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Authors: Geoffrey Homes

Build My Gallows High

BOOK: Build My Gallows High
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Build My Gallows High

by

Geoffrey Homes

1946

Red Bailey didn’t see her coming. He was squatting on the sand putting a McGinty and a black Gnat on his leader and the chatter of the creek covered the sound of her progress across the broad meadow. Now and then he looked up from the piece of wet gut to stare at the wall of mountains to the west. Patches of snow still scarred the smooth red shoulders and back toward Tioga Pass a fistful of clouds hung low. A light wind pushed through the willows along the creek and in a far pasture a calf was bawling. The shadow of a circling buzzard slid across the grass.

‘Red,’ the girl called. ‘How do you get across this ditch?’ Red swung around, grinning. ‘You wade.’ A ten-foot stretch of water lay between them. She hesitated momentarily, then shrugged and moved toward him through the knee-deep pool.

‘A gentleman,’ the girl said, when she reached the stretch of clean gray sand. ‘That’s what you are.’ She was a slim girl in red shorts and a white silk shirt. She had a steel rod and a can of worms in her left hand.

‘They biting?’ She dropped down beside him. There she looked very small.

Red shook his head, flipped the leader in the shallow water. ‘Too high.’

‘Bait my hook.’ She put the can in his lap.

‘Bait it yourself.’

‘I don’t like it when they wiggle.’ She wrinkled her small nose at him. There was a net of freckles on the tip of it. ’When you going to marry me?’

‘I’m not.’ He spoke lightly, still smiling.

‘Why?’

‘Unworthy,’ Red said.

‘I don’t think so.’

‘You don’t know,’ Red said. He ran the line through the eyelets of her pole, took a leader from his fly hook and tied it on the line.

‘Bailey the mysterious.’ She watched his nimble fingers slide a fat worm on the hook. Her glance moved up and searched his strong, almost ugly face.

‘There you are.’ Red gave her the rod. She put it on the sand but made no move to rise. Back of them the sun slid close to the ridge and the shadows grew long on the meadow. Suddenly she said sharply, ‘I don’t care what you’ve done, or what you are.’

He stared back at her and his eyes were full of darkness. ‘Ann,’ he said softly.

‘Oh, Red.’ She moved closer to him and put her hands on his big shoulders.

‘It wouldn’t work, Ann.’

Her lips stopped the words. She clung to him awkwardly. The wind tore a leaf from a willow and dropped it at their feet. The shadow of the mountains crawled nearer, darkening the water as it swirled by, tugging at the reeds.

‘It would,’Ann said.’It would, Red.’

‘No.’The word was unsure.

‘You love me. You said so.’

‘That has nothing to do with it.’

‘What has, then?’

‘I told you.’

‘Told me?’ she scoffed.’What? Go on. In the first place, I’m too young. Twenty is too young.’

‘Much too young.’

‘And you’re too old.’

‘Much too old. And too beat up around the edges.’

’With a past,’ Ann said. ‘A black past. And maybe a wife somewhere.’

‘No wife. But a past.’

‘Your name isn’t Red Bailey?’

‘No.’

‘You were a detective and you did something.’

‘Right.’

‘But you won’t say what.’

‘No.’

‘So you went to Korea and became a hero.’

‘Not exactly,’ Red said.

‘You fought.’

‘And bled.’

‘For a principle.’

‘Of necessity.’

‘You believed.’

‘Eventually. I get no credit for that. I’m not altogether stupid.’

‘Then you came to Bridgeport and opened a gas station.’

He pulled a pack of cigarettes from a jacket pocket, lit one for her, one for himself.

‘I came along—’ Ann went on, blowing smoke at him. ‘I came along to confuse you.’

Red lay back. A weary bit of moon was almost lost in the waste of pale sky. Her small hand touched his cheek. He caught it and kissed the palm, thinking,
sometimes I’m not confused. Sometimes when it’s like this I know it would work.

He turned his head a little and then he could see the mountains he loved—not red any more because the sun was gone. Up there were pine-fringed lakes and brawling streams and deep drifts of snow.

