Authors: James M. Cain
“I'm running this, Miss Kreeger.”
“But not very well, Sergeant Edgren.” It threw him off, but not much. He sat there, measuring her up, as though trying to think what she knew. I tried to think what
knew and had the uneasy feeling he knew more than we knew he knew, probably connected with whatever it was that Mantle had turned up during the night. Then he turned to me once more and started in about Mom. He really worked me over, especially in regard to the day beforeâwhere I had been and why. I said: “I was looking for my stepmother over in Flint, where she used to live.”
“Why? What did you want with her?”
“Remind her she was supposed to be here to answer questions.”
“And what did she say to that?”
“Just nothing at all?”
“Don't that hit you funny that you'd tell her something like that and she just told you nothing?”
“No, not at all.”
“I don't have your sense of humor.”
“Did she say whether she meant to come back?”
“No, she didn't.”
“What do you mean, she didn't?”
“I mean she wasn't there.”
Everyone laughed and his face got red. Bledsoe cut in then: “Sergeant, I confess myself quite surprised. This boy has gone over this again and again and againâexcept in regard to his stepmother. But I remind you that he's not her keeper and also that if he tried to bring her back, he was helping you, not blocking you off, andâ”
“He's holding stuff back, Mr. Bledsoe.”
“You think he's holding stuff back?”
“I know he's holding stuff back.”
He mentioned to Mantle who tapped a leather case and told me: “In here is a paper tape that I found in that room this morning. When I lay down I took off my necktie, shoes, and jacket. The tie I put on the chest of drawers, but this morning when I got up, it had falled into that wastebasket in there. When I reached for it I also picked up the tape. It's a kind used in packaging money, and printed on it is âDrover and Dealers Bank of Chicago.' And handwritten, with ballpoint, it says âTwo thousand dollars, 100 twenties, Xerox sheets Seven 00 sixty-oneâseven 00 eighty-six.' When we called Drover and Dealers, they said those were the Xerox numbers of bills packaged up for Trans-U.S.&C, that they put in a red zipper bag and sent out for the hijacker, Shaw. They Xeroxed those bills in batches of four.”
He stopped and Edgren hammered at me: “That money has been in this house. How did it get here, Howell?”
“Of that I have no idea either.”
“Howell, this thing has looked queer from the start, but I'm warning you now, that further failure on your part to cooperateâ”
“Hey, hey, hey,” snapped Bledsoe. “Ask what you want to find out, sergeant. Stop making speeches at him.”
I knew Bledsoe had to be sweating blood, as I certainly was, but at least he was acting tough. However, before any more could be said, Jill got into the act. “Mr. Howell,” she told Edgren, “can't cooperate, on account he's mountain and has to stand by his kinâlike this Mom character you met one day, this stepmother he's got, who stole that money, my money in case you forgot, who could have brought it here and dropped that tape in the basket without his knowing about it or me knowing about it or anyone knowing but her. So how's about knocking this off, and doing what you ought to be doing, rowing up to that tree and seeing what's inside it?”
“Some trees are hollow, you know.”
“And some people know all about it without even having to look.”
“A guy in a boat was looking.”
“What's that supposed to mean?”
any boat. Maybe the time has now come for me to find you that money, so you can pretend you knew nothing about it, that it was put there by somebody else, soâ”
He may have said more, and I could feel my mouth getting dry. But before he could finish, from down the river there came the sound of a horn. Mantle held up his hand, and Edgren told him: “You better see what that is. Sounds like DiVola.”
Mantle slipped out, and nothing was said for a time until here he came back. “It
DiVola,” he reported. “They want to speak to Howell.”
