them up and when you do that I want more dough.”

I sighed and went to the register to get the hundred. You couldn’t fool this guy, not for a second. He was all over The Dells and he knew every pitch that could be made.

“You’re nuts,” I said, giving him the money. “We were just talking and having a couple of drinks.”

He put the bills in his pocket.

“Time will tell,” he said, getting up from the stool. “You try and cheat me and you’ll be so sorry you won’t know what’s going on.” He turned and stopped as he started for the door. “I want to see you after you close, in the alley in the back.”

“What for?”

“You’ll find out when you get there.” He forced a smile. “It’ll only take a couple of minutes and we may understand each other better afterward.”

If he hadn’t been a cop I’d have gone for him then but he was a cop and the law was on his side. I could yell until the end of next week that I had given him dough and nobody would believe me.

“I’ll make it if I can,” I said, thinking that I wouldn’t make it.

He went out without saying another word and I tilted the bottle to pour a shot. He had been on Charlie’s back all these years and now he was on mine. I decided that he wouldn’t get off until he dropped dead or somebody killed him.

I tried to think of something that I could do but there wasn’t anything that I could do. The girls brought a lot of business into the bar and I had to have them. To exist on the local trade and to pay off Charlie would be impossible. Most of the people who lived in The Dells drank beer and you can’t make a fortune from that. You have to get rid of whiskey and most of the whiskey drinkers came from uptown, guys on the prowl for a dame and a moment of pleasure between the sheets. While they were waiting at the bar they tore into the booze and that was good profit. If I could pick up a few extra fives each night to send men to the new girls I would do all right but I would have to be careful. It might even work out if I had to pay Brandon twenty-five a week for each one. Once I got things rolling I would be working for nothing one night but the rest of it would be mine. The girls would probably want one night off and that would leave me five nights when I could clean up.

I tried to make up my mind what Brandon wanted to see me about but I couldn’t. He was a difficult man to understand, difficult and dangerous, and I had to play along with him if I wanted to make a go of what I was doing. You may hate a guy’s guts, just as I hated his, but if he can hurt you you have to follow the rules of the game that he puts down for you.

Martha Foster came in just before closing and had a double scotch over ice. She was wearing a knit wool suit that didn’t pretend to hide much of her shape.

“That bastard is outside,” she said.

“Who?”

“Brandon. Who else is a bastard in The Dells?” She lifted her drink. “He’s the biggest bastard in the world.” It was obvious that she was close to being drunk. “The whole stinking world,” she said. “You can look the whole stinking world over and you won’t find a bigger bastard.”

“I agree.”

“He comes to get his money and then he wants your flesh. Isn’t the money enough for him? Why does a man have to be such a hog?”

“I don’t know.”

“It’s my turn tomorrow and I don’t look forward to it. He’ll show up about four, right after he goes on duty, and he’ll go to bed with me until five. I’ll have to swallow a pint of scotch before I can bear him.”

“Tough.”

She nodded.

“It’s worse than tough. He doesn’t have any respect for a girl. He doesn’t have any respect for anybody. I may be a prostitute but most men treat me decently.”

“They should.”

“You do.” She paused. “There’s something nice about you, Clint, that makes a girl feel wanted.”

I knew what she was after. She was after a few free drinks and then she would be willing for me to take her to her room. But I couldn’t do it that night. There was that business with Brandon—why couldn’t he have taken care of it when he had been at the bar?—and it was only right that I see Ann. We had been together a long time and if I was going to walk out on her she was entitled to know why. You may not love somebody but that doesn’t mean that you leave them hanging on a limb. You put the facts on the line and you let the future take care of itself.

I bought her a couple of drinks and told her that I couldn’t go with her, that I had something else that I had to do.

“I know what it is,” she said.

“What?”

“Debbie Fletcher.”

“You’re wrong.”

“And you’re wrong if you think she’s your kind, Clint. She isn’t. She’s in a class all by herself and don’t let anybody tell you differently.”

She walked out as I began turning off the lights and I dismissed her remarks as simply the remarks of a girl who was jealous. Debbie had so much in so many ways and Martha only had one thing in one way.

I didn’t add up the cash but bundled up the bills, keeping the fives and tens and twenties separated, and put elastic bands around them. Then I took the check cashing box and everything to the rear of the building and put it in the safe. I didn’t know how much money was there but even with giving Brandon his hundred there was enough.

I left the light burning over the cash register and left the bar, snapping the night lock on the door behind me as I stepped out onto the sidewalk.

It was a nice night, hardly any cars moving, and once in a while a whistle sounded as a freighter made its way up the river, the crew seeking a place where it could be anchored until morning and finally unloaded at one of the docks.

I walked around the building and started up the street. I didn’t have any intention of seeing Brandon. What the hell did he want from me that I hadn’t already given him? As for the new girls I was putting on I had half decided that I would have to cut him in, that it could bring me trouble if I didn’t and that it could also bring the girls trouble. At first, they might object to paying for protection but if they wanted to be safe it was about the only way that it could be done.

“Hey, you.”

I had passed the mouth of the alley and I swung about, feeling tense inside.

“Yeah?” I said.

“You forget about our date?”

“Sort of,” I lied.

I could see him standing there, just a figure in the shadows of the building.

“That’s bad,” he said. “Very bad.” His voice was hard and there was a knife-like edge to it. “When I want to see somebody I want to see them.”

“Okay.”

I walked over to where he was leaning against the building. He must have found a toothpick somewhere because he was chewing one.

“You could have had a shack up with that number who I just came out of the bar a little while ago.”

“Maybe I didn’t want it.”

“Maybe there’s something else that you want worse.”

“Maybe I want to be left alone.”

He spit out the toothpick and it hit me on one shoe. I didn’t like that. He had the attitude that he was spitting on a bum, that I was just a tramp out of nowhere. If it had been anybody else I would have slammed him, driving my fist into him fast and following it up with a fast blow to the belly, but he was a cop and you don’t hit cops. They can be good or bad but you still don’t hit them. They’ve got the law book in their pocket and you can rot in jail if they make up their mind to shove you in there.

“You want something else,” he said.

“Such as?”

“Such as what’s upstairs. You went up there with her last night and you’d like to be with her again, wouldn’t you?”

“I think that’s my business.”

“You’re like a lot of guys,” he said. “You take a look at those knockers she’s got and after that you’ve only got one thing on your mind. Don’t lie to me, fellow. You want to jazz her. You want to jazz her bad. You want to rip those god-damned clothes off of her and take her down naked onto a bed.”

“Leave her out of it.”

“Why should I?” he demanded. “I like her, too. I may be forty-five but that don’t stop me from knowing what I can do with a girl like her. If you’d ever seen my wife you’d know. She’s a fat tub of lard—won’t take care of herself the way other women do—and when I see her without her clothes on I want to puke.”

“Fine thing to say about your wife.”

He spit again, not with any toothpick in his mouth, and he hit the other shoe.

“I ain’t been with her in months,” he said. “She thinks there’s something wrong with me, that I ought to get some pills to take, but it ain’t that at all. I would rather take on these pros down here in The Dells than I would my wife. They may not like me much—I don’t give a god-damn whether they do or not—but they put out and that’s what a woman is for, isn’t she? She’s built the way she is to take on a man and give him his fun, isn’t she?”

“If you say it’s true it must be true.”

“Don’t be wise.”

“I’m not wise. I’m only agreeing with you.” I reached into my pocket and found a cigarette. “What the hell is this all about, Brandon? You asked for money and you got your money. What goes on between your wife and you doesn’t concern me in the least.”

“No, but something else does.”

“You tell me what.”

“Let’s go back into the alley.”

The alley was dark, like a hole in the ground.

“I’d rather stay out here.”

He laughed at me.

“You got no choice, fellow. I call the shots. People do as I say in The Dells or they end up in trouble. Consider something, will you? I could put a bullet into your guts and just say that you were resisting arrest. Who is to deny it?”

I had to do as he said and there were no two ways about that. If he told me to climb the side of the building in my bare feet there wouldn’t be very much that I could do about it.

“Okay,” I said.

I followed him into the alley, nearly tripping over a board or some piece of junk. He was being very cozy about this, very mysterious, and it didn’t please me a bit.

“Far enough,” he said at last.

I filled my lungs from the smoke of the cigarette and then ground the butt out under one heel.

“Now that we’re here what do we do?”

There was a light in a flat on the second floor of the building next door and it spilled down into the alley. I could see some of him, not all of him, but I could see his face. It was a brutal face, far from being pleasant All I had to do was look into it and my spine got cold, the way your spine gets cold when you know that anything you do is bound to be wrong.

“Leave her alone,” he said.

“Who?”

“Debbie.”

So that was it. He had been trying to make time with her and he was sore at me because I had. She had told me the night before that he had tried to force her, using every trick that he had, but she had resisted him.

“Why not let her decide that?” I asked.

His face twisted in anger.

“Because she’s not capable, fellow. You come along—a big guy with a good-looking face—and she’s just waiting for some guy to make time with her. You give her enough to drink, get her high, and she don’t know what she’s doing.”

“You’ve got me all wrong.”

“The hell I have. I’ve got you figured right. You’re out for any dame that won’t say no and you take what you can get where you can get it. I know you spent the night with her last night. I was right across the street and I stayed there until morning, just waiting for you to come out. But you didn’t come out. You got her up there and you made your play and you went for it. The only thing is that it’s the last time, fellow. You hit the sheets with her again and you’re finished in The Dells. If anybody shacks with her it’s gonna be me. I’ve been playing for that number a long time now and there ain’t anybody who’s going to cut me out.”

“Maybe you’ve already been cut out,” I suggested.

“A wise bastard, huh?”

“No, not wise. I’m just telling you the truth. If a girl doesn’t want to have anything to do with a man she isn’t going to do it no matter what you say to her.”

“I’m ready to retire from the force,” he said.

“What’s that got to do with it?”

“Plenty. I can divorce my wife and Charlie will divorce her. I’m not a poor man, guy. I can take her to the best places and we can live it up.”

“What will you do when your money runs out?”

He sneered.

“Who worries about that? There’s always ways. The main thing is that you leave her alone. Got me? You stay far away from her, like she’s got a disease or something.”

I thought about that, of not bothering with her any more, and I knew I couldn’t do it. She had become a part of my life, ripping through my blood whenever I thought of her, and I wasn’t going to make any promise that I couldn’t keep.

“Why not let her decide that?” I said. “She’s old enough to know who she wants and what she wants.”

“I figured you’d be stubborn.” This time he spit at my face and I backed away just in time. “You’re nothing but a dumb rabbit and you’ve got no sense. You think because you’ve got a good looking face that that is all that matters. Well, I’m going to show you. I’m going to teach you a god-damned lesson. I’m going to make you so pretty that no dame will ever look at you again.”

I saw what he held in his hand, a chain with a bunch of keys on it, but I didn’t realize until he struck me, full in the face, that the keys had been filed down until they were razor sharp. I don’t know how many cuts I got that first time but I knew there were several and I could feel the blood running down into one eye, taste the salt where one of my lips had been slashed.

“You crazy son-of-a-bitch!” I breathed.

I went for him, wanting to kill him, but he was fast and those keys on the end of that chain were deadly. Twice they got me on the arms, drawing blood—I couldn’t see the blood but I knew there was blood—and now the blood was in both eyes. Jesus, I couldn’t find him, couldn’t see him, and again and again I felt new cuts being opened up all over my face. I was helpless, like a bull being beaten down with a hammer, and after I fell over a box, unable to tell where I was, I just continued to lay there.

It may have been ten minutes and it may have been half an hour before I was able to wipe the blood out of my eyes with my handkerchief and leave the alley. I looked for him as best I could—it was difficult for me to see very far—but the street was deserted and there was nobody in sight.

Still working at my eyes with the handkerchief I stumbled along the sidewalk, going from side to side as though I was drunk. The cuts hadn’t hurt at first but now they did and it was difficult for me to move my lips without pain.

When I was near Clay Street I met some woman who asked me what time it was and I told her I didn’t know.

“Nuts to you,” she said.

I was sober now, dead sober, and inside of me my hate for Red Brandon was a terrible thing. He was a cop, true enough, but he had done a job on me and someday I would pay him back. I didn’t know how it would be or when it would be but I knew that it would happen. He was scum, dirt off the street, and somebody had to take care of him.

That somebody, I told myself, would be me.

Chapter Seven

I made my way up the stairs of the rooming house and down the hall toward the room. There was a dim light in the hall and I saw that the handkerchief was red with blood. So was the front of my shirt, as red as though I had been stabbed by a thousand knives. Some of the pain had left my face but had been replaced by a dull ache and a burning sensation.

There was a light under the door and I hesitated before I opened it. She would be angry about the night before— of that much I was sure—but I didn’t have anyplace else to go. I doubted if I could get into a hotel, looking as I looked, and all I wanted to do was go to sleep and forget everything that had happened. He had marked me, marked me for life, and the face that had once been handsome would no longer be handsome.

She was sitting up in bed, reading some sort of a magazine, when I went in. She didn’t look up.

“The wanderer returns,” she said.

I tried to ignore the coldness to her tone.

“So I have.”

“The least you could have done was to have called. There is a phone in the lower hall, you know.”

I walked to the dresser and looked at myself in the mirror, leaning close for a careful inspection. God, I was a mess. One eye was badly swollen and my upper lip had started to puff out. Most of the cuts didn’t seem to be too bad but there was one along my right cheek that was deep and ugly looking. When I wiped the blood away I thought I could see the white of my cheekbone. I shrugged and turned away from the mirror. Maybe I had been lucky. I could have lost an eye.

“I had an accident,” I said.

She looked at me then, her face white and tense, and she let out a low scream. In a matter of seconds, wearing just bra and panties, she came to me. Forgotten seemed to be the fact that I hadn’t returned to the room the night before.

“Clint, what happened?”

“A fight,” I replied.

“You’ve had fights before but you never came out of one all cut up.”

“The guy had a broken bottle,” I lied. “There’s nothing worse than a broken bottle.”

“And your arms!”

I examined my arms. The cuts in my arms weren’t deep but there were several of them and there was one that ran all the way from my elbow to my wrist. Those keys had been a deadly weapon, a weapon that could cut a man to ribbons in a matter of moments.

“I’ll get the stinker,” I said softly.

She stood before me, as nearly naked as she could be and still be wearing anything at all. I hadn’t seen the bra or panties before and they were very thin, just a double thickness of material covering the nipples of her breasts and another double thickness you know where.

“You should go to a hospital,” she said.

“To hell with a hospital.”

There were tears in her eyes.

“Well, if you won’t do that you should at least have a doctor.”

“I don’t want any doctor.”

Her uniform was lying over the foot of the bed and she picked it up and put it on, scuffing into a pair of loafers as soon as she had done so.

“I don’t care what you want,” she said. “I’m going down and I’m going to phone for a doctor and you can like it or lump it.”

She went out, slamming the door behind her, and I sat down on the edge of the bed. She was kind, thoughtful about me, but there wasn’t much room in my thoughts for her. There was just that hate for Brandon, getting bigger every second, a hate that was both savage and unreasonable, I couldn’t kill a cop and get away with it. Nobody could. You killed a cop and every cop in the country was after you and they kept after you until you were caught.

I thought of going to the police, to someone higher up, and of laying the facts on the line. But that, I reasoned, wasn’t any good. All he had to do was to deny that he had touched me and I had no way of proving that he had. Then there was that business about the girls. Cripes, I was in trouble, deeper trouble than I had ever been into in my life before, and I had to admit it.

I was on my second cigarette when Ann came back into the room.

“I had to call three doctors before I could finally get one,” she said. “But he’ll be here in ten or fifteen minutes. Even he wouldn’t consent to come until I told him that we could pay him. What are you supposed to do if you don’t have any money? Bleed to death.”

I’m not bleeding very much now.”

“No, but those cuts should be treated. If you don’t get something onto them you could get an infection.” She sat down beside me on the bed and our thighs touched. “I knew something like this would happen,” she went on. “All I had to do was see that bar once and I knew there would be trouble. Perhaps now you’ll listen to me. That short order cooking job is still open and you could step right in there. It would be better than being around the booze all the time.”

“And for a lot less money.” I wasn’t yet ready to tell her that I had taken over the bar; that could come later. “And, anyway, I don’t like to cook.”

We were still arguing about it when the doctor arrived. He was a little man with a big case and he wanted his money, twenty bucks, before he would even look at me.

“It’s not my fault,” he said as I gave him the money. “You get hung up down here more times than you get paid. And it doesn’t do you any good to send bills. Half of the time the people move and they don’t leave a forwarding address. All you do is waste four cents and get nothing.”

He had me he down on the bed and he washed out the cuts with some kind of solution in a brown bottle. When he came to the big gash he frowned and went over it carefully.

“We’ll have to take a few stitches,” he said. “But that won’t stop you from having a scar. Some of the other cuts are going to leave scars, too.”

“I guess it can’t be helped.”

“Not after it’s done you can’t. The thing to do is not to get into fights.” He got something out of his kit. “I’ll freeze that for you and you won’t feel it when I sew you up. All you have to do is tell me when your face is numb.”

The needle hurt when he shoved it into my skin but one more hurt didn’t matter much. I was thinking of that long scar, that it would always be there, and as big as I was I could have cried.

I told him when the side of my face was numb and it didn’t take him long to sew me up. After he had that job done he put some bandages over the long cut and some of the other ones.

“I must look like the devil,” I said.

“Well, you look like somebody who bit off more than he could chew.”

“I guess I did.”

He began putting his things into the bag.

“You come up and see me in a week, will you?” He mentioned the address of his office on Pike Street. “I think you’ll heal pretty fast.” He laughed. “And don’t tangle with the same man again. You may not be so lucky the next time. That one slash in particular could have slit your throat and you’d be a dead man by now.”

“Thanks for the advice.”

After he had gone, reminding me again to visit him, Ann kicked off her shoes and got out of her uniform. My face was still numb and what wasn’t numb felt stiff and sore.

“I wish I had a drink,” I said.

“If I know you you’ve already had enough to drink tonight.”

“Could be.”

“Is that where you were last night?”

“Yeah, I tied one on.”

“With some other girl?”

“No,” I lied. “No other girl.”

“I wish I could believe that.”

I was sitting on the edge of the bed and she was standing in front of me.

“You’ll have to believe what you want to believe,” I said.

She reached behind her and unhooked the bra. I watched her as she got out of it. She was medium size where Debbie was big but she did have nice breasts. I remembered the first time that I had seen them this way, back in Beaverkill, and she had been slightly ashamed of being nearly nude. But I had pleased her, pleased her in the back seat of the car, and the shame had left her, the shame being replaced by a passion that had flamed like a rocket out of control.

“I might as well be a stick of wood,” she complained. “You don’t even know that I’m here.”

“I know you’re here all right.”

“Can’t you say anything else?”

“Thanks for getting the doctor. I guess I needed one.”

“You still haven’t told me what it was all about.”

I walked over and looked at myself in the mirror. I was patched up pretty good, looking like somebody who had had his head smashed through the windshield of a car.

“Just a misunderstanding,” I said. “This guy saw things one way and I saw them another. It didn’t turn out to be much of a fight. The blood got in my eyes and I couldn’t see him. You’ve heard of the fellow who couldn’t punch his way out of a paper bag, haven’t you? Well, that was me. He had me solid before I knew it and it was over with in a matter of seconds.”

I swung away from the mirror and she turned her back to me as she got out of her panties. She didn’t face me again until she had put on a shortie nightgown that didn’t hardly hide anything at all.

“You’ve got to give it up,” she said.

“Give what up?”

“Working at that bar. I doubt if my boss would hire you the way you look now but I’ll tell him I’ve got somebody and keep the job open for you. Give yourself a week or ten days and most of those cuts will be healed.”

