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“I’m sure you would, but I’m not, so you need to listen to me very carefully. It’s my understanding that you had a kid when you were sixteen and living on Sweetwater Ranch. I don’t know if the father was one of your schoolmates, a saddle tramp, or even your own father—”
True. And sometimes it’s such a pleasure.
“I don’t care who it was, but I care about Sadie, who’s been through more pain and heartache than you’ve felt in your whole life.” Now I had her pinned against the brick wall. She was looking up at me, her eyes bright with terror. In another time and place I could have felt sorry for her. Not now. “If you say one word about Sadie—one word to anybody—I’ll make it my business to find out where that kid of yours is now, and I’ll spread the word from one end of this town to the other. Do you understand me?”
“Get out of my way! Let me pass!”
“Do you understand me?”
“Good.” I stepped back. “Live your life, Miz Caltrop. I suspect it’s been pretty gray since you were sixteen—busy, though, inspecting other people’s dirty laundry does keep a person busy—but you live it. And let us live ours.”
She sidled to her left along the brick wall, in the direction of the parking lot behind the market. Her eyes were bulging. They never left me.
I smiled pleasantly. “Before this discussion becomes something that never happened, I want to give you a piece of advice, little lady. It comes straight from my heart. I love her, and you do not want to fuck with a man in love. If you mess in my business—or Sadie’s—I will try my best to make you the sorriest bluenose bitch in Texas. That is my sincere promise to you.”
She ran for the parking lot. She did it awkwardly, like someone who hasn’t moved at a pace faster than a stately walk in a long time. In her brown shin-length skirt, opaque flesh-toned hose, and sensible brown shoes, she was the spirit of the age. Her hair was coming loose from its bun. Once I had no doubt she had worn it down, the way men like to see a woman’s hair, but that had been a long time ago.
“And have a nice day!” I called after her.
Sadie came into the kitchen while I was putting things away in the icebox. “You were gone a long time. I was starting to worry.”
“I got talking. You know how it is in Jodie. Always someone to pass the time of day with.”
She smiled. The smile was coming a little more easily now. “You’re a sweet guy.”
I thanked Sadie and told her she was a sweet gal. I wondered if Caltrop would talk to Fred Miller, the other schoolboard member who saw himself as a guardian of town morality. I didn’t think so. It wasn’t just that I knew about her youthful indiscretion; I had set out to scare her. It had worked with de Mohrenschildt, and it had worked with her. Scaring people is a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.
Sadie crossed the kitchen and put an arm around me. “What would you say to a weekend at the Candlewood Bungalows before school starts? Just like in the old days? I suppose that’s very forward of Sadie, isn’t it?”
“Well now, that depends.” I took her in my arms. “Are we talking about a dirty weekend?”
She blushed, except for around the scar. The flesh there remained white and shiny. “Absolutely feelthy, señor.”
“The sooner the better, then.”
It wasn’t actually a dirty weekend, unless you believe—as the Jessica Caltrops of the world seem to—that lovemaking is dirty. It’s true that we spent a lot of it in bed. But we also spent a fair amount outside. Sadie was a tireless walker, and there was a vast open field on the flank of a hill behind the Candlewood. It was rioting with late-summer wildflowers. We spent most of Saturday afternoon there. Sadie could name some of the blooms—Spanish dagger, prickly poppy, something called yucca birdweed—but at others she could only shake her head, then bend over to smell whatever aromas there were to be smelled. We walked hand in hand, with high grass brushing against our jeans and big clouds with fluffed-out tops sailing the high Texas sky. Long shutters of light and shadow slipped across the field. There was a cool breeze that day, and no refinery smell in the air. At the top of the hill we turned and looked back. The bungalows were small and insignificant on the tree-dotted sweep of the prairie. The road was a ribbon.
Sadie sat down, drew her knees to her chest, and clasped her arms around her shins. I sat down beside her.
“I want to ask you something,” she said.
“It’s not about the… you know, where you come from… that’s more than I want to think about just now. It’s about the man you came to stop. The one you say is going to kill the president.”
I considered this. “Delicate subject, hon. Do you remember me telling you that I’m close to a big machine full of sharp teeth?”
