Blonde Bait by Ed Lacy – Chapter 5

Blonde Bait by Ed Lacy
Chapter 5

“I was down on my luck in Philly. Way down and a couple hundred bucks in debt. Finally I landed a strip in a two-bit night club. Some club. It was really a crummy bar with a few tables and a junkie piano player who’d been lost in orbit before they invented satellites. It was the kind of dump where I had to use the owner’s office for my dressing room. At the end of the first week he paid me off with a rubber check so we worked out a deal where I would strip only on weekends and work as a barmaid the rest of the time—with a cash pay-off every night. Along with the tips I was doing kind of fair, averaging about a hundred a week. I planned on holding down the bar for a few months, until I got straight with my debts. It was a break for the owner; business picked up. Most of the customers had seen me strip and told their friends. Somehow they got a bang having me serve them drinks. You know how it was, the joint full of whispered snickers and X-ray eyes all the time.

“Well, the owner had me wearing a low-cut dress, one of those bare shoulder deals that made the lads jump when I bent over to put their drinks down. Only the bar was in line with the door and about ten days later I caught a cold, soon I was in bed with a fever. Then I heard the owner had lost his cabaret license because entertainers aren’t supposed to work in the joint, too. So I was back to being out of work again, only this time I was sick enough to die and stuck in a flea-bag hotel. Josef came up to see me, the only person who gave a damn. He took care of me, sent up a doc, and…”

“Who’s Joseph?”

“Josef, not Joseph. Josef Fedor. He was a guy about forty-five or fifty who…”

“Was?”

Rose gave me an annoyed look. “Yes—was. He was a stocky, kind of squat man, a quiet fellow with a large head and weird bushy grey hair that stood straight up. One of his eyes looked odd—later I learned it had been shot out and he was wearing a glass one. He was a foreigner who spoke with a thick accent and hung around the bar every night, sipping wine, watching the other regulars as though it was all a show. He chain-smoked cigarettes in a little gold holder. He wore a European suit and overcoat, with belts in the back, and heavy shoes. Never did more than nod at me, or slip me a buck tip at the end of the night, that’s why I was surprised when he came to see me. But then, he was full of surprises. One night he sat at the piano and played like he was on the concert stage. When one of the bar-lushes yelled for jazz, he played a real hot piano, too. Yet no matter how often he was coaxed he’d never play again—at the bar.

“He was a mixture of charm, manners, and toughness. Like one night in the bar a clown made cracks about foreigners getting all the jobs here. You know how any sort of stuff can build up in a gin mill. It started as a joke but the clown began getting nasty and then Josef knocked him flat with a terrible punch. Okay, most guys would have left it at that. But Josef gets this funny look in his good eye. He picked a beer bottle off the bar, broke it, and damn near stabbed the unconscious guy in the guts. The bouncer got to Josef first. The bouncer was an ex-pug, bigger than you, and at least a foot taller than Josef. He clipped Josef on the chin and Josef used Judo or something, threw him clear across the room. Then he stood in the center of the joint, muttering something nobody could understand—the broken bottle still in his right hand as if challenging the whole crowd. A cop came in with his gun out. Cool as ice, Josef walked over and shoved the broken bottle over the barrel of the cop’s pistol. Then he stood there, waiting, this crazy smile on his big face. When the cop yelled for him to get his hands up, Josef took his time, even gave the cop a mock bow, and let the policeman frisk him. He was packing a gun on his hip, too, a very small automatic. More cops came and they took him away, but within the hour Josef was back at his usual place at the bar, drinking his wine as if nothing had happened. He was one tough little son of a…”

“This Josef your husband?”

“Aha. I told you he had this kind of charm about him, like bothering to see me when he heard I was sick. And he was generous, took care of my bills. When I was well, I moved into his room—in another cheap hotel. A week later he woke up one afternoon, said he was headed for Chicago, did I want to go? It always took me a while to understand his broken English, but I said yes damn fast. I hardly had any choice. Then he gave me a speech with a smile, a line about conventions and moral hypocrisy in America, and ended with saying if I wanted to marry him, he would do it. I told you, he was a surprise bag. I couldn’t see what I had to lose and we were married. Although I always had the feeling nothing mattered a heavy damn to him, and he probably had wives all over the world.

“We found a small furnished apartment in Chicago and I saw another side of Josef, he was a master with wood. He made a complete dinette set for us, as good as anything in a store. Or while he’d be listening to the radio—we never had a TV set—he’d start whittling on some old hunk of wood and soon have a chain, or perhaps a figure of a…”

“What did he do for pork chops?” I cut in.

Rose shrugged. “He didn’t work. He’d sit around all day and read these foreign papers, and my Lord, he could speak enough languages, but not English. He used to have a lot of dizzy pet names for me. ‘Mila,’ and ‘liebling.’ I never knew what they meant. Josef wasn’t a big spender but seemed to have ready money. I never saw him go to a bank or receive any mail; he carried his green in a money belt. I don’t know where he got it.”

“Didn’t you ever ask?”

“Yes, One day, after we were married, I did ask. In his busted English he told me, ‘Grosser blondine, I have done too much work in life already. I am retired from this crazy world.’ Of course I asked what he used to do, what he had retired from? He knocked me down with an open hand slap. I flip when a man roughs me up. I went at him with a pair of scissors that happened to be on the table. The next thing I knew he’d dropped me hard on the floor and was holding the scissors. He was kneeling beside me, smiling kind of odd—like that time in the bar; he put the scissors near my throat. I was too scared to say a word. He said, ‘You are brave, liebling, not a cry. I am an expert at slicing. Never make me angry again. I am not a beast unless I am pressed. As we all are.’ I never asked again and that was the last and only time he hit me; I got that message to him. The weird part is, he was talking pretty good English then.”