She stretched out close to him, pillowing her head on his arm. ‘I could go away. Do you want me to go away?’

‘No,’ Red said softly.

‘Nothing matters but us, does it?’

‘No.’

’And it will work out, won’t it?’

‘Yes.’At that moment, he was sure of it. The past was dead. Ten years dead, and buried deep.

But two hours later, when Ann Miller stopped her father’s Packard at the curb in front of Bailey’s One Stop Service Station on the outskirts of town. Red Bailey wasn’t so sure. A battered Dodge parked alongside the station. Sitting under the wheel was the little Greek, Joe Stefanos.

The little Greek wore a white linen suit and a Panama hat of incongruous size. He slid out of the car and stood there, smoking a cigarette in a long ivory holder, watching Red come across the gravel.

‘Good evening,’ Stefanos said.

‘Hello.’ Red went past him into the station where the Kid was repairing a tire.

The Kid wiped his dirty hands on a piece of waste, jerked his thumb toward the Dodge. He had the wizened, starved face of a jockey and a peculiar, crooked scar crossed his narrow forehead. Red didn’t know how old he was. The Kid had dropped off a Reno-bound truck a couple of years before and had stuck around ever since. He was deaf and dumb.

‘I’ll take over,’ Red said, facing the Kid and forming the words to make it easier for him to understand. ‘You run along.’

The Kid’s nimble fingers asked a question. ‘Any fish?’

‘Water’s too high yet. Beat it. This guy wants to talk to me.’

The Kid went across the yard giving the Greek the eye. As he went past, Stefanos flipped his cigarette away and spat after him.

‘Come on in,’ Red called. Bending, he opened the register and slid a revolver in the hip pocket of his jeans.

‘Nice little place.’ Stefanos had a smooth, high voice that seldom varied its pitch. His lips smiled. His heavy-lidded, protuberant eyes didn’t. He looked over one shoulder at the sign swinging in the wind, and added, ‘Mr. Bailey.’

‘I like it.’

’Don’t that dummy make you nervous?’

‘Silence has its points,’ Red said. ‘What do you want?’ He leaned against the wall, looking down at the other man. ‘Me? Nothing.’

‘Just a social call?’

‘Sort of.’

Red waited, his big knobby face set, his eyes dark and brooding.

‘Guy,’ said the little Greek, ’he wants to see you.’

‘He still alive?’ Stefanos nodded.

‘Why?’ Red asked.

The little Greek grinned. ‘You can ask him.’ He nodded toward the sign. ‘Why the name change?’

Red shrugged.’Tired of the old one.’

‘Strange racket to find you in, Mr. Bailey.’

‘Nice and quiet,’ Red said. ‘And the fishings good. What does Guy want?’

‘He’s got a job for you.’

‘I’ve one here.’

‘This is a good one.’

‘No, thanks.’

‘I think you should talk to him.’

Red shook his head. ‘Not interested.’

‘He said you were to come back with me.’ The little Greek took his right hand out of his jacket pocket. There was a gun in it. It was a thirty-eight with a stubby barrel.

‘So that’s how it is!’ Red said mildly.’ All right. Put it away.’

‘You’ll come?’

‘Where is he?’

‘Reno. The El Arbol.’

‘I’ll be up in a couple of days.’

‘He wants you right away.’

‘Tomorrow then. I’ll drive up in the morning.’

‘I said right away.’

Red opened the cash register, took out some bills and shoved them in a pocket. He scribbled a note to the Kid and put it in the drawer. ‘How do I get back?’

The little Greek smiled. ‘That will be taken care of.’

Red cocked his head. ‘Or do I come back?’

‘Of course,’ the little Greek said.

* * *

Ann Miller lived in a big, white farmhouse two miles east of the town, where the highway to Reno swung sharply north. Behind it the meadow land was threaded with small streams that were angry now the snow was melting. Old man Miller’s herd of Hereford bulls grazed in the east pasture and made trespassing inadvisable. A stretch of lawn lay in front of the house and a row of poplars stood on the windward side.

