Read an Excerpt
Cast a Yellow Shadow
By Ross Thomas
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1967 Ross Thomas
All rights reserved.
The call came while I was trying to persuade a lameduck Congressman to settle his tab before he burned his American Express card. The tab was $18.35 and the Congressman was drunk and had already made a pyre of the cards he held from Carte Blanche, Standard Oil, and the Diner's Club. He had used a lot of matches as he sat there at the bar drinking Scotch and burning the cards in an ashtray. "Two votes a precinct," he said for the dozenth time. "Just two lousy votes a precinct."
"When they make you an ambassador, you'll need all the credit you can get," I said as Karl handed me the phone. The Congressman thought about that for a moment, frowned and shook his head, said something more about two votes a precinct, and set fire to the American Express card. I said hello into the phone.
"McCorkle?" It was a man's voice.
"This is Hardman." It was a soft bass voice with a lot of bulldog gravy and grits in it. Hardman, the way he said it, was two distinct words, an adjective and a noun, and both got equal billing.
"What can I do for you?"
"Make me a reservation for lunch tomorrow? Bout one-fifteen?"
"You don't need a reservation."
"Just socializin a little."
"I'm off the ponies," I said. "I haven't made a bet in two days."
"That's what they been tellin me. Man, you trying to quit winner?"
"Just trying to quit. What's on your mind?"
"Well, I got me a little business over in Baltimore." He paused. I waited. I prepared for a long wait. Hardman was from Alabama or Mississippi or Georgia or one of those states where they all talk alike and where it takes a long weekend to get to the point.
"You've got business in Baltimore and you want a reservation for one-fifteen tomorrow and you want to know why I haven't made book with you in two days. What else?"
"Well, we was supposed to pick somethin up off a boat over there in Baltimore and there was a little trouble and this white boy got hurt. So Mush—you know Mush?"
I told him I knew Mush.
"So Mush was bout to get hisself hurt by a couple of mothers when this white boy steps in and sort of helps Mush out—know what I mean?"
"Well, one of these cats had a blade and he cuts the white boy a little, but not fore he'd stepped in and helped out for Mush—know what I mean?"
"Why call me?"
"Well, Mush brings the white boy back to Washington cause he's hit his head and bleedin and passed out and all."
"And you need some blood tonight?"
Hardman chuckled and it seemed to rumble over the phone. "Shit, baby, you somethin!"
"Well, this white boy got nothin on him. No money—"
"Mush checked that out, I'd say."
"No gold, no ID, no billfold, nothin. Just a little old scrap of paper with your address on it."
"Has he got a description, or do all white folks look alike?"
"Bout five-eleven," Hardman said, "maybe even six feet. Maybe. Short hair, little grey in it. Dark for an ofay. Looks like he been out in the sun a whole lot. Bout your age, only skinnier, but then, hell, who ain't?"
I tried to make nothing out of my voice; no tone, no interest. "Where do you have him?"
"Where I'm at, pad over on Fairmont." He gave me the address. "Figure you know him? He's out cold."
"I might," I said. "I'll be over. You get a doctor?"
"Done come and gone."
"I'll be there as soon as I can catch a cab."
"You won't forget about that reservation?"
"It's taken care of." I hung up.
Karl, the bartender I had imported from Germany, was deep in conversation with the Congressman. I signaled him to come down to the other end of the bar.
"Take care of the Right Honorable," I said. "Call him a cab—the company that specializes in drunks. If he doesn't have any money, have him sign a tab and we'll send him a bill."
"He's got a committee hearing tomorrow at nine in the Rayburn Building," Karl said. "It's on reforestation. It's about the redwoods. I was planning on going anyhow so I'll pick him up in the morning and make sure he gets there."
Some people hang around police stations. Karl hung around Congress. He had been in the States for less than a year, but he could recite the names of the one hundred Senators and the four hundred and thirty-five Representatives in alphabetical order. He knew how they voted on every roll call. He knew when and where committees met and whether their sessions were open or closed. He could tell you the status of any major piece of legislation in either the Senate or the House and make you a ninety to ninety-five per cent accurate prediction on its chance for passage. He read the Congressional Record faithfully and snickered while he did it. He had worked for me before in a saloon I had once owned in Bonn, but the Bundestag had never amused him. He found Congress one long laugh.
"Just so he gets home," I said, "although he looks as if he'll fade before closing." The Congressman was drooping a bit over his glass.
Karl gave him a judicious glance. "He's good for two more and then I'll get him some coffee. He'll make it."
I told him to close up, nodded good night to a handful of regular customers and a couple of waiters, walked east to Connecticut Avenue and turned right towards the Mayflower Hotel. There was one cab at the hotel stand and I climbed into its back seat and gave the driver the address. He turned to look at me.
"I don't ever go over there after midnight," he said.
"Don't tell me. Tell the hack inspector."
