Authors: Scott Phillips
Table of Contents
Wichita, Kansas December 29, 1979
To Anne, again, and to Claire, too,
with all my love
“WHEN IT COMES TO PRESENT-DAY PRACTITIONERS OF NOIR, PHILLIPS IS ONE OF THE BEST.”
“Every month much more great crime fiction is published than there
is room to mention. One that got away was Scott Phillips’s debut,
. . . . His follow-up,
is more ambitious and
equally memorable. . . . It’s a sort of sequel to
The Ice Harvest
, but it
stands nicely all by its witty, cheerfully lowlife self.”
—The Seattle Times
“What Phillips has created here is one of those rare novels that, in
terms of its subject matter and tone, looks backward with respect to
the classics of the genre from which it arose and, with its intricate
narrative structure and multilayered plot, simultaneously moves the
genre boldly forward by approaching the same old ground in
startlingly new and ingenious ways.”
“Phillips is a stylish, laconic writer and
in pulling off his merging of two time scales, never
falters for a moment. Terrific.”
“A mystery within a mystery, set in both the past and the present.
This is a hard trick to pull off, but Phillips does it extremely well. . . .
This is the second novel for Phillips; I hope there are many more,
with its unusual plot and entertaining story.”
—Times Record News
Wichita, Kansas December 29, 1979
The farmhouse hadn’t been painted since Gunther had seen it last, and curled paint chips littered the decaying wooden porch where it met the outside wall. He rapped on the door with the back of his fist and waited. A week’s worth of frozen newspapers lay in various spots between the front door and the steps, still folded with rigid, brittle rubber bands around their middles. He picked up yesterday’s, which he’d missed. The headline was below the fold:
TWO SOUGHT IN STRIP CLUB SLAYINGS
Pair Were Associates of Victims
He skimmed the article until a tiny old man opened the door and squinted up at him. His clothes were dirty and too big for him. “Yes sir?”
“Mr. Carswell, I’m Gunther Fahnstiel. Remember me?”
“Sally’s friend. Uh-huh.”
“My old dog Pal died and I’d like to bury him out near the quarry, he liked hunting out there so much.”
“Uh-huh. You ain’t been out here hunting in a while, have you?”
“Been a while, yeah.” Twenty-five years, in fact, but he didn’t say that. “Pal was a real old dog.”
“How’s the girls doing?”
For a second Gunther thought he meant his daughters, both of them married and in their forties now, then realized Carswell wanted to know about the girls from the cabin.
“Sally’s off in Cottonwood, got married a few years ago. Frieda got into some trouble with narcotics and went to jail for a couple years at least, never heard what happened to her after that. Sonya and her husband moved away somewhere, KC or St. Louis maybe, about sixty or sixty-one. Last I heard she was going to try and set up a raffle there.”
“How about Lynn?”
He’d been hoping the old man wouldn’t ask about Lynn. “Shot herself in sixty-seven. Something to do with a fellow she was going with. That’s what I heard anyway.”
Carswell nodded sadly, whether at Lynn’s sad end or at his own sorrow at not having them around his place weekends anymore. “Go ahead if you want,” he said. “It’s hard digging out there, you know. Especially when it’s frozen.”
“Rented a backhoe.”
“You want to come in out of that cold for a minute or you want to get started digging?”
Just standing on the porch the stench from inside was enough to get Gunther breathing through his mouth. “Better get started, I guess. Thanks.”
He stepped off the porch, and Carswell shut the door behind him; if he thought there was anything strange in burying an old hunting dog with a backhoe in a gravel pit he didn’t show it. Gunther really had a dog named Pal once, back before he got married for the first time; Pal was buried in back of his mother’s old house on Emporia, unless someone had uncovered him landscaping or putting in sprinklers in the intervening fifty years. That burial had required only ten minutes and a shovel.
Crossing over the rise behind Carswell’s house he hiked back through the brittle, three-day-old crust of snow to the quarry where the backhoe sat waiting to be unloaded from the truck bed. The cabin’s foundation was still there, marked by a crumbling stone chimney and half a charred beam standing out black against the white ground.
He opened the splintered wooden lid of the duck blind. It stank the way a duck blind usually does and from the body inside it, too, despite the cold. He pulled out the briefcase first and set it down, then climbed down into the blind. He got hold of the canvas and gave it a good heave. It went halfway up, bent over at the middle; he got under it and shoved it up the rest of the way.