‘That’s it,’ Red said. The little Greek swung the car off the highway and slammed on the brakes. The car slid to a stop.

‘Step on it,’ Stefanos said.

Red got out of the car and moved unhurriedly through the gate and up the path. Ann’s mother opened the door for him. She was lean, angular and unhappy. Red’s presence on the porch didn’t cheer her up. She stood aside without speaking. Red went in.

Ann’s father was stretched out in a leather chair with his shoes off, reading the paper. He looked up and nodded sourly.

‘Evening.’

‘Hello, Mr. Miller.’ Red wondered if Ann would be like her father and mother in a few years. That, he decided, would be too bad. At the foot of the hall stairway Mrs. Miller paused and called whiningly: ‘Ann. It’s Mr. Bailey.’

He heard the rush of her feet on the landing. She came running down, her face shining and happy. As she caught her father’s glance, she moved less precipitously. It was evident the Millers did not approve of their daughter’s choice. A girl as well educated and mannered, as shapely as Ann, could certainly do much better than tag around with a tough, red-haired giant of forty-two, with a crooked nose and one shoulder higher than the other.

’All pressed up,’ Ann said. Her glance sobered.

Red nodded toward the porch.

‘You going out?’ Mrs. Miller asked.

‘No,’ Red said and led the way outside. The girl pulled the door to behind her.

It was growing dark outside. A whole field of stars had suddenly ripened and through it swung the thin sickle of the moon. In the fields the frogs were singing. Red moved to the end of the porch, staring across the darkening meadow. Back of the barn a nighthawk cried out. Ann came close to him and her fingers dug into his arm.

She pressed against him and he could feel a firm breast against his arm.

‘You’ll come back?’

‘Sure,’ Red said.

‘Trouble?’

‘Business.’

‘You scared hell out of me for a minute.’

‘Your father will hear you.’

‘Let him.’

‘He doesn’t like me. He thinks I’m a bad influence.’

‘Aren’t you?’

‘I’m better for you than the game warden,’ Red said. ‘But they like him. Stay away from him while I’m gone.’

‘Red.’ Her voice was very low.

‘Yes?’

‘You’ve made up your mind?’

‘Yes.’

‘Oh, Red.’

The blast of a horn silenced the frog song, went echoing across the fields.

He kissed her. ‘I’ll be back. Maybe tomorrow night. I’ve decided—to hell with the past. To hell with everything but us.’ He held her face in his hands. It seemed to him her eyes found a whole handful of stars and held them.

‘I love you, Ann.’ With that he was gone.

She moved to the edge of the porch and watched him hurry down the path and through the gate, saw him round the dark bulk of the waiting car, heard the door slam. The motor roared, the lights went on and the car shot out into the highway. She waited until its red light disappeared around the bend and then she turned. Suddenly all the laughter left her and the night seemed very cold. He was gone and she was sure she would never see him again.

A couple of miles beyond Virginia City the little Greek swung the car from the state highway into a graveled side road and headed east. The night was going, the wisp of moon long since down and the stars fading. The ribbon of dawn stretched taut across the eastern sky. Stefanos yawned, ran his tongue over his teeth. ‘Awake?’ he asked.

‘Sure,’ Red said.

‘Here we are.’

‘Not bad.’ Red stretched. Ahead was a cottonwood-bordered lane leading up a little hill. On the hill sat El Arbol Rancho, two-storied, gleaming white, with a pillared porch and great chimneys. Limousines stood bumper to bumper along the circular driveway, their drivers dozing at the wheels. Lights blazed inside.

‘And all on the up and up,’ the little Greek said.

‘Not that,’ Red said.

‘This is Nevada.’ The Dodge rocketed up the hill and around the drive. Stefanos jammed on the brakes, got out. Red followed, stood on the broad steps, stretching. A big Negro in a purple uniform came toward them.

