Authors: James M. Cain
“I didn't have the nerve.”
“God's not supposed to have sex appeal, but let Him learn how to shoot and He can look awful pretty. I should have said, I was praying. All the time out there I was praying. Then when you spoke from the boatâ”
“I'm not God, I'm Dave Howell, and I know you're getting to me.”
“Then it's mutual.”
“Hold still, I want to look at your feet.”
They were small and cute and pretty, but when I felt them she started to squeal. “Stop!” she yelped. “That tickles.”
“They're not cut, that I can see.”
“They hurt outside.”
“That underbrush would hurt...They may be bruised a bit, but they're not cut.”
She sat up, cut the water, soaped under her arms, sloshed herself, then came back to the subject of Mom: “Dave, why would she? Egg him on to fire that gun? She didn't even know me. Why would she want me killed?”
“You must have misunderstood her. She's
We're a peculiar bunch. We always say it opposite.”
“Listen, maybe I could misunderstand her, but not my belly. My belly knows what she meant. But why?”
I didn't have any answer to that. The way Mom had acted had also baffled me. I said “Let's forget it” or something like that and tried to get back to us.
She said: “OK, but you better be going down. She could come any time, and better you not be up here.”
“OK. Kiss me.”
She kissed me very solemnly put pulled back all of a sudden. “Why hasn't she come?” she asked. “What's she doing out there?”
“What's it to us what she's doing?”
But Jill kept staring at me. Then at last she whispered: “I know what she's doing: she's swiping that money, that's what. She said she was going to look for it, and that's what's keeping her there.
And that's why she wanted me killed.
Once he killed me and you killed him, you could roll us both in the river and who would know where we died, or when, or who shot us? You could stash that money and keep it. Youâ”
“Hey! Quit talking like that's what I wantedâ”
“Dave, I didn't say
wanted me killed. I don't believe you did. Just the same, if I
been killed out there, if I
dead, you'd have had to go along. You'd have had to play it the way she wanted, because after all, she's your motherâroll me in the river, roll him in, and keep the hundred thousand.”
have it figured out, don't you?”
That's what I said, but I have to own upâshe shook me. The way Mom had acted out there by the water's edge had a mighty peculiar look.
Jill kept staring at me and then went on, pretty cold: “Well, all I've got to say is, if that's the mountain way, I'm glad I was born lower down. Is that all they know, just go around killing people?”
“Sometimes it has to be done.”
She kept staring at me, then all of a sudden closed her eyes as though hit with a whip. Then she reached out and touched me, gripping my hand in hers. “I'm sorry, Dave, I forgot who's God, that's all. I won't again, ever. ... Yes, sometimes killing a guy can be the most glorious thing in the world.” Then: “You have to go down.”
She pushed her wet face to mine but once more pulled back and asked: “What's she
out there? Why hasn't she come? She also has that gun. If she gets here before you call, my life's not worth a plugged dime. Dave, you're calling, you're calling that sheriff
, do you hear?
I didn't believe her life was in danger, but with a beautiful, naked girl beside you, dripping water and banging you over the head, you do what she says, if for no other reason than to make her shut up. I went down-stairs, looked up the sheriff's number, and called. The officer who answered sounded sleepy. I didn't get much reaction even when I mentioned I'd killed a guy “to save the life of a girl.” But when I mentioned Shaw, the hijacker of that plane, the officer came to life fast. He told me to wait till he got his pen, then told me to “start over,” and “say it slow while I write it down.” When he had the name, time, and place all straightened out, he checked over what he'd send out: an ambulance for Jill, a “dead wagon,” as he called it, for the body, and “anything else?” he asked, very friendly. I couldn't think of anything, and he said: “The officers'll be right out, soon as they can get dressed. Hold everything till they get there.” I said I would.