Rose stood to light a new cigarette. I watched her move in the faint light. “Why did you stay with him?”

“I knew exactly what I was to Josef, merely a gal to have around. But what would I leave him for? For men to make big-eyes at my body in some filthy night club? Was that any different? And if Josef acted loony at times, living with him was easier than scratching for a job. He was a good thing.” She turned toward me. “Does it shock you to hear me say that?”

“No.” I wondered if, in a sense, she was merely something very beautiful to have around for me too. But how many jokers ever have anything beautiful around?

“Yes it does, Mickey, I see it on your face. I’m glad, I want it to shock you because that life is over for me. I have plenty of good years left for you.”

“Okay, it does shock me,” I said, because she wanted to hear it. “Now tell me about Josef.”

Rose sat on the foot of the bed, her figure in silhouette against the light of the doorway, slowly smoking the cigarette. “There isn’t much to tell, I never was able to know him. He carried a gun at times, yet he wasn’t any racketeer or punk. He was tough and had been through a lot… had scars all over his body of nasty looking wounds. On one shoulder there was a tattoo of a tiny blue and yellow bird. It was pretty. He told me it had been done in Indochina. Josef had an odd build. His legs and hips were nothing but he had a powerful chest and shoulders, arms bigger than yours. We slept in twin beds because he’d often get nightmares. In a whisper he would scream and curse, moan, punch the air, and wake up in a sweat. When he awoke he might start laughing, check the door lock, and maybe take a pill. I used to listen but most of what he said was in some foreign language. One name he’d repeat often was ‘Sour the German.’ Willie Sour. It was the only time he ever used a first name and I remember it because I kept thinking of sauerkraut. And there was a girl’s name, probably some Oriental chippy. He used to say her name with a sigh, so she must have been a hot number. He’d say, ‘Me-Lucy-Ah.’ But I never asked him about these people. I didn’t want to know.”

Rose crushed the cigarette in the chair ashtray, stretched out on the bed next to me. For a few minutes she didn’t speak and I thought she had dozed off. Then she said, “I want to be fair. Josef didn’t give me a hard time. Mostly he left me alone. I’d cook for him and sleep with him, and that was it. The rest of the time he’d be reading his papers, often chuckling. He might talk aloud, but rarely in English. Once he roared with laughter at something in the papers and said, ‘So they got Listro, that swine. The Devil will have a tough soul to roast now.’ But as I said, mostly he’d read or fool around with his hunks of wood. In the evening if I wanted to go to a movie, he’d take me, but he was always laughing at the wrong places. Sometimes he took me to concerts, longhaired junk. If I wanted money, or seemed bored, he would pull out ten or twenty bucks—more if I asked— and say, ‘Grosser blondine, you are restless. Buy yourself something.’

“Often we would bar-hop, but he never drank anything but wine. I never saw him loaded. Josef didn’t have any friends—neither did I—but in bars he would talk to strangers. He liked to argue about music. Once he met a guy who’d been an army officer and they talked all night in French, I guess, about wars, making diagrams on the napkins. When he was in the mood, he was a great cook. Especially in the summer. How he loved the sun! All summer we’d stay on a beach, even camp out for a night there. He couldn’t swim and didn’t care for fishing, but he loved the sun. Didn’t seem to have nightmares in the summer either. That’s when he cooked, knocking out fancy pastries like a chef.

“The January before I—saw you—we moved to New York. For no reason I knew of. I suppose he liked to be on the go and always in a big city where he could buy all those foreign papers. We rented a furnished apartment— Josef never spent money for clothes or decent rooms. In New York he started muttering to himself a great deal. Once he looked up from a paper and mumbled, ‘Ah, mila, the world is very sick. There is no peace. Sakiet makes me sad.’ I said, ‘Just tell this Sac-it-guy to leave you alone.’ Josef gave me a sad look and told me I was sick, too. About this time he started writing every night, studying maps in a cheap atlas he bought. He told me he was writing letters. I thought maybe to his Oriental chippy. He’d scratch away all night, often staring at the wall for a long time, then writing like mad. He didn’t give a damn if I was around or not. One afternoon, I ran into a small-time booking agent I knew. He had a singing job for me in a mid-town bar. I took it for something to do.

“Josef didn’t mind. He’d usually come around at about two in the morning, to sip his wine, and take me home when I’d finished. This was strictly a small time joint, no names out front or anything. I didn’t have a police work permit for New York, but the owner didn’t care. Only me and a kid who played a good organ. Josef even gave me money to buy a couple of dresses, never asked for a dime of what I made. This went on for a few months. He was writing all the time, or going to the library.

“I guess it was in May—I know it was getting warm— when I came home from shopping one afternoon and there was this little man with a completely bald head and an evil face—part of his nose had been eaten away at one time—having tea with Josef. I gathered this was Willie Sour. I also knew Josef was upset that I’d returned so soon. Sauerkraut looked like the original creep and he gave me the once-over, made some laughing crack. I didn’t have to understand the language to know what he was saying. He left a few minutes later. Josef seemed on edge. He was packing his gun again and strapped an ugly knife up his sleeve. I didn’t ask what it was about but he told me, ‘Liebling, soon I have much money. We travel far. There is nothing to worry over.’

“When I finished my midnight number I found him waiting in my dressing room—which was a part of the greasy kitchen screened off from the wino cook. Josef seemed gay but when he put his arms around me I felt the sleeve knife. He stayed in the kitchen while I went on, yakking with the cook in Italian, or something. When he took me home that night in a cab—usually he liked to walk—he asked what I was doing the next day. I told him I was going to have my hair done.” Rose paused. “I’m going into details because this is the important part.”

“Go ahead,” I said, wondering how much of what she was telling me was the truth.