I went out, Jill with me. The officers went out, and Bledsoe, Knight, and York went out, all stomping along the path on a beautiful spring day. When I got down to the bank, the DiVola outboard was there, with two firemen in it this time instead of three. The one in the bow was holding onto a root on the snag that was still offshore a few feet, a tree maybe a foot across floating up in the current with roots pointing downriver, and branches dragging behind. But behind the outboard was a johnboat with oars in the locksâboth boats being pulled downstream by the current, the fireman in the stern of the outboard hanging into the johnboat's painter. “Mr. Howell, is this your boat?” asked the fireman in the bow, the one hanging to the root.
“Looks like it,” I said, and when I looked around for my boat on the bank, it wasn't there. Then on the boat in the river I saw a chipped place under one oarlock that was made by a tree one day, and sang out:
“You're in luck, is all I have to say. It fetched up five miles down, on a float that's anchored offshore. It was headed straight for the dam. You should tie that boat up.”
“I did tie it up.” I shook the sapling I had made it fast to.
“Then it must have been stole,” he said. “Wellâthere's plenty of that going on.”
a boat!” she told Edgren, grabbing him by the shoulders and spinning him around.
“OK, OK,” he answered, “but it doesn't prove anything, exceptâ”
“Never mind what it proves,” growled Knight. “There was a boat; that's the main thing.”
He turned to the fireman holding onto the root, whom the other man had called Ed, and asked: “Could you gentlemen give us a little help? We want to go upstream to a tree that's up there, to a tree that may be hollow, and see what's inside of it, if anything.”
Ed turned to the other man, and asked, “Rufe?”
“Sure, why not?” said Rufe.
Ed let go and Rufe gunned his motor, to shoot the boat to the bank. Then he reached the painter to me, the line from the johnboat, and I made it fast to the sapling after hauling the boat out of the bank. Then: “Who's going?” asked Ed. Knight motioned me in, and I sat on one of the two cross-seats, the one nearest the stern. He got in, taking his place beside me. Then he motioned to Edgren and Mantle who took place on the other cross-seat. Then Rufe threw the boat into reverse, and we shot downriver. He gave it full speed ahead and we started back upriver. We passed the island on the west side, kept on past my landing, and then came to the mouth of the inlet, with the tree standing in it, maybe two feet across the trunk, and white as a sycamore always is. “That's it,” I said, and Rufe went in reverse. That stopped our forward motion, and when we began to slide back downriver, he cut his rudder to slew us around. Then he gave it full speed ahead, and shot us into the inlet. He throtted back, so we had slowed down when we bumped the tree. Rufe caught it and we stopped. Edgren got up then and Rufe gave him a hand to steady him while he reached into the hollow.
“There's something in there,” he said, and my heart beat up, as I took it for granted, of course, that at last he'd come up with the money and that would wind it all up. But instead of lifting the bag out, he kept pulling at something inside, complaining: “The damned thing's caught.”
“What is it?” asked Rufe.
“I can't tell. I don't know.”
He felt around with his hand, and seemed to be spanning distance inside, then took his hand out again and spanned down outside from the rim of the hollow. He put his thumb on the spot he had measured to, then with the other hand took out his gun. “I don't know if this is going to work or not, but nothing beats a try.” Then he aimed his gun at the spot and fired. Dust kicked out of the hollow and then he reached in his hand. “That did it,” he said, very pleased. “Broke the splinter off.” Then he came out with the strap, the one she had cut off that night, the loose end of the zipper bag strap, that had got caught in some crack inside.
“Hey!” he said, excited. “This thing's red. That corresponds with the color that zipper bag was, the one that the money was put in, for Shaw to take when he jumped. On TV they kept talking about it.”
“Sure does,” agreed Mantle.
“We're getting warm.”
I wasn't getting warm, I was turning cold all over. “Is there anything else in there!” I asked.
“Not that I can feel,” said Edgren.
He put on a glove and rummaged into the hollow. “No, that's allâbut I'd call it quite a lot.”