I had to give it to her and I had to give it to her straight. There was no point of leading her on. I might not be in love with her but that didn’t mean that I didn’t have to be honest with her.

“I’m taking over the bar,” I said. “I took it over today.”

Her eyes were serious.

“What are you talking about, Clint?”

I told her about Charlie’s offer and that I was going to grab it.

“I’m tired of working for somebody else,” I said. “This is a chance, a big chance. I don’t want to go on making sixty or seventy-five dollars a week for the rest of my life. How far can you go on that?”

“Other people do.”

“Well, I’m not other people. I’m me. I’m the guy who washed pots and pans for peanuts and who took all the slop that anybody could hand out. So I took it because I had to. I didn’t have any choice. But now I’ve got a choice and I know which way I’m going.”

She sat down on the bed and that shortie was really short. I could see what you went to a carney girlie show to see but just at that moment I wasn’t interested in anything that she had.

“I hope you get rid of those girls,” she said.

“Fat chance. The. girls bring business into the bar and they’re part of it. You can draw beer all night long and wind up broke. It’s the guys who come into the bar to wait for the girls that makes the cash register ring.”

She shook her head in dismay.

“Haven’t you got any pride?”

“What’s pride got to do with it?”

“Girls selling themselves and you making money from it.”

“Only indirectly. I don’t ask the men to come down and see the girls and I don’t pimp for them. If they didn’t work out of that bar they would work out of another one. What they do is their business and not mine.”

“It still isn’t right.”

“Is it right for us to live together? Has it been right from the start?”

“Not the way we do, no.”

“Then we can’t judge other people. The law says it’s wrong for a girl to sell herself to a man but if she gives herself for nothing the act is the same.”

“Are you calling me a prostitute?”

“Far from it. I’m just saying, that’s all.”

She lay back, closing her eyes, and now she was all exposed.

“Have you forgotten what you said the day we left home?”

“We said a lot of things.” I felt uncomfortable. “I don’t remember all that we said.”

“You said you would love me and love me and that you would never let me go.” She smiled faintly at the memory and took a deep breath. “And that first night we stayed together in Liberty. The man didn’t think we were married and he didn’t want to give us a room but you talked him out of it.”

“With five dollars.”

“Is that how you did it?”

“Sure. Money talks. It screams right out loud, louder than a pig getting stabbed.”

While I stood there looking at her it all came back to me—the terrible yearning to be with her, the longing to press my body to hers, the fears and the doubts that she had shared with me after leaving home. It was like seeing a movie, a movie I had seen before, a movie that no longer impressed me. I looked at her but I wasn’t seeing her. I was seeing that Debbie Fletcher, alive and needing me, needing me with all of the completeness that a woman needs a man. I glanced at her breasts and I was in that apartment over the bar, all of her loveliness revealed for me to see.

“Money isn’t everything,” Ann said.

“Just the biggest half.”

“Not even that.” She sat up and forced a smile. “We’ve had it tough, Clint. We’ve had it very tough. Nobody has to tell me that. We knew what it was like to be hungry and then there was that one night when we didn’t have a place to sleep. That was last year, just before the fishing season opened, and we were between jobs.”

“We stayed in the bus station,” I recalled.

“And it was cold.”

“Yes, it was cold.”

All of these things should have brought me closer to her but they didn’t. She was like someone I had known a million years before, in another time, another life, a life that had slipped away from me the way sand slips between your fingers.

“I wish I could make you see things as you should see them, Clint—I don’t blame you for not wanting to struggle with money but most people have to do it. Even if you had a million dollars you’d still have problems, money problems.”

“Maybe.”

“You would. Others do. If you weren’t worrying how to make money you’d be worrying about how you could keep it.” She leaned forward and the top of the shortie dipped away from her breasts. “Honest you would. There’s no such thing of having everything just the way you want it.”

“But there’s such a thing as trying.”

“In a bar that caters to—whores?”

“That may be one way.”

“No, it isn’t. Nothing you could get through that could ever do you any good. What if the police should get wise to you and close you up?”

“They won’t.”

“How can you be sure?”

“Because I am sure. The detective who works The Dells gets paid off.”

“That’s rotten.”

“And expensive.”

She got up and moved to the dresser to pick up a package of cigarettes. Any other time I might have gone for her, gone for her because I wasn’t with Debbie, but my face hurt quite a bit and the urge to know her again had died somewhere inside of me.

“There’s something we have to talk about,” she said through the smoke. “I’m pregnant, Clint, as pregnant as they come, and it’s up to you to do the right thing.”

I thought of being married to her and it wasn’t what I wanted.

“We can take care of that,” I said.

Her face brightened.

“When can we get married?”

“I’m not talking of getting married,” I replied slowly. “There are ways of getting rid of it.”

The brightness left her face and eyes.

“You can’t possibly mean that, Clint.”

“But I do mean it. Who wants a kid? All you have to do is have a kid and we’ll be in a fix that we’ll never get out of. A kid is for people who know where they’re going.”

“You should have thought of that when you gave it to me,” she said bitterly.

“Yeah, I should have thought but I didn’t. You didn’t think either so that makes two of us.” I moved to the dresser to get a cigarette for myself. “I’ll pay the freight on it,” I told her. “They get about six hundred bucks in the city but up here it ought to be cheaper. My guess is that three hundred would do the trick.”

“I’m not having any abortion,” she said firmly. “To begin with, I don’t think it’s right and, secondly, there’s always the danger of getting an infection afterward. Lots of girls lose their lives every year having abortions.”

“I think I could get you some of those pills I mentioned before.”

“The pills are out, too. You put something inside of me, Clint, and whether it turns out to be a boy or a girl it has a right to live.”

“There may be some mistake.”

“There isn’t any mistake. It’s too late for that now. The mistake was in what we did but we did it and I’ll pay for it alone if I have to.”

“I’ll help you out with money,” I said.

Her chin tilted.

“I don’t want your money if you don’t want me.”

“Well—”

“Don’t lie to me, Clint. There’s somebody else. There has to be somebody else. You said you got drunk last night and while I believe that I don’t think it’s the whole truth. If it’s one of the girls who work the bar—”

“It isn’t one of them.”

“Then it’s somebody else.”

“Yes,” I admitted. “It’s somebody else.”

Her face fell apart.

“I can’t fight that,” she said. “No girl can fight it. I heard that if you gave yourself to a man enough times you soon didn’t count with him. I didn’t believe that and I should have believed it. I was always ready, always willing, and you only had to show me a bed, to put your arms around me and kiss me. It was all of the world that I wanted, all of | the world that I cared about. I lived for those moments with you, died when you were so tired that you didn’t make love to me.”

She kept on talking and I began to pack. What was the use? We had reached the end of the string. She wanted to go one way and I wanted to go another. The same thing happens to lots of people and my only regret was that she was in a family way. If I knew her she would refuse any help that I might offer and she’d go on working. What, I asked myself, would happen if she couldn’t work? She’d probably go crawling back to Beaverkill and move in with her parents, bringing up a kid that other kids would call a bastard. It wasn’t much of a future for a girl twenty years old.

“I won’t cause you any trouble,” she said. She was sitting on the bed again. “You can be sure of that.”

“Thanks.”

“I could go to the authorities, Clint. You know that, don’t you?”

“Yes, I know it.”

“And I could make you marry me.”

“You could sure try.”

“But I don’t want you that way. I’d want you because you wanted me and that’s the only way I’d ever want you. I wouldn’t make you do something that you didn’t want to do. What good would that do with me? I’d have your name and that’s all I’d have. Later there would be a divorce and I’d only lose anyway.”

I closed my suitcase.

“At least you’re being sensible about it,” I said.

Her eyes were wet as she looked up at me and she swallowed a sob.

“Can I be anything other than that? Do I have a choice? I’m like one of the girls in the diner—she’s expecting, too. She was going out with a married man and they went too far and now she’s going to have his baby. She’ll have hers before I have mine—you can see that she’s carrying it—and maybe we can work something out. I can help her when she needs me and she can help me when I need her. We’ll get along. I thought something was happening to us, that it would happen, and I’ve talked to her about us rooming together. She can’t go home—her parents won’t have anything to do with her—and she’s all for it.”

I thought of kissing her on the way out but I guessed that a guy didn’t do it when he walked out on a girl. All you did was grab your things and run like a thief.

“You know where the bar is,” I said. “If you need anything I’ll be there.”

“What I need right now is a husband.”

“Except that.” I lingered by the door. “Think it over, Ann. You aren’t doing the kid any favor by bringing it into the world without a father. What are you going to tell it when it gets older?”

“For God sakes, stop torturing me!” she cried out. “Haven’t you done enough already? How do I know what I’m going to say? How do I know anything, other than that I’m going to have your baby and that you don’t love me? What else can I know? You tell me that, can you?”

She was stretched out on the bed and sobbing when I left her, closing the door as quietly as I could. As I walked down the hall I heard a man and woman fighting in one of the rooms, the man yelling at the woman that she was a slut and the woman yelling right back that he was a drunken bum.

Clay Street was like a tomb at that time of the morning and I walked to the corner in the hopes that I would catch a cab. I didn’t know where I was going. I just knew that I was going somewhere, that I wanted to lay down and sleep the sleep of the dead. Inside of me there was hate and love and the feeling that I had done the wrong thing to a girl who hadn’t deserved it.

Love for Debbie Fletcher…

Oh, Jesus, how I wanted her, wanted that naked body of hers next to me, wanted all the love that she could give, wanted to give her all of the love that she could receive. The next time I was with her I would show her what a real man was like, make her beg for more and more, make her cry out in the painful wonders of the flesh. And the next time I wouldn’t be careful with her. I would give her all of me, all of me, and if she got caught I wouldn’t care. I would marry her the next day if I could and if Charlie kept his word that day might not be far off.

But there was hate inside of me, too, a raging hate for Brandon that would someday have to seek its price. Cop or no cop I didn’t get cut up for the hell of it. Some of the scars I would carry with me to my grave but he would carry a bigger one. The alleys of The Dells were dark, little islands of violence, and a knife could do the job. As long as I wasn’t seen nobody could prove anything. Death came suddenly in The Dells and his name would merely be added to a long list of unsolved crimes.

I reached the corner and waited patiently for a cab. Dawn was beginning to break and there was a slight chill in the air. I remembered then that I hadn’t changed my shirt but it only took me a couple of seconds to get a fresh one out of the suitcase. I changed there on the corner and dropped the bloody shirt into an ash can with a heavy iron lid on it.

It was fully thirty minutes before a cab came along and I hailed it.

“Uptown,” I told the driver as I got in. “The first hotel you find.”

“Got you.”

I leaned back as the car growled forward and closed my eyes.

For better or worse I was starting a new life.

I grinned.

For better or worse…

Chapter Eight

It didn’t take the cuts on my face too long to heal and nobody who came into the bar, not even the girls, said anything to me about them, except to mention the fact that my face looked terrible after the bandage came off. It did and that one cut was red and ugly appearing.

On the night that I left Ann I stayed at a hotel but the next morning I rented a two-room apartment, complete with bath, on Bruce Street. Bruce Street was within walking distance of the bar—it only took me about fifteen minutes to get there—and it was in a decent neighborhood. The rent was sixty a month, which wasn’t bad, and the way things were going for me I could afford it.

I opened up every day at twelve and sometimes Charlie came in to have a drink or two. He had had his lawyer draw up the papers for the sale of the business and the rental of the property but there were a lot of forms I had to fill out to arrange for the transfer of the liquor license.

“You’re all right if you’ve never been in trouble,” Charlie said one afternoon. “They look into everything that you’ve ever done and if you’ve ever been convicted of a crime they won’t go along with it.”

“The only thing that I ever did was to get arrested in Roscoe for speeding in my old man’s car.”

“No. I mean something serious.”

“Nothing serious.”

“Then there hadn’t ought to be any difficulty.”

Afternoons he spent running around trying to sell his other property, or checking on the housing development, and most of the time Debbie went with him. That didn’t click with me, her going out with him so much. He wanted a divorce and she wanted his money and I couldn’t see what they had in common. Sometimes he would take her arm as they walked to his car and I knew that he wasn’t going out much at night. I didn’t see her at all, not the way I had been seeing her just before closing, and there was nothing for me to believe but that she was taking care of him up in the apartment. I’d be working, running back and forth with drinks, and then I would think about it, of the two of them together, and something sharp would stab me in the guts. There was something going on that I didn’t know about and I wanted to know.

“You should have learned a lesson,” Brandon said when he collected his money. “If you haven’t learned one by this time you’re apt to wind up in a casket.”

He had the hots for her, had them bad, but with Charlie around most of the time there wasn’t much that he could do about it. Often I saw him across the street, just standing there and watching the apartment and the bar, and the hate that was inside of me would be something terrible.

“I don’t see why we have to pay him,” one of the new girls said to me. “We do all of the work and he takes fifty dollars a week from each one of us. And that isn’t all he takes. You have to go to bed with the bastard and he’s like a pig.”

After taking that beating from Brandon I knew that I couldn’t cheat on him, that if I tried it he would only catch me and he would do something else, something worse, that I didn’t want done. Often I thought of getting him after work, of doing away with him and of dumping his body in the river, but I knew that I had to have something better than that. I had to wait, like a snake waits for a rat, and when the moment was right I had to strike fast.

The new girls did good right from the start. Within a week they had quit their jobs in the factory and I was getting plenty of customers for them during the afternoons from uptown. Mornings I left the apartment early and I circulated with the cab drivers near the hotel and the railroad station, letting them know that flesh could be had for the asking. Most of them got five dollars for giving a guy a tip, plus the fare of running him down to the bar, and I got another five for putting a man next to a girl. A lot of afternoons I picked up seventy-five bucks on the side and I also did a good whiskey business. Nearly all of the men were executives or professionals of one type or another and they had money to spend. At night the three girls didn’t do very much and they would sit at one end of the bar and hit up the hard stuff. I was getting money from both directions and it wasn’t difficult to take. There were lots of days that I cleared two or three hundred, all told, and the money I had to give Brandon didn’t bother me any financially. It only bothered me because I didn’t want to pay him. With whatever else he had going for him in The Dells he was knocking down plenty every week and I resented it. He was a cop but a crooked one and I resented that, too. Once I heard that he might be moved to another section of the city but nothing came of it and he continued to prowl the alleys and the streets. There was dope to be had in The Dells, any kind you wanted, and it was said that Brandon got his share out of this racket, too. As far as I could figure it he was good for about five hundred a week, plus his pay.

Nights after the place cleared out I’d sit at one of the stools, staring at myself in the mirror, and drink more than I should drink. Maybe I had been handsome once but that one big scar took all of it away. The doctor had said that it wouldn’t be so noticeable in time but that when he said “time” he meant years.

“You could have a plastic job done on it,” he had added. “I don’t think there’s anybody in Wilton who could do it but there are lots of good men in New York. It would cost you some money but it would be worth it.”

“We’ll see.”

Whenever I was sitting there drinking and the door opened up I hoped that it was Debbie but it never was. One night I tried calling the upstairs apartment on the phone but Charlie answered and I hung up without saying anything. I couldn’t understand her, couldn’t understand —anything at all.

Some nights I took one of the girls home, mostly Martha Foster, but I never took any of them to the apartment. I was very careful about how I went to the apartment, making sure that nobody followed me. I still had dreams that I would have Debbie up there some night and I didn’t want Red Brandon to know where I lived. If our affair resumed, and it didn’t seem as though it would, our meetings would have to be in secret.

“You’re a funny guy,” Martha said to me one night.

We were in her room and we were having a drink from a bottle that I had brought along from the bar. She was sitting on the bed, her dress dipping down between her legs, and I was standing there, a glass in my hand, looking down at her.

“What makes me so funny?”

“Because you aren’t the way you used to be. You’re too serious and you seem to be thinking about something else when somebody is talking to you.”

“Maybe I am.”

“Others have mentioned it to me.”

“Have they?”

“Charlie was inclined to be sour but he usually had a laugh for a joke. You don’t laugh. You seem to be carrying the burdens of the world on your shoulders. What the hell is it all about?”

“Sometimes I wonder.”

She got up from the bed and came toward me, her hips swaying.

“I know what you need,” she said.

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”

“Something for free, huh?”

“Well, I sure as hell don’t expect to pay.”

She stood close to me and reached up with one hand and touched the scar with the tips of her fingers.

“Anybody ask you about that?”

“Not so far.”

“Not even Charlie?”

“No. He just said I must have run into a bigger man than I am.”

“Mind if I ask you?”

“Go ahead.”

The palm of her hand was hot against the side of my face.

“How did you get it, Clint?”

“Some guy with a broken bottle.”

“What did Debbie Fletcher say?”

“She hasn’t seen me since.”

She lifted her drink and watched me over the rim of the glass.

“You’ve got a yen for that, haven’t you?”

“I wouldn’t turn it down.”

“You’d be smart if you did.”

“I guess I’m not that smart.”

“She and Charlie seem to be hitting it off.”

“So they do.”

“If you ask me, he isn’t going to divorce her, not the way I heard. She’s playing some sort of a game but what it is is beyond me.”

She was talking sense, a lot of sense, and yet, in a way, it didn’t make sense. He had been running with anything on the street, or uptown, and now he had settled down. It was a long cry from being what I wanted. I wanted her free of him and I wanted her for myself. When I thought of her in these terms I didn’t think of Brandon. Somehow I would pay Brandon back for what he had done to me.

I walked to the dresser and poured another drink, a big one that would sock the lining of my stomach like a ball of fire.

“You don’t know much about me,” she said as she unzipped her dress.

“No.”

“And I don’t know much about you.”

“It’s better that way.”

“Why?” The dress came up over her head. She wore only bra and panties underneath, no slip. “Why is it better?”

“Because people can know too much about each other.”

“Such as me being a prostitute?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“I’ve been one since I was sixteen but it wasn’t all my fault. I had a stepfather, a little skunk of a man, and one day when my mother was at work and I had just got home from school he raped me.”

“He should’ve been put in jail.”

“Sure, but what could I do? My mother worked herself silly to support him and there wasn’t anything that he could do, even to drinking, that was wrong. Then she got put on the night shift in the factory and he really had his run. He told me that he would go to my mother with all sorts of lies about me and he made me sleep with him. I knew enough to be careful but he wouldn’t be careful and in a few months he had me in a family way. I kept going to school and living at home until I began to show and then my mother kicked me out. I didn’t have any place to go but an aunt took me in and I lost the baby during the sixth month. My aunt lived on a farm and the doctor said I lifted something that I shouldn’t have lifted and that was the cause of it. I was as sick as a dog for a few days and then I was okay.”

“Why didn’t you stay with your aunt?”

“Because I hated the farm and there was a hired man who tried his best to do something to me in the barn after I was all right. I told my aunt about it but she didn’t believe me and I left. When I got here to Wilton—my aunt only lives twenty-five miles away—I couldn’t afford anything but the room rent in The Dells and before I hardly knew it I drifted into this racket.”

“You’ve made money, haven’t you?”

Her eyes were sad.

“With my body, yes. I bring the men up here to the room and they all get the same thing. But it isn’t what I want. It isn’t what any girl wants. A girl wants a home and a husband and a family. If she wants anything less than that she’s a fool —or she’s dishonest with herself. And she wants to be loved by somebody. She wants to be needed. We were created to give life and love and not just physical pleasure.”

I had never heard her talk this way before and I had another drink. She wasn’t bad, not bad at all. She wasn’t any raving beauty as far as her face was concerned but she had a nice shape and I knew that she could give all that a girl was expected to give.

“I kind of like you,” she said.

“I don’t exactly hate you.”

“I kind of like you a lot, Clint. You’re big and strong and you know how to make a girl live. These other men don’t mean anything to me. Some of them try to be nice but I hate them all. They buy me like they would buy a pound of hamburger and if I don’t show them all of the passion they expect they get sore. It’s only when you want a man and need a man that sex is important.”

