Authors: Gil Brewer
The first time I saw her
she was sitting on the edge of a deserted wharf. The warm swamp air was tugging at her thin cotton dress.
She was a fused explosion, a direct hit. Everything about her was boldly evident. It was like being struck—hot and hard.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
I told her.
“There’s absolutely nobody around here,” she said. “Isn’t that nice?”
“Then why are you here?”
“Waiting,” she said. “Would you like something?” She stood there watching me. The blue eyes grew darker and darker. “Well?”
She laughed quietly. She looked at me. “Why pretend?”
“I’ll be damned …”
“Yes,” she said. She lifted one hand and her fingers slowly unbuttoned the thin cotton dress down the front.
“Well?” she said again …
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I called her name, it was as if only the faint odor of her perfume occupied the urgent darkness of the house.
I swore softly. The electric traveler’s clock hummed on the living-room desk. Out in the kitchen, the refrigerator surged to life with a nervous shudder.
Sometimes when I came home late from the shop she would be napping with the lights out. I left the front door, went into the bedroom and flipped the wall switch.
The bed, with its frilled midnight-blue spread that had cost $79.95, was empty and untouched.
Hot and worried as I was, I still didn’t dare think. The whisky was pretty well burned out of me, but a headache had started pounding along the temples. It was like a small voice whispering,
“No. No. No.”
I knew if she had phoned the printing shop, I’d have heard the ring. I stared at that damned bed. The bed of the damned. Why in Christ’s name had I gone back to the shop to sleep it off? Why had I got drunk? Why hadn’t I come home?
I turned toward the kitchen.
I heard myself laugh with my mouth closed, and as the chill glare of neon quivered bright, I saw the remains of a half-eaten bologna sandwich on the white enamel table. Under a brimming cup of cold coffee, a gray-black caterpillar of cigarette ash curled over the saucer’s edge. Moving closer, I dipped a finger into the coffee and the caterpillar shattered. The coffee wasn’t even lukewarm.
I stood there saying her name.
My head cleared a little. But inside my chest, something began to break.
In the living room, I snapped on the floor lamp by the console. Something was wrong. Oh, sweet yes, yes, yes. It was as if there were something I should recall.
My head was throbbing.
I had assured her this noon at lunch downtown that we weren’t going through with the robbery. Her crazy plan for falsifying errors on the monthly books at Braddock & Courtland, where she worked, then staying overtime and getting Ray Jefferies out of the office, away from the safe, so I could come in and help her—the whole damned thing was cockeyed and wrong.
She’d had me blind. But angry as she was, she knew I meant it.
I started for the phone and saw the sheet of paper. Pale blue with a modest silver border. Evis’s special stationery. I reached out for it, hoping it wouldn’t sting.
Well, Sullivan, I thought, she couldn’t take being told, “No!” You got her mad. You always knew it would happen. You love her, but that’s not enough.
I read the long, slanting handwriting in amber ink:
So sorry I missed you at supper, but I was in a fearful rush, anyway, so it probably doesn’t matter.
I’ll be working overtime tonight. It seems there’s some sort of error in monthly totals. But I won’t bother you with that. Pick me up around eight-thirty. I should be through by then.
See you, honey.
I began to curse her, and myself, too. Rooted there, staring at her fine little note, I was going off in all directions.
Telephoning wouldn’t be enough. She was willful, overwrought, and, I knew now, a little crazy in a lot of ways. I had to reach her, stop her before she did this thing. The little trigger in her brain that should scare her about the Law was missing.
I loved her for that, too. I loved her, even knowing what she was.
It wasn’t eight o’clock yet. Maybe there was time.
• • •
I left the house lighted and went to the garage. The car was gone. So how was I supposed to pick her up? I whirled and ran down the gravel and out across the turfy muck of soaking lawn where she’d forgotten—or refused—to turn off the sprinklers all day. I started running on down the block toward the business section of town.
An orange city bus crept by, hissing through the gears. I didn’t hail it. It would take longer than if I went by foot. Then I spotted the yellow-striped gleam of a cruising cab as it passed slowly under a streetlight. I let go with a shrill whistle.
The cab slowed and stopped, then turned and sped toward me as I stepped into the street.
The ride downtown was slow nightmare, touched with mental pictures of her. My wife, who refused herself the privilege of thought, who did things just on instinct—do it while it’s hot!
And the driver wouldn’t hurry. He’d had trouble with the police three days before. “Took all the chances I reckon I’m going to,” he said. “Everybody’s in a hurry. You want out, okay—get another cab. They know it’s against the rules—but they’re always in a hurry.”