He picked a spot in the gravel and unloaded the backhoe. Even with the instructions the rental man had given him it took him three hours to get the hang of it. When the hole was finally dug he rolled the canvas package into it, mumbling an apology of sorts to the man it contained, and then filled it up again.
He put the briefcase into the cab of the truck and opened it. He spent a minute or so looking at the money; he didn’t count it, and when he snapped the case shut he knew for sure he was keeping it. He got out, loaded the backhoe onto the bed and secured it. Then he drove down the old familiar path to the county road, the truck bumping and jolting all the way. He didn’t suppose he’d ever see the place again, and that was all right with him.
This was the day the barber came to Lake Vista to give the old men haircuts, but Gunther wasn’t there to take advantage of it. If he’d been thinking about it he would have stayed around another day; as it was, he had become so preoccupied by the missed haircut that he decided he had no other choice but to part with the three-fifty or four dollars or whatever it was up to by now. Wincing at the thought, he touched his right hand to the back of his neck and pinched a lock between his thumb and forefinger to get a sense of its length. No, a haircut was the first order of business. Another week and it’d start to curl.
Walking west up the street, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows and his clothes damp and heavy with sweat, he saw very little that was familiar to him; most of the buildings he knew had either been torn down entirely or taken over by new businesses, and he was slightly cheered to see Ray and Cal’s battered old barber pole rotating placidly on the rough orange brick wall next to what had always been Simmons’s watch repair shop, occupied now by a forlorn and unhygienic-looking frozen yogurt store. He watched it turn for a minute, its red and blue stripes faded to pink and baby blue, then yanked open the door and stuck his head through it into the yogurt shop for a moment, startling the morose teen manning the counter.
The boy regarded him with mute wonder, as though the arrival of a potential customer was the most puzzling development of his day so far. Gunther looked the place over disapprovingly, the sweat on his face and neck and in his hair going cold in the breeze from the ancient box air conditioner buzzing and rattling in the window behind the counter. The yogurt store couldn’t have been there long, but with its bare walls and the worn-smooth Formica countertop left over from the watch repair shop, the air inside it was already thick with failure. He knew there would be no point in asking the kid what had become of old Simmons, so without a word he slammed the door shut and descended the half flight of concrete steps to the barber shop.
Inside it was way too bright. Half a story underground, Ray and Cal’s had always been gloomy, even by barbershop standards. Now the dark wood paneling had been pulled down, the walls painted a pastel yellow, and the dim incandescent lighting overhead had been replaced with fluorescent tubes, which were also mounted around the frames of the mirrors. Two women and one young man were stationed behind the chairs, and all three of the customers were women, their clothes protected by shiny plastic sheets of dark gray. Gunther had never seen a woman in Ray and Cal’s before. All six of them looked at him expectantly, and the young man’s eyes narrowed.
“You’re going to have to leave now, okay, sir? I’m very sorry,” he said, stepping out from behind his chair and, for the benefit of the women, making a show of taking charge of the situation.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“I’m very sorry.” He was young, thirty or less, and when he put his hand on Gunther’s shoulder Gunther removed it calmly and deliberately, his eyes locked on the young man’s, gauging his resolve. The young man took a step away from him without making another attempt.
“Where’s Ray and Cal? I need a haircut.”
“I don’t know who you’re talking about, sir. Now as I said, you’re going to have to go.” The young man’s voice was artificially low and soothing like a goddamn orderly’s, and the tone made Gunther want to smash him one right in the snotlocker.
“Wait a sec, Curt.” The older of the two lady barbers spoke up. Her face was pretty and her eyes friendly, but her graying hair was shaved close on the sides like a man’s, and the combination made Gunther vaguely uneasy. “Ray passed away a couple of years ago, sir.”
“Oh. Sorry to hear that.”
“Cal’s still around, though, out at the Masonic home.”
“I don’t think so. Just living there.”
“What do you know. So it’s a beauty salon now, huh?” He looked the young man up and down. He didn’t seem to Gunther like a fairy, but you couldn’t really tell anymore just by looking.
“No, sir, it’s unisex,” she said, and the word threw Gunther off for a second. “I’ll be glad to cut your hair if you like. I’m almost done here and my two-thirty canceled on me.” The woman sitting in the chair in front of her stared at Gunther, in curiosity more than annoyance at the interruption of her haircut. He took a good look at her for the first time, a tall, plumpish woman of forty or forty-five with large, dark eyes; short, wet hair; and a lot of makeup. Her legs were so long they stuck out from under the plastic sheet a good six inches above the knee, and she reminded Gunther of somebody he couldn’t quite place but was pretty sure he liked. He was staring back at her so intently he forgot to answer.