“I said I wouldn’t let you stand next to me while I was fooling with it. I’ve already said more than I meant to, and probably more than I should have. Because the past doesn’t want to be changed. It fights back when you try. And the bigger the potential change, the harder it fights. I don’t want you to be hurt.”
“I already have been,” she said quietly.
“Are you asking if that was my fault?”
“No, honey.” She put a hand on my cheek. “No.”
“Well, it may have been, at least partially. There’s a thing called the butterfly effect—” There were hundreds of them fluttering on the slope before us, as if to illustrate that very fact.
“I know what that is,” she said. “There’s a Ray Bradbury story about it.”
“It’s called ‘A Sound of Thunder.’ It’s very beautiful and very disturbing. But Jake—Johnny was crazy long before you came on the scene. I left him long before you came on the scene. And if you hadn’t come along, some other man might have. I’m sure he wouldn’t have been as nice as you, but I wouldn’t have known that, would I? Time is a tree with many branches.”
“What do you want to know about the guy, Sadie?”
“Mostly why you don’t just call the police—anonymously, of course—and report him.”
I pulled a stem of grass to chew while I thought about that. The first thing to cross my mind was something de Mohrenschildt had said in the Montgomery Ward parking lot: He’s a semi-educated hillbilly, but he’s surprisingly crafty.
It was a good assessment. Lee had escaped Russia when he was tired of it; he would also be crafty enough to escape the Book Depository after shooting the president in spite of the almost immediate police and Secret Service response. Of course it was a quick response; plenty of people were going to see exactly where the shots came from.
Lee would be questioned at gunpoint in the second-floor break room even before the speeding motorcade delivered the dying president to Parkland Hospital. The cop who did the questioning would recall later that the young man had been reasonable and persuasive. Once foreman Roy Truly vouched for him as an employee, the cop would let Ozzie Rabbit go and then hurry upstairs to seek the source of the gunshots. It was possible to believe that, if not for his encounter with Patrolman Tippit, Lee might not have been captured for days or weeks.
“Sadie, the Dallas cops are going to shock the world with their incompetence. I’d be nuts to trust them. They might not even act on an anonymous tip.”
“But why? Why wouldn’t they?”
“Right now because the guy’s not even in Texas, and he doesn’t mean to come back. He’s planning to defect to Cuba.”
“Cuba? Why in the world Cuba?”
I shook my head. “It doesn’t matter, because it’s not going to work. He’s going to return to Dallas, but not with any plan to kill the president. He doesn’t even know Kennedy’s coming to Dallas. Kennedy himself doesn’t know, because the trip hasn’t been scheduled yet.”
“But you know.”
“Because in the time you come from, all this is in the history books.”
“The broad strokes, yes. I got the specifics from the friend who sent me here. I’ll tell you the whole story someday when this is over, but not now. Not while the machine with all those teeth is still running full tilt. The important thing is this: if the police question the guy at any point before mid-November, he’s going to sound completely innocent, because he is innocent.” Another of those vast cloud-shadows rolled over us, temporarily dropping the temperature by ten degrees or so. “For all I know, he may not have made up his mind entirely until the moment he pulled the trigger.”
“You speak as if it’s already happened,” she marveled.
“In my world, it has.”
“What’s important about mid-November?”
“On the sixteenth, the Morning News is going to tell Dallas about Kennedy’s motorcade down Main Street. L— the guy will read that and realize the cars will go right past the place where he’s working. He’s probably going to think it’s a message from God. Or maybe the ghost of Karl Marx.”
“Where’s he going to work?”
I shook my head again. That wasn’t safe for her to know. Of course, none of this was safe. Yet (I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating) what a relief to tell at least some of it to another person.
“If the police talked to him, they might at least frighten him out of doing it.”
She was right, but what a horrifying risk. I’d already taken a smaller one by talking to de Mohrenschildt, but de Mohrenschildt wanted those oil leases. Also, I’d done more than frighten him—I’d scared the living bejesus out of him. I thought he’d keep mum. Lee, on the other hand…
I took Sadie’s hand. “Right now I can predict where this man’s going the same way I could predict where a train is going to go, because it can’t leave the tracks. Once I step in, once I meddle, all bets are off.”
“If you talked to him yourself?”
A truly nightmarish image came into my mind. I saw Lee telling the cops, The idea was put into my head by a man named George Amberson. If it hadn’t been for him, I never would have thought of it.