Rufe helped him once more, he stepped over Knight and me, and sat down again beside Mantle. Mantle studied the strap but didn't ask me about it, and Edgren didn't. Rufe backed us out of the inlet and into the river, headed downstream, and ran down past the island. I was trying to think what I'd say to Jill, how I could possibly tell her that Bledsoe's grand scheme that she'd put into effect to please me, had completely backfired, that her money was gone, that the boat we said we had seen had actually come during the night, that it was my boat that somebody stole and used to take what was hers. Knight stepped ashore, but I wanted to be the last and waited for Edgren and Mantle. Jill's eyes were bright as she searched us all, looking, I knew, for her money. When she didn't see it she turned to me, a question on her face. However, before I could speak, Edgren was holding the strap up. “Well young lady,” he said, “you were right that the tree was hollow, and as we dope it out, your money was actually stashed there. Did you ever see this before!”
He waved the strap and she stared.
“That's been cut off that bag!” she wailed. “The bag with my money in it!... Where is it? What have you done with it,
? My bag! Where is it?”
“You'd better ask Mr. Howell.”
“I'd better ask
“Speak up, Mr. Howell.”
speak up, sergeant? What are you talking about?”
“Well, it's all coming togetherâthe paper tape in your house, the strap caught in your tree, the boat that was salvaged downstreamâit seems pretty clear that though you like this girl, you like her money better. So if she wants to know where it is, like I said, she'd better ask you!”
“Dave, I can't believe it!”
“Why don't you say something, Howell?”
HAT WAS I GOING
to say? The truth? That on advice of counsel, she'd planted the money out there so he'd find it and we'd be left in the clear? That would dig us in even deeper without doing me any good, and besides would backfire on Bledsoe in a way to cause him trouble. And I knew, at the same time, that it might be just a pitch Edgren was making, that he didn't necessarily believe but tossed at me anyhow, to see how I reacted. I can't pretend I came up with any answer. I was just plain paralyzed, sweating, with my head not working at all.
Jill, though, didn't let me do any telling. She exploded right in front of me, right in front of them all, spilling it all, from Bledsoe's simple idea to what she had done about it, “wading out to that tree, with the water up to here”âmotioning toward her bottomâ“
water up to hereâ because I wanted to please him, this friendly boyfriend of mine, because he saved my life, because he looked like God to me at that timeâwas that a laugh, oh my. And we'd hardly come ashore when this mother of his, I'm sorry she's his stepmother, when she was yapping about the moneyâthat's all she thought about, and now, what do you
I find out, it's all
thought about! He and his lawyer friend. Yes, Mr. Bledsoe, you know who's paying you, don't you? That was an idea, wasn't it, for you to throw at me? That we'd put my money back, in that tree where we had found it, so the sheriff's men would find it, and then no one could say we'd known where it was all along. And fool that I was, I did what you said exactly, with waterâ”
!” snapped Bledsoe. “Was your backside bare, may I ask?”
“You better believe it was.”
“I wish I'd been there!”
That got a laugh but didn't stop Edgren from staring over what he'd turned up, without having known that he would. He interrupted to ask: “Do you mean you planted that money? Out there, for us? On Mr. Bledsoe's advice?”
“Do I have to go over it twice? OK, if I have to, I will. Yes, that's what I mean. Little did I realize the reason that he had for giving me that advice.”
“And when was it that youâ?”
But Knight cut him off. “She was his client,” he snapped, “and it was her money. If what he advised her to do was on the side of the law, to make possible the finding of what you'd been looking for, there was nothing wrong with it, nothing unethicalâany lawyer might have done it.”
“But when Howell took the moneyâ”
“What proof do you have of that? If you're charging him with that theft, I'm the one who must face a judge, at a habeas corpus hearing, a judge who doesn't like it, being hauled out of bed at night, and defend the charge of yours. So far, you have no proof that Howell did anything except kill a man who damned well deserved to die. Your job is to find that womanâMrs. Howell, I believe was her nameâwho could be the one, it appears, who hid that money in the first place, and until you doâ”
“It could be what you think.”