“Josef asked what time I had to be at the hairdresser’s. I told him at one. You see, I think even then he was trying to make sure I’d be out of it. In the morning, he…”

“Out of what?”

“I’m coming to it—listen. He was up early the next morning. Everything seemed okay except I noticed he had packed his carving tools. He was very fond of them. He told me to leave the flat by eleven and wait at the beauty parlor for him. No matter how long it took, I was to wait there. I didn’t ask any questions. I used an hour window-shopping and having a bite. I was in the hairdresser’s by noon and read the magazines. They were done with my hair at about two and I sat around. I was bored. I’d already finished the magazines. At three-thirty I phoned the super. He had an office on the ground floor since he rented flats by the week. When I asked him to see if Josef was home, he wanted to know where I was. I told him, not realizing what a queer question it was. He said to hold the phone while he went up to look. I waited a few minutes and this radio car sirened to a stop in front of the beauty parlor and two cops came in—for me. They rushed me to a police station. Josef had been stabbed to death. I…”

“They hung it on you?” I’d always figured she was running from a murder rap.

“No! Why are you always accusing me of something?” “I just thought… it would add that way.” “The police knew exactly when Josef died—at twenty-two minutes after one in the afternoon. The super had seen a man with a deformed nose go up to our flat at a few minutes after noon when he was polishing the door brass. Then at twenty after one, as the super was talking to the mailman, they heard this brawl going on in the flat and two minutes later Josef opened the door and fell down the stairs, practically landed at their feet. He was bleeding like a pig and died as they were bending over him. A cop came a few seconds later, but the guy who did it had left by the fire-escape. Naturally the first thing they checked on was me. I could prove I was in the beauty parlor between twelve-thirty and three-thirty; a half a dozen women saw me…”

I sat up. “Then you’re in the clear! What are you running from?”

“I told you I hadn’t done anything,” Rose said coldly. “But I’m on the run. From the law. The law wants to kill me.”

“What do you mean the law wants to kill you?” “Exactly what I said. I don’t know why, but they’ve tried to murder me several times. By ‘they’ I mean the police, Johns with badges.”

“But you said they checked your alibi, knew you couldn’t have done it?”

“I keep telling you, they’re not after me for the killing. I don’t know what they want of me. You asked what I’m running from. Let me finish telling you. The cops didn’t get rough with me—at first. They not only had my alibi, but they also knew a man had done the knifing; the super hadn’t seen this guy leave our flat. The police started asking me about boyfriends, thought jealousy might be the motive. I told them how I’d met Josef, why I’d married him. Everything. All this took a couple of hours. When I thought they were finished with me, there was a good deal of whispered conversations among them, as if something entirely new had turned up. I was left alone in a dusty little room, merely a chair and me. Soon some new detectives came in, younger and better dressed than the police. They said they were from Washington. They…”

“Washington? Were they FBI?”

Rose shook her head. “I don’t know. They were just from Washington. They didn’t ask a single question about the killing, but where we’d lived, who Josef’s friends had been, even the restaurants we ate in, and what we did all day. I told them all I could, which was about what I’ve told you. When I mentioned his writing these letters the past few months they wanted to know what was in the letters and where did he keep them? Did he have much money? I gave it to them straight; that most of the time I had no idea what he was reading, saying, or writing, because it was all in this foreign tongue. I tried to help, told them about hearing Sauerkraut’s name, and this Oriental babe Josef yelled in his sleep. But these fellows kept grilling me. I became frightened. I had a headache. I knew they thought I was holding out on them. But I was telling them all I knew —or almost.”

“What do you mean, almost?” I asked.

“Well, one thing I didn’t tell anybody was about my working. Since I didn’t have a permit, why get the bar owner and myself in a jam? The job had nothing to do with Josef’s dying and once an entertainer is on the wrong police list—she’s had it. These Washington men kept hammering away at me to remember names, places. They simply refused to believe I didn’t know a thing. They drove me back to the flat and it was a bloody mess. Everything was ransacked. Then they started searching; going through the torn mattresses, pillows, even tore up the lousy flower wallpaper. The weird bit was, they never told me what they were hunting for. Finally they hauled me downtown—not to a police station but to a regular office, a big office. Without names on the doors. By this time it was night and I was so hungry I was sick. And I was mad. They started questioning me all over again about money, his friends. When I said I was starved they told me to talk and I could eat. Some of the men were tough with me, calling me a dumb blonde, a whore. Others tried to be friendly, letting me have a smoke, saying I was in a jam and to tell them everything I knew. I did, but I didn’t know whatever it was they wanted. Again, I told them the addresses we’d lived at in other cities, tried to convince them I didn’t have any friends, never saw any of Josef’s except that Sauerkraut character.

“When I said Josef carried his dough in a money belt, never had a bank account that I knew of, they told me he only had a hundred bucks on him when he died. After a time I became plain angry and kept asking if I was under arrest. Then I said I wouldn’t say another word, demanded the right to call a lawyer. Maybe ten or fifteen minutes later they suddenly said I could go. Said it like we’d just been passing the time of day. That was the start of it.”

“The start of what?”