“I don’t think that would work, either.”
In a small voice, she asked: “Will you have to kill him?”
I didn’t answer. Which was an answer in itself, of course.
“And you really know this is going to happen.”
“The way you know Tom Case is going to win that fight on the twenty-ninth.”
“Even though everybody who knows boxing says Tiger’s going to murder him.”
I smiled. “You’ve been reading the sports pages.”
“Yes. I have.” She took the piece of grass from my mouth and put it in her own. “I’ve never been to a prizefight. Will you take me?”
“It’s not exactly live, you know. It’s on a big TV screen.”
“I know. Will you take me?”
There were plenty of good-looking women in the Dallas Auditorium on fight night, but Sadie got her fair share of admiring glances. She had made herself up carefully for the occasion, but even the most skillful makeup could only minimize the damage to her face, not completely hide it. Her dress helped matters considerably. It clung smoothly to her body line, and had a deep scoop neck.
The brilliant stroke was a felt fedora given to her by Ellen Dockerty, when Sadie told her that I had asked her to go to the prizefight with me. The hat was an almost exact match for the one Ingrid Bergman wears in the final scene of Casablanca. With its insouciant slant, it set her face off perfectly… and of course it slanted to the left, putting a deep triangle of shadow over her bad cheek. It was better than any makeup job. When she came out of the bedroom for inspection, I told her she was absolutely gorgeous. The look of relief on her face and the excited sparkle in her eyes suggested that she knew I was doing more than trying to make her feel good.
There was heavy traffic coming into Dallas, and by the time we reached our seats, the third of five undercard matches was going on—a large black man and an even larger white man slowly pummeling each other while the crowd cheered. Not one but four enormous screens hung over the polished hardwood floor where the Dallas Spurs played (badly) during the basketball season. The picture was provided by multiple rear-screen projection systems, and although the colors were muddy—almost rudimentary—the images themselves were crisp. Sadie was impressed. In truth, so was I.
“Are you nervous?” she asked.
“Even though. When I bet on the Pirates to win the World Series back in ’60, I knew. Here I’m depending entirely on my friend, who got it off the internet.”
“What in the world is that?”
“Sci-fi. Like Ray Bradbury.”
“Oh… okay.” Then she put her fingers between her lips and whistled. “Hey beer-man!”
The beer-man, decked out in a vest, cowboy hat, and silver-studded concho belt, sold us two bottles of Lone Star (glass, not plastic) with paper cups nestled over the necks. I gave him a buck and told him to keep the change.
Sadie took hers, bumped it against mine, and said: “Luck, Jake.”
“If I need it, I’m in one hell of a jam.”
She lit a cigarette, adding her smoke to the blue veil hanging around the lights. I was on her right, and from where I sat, she looked perfect.
I tapped her on the shoulder, and when she turned, I kissed her lightly on her parted lips. “Kid,” I said, “we’ll always have Paris.”
She grinned. “The one in Texas, maybe.”
A groan went up from the crowd. The black fighter had just knocked the white one on his ass.
The main bout commenced at nine-thirty. Close-ups of the fighters filled the screens, and when the camera centered on Tom Case, my heart sank. There were threads of gray in his curly black hair. His cheeks were becoming jowls. His midsection flabbed over his trunks. Worst of all, though, were his somehow bewildered eyes, which peered from puffy sacs of scar tissue. He didn’t look entirely sure about where he was. The audience of fifteen hundred or so mostly cheered—Tom Case was a hometown boy, after all—but I also heard a healthy chorus of boos. Sitting there slumped on his stool, holding the ropes with his gloved hands, he looked like he’d already lost. Dick Tiger, on the other hand, was up on his feet, shadowboxing and skipping nimbly in his black hightops.
Sadie leaned close to me and whispered, “This doesn’t look so good, honey.”
That was the understatement of the century. It looked terrible.
Down front (where the screen must have seemed like a looming cliff with blurred moving figures projected on it), I saw Akiva Roth squire a mink-wearing dolly in Garbo shades to a seat that would have been ringside, if the fight hadn’t been on a screen. In front of Sadie and me, a chubby man smoking a cigar turned around and said, “Who ya got, beautiful?”