I put my glass on the dresser. I was getting drunk, tired of this talking, and I went over to her and took her in my arms. She came to me without any restraint, pressing in close, her lips crying out for the love she was unable to find with the men who came to her. It was a savage kiss, a brutal kiss, and while we were kissing I found the snap on her bra and unhooked it, letting it hang loose and getting at her with one of my hands in front, shoving the bra up out of the way and finding her naked flesh.

“Help me,” she whispered.

“How?”

“I don’t know. But help me. Give me something to live for, Clint.”

I gave her something to live for, the only thing that I could give her. She was like a raging storm on the bed, lifting to me in a torrent of desire, all of her inhibitions gone, all of her demands the demands of the ages, demands that surged through both of us in an almost unending wave of mutual satisfaction.

For all of my good fortune, if you could call it that, I should have been happy but I wasn’t. Sometimes I thought of Ann, thought of her growing big with my child, of her making her own way alone. One night, the guilt of what I had done deep within me, I went to the rooming house on Clay Street but the bedroom door, in answer to my knock, was answered by a sleepy-eyed man and he said he didn’t know where she had gone and, furthermore, he didn’t give a damn.

One morning, feeling flush, I sent my mother a hundred dollars, enclosing a short note, and three days later I received a reply. My mother wrote that my father hadn’t been feeling very well for a long time, that they had sold the cows and that my sister, Olive, had left home, getting a job in Liberty where nobody knew her. The disgrace of what had happened to her had been too much for her to face and in a small community the story of her pregnancy had been well known. My mother wished me well and said she appreciated the hundred dollars. The next week I sent her another hundred.

For the first time in my life money wasn’t any problem but I didn’t enjoy my situation. I would be behind the bar, looking out at the street, and I would see Debbie walking toward the car with Charlie. The sweat would gather all over me then and my hate for him was almost as much as it was for Red Brandon. She belonged to me and no matter how I argued with myself I couldn’t see it any differently. She belonged in my arms, my lips upon her lips, my body knowing her body, all of the fury that was within us belonging to each other.

“Hot,” Charlie said one day when he came in shortly after I had opened. “Hotter than the blue blazes of hell.”

“Ought to be good beer weather.”

“But not so good for the girls.”

“Oh, no? How come?”

“Because a lot of the free stuff goes swimming down at the docks and if a man knows where he can pick them up he can score without spending a dime. Some of them may be under age but what difference does that make to a man who is on the prowl? Sixteen or twenty, it’s all the same.”

He had a brandy and soda—somebody had told him that this wouldn’t bother his sugar so much—but he didn’t offer to pay for it. He never paid. I guess he thought I got the stuff for nothing.

“Miserable day to go to New York,” he said. “There’s no place in the world worse than New York on a hot day. You go into an office that’s air-conditioned and then you come out onto the street and cook.”

“More deals?” I inquired.

“Just some stock to sell. What the hell good is stock? It goes up one day and down the next. If I put the dough into the housing development I know where I stand.”

I drew a beer for myself and tried to sound casual.

“Anything more on the divorce?”

“Give me another drink.”

“Sure.”

I gave him a double and a fly landed on his forehead. He didn’t seem to notice the fly.

“I’m not so keen on the divorce right now.”

“Change your mind?”

“I guess you could say so. I must have been nuts, running around with those other dames and raising hell.” He gave me a wink and a slight grin. “Remember, I told you she was cold? Hell, it must have been me or my approach or something.” He licked his fat lips. “She’s a hungry one, that girl is. She puts out and puts out and there ain’t no stopping her. I take care of her and go to sleep and then she wakes me up and she wants me again.”

He said some other things about her, things that hardly any husband would say about his wife—what she did and how she did it—and I drew a beer, not caring if I got a big head on it or not. I only knew one thing. She had gone back to him, or he had gone back to her, and they had found something together and I was on the outside looking in. I didn’t like it. Hell, I didn’t like it one little bit but I couldn’t change anything by being bitter about it.

“What about your property?” I asked him.

“I think I’ve got it sold but to hell with the god-damned junk if it isn’t. I’d get maybe seventy or eighty thousand, all told, and it’s a good investment the way it is. If we ever get urban renewal it may be worth more then than it is now. I understand the plans are drawn up and that the federal government will pay the biggest load of the shot. Can you tell me why the federal government would pay out money to help a city?”

“I don’t know.” I had heard something in regard to urban renewal, or maybe I had read about it in the paper, but my knowledge on the subject was limited. “Maybe they’ve got so much money they don’t know what to do with it except give it away.”

He finished his drink.

“Well, I should care. If you ask me, half of those politicians are a bunch of crooks. Me, I’m interested in Charlie Fletcher and not some son-of-a-bitch who goes around kissing babies and handing out cigars. And I’m just the guy who can take care of Charlie. Once I get rid of that stock I can dump another bundle into that housing development and I know it’ll pay off. People are moving from the city to the country and they want homes they can afford. They don’t give a damn if you put them together with tacks as long as the roof doesn’t leak and the furnace runs.”

I didn’t know how much stock he had and he didn’t tell me but I decided that it must be quite a lot. If he carried the mortgages on the houses after he sold them he would get six percent interest and that wasn’t bad.

“Another jolt,” he said. “Another little jolt and I’ll head for the city.”

I gave it to him, not a double but the kind I would usually serve for thirty cents, just up to the white line on the shot glass and not a drop more.

“Besides what I get from the houses I’ll have the dough coming from you and I’ll be well fixed.”

“When do I get the use of the apartment?”

“Relax. Rest easy, will you?”

“I could relax a lot easier if I wasn’t paying rent on it.”

He scowled.

“How do you arrive at that? I just charge you rent for the bar and when the time comes I’ll throw the apartment in for free.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“You do now.” He motioned for another drink. “Give me some time, will you, Clint? I don’t know just what I’m going to do. Once my investments are set up we may take a long trip. I’ve never been to California and they say it’s nice. I always had the urge to travel but never had the time until now.”

He didn’t stay too long and I watched him go out and round the building toward the alley where he kept his car. A few more customers like him and I’d be in business for nothing.

It was a busy afternoon and the bar got a good play from the uptown crowd. I had it arranged with the three girls that none of the men could see them without a card from me so I got my five bucks from each one. Most of them had three or four drinks before they left and on the way back from their fun they stopped for some more. Once in a while you got a customer who felt the need twice, each time with a different girl.

“Hell of a thing,” one man said. “I knock on a door and she meets me stark naked. I’d rather have them dressed and take off their clothes myself.”

“Me, too,” his companion agreed. “It takes a terrific girl to look good without anything on. Take my wife, for instance. She gets a girdle around her belly, a couple of falsies in her brassiere and she looks like a million dollars. But after you’ve got her stripped she puts you in mind of a girl who never grew up all the way.”

About four it began to taper off—the executives had to get back to their offices or go home—and I began hitting a jug of rye for all that it was worth, sitting at the bar and feeling in a blue funk. Sure, I was making money, almost rolling in it, but that didn’t count. Charlie was keeping her, not going through with a divorce, and that was the worst news I had received since Ann had told me that she was going to have my kid. What, I asked myself, could she see in him? He was just a fat slob with half of his brains dragging in the gutter. She had everything that a man could want, everything, and he owned her the way he owned the stocks that he was going to sell. It wasn’t right. I was nuts about her, crazy nuts, and there wasn’t a girl I had known who could compare with her. All I had to do was close my eyes and I could see her coming into the bar, wearing shorts and a halter, really asking for it. Then I opened my eyes and I saw myself in the mirror over the back bar. I wasn’t the same guy I had been then. Brandon had taken care of that. The scar looked worse than it had ever looked. It wasn’t a straight scar, but long and jagged, the kind of a scar that I was sure would mar me forever.

The phone began to ring in back and I figured it was some salesman. Most of the people in The Dells didn’t call for lost husbands or wives until around nine or after but some of the salesmen did their business by phone. I had told all of the salesmen that I wanted them to call on me but it hadn’t done much good. They continued to phone and I continued to order from them because they had the stuff that I needed.

I got fooled.

I got fooled a hell of a lot.

It was Debbie.

“Is he gone?” she asked.

The blood pounded through my veins.

“Yeah, he’s gone. A long time ago. But I thought you had gone with him.”

“I told him I had a headache.”

“Do you have one?”

“No. I had to see you.”

The pound was all through my body.

“Where are you now?”

“Uptown.”

“You could have seen me before,” I said.

“How could I?” She sounded annoyed. “He’s been chasing me like a dog on the loose and Red Brandon told me what he did to you, that you weren’t to see me.”

“I get it. There just wasn’t the time or the chance for everything, was there?”

“Something of the sort.”

“Charlie didn’t tell me whether or not he was coming back today,” I said.

“He isn’t. He hates to drive on the open highway at night and he’s staying over.”

“Perfect.”

“I’m at the Wilson Hotel and nobody can find us here. You come up after work. It’s room four-fourteen.” She laughed. “The door won’t be locked.”

We talked some more but I don’t remember all that we said. One side of me said that she was just cheating on her husband and the other side said that she meant it. I asked her if I should bring a bottle and she said that a bottle wouldn’t hurt, that we would get a little high and talk and she left no doubt about where it would end.

I don’t know why I continued to drink after I had finished talking to her but I did. I didn’t know if she would laugh at me because of the scar, or cry, or what she might do. I would get what I wanted and I would get it good and, yet, that wasn’t the most important thing. There was, I felt, something big here, something that I didn’t understand, a strange something that was far larger than anything I had ever faced before.

At five the dock workers began drifting in, most of them beer drinkers, and by six I was as busy as a mother dog with ten pups to nurse. But I didn’t mind being busy. It was a good thing for me. I didn’t have a chance to think and thinking isn’t any good for you when you’re not sure what you’re thinking about.

And I wasn’t sure.

That much was for certain.

Chapter Nine

I thought the night would never end, that three o’clock in the morning was something on the end of nothing. There were a couple of arguments, one between two dockers who disagreed about how to unload a ship, and I threw them both outside. They turned on me, spitting abuse, and they said they never would be back. But I knew they would. That kind always comes back and you would be better off without them if they didn’t.

The night girls were busy, running back and forth to their rooms with men, and the day girls sat at the end of the bar drinking. Once when I was down there, fixing a gin for a guy who could hardly stand, I heard one of them bitching about having to pay Brandon protection money.

“I don’t mind the money,” the girl in the middle said. “You figure out what we’re making now and what we were making in the factory before and we’re four or five times better off. I’ll pay him every week, just as he says, but he better not try anything else with me. I never liked that guy and I don’t like him now. He may get his dough but he won’t get me.”

The other girl had had a sexual experience with Brandon and she said that it had been awful, worse than any man who came to her with the necessary fee for her services in his hand. She described in detail what he had made her do for him, something that even a whore would seldom do, not if she had any sense of being decent, and the girl in the middle cursed bitterly.

I can’t say that the day girls and the night girls got along very well but they each knew what they had to do, what was expected of them, and there weren’t any fights. They were polite and cold to each other, never drinking together, and they didn’t cut into territory that didn’t belong to them. It was a satisfactory arrangement all the way around and they were all earning a good income. The men who came to the place at night didn’t come during the day and the reverse was true.

About one it was dead—the girls had left sometime before that—and I sat at the bar drinking, not drinking fast but just enough to take the edge off of my nerves. In a couple of hours I would be with her, both of us secure behind the locked door of a hotel room, and I’d make up for all that I had missed since I had last been with her. But there was a nagging doubt in my mind, something that the liquor couldn’t kill, and I couldn’t answer it. She had been avoiding me for a long time, playing up to her husband, and now she wanted to see me. She must have her reason for that and while I tried to determine what it was I couldn’t. A guy, I decided, who tried to understand a woman was licked before he started. A woman had her own reasons for doing something, reasons that differed from those of the male, and all I could do was to wait and see what it was she wanted. I grinned and slopped some more liquor into the glass. I knew what she wanted. She wanted the same thing that most girls wanted. Hell, she wanted it bad and she would get it, get it so many times that neither one of us would be able to keep count.

I watched the fish swimming around in the tank and told myself again that I would get rid of them. Nobody in the bar ever paid any attention to the fish and I always forgot to feed them. In addition to this, the motor that pumped air into the tank didn’t run half of the time and some of them had died, anyway. I reminded myself to tell Charlie that he could have the things or that I would throw them out. The tank took up a lot of room and it stuck out over the edge of the counter and it was in the way. If I came down the bar from the right side to the cash register and I didn’t think about the tank I’d bump into it. My right elbow was sore from not remembering this and that, to me, made it necessary to chuck the fish. I could load up the space I would get with wine and put a light behind the bottles. We had a few wine drinkers and it was unhandy to reach under the counter for the stuff.

I expected Martha to come in and I wasn’t wrong about that, though she was later than usual.

“That stinking Brandon,” she said, sitting down beside me.

“He after you again?”

“He’s across the street, just standing there. I’m coming down the street and minding my own business when he jumps out and scares me half to death. Why doesn’t he ever go home?”

“I don’t know.”

“I’d rather be dead than be married to a man like that.”

“I’d rather be dead than be a man like that.”

I knew she wanted a drink and I got up and poured one for her. She put her money on the bar—she never failed to do that—but I pushed it toward her.

“On the house,” I said.

“Thanks, Clint.”

“You’re welcome.”

The drink didn’t last her very long.

“He wants to sleep with me,” she said. “He said for me to get my booze, go to my room and that he would show up when he got ready.”

“Which doesn’t give you much choice, does it?”

I had set the bottle on the bar and this time she helped herself to it.

“I’m sick of this, Clint,” she said. “It’s bad enough to have to pay him every week but it’s worse when you have to sleep with him.” She made a face. “Not that you get much sleep with him. You don’t. I often wonder where a man his age gets that much energy.”

“Beats me.”

“Someday I’m going to get out of here. Someday I’m going to wise up to myself and make a break for it. I’ve got some money saved—not a lot—but two or three thousand. There are jobs I can get and I can make a living.”

At one time or another all of the girls said the same thing, or very nearly the same thing. They knew what they were doing was wrong but it was doubtful if they could change going from man to man. They made big money, bought nice clothes—the dress Martha was wearing, low and square in front, had probably cost forty or fifty dollars—and they couldn’t face a future with just an average income. They might leave the business for a while, for a few weeks or a few months, but sooner or later they would be back into it again. They were too used to selling their bodies to change. The only thing that would change them was death and after that it would be too late.

“I just need somebody to go with me,” she was saying. “You could do that, Clint. You could go with me. My money would be yours and we’d share it together.”

“And where would we go?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t thought about that. Just anyplace. Just so that we get away from here.”

“What would I do?”

“There must be something that you’d be able to get.”

“And you?”

“I’d help out. I’d do anything that I had to do.”

There was something to what she suggested, something honest and right. I was making big money in The Dells but I was just as bad as the prostitutes who worked out of the bar. Charlie had made his doing the same thing and I felt that I could do as well as Charlie had done but that wouldn’t take the slime off of the money that I put into the bank. Yet the slime wouldn’t show when I wrote out a check that didn’t bounce or bought a five-thousand-dollar car and paid cash for it.

“I can’t,” I said thoughtfully. “I’m tied up here and you know it. I can’t just walk out and let it go to pot.”

“You haven’t got any guts.”

“Maybe that’s some of the trouble. I’ve been knocking around too long to let this opportunity slip through my fingers. Call it guts or what you want to call it and it all comes out the same. The only work I really know is farm work and you don’t get much for that.”

“Probably two or three hundred dollars a month.”

“Big deal.”

“And your house. You have to count that. You get a house and your electric and your heat. All you have to do is buy your food.”

We had a few more drinks and we argued about it. Once she said that she was in love with me but I discounted that. I didn’t think that a girl who had known so many men was capable of love and I made up my mind that I wouldn’t go to her room again. She was out for a man, a man she could cling to, and I wasn’t the man. What I wanted was uptown in a hotel room waiting for me. It was, I told myself, all that I would ever want, all that I would ever have to have.

She was crying a little when she left, saying that she wished things were different between us, but I couldn’t help that. A man doesn’t fall in love with a prostitute if he knows she’s a prostitute. Oh, some men might—I’ve heard of it happening—but such instances are few and far between. When a man falls in love with a girl he wants somebody who seems to be better than he is, somebody he can look up to and love with all of the meaning of love. And I don’t mean just physical love. That’s part of it, true, but it’s just one part and there is so much more to it. A girl doesn’t have to be pretty to encourage a man’s love. All she has to be is truly female, all female, and the rest will take care of itself.

I put the money away in the safe and closed a little early, picking up a bottle of vodka on the way out. Vodka is a potent drink and I wanted Debbie to blast her brains loose and let herself go. I wanted to see her naked body, to touch it and learn its secrets again, to force her down onto the bed and make her cry out in a storm of need.

I met Red Brandon just outside of the bar.

“Going someplace?” he asked me.

“Home.”

“And where is home?”

“That’s for me to know and for you to find out.”

“Don’t get smart with me, chum.”

“Who’s getting smart? It happens to be my business and none of yours.”

He stepped close to me and I could smell that he had been drinking.

“Remember what happened to you before?”

“I haven’t seen her since,” I said.

“I know you haven’t. Her old man has been giving her the works and I’ve had trouble seeing her myself. Just don’t get any idea of cutting yourself a piece of her cake. If anybody scores I’m going to score and that’s for god-damned sure.”

“Help yourself.”

“Don’t worry. I will. I’ll get all of the goodies that she’s got.”

A cab came along, moving slowly, and I hailed it. I was glad to get away from Brandon. Just being around him made me nervous. I couldn’t imagine what he might try next and I knew if he tried anything at all I would be out to nail him. I also knew that I had to be very careful. There isn’t anything worse than a crooked cop—unless it’s two crooked cops.

It was a ten-minute ride up to the Wilson Hotel and I relaxed. I should worry about Brandon. I would be having a ball with Debbie and he would be getting his from Martha. If I was any judge of it he would get cheated. Martha had to feel passion before she came alive in a man’s arms—not with fake moans but with real moans—and I knew that she didn’t feel any of this for him.

I don’t know why but I thought of Ann just then. I ought to go and see her and give her some money. She was in a bad spot and she didn’t have anybody to lean on, only a job that she wouldn’t be able to keep after the burden inside of her got to the point that she would have to stop working. I had given her the kid—of that I was convinced—and the fact that I didn’t love her, or was pretty sure that I didn’t love her, had nothing to do with it. She couldn’t shoulder all of the responsibility and it was up to me to help her. I had the money, more than I had ever had before, and I wouldn’t miss it. She couldn’t very well go back home and expect to be welcomed with open arms. She was on her own, carrying my child, and I couldn’t let her down.

I tipped the driver a buck when we got to the hotel and he thanked me. It was, I could tell, far more than he had hoped for from somebody he had picked up in The Dells.

The Wilson Hotel wasn’t the biggest hotel in the city but it was modern and clean and even at that time of the morning you didn’t have to wait five or ten minutes for somebody to give you a lift in the elevator.

“Party?” the man wanted to know, noticing the bottle in my hand as we started up to the fourth floor.

“Just a friendly drink.”

“Well, keep it quiet. You make any noise and the management blows the roof off the place.”

“There won’t be any noise.”

And there wouldn’t, not unless the springs on the bed squeaked.

I didn’t have any difficulty finding the room and the door was unlocked, just as she had said it would be. I went in and she turned from the window and smiled at me.

“I was watching for your cab,” she said.

She was wearing a blue robe of some soft material and it hugged every curve and swell of her body. She had it belted in the middle but the V was deep and wide and I could see the hollow between her breasts.

“Did you see it?”