“Sir?” The lady barber’s voice was louder this time, but he still didn’t answer. He tilted his head to the left, trying to think of who she reminded him of. One of the nurses? An old girlfriend, maybe, or a teacher from school? No, he never saw any of his teachers’ legs up that far, not in those days. She sure had long ones.
“Oh . . . my . . . god,” said the other lady barber, stifling a laugh. “The old bastard’s getting a hard-on.”
Gunther looked down and was surprised to see that this was so.
“All right, pal, enough’s enough. Let’s go.” Curt’s voice had lost its unctuousness, and Gunther resented him a little less for it.
“I’m going.” He turned and pulled the door open. “Sorry I was staring at you, ma’am. You look like somebody I used to know.”
No one spoke as he left. Once the door closed he stood for a minute or so at the foot of the concrete steps, waiting for his erection to deflate. It was his first in a while and he was sorry to see it go.
A quarter mile or so up the road he stopped at a pay phone in front of a Stop ’n’ Rob. In the Yellow Pages under “Hair” he found a listing for Harry’s Barber Shop, which sounded like the kind of place where he’d be safe from any lady barbers or customers. It was about two miles west, close enough to get there before the end of the afternoon if he hurried, so he tore out the page and started walking again. He thought about going into the store for a soda, but his cash was tight and he hated to pay convenience store prices. He wasn’t all that thirsty anyway. It was humid without being overwhelmingly hot, the sky was a dark, orangy gray, and sniffing the warm afternoon air he could smell rain before sundown. If he made it to Harry’s Barber Shop in time he might be able to wait out the storm there.
It felt good to be outside and unsupervised. Earlier he’d been thinking how much simpler things would be if he were in a car, but he was happy now to be on foot and decided he wouldn’t even mind being rained on a little, as long as there wasn’t any lightning. As he got closer to the center of town the proportion of familiar, intact landmarks began to increase. He passed a used car lot where he’d once bought a 1946 Hudson Super Six with 35,000 miles on it that had ground to a permanent halt less than two years later as a result, his third wife had insisted, of his never having once changed its oil. Gunther had never known or cared much about cars, and he maintained that the postwar models didn’t need their oil changed all that often; the ensuing fight had been one of the marriage’s last. He wasn’t sure what had become of her after she remarried and he didn’t have to send her any more alimony. He didn’t know what had happened to his first wife either; the one in between them was the mother of his two daughters, and they’d kept in touch over the years through the girls and the grandchildren. She lived up north somewhere, he thought, or maybe she’d died.
A couple of doors farther west was a diner with thin plaques of fake marble mortared to its brick facade. Through the plate glass he saw a waitress he recognized, bored and loitering next to the cash register. She was a lot heavier now, her face gone round and slack with deep creases running from her nostrils to her mouth, but her hair was as thick and luxuriant and black as the last time he’d seen her. She gave a little start at the sight of him and beckoned him to come inside. Eager as he was to get to the barber shop before it closed for the day, he figured he had time for a cup of coffee.
“Gunther!” She had him in a bear hug as soon as he got through the door, and feeling her warm and soft against him Gunther couldn’t help thinking that her increased girth was probably a good thing. “How long’s it been? Long time, seems to me. Hey, Jimbo, get out here and see who it is.” When she turned her face away from him to yell at the kitchen he snuck a glance at the name tag pinned to the polyester above her substantial left breast: IRMA. That seemed right.
A tiny, wizened man, who looked decades older than Gunther felt, came out of the kitchen scowling and wiping his hands. He brightened at the sight of Gunther and held out his hand to shake.
“Well, I’ll be dipped in shit. What’s a penny made of, copper?”
It was only at the familiar salutation that he recognized the old man as the diner’s proprietor, about a foot shorter and thirty pounds skinnier than Gunther remembered him, as though a good part of his physical being had been siphoned off into Irma. “How you been, Jimmy?”
“I been getting older. Looks like you have, too.”
“Sit down and have something,” Irma said.