“Of my being followed, hounded, attempts on my life. When I left their office, which was far downtown, the first thing I did was stop in a bar for a shot and a sandwich. You know how it is with a blonde, she can’t go into a bar alone without a dozen jokers thinking it’s an invitation to a rumba. I left there and took a cab back to the flat to get my clothes. A guy there flashed a fast identification card at me, or maybe it was a badge, said I couldn’t touch a thing. He was a tall, handsome guy, well set-up, but with a thin-mouthed, mean face. Seemed to me I’d seen him for a second in the offices downtown. He told me to stop acting dumb, start getting smart and work with him, that I was in real trouble. I asked what trouble I was in, how could I work with him? He pointed around the ransacked room, asked if it could still be hidden there. When I asked what was hidden, he said to cut the dumb act and yanked out a gun. He was going to shoot me, he told me so: said he’d kill me if I didn’t come clean. I was alone in the flat with him and I was scared crazy. I said it was someplace inside the kitchen oven. While he was kneeling and poking around the stove, I busted a chair over his head and ran. It was about eleven at night and I had twenty-seven dollars on me. I took a cab downtown, checked in at a small hotel. Along with the room key I got the usual stares from the slob of a clerk—a flashy blonde without baggage asking for a room for the night. I was dead tired and went right to sleep. But I kept having phone calls all night. I couldn’t sleep and was a nervous wreck by morning, so I…”

“Who was calling?”

“I’d answer and the phone would go dead. Finally I took the receiver out of its cradle, but every hour or so there would be a knock at my door and no answer when I asked who was there. I was terrified and didn’t know who to turn to. Certainly not the police. Soon as it was light I went out for breakfast and knew I was being followed. Two clucks with dick stamped all over their beefy faces. They didn’t even try to be clever about it, openly tailed me. Over coffee I read the morning papers. I expected headlines but there wasn’t a word about the killing. Returning to the hotel, the room clerk told me I had to be out by noon, hinted I was whoring.

“I tried hard to get a few hours sleep, but I was too jittery. I left at noon, still being shadowed by the flat-footed beef. I walked around, half nuts with worry. All these years I’d moved around so much, I didn’t have any friends I could turn to. A swarthy little man brushed against me right out on the street, said something I couldn’t understand. When I told him to beat it, he slapped me and ran. The two tons following me saw it all, didn’t do a damn thing. But a woman being slapped on the street drew a curious crowd and a cop came along. When I told him what had happened, he took me to a police station. A few minutes later one of the Washington guys showed and had a private talk with the desk officer. The officer came back and told me if he ever saw me in the precinct again I’d be sent up for being drunk and disorderly. Then the Washington lad got me aside and asked when I was going to stop being stubborn and cooperate? I wanted to scream I’d told them all I knew, but instead I ran out of the station house. I went into the first lawyer’s office I passed, started telling a shifty-looking little man what had happened. He thought I was crazy. While I was talking he had a phone call and then he told me to get out of his office.

“My nerves were red hot wires. I tried to shake the men following me, but I’m easy to follow, being so big. Crossing a street a car deliberately tried to run me down—came right at me and I had to jump back on the sidewalk. It was a detective car, one of those plain Fords or Chevys they use. The two men in it sure looked like dicks. I kept walking. A big guy roughed me up, walked into me so hard I nearly fell. He didn’t say a word, kept walking. I was out of my mind with fear. I went into a cafeteria to eat and couldn’t hold my food down. I had to get some sleep. I tried several hotels but by this time I was looking pretty tacky. Also I was running out of money. I’d wasted ten bucks trying to lose my shadows by changing cabs. Then I purchased some fresh under-things, changed in the ladies room of a bar. The owner of the place where I’d been working owed me a week’s pay but I didn’t know how to reach him without first shaking the beef. A guy pretending to be drunk propositioned me—right on the street. Started following me. Then he got sore and threw a punch at me. I kicked him where it did the most good and ran. There was only one thing left. I knew I had one… uh… weapon they couldn’t match.”

“What was that?” I asked, stupidly.

“Come on, don’t be dumb,” Rose said, her voice hard. “I’d read in a detective story how a crook shook the guys following him by riding in the first car of a subway train. At each station he would step out and look down the length of the train to see if anybody else got off—then he jumped out as the doors closed at an empty station. I was going to try that but I finally got a break. I had a token in my bag and the two clowns tailing me were still coming down the stairs when I made a train closing its doors. As we pulled out of the station I saw them leaping the turnstiles, flashing badges at the token seller. I got off at the next station and hid in the ladies room for a time. The platform was empty when I came out. I….”

“What’s this have to do with your secret weapon?”

Rose became mad. “You’re the one wanted to hear all this, so damn it, listen! I went up to the street, only had to stand on the corner for a few seconds. A young fellow not twenty stopped his car. My luck held, he had his own room way up in the Bronx. I spent two nights and a day with him, managed to rest and catch up on my sleep. He must have thought he was in heaven, I didn’t ask him for money or anything. He only left me to bring in food and the papers. There still wasn’t a word about Josef. While this kid was in the bathtub I scrammed, used my last dollars to taxi down to the bar where I’d worked. I was shaking as I walked in.

“The owner acted normal, wanted to know where I’d been, said the least I could have done was phoned. I told him I was sick and had to leave. He paid me the $35 I had coming. Almost as an afterthought, in fact the owner reminded me of it, I went down to the kitchen to pick up my suitcase. I used it to hold cosmetics, a wrapper, stockings, and an old dress. The bag was far too heavy. I opened it and saw all the money. I didn’t know what to do.”

“That was the first you knew of the dough?”

“Yes. I pulled out a bill and took another cab back to the kid’s room, gave him a bull yarn about I’d gone for my things. I had him drive me to Boston the next day. Poor kid, he probably lost his job, taking off all that time—but he had what he wanted. We spent the night in a flea-bag and I gave him the slip, boarded a plane to Miami. I registered at a tourist house, bought clothes and dyed my hair. I kept reading the out-of-town papers carefully. Still not a peep about the killing. I rested up for a week. I had this money—knew this was what the police had been searching for—but I was afraid to go to the cops; they’d think I’d had it all the time because I hadn’t said anything about working at the bar. I figured I’d stay put and later try to make it to Mexico. On the ninth day I was in Miami I saw a car waiting for a light—that evil-faced guy with an eaten-away nose at the wheel. I didn’t know if he’d seen me or not. I got panicky.