“Case!” Sadie said bravely.
The chubby cigar-smoker laughed. “Well, you got a good heart, anyway. Care to put a tenspot on that?”
“Will you give me four-to-one? If Case knocks him out?”
“If Case knocks Tiger out? Lady, you’re on.” He stuck out a hand. Sadie shook it. Then she turned to me with a defiant little smile playing around the corner of her mouth that still worked.
“Pretty bold,” I said.
“Not at all,” she said. “Tiger’s going down in five. I can see the future.”
The ring announcer, wearing a tux and a pound of hair tonic, trotted to center ring, yanked down a mike on a silver cord, and gave the fighters’ stats in a rolling carny-barker’s voice. The National Anthem played. Men yanked off their hats and put their hands over their hearts. I could feel my own heart thudding rapidly, at least a hundred and twenty beats a minute and maybe more. The auditorium was air-conditioned, but sweat was rolling down the back of my neck and humidifying my armpits.
A girl in a swimsuit strutted around the ring in high heels, holding up a card with a big number 1 on it.
The bell clanged. Tom Case shuffled into the ring with a resigned expression on his face. Dick Tiger bounded happily to meet him, feinted with his right hand, then unleashed a compact left hook that decked Case exactly twelve seconds into the fight. The crowds—the one here and the one in the Garden, two thousand miles away—let out a disgusted groan. The hand Sadie had rested on my thigh seemed to spring claws as it tensed and dug in.
“Tell that ten to say goo’bye to his friends, beautiful,” the chubby cigar-smoker said gleefully.
Al, what the fuck were you thinking?
Dick Tiger retreated to his corner and stood there bouncing nonchalantly on the balls of his feet while the ref commenced the count, sweeping his right arm up and down dramatically. On three, Case stirred. On five he sat up. On seven he took a knee. And on nine he rose and lifted his gloves. The ref took the fighter’s face in his hands and asked a question. Case replied. The ref nodded, beckoned to Tiger, and stepped aside.
The Tiger Man, perhaps anxious to get to the steak dinner waiting for him at Sardi’s, rushed in for the kill. Case didn’t try to escape him—his speed had left him behind long ago, perhaps during some tank-town fight in Moline, Illinois, or New Haven, Connecticut—but he was able to cover up… and clinch. He did a lot of that, resting his head on Tiger’s shoulder like a tired tango dancer and pounding his gloves weakly on Tiger’s back. The crowd began to boo. When the bell rang and Case plodded back to his stool with his head down and his gloved fists dangling, they booed louder.
“He stinks, beautiful,” the chubby man remarked.
Sadie looked at me anxiously. “What do you think?”
“I think he made it through the first, anyway.” What I really thought was that someone should stick a fork in Tom Case’s sagging butt, because to me he looked almost done.
The chick in the Jantzen did her thing again, this time holding up a 2. The bell clanged. Once again Tiger bounded and Case plodded. My guy continued to move in close so he could clinch whenever possible, but I noticed he was now managing to deflect the left hook that had devastated him in the first round. Tiger worked on the older fighter’s gut with piston-like shots of his right hand, but there must have been quite a lot of muscle left under that flab, because they didn’t seem to affect Case very much. At one point, Tiger pushed Case back and gestured with both gloves in a come on, come on gesture. The crowd cheered. Case only stared at him, so Tiger moved in. Case immediately clinched. The crowd groaned. The bell rang.
“My granny could give Tiger a better show,” the cigar-smoker grumbled.
“Maybe,” Sadie said, lighting her third cigarette of the fight, “but he’s still on his feet, isn’t he?”
“Not for long, sugar. The next time one of those left hooks gets through, it’s gonna be Case closed.” He chortled.
The third round was more clinching and shuffling, but in the fourth, Case let his guard drop slightly and Tiger hit him with a barrage of lefts and rights to the head that brought the audience to its feet, roaring. Akiva Roth’s girlfriend was with them. Mr. Roth himself retained his seat, but did trouble himself enough to cup his ladyfriend’s ass with a beringed right hand.
Case fell back against the ropes, shooting rights at Tiger, and one of those blows got through. It looked pretty feeble, but I saw sweat fly from the Tiger Man’s hair as he shook his head. There was a bewildered where-did-that-come-from expression on his face. Then he moved in again and went back to work. Blood began oozing from a cut beside Case’s left eye. Before Tiger could increase the damage from a trickle to a gush, the bell rang.