‘Put it away,’ the little Greek ordered. The Negro gave him a dirty look. They crossed the porch and the door swung open. A man with a paunch took Red apart with his eyes. Red needed a couple of minutes to place him. That was because he was wearing a dinner coat instead of the ratty blue serge most plain clothesmen wore. He gave Red a bleak smile and said,’Hello, you big bastard.’

’Did he bring the whole force with him?’ Red asked, taking Mac’s proffered flabby hand.

Mac whinnied. ‘Just the honest ones.’

‘You short-handed?’

Mac whinnied again.’Same old Red. What’s cooking?’

‘Me,’ Red said, and followed Stefanos across the circular hallway and up a broad flight of stairs. The carpet was deep red. Shrill laughter and a hum of voices welled up after him. The little Greek led him down a long hall and through a heavy door.

Guy Parker sat behind a desk big enough to sleep two. He was playing solitaire and he was thinner than Red remembered—a slab of a man with gray hair and a razor face. On the paneled wall behind him stood a framed photograph. Guy was the central figure in the picture. He wore the uniform of a police chief and he was shaking hands with Herbert Hoover. Hoover had his other hand in his pants pocket as though he was keeping track of his watch.

‘Well, well, well!’ Guy exclaimed, getting up and making the portage around the desk. ‘Old Red himself. How they treating you, boy?’

‘Fair enough.’They shook hands. Guy’s fist was a piece of cold iron.

‘Long time. Red.’

‘Ten, eleven years.’

‘You’ve been around some.’

‘Some.’

‘How come you folded your office?’

‘Did you get me up here to ask that?’

Guy chuckled. ‘Same old Red.’

‘Or haven’t you got enough detective talent around the joint?’ Red wasn’t smiling.

‘Small caliber,’ Guy said. ‘Very small.’

The little Greek cut in. ‘I’m going to bed.’

Guy ignored him and the little Greek went out.

‘Sweet character,’ Red said. ‘I always expected him to die young.’

Without being asked, he sat down. Guy went back to his deck of cards. He shuffled clumsily.

‘So you’re selling gas.’

‘When did you find that out?’

‘A while back.’

‘How?’

‘We use that road a lot.’

‘All right,’ Red said.’Spill it. What do you want?’

‘I’ve got a job for you.’ Red shook his head.

‘Hear me out,’ Guy started dealing. He dealt two hands of ten cards each, put the rest of the deck on the desk, upturned the top card, indicated the other hand. Red pulled his chair up, picked up the cards and arranged them. He had four kings, three treys, a pair of eights and a jack. The card on the desk was an eight. Red exchanged it for the jack, put his hand down. ‘Gin.’

‘How do you like that!’ Guy said. He collected the cards, re-shuffled them. ‘You were a good one—you know that, Red.’

‘Sure.’

‘No better.’

‘Deal from the top,’ Red said. ‘This isn’t for dough. Anyway, it’s my deal.’ Guy gave him the deck.

‘Still good?’

‘I wouldn’t know’

‘A man doesn’t forget his trade.’

‘Maybe not.’

‘This is a sweet job.’ Guy kept his eyes on Red’s long, supple fingers as they flipped the cards out. ’You go to New York, you get a line on a boy and there you are.’

‘Where?’ Red lit a cigarette, stared through the smoke at the card faces.

‘With five grand.’

‘I’d rather pump gas.’

‘What’s got into you? There was a time—’ Guy let the sentences trail off into nothingness.

‘Yes,’ Red said. ‘There was.’

‘A pushover.’ Guy took a card, discarded a queen. ’For you, that is. Take maybe two weeks.’

Red picked up the queen, discarded a ten.

‘One,’ Red said and put down his hand.

‘Got me for twenty-five.’

‘I was dealing.’

‘A pushover,’ Guy repeated. ‘Trip to New York. All expenses and five grand. You can’t kiss that off.’

‘Can’t I?’ Red fiddled with the cards, waiting. He didn’t like the setup, didn’t like it at all. Guy Parker didn’t play unless the deck was stacked. But he couldn’t know. He would have moved in a long time ago.

‘Two weeks—maybe three,’ Guy said.