"My life's worth more'n eighty cents."
"We'll make it an even dollar."
I got a lecture on why George Wallace should be President on the way to the Fairmont Street address. It was an apartment building, fairly new, flanked by forty-or-fifty-year-old row houses. I paid the driver and told him he needn't wait. He snorted, quickly locked all the doors, and sped off. Inside I found the apartment number and rang the bell. I could hear chimes inside. Hardman answered the door.
"Come in this house," he said.
I went in. A voice from somewhere, a woman's voice, yelled: "You tell him to take off his shoes, hear?"
I looked down. I was standing on a deep pile carpet that was pure white.
"She don't want her white rug messed up," Hardman said and indicated his own shoeless feet. I knelt down and took off my shoes. When I rose Hardman handed me a drink.
"Fine." I looked around the livingroom. It was L-shaped and had an orange couch and some teak and leather chairs, a dining table, also of teak, and a lot of brightly colored pillows that were carefully scattered here and there to make it all look casual. There were some loud prints on the wall. A lot of thought seemed to have gone into the room, and the total effect came off fairly well and just escaped being flashy.
A tall brown girl in red slacks swayed into the room shaking down a thermometer. "You know Betty?" Hardman asked.
I said no. "Hello, Betty."
"You're McCorkle." I nodded. "That man's sick," she said, "and there ain't no use trying to talk to him now. He's out for another hour. That's what Doctor Lambert say. And he also say he can be moved all right when he wakes up. So if he's a friend of yours, would you kindly move him when he does wake up? He's got my bed and I don't plan sleeping on no couch. That's where Hard's going to sleep."
"Don't honey me, you no good son-of-a-bitch." She didn't raise her voice when she said it. She didn't have to. "You bring in some cut-up drunk and dump him into my bed. Whyn't you take him to the hospital? Or to your house, 'cept that fancy wife of yours wouldn't have stood for it." Betty turned to me, and waved a hand at Hardman. "Look at him. Six-feet, four-inches tall, dresses just so fine, goes around pronouncing his name 'Hard-Man,' and then lets some little five-foot tall tight twat lead him around by the nose. Get me a drink." Betty collapsed on the couch and Hardman hastily mixed her a drink.
"How about the man in your bed, Betty?" I said. "May I see him?"
She shrugged and waved her hand at a door. "Right through there. He's still out cold."
I nodded and set the glass down on a table that had a coaster on it. I went through the door and looked at the man in the bed. It was a big, fancy bed, oval in shape, and it made the man look smaller than he was. I hadn't seen him in more than a year and there were some new lines in his face and more grey in his hair than I remembered. His name was Michael Padillo and he spoke six or seven languages without accent, was handy with either a gun or a knife, and could make what has been called the best whiskey sour in Europe.
His other chief distinction was that a lot of people thought he was dead. A lot more hoped that he was.CHAPTER 2
The last time I had seen Michael Padillo he had been falling off a barge into the Rhine. There had been a fight with guns and fists and a broken bottle. Padillo and a Chinese called Jimmy Ku had gone over the side. Somebody had been aiming a shotgun at me at the time and the shotgun had gone off, so I was never sure whether Padillo had drowned or not until I received a postcard from him. It had been mailed from Dahomey in West Africa, contained a one-word message—"Well"—and had been signed with a "P." He had never been much of one to write.
On dull days after the postcard came I sometimes sat around and drank too much and speculated about how Padillo had made it from the Rhine to the West Coast of Africa and whether he liked the climate. He was good at getting from one place to another. When he was not helping to run the saloon that we owned in Bonn he had been on call to one of those spooky government agencies that kept sending him to such places as Lodz and Leipzig and Tollin. I never asked what he did; he never told me.
When his agency decided to trade him for a couple of defectors to the East, Padillo tried to buy up his contract. He succeeded that spring night when he fell off the barge into the Rhine about a half-mile up river from the American Embassy. His agency wrote him off and no one from the Embassy ever came around to inquire about what happened to the nice man who used to own half of Mac's Place in Bad Godesberg.
Padillo's attempt to retire from the secret-agent dodge had involved both of us in a trip to East Berlin and back. During our absence somebody had blown up the saloon in revenge for some real or imagined slight so I collected the insurance money, got married, and opened Mac's Place in Washington a few blocks up from K Street, west of Connecticut Avenue. It's dark and it's quiet and the prices discourage the annual pilgrimages of high school graduating classes.
I stood there in the bedroom and looked at Padillo for a while. I couldn't see where he had been cut. The covers were up to his neck. He lay perfectly still in the bed, breathing through his nose. I turned and went back into the living-room with the white carpet.
"How bad is he hurt?" I asked Hardman.
"Got him in the ribs and he bled some. Mush say that boy damn near got both those cats. Moved nice and easy and quick, just like he'd been doin it all his life."
"He's no virgin," I said.
"Friend of yours?"