“If you hand over that ten now, beautiful,” the pudgy cigar-smoker said, “you and your boyfriend will be able to beat the traffic.”
“Tell you what,” Sadie said. “I’ll give you one chance to call it off and save yourself forty dollars.”
The pudgy cigar-smoker laughed. “Beautiful and a sensayuma. If that long tall helicopter you’re with treats you bad, sugar, come home with me.”
In Case’s corner, the trainer was working frantically on the bad eye, squeezing something from a tube and mooshing it around with the tips of his fingers. It looked like Crazy Glue to me, except I don’t think that had been invented yet. Then he slapped Case in the chops with a wet towel. The bell rang.
Dick Tiger bored in, jamming with his right and hooking with his left. Case dodged one left hook, and for the first time in the fight, Tiger launched a right uppercut at the older man’s head. Case managed to pull back just enough to keep from taking it full on the jaw, but it connected with his cheek. The force of it distorted his entire face into a horror-house grimace. He staggered back. Tiger came at him. The crowd was up again, bellowing for blood. We rose with them. Sadie’s hands were over her mouth.
Tiger had Case pinned in one of the neutral corners and was hammering him with rights and lefts. I could see Case sagging; I could see the lights in his eyes dimming. One more left hook—or that cannon-shot right—and they would go out.
“PUT IM DOWN!” the chubby cigar-smoker was screaming. “PUT HIM DOWN, DICKY! KNOCK HIS BLOCK OFF!”
Tiger hit him low, below the belt. Probably not on purpose, but the ref stepped in. While he cautioned Tiger about the low blow, I watched Case to see how he would use this temporary respite. I saw something come into his face that I recognized. I had seen Lee wearing the same expression on the day he’d been giving Marina hell about the zipper of her skirt. It had appeared when Marina had come back on him, accusing him of bringing her and the baby to a peegsty and then twirling her finger around her ear in a you’re-crazy gesture.
All at once this had stopped being just a payday to Tom Case.
The ref stepped aside. Tiger bored in, but this time Case stepped to meet him. What happened during the next twenty seconds was the most electrifying, terrifying thing I have ever seen as part of an audience. The two of them simply stood toe-to-toe, slugging each other in the face, the chest, the shoulders, the gut. There was no bobbing, no weaving, no fancy footwork. They were bulls in a pasture. Case’s nose broke and gushed blood. Tiger’s lower lip smashed back against his teeth and split; blood poured down both sides of his chin, making him look like a vampire after a big meal.
Everyone in the auditorium was on their feet and screaming. Sadie was jumping up and down. Her fedora fell off, exposing the scarred cheek. She took no notice. Nobody else did, either. On the huge screens, World War III was in full swing.
Case lowered his head to take one of those bazooka rights, and I saw Tiger grimace as his fist connected with hard bone. He took a step backward and Case unloaded a monster uppercut. Tiger turned his head, avoiding the worst of it, but his mouthpiece flew free and rolled across the canvas.
Case moved in, throwing haymaker lefts and rights. There was no artistry to them, only raw, angry power. Tiger backpedaled, tripped over his own feet, and went down. Case stood over him, seemingly unsure what to do or—perhaps—even where he was. His frantically signaling trainer caught his eye and he plodded back to his corner. The ref commenced his count.
On four, Tiger took a knee. On six, he was on his feet. After the mandatory eight-count, the fight recommenced. I looked at the big clock in the corner of the screen and saw there were fifteen seconds left in the round.
Not enough, it’s not enough time.
Case plodded forward. Tiger threw that devastating left hook. Case jerked his head to one side, and when the glove had flown past his face, he lashed out with his right. This time it was Dick Tiger’s face that distorted, and when he went down he didn’t get up.
The pudgy man looked at the tattered remains of his cigar, then threw it on the floor. “Jesus wept!”
“Yes!” Sadie chirruped, resetting her fedora at the proper insouciant slant. “On a stack of blueberry pancakes, and the disciples said they were the best they ever ate! Now pay up!”
By the time we got back to Jodie, August 29 had become August 30, but we were both too excited to sleep. We made love, then came out to the kitchen and ate pie in our underwear.