As I hung up, Jill came limping into the room, the blanket wrapped around her. She asked to borrow the phone, which was next to the arch out in the hall, and I got up to let her sit down. By the number of spins on the dial, I knew she was calling long distance. When the answer came, she said: “Jack? It's me, Jill.” Apparently the guy all but dropped dead, because she cupped the phone and whispered: “It's Jack Mullen, our chief dispatcher. He thought I was dead, and it's kind of knocked him over.” Then she was on the phone again, telling him what happened over and over: “Be sure you call Mr. Morgan right away now, quick. Tell him I'm all right. Thank him for sending the money, and give my best to Mrs. M. She's a doll, and she was worried sick about me. I would call them myself, but I don't have their number with me because it got dunked with everything else I had. And give them my love; be sure you don't forget that.” Mr. Morgan seemed to be president of the airline.
She hung up and said: “Well? Now I feel better!” That was when Mom came in, carrying the rifle. Jill said: “Mrs. Howell, I'm sorry to tell you, Dave has called the sheriff. So if you figured to shoot me, it'll cost you twenty years in Marysville, so maybe you better not.”
“No one's planning to shoot you,” I told her, kind of short. I was getting fed up about something she had no proof of and that I didn't at all believe. Mom paid no attention to her, but said to me: “I can't find no trace of that money. What he done with it I don't know, but could be he slipped it off, slipped off the straps of that poke, when he unsnapped the parachute. I found
all right. It's out there in the river, on the other side of the island.”
“It don't concern us, Mom.”
“You sure you didn't find that money and hide it?” Jill asked her sarcastically. “You've been out there long enough.”
If Mom made a pass with the gun, I don't know. Maybe she just thought about it. Whatever she did, Jill caught it and flinched in her chair. “I'm taking that,” I told Mom, reaching for it. But she backed away and I had to get tough to make her give it up. She kept saying: “Leave me be. This gun's mine. It belongs to me. Your father bought it for me, so I'd be protected.” That was news to me; I thought he had bought it for himself.
“Whoever it belongs to,” I snapped, now pretty disagreeable, “it's evidence in a killing. It has to be handed over to the police.”
At last I had it and could put it on the living room table, the low one in front of the fireplace. “I think it's time for breakfast,” I said, and to Jill: “Could you stand some food?”
“I'd like some coffee, please.”
Generally I did the cooking, but this time I took Mom out to the kitchen with me to get her away from Jillâand away from that gun. The stove was electric. After I'd got out the kettle and filled it, I snapped on the coil under it and got out my grill that I used for fritters. It was stainless steel, twelve by twenty-four inches, with bolt holes around the edges. I bought it in a junkyard. What it had been part of, I don't knowâthe floor of a truck maybe. But for me, once it was greased with Crisco, it was perfect for top-of-the-stove frying, like fritters. I greased it up now and cut the corn off the cobs, starting the bacon first in a heavy skillet I had. Soon as the kettle started to whistle, I made coffee and took it to the living room on a tray, with a napkin, sugar, and cream. Pretty fancy. Mom didn't bother to hide her disgust. I put it on the table in front of Jill. She put in four lumps of sugar and some cream and started to gulp, flinching in between from its being so hot. Suddenly she looked like a half-starved child, and my heart went bumpity-bump. I made quick work of the orange juice, eggs, bacon, and fritters, but ate mine out there with Jill while Mom ate in the kitchen. Every so often I'd pat a strong little hand and it would pat me on the cheek. I'd just got through washing the dishes when the door-bell rang. I opened the door and there the officers were.
T SEEMED THE SHERIFF
was in Europe on some kind of business. The officer who was in charge was a sergeant named Edgren. He introduced himself and then the deputy with him, a middle-aged man named Mantle. He also introduced, or pointed at, the intern on the ambulance, who had pulled up in back of the sheriff's car, a doctor named Cline, and the undertaker, Santos, who was getting out of the “dead wagon,” a black, enclosed truck with no markings of any kind, that had pulled up behind the ambulance.
Sergeant Edgren asked me: “You killed a man, that right?”
“The hijacker, Shaw, yes.”