“Just get me there.”
“Yeah. Even going to the supermarket. Give you a ten spot, this guy says. I don’t want no ten spot, I says. Take it, anyways, he says—just get me out there before they close, see?”
I had him let me out in the middle of the same block as the loan association office where she worked. The Braddock & Courtland sign winked dismally on the corner, yellow neon against black. I hurried up the street into a light Florida wind.
I felt as if I were holding the whole thing in my hands, with it writhing and twisting and snapping like a tightly compressed steel spring.
The sky over the city was a smoking tent tonight, deeply blended with reds and grays, and you could smell the salt coming in over the tide flats among the keys in Tampa Bay, clear from the Gulf of Mexico.
Venetian blinds were drawn across the front plate-glass windows. The black and gold lettering of Braddock & Courtland stood out against the white of the blinds, glowing in the light from the winking sign above the door.
I tried the door and it slowly opened. Dim saffron shone from the rear, beyond the gleaming battery of filing cabinets, the old squat desks and hooded typewriters, and the long sidings of wooden counters.
Perhaps the original lure of the thing had been the association’s fault; the old and established furnishings out of touch with modern security, clinging to yesterday’s tradition and deploring today’s chrome and steel and thiefproof equipment. Braddock & Courtland was like a fading tintype.
“Evis?” I called. “Ray! Ray Jefferies?”
Wooden floors, uncovered. You could feel the shallow depths of myriad feet, worn into the planks. The chest-high counters with wooden barricades, and basket-weave, cages, like some village bank out of a Western movie. Old—too old. There was a smell of ancient oiled wood and drying paper, and of many yesterday’s.
I left the front office and reception area, walked through the creaking swing gate, and approached the private partitions. I passed on down the dimly lighted hallway to the rear cubicle where the cement-walled safe stood—where Evis and Jefferies would be working.
There was no sound at all.
Pale white neon light spilled through the open door.
Light spilled across Ray Jefferies’ twisted features. He lay in a grotesque sprawl on the threshold. His eyes looked shocked, the corners of his lips somehow touched with humor—startled humor. The gold tie clip he always wore winked slyly. He might have been running when it happened. There was a round, blood-clotted hole in the side of his neck and he was dead.
Right then, maybe I died, too. The whole thing was one great big thunderclap over my head.
“Evis,” I heard myself say.
She had done it—it was over.
The side door across the office beyond her desk moved gently in a very gentle wind.
in Jefferies’ neck wasn’t the only one. I crouched beside him, felt his pulse. I knew he was dead, but somehow you keep hoping, and somehow you don’t really believe it.
Jefferies looked like a collapsed giant, as if Death had been a battering ram that knocked him sprawling into the ever-motionless dark.
There were two holes in his back under his left shoulderblade. The blood had sopped in circles on his white shirt, quickly coagulating. He had bled little. It must have been mostly internal. The eyes accused me with cold, half-lidded despair.
There was a tight trembling in the muscles of my shoulders as I knelt there beside the body. Everything seemed to blank out.
Something like this had to happen; she had to do
. The warning had been there and I’d denied it.
For stretched moments you don’t think. You just exist in time, still swimming in the agonized solution, trying to keep your head up, and hers, too.
Then you begin to act. But thickly—strained.
Against the baseboard, on the floor, not far from Jefferies’ outflung right hand, was a crumpled, soaking cardboard box and two waxed cardboard containers. A spreading stain of coffee gleamed dully on the floor. The wood had soaked it up. The cups were crumpled where they had struck.
He’d been shot returning with the coffee.
The office door closed gently.
I came to my feet, ready to run—wanting to run.
Fear stepped into the room and watched me. I went for the safe. It stood head-high and nearly flush with the wall, in a bed of concrete. That concrete had been a great help. The safe door was open. A litter of papers was spilled on the floor. I checked inside the safe. There was no money box. The place where it had once fitted was a yawning hole.
I went to her desk, feeling lightheaded, not wanting to believe any of it.
The desk had been neatly arranged. It had that ready-for-tomorrow’s-work look. The typewriter was covered with its gray plastic sheath. The chair was set tight against the desk. The memoranda pad was clean.
I knew I shouldn’t hang around. My breathing was short and there was the compulsive need to find Evis—to help her.
Jefferies’ desk was a jumbled mass of books and papers, ledgers, worksheets, lists and figures. His ashtray was overloaded with butts. The green-shaded desk light still gleamed brightly.