"What you gonna do with him?" Betty said.
"He's got a small suite in the Mayflower; I'll move him there when he wakes up and get somebody to stay with him."
"Mush'll stay," Hardman said. "Mush owes him a little."
"Doctor Lambert say he wasn't hurt bad, but that he's all tired out—exhaustion," Betty said. She looked at her watch. It had a lot of diamonds on it. "He'll be waking up in bout half an hour."
"I take it Doctor Lambert didn't call the cops," I said.
Hardman sniffed. "Now what kind of fool question is that?"
"I should have known. May I use your phone?"
Betty pointed it out. I dialed a number and it rang for a long time. Nobody answered. The phone was the pushbutton kind so I tried again on the chance that I had misdialed or mispunched. I was calling my wife and I was having a husband's normal reactions when his wife fails to answer the telephone at one-forty-five in the morning. I let it ring nine times and then hung up.
My wife was a correspondent for a Frankfurt paper, the one with the thoughtful editorials. It was her second assignment in the States. I had met her in Bonn and she knew about Padillo and the odd jobs he had once done for the quietly inefficient rival of the CIA. My wife's name was Fredl and before she married me it was Fraulein Doktor Fredl Arndt. The Doktor had been earned in Political Science at the University of Bonn and some of her tony friends addressed me as Herr Doktor McCorkle, which I bore well enough. After a little more than a year of marriage I found myself very much in love with my wife. I even liked her.
I called the saloon and got Karl. "Has my wife called?"
"The Congressman still there?"
"He's closing up the place with coffee and brandy. The tab is now $24.85 and he's still looking for two votes a precinct. If he had had them, he could have made the runoff."
"Maybe you can help him look. If my wife calls, tell her I'll be home shortly."
"Where're you at?"
"Right before the at," I said. Karl had no German accent, but he had learned his English from the endless procession of Pfc's who came out of the huge Frankfurt PX during the postwar years. As a seven-year-old orphan, he had bought their cigarettes to sell on the black market.
"Never end a sentence with a preposition," he recited.
"Not never; just seldom. I'm at a friend's. I have to run an errand so if Fredl calls, tell her I'll be home shortly."
"See you tomorrow."
Hardman raised his six feet, four inches of large bone and hard muscle from a chair, skirted around Betty as if she would bite, and walked over to mix another drink. He was as close to a racketeer as Washington had to offer, I suppose. He was far up in the Negro numbers hierarchy, ran a thriving bookie operation, and had a crew of boosters out lifting whatever they fancied from the city's better department stores and specialty shops. He wore three- or four-hundred dollar suits and eighty-five dollar shoes and drove around town in a bronze Cadillac convertible talking to friends and acquaintances over his radio-telephone. He was a folk hero to the Negro youth in Washington and the police let him alone most of the time because he wasn't too greedy and paid his dues where it counted.
Oddly enough I had met him through Fredl, who had once done a feature on Negro society in Washington. Hard-man ranked high in one clique of that mysteriously stratified social realm. After the story appeared in the Frankfurt paper, Fredl sent him a copy. The story was in German, but Hardman had had it translated and then dropped around the saloon carrying a couple of dozen long-stemmed roses for my wife. He had been a regular customer since and I patronized his bookie operation. Hardman liked to show the translation of the feature to friends and point out that he should be regarded as a celebrity of international note.
Holding three drinks in one giant hand, he moved over to Betty and served her and then handed one to me.
"Did my partner come off a ship?" I asked.
"Flyin a Liberian flag and believe it or not was out of Monrovia. She's called the Frances Jane and was carryin cocoa mostly."
"Mush wasn't picking up a pound of cocoa."
"Well, it was a little more'n a pound."
"How'd it happen?"
"Mush was waitin to meet somebody off that boat and was just hangin around waitin for him when the two of them jumped him. Next thing he knows he's lyin down and this friend of yours has done stepped in and was mixin with both of them. He doin fine till they start with the knives. One of them gets your friend in the ribs and by then Mush is back up and saps one of them and then they both take off. Your friend's down and out so Mush goes through his pockets and comes up with your address and calls me. I tell him to hang around to see if he can make his meet and if he don't connect in ten minutes, to come back to Washington and bring the white boy with him. He bled some on Mush's car."
"Tell him to send me a bill."
"Shit, man, I didn't mean it like that."
"I didn't think you did."
"Mush'll be back in a little while. He'll take you and your buddy down to the hotel."
I got up and walked back into the bedroom. Padillo was still lying quietly in the bed. I stood there looking at him, holding my drink and smoking a cigarette. He stirred and opened his eyes. He saw me, nodded carefully, and then moved his eyes around the room.
"Nice bed," he said.
"Have a good nap?"
"Pleasant. How bad am I?"
Excerpted from Cast a Yellow Shadow by Ross Thomas. Copyright © 1967 Ross Thomas. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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