“You identified him already?”
“The girl identified him. The one who came down with him on his parachute.”
“She's the one that's to go? In the ambulance?”
“She'd better go, sergeant. I'd say she's in pretty bad shape.”
Dr. Cline came up with two men who got a stretcher out of the ambulance, and I led the way inside. When I'd introduced the whole bunch to Jill, she motioned to the blanket and started talking like she was used to taking charge. “Pardon my informal clothes,” she said, very cool, “but my others got wet in the river, where I came down on the parachute. Mr. Howell fixed me up with this blanket.”
Dr. Cline touched her forehead, felt her pulse, and made a face. His men put the stretcher down, lifted her on it, and carried her out. As they were sliding her into the ambulance I bent down and kissed her. “You get well,” I whispered.
“For you I will.”
Edgren was at the door keeping an eye on me. As soon as the ambulance drove off, I went back with him. “OK,” he said. “Start at the beginning.”
“Not much to tell. Howeverâ”
So I told it, beginning with Mom's waking me up, the walk to the water's edge, the argument there with Shaw, my trip up to the landing, my paddling down in the boat, my order to drop the gun, the shot he took at me, and the one I took at him. “That killed him, at least, I think it did. I didn't look, but I imagine my mother did. You can talk to her about it.”
“When was this?”
“Little after five. Twenty after, I'd say.”
He opened a notebook and glanced at it. “You called us at six after six.”
“Something like that, yes.”
“What took you so long? What were you waiting for?”
“I had that girl on my hands. She was in awful shape from the cold after coming down in the water, fright from his holding that gun to her head, and shock at seeing him killed. First things first. She was important. He could wait.”
“Your mother was there, you say?”
“Why couldn't she have called?”
“She was looking for the money.”
“The money the airline put up. That was put in a zipper bag with straps to go over his shoulder, so it said on TV. That he had on himâthat he must have had on himâwhen he jumped with that parachute.”
“What she have to do with it?”
“She wanted to claim the reward.”
“Sergeant Edgren, from what the girl had told her, the water took everything when they came down in the riverâhis hat, coat, shoes, the girl's shoesâeverything they had, including, of course, the money. But my mother thought it just might have floated after he threw off the strap, after he swam to the island, and that if she got going real quick, if she rowed out there and looked, she might be able to grab it before it sank, before it got waterlogged, or got knocked to pieces below, going over the dam. So you can't call from a johnboat. So that's why she left it to me.”
“She find it?”
“I'm sorry to say, she didn't.”
“Where's he at now?”
“Where he fellâon the island.”
I led them around the house and down the path to the boat. “That's him,” I said, pointing. “Over there in the bushes.”
I offered to row him out, but he motioned to Mantle who pushed the boat in. Then the two of themâEdgren in the stern, Mantle at the oarsârowed out to have a look. “OK,” he told Mantle. “Load your camera. You got work to do.” Mantle snapped film into his camera, then got busy, shooting pictures of the corpse, measuring with a steel tape Mantle had on a spool, taking note of the trampled underbrush, and so on. Then Mantle called to me, wanting to know where I had been, “when you fired the shot that killed him.”
“I'll show you.”
They rowed to shore again, and I stepped in the bow of the boat. Mantle headed downstream, then to the island's far side. I had him pull for the tree and caught it, just as I had before, and pulled the boat in to jam it, exactly the same way. All three of us got out and headed for the stump where I'd picked up Jill, which was four or five feet from the corpse. Mantle spotted a twig, a fresh one on top of a bush, and looked at it with a glass. Then he wrapped it in a Kleenex and put it in his pocket. “I think,” I said, “it was cut off the tree by his shot.”
“That's right,” he agreed. “It's important. More or less proves you shot in self-defense.”
The three of us got in the boat again and rowed back to the bank. Edgren said: “I broke Shaw's gun, found one empty shell in the chamber. The rest of it, one twig cut off the tree, apparently by his bullet, corresponds with what Howell said.”