“I took the bus to Key West and changed my hair color again. I had a plan, a desperate one. I bought a boat and an outboard for $580. I made certain to give the boat yard owner my real name and Josef’s address in New York. I told him I wanted to do a lot of fishing. He flirted with me, warned about going out too far. I had him paint ROSE MARIE on the bow and there was a metal plate with the name of his yard in the cockpit. I took the suitcase, some food, extra gas, and asked for fishing tips. I went out to an isolated key, turned the boat over and let it drift away. I figured in a few days the authorities would think I’d drowned and in the meantime I’d be picked up by a yacht or a fishing boat and…”

“And talk the guy into taking you to Cuba,” I finished for her.

She nodded. “There it is, the truth you wanted, Mickey.” Her hand played with the muscles of my right arm, a habit of hers. “I never lied to you. I mean when we started, I put things on the table, face up. I thought I’d leave you the first time you became curious, but you never did—until now. Sure, I hardly expected things to turn out as well as this, that I would fall for you. But I’m so very glad they have!”

Rose kissed me hard and it took a small struggle to get my mind back to my spinning thoughts. Holding her close, I asked, “You think this Josef was an international crook wanted by the cops?”

“I don’t know what he was, but I’m sure the police weren’t after him. He never seemed afraid of the law.”

“At no time did they accuse you of the killing?”

Rose sat up fast. “How many times do I have to tell you no? Change your record, you’re getting me nervous.”

“Honey, when I first picked you up, or you picked me up, I had to feel you were running from the law and I didn’t give a damn. What I’m trying to do now is think the way the police must have thought. And we have to talk about this, so don’t be touchy.”

“Sorry I flew off the handle, Mickey. All the police and Washington wanted was to know where the money and his letters were. I didn’t know he’d left it in my dressing room the night before. I told you, I only went there by chance.”

“The letters must be all that writing you have with the money.”

“I suppose so. I can’t read them or…. How did you know about it?”

“Come on, Rose, it was a breeze to open that lock on the old Sea Princess.”

“That was almost a year ago. All this time… you could have taken off with the money any time you wished. You knew I couldn’t yell for the cops?”

“I didn’t wish.”

She let out a kind of shrill laugh and gave me a big kiss. “You’re the boy for me, all right! This only proves how much we love each other.” She gave me another quick kiss, slipped out of bed, and said, “Are you hungry? Can I fix anything?”

“No, but I’ll buy a few hours of shut-eye. Tell me one last bit: it seemed the Feds didn’t want you to go to a lawyer. They let you go when you mentioned calling one. Since you had nobody to turn to, why didn’t you see what a mouthpiece could have done?”

“I told you one lawyer threw me out.”

“But there are others?”

“I was flat, and lawyers mean money, especially if they’re expected to fight City Hall. After, when I found the money, I was too scared to stop running. Now you get your sleep. I’m going to take a wash-swim, read some of the papers on the boat.”

I watched her slip into an old red bathing suit, and put on her sneakers, blow me a kiss, and run out. I lay spread-eagled on the hot bed and tried to think. Was Rose handing me a snow job? It seemed that way. Still, the part about missing me, loving me, that had to be real: she’d said it before I’d asked about her past. The trouble was, her story sounded nutty—but so crazy I couldn’t see her making it up. And she didn’t have to tell me a word, could have let things stand as they were.

I went to the John and through the window screen saw Rose sunning herself on the deck of the Sea Princess, reading a newspaper. I moved the bed and raised a cracked floor board. She had the money in a fireproof metal box under the floor. Naturally I knew the combination. I took out the letters. There were about a hundred pages of ruled paper, the writing precise and stingy. Old Josef sure must have a steady hand. I couldn’t make out a word—the pages seemed to be a combination of German and some other language. I could show a single page to Ansel, he knew a few languages, see what the letters were all about. But that was risky. I thumbed through the papers and didn’t see any diagrams or figures. I had an idea it might be stuff about an invention, a new atom bomb, or something. I wrapped them back in oilskin and put the box away.

I started a cigar and went back to bed. Weird as the story was, somehow seeing the letters again clinched things. I had to go along with the idea Rose was leveling with me.

I concentrated on my cigar for a few minutes, waiting for my alleged brains to settle down. I told myself, “You have to read between her lines. Maybe she really went for this Josef and became hysterical, thought the whole world was after her. Or if she didn’t care for him, she was hysterical because it meant the end of her meal ticket. But what was Josef’s real racket? He had to be doing something beside reading foreign papers all day. All this dough. Suppose he had cased and held up a bank? And how come not a line about Josef’s death in the papers? But you never know what the cops want to keep under wraps. Could be Josef and this Sauerkraut did the bank job and the cops were afraid Sauerkraut would hole up if the papers had it?

“Hell with all this guessing, let’s stick to Rose. They didn’t have a thing on her or they wouldn’t have released her. She’s shocked, broke, bewildered… and then she finds the loot Josef stashed in her dressing room. Rose has only one idea—to run. Suppose the cops do get her— if they’re even looking for her now. What could they charge her with? The money was her husband’s and he’s stiff, so it’s hers. And if it was stolen loot, Rose had no way of knowing that. They didn’t tell her a thing. Worst could happen to us would be she’d have to return the rest of the money. Little chance of even that. All this was over a year ago, longer, and she’s Rose Whalen now, a boat bum. And the trick she pulled in the Keys—wasn’t so corny as it sounded— after all these months they might think she drowned, close the case. We’re safe. That’s the big deal—we’re safe.”

I killed my cigar and stood up and flapped the sheets to cool them off. Then I jumped back in the sack and went to sleep.