‘Maybe I’m out of practice.’

‘I’ll take that chance.’

‘There are good boys in the East, Guy.’

‘Not good enough. Anyway, I can’t trust someone I don’t know.’

‘I don’t get it,’ Red said in a flat voice.’Why come to me? I’ve been out of business ten years. Sure, I was good once. But I’m out of touch with things. In that racket, you need contacts.’

Guy pursed his thin lips.’It’s this way, Red. You’ve been out of the picture a long time. That’s good. I want someone nobody knows.’ He nodded thoughtfully. ‘Someone with a clean slate.’

‘There are plenty of honest agencies.’

‘Don’t give me that,’ Guy said.

‘Who’s the boy you want a line on?’

‘His name won’t mean anything to you.’

‘Try me.’

‘Lloyd Eels,’ Guy said.

Red shook his head.

‘He’s an attorney,’ Guy went on. ‘He’s been sniping at a friend of mine. I want to stop him.’

‘And your friend?’

‘Never mind him.’

‘I don’t go into things blind.’

‘What do you care?’

‘I’m living the kind of life I like. I’m too old to want excitement any more.’

Red stood up. ‘Got someone to take me home?’

‘Sure. If you want to go.’

‘I want to.’

‘Stick around,’ Guy said. ’Get some sleep and think it over.’

‘No, thanks.’

‘All right then.’ Guy sighed and put his finger on a button. A voice came out of the little speaker on his desk.

’Yes, boss?’ the voice inquired.

‘Send the dame on in,’ Guy spoke into the instrument. ‘I want her to meet a friend of mine before he leaves.’ He gave Red a thin smile.

Red stood there looking at him, his face expressionless. Faintly the sound of motors starting came to them. The customers had had enough and were going home. The door behind him opened. Red turned. Mumsie McGonigle came through the door.

Mumsie McGonigle and Red Bailey stood looking at each other, not smiling, not saying anything. The same serene wisp of a woman.

‘I needn’t introduce you,’ Guy said.

‘Not us,’ Red said.

‘Mumsie’s working for me now.’ Guy was standing at his desk, leaning on his knuckles. Red wondered where he bought his suits. The gray flannel he wore looked very British.

‘That’s fine,’ Red said.

‘You’re working for me too.’ Guy sounded like a cop for the first time. Sure of himself. Very sure of himself. ‘I’m being fair about it. Not asking for a cut. Not asking for anything but a little of your time, Red.’

Mumsie spoke. She had a low, sweet voice.’I didn’t sell you out, Red.’

‘No?’

‘No. Damned if I know how he got onto it.’

‘Christ,’ Guy said. ‘I was chief of police, wasn’t I?’

Mumsie’s lying. Red thought. No other answer. He knew and she knew and that was all. Nobody else mixed up in it. No loose ends. He wasn’t angry. He wasn’t surprised. He asked: ‘What did he get on you to make you talk, Mumsie?’

Guy answered for her. ‘This and that.’

‘I didn’t—’ Mumsie started to say. Red’s eyes stopped her. She shrugged, moved to the leather couch against the wall and sat down. Her legs were still good.

‘I’m not sore. Just curious.’

‘He knows the works.’ Mumsie lit a cigarette.

Guy nodded, moved to a cabinet in the corner and got a bottle of Scotch and some glasses. ‘Want me to put a tombstone on his grave for you?’ he asked.

‘Mumsie should do that,’ Red said.

Her voice found anger.’I didn’t kill him.’

Guy brought the bottle and glasses back to the desk. He poured three slugs and held one out to Red. Red crossed and took the glass. Guy went over to Mumsie and gave her one.

Red downed the drink. ‘When do you want me to leave?’

‘There’s a train at four.’ Guy sat down beside Mumsie.

‘I’ll catch some sleep then.’

‘Six is vacant. Upstairs to the right. How about breakfast?’

‘That can wait.’

‘Sleep well, Mr. Markham,’ Guy said.

‘I like Bailey better,’ Red said. He smiled at Mumsie and went out.

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