“Yes. And I wanted to know if anybody followed you.”

I hadn’t thought of that.

“Did they?”

“No. There was another cab right after yours but it was some woman and she was drunk.”

“Good.”

I began tearing the seal off of the bottle.

“Aren’t you going to kiss me?” she demanded.

I walked over to the desk and dropped the pieces of the seal into the wastebasket, twisting the cap loose on the bottle as I did so.

“There’s time for that,” I said, wanting to kiss her but wanting her to come to me first. “Where the hell have you been keeping yourself?”

“With Charlie. You know that without asking.”

“I hope you had fun.”

“Don’t be silly. How could any girl have fun with him?” She came over and examined the bottle in my hand. “Vodka,” she said. “I like it but, Jesus, it makes me drunk.”

There wasn’t any ice but I found two glasses in the bathroom and I poured a couple of drinks, real strong ones. I handed her the fullest glass and looked down inside of that V again. The swells of her breasts rose up on either side of her cleavage and something told me that this would be a night that I wouldn’t soon forget. We’d kill the bottle and then we would do the thing that we both wanted to do, but before we did that there were a few things that I had to know.

“What about the divorce?” I asked.

“I think he’s changed his mind.”

I gave her a grin.

“Because you sexed him into it?”

She drank part of her drink and I kept staring at the way those melons of hers stuck straight out and up.

“Well, I had to do something, didn’t I? He was all set to change his will and that would have cut me off from everything but the insurance. I even went to Charlie’s doctor and he said that Charlie’s sugar isn’t so bad. If I had to give up the policy I might not ever collect on it. Where would that leave me? His daughter would have everything and I would have nothing.”

“So how did you get him to change his mind?”

“Simple. I got him into bed one night and I gave him more sex than he’d gotten from any six of the tramps that he’d been seeing. After that he was a different man. All he wants to do is see me naked and make love. I can’t say I get a charge out of it, not the way I did with you. But he’s my husband and I have to put up with it. The main thing is that we don’t separate, that I keep what’s mine.”

“Where does that leave us?”

She laughed.

“It leaves us right here in this hotel room—with a bottle to drink from and time on our hands.”

“Hell, I’m talking about later, about the years ahead.”

Her face sobered.

“I don’t know, Clint. I honestly don’t. On one hand I want you, want you more than I’ve ever wanted any man, but on the other hand I want to get what’s coming to me.”

I didn’t hold her desires against her and it was good to know that I meant something to her. No girl walks out on a fortune if she can help herself, and he had a fortune. If she could hang on and he died someday, most of it would be hers.

“Where does his daughter fit in?” I asked. “What if he died tomorrow? What would she get?”

“Just the garage, free and clear. She and her husband would have the garage free and clear and they shouldn’t ask for more than that.”

I had heard something about the law, how a child could claim part of an estate, but I didn’t know anything about it. Maybe that only went for minors, those under age, and not for older children. But even if she got half of everything except the insurance—she wouldn’t be able to touch that— Debbie would still have a whale of a lot of money.

“That Brandon did a job on your face,” she said, examining the scar.

“Indeed he did.”

“And because of me.”

“That’s what he said.”

“He’d cut you again if he knew we were together.”

“He’d try it all right. Or worse.”

“What could you do?”

Our glasses were dry and I fixed each of us another drink.

“I’ve been thinking about it,” I said. “You don’t get cut up this way and not think about it. I used to have a pretty good looking face and now it’s ugly.”

“Don’t say that.”

“Well, it is. I look at myself in the mirror when I shave and I feel like screaming. Then I think of Brandon and I know that someday I have to fix him for it. I don’t know when or how but the time will come.”

“You’ll only get in trouble if you try it.”

“Which wouldn’t be the first time.”

“But he could get you into trouble in a lot of ways. There are any number of charges he could frame you on and get away with it. You could talk your head off and it wouldn’t do you any good. And what could you say? You’re mixed up with those girls and that’s a violation of the law. When you took over the bar you put yourself right in the middle of everything.”

I thought about it for a moment.

“I guess I did,” I admitted. “No matter where you turn he has you cold. I could yell my head off about paying him protection and nobody would believe me. Even if they looked into his bank account he probably has it under another name.”

“Charlie says he does.”

“And Charlie ought to know.”

We drank and talked and I looked her over. I didn’t feel like talking. There was just one thing that I wanted to do with her.

“He’s still getting money from Charlie,” she said.

That was news to me.

“How come?”

“Because Charlie owns the house where the girls stay. It isn’t much, only fifty dollars a week, but Charlie hates his guts because of it. Believe me, there isn’t anything that Brandon won’t do for money.”

“Or to get at you,” I said.

She nodded and lit a cigarette.

“Yes, and me, too. You don’t know how many times he’s called me on the phone lately. He knows that Charlie doesn’t get up until almost noon and all of his calls are in the morning. Some of the things he says to me are positively filthy. Just yesterday he said he was going to do something terrible to Charlie and that I would be sorry. And he told me not to see you again. He said if I ever saw you again it would be the last of you, that the river would swallow you up and that nobody would ever see you after that.”

“The river might be a good place for him,” I said. “If it was timed for the hour that the tide went out he’d be washed into the sea. There’s a good chance that he’d never be found. And even if he was there are other people in The Dells who hate him besides me.”

She gave me a long look.

“You’ve been thinking about it,” she said.

“I’ve been thinking about something. I think of it when I look at my face and I think of it when I’ve been drinking. I don’t mind so much him sucking money from me—if it wasn’t him it would probably be somebody else—but he carries things too far.” I paused. “How does Charlie pay him?”

“By check.”

“I wouldn’t think Brandon would take one.”

“He didn’t want to—he insisted on cash—but Charlie wouldn’t have it any other way and Brandon is just hungry enough for money that he’s been taking them.”

“That’s stupid.

“Why is it stupid? Brandon thinks he’s safe. He’s been with the department a long time and nobody has ever questioned him. He’s been in The Dells so long he thinks he owns it and everybody in it.” She tossed her blonde hair, fluffing it out. “Well, I’ve got news for him. Here’s one girl who will never belong to him.”

I walked over to her and grabbed her roughly by the shoulders. Under the robe I could feel the smoothness of her skin, could look down into that wonderful well of flesh that separated her breasts.

“You’re mine,” I told her harshly. “God damnit, none of these things can change that.”

Her mouth was waiting, expectant, and I didn’t keep her waiting. She spilled some of her drink on one of my arms as I pulled her to me but I didn’t care about that. I drove my mouth down there over her lips, forcing the breath out of her lungs, so starved for her love, just a little of her love, that everything turned black for a second.

“You know how to kiss,” she said as I let her go.

“There’s something else I can do even better.”

She pulled my head down and kissed me greedily.

“And don’t think I don’t want you to.”

Even in that instant, of feeling her lips moving against my mouth, I knew that something had to be done about Charlie and Brandon but I wasn’t sure just what it was. The checks Brandon had received from Charlie figured in somehow but it wasn’t quite clear in my mind as to what extent.

“I’m loaded,” she said, pulling away from me.

“You don’t act it.”

“Maybe I don’t but I always get loaded when I drink vodka. Five or six drinks—we’ve had more than that—and I don’t care whether school keeps or not.”

She drifted away from me, turning on the radio and getting some hot music. She didn’t turn it up too loud but just enough for the sound of it to fill the room.

“You’ve never seen the dance I used to do,” she said. “That may not be the music for it but I’m going to show you my way.”

I had been to girlie shows in carnivals, to a few stag affairs, but I had never seen anything quite like her. She moved round the room like a giant cat stalking a victim and when she swung about that robe seemed to lift from her legs and come up around her hips, letting me see just about everything there was to see.

I sat on the bed, the palms of my hands wet, and I didn’t pay any attention to the music. She was like something that you dream about, pray for—something that never quite seems to happen to you.

“You aren’t just a breast man,” she said as she came over me. “You’re a woman’s man, every inch of you.” Standing before me she removed the robe, giving meaning to every movement that she went through, and her nude body was even better than I had remembered it. Maybe I wasn’t a breast man but I liked them and she had them. Oh, cripes, she had them and as she moved away from me, moving into a torrid dance, they lifted and fell just the way they should. I sat there fascinated, unable to move, only able to think of one thing. Here was sex and here was love and here was the girl who had both.

When she ended the dance she fell on the bed beside me, breathing heavily, her arms reaching up to claim me.

“Give me what I cry for,” she said. She got her wish and she got it again and again and again. She got it all the rest of the night, even after the light of day filled the room.

I left her at eleven, just in time to go down and open up the bar.

I didn’t think I would want another girl for as long as I lived.

Chapter Ten

My liquor license came through all right but a man from the Liquor Authority who stopped to see me said I wasn’t selling enough food.

“We know that half of the places don’t sell enough food,” he told me. “But they keep a supply of stuff on hand and instead of ringing up everything in beer or liquor they ring up some for food.”

“What happens to the food if it spoils?”

“They throw it out and buy more. The main thing to do is to cover yourself and license. If you get an accountant who knows this racket he can help you.”

I got an accountant by replying to an ad in the paper but he wasn’t much help. He had worked several years for some slipper factory but they had fired him and he was on his own. He wanted everything just so, figures for everything, and he nearly drove me nuts whenever he came around to go over the tape from the register. I didn’t think that he was worth the money I had to pay him—ten dollars a week for an hour’s work m one of the back booths—but he was better than nobody at all and I put up with him. I paid Brandon out of the money I got from the men who were looking for girls so the accountant didn’t know anything about that. One night he stopped in for a drink and he asked about the girls but I told nun they just hung around and he didn’t ask again after that.

The food was an expense—Charlie laughed at me because he had never bothered with it—but I spent about ten or fifteen dollars every day at the nearest grocery and meat market and I gave it away to some of the poor people who lived in The Dells. I found out right quick that there were a lot of poor people and they would send their kids into the bar to ask me to give them what I could. I tried to divide it up but that was almost impossible and some of the kids got sore at me. Outside the kids would fight over the food, like rats in a dump, and sometimes it got so banged up that it wasn’t good for anything at all.

“God damn foolishness,” Charlie said. “You figure out how much beer you have to sell to clear ten or fifteen bucks? There’s no sense to it, Clint.”

“Well, I want to keep my license. One day some snoop is going to demand to look at my books and I want to be in the clear.”

“They used to look at mine and they never said anything.”

“Maybe you paid them off.”

“Maybe I did.”

“Then it comes out to almost the same thing. What’s the difference if I give the money to the grocery or to some jerk who is only trying to shake me down?”

He began drinking more than usual, showing up at the bar as soon as I opened, and staying for a couple of hours. You’d have thought that after he had been in the business for so long that he would have been conditioned to drinking but it didn’t take much to make him drunk and staggering. How he was able to take care of his business uptown, when he said he had something to do, I don’t know. Some days it was a wonder that he didn’t give away everything that he had.

“I don’t figure my wife,” he would say. “Every morning she goes out and she says she’s looking for an apartment. Jesus Christ, if she’d only leave it up to me I could find an apartment in a day. Or, if she was willing, we could take one of those new houses in the development. I can’t understand having all that money invested and then having to rent.”

I understood and I had her figured. She wasn’t looking for any apartment. She left The Dells about nine in the morning and she met me at a place we had decided on the previous day. There were about a dozen hotels in Wilton, counting the small ones, and we shifted around from place to place. I don’t have to tell you what we did during the little time that we had together. I always rented the room and as soon as she entered it she got out of her clothes. She was wild, good as they come, better than any girl in The Dells, and she gave just as much as she took.

“I think I ought to have a baby,” she said one morning when we were lying exhausted on the bed.

“You nuts or something?”

“No. I’ve been reading up on the rights of a kid in sharing a father’s estate and there’s a lot to it. If he died and I was going to have a baby that would be another share that I would be able to control. But I wouldn’t want it to be his baby. I’d want it to be yours.”

“Nobody would know.”

“That’s what I mean.”

Sometimes we talked about what we would do if he should die, where we would go and how we would handle all of that money. She was rather set on going to Florida and it didn’t sound like a bad idea to me. I was getting sick of the long hours I had to work in the bar, of putting up with the girls and with paying Brandon off. The only trouble was that Charlie wasn’t dead and it didn’t look as though he was going to die right away. I had heard that people who had sugar couldn’t drink but he was drinking and he was getting away with it. If it didn’t bother him now, I reasoned, there was a good chance that he would go on living for years.

She couldn’t get out at night after I finished work there was Brandon to worry about and Charlie was usually home— and we had to get our loving during the day.

“He’s getting wise,” she told me one morning. “He can’t see why it’s taking me so long to find an apartment and he says he doesn’t think I’m looking for one. He says he’s going out and look for one himself this afternoon.”

“That’s bad.”

“Of course it is. Once we move I won’t have any excuse to get away from him and then what will we do?”

“I’m not sure.”

Her naked body was pressed against mine, all naked and hot, and when I kissed her I knew that this had to go on and on for us and that it couldn’t stop.

“I love you, Clint,” she whispered.

“And I love you.”

“So where does that leave us?”

“Here in bed in a cheap hotel room.”

“Don’t joke.”

“I’m not joking. It’s true. We have to sneak around corners and steal what we want from each other. It isn’t the way it should be. We should be together all of the time, just making love and doing what we want to do.”

Our lips were welded together for a second and we sought each other with our hands.

“Tell me what to do,” she pleaded, moving away from me. “You tell me what to do, Clint.”

“Divorce him.”

“That’s what Brandon keeps telling me.”

“Nuts to Brandon. What’s he got to do with this?”

“Go on. I’m listening.”

She was stretched out beside me, her breasts lifting up full and round.

“There are lots of places where you can get a divorce,” I said. “Let’s not kid ourselves. We talk about him dying, how it would be for us with all of that money, but he isn’t going to die, not right away. Hell, he may outlive both of us. You don’t love him and you never did so why go on with it? What if you never get his insurance or any of the other stuff that he has? I’m making good money, big money, and I can take care of you. Give me just a few years and we won’t have anything to worry about. You can have your own car and I’ll have mine. There won’t be much that we can’t have.”

I talked to her, trying to show her, but she was stubborn. She had set out to change his mind about divorcing her and she had. She hadn’t done that for nothing and she wasn’t going to throw it all away.

“You don’t know what it’s like to have to go to bed with him,” she said. “You don’t know what it’s like to do what I have to do and even feel a little bit clean inside. It’s almost as though I’m a prostitute who isn’t getting paid for what she gives.”

“Then break it off.”

“Would you give up a fortune for a few years of passion?”

I had to think about that.

“I don’t know,” I said honestly. “Maybe. Maybe not.”

There wasn’t a day that we didn’t talk about it and the more we talked about it the more I wanted her to be mine forever. It got so that I hated Charlie as much as I hated Brandon and that was a lot of hate. Even when he came into the bar to drink I didn’t feel like discussing anything with him. He never paid for his drinks, which burned me, and as far as I could see he was nothing but a fat slob who kept standing in my way.

“Got an apartment,” he said one day. “Nice place in a nice section but we won’t be able to get into it for a month. Hope you don’t mind us sticking it out upstairs a while longer.”

“Why should I mind? You’ve been there, haven’t you? One month isn’t going to change the world.”

“You could be using it for the girls.”

“And then Brandon would stick me for more.”

“Possibly, but you can always get it out of the girls. Be smart, Clint. Remember that with a whore you make her pay. Anybody who doesn’t make a whore pay is out of his mind.”

Debbie didn’t keep our appointment the next morning and I didn’t see her for a week. I nearly went nuts. I would go to the apartment half drunk and fall asleep but in a matter of minutes I would be wide awake, sitting up, sweating, remembering the wonders of her body and the way that she responded to me. Days I just banged around the bar, doing what I had to do, the making of money something that seemed to have lost its meaning. Several times I tried calling the apartment but when I did he answered and I hung up, my hands shaking and my guts tense and tight. All I had to do was think about her and I was a wreck, a hopeless ghost of a man who was blinded by all of the love that was being lost. More and more I turned to the bottle, seeking from the bottle the answers to the thousands and thousands of questions that kept churning around inside of me. I didn’t find any answers. I got drunk: and stumbling and I didn’t care whether I worked the bar or not.

“Straighten out and fly straight,” Martha Foster told me. “You act like a guy who’s been beaten over the head with a club and kicked in the belly.”

“That’s the way I feel.”

She laughed at me.

“Aw, nothing’s that bad,” she said. “If anybody should want to cry about their life it should be me.”

“Good. We’ll cry together.”

But we didn’t. We just drank and when I closed up I went to her room with her. She was extremely competent that night and I decided that if she was half as good with her customers they didn’t have anything to complain about. Long after she went to sleep I lay beside her and thought about the two of us running away together. I had a little money, she had some, and it might be better than this. I was in love with a girl who couldn’t be had, not all the way, not so that we could make a life together, and I would be better off if I forgot her. Yet I knew there was more to it than that, that I would never forget her, that she was in my blood as much as the red and white cells that kept me alive.

I left her the next morning before she was awake and took a cab uptown. I had thought of seeing Ann for quite a while but I hadn’t gotten around to it and there was nothing else to do. I had three or four hundred in my pocket that would help her out. It would also make me feel better if I tried to do the right thing.

She was in the diner, working behind the counter—or I should say she was reading the paper—and there was only one other customer in the place. I sat down in front of her.

“Coffee,” I said.

She glanced at me, said nothing, and put the paper aside. She went to get the coffee and I thought her hips were a little wider than they had been. After she had drawn the coffee and began moving toward me I saw that she had a little bulge to her tummy.

“Aren’t you talking?” I asked as she put the coffee in front of me.

She looked me straight in the eyes.

“What is there to say, Clint?”

I poured sugar into the coffee and stirred it.

“There might be a lot to say.”

“I doubt it.”

“Look—”

“No, you look. You left me and I’ve been on my own. I’m getting along. The other waitress and I are living together and we’re saving our money. I’ll manage.”

She was putting up a bold front but there were tears in her eyes.

“Here,” I said, digging into my pocket. “You can use three or four hundred, can’t you?”

“Not the kind of money you have.”

“Why not, for Christ sakes?”

“Because I know how you earn it and I wouldn’t touch it if I had gloves on. Besides, I told you I was getting along. I’m not fooling. I’ve found out that you can do what you have to do if you have to do it.”

“You’re being pretty silly about this whole thing.”

“No, I’m not. I was silly before but I’m not silly now.

I made a mistake and I’m willing to pay for it. What more do you want from me, Clint?”

“I don’t want anything from you.”

“No, but you think you can make yourself decent by giving me a few dollars.

“It’s more than a few.”

“A few or a lot it’s all the same. What you could have given me you weren’t willing to give.”

“Such as?”

“A ring on my finger. Well, all right. If you don’t love me I don’t want you. I’ll have the baby, boy or girl, and I’ll bring it up. I won’t cause you any trouble and I won’t ask you for any money. I’d rather have just a little money and know that it’s honest.”

I drank my coffee and smoked a cigarette. What did you do with a dame like that? Half of the money in the world is dishonest and if everybody stayed away from it most of us would be half broke. Shrugging my shoulders, I picked up the money and returned it to my pocket.

“I’ve got it if you ever need it,” I said.

“Thanks for nothing.”

“What are you going to do?”

“What do you care?”

“Just wondering.”

“Stay around here, I guess. I can’t go home and we both know that. If I have an easy birth I won’t be out of work very long. When the baby gets older I’ll move to some other town and tell people that my husband died. Lots of girls do that. The baby never has to know that he was an unwanted child.”

It took plenty of nerve to do what she was planning on doing but I felt pretty sure that she was capable of doing it. She would pay all of her life for one careless moment and I was to blame. It made me feel badly, like a skunk that has been sprayed by his own odor.

“You keep the money,” she was saying. “You may need it to get yourself out of trouble. Or didn’t you read the paper this morning?”