I awoke late in the afternoon and felt so good I took a shave. I swam out to the boat, the salt water a bracer on my face. Ansel was sitting with Rose, both of them busy reading the magazines and papers I’d brought. Ansel’s pot-belly was hanging over an old worn pair of khaki trunks almost the color of his skin.

Rose looked great, her big body relaxed, hair blowing slightly with the little breeze. She had this habit of moving her lips as she read. I was swimming out to a great boat—which was mine—and to a babe who was also mine, and probably one of the most beautiful women in the world. What more could I ask of life?

I went below for a sandwich and cold beer. The trouble was I did want something else. I wanted to know if Rose’s story was true. I told myself I had to know because of the way she’d acted on my return, all the tender mush. I’d probably be living with her for the rest of my life. Before I’d figured Rose would run out on me, sooner or later. But if she wanted to make it forever, that was fine, except I had to know the truth. Of course I was aware I was kidding myself. All this was mixed with my yen to see New York with Rose. It would be a rugged deal to ask of her, and her terror, but the answer was too simple: I’d insist we go. If she was lying she’d flatly refuse. But if she’d told me the truth, I could convince her she had nothing to fear or…

I went on deck. Rose grinned at me from behind the fashion mag she was reading. Ansel cut open the last of the drinking nuts I’d tied to the rigging in Haiti. In his usual talkative mood he slipped off into a lecture on how history books under-rated the poor coconut. They called bread the staff of life while the coconut not only provided food for a good portion of the peoples of the world, but also clothing, plates, oil, boats, mats and building material.

Ansel was knocking himself out. I wasn’t listening; I was watching Rose…. my favorite hobby. Not studying her directly but staring at her reflection in the calm water. Schools of tiny chrome colored anchovies raced by now and then, making it a cracked mirror. Rose was in a happy mood, commenting on the new movies —which should reach the island theatres in about ten years—laughing at the fashion news.

The trouble was, if I told her about going to New York it would be obvious I didn’t trust her and she might be mad enough to walk out on me. That I didn’t want—ever. I might work the motor repair deal as an excuse for returning to the States. But if I was a clever fellow—and I wasn’t—I’d work things around so it would seem as if New York was her idea.

I watched the water, pleased with what I saw. Then the sky clouded and it grew muggy. What breeze there was died. I turned on my back, stared up at the thin clouds. Ansel announced it would rain before morning. Rose said we’d better start ferrying the stuff to the hut. While she was busy in the cabin, Ansel helped load the dink and managed to get some stuff I’d brought for him into his battered rowboat. As he was about to shove off he asked if I was interested in hunting pacas before supper? Some had been seen in a nearby swamp. A paca is about the size of a small dog, sort of large rat with brown and white spots. It’s very tender when roasted and I like it, but Rose won’t touch it because it’s a rat. I told Ansel I was too tired. The islanders are so crazy about it that when one was known to be around so many people went hunting a guy could get himself shot. It would be a dumb accident like that to keep me from seeing New York City.

After Ansel left, Rose started ferrying the stuff ashore. I washed down the decks, cleaned out the cabin, and made the Sea Princess ship-shape. I took care of the engines and the sails, then I helped Rose. It was twilight and the air thick with heat by the time we got everything into the hut. We were both sweating and as we started for the water and a final swim, the rain hit. We stripped and took a fresh water shower.

I thought it was going to be a long rain but in the morning, or rather at noon, when we awoke, the sun was out bright. I still hadn’t caught up on my sleep. Rose started opening cans and we stuffed ourselves with tins of tongue and beef, even caviar, along with fancy cakes, corn—anything else we felt like eating. We went back to bed and slept some more. Some time in the middle of the night we got up and took a dip. The sky was lousy with stars and we returned to the hut and started playing the new records, keeping the sound down, drinking a little. We awoke in the middle of the next afternoon. It was hot and sunny and we did a lot of swimming and some spear fishing. Rose decided she wanted pancakes so we cooked and ate stacks of them, finished with ice cream, and went through the records again. Rose sang with some of the older numbers, told me about the time she lost twenty-six pounds in a week for a part she never got. She didn’t eat a thing but drank coffee all day long and by the end of the week her nerves were so raw she was ready to be put away. She said, again, “I sure was a simple broad, in those days.”

When we got up the following morning it was raining, hard. It rained steadily for the next five days. I didn’t mind, I can sleep fine in the rain. Rose started playing her records, but the hi-fi set would hardly work: too many people were using the island current. At Ansel’s store you had to play the rundown jukebox during the day, when the single island generator didn’t have much of a load.

On the second day of the rain, the lights were too dim for reading. Also gnats and other bugs came to life in the muggy weather and made us miserable. We ate up most of the canned goods—all the fancy stuff making us slightly sick—so we got a little drunk and went back to the damp bed. It was raining just as hard when we awoke early in the morning, and I could see Rose was getting the blues. She never can get accustomed to being cooped up. Twice a day we ran to the water to check on the boat, take a bath, and get some fresh vegetables and fish at Ansel’s house. Then we’d return home, our feet covered with mud. There wasn’t enough juice to read by or even play the radio. I wanted to go out to the boat, run the motors and get some music, but Rose said the bay looked too dreary. Instead we went up to Ansel’s and by candlelight played whist. Mrs. Ansel acted like she had a fortune going on every card, which made a dull game even duller.

On the way home Rose slipped in the mud and cursed when I laughed. We took a swim and she was still in a bad mood, snapping at me. Sleeping was a Turkish bath and when I suggested I go out to the boat to sleep, she said she didn’t want to be alone. I told her on the next trip I’d see if I could pick up a generator for our own use, but Rose wasn’t listening. In the middle of the night I heard her get up and kill a bottle, then reread the papers by the fight of a single candle.

Most times I could bring her out of these moods but now I didn’t try. I had a plan going for me and the rain was my sidekick. I wished it would rain for a month, as it did in the rainy season.