I picked up a sheet of paper from his chair:
Ray—I finished up while you were out for the coffee. I’ve a simply horrible headache—took a cab.
Tell Lee, because he’s coming to pick me up here, will you? He should be along any minute with the car, but I simply couldn’t wait. ‘Night.
I forced myself to read it over again. Then I dropped it back on the chair.
coming to pick me up here … should be along any minute with the car …”
It was like poison, knowing she had written that.
There were fine connotations to her words. She had the car—I didn’t. What in God’s name did she think she was doing?
I’d forgotten the dead man over there on the floor, very likely murdered by my wife. Only all the evidence, so far, pointed to me.
I backed slowly away from the desk and my heel settled on something soft and heavy. It was a crumpled jacket on the floor by the door, wadded into a ball. I grabbed it up and something rolled heavily inside and fell with a rattling crack onto the worn boards.
A .38 automatic wrapped in the heavy cloth. The litter of murder. The jacket stank of exploded powder and scorched cloth. There was a black hole in the back cutting through cloth and lining. It had been used as a makeshift silencer. Then I realized the jacket was mine.
I hadn’t worn it in months. I remembered how it had hung in the hall closet at our house since late last fall. A light gray tweed.
I laid the jacket across her desk and stepped again over to the body.
How would the Law read this? Panic scratched at the back of my neck with sharp nails. What was I going to do?
The silence began to work on me.
I stood with my feet close to Jefferies’ dead face and stared across the hallway, through the open door of the next office, at the Venetian blinds on the far windows, and saw a face.
The blinds were not completely closed and a white face with dark eyes peered in at me. The eyes blinked, then stared. Whoever it was could see the body lying there, and me, from head to toe. Even as I looked, the face turned and vanished. I heard the pounding rush of feet along the sidewalk.
It had been a man’s face and he’d seen me clearly.
I left the rear door of the office that led into the parking area. I saw the convertible. My car.
It was parked in against the jutting wall of the next office building, in a neatly marked area of whitewashed diagonal lines. A sign read:
Office Personnel Only
. In front of the car another small sign read:
Why leave the car here?
I went over and dodged beneath the wheel. The keys dangled in the ignition. I started the car and backed swiftly out of there and drove as fast as I dared on down the alley away from the office. I came out on sixth, turned toward Mirror Lake and cut over around the Public Library.
My palms were slick on the wheel and my shoulders and arms ached from strain. My jaws were tight together, teeth clamped. I tried to relax, but couldn’t. It was as if my whole body were in some kind of tight cramp. I drove more slowly, out around Tomlinson Technical Institute, past the Shuffleboard Courts crowded with tourists, on past gleaming cars, trying to find some peace to hang onto. There wasn’t any left.
Evis had done this.
She’d more than gone through with the thing. She’d added to it. Jefferies must have surprised her. And she killed him. Only where did she get the gun? And why? She had come prepared. At least it looked that way.
Jefferies was dead. The money was gone. She was gone.
I cursed myself for not calling home right away. She might be there. I wondered if she’d gone home to try and win me over.
Because I damned well couldn’t believe she planted that office so I’d be marked guilty.
I had to find her quickly—get that money back into the safe somehow. Then it came to me how utterly futile the whole business was. A dead man back there was pointing at me.
I’d been seen.
The jacket. The note. I’d left them there.
The gun …
I pushed hard on the gas. I’d have to go back and pick up those things. Maybe it would help give me time to find her. There was the chance that the man who’d seen me wouldn’t act. Even if he did, I might be able to talk my way out of it.
It was helpless thinking. I had panicked at a time when I should have been calm.
I turned back down around Mirror Lake, under the palms, and cut along on Sixth to Central. Traffic was thick tonight, crawling along the streets like gleaming robots. I drove up Central to Ninth, turned right to the alley beyond First, and drove toward Braddock & Courtland corner.
• • •
Parked in the shadow of a wall in the alley across the County Building parking lot, I watched the police throng around the Braddock & Courtland Building and Loan Association’s office. They had acted quickly. Two gray cars, their spotlights whirling, were parked at the curb. Another prowl car drew up with a dry squeak of brakes as I watched. Three harness cops tumbled out and headed off toward the front of the building.
The man who’d seen me had put in the alarm.
By now they had the jacket, the gun, the note, and maybe a lot of things that no longer mattered.
This made the first part so simple. All I had to do was get away, stay free—and find Evis.
I drove away from there, thinking of those notes. Could she have done that to me?