“No, I didn’t read it.”

She gave me the paper and I saw right away what she was talking about. The police had raided an uptown apartment the evening before and had arrested three girls for prostitution. An official of the police department stated that the drive was just getting under way and that the cops were going to rid the city of every last prostitute.

“That doesn’t bother me any,” I said, pushing the paper aside.

“But it could.”

“I don’t think so. If the cop down there nails me he’s in it, too, and no cop is going to arrest himself.”

However, I won’t say that I wasn’t worried about it when I left the diner. I was. Why the hell did they have to go and do a thing like that? Women had been selling themselves since the beginning of time and no matter what they did they wouldn’t be able to stop it. The girls would get fined fifty or a hundred bucks and as soon as they were free they would get another apartment and pick up where they had left off. As long as there were guys who were willing to buy there would be girls who were willing to sell. To put a stop to that was in the same class as moving the world with one hand.

I got a cab near the bus station and rode down to The Dells. What was I worried about? I was paying for protection and so were the girls and it was up to Brandon to see that we got it. He had a good thing coming his way and he wasn’t going to give it up just because of a little scare.

“Gonna be a hot day,” the cab driver said.

“So it would seem.”

“Hot days are fine for me. People don’t like to walk when it’s hot and they hitch a ride in a cab.”

“Sounds reasonable.”

I got off at the corner, tipped him a buck, and walked over to open the door. It was hot, a close heat that brought the smell of the river with it. By the middle of the afternoon the kids would be down to any of the docks that were vacant, diving off into the scum and filth that spewed out of the sewer further up the river. It was a wonder they didn’t catch some sort of a disease. Not only the boys went there, but the girls also, and from what I knew the boys made time with most of the girls. Sex started young in The Dells and since both parents worked in nearly all of the families it gave the kids plenty of opportunity to iron out the sheets in private.

I spent about half an hour going over the cash from the day before, not counting what I had taken in from the men who had visited the girls, and tried to figure out how I could manage to get along without the girls. That was almost impossible to do but I divided the take in half, judging that the men had spent that much or more, and it wasn’t hard to see that I couldn’t meet my obligations from the local trade. I was running a lot of beer through the taps but at ten cents a glass you don’t make much from beer and you have to have a liquor trade to keep you going. Or heavy wine drinkers. There’s a good profit in wine but I wasn’t doing enough in that direction to take up the slack.

Charlie came in as I was cleaning down the bar and he smelled of sweat, a smell so strong that I knew he hadn’t taken a bath in several days.

“Have to go to New York again,” he announced, sitting down on a stool. The stool squeaked beneath his weight. “You need anything?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Always buy your glasses in New York. They’re cheaper.”

“I’ll remember that.”

I poured him his usual drink and resented the fact that he didn’t put any money on the bar. Where else could he drink for nothing?

“Read the paper?” he inquired.

“I saw it.”

“Don’t worry about it. They put on these drives every once in a while but they don’t mean anything.”

“I hope not.”

“Well, they don’t. Somebody gets the bright idea of getting his name in the paper and it’s the only way he can do it. Ten to one the same guy has paid some dame for a roll in the hay.”

I couldn’t wait for him to get started for New York. I had no way of knowing whether or not Debbie was going with him but if she didn’t she would be all alone in the apartment. If I had to lock up the place and throw the key away I’d do it to be with her again. Brandon didn’t show up until later in the day and therefore he didn’t concern me. He was on duty from four until midnight, during the hours that most of the girls worked, and after twelve he prowled around on his own. Sometimes I tried to determine how much he made in a week but it was wasted effort. It was certain that he hit the dope pushers hard and there were probably other methods that he employed.

“You driving back tonight?” I inquired casually.

“No. Staying over.”

“You and Debbie ought to have a time of it.”

He gave me an evil grin.

“I didn’t even ask her. I just said I was going. She’s good and all that but a man wants a change once in a while. Some of those dames in New York are hot babies and for a hundred bucks you get yourself fixed up like a king.”

“You can get the same thing in The Dells for nothing.”

“Not the same. It’s never the same. You just think that it’s the same. I know a girl off Lexington Avenue who could set fire to a bed just by looking at it.”

I drew a beer for myself.

“Your wife wouldn’t like it if she knew.”

“Probably not.” He frowned. “Funny how she’s changed. She was hot when we got married but then she turned cold all of a sudden. Now she’s hot again. I don’t follow it unless she’s afraid of losing my money. If I thought that I’d skip out on her so fast that it would take her an hour to pick her rear up off of the sidewalk.”

I drew another beer and swallowed it down in nothing flat. He wasn’t sold on her—I could tell that—and maybe he would divorce her anyway. All she had to do was to make one false move and he’d be finished with her. It was even better news than his going to New York. If he ever cut away from her I would be in solid and steady and that was what I wanted. She was the kind of a girl you could starve to death with and not mind it at all.

He had a couple more drinks and left. As soon as he was gone I poured a healthy shot for myself and stared at the phone on the wall. She was so near and yet she was so far away. She was right upstairs—maybe she hadn’t dressed yet— and I was down there in the bar wanting her so much that my legs ached with the want.

I had three shots before I went to the phone. My heart was making the noises of a shotgun going off inside of me and the sweat was running down my forehead and into my eyes. Jesus, it would be wonderful to be with her again, to know the glory of her love and the hungry force of her lips.

She must have been waiting for me to call because she answered the phone right away.

“He’s gone,” I said.

“I know. I heard the car go out.”

I clutched the phone tight.

“Baby, I’ve missed you!”

She blew a kiss into the phone and laughed.

“Don’t think I haven’t missed you, honey, but I couldn’t get away.” She paused. “Or I mean I didn’t dare risk it.”

“Why?”

She was silent for a moment.

“I’d rather not talk about it over the phone. We can talk about it when we’re together.”

It was my turn to blow her a kiss.

“I’ll lock up right now,” I said. “What do I care if I lose an afternoon’s business? I haven’t had a day off in so long that I can’t remember when it was.”

“You’d better look across the street before you do that.”

I looked out of the window and groaned. Brandon was standing on the opposite side of the street, watching the bar.

“Hell,” I said. “Damnit it to hell.”

“He doesn’t miss a trick.”

“I guess he doesn’t.”

“You don’t know how little he hasn’t missed.”

“Probably not.”

“He’s got me in a hell of a spot.”

“He’s got a lot of people in spots.”

“But not like this one.”

I asked her what it was all about but she wouldn’t tell me more. She told me to work the bar as usual, to close up as usual, to go to my apartment and to return to the building about six in the morning. By that time, she said, Brandon would be home and we wouldn’t have to worry about him. I agreed, not wanting to agree, but there wasn’t anything else that I could do.

It was still too early for the afternoon trade so I returned to the bar and had a couple of belts from the best bottle in the house. Brandon was still across the street, just standing there, hardly moving. I only had to look at the guy and I felt nervous. What kind of a pitch was he cooking up now? You never knew with a guy like Brandon. All you could be sure of was that he was out to get you and to get you good, to use the power of his shield to bend you to his will.

I expected him to come in long before he did and I was chewing on the end of my cigarette rather than smoking it.

“Beer,” he said, sitting down on a stool.

I went around the bar, picked up a glass and drew him a beer. I had to slop foam off the beer three times before I got a good head on it.

“Salt,” he said as I placed the beer in front of him.

I gave him the salt. The salt was damp inside of the shaker and he had to pound on it before he could get any of the stuff to come out.

“See the papers?” he asked me.

“I saw one paper.”

“Which one? There happens to be two.”

“Does it make a difference?”

“Well, the one has got a big editorial in it about gambling and prostitution and vice. It calls for a shake-up in the department if the city can’t be made clean.” He sipped some of the beer. “The people read that crap and what they print has a big influence on what goes on in the department. You take a guy who is chief and he wants to hang onto his job. The only way he can do it is to get out and raise hell.”

“Go on.”

“That’s why I’m down here early today. I figured I had to talk to you and make you see how this thing is going. If they closed in on you they could take your liquor license and you could draw a rap for supplying girls.”

“I’m paying you for protection,” I reminded him.

He laughed at me.

“Can you prove that?”

“No, I can’t prove it but we both know that it’s true. You get yours every week from every direction. It’s your job to see that we’re left alone and that nobody bothers us.”

He stared at me thoughtfully.

“That’s a big order,” he said.

“So you’ve been making big money, haven’t you? Christ, you add it up and you’re probably making more than I am. I’ve got the headaches and the expenses and all you do is walk around and collect.”

“Another beer.”

I drew it for him. He was as bad as Charlie, never putting any money on the bar. Of course he only drank beer and he didn’t drink very much of that. But it was just the idea of the thing that annoyed me. You stand behind a bar and you expect to get paid for what you serve.

“It’s going to cost you more,” he said finally. “When the top brass was sleeping what you gave me was all right but now I’m going to have to spread a little money around.”

He held up his hand. “Don’t look so excited. It won’t last long. These things come and go and you have to expect them. I can take the heat off of you but I have to come across with the bucks in order to do it. Sometimes I think it’s a good thing that cops aren’t paid enough money. If they were paid enough money you wouldn’t be able to touch them.”

I had an idea that he wouldn’t do anything, that he would simply take all that he could get from me, but I wasn’t in any position to argue with him. Without the girls the business was lost—how could I ever pay Charlie what I had to pay him?—and I had to go along with what he said.

“How much?” I asked.

“Double what it is now.”

“Jesus!”

“And five hundred to get the ball rolling.”

I reached for a bottle. I had to have a drink.

“I don’t know if I can afford it.”

His eyes showed no feelings at all.

“You can afford it. You’ve been making a nut for yourself and if you haven’t blown the cash you’ve got it. If you have blown it then it’s your tough luck. I could run you in right now, easy as hell, and I could make out a case against you. All I need is a couple of the girls and one of them would talk and put the finger on you. They always talk when they think they’re going to be sent away and they’ll do anything to get out of it. I know. I’ve been in this racket so long that I know. You put a dame in a jam and she tells you her life story.”

It seemed to me that he was in a bad spot, too, but he had ways of getting out of it and I didn’t. All he had to do was promise the girls that they would only be questioned and I was pretty sure they wouldn’t say anything about having paid him money. They would get a lecture from the judge or a little fine and they would go free. But where would that leave me? It would leave me holding the well-known bag and there would be a hole in the bottom of the bag. I could just see myself doing from two to five years, or whatever it was they gave you, and the money wasn’t important.

“I wish Charlie had this bar back,” I said.

“That’s why he sold it to you. He saw this trouble coming and he wanted out from in under. He’s a big boy now and he belongs to a lot of big clubs. He couldn’t afford a scandal and, anyway, he had his clover made. Then you came along and you were hungry for a buck. You were a natural for him and you fell into the garbage heap like somebody had thrown you out.”

Silently I cursed Charlie and I cursed myself for having been so stupid. But I was in it now, in it up to my head, and once you’ve started down the road you can’t turn back. Oh, you can turn back but you can’t ever wipe out the smell that you leave behind you. And if I tried to quit now, if I tried to change, I knew that Brandon would put the prongs to me, driving them in deep and sharp and not caring what part of me got hurt.

“Okay,” I said and walked to the safe. “You hold all of the cards and I’ll just have to watch you play the game.”

“Well, at least you aren’t dumb.”

“I wouldn’t say that.”

I got the money out of the envelope where I had been keeping most of the take from the men and as I removed each bill it was like parting with an old friend. I couldn’t make it up, that much I knew, and if I had to pay double for the girls it was going to cut heavily into my business. I’d be doing a lot of work for nothing, taking chances for nothing, but no matter how I looked at it I couldn’t see how I could help myself. He was calling the shots and I was running the bases. The trouble was that the bases were getting pretty full and after a while I wouldn’t have any place to run.

“I hope you choke on it,” I said when I gave him the money.

He counted the bills twice, coming up short the first time and coming out all right the second time. He stuffed them in his pocket and got up from the stool.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “You’ll be safe all the way down the line.”

I watched him go.

I didn’t know whether I’d be safe or not.

I was willing to bet that I wouldn’t be.

Chapter Eleven

Business was slow that afternoon, not the way it usually was with the uptown crowd coming in, and it hardly paid me to stay open. At four the day girls came up and they were crying the blues. They each had had a trick and that had been all.

“It’s just a scare,” I explained to them. “Three girls got knocked off last night and the men probably don’t want to take any chances. Give it another week or ten days and they’ll be coming at you faster than ever.”

But this didn’t satisfy them. They had been making good money but they had been spending it as fast as they made it. They were all broke, or close to it, and they didn’t know how they could exist until the storm had passed by. On top of this Brandon had been after them for more money, not saying why, and this didn’t help matters any.

I set up a few free drinks for them while they talked it over and I even offered to support them until the tide turned in our favor.

“Don’t be so god-damned generous,” the one girl told me. “I should hang around this stinking hole for crackers and soup? Not me, mister. The girls in New York get a lot more than we get and that’s where I’m going. How about it, kids?”

The other two agreed and I tried to convince them that they didn’t know what they were doing, that New York was a big place and that they didn’t know anything about it. It was no use. They were used to the big money and they couldn’t stand doing without it. On the last round of drinks I charged them. It was only ninety cents but it was better than giving the stuff away. Ninety cents was as good to me as it was to them.

After they left, making all sorts of plans about how they would work in New York, I walked along the bar and kicked at things in disgust. I had brought them into the racket and now they were taking off on me. That left me without any girls for the afternoon trade and this had been where I had been making most of my money. The night girls brought in the heavier drinkers but the five dollars from each man had been what had counted.

I got the same old crowd about five, workers and like that, and they drove me nuts running back and forth to the beer taps. A few drank wine, a couple whiskey, but most of it was beer. Each time I dropped a dime into the register I wondered how much profit I was making but I knew that it wasn’t enough. I had a lot of expenses, all of them closing in on me at once, and the loss of the girls was critical. Then I told myself that I would be able to get other girls easily and the future didn’t seem so black. I had enough dough in the bank and in the safe to hang on until the cops got interested in something else and that was some sort of comfort.

“Loan me ten dollars,” one man said.

“Like hell.”

“Just until tomorrow.”

“No.”

While you aren’t supposed to run charge accounts in a bar, Charlie had done it for some people but I didn’t know They were all the same to me. They worked on the docks or in the factories and they got drunk and they made a lot of noise. There was a television set in the bar but there was no use turning it on because you couldn’t hear it. If there was a time that you could hear it some jerk put money in the juke box and all you could follow was the picture.

There was a young girl at the bar—she had the body of a woman but I didn’t think she was of age—and she was making a play for a man old enough to be her father. The man came in every night—he was married to some woman who didn’t care what he did—and it was my guess that he would take her into one of the alleys, or to her place if nobody was home, and show her that he was man enough to warrant her interest. The girl had been coming into the bar during the last week or so and she was after a different man every night. Once she had suggested that a little play between us might be in order but I had only laughed at her, not because she wasn’t attractive but because messing around with her just didn’t make sense to me.

The rush only lasted until a little after seven and then I hit a lull. It took me a while to get the glasses washed and the bar cleaned up but after that there wasn’t anything to do. Nothing to do but think. She was upstairs, all alone, and I couldn’t even get to her. I had to wait until a crazy hour of the morning before I could go to her and give her the love that she needed.

I sat at the bar, not drinking anything at all, and thought of Brandon. Brandon was like a doctor who was cutting me up into a thousand pieces and throwing the pieces in any direction that suited him. I had been paying through the nose ( before but now I was paying in blood. To add to my discomfort, I had no assurance that he could keep the other cops away from me. He might pay off some but it only took one honest guy to push the cart all the way down the hill— a cart that would have me in it.

There were a lot of things I thought about as I sat there, such as growing up on the farm and smelling the sweet, clear air of the country. At this time of the year it would be hot during the day but at night it would be cool and sometimes you would have to use a blanket to keep warm. In the morning there would be a big breakfast, eggs cooked just right and steaming coffee, and after that you would go out in the fields and work until noon. If it was too hot to work after lunch you hung around in the shade or took a swim in the Beaverkill, banging your feet and legs on the rocks but having fun anyway. In the evening you would take the family car, pick up your girl and perhaps park on a lonely road. You would have the windows of the car down, smoking and talking, but after you ran out of talk you made your move. Generally, the move was to the back seat and if the girl was willing she didn’t deny you. She would come into your arms, all soft and alive, and the love that you would find would be the wonderful physical love of a man for a girl. If you had forgotten to go to the drug store, or you left what you needed at home, you took a chance—you both took a chance—and in the days that followed there would be a secret worry that you would share that something might have gone wrong. If it went wrong you married her and in four or five years you had more kids than you knew what to do with. If the home of your parents was large enough you moved in with them but if it was too small you threw up a shack, using a dug well for water, and you sat up at night wondering how you could keep your bills current. You never had anything, never anything at all, but you had each other and maybe that was enough. Or maybe it wasn’t. You slept together, leaving your bedroom door open in case one of the kids got up, and you were seldom careful about your sexual relationship. You had three or four kids already and one more wouldn’t matter. If you hit the switch and an additional member of the family was on the way you built another room onto the shack, promising each other that you wouldn’t do the same thing again, that you were already deeply in hock and that you would be months paying off the hospital. But it didn’t stop there and you were only kidding yourself The family got bigger and the shack got bigger and the bills got bigger. You saved enough money to pay off some of what you owed but then a cow died and it was the same thing all over again. You never got ahead. You kept going behind every day of your life. You could save money for Christmas, maybe in one of those clubs that they have, but the day after you got your check something came up and the money didn’t go for Christmas after all. You bought the toys and the other things that you needed on credit, if you had any credit, and you had twelve payments that you had to make and no fooling about it.

It’s funny the things a man thinks about when he’s alone and discouraged. You see the mistakes that you have made but you’re the one who made them and you’re stuck with them and you can’t do anything about it. You tell yourself that you’ll be more careful in the future but you know that’s a lot of crap and that you won’t do it. All it takes is somebody to show you how you can get something for next to nothing—the way Charlie did to me with the bar—and you’re sucked in. You reach for the sky but you can’t even find the clouds that are just over your head and you wind up with two hands that are as empty as the night itself.

I was glad when somebody came in and ordered a beer. It stopped me from thinking. I was thinking too much and the main trouble was that I didn’t know what I was thinking about. One second I saw Ann pregnant, pregnant with my child, her stomach getting bigger every day, and the next second I saw the naked body of Debbie lying on a bed and waiting for me. I saw Ann, proud and unafraid, and I saw Debbie, needing me as much as I needed her, needing me in that special way that a woman needs a man.

“Everybody die?” the man asked me, glancing along the empty stools.

“Seems so.”

“Probably because of the talk of a strike.”

“A strike?” I hadn’t heard anything about a strike.

“On the docks. There’s a vote tomorrow and we may all walk out. I don’t blame the fellows none. The pay scale is lower here than it should be. We work just as hard as anybody else and we get less money for it.”

I drew a beer for myself. A strike was all I needed. The dockers drank heavily on payday but they couldn’t drink if they didn’t have any money coming in. I couldn’t understand why they might want to go out on strike. I cashed quite a few checks every week and most of them represented a fairly decent income.

“Nobody wins in a strike,” I said.

“Only the unions but we have them just the same. If it’s a short strike it’s okay but if it’s a long strike you never get back what you lose. Three years ago we were out for three months and the docks lost a lot of business. When we went back there was only jobs for eighty percent of us and if we have another long one it’ll be even less than that.”

He only had three beers, saying that he had to save his money, and I was alone again. The news about a possible strike was bad news and I wasn’t discounting any of it. The way things were going I’d be broke before I knew what was going on.

The girls came in at nine and they were in an unhappy frame of mind. They had heard about the arrests uptown and Brandon had put the arm on them for another twenty-five dollars a week each.