Instead of keeping out of her way, I yelled back at her, acted like a real pain. I was waiting for her hysterical tears, a sign she was truly down in the dumps. It made me feel like a heel, but I had to do it—or so I sold myself. The next morning she got into a huff and we didn’t talk all day. I thought that would do it but Rose didn’t seem to mind. The thing that broke her up was this: Mrs. Ansel came to the hut and Rose whispered to me she wasn’t going to play another boring game of whist or checkers. But Mrs. Ansel only asked if we had some cotton to spare. The baby had the measles. Rose said we must immediately sail the kid to a doctor in Georgetown: but Mrs. Ansel said nonsense, she wanted the cotton to rub the boy down with bay rum and keep the fever from rising. She was quite calm, said to let nature take its course and the sooner the kid had the measles and got over them, the happier he would be.

We went up to the house and Rose helped her sponge the kid, who was running 102 and looked sick. I smoked a cigar with Ansel and said maybe I should get a doctor. He said it was nothing, the spots and sores were coming and in a week it would be all over. In the kid’s room I could hear Rose arguing with Mrs. Ansel, their voices growing louder. Ansel winked at me as Rose screamed—Mrs. Ansel didn’t know or care what she was doing—and ran out of the bungalow. I left a few minutes later. I found Rose sitting on the steps of the hut, wet and muddy… and crying loudly. I took her inside and undressed her, toweled her down, and turned on the gas boiler for a hot bath. She took a big shot of whiskey and in the faint light from the gas range I started reading the night club ads from one of the old New York papers, innocently asking if she’d ever been in this and that club, what did it look like, how was the food and music, and all the rest of the jive. I read most of the ads and nothing happened. Then all of a sudden she became hysterical and savagely tore the paper to bits.

This was the right time to pull the string. I told her to relax and she told me where to go. I asked, “Honey, how about getting away from here? For a few weeks? Be a change.”

Running a hand over her wet face Rose mumbled, “What’s the diff? Raining all over these goddam islands.”

“I don’t mean island-jumping. I mean a real change. How about sailing north, putting in at cities like Jacksonville, Charleston, Atlantic City, or even New York?”

“Are you punchy? I can’t show my face anywhere.”

“Listen, we’ll only spend a few days in each town. Buy us some new domes, live in hotels, see all the shows and movies we…”

“You want to get me killed?” she asked coldly, forgetting the tears. “I told you…”

“Rose, honey, we haven’t a thing to worry about, if what you told me is true.”

“If?”

She screamed, picking up a kitchen knife and viciously sticking it into the table top.

That was okay, it was merely the first thing she could put her hands on. “Take it easy, Rose; if I didn’t believe you I wouldn’t suggest this. Island living is great, but it takes time to get used to the slow pace. It’s fine for Ansel, he was born here. It works out for us— except for a few short days like now. If we could spend several weeks each year in a big city, get the… the desire for excitement out of our systems, we could live here the rest of our lives and do it well. But if we don’t—we have nothing here if we blow our tops.”

“I can take this.”

“Can you? Look at yourself, hysterical, almost on the verge of flipping. And my nerves are ragged, too. For all we know it might rain for another week or more.” My voice was as smooth as a salesman’s.

“Don’t worry, I won’t break. I was in a mood but that’s over.”

“Maybe I need a change.”

“You just came back from Port-au-Prince. If you want to go for another trip, get the hell out—but alone.”

“Honey, in Port-au-Prince I walked the streets with crowds, I ate in a few restaurants, took in a movie. And all the time I felt more jittery than I do now. It doesn’t mean a thing if you’re not along. Don’t you know that? Times Square would be a drag without you.”

For a long moment she stared at me, her face changing—losing its hardness, its tension. For a second I thought my plan was backfiring. I didn’t care, it was worth something to see her smile again. Rose came over and sat on my lap, kissing me, whispering, “That’s the sweetest thing a man ever told me, Mickey.”

I held her tightly and wondered what I was knocking myself out for. But under all my feelings this desire to find out if her story was true, to live big, began bubbling up again. “I’ve been thinking about what you told me the other day. About Josef and…”

“Must we talk about that?”

“Yeah. I’ve had a chance to give it some thought. Babes, I think you’ve been running from nothing, being chased by your own shadow. For example when…”

“Nothing? They were out to kill me!”

I kissed her cheek. “Rose, don’t tighten up. I’m not out to hurt you, scare you. There’s only you and me talking in this hut, so relax. Talk can’t hurt us. Let me tell you what I’ve been thinking and then you show me where I’m wrong. Okay?”

Her fingers were back to feeling the muscles in my arms as she said, “I got you into all this, you have a right to ask questions.”

“Don’t talk about ‘rights.’ This isn’t a courtroom. I’m only thinking how we both can be happier—and I’m pretty happy as we are. Now let me go over what you told me. Remember, when all this happened you were upset and shocked, which was natural. Josef was your husband and…”

“I never loved him.”

“Honey, if we found out Ansel had just been murdered, wouldn’t you be upset, in a whirl?”

“All right, say I was upset. What are you trying to prove?”

“Rose, Rose, stop acting like a cross-examiner. It’s raining, we haven’t anything else to do. I’m making words pass the time. Now, the first time you had any idea they were out to… to kill you, was when this Federal guy began fingering his gun while talking to you in the flat. That’s an old cop’s trick to put the fear of God into you. Once when I was a kid the police were trying to stop us from swimming bare-butt. Two cops came over to the dock to warn us. One cop kept hitting his blackjack against the palm of his hand as he talked. An act. They wouldn’t have sapped a bunch of ten-year olds for swimming….”

“Mickey, what are you trying to tell me, that I’m nuts?”