“Well?” I said. “What do you think?”
“That I never want to go to another prizefight. That was pure bloodlust. And I was up on my feet, cheering with the rest. For a few seconds—maybe even a full minute—I wanted Case to kill that dancing all-full-of-himself dandy. Then I couldn’t wait to get back here and jump into bed with you. That wasn’t about love just now, Jake. That was about burning.”
I said nothing. Sometimes there’s nothing to say.
She reached across the table, plucked a crumb from my chin, and popped it into my mouth. “Tell me it’s not hate.”
“The reason you feel you have to stop this man on your own.” She saw me start to open my mouth and held up a hand to stop me. “I heard everything you said, all your reasons, but you have to tell me they are reasons, and not just what I saw in that man Case’s eyes when Tiger hit him in the trunks. I can love you if you’re a man, and I can love you if you’re a hero—I guess, although for some reason that seems a lot harder—but I don’t think I can love a vigilante.”
I thought of how Lee looked at his wife when he wasn’t mad at her. I thought about the conversation I’d overheard when he and his little girl were splashing in the bath. I thought about his tears outside the bus station, when he’d held Junie and nuzzled beneath her chin before rolling off to New Orleans.
“It’s not hate,” I said. “What I feel about him is…”
I trailed off. She watched me.
“Sorrow for a spoiled life. But you can feel sorry for a good dog that goes rabid, too. That doesn’t stop you from putting him down.”
She looked me in the eyes. “I want you again. But this time it should be for love, you know? Not because we just saw two men beat the hell out of each other and our guy won.”
“Okay,” I said. “Okay. That’s good.”
And it was.
“Well look here,” said Frank Frati’s daughter when I walked into the pawnshop around noon on that Friday. “It’s the boxing swami with the New England accent.” She offered me a glittery smile, then turned her head and shouted, “Da-ad! It’s your Tom Case man!”
Frati came shuffling out. “Hello there, Mr. Amberson,” he said. “Big as life and handsome as Satan on Saturday night. I bet you’re feeling bright-eyed and bushy-tailed this fine day, aren’t you?”
“Sure,” I said. “Why wouldn’t I? I had a lucky hit.”
“I’m the one who took the hit.” He pulled a brown envelope, a little bigger than standard business-size, from the back pocket of his baggy gabardine slacks. “Two grand. Feel free to count it.”
“That’s all right,” I said. “I trust you.”
He started to pass over the envelope, then pulled it back and tapped his chin with it. His blue eyes, faded but shrewd, sized me up. “Any interest in rolling this over? Football season is coming up, as is the Series.”
“I don’t know jack about football, and a Dodgers-Yankees Series doesn’t interest me much. Hand it over.”
He did so.
“Pleasure doing business with you,” I said, and walked out. I could feel their eyes following me, and I had that by now very unpleasant sense of déjà vu. I couldn’t pinpoint the cause. I got into my car, hoping I would never have to return to that part of Fort Worth again. Or to Greenville Avenue in Dallas. Or place another bet with another bookie named Frati.
Those were my three wishes, and they all came true.
My next stop was 214 West Neely Street. I’d phoned the landlord and told him August was my last month. He tried to talk me out of it, telling me good tenants such as myself were hard to find. That was probably true—the police hadn’t come once on my account, and they visited the neighborhood a lot, especially on weekends—but I suspected it had more to do with too many apartments and not enough renters. Dallas was experiencing one of its periodic lows.
I stopped at First Corn on the way and plumped up my checking account with Frati’s two grand. That was fortunate. I realized later—much later—that if I’d had it on me when I got to Neely Street, I surely would have lost it.
My plan was to dummy-check the four rooms for any possessions I might have left behind, paying particular attention to those mystic points of junk-attraction beneath sofa cushions, under the bed, and at the backs of bureau drawers. And of course I’d take my Police Special. I would want it to deal with Lee. I now had every intention of killing him, and as soon after he returned to Dallas as I possibly could. In the meantime, I didn’t want to leave a trace of George Amberson behind.
As I closed in on Neely, that sense of being stuck in time’s echo chamber was very strong. I kept thinking about the two Fratis, one with a wife named Marjorie, one with a daughter named Wanda.
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