“I don’t know what to do,” Kathy Nelson said. “We’ll be shelling out more to him than we should.”

“You’ll do it and like it,” Jennie Corby advised her. “If you don’t pay him he’ll do to you what he did to Gloria Forbes. You want to take a beating like that? And if he didn’t beat you he’d frame you. A cop can always get even and a crooked cop knows more ways than an honest one.”

“Well, I’ll pay it but I won’t like it. How do I know that he won’t frame me anyway? If he gets the heat put on him he’ll put it on somebody else.”

The night was almost as bad as the afternoon had been, Only six men from uptown came in and each of the girls got two tricks. The men didn’t drink much, acting nervous, like they were being chased by somebody and that they wanted to get their business finished with. I couldn’t blame them, not the way things were, but it didn’t do the cash register any good. By midnight, when I checked the tape, I had less than a hundred and fifty dollars and it was a cinch that I couldn’t go very far on that.

I was hoping that Martha would leave me alone, that she wouldn’t snow up, but she came in around one. She had changed from a red dress to a black dress and it looked very good on her. It had a low front, just low enough to disclose part of the hollow between her breasts, and it clung to her body like she had been born in it.

“This can’t go on,” she said as I poured a drink for her.

“Well, what can you do about it? You can’t work the street corners or force the men to come down here. We just have to sit it out.”

“Who can afford that?”

“You can. You’ve got some money saved.”

“So have the other girls.”

“Then there’s no problem. A store may open up one day and make a lot of sales and the next day make hardly any. You have to expect it.”

She downed her drink straight.

“Don’t try to make it sound so simple, Clint. It isn’t simple. We don’t make any money, you don’t make any money, nobody makes any money. But we still have to pay Brandon. We pay Brandon or we go to jail. For my part I’ve had enough of it.”

“Are you serious?”

“Very serious. I told you before that I wanted to break away and now is as good a time as any.”

“Luck,” I said.

Her eyes searched my face.

“You could go with me, Clint.”

I won’t say that I didn’t consider it briefly. She wasn’t much, not the kind of a girl a man would want to marry, but I wouldn’t have to marry her to be with her. I had some money—I wasn’t sure just how much—and I would be rid of Brandon. But there was one thing that told me I couldn’t go, that I would find it impossible to do. That one thing was Debbie Fletcher, beautiful Debbie, and I knew that she was the girl for me.

“I couldn’t,” I said.

“You’ll be sorry if you don’t.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. I’ve got a bull by the tail here but I’ve got to hang on. If I let go now there won’t be another chance. There’d be just jobs here and jobs there and I’d end up floating from place to place, never earning very much and never being sure what I was going to do the next day.”

Her face was sad, almost the face of a child.

“I kind of love you, Clint,” she said.

I lit a cigarette and pulled the smoke down into my lungs.

“You only think you do. We’ve had some good times together and it’s been fun and I doubt if you’ve ever had much of that. But what you think as love is just a way of making an escape. You want to go but you don’t want to go alone. I can see that better than you can. If we did do it, it would be all right until our money was gone and then it would be hell. We’d both get to thinking what we had left behind us and whatever it might be that we would find together wouldn’t last.”

She cried for a long time, saying how she only wanted the better things in life, but there wasn’t anything I could tell her that would help her. She was afraid and mixed-up and she had to work out of it by herself. If she had the strength of her convictions she might go on and become a decent girl, a girl who would marry some man and give him a family and forget her past. Yet few are able to do it, to wipe out the stamp of having been a prostitute. They may cast off the cloak for a short while but sooner or later they return to it. I suppose it’s only human. They have learned that men will pay to be pleased and they have the goods to command the price.

“I wish you would,” she said at last.

“Sorry.”

“I wouldn’t ask you to marry me or anything like that. There wouldn’t be any strings tied to you. If you wanted to leave me you could. All I need is somebody to help me get started right and to stay right. There are things I can do. I can type and I know how to keep files in order. It’s just—well, just that I don’t want to sink any lower. Every man who comes to my room is a monster, all except you. It’s all right for the girls who don’t care but I do care. I’m young now but I won’t be young for many years if I stay in this business. You saw Gloria. She was old for her age, so old that nobody could ever want her. Her life is finished and when I think that the same thing could happen to me I just shake all over.”

Nobody came into the bar and she did her best to convince me that we should make a break for it, that the lid had blown off the pot and that there was nothing left for us in Wilton. As I’ve said, I considered it but only lightly. If she had been Debbie suggesting the same thing I’d have gone with her without even bothering to lock the door behind me. It’s a big country and you can always get along. Or, I should say, you can get along if you love somebody enough to make it worth your while.

She didn’t stay until closing and although she asked me to stop by her room I told her I couldn’t make it that night. This made her cry some more and I felt sorry for her as she went out. She was just a kid who was trying to find herself and she was having difficulty doing it.

No one else came in and I drank alone, changing over to beer because I didn’t want to get a load on. When I saw Debbie I wanted to be sober, dead sober, so sober that I wouldn’t miss one exciting movement of her body or one thrill as my hands did to her what they wanted to do.

I stayed until three but it was a waste of time and I closed up. When I got outside I found that it was very warm, warmer than it had been in the bar, and a light rain was falling. However, I decided to walk to the apartment. I wasn’t in any hurry and there wasn’t time to catch any sleep. Even if I had been dead on my feet I couldn’t have slept. In a few hours I would see her and I would know her favors again, know all of the torment of love that was hers to give.

At the corner of Clay Street there was an old house and I saw a couple on the porch. They didn’t pay any attention to me or to anything else. I stopped, staring at them. They were right in front of the old, fashioned door, making love on the rough boards.

“I want a boy,” the girl was saying. I thought it was the young girl who had been in the bar earlier. “Every time I see a kid in a carriage I go nuts wanting one.”

“You must have a loose bearing someplace,” the man objected. “You know what would happen if you had a kid by me? Jesus Christ! And you only sixteen.”

I walked on. No matter where you looked in The Dells you saw sex and booze. It was a dumping ground for the misfits, the girls and women who were wild and the men who were just as wild. They lived in a little world all of their own, a world of poverty and death and tears and birth. If a man didn’t like his wife, if she had begun to sag and she was no longer satisfactory to him, he found a young girl and nobody thought anything of it, including the parents of the girl who were most likely doing the same thing. When a baby came screaming into life it was either put out for adoption—not always by recognized agencies—or the mother went on the welfare. I had read that two-thirds of the welfare paid in the city found its way into The Dells and I had no reason to think that it wasn’t so. A lot of times a girl wanted a child so she could pull down a free income from the taxpayers and, if the father was working, she could shake a few bucks out of him on the side.

As soon as I reached the apartment I showered and shaved and put on fresh clothes. There was an all night radio station in Wilton and I flipped the radio on but the music was so terrible that I soon turned it off again. I had recently bought a couple of magazines from a store not far away and I sat down and flipped through them, studying the nudes and making up my mind that none of them had what Debbie had. There was one of a girl stripper in Texas, a girl with long black hair, and she came the closest to having Debbie’s shape. Her ample breasts were tilted, probably painted in the centers for effect, and she had a saucy smile on her lips.

It was daylight before I left the apartment and I had trouble getting a cab. The driver was like a lot of them and when I told him I wanted to go down to The Dells he insisted on seeing my money first.

“Not many people around this hour of the morning,” he said as we pulled away from the curb.

“I wouldn’t think so.”

I lit a cigarette and tried to relax but I couldn’t relax. I was only minutes away from her and the urge to crush her in my arms, to burn her mouth with my kisses, was like a forest fire sweeping through dry timber, boiling up in a wave of flames and smoke that was beyond all control.

“Thanks,” he said when he let me out and I gave him an extra dollar. “I’ll frame it. It’s the only tip I ever got for a run down to The Dells.”

“Here’s another one to go with it.”

“Say, fellow, you’re generous.”

I wasn’t generous. I was feeling good, feeling high. We’d be alone, just the two of us, and what we wouldn’t do for each other wouldn’t be worth doing.

The street was deserted as I pushed open the door that led up to the apartment. A small light burned at the top of the stairs and a couple of the steps squeaked as I climbed them two at a time.

I didn’t knock. I just went in. The door opened into the living room and there was a light on, not that it was needed because there was plenty of light coming in from outside. She was on the davenport, sound asleep, and the split in her robe revealed the inside of one perfectly formed leg. The top was open, too, and one of her breasts was fully exposed. I closed the door, not making a sound, and walked over to stand looking down at her.

She was the beauty of woman, full and lovely, the beauty that no painter can paint. Even in sleep her breast was lifting and ripe, her lips the lips of love, lips that could move to the invitation of love and could speak of love.

I bent and kissed her, thinking of the nights that I had wanted her, of the nights that I had needed her, thinking of all of the nights I wanted to share with her in all of the nights that were to come.

She stirred, first moving her head from side to side, and then as her eyes opened she began kissing me back, her arms moving up to encircle my neck.

“Let’s not talk now,” she said, pulling me down beside her. “There are so many things to say but this has to come first.” Her lips moved against my mouth. “This always has to come first.”

“Always.”

And it did.

Don’t say that it wasn’t good.

It was.

The best.

Chapter Twelve

About nine that morning we moved out to the kitchen and she fixed coffee.

“Eggs?” she inquired.

“Hell, no. Not after that. I’m stunned.”

She laughed and got cream from the refrigerator.

“You’re quite a man,” she said. “I’ll bet you’ve pleased a lot of girls.”

“A couple.”

“Well, count me amongst them. Charlie is a five-minute lover but your five minutes go on forever.”

She was wearing the robe* and she had it belted in the middle but I knew what was underneath it. Her.

“You complaining?” I wanted to know.

She was close to the table and she came over and gave me a kiss.

“No complaints,” she assured me. “Most girls have more sex drive than a man and if a girl can find a man who can keep up with her she’s lucky.

“You found one.”

“So I did.”

I was out of cigarettes and I took a package from a carton lying on the table. I didn’t care for the brand, they were too mild, but anything was better than not having any at all.

I sat there watching her as she moved around the kitchen, drained of almost all emotion, and I thought about how it would be to be with her for the rest of my life. The sex part of it was big—I won’t deny that—but there was more to it than just sex. Here was a girl who could bear my children and look up smiling at me from a hospital bed, a smile that would hold all of her heart, all of her love, all of her life. A pang shot through me as I remembered Ann. She would be bearing my child, too, but it wasn’t quite the same. With Ann it had been a mistake, a moment of heedless passion, but with this girl it would be different. With Debbie it would be deliberate, a driving force inside of me that sought to assert itself.

“Did anybody follow you down here?” she asked me.

“There was nobody on the street.” The robe dipped open as she bent over to pour the coffee. “Or, if there was, I didn’t see them.”

“We didn’t see Brandon before either.”

“Huh?”

She sat down opposite me and dropped sugar into her coffee. I noticed that she used three spoons of it and I could not understand how she could drink it after making it so sweet. Then I remembered that my father used four, sometimes five, and it didn’t seem so unusual.

“But he saw us,” she said. “The places we went before weren’t as secret as we thought they were. He followed us, first you and then me, and he put two and two together. He says it adds up to four.”

“I see.”

“And he adds further than that. He adds it up to five thousand dollars.”

The coffee was good but I could hardly taste it.

“Tell me more. Not that I want to know more but tell it to me, anyway.”

“He wants five thousand dollars to keep from telling Charlie.”

The coffee tasted worse.

“Jesus Christ,” I said. “Jumping Jesus Christ.”

“I told him that I didn’t have that kind of money.”

“What did he say?”

“He said to get it. He said he didn’t care where or how I got it as long as I got it.”

“How much time did he give you?”

“Until tonight.”

The coffee began to taste better. It wasn’t so bad. It could have been worse. What if he did go to Charlie with the truth about us? The business was mine—we had signed the papers and I was buying it—and he would probably divorce her. That would leave her free and we could get married. We’d live in this apartment, up over the bar, and after a few years we wouldn’t have to ask a dime from anybody.

“Do you love me?” I asked her.

Her eyes had all of the passion in the world written in them.

“You know I do.”

“So beat Brandon to it. Tell Charlie yourself. Tell him how we feel about each other and that you want out. The way things are it’s no fun for you to go on staying with him. You stay with a man you don’t love and every day you stay with him is a day that we could be together.”

“You don’t understand,” she said. “I want what’s mine. I married him to get it and I intend to get it.” Her face softened. “Don’t you see, Clint? Even if I only got a hundred or a hundred and fifty thousand from him it would mean so much to us. It wouldn’t be my money, not just mine alone. It would be yours, too. My God, you can’t tell me that you want to go on living here in the slums and doing what you have been doing. You told me about the trouble over the girls, while we were talking, and I knew that it was going to happen. Charlie knew it, too, and that’s why he sold you the bar the way he did. He wanted somebody else to take the fall and not himself. You may think that Brandon can keep the other cops away from you but I don’t think so. There are honest cops, Clint, and no amount of money can buy them. The way I see it he’s trying to make a big haul before his little bubble bursts and he’s back on salary again.”

“You may be right.”

“And it’s important that I get the divorce, not Charlie. If Charlie gets a divorce because I’ve been sleeping with you I won’t get anything. But if I get it, if I frame him with a girl, I’m bound to come out of it with a bundle of cash.” She leaned forward. “Just think what we could do with a hundred thousand or more. Just think! We could buy a decent business somewhere and have something. There are lots of good places you can get where you don’t have to break the law. I don’t want to be poor and lay up here nights worrying about you getting picked up for selling girls and having Brandon or somebody else bleeding you to death all of the time. I want a home and I want kids and I want all of the things from my husband that any woman wants.”

We talked about it, talked about it a lot, and the more we talked the more I began to see things her way. She would hire a lawyer, somebody who was good, and we’d trap Charlie with one of the girls. He had a yen for that Kathy Nelson so that part wouldn’t be hard. All we needed was a raiding party and the stage would be set. I didn’t know if she would get as much out of Charlie as she thought she would but I wasn’t worried about that. A hundred thousand or more would be fine but if it turned out to be less it would be less. The main thing, as far as I was concerned, was to have the marriage wiped out and to have her for my own.

“These cigarettes are terrible,” I said. “You got anything different?”

“You’ll find some in his dresser in the bedroom. The top drawer, on the right.”

I went to get the cigarettes but I found more than cigarettes. There was a gun in there, probably a thirty-eight, and I checked to see if it was loaded. It was. I asked her about it when I returned to the kitchen and if Charlie had a permit to carry the gun.

“He’s got a permit,” she said.

“I see.” I lit one of the cigarettes and it tasted better. “Now about the money. What can we do about that?”

“How much do you have?”

“Not five thousand.”

“How much?” she insisted.

“I’m not sure. Maybe part of that much. I’d have to get my bank book and check the cash downstairs before I really knew.”

We each had another cup of coffee—the coffee was getting cold now—and we tried to figure out a way that we could come up with the amount of money that was needed.

“I could try the bank,” I said.

“I doubt if they’d give it to you. What security do you have?”

“The bar.”

“No, you really don’t have that. You’re just buying it from Charlie. If you owned it you could put up the stock for security but you don’t own it and you can’t do that.”

“Well, I can try.”

“Then try.”

“And I know somebody who’s got a couple of thousand. I might be able to get that.”

“Who?”

“One of the girls.”

“I wish you luck but I don’t think you’ll have any. Those girls hang onto what they get. They earn it the hard way—real hard—and they know where every buck goes.”

It was about ten-thirty and if I wanted to get to the bank and open up on time I had to get a move on. I didn’t want to leave her, that much was for sure, but I wanted to help her if I could and I couldn’t help her by sitting around in the kitchen and talking about it.

“Keep your fingers crossed,” I said, standing up.

She got up and came into my arms and her lips were hot and warm.

“You’re doing it for us,” she said.

“I know.”

“For all of the things that we want and that we should have.”

“You see a lawyer.”

She kissed me again.

“I’ll see a lawyer. And you get the money.”

“I’ll make a stab at it.”

“Just don’t stab. Get it.”

I left a few minutes later, telling myself that it would be more fun for both of us if I took her into the bedroom, and descended the stairs. The steps seemed to squeak more going down than they did coming up and even the door squeaked as I opened it and stepped out into the sunlight.

It was only six or seven blocks to the bank where I did business and I decided to walk. It was hot for so early in the day, burning hot, and already the half-dressed kids were playing in the street. Some of them wore shoes but most of them didn’t and their feet were dirty. It was doubtful if any of them had seen water in more than a week, not unless they went down to the docks, and some of the language they were using were words that had been born in the gutter.

They weren’t very busy in the bank but I still had to wait several minutes before I could see the man who was in charge of the loan department. He was a tall man with a narrow waist and broad shoulders and I judged him to be in his late forties.

“Now,” he said as I sat down, “tell me what we can do for you.”

I told him about the bar and how I had bought it from Charlie and that I had an account in the bank but that I was tight for cash.

“Twenty-five hundred would do it,” I said. “Twenty-five hundred for two weeks.”

“How could you pay it back so soon?”

I couldn’t tell him about the girls or how I made most of my money.

“I’ve got a couple of insurance policies,” I lied. “I’m going to cash them in and they’ll take care of it.”

“May I see the policies?”

“I don’t have them with me. They’re with my folks up in Beaverkill and I have to send for them.”

“I think you have an account with us, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Well, we could loan against that.”

“But I need that, too.”

“I see.”

“If I had the insurance policies now I wouldn’t bother you.”

He thought about it but even before he gave me his answer I knew what it was.

“We couldn’t,” he said. Then, trying to soften the blow, “It isn’t that I don’t trust you. Don’t think that. You probably need the money just as you say and you probably have the insurance policies that you mentioned. It’s just that we have rules and we have to go by them. Even if I did okay your loan, which I can’t do, it would have to go before a committee and they don’t meet again for another three days.”

In the end I drew my money out of the account—it wasn’t as much as I had thought, only twenty-one hundred—and got out of there. You can’t fool bankers and a lie doesn’t do you any good. You tell one lie and you have to tell another one but when you have to produce the stuff that you’ve been talking about you can’t do it. Just the same it made me a little sore and added to my frustration. Where the hell was I going to get twenty-nine hundred dollars? My only hope was Martha and if I could get what she had, plus what I could dig up in the bar, I might be able to make it. It would leave me short, even worse than I had started out, but I couldn’t think of anything else.

I didn’t have any trouble finding the house where she lived —I’d been there enough times—but when I reached the second floor I wasn’t quite sure which room she slept in. I took a chance and beat the hell out of one door with my fist. There was no answer.

I cursed, trying the knob, and found the door unlocked. I pushed the door in, expecting to find the room empty, but it wasn’t empty. She was sitting up in bed, her face white, the sheet pulled up around her shoulders.

“Thank God,” she said huskily. “I thought it might be the police.”

I laughed and closed the door, leaning up against it and lighting a cigarette.

“I’m some cop,” I said.

She let the sheet fall down, reaching for a package of cigarettes on the stand near the bed, and she was all naked up above. She didn’t have the breasts that Debbie had but she wasn’t bad and she was all woman. I thought of the nights that I had been with her, how she had pleased me, and if I hadn’t been in a hurry I would have gone for her again.

“It isn’t very funny,” she said, blowing the smoke out of her lungs. “I didn’t sleep at all last night. Everytime a door opened or closed I thought it was the cops.” She shook her head. “It’s no way to live, Clint. You’re afraid every second of every minute. Down inside there’s a tight little band that makes you cold all over. How do we know that the men we bring up here aren’t cops? It’s been done in other places, giving out marked money, and it could be done here.”

I didn’t waste any time on her. I just came right out and told her what I wanted.