“Of course not. Listen, when that cop played with his sap, believe me, every one of us was scared, really scared. You also said you were shadowed on the street, annoyed at the hotel. I certainly believe all that happened, but maybe it was more police tricks to keep you on edge. A guy hits you on the street, another cluck propositions you, and your shadows don’t act like cops seeing a citizen annoyed. Remember, that could be part of their job; if they were tailing you they may have been under orders not to show themselves. I also imagine a gal with your looks has had street clowns leer and whistle at you plenty of times. You said two men who ‘looked’ like detectives tried to run you down. Could be, and it could have been a couple of drunks. Finally, you think you saw this Sauerkraut guy in Miami. Maybe you did and maybe he’s one of the thousands of tourists that flock there. Or in that brief second you could have seen some other fellow with a deformed nose. Let’s consider a few other angles: the police didn’t want you, but the money. Now, they don’t even know you have the dough. And suppose they do, the most they can ask is you return it. You took some money your dead husband left in a suitcase—is that a crime?”

“You risked your life in the hurricane to get the money. Remember what you said then?”

“Yeah. I’ll say it now: it’s always convenient to be loaded. All I’m saying is, you’re in the clear—all the way down the line. Another thing, this was almost two years ago and if your overturned boat stunt worked, the police have you dead and forgotten by now.”

“What do all your words add up to, Mickey?”

“That you have no reason to hide, no reason for us to stick ourselves away on this island for the rest of our lives.”

“You didn’t believe what I told you the other day, did you?”

“I know you believed it. You magnified things, blew them up in your mind until they became a living nightmare. Wake up, honey, we’re safe. At the time you were merely so hysterical that if you’d been given a traffic ticket, or a wrong phone number you would have thought….”

“Mickey, I pray that you’ll never be that frightened, for then you’ll never be able to dismiss it with a ‘merely!’“ Rose stood up, walked away. “You know what you’re really saying: you don’t trust me.”

“Babes, I’m the guy who didn’t ask questions when I was convinced you were in deep trouble with the law. And remember, if you are in a jam, so am I—so I’m not saying stick our necks out to make small talk. Rose, get the picture in focus. A moment ago you were hysterical, probably thought I was a louse, that we never hit it off. Hysteria can distort anything. I say we have nothing to fear, why jail ourselves on this island, or some other one? If we had to, we could take it. But we don’t have to!”

“How do you know? Will my dead body convince you you’re wrong?”

I went over and tried to put my arms around her. “Do you think I’d risk a single hair of yours? Have I ever? Stop acting like I’m trying to turn you in.”

For a second she still looked away, then stared into my eyes—almost on a level with them—and I was proud she was such a big woman. When she kissed me, fingers digging into my back, she sobbed, “Mickey, I’m so scared!”

“Of what? I’m not talking big. You know I never bull. I don’t say you’re wrong, merely that you’ve sold yourself a bum bill of goods. I believe right this moment the police couldn’t care less about you. If we were trying for Paris, say, there might be some risk in getting a passport. But we have the Sea Princess, we can sail… Honey, I’m certain I’m right, the way things will work out. Besides, we have to go to the States!”

“I don’t have to.”

“The boat and the oil cooler. Look, sooner or later I’ll have to get a new cooler. A mechanic in Georgetown said it would be impossible to get the part in the islands, so we have to sail her to the States. No getting around the fact we need a boat.”

“You sail her over.”

“Hon, listen to me; we sail the Sea Princess into Tampa, or New Orleans. We take care of the motor, and who will know we’re there? Cut your hair short, dye it. You won’t be Rose Brown but Mrs. Mickey Whalen. We have to try it.”

“I don’t believe in pushing my luck.”

“Rose, you’re my luck, the only good thing in my life. I wouldn’t suggest this—even if it meant losing the boat due to overheating and a fire—unless I was positive it’s a sure thing. Why go batty here? We sail to the mainland and spend a few days in any big port city we wish. We’ll take a month or two, then return here. Believe me, we’ll appreciate the island then, be a change of pace. Honey, I wouldn’t ask you to go to Havana or Kingston, we’d stick out there—a couple of tall Americans. But in Charleston or Savannah, who pays any mind to a couple off a small boat? We won’t live big or flashy.”

She shivered in my arms.

“Any time you even feel there’s the smallest sign of trouble, we run up sail and take off. Honey, it’s a tonic we both need—aside from the engine cooler. When we first came to the islands a rainy season didn’t get us down. But we’re stale now: a few damp days and look at us. Think it over for a couple of days. You still say no—I’m with you. I’ll go for the oil cooler alone.”

“No, I don’t want you to leave me. Mickey, I’m frightened.”

“Plenty of times you were scared stiff of the sea, but we always came through okay. Honey, think it over —and remember I’d go nuts if anything happened to you.” I knew I meant that and for a moment I was full of chilling doubts. Was I risking losing Rose? We did have it made, why chance anything? Hell, testing to see if she was telling the truth wasn’t that important…

“Of course I’ll think about it—but not now. I have a splitting headache. Guess I need some chow.”

“Sure, forget it—for now.”

Rose went to the refrigerator, which was barely working due to the lack of current—pulled out a crock of cheese we’d opened for lunch. Placing the cheese on the table, she opened the cracker jar. She ate in the dim light and suddenly spit out a shower of crumbs. Cursing savagely, Rose lit a match and pointed at the cheese —it was already moldy. I told her, “Easy, hon, we can always open a fresh tin.”

Rose wiped her lips with the back of her hand, somehow a terribly weary motion. Then she shook her head. “No, no. You’re right, Mickey. Another few days of this lousy rain and I might flip. No sense kidding ourselves about the engine—we can’t get a new oil cooler out of thin air. We’ll leave here. We’ll leave… but… oh it scares me!”

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