“Guess I got time for a cup of coffee,” he said, taking the stool nearest the register. The stools looked new, and in fact most of the fixtures seemed to have been replaced since he’d been in last. Shiny chrome along and behind the counter, new Naugahyde on the booths and stool tops, unscarred red-and-white checkerboard linoleum on the floor. He wondered where Jimmy had come up with the money for a remodel; there wasn’t another customer in the place.
“Have something to eat if you want.”
“I just had lunch,” he said, though in fact he hadn’t eaten since breakfast, some fruit salad he could tell was from a can and part of one of those pressed sawdust oat muffins they gave the old folks to make sure they all crapped like clockwork.
She poured him some coffee. “I’ll make a fresh pot for you here in a sec. So how’s old Dorothy?” Jim went back into the kitchen.
“She’s fine,” he said.
“Give her my best. You’ll have to bring her in some time.”
“So how long since we’ve seen you?”
“Not long after I retired, probably.”
“So I guess that means you didn’t know Jim and I got married?” She held up her left hand, palm inward, to show off a wedding band and what looked to Gunther like a pretty expensive engagement ring. Jimmy must have been squirreling it away for years, unless he was just spending himself into the poorhouse out of love.
“Thanks. It was a long time in coming, I’ll tell you that. Look, we even changed the name.” She held up a menu with “Jim and Irma’s” printed on the cover. “We had to throw out all kinds of menus and pens and guest checks marked ‘Jim’s,’ ” she said, and she pulled a framed photo off the wall behind the counter and handed it to Gunther. It was a wedding picture with Jim and Irma surrounded by a group of children ranging in age from toddler to about ten.
“Nice-looking bunch of kids.”
“Three of ’em are mine by my oldest daughter Nina, the others are Jim’s son’s kids. You got any grandkids?”
“Six, all of ’em grown,” he said, though it was a guess. It was close to that anyway. “One or two got kids of their own now.” He found himself distracted by the smell of frying onions.
“You don’t have a picture to show me, do you?”
He reached for his wallet, thinking he didn’t. Inside, though, were pictures of a little boy and girl of about five, taken separately, and another of the little boy, slightly older, with a girl of about two. There were also high school pictures of two other girls and another boy. He pulled them out one by one and gave them to Irma.
“The one girl’s my granddaughter Cynthia’s first, Cynthia’s expecting her second in November. The brother and sister are my other granddaughter Tammy’s. My grandson Steve isn’t married yet, but there’s nothing wrong with him. These three older ones are Tricia and Amy, and the boy’s Danny. They’re Dot’s boy Sidney’s kids. None of them’s done with school yet.” The litany of names and relationships had poured out so fast and effortlessly he wondered where it had come from. For the first time since he’d left it occurred to him that people might be worried about him.
Irma studied the photographs with great interest as she emptied his coffee cup and refilled it from the fresh pot. “They’re beautiful, Gunther.”
“Yeah.” He took a sip of hot coffee. It was the first caffeine he’d had in a long time, and he could feel himself starting to get a little jittery by the time Jimmy came out from the kitchen holding a plate with a cheeseburger and fries on it.
“Told you I didn’t want anything to eat.”
“I was going to throw these fries out anyway, and you never used to come in here without eating a cheeseburger.” He set it down in front of Gunther, who was too hungry to be stubborn.
“I’d hate to see it go to waste,” he said. He poured some ketchup onto the plate for the fries, then some more onto the onions on top of the patty and took a big bite out of it. Jimmy’s had never been his burger of choice, but this was better by a long shot than any he’d had since taking up residence at Lake Vista, and five minutes later burger and fries were a memory.
“You sure you don’t want something for dessert, Gunther? Piece of pie, maybe?”
“Guess I’d better not.” He took another sip of his coffee and took out his wallet as he got up off the stool. “Going to get my hair cut this afternoon.”
Just a block farther was a bar he knew from an armed robbery one afternoon in the late sixties when the owner had gunned down the would-be thief, who turned out to be armed only with a starter’s pistol. Gunther remembered congratulating him, both of them marveling at the poor dead shit-for-brains on the floor next to them trying to rob a bar in midafternoon on a Tuesday, when the till must have had less than twenty-five dollars in it. Peering into the dark, empty bar through the glass pane set in its front door, he was trying to remember the owner’s name and coming up blank when he heard the horn honking behind him. He turned to see a late-model silver Caddy pulling over to the curb, its passenger-side window rolling smoothly and effortlessly down. The driver scooted over to lean out the window.