“I’ll pay you back in two weeks,” I said. “You can count on that. I just got into a little jam and I could use the dough right now. You don’t have to worry none. I won’t cheat you. You loan me what you’ve got now and I’ll add two hundred to it when I pay you back.”

She swung her legs over the bed and sat there in the nude. It didn’t bother her any. Hundreds of men had seen her that way, me included, and one more time didn’t matter.

“I can’t,” she said. “I wish I could but I can’t.”

“Isn’t two hundred bucks good interest?”

“Yes, it’s good interest. They give you three percent in the bank and they’re doing you a favor.”

“Then what’s the pitch?”

“I’ll remember you,” she said.

I walked over to an ash tray on the dresser and crushed out the cigarette.

“Say, what is this?” I demanded.

“Only that I’m leaving, Clint. I told you how it was before. I can’t go on this way, selling myself and becoming more of a tramp than I already am. I don’t know where I’m going—I haven’t even thought about it—but I’m getting out of Wilton. I’m packing up and taking my money and I’m getting out today. I don’t care if I have to take a job for forty a week running a machine in some factory. It’ll be a decent job and I’ll be safe and I won’t have to worry about the police. My only wish is that you would go with me. There’s trouble for you here, Clint—big trouble—and before you know it you’re going to find yourself behind bars.”

I tried everything, even to promising her that I would go away with her if she would let me use the money for two weeks, but I might as well have been talking to a stick of wood. She had made up her mind and that’s all there was to it.

“To hell with you,” I said as I went storming out of the room. “Oh, Jesus, to hell with you!”

I walked toward the bar in a daze. There was no place I could go, no place that I could turn. I thought of Ann but she wouldn’t have that kind of money and I don’t think I could have taken it from her if she had. She had her problems and I had mine. Not only that, but I was sure that she wouldn’t give it to me. We were done. Finished.

I would have stolen the money if I had known where to steal it but I wasn’t up on that kind of thing. You read of guys holding up banks and stores but most of them got caught and some of them got a bullet in the guts for their trouble. If there had been time to plan I might have done something about it but there wasn’t time to plan. She had to have the money that night or her chances of getting a big settlement out of a divorce would be blown apart. It struck me as strange that a man such as Brandon should have so much power but it was a power that you couldn’t bend, couldn’t sway, couldn’t fight. He knew everything that went on with everybody in The Dells and he played for the limit. Most people would have taken a few bucks and been happy but he had to have all or nothing.

As soon as I opened the bar I counted all of the money I had in the place, including the change in the cash register. With what I had in my pockets and the safe I had around four thousand dollars. Would Brandon settle for that? I didn’t know. If Debbie could convince him that she couldn’t raise anything further he might accept it. Four thousand wasn’t five thousand but it was better than nothing.

I had just finished with the money and put it in the safe when a man came in and ordered a beer. He worked on the docks, he said, and the workers had voted to strike. Everybody had walked off the job. It was a savage blow, a blow I would feel in the cash register. Those who were employed on the docks, and there were many of them in The Dells, wouldn’t be spending any money until they returned to work or they were out long enough to begin drawing unemployment checks.

“Rough,” I said to the man.

“You’ll feel it.”

“Yeah. Right where it hurts.”

The man only spent twenty cents and then I was alone. I walked up and down the bar swearing under my breath. Everything was happening at once. If the cops didn’t have a drive on against the girls, the men who came from uptown could lift me from the hole I would be in, but while the girls were being purged the men would be careful. A guy who was married couldn’t risk taking a chance and a guy who was single didn’t want to get picked up in a possible raid. The men were seldom held, only as a witness for the state, but once in a while the paper got their names and none of them liked that. To make matters worse, there would be only two girls working out of the bar—unless they quit, too—and I couldn’t make any fortune off of two girls.

I was on my third drink when Brandon came in. In spite of the heat he wore a coat and I knew there was a gun under the coat.

“I stuck my neck out coming in here,” he said, sitting down at the bar. “Four prowl cars have been assigned from the uptown section to work The Dells.”

“Then why did you do it?”

“Because I had to see you.”

“All right. You see me.”

“How about a beer? I’ve got time for a quick one.” I got a glass and drew the beer but I had to throw it out. That tap was running dry and I would have to go down and set up another half. “Five hundred bucks didn’t go very far,” he said, going around the end of the bar to help himself to the salt. “It didn’t go very far at all.”

“Don’t tell me your troubles.”

“I should maybe tell them to my chief?”

“That isn’t very funny.”

He sat down on the stool again and threw some salt into the beer. The salt just caused the beer to foam all the more and to run down the side of the glass.

“I’m needing another thousand,” he said in much the same voice as though he was talking about a dollar bill. “I spread the five hundred as far as it would go but it didn’t go far enough. A thousand will turn the trick.”

You see what I mean? He was getting it from all directions, dragging down more dough than anybody else in The Dells, more than most of the executives who had charge of the docks.

“I don’t know if I can manage it,” I said.

“You’ll manage it or the roof will fall in on you. One day you’ll be in clover and the next day you’ll be in a cell.”

If I gave him a thousand that would only leave me three and Debbie had to have all that I could raise. Even the four might not be enough for him.

“Give me an hour or two,” I said. “This has hit me hard and the girls aren’t bringing much in. I lost three of them, the afternoon girls, what with you going up on your protection and all of this stink. On top of that there’s the dock strike and you know how that can hit business.”

He pushed the empty glass across the bar but I didn’t make a move to get him another beer.

“Two hours is what you’ve got,” he said. “If I’m going to button this thing up I’ve got to button it up fast.” His eyes displayed ho sympathy, only determination. “You’ll get it back in no time at all,” he added. “So you lost three girls but you can get more. The Dells is full of them, girls giving it away for nothing, just a cheap thrill, and all you have to do is give them the right deal. This blast against the pros will go on for a week or ten days and then somebody will get raped in the park uptown and all of the cops will be on the hunt for the guy who took what didn’t belong to him.”

“I hope you’re right.”

“It’s happened before.”

“You can’t prove that by me.”

“And it’ll happen again.”

“And in the meantime I’m stuck.”

“Well, you bought the bar. I didn’t. You hired those three girls. I didn’t. The other girls were here before but I didn’t have anything to do with them A girl wants to go to bed with a man for money and that’s her business. All I do is see that nothing goes wrong.”

I had a couple of drinks after he had left and then I went over to the phone. He was pushing his luck, pushing it for all it was worth, and from where I was I didn’t think he was doing anything with the money except putting it in his pocket. I had paid him in cash and I didn’t have anything to prove that I had done otherwise. He had me in a spot, my back against the wall, and he was hitting me in the guts when my hands were down.

Debbie answered the phone and I told her about the four thousand.

“It won’t be enough,” she said. “When he sets a price that’s it.”

I told her about the grand that he wanted from me and this seemed to upset her.

“I’m sorry I got you into this,” she said.

“Don’t be sorry. We’re in it together. He wants dough from you and he wants dough from me. There isn’t anything we can do about it. We have to do what we can.”

“And what should I do this afternoon?”

“Find yourself a lawyer. Talk the situation over with him. Find out where you stand.”

“And then what?”

“Sit tight and wait for something to break. Something has to break and when it breaks it’s going to break wide open.”

“How do you mean?”

“Let me think about it, will you?”

I told her goodbye, said that I wished I was in bed with her—that made her let out a sexy laugh that made me want her more than anything else—and I hung up.

I returned to the bar, brooding, and drank some whiskey. A thousand here, five thousand there—Jesus, I couldn’t do it. I had four thousand, all the money I had in the world, and it wasn’t enough. Brandon was like a snake crawling into my bed and biting me in my sleep, a snake that bit time and time again until there was no longer any reason to bite.

I was on my sixth or seventh drink when she came out, standing on the corner, and caught a taxi. She was a dream in a yellow dress and I wanted that dress off of her, wanted her upstairs in the bedroom or on the davenport, wanted her naked and demanding and responsive.

Don’t ask me when I hit upon the plan that I was going to follow. It seemed to come to me all of a sudden but I imagine parts of it had been with me for days, vague parts that I couldn’t quite piece into a complete picture. I thought of the gun upstairs, registered in Charlie’s name, and of the checks that he had given to Brandon. It all tied up into a neat package, a package that would deliver the insurance to Debbie, plus her share of the estate, and which would get me out from under the whole mess that I was in. She didn’t have to know, would never have to know, and it would be a secret that I would carry with me to my grave.

Charlie kept a set of keys to the apartment in the cash register, in case he ever forgot his own, and I went around to the bar to get them. The keys were there all right, under the tray used for change, but I stared at them a long time before I picked them up. Once I started I couldn’t quit my plan, couldn’t trade sanity for insanity, couldn’t stop.

It didn’t take me long to go upstairs, let myself into the apartment and find the gun. I hid it in my belt, under the sport shirt, and as soon as I reached the bar I put it behind some bottles out of sight.

I was on a long, cool drink when Brandon came in and stood beside me.

“What’s the story, Clint?”

“Tonight,” I said.

He was thoughtful for a moment.

“That’s not so good. I was going to take care of things this afternoon.”

“Well, can I help it? You want a grand so you’re going to get a grand. But I won’t have it until after midnight. I don’t have a printing press to turn out money on two hour’s notice.”

“Where are you getting it?”

“What do you care?”

He was chewing another toothpick and when he spit he spit right at one of my legs. I looked down and saw the wet spot.

“Who cares?” he countered.

“I’m knocking off the girls,” I said. “It doesn’t pay me to carry them the way things are.”

“That’s crazy.”

“Maybe it is but that’s the way I feel about it.” I looked him straight in the face. “I know about your squeeze on Debbie. You’ll get that, too.”

He didn’t seem surprised that she had told me.

“Okay,” he said.

“But I won’t pay off here. The docks aren’t working and there’ll be nobody down there. I’ll meet you at the dock nearest the end of the street. You be there at one o’clock— I’ll close up early—and you’ll get the money.”

He started chewing another toothpick and I moved my leg so that he couldn’t spit on me again.

“You’d better not be lying, fellow.”

“So who’s lying?”

“I’m just telling you.”

“And I’m telling you.”

It wasn’t much of a conversation and I watched him go. He didn’t know it but in a few hours he would be dead. So would Charlie Fletcher.

There just didn’t seem to be any other way.

Chapter Thirteen

My movements were purely mechanical for the rest of the day. I took care of the few customers that came in, talked to some of them, but when one of them cracked a joke I couldn’t even laugh. The hands on the clock over the bar were moving but they weren’t moving fast enough for me. Now that I had made up my mind about what I was going to do I wanted it over and done with. And then, suddenly, the clock was moving too fast. Debbie hadn’t come back from uptown and Charlie hadn’t arrived from the city. Everything had to fit like a glove if it was going to work and I could only do half of the job without Charlie.

At five, or a few minutes after five, Debbie returned in a cab and I phoned her as soon as she got up to the apartment.

“Make yourself scarce,” I said. “I’m seeing Brandon on the docks tonight and I’m going to end this thing for once and for all.”

“Why should I make myself scarce?”

Somebody came in—I had been alone when I had made the call—and I reduced my voice to a savage whisper.

“Look! For Christ sakes, do as I say, will you? Get out of the apartment right away and go uptown. Sit in a bar and knock yourself out Stay until one and then come back down here.”

She was silent for a moment.

“All right,” she said. “I’ll do as you say.”

I hung up, my hand sticky with sweat and turned to face the bar. Charlie was sitting at the far end of the bar and he had helped himself to a drink. I rubbed my hand over my pants to remove the sweat. If she was out of the apartment he wouldn’t stay up there and it was important that I keep him with me.

“See you got back,” I said, drawing a beer.

He nodded and poured another drink.

“I had a time,” he said. “I didn’t see the girl that I usually see but I found another one who was even better.” He laughed. “She earned her hundred and don’t think that she didn’t. I may be an old buck but I know how to take care of a woman.”

While he had been talking I saw Debbie pass the place, not looking in, and continue up the street.

“Your wife isn’t home,” I told him.

“No? Where did she go?”

“I don’t know. She said for me to tell you. I guess she had to see somebody or do something.”

“Maybe she’s getting furniture for the new apartment.”

“Maybe.”

“She’s wanting to get out of The Dells and so am I. You see all of the slobs down here and it’s enough to make you puke.”

I glanced toward where I had hidden the gun and I knew that he would never live in any new apartment. He talked of slobs but he was one of them himself, probably bigger than most, living off the poverty of other people and getting fat and rich because of it.

“Brandon wants to see us,” I said. “At one o’clock. Down on the docks.”

“What about?”

“I don’t know.”

“And why down on the docks?”

“Because he’s scared of coming in here, of being seen if he does. There’s a drive on against the girls and other cops are working The Dells. He doesn’t know where he stands and he isn’t anxious to find out.”

Of course, the whole pitch would be gone if Brandon came in but I was pretty sure that he wouldn’t. And I was equally sure that Charlie would stay at the bar and take a load on. He didn’t have anything else to do.

“That Brandon is a bastard,” he said. “He’s a dirty, stinking bastard. Give you five to one that he wants more money from both of us. Well, he isn’t getting any from me. As soon as I get around to it the girls are going out of the house up the street and then I won’t owe him a cent. I’d be money in if the rooms stayed empty.”

I got a little play at the bar early in the evening but it didn’t amount to much. The girls came in about nine—there were only two left now that Martha was gone—and I told them to knock it off for a few days until after the heat died down. They didn’t like it, didn’t like it a bit, complaining that they had money to pay out and that they had to work in order to do it.

“We don’t have anything to worry about,” Kathy Nelson said. “We pay for protection so why can’t we have it?”

“This is over Brandon’s head,” I pointed out. “We’ve paid Brandon but we can’t pay every cop in the city. My thought is that you should both move into a hotel until it’s safe again.”

They stayed about an hour and left, arguing with each other about what they should do. Kathy was inclined to see things my way but Jennie said I was just chicken and that I was trying to frighten them.

“I could go for that Kathy,” Charlie said, staring moodily at his drink. “She’s hot stuff when she wants to be. Or have you found it out for yourself?”

“I never bothered her any.”

“That’s silly. These girls expect it. Sure, they go to bed with a man for money but once in a while they like to go to bed just for the hell of it.”

“We’ve got to see Brandon,” I reminded him.

“Yeah, I know that. You’ve told me enough times. Every hour on the hour you’ve told me. You think I’m dumb or something?”

A couple of men came in and asked about girls. I told them there weren’t any that night and they hung around for a while, drinking, and trying to figure out what they should do. About the time they were getting ready to go the young girl who liked older men came in and they made a play for her right away. She was wearing tight slacks, black slacks, and a tight yellow sweater. She dripped sex like a leaky faucet.

“You ain’t old enough,” the one man told her.

“The hell I’m not. I’ve been old enough since I was thirteen.”

The men had a few more drinks—the girl said she didn’t want anything—and when they went out the girl went with them.

“Alley stuff,” Charlie said. “A guy can get in a jam fooling around with that kind of a dame. If she finds out who you are and you’ve got any money she’ll blackmail the hell out of you. I went with one once and she cost me a couple of grand before she really got herself knocked up and had to get married. It was a happy day for me when she moved out of The Dells.”

I drank some beer but not too much and I stayed sober. Hell, I had to be sober to do what I had to do. All I had to do was to make one mistake and they’d throw me in the chair and pull the switch. Just the thought of such a thing happening made me feel ill. But, I told myself, it wouldn’t happen. The cops would go into Brandon’s past, digging into every corner, and when they discovered the money he had saved they would know that he couldn’t have done it on his salary. The checks Charlie had given to Brandon would wrap the two of them up into a neat package and it would look like Charlie had killed Brandon and then killed himself.

Charlie was fairly drunk by midnight and that suited me fine. He wouldn’t be sharp, his senses dulled, and before he knew what was going on it would all be over with. He would be dead and Brandon would be dead and I would have Debbie. I would have her during all of the years that were to come and with the money that she got from the estate we would build a real life together. If we decided to marry right away we could leave Wilton and go someplace where we weren’t known.

“Funny my wife staying out so late,” he said.

“Maybe she thought you weren’t coming back tonight and she stopped off for a drink.”

“Maybe. But it isn’t like her. Why should she drink in some bar when she can drink here?”

“I don’t know.”

I glanced at the clock and I thought it had stopped but the second hand was moving and I knew that it hadn’t stopped. Each minute seemed to be an hour, an hour of trying to think and not being able to think, an hour that stretched out into the distant and timeless beyond.

At about quarter of one he went to the men’s room and I seized the opportunity to get the gun and stick it in my right rear pocket, pulling my sport shirt down to cover it. It wasn’t a very big gun but it felt big in my pocket and it felt deadly. I was at the safe, getting out the bills, when he came over and stood beside me.

“That’s a lot of money,” he said.

“He may want a lot of money.”

“Well, that’s a lot.”

The money, I concluded, wouldn’t be on Brandon. The cops would find it on Charlie and they would figure that Charlie had come down to the docks to pay off Brandon and that then, in a drunken rage, he had killed Brandon and, realizing what he had done, finally himself. Hell, it was sweet. Perfect.

I left the lights in the bar burning and we departed from the place a couple of minutes later. Charlie stumbled as we hit the sidewalk and I flipped the lock into position.

“I still don’t get it,” he said as we started down the street.

“Don’t worry. You’ll get it.”

He missed the implication.

“I can understand him wanting to see you but that’s no reason for me to be counted in on it, too. I only own the house where the girls stay. If they were picked up tonight nobody could do a thing to me. Just because you happen to rent rooms to a couple of whores doesn’t mean that you know what they’re doing. Take a hotel, for instance. They can arrest a girl in a hotel but that doesn’t stand that the hotel is in any trouble.”

He bitched about it all the way down the street but I didn’t pay much attention to him. As we neared the docks my body was wet and hot and cold all at the same time. At one point I wasn’t sure that I could go through with it but I knew that if I didn’t go through with it my whole life would rip apart at the seams. It wasn’t a question of killing a couple of men. They didn’t seem to be human to me. Brandon was the scum of the earth and Charlie wasn’t much better. I was being driven to do this through no choice of my own, driven into a corner the way a fighter gets hammered to a pulp.

As we neared the river I could smell the smell of the water and the moisture of it filled the night air. There were none of the usual sounds of loading or unloading, none of the laughter and shouts of men working for a living. There was a great big hollow inside of me that just wouldn’t fill up. In a few minutes I would be a killer, a wanted and hunted man, a man who would possibly spend the rest of his life trying to run away from himself. I asked myself as we reached the end of the street and neared the dock if there wasn’t another way but I didn’t know of any other way. I couldn’t afford to pay the money that Brandon asked and I had to have Debbie Fletcher forever. Nothing less would satisfy me, Nothing less would do.

“I don’t see anybody,” Charlie said quietly.

“He’s probably waiting behind some of those boxes.”

Boxes lined the dock, big boxes that were piled three or four high. A small hand truck lay on the dock, right where somebody had left it when the strike had been called. I didn’t know what was in the boxes but if it was anything that could spoil it would probably spoil. The dock owners couldn’t hire non-union help and the help wouldn’t come back until their demands had been met. I don’t know why I was thinking about this as we approached the dock but I was. I was thinking how poor the people were, how they would nearly starve before they could draw their unemployment checks, but I was also thinking that they were better off than I was, that this thing I was about to do would live with me through every hour of every day and every night. Now that the moment was grinding down on me I began to shake the way a dog shakes when it’s cold. I slowed up, letting Charlie get in front of me, and I reached to see if the gun was still in my pocket. It was. It was there, waiting to be used, waiting to kill.

We both saw Brandon about the same time and Charlie said something dirty under his breath. Brandon was in the shadows, leaning up against some of the packing cases, his face a glob of white in the half dark, a dark that was pierced only by the street light on the corner. Again the smell of the river came to me, a thick smell that fought its way down into my lungs, feeling terrible when it went in but feeling good when I let it out. The emptiness was all through me now and my legs were so heavy that I could hardly move them. My whole face was covered with sweat and my shirt was soaked with it.

“I see you brought company,” Brandon said, still leaning up against the cases.

“It’s Charlie,” Charlie said.

Brandon laughed.

“I know it’s Charlie, you stupid fool. There’s only one fat man in The Dells that walks the way you do and it has to be you.”

We were about seven or eight feet from Brandon, just standing there, and I could hear Charlie’s heavy breathing. Or I thought I heard him. Maybe it was me that I heard, the air rushing in and out of me like somebody was squeezing me with giant hands.

“I don’t know why you re here,” Brandon said.

Charlie looked at me and then at Brandon.

“Clint said you wanted to see me.”

“If I had wanted to see you I’d have seen you.” I got the impression that Brandon was chewing on a toothpick. “What goes on here is between me and the big boy, nobody else.”

I saw then, suddenly and terribly, that bringing Charlie had been a mistake, that the whole plan had been a mistake. I wasn’t a killer, not the kind of a killer you read about. I hated one almost as much as I hated the other but the hate just wasn’t big enough to make me kill. I thought of the four thousand dollars that I had in my pocket, the fact that Charlie would divorce Debbie if he knew the truth about us, but I also thought that four thousand was a lot of money and that it could get us started in something else.

“I want to know what this is all about,” Charlie said.

“It ain’t none of your business,” Brandon told him. “When I’ve got business with you I’ll do it but not until. My business is with your friend and only with your friend.”

I wanted a cigarette but I had left them back at the bar and I didn’t have one. With the emptiness inside of me getting bigger all of the time I ran my tongue over my lips but it didn’t do any good. My mouth was dry and so was my tongue.

“You got the money?” Brandon asked me.

I remained silent. If I gave him the money—if he would accept four thousand instead of five—he would only come back to me for more and more. He would take everything I had, every dime that I owned, and for all of my risk I wouldn’t have anything. I wouldn’t even have Debbie. She would stick with Charlie, hoping for a big share of an estate that she would probably never get. But if he knew the truth, if he cut her free by divorcing her, we could make a start in some other town and make a go of it.

“I asked you if you had the money,” Brandon repeated.

Again I tried to wet my lips with my tongue.

“No,” I said.

“Say, what the hell is this?” he demanded.

My hands doubled up into fists and then relaxed. Killing him was the wrong way to do it, the foolish way. Maybe I could make it look like a murder and a self-killing, just as I had planned, but when I went to bed at night the explosions of the gun would still be ringing in my ears. There would be no absolute security for me ever again, not the kind of security that a man has to have in order to live.

“I’m not paying off,” I said slowly. “Five thousand is too much money, Brandon.”

“In exchange for what I offered you?”

“In exchange for anything. I don’t care what you say or what you do. I’ve paid you and paid you and I’ve reached my limit. If I give you five thousand now you’ll want five thousand later on and this thing will only continue.” I turned to Charlie. “I’m going to tell you the truth,” I said. “I’m not going to lie. I’ve been seeing your wife and he wanted five grand to keep it quiet. Well, I’m not paying him five grand. I’m not paying him anything. I’m in love with her and I don’t care who knows it.”

Charlie was silent for a moment.

“So that’s it,” he said. “I suspected there was something but I didn’t know what it was.” He shrugged. “I think I may love her myself but she can have a divorce if she wants one. It won’t effect the business any. You can still own it and run it. At my age, I had no right to marry her in the first place but I thought we would find something together.”

It was quiet on the dock, very quiet. Down the river a ship blew its whistle but the ship wouldn’t be stopping at Wilton. It would go on up the river about twenty miles where it could unload and where there wasn’t any strike.

I reached behind me for the gun, hating myself for what I had thought of doing, wanting to be rid of it and to never touch it again.

“There,” I said, throwing the gun down on the rough planks. It made a loud noise, bounced a couple of times and then lay still.

“It looks like mine,” Charlie said, leaning forward.

“It is.”

He stood up straight and faced me.

“What were you going to do with it, Clint?”

“End everything,” I said simply.

“I see.”

“But I can’t do it. It isn’t in me to do it.”

“You’re smart,” Charlie said.

“I’m dumb.”

Charlie went forward to recover the gun but before he could reach it he was halted by Brandon.

“You touch that and a slug goes right through you,” Brandon said. He had his service revolver in his hand, pointed straight at Charlie. “All I have to do is say that you threatened me and that I nailed you.”

Charlie rubbed a hand across his race and shook his head.

“What makes you think that would work?” he inquired. “Clint is here and he could tell what went on.”

“And what makes you think Clint would be alive to talk?”

“Hell,” I said.

I wanted that gun back then, wanted it more than I had ever wanted anything in my life. I had tried to be honest and I had walked into a situation with both eyes open. He could kill us both and get away with it.

“You’re both stupid, Brandon said. “You, Charlie, because you think money can buy anything and you, Clint, because you fell in love with the wrong woman.”

“We’re in love with each other,” I protested.

He laughed at me.

“Why do you think you were kept on the job at the bar when the other bartenders were fired in a few days or a week?”

“I did my work.”

“No, it wasn’t that. She was looking for a sucker and she thought she had found one. You couldn’t stop looking at her body and she thought you would get nuts enough about her to go the distance. You almost did. The trouble is you lost your guts in the end.”

I didn’t know what he was going to do, had no idea, but I did know that I was glad that I hadn’t killed either one of them. I had broken enough laws with the girls to last me for the rest of my life and the way it looked to me just then my life might not be very long.

“How many times did your wife used to go to the hairdresser?” Brandon asked Charlie.

“I don’t know. Often.”

“Did she look any different when she got back?”

“Not that I could tell. I asked her why she bothered and she said it made her feel important. I didn’t think it was much of a reason,” he added. “As far as I could see she was blowing her allowance on nothing every week.”

“Yeah, twenty-five dollars.”

“Is that what she told you?”

“She told me many times.”

“It was more than that, a lot more than that. Even when I had made up my mind that she didn’t love me it was more than that. She took what she wanted out of the cash register and I never said anything.”

Brandon laughed again.

“She didn’t go to any hairdresser,” he said. “She would meet me in some motel and then we would go to bed and afterward we would talk about you. We would talk about your insurance and what we could do with it if we had it. She wanted me to do the job, to put a bullet through your belly, but I told her the risk was too great. We had to get somebody who would fall in love with her and do it on his own, somebody who was just crazy enough over her to want to get rid of you.” Brandon motioned the gun at me. “This guy almost did it. He got his lumps from her and he saw the gun in your apartment. After he called her this afternoon and told her to take a walk, saying that it was all going to end tonight, she looked for the gun and saw that it was missing. She phoned me right away, at a place where she always called me every afternoon about that time, and I knew what to expect.” He paused and spit out the toothpick. “You were going to kill us both, weren’t you, Clint? You were going to make it look like a murder and a self-killing and then you were going to claim the best damned piece of flesh in the city and a big hunk of cash. Isn’t that right?”

I didn’t know what to say. Brandon was crooked but he was intelligent and he had been ahead of me every step of the way. The thing I couldn’t understand was Debbie. She had given me her love, given me her body, and she had led me down a dark road as surely as though she had had a rope around my neck.

“Thanks for bringing the gun,” Brandon was saying to me. “All I have to do is kill you and Charlie and it’ll be called a crime of passion. They’ll put me on the case and nothing can go wrong. I can prove that you slept with Charlie’s wife and that’s all I have to prove.”

I knew that I was facing death and the emptiness inside of me should have lingered but didn’t. It began to fade away, like daylight fades into the shadows of evening, and in its place there was an anger that rose up m a constancy mounting fury. I had been in love with her, or I had thought so and she had used me for a pawn. All the tune I had thought she belonged to me she had belonged to Brandon.

“It couldn’t have worked out better,” Brandon said, picking up the gun. “All I have to do is do the job and I’ll be in clover for the rest of my life. I’ll wait a few months, divorce my wife, and then Debbie and I will go someplace and live like a king and a queen. I’ve got some money of my own and with what she picks up from you, Charlie, we’ll be like a couple of kids at a taffy pull.”

“You can’t get away with it,” Charlie managed to say.

“I can get away with anything.”

“But not murder.”

“Two murders.”

“Or two murders. That’s even worse.”

“Pray,” Brandon said, his voice tight. “Get down on your knees and pray to be forgiven for all of the things that you’ve done, all of the people that you’ve cheated. Pray! It’s your last chance. You won’t get another one on earth.”

Charlie, the situation which he faced having sobered him up, began to pray. He didn’t get down on his knees. He just stood there mumbling. He didn’t want to die. He wanted to live and to die the way a man should.

“I’ll give you anything,” he told Brandon. “Let me go and anything you want you can have.”

“We can’t get your insurance unless you’re dead.”

“But I’ve got other things. I’ve got money. I’ve got property. I’ll divorce her so you can nave her and I’ll start over again.”

“I can’t go this far and turn back,” Brandon said. “There’s only one way that it can be and one way that it has to be. If I let the two of you go you could testify against me and ruin the whole plan. If you were alone I might listen but you’re not alone and I can’t listen. And there’s no danger for me. This Clint worked in fine, just fine.”

Charlie continued to beg, to plead, but he might as well have saved his breath. Death was staring him in the face and death wasn’t going to be cheated. Brandon wasn’t going to be cheated. We both had to die there on the dock.

Every muscle in my body became alive with a furious desire to smash this creature down, to destroy him, to give him the kind of a death that he was so intent upon giving to us. I thought of a lot of things just then, of living at home, of growing up, of giving Ann a child who would never know a father. I thought of the hours that I had spent with Debbie, of exploring every curve and swell of her body, of the love which she had said was mine and which hadn’t been mine. I thought of the bar, of the girls who had sold their bodies, of the men who had paid me money, of the many, many things I had done and which I shouldn’t have done.

“I’m ready,” I heard myself saying.

But I wasn’t ready. No man, no matter how brave he may be, is ready to die. Life is a precious thing, a fragile thing, fleeting moments in the space of time to which all of us want to cling. There on the dock in the night, death was very real, very close. I couldn’t even smell the stench from the river and I found it difficult to breathe.

“Please,” Charlie said, taking a step forward. “Oh, Jesus, please!”

Brandon shot him then, the report from the gun blasting the night, the force of the slug striking him, driving Charlie backward.

I don’t know why I moved then but I did. Everything inside of me told me that I wasn’t going to die without a fight, that I wasn’t going to take it and do nothing about it.

I drove into him, hitting him hard, smashing him against the packing cases. I heard something hit the boards near my feet and I knew that he had lost one of the guns. Charlie was behind me, moaning where he had fallen, but there was no time to do anything about Charlie. Brandon’s knee came up, driving into my stomach, and I let out a groan but it didn’t stop me from grabbing the hand that held the gun, grabbing it with both of my hands and trying to twist the weapon away from him. The gun went off once and the bullet plowed up through the night.

“Bastard,” he said.

He was strong, stronger than I had expected, and I found my task a difficult one. Slowly, my superior weight pinning him to the packing cases, I brought his gun hand down, turning his wrist, putting all of my strength into it. Suddenly he gave up fighting me and his gun hand came down, the gun going off again. There was no pain but I knew that I had been hit, hit high on the thigh. I stumbled, almost fell, and I was like a beast fighting for that gun, fighting as only a man who knows he may be killed in the next second can fight. Again and again the gun roared until at last I heard the firing pin click on an empty chamber. By this time I was on my knees, unable to stand, barely able to find the physical power to hang onto him.

A siren sounded in the distance, wailing in the night, and with a mighty effort he broke away from me, kicking me in the face as he did so. Through a haze of pain I saw him run along the dock and across the street.

I crawled to where Charlie was lying, feeling for a pulse beat. It was there but it was feeble and I knew he didn’t have long to live if he didn’t get help soon.

I tried to stand up but that bullet in the leg had done something to it and I couldn’t get to my feet. I felt the pain now, all the way from my hip to my toes, and I could taste the blood where my mouth had been cut on the inside.

“Charlie,” I said. “Charlie!”

He said nothing.

The pain was terrible as I crawled along the dock, trying to get to the street. I didn’t know where I was going or what I was doing. All I could think of was that I had to get away from there, that I had to get away from everything, that someday and somehow I had to escape from myself.

But I didn’t reach the street.

I just lay down and passed out.

It was probably just as well.

Chapter Fourteen

I was in the hospital quite a while and they had to do three operations on the leg before they got it anywhere near right. There’s a pin in it someplace, something to do with the bones, but it doesn’t bother me any and I only have a slight limp. The doctor says that the limp will go away in time.

The first one who came to see me in the hospital was Martha Foster. She had gotten as. far as New York, heard about the shooting on the radio, and taken the next bus back to Wilton.

“You may need some money,” she said. “Hospitals cost a lot.”

“I’ve got some.”

“But you may have to have more. My two thousand is yours if you run out.”

“Thanks but I don’t think I will. And there was a policeman in here who said he thought the city was responsible. Brandon was on duty at the time of the shooting.”

She bent down and kissed me, her lips lingering over my mouth.

“You should have gone away with me, Clint.”

“I guess I should have. You can run your luck out just so far and then the rope breaks.”

Her face became sad.

“I wish things were different between us.”

“Well, you can’t change what can’t be changed.”

“No, I guess you can’t.”

“And you’ll need the money to make a new beginning. Two thousand may not be much but it can do a lot for you if you’ll let it.”

She kissed me again.

“I know I’m done being a prostitute,” she said. “I never was a very good one. I was looking for the easy way but there is no easy way. I’m going to get a decent job and settle down and if I’m lucky I’ll find a man who’ll marry me.

“What about the other girls?

“Jennie can’t stop and Kathy doesn’t want to stop. If they don’t follow their trade here they’ll follow it somewhere else. They’ll end up getting arrested and going to the workhouse but they won’t learn by it. I’ve seen dozens of them and it all amounts to the same thing. They think that the quick dollars are the best dollars. Me, I just want a home and kids and a normal life.”

I don’t mind saying that I cried a little after she left, cried for all of the things that we had both been and all of the things that we were going to try to be. I was almost sorry that I wasn’t in love with her. She seemed to have found herself and she would make a good wife for somebody. She would give her heart and her soul and all that went with it. It wouldn’t just be sex but something deeper and with more meaning.

I had a lot of time to think in the hospital, in between the times the cops came in to talk to me, but I didn’t think a great deal about Debbie Fletcher. She was a girl who had played me for a sucker and I was through with that kind of stuff. Marriage to her, even if it had been possible, would have been a mistake. You don’t build a house without lumber and you can’t build a marriage without love.

“She’s a tramp,” one of the cops told me. “You can talk to her hour after hour and it makes no impression on her. She just sits and stares and says that she doesn’t know anything.”

“How’s Charlie?”

“As good as you can expect—touch and go. His sugar is against him but the doctors are doing everything they can.”

“And Brandon?”

“In jail. This time he’s on the inside looking out.”

“He was stupid to stay in Wilton.”

“Not stupid. He had to stay. He couldn’t leave without the money he had in safe deposit boxes and he had no choice but to trust to luck—that you were wounded bad enough to die and that Charlie would die.”

“Then you believe me?”

“Everything points to what you said and to the statement that Charlie was able to give us. Brandon’s fingerprints were on the gun—he was so sure of himself that he didn’t bother wearing gloves—and it all fits. He says that you shot Charlie, then yourself, but you two say differently and we have to believe the majority. Then there’s this money that Brandon had put away—about thirty thousand—and no cop could save that much on what he earns. I’m not even married and half of the time I’m paying off a finance company. A cop just can’t save a lot of money and be honest.”

It was a long stay in the hospital but everybody tried to make me comfortable. A couple of times I wanted to get a wheel chair and go down and see Charlie but I was told that he was too low and that no one could see him. They said that he wasn’t responding to treatment, not as he should, and that it was only a matter of time.

On the day I was released from the hospital I had to go down to city hall and talk with the chief of detectives. It was tough getting up the high front steps with a cane but I finally made it.

“We’re curious about the large amount of money you had on you when you were found,” the chief said. “Where did you get it? We know why you had it, but where did you get it?”

I was past the point of lying and I didn’t lie to him. I told him about the deal on the bar with Charlie, of the girls who worked out of it and how I had had to pay Brandon for protection.

“You violated the law,” he said when I had finished.

“I know it.”

“You could be jailed or fined.”

“I know that, too.”

He leaned back in his chair.

“But we can’t prove anything against you, Clint. The girls have left town and there isn’t anybody to testify against you except Brandon and nobody would believe him. On top of that the city is going to pay all of your medical expenses.”

“The hospital was asking about that.”

“I know. They called me and I told them the same thing. That’s why you were able to walk out without paying.” He reached into a desk drawer and brought out a bundle of bills. “This is what we took from you,” he said. “I don’t think you can be proud of the way you made it but you may be able to even things up by the way you spend it.”

I picked up the money.

“There’s one thing that bothers me,” I said. “I haven’t asked anybody about it but I’m going to ask you. If Brandon and Debbie wanted me to kill Charlie why did Brandon cut up my face the way he did?”

“I’ve thought of that, too.”

“He was trying to chase me away from her, not drive me into her arms.”

The chief smiled.

“Ever see a child looking at a toy out of reach?”

“Sure. He wants it more than if you stick it in his hands.”

“Exactly. That was the game Brandon was playing with you. He told you not to see her and marked you up and that made you want her all the more, didn’t it?”

“I guess it did.”

“All of it was bait for you, Clint, some of it very clever bait. The demand for five thousand dollars was the final one. They were sure that you couldn’t raise that much and that you would be driven to kill Charlie which, by your own admission, you very nearly did. The only hitch was that you included Brandon in your plan—I can’t say that I blame you—and when the two of you showed up on the dock Brandon had to do something and do it fast. The same thing that had seemed logical to you seemed logical to him. Once Charlie knew about his wife he would change his will and that wasn’t what either one of them wanted. They were playing for big stakes and Brandon was willing to gamble. The fact that you tore into him upset the gamble.”

A few minutes later I walked out of there a free man.

The first place I went was to the diner where Ann worked.

I write this on a rented farm in Beaverkill. I can look out of the window and see thirty cows in the distant field. I’m in hock up to my neck—a good cow is expensive—but I do think that I have put the money to good use. I can’t work as long outside as many hours as I should because my leg continues to bother me but it’s getting better every day.

You may have read in the papers about the trial and, if you did, you know that Brandon was dismissed from the force and drew fifteen to thirty years for attempted murder. Charlie, showing more courage than some men half his age, finally recovered and whenever the mood strikes him he drives up for some fishing. The Beaverkill is very good for trout fishing and you can almost count on him to get the limit. It may sound strange to you but we found something in common that night when death almost cut us down on the dock and I don’t mind if he stays a day or so. All of his money is invested in that housing developments—he’s sold the bar and his other property—and he seems to be doing very good at it.

“I don’t know anything about Debbie,” he says. “She left town after the divorce and I know that the last premium on the insurance policy wasn’t paid. There’s extended insurance on it, or whatever you call it, but I’ll live so long that she won’t get a cent.”

The way he looks and acts, all full of life, I’m inclined to agree with him.

I have never heard from Martha Foster but I hope she has found what she was seeking. I know I have.

“I want another child,” Ann often tells me when we’re in bed together.

I don’t know if she’ll ever get her wish but I’m doing my best to see that she does. The first baby was a girl, now about a year old, and we’re both hoping for a boy.

“Like you,” she whispers as her naked arms go around me.

“No, not like me.”

“Why not?”

“Let the kid have some brains, won’t you?”

“Oh, don’t be so silly. Just love me, you big ox.”

She doesn’t have to ask me twice.

She doesn’t even have to ask me once….

The End

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