Read an Excerpt
An Alan Grofield Novel
By Richard Stark
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1967 Richard Stark
All rights reserved.
Grofield opened his right eye, and there was a girl climbing in the window. He closed that eye, opened the left, and she was still there. Gray skirt, blue sweater, blond hair, and long tanned legs straddling the windowsill.
But this room was on the fifth floor of the hotel. There was nothing outside that window but air and a poor view of Mexico City.
Grofield's room was in semidarkness, because he'd been taking an after-lunch snooze. The girl obviously thought the place was empty, and once she was inside she headed straight for the door.
Grofield lifted his head and said, "If you're my fairy godmother, I want my back scratched."
She jumped a foot, landed like a cat, and backed away to the far wall, staring at him. In the dimness her eyes looked as white as stars, gleaming with panic.
Grofield hadn't expected that big a reaction. He tried to calm her, reassure her, saying, "I mean it. I'm stuck in this bed and my back itches like crazy. If you've got a minute while you're passing through, you could scratch it for me."
She said, "Are you one of them?" Her voice was scratchy with panic.
"That depends. Sometimes I'm one of them and other times it doesn't seem worth the effort. I haven't been one of them lately because I haven't been well."
The glitter was slowly fading from her eyes. In a more human voice she said, "What are you talking about?"
"Be damned if I know. Are we supposed to be talking about something?" He tried to sit up, but the wound in his back gave him a twinge. He grimaced and shook his head. "It gets worse," he said. "Before it gets better, it gets worse."
She came one hesitant step away from the wall. "You're hurt?"
"Nothing, mon capitaine, a flesh wound merely. If only some Florence Nightingale would scratch my back, my recovery would be complete."
"I'll trust you," she said, taking another step closer to the bed. "God knows, I have to trust somebody."
"You wouldn't talk like that if I had full use of my faculties."
All at once she looked at the ceiling, as though afraid it might fall, and then again at Grofield. "Will you help me?"
"Will you scratch my back?"
Impatience was now replacing her departed panic. "This is serious!" she said. "A matter of life and death!"
"There is no such thing, but I tell you what. You scratch my back, I'll save your life. Is it a deal?"
She said, "If you'll let me stay here. For a day or two, just till it's safe."
Grofield smiled. "I've been lying in this bed for days," he said. "I've got nobody to talk to, nothing to read, nothing to do. From time to time I get up and totter to the bathroom and totter back again. When I wake up from a nap, as now, my back is stiff where it was hurt and itches everywhere else. Three times a day the assistant desk clerk, an oily young man with a thick moustache and an offensive smile, brings me a tray of garbage and tells me it's food and I eat it. Darling, if you will sometimes talk to me and at other times scratch my back, you can stay here forever. In fact, I'll pay you to stay here forever."
All at once she smiled. "I like you," she said. "I like your attitude."
"You'll love my back."
She came the rest of the way over to the bed. "Can you sit up?"
"Not yet. Every time I wake up, I'm too stiff to move. Maybe I can roll over."
He gave her his right hand. She tugged and he squirmed and soon he was over on his face, the covers all messed up. She said, "Aren't you wearing anything?"
"I'm wearing the whole bed," he said into the pillow. "Isn't that enough?"
She rearranged the covers, pulling them back up to his waist. "It is now. What's this bandage for?"
She touched it, tentatively. His back was taped and bandaged high on the left side, near the shoulder blade. "What sort of wound?"
"Cupid's arrow. I gazed into the smoky eyes of a lovely señorita, and the next thing I knew, Cupid gave me the shaft."
"You're in trouble, too," she said.
"Not a bit of it. I have the world on a string." He squirmed a bit. "Would you start scratching? Mostly around the bandage."
She started scratching. "Bandages should be changed, you know."
"A contortionist I'm not."
She scratched his back in long, easy strokes. "You say you're not in trouble," she said thoughtfully. "You've been wounded some way—"
"Some way. You're lying here all alone, you obviously don't want a doctor looking at you, you aren't leaving the room at all and—oh!"
"Oh? Keep scratching."
"Sorry. I just realized what it must be."
"What what must be?"
"Your wound. It's a gunshot wound, isn't it? That's why you don't want to let a doctor see it."
"Now let's talk about you."
She said, "The police are looking for you, I bet."
Grofield considered his answer. She didn't seem particularly displeased at the thought of his being wanted by the police, and she was in any case in some kind of a jam herself that evidently didn't include phoning the cops. So it was time to give her a story that would satisfy her and would also keep her quiet later on, in case her own troubles got her mixed up with the law. Grofield took a deep breath and said, "You're right. The police are looking for me."
"I thought so. What did you do?"
"I followed Love," he told her, "wherever it would lead me."
"You're going off into that crazy talk again," she said.
"No, I'm not. It's the truth. I was living in New York, and there I met a woman. A woman as beautiful as she was fickle, as amorous as she was treacherous. She was a Castilian from Mexico City, alabaster skin and ebony hair, married to a man twenty years older than herself, but a powerful political figure in this country. This woman—I dare not speak her name—she and I had a whirlwind affair while she was in New York, and when she returned to Mexico I couldn't help myself, I followed her. We couldn't keep away from one another, and in our passion we were careless."
"He caught you," she said. She sounded just a bit breathless.
Grofield smiled into the pillow. Women prefer to believe a romance every time, and this one was no exception. "You've guessed it," he said. "He returned home unexpectedly, we—"
"In his house? What were you, crazy?"
"An interesting comment. We must discuss your past very soon."
"Never mind that," she said, and playfully slapped him between the shoulder blades. "Tell me what happened."
"It's simply told. He came in, we were in bed, he ran to the dresser and pulled out a gun. I went racing down the hallway, my clothes in my arms, and he shot me in the back as I was going out the front door. I managed to get to a friend of mine, someone I knew from New York who was visiting down here, and he got me to a doctor and then checked me into this hotel. But then his vacation was up and he had to go back to the States. And now it seems the husband has sworn out a warrant against me for burglary and assault, so the Mexico City police are after me."
She stopped scratching and said, "What are you going to do?"
"Don't stop. I don't know what I'll do. My tourist visa, all my papers, I left behind in my lady's bedroom. My friend lent me some money before he left, but once it's gone, I don't know. I've just been lying here, waiting to get better. Once I'm healthy again, I can decide what to do next."
"Maybe you can take refuge in the American Embassy."
"Hardly. I'm not wanted for political reasons. As far as the Mexico City police are concerned, I'm nothing but a common burglar, a housebreaker."
"Well," she said, "misery loves company, so we ought to get along just fine."
She'd swallowed the story whole. Grofield grinned at the pillow and said, "What about you? What brought you climbing through my window just in time to scratch my back?"
"Oh, it's a long story," she said. "It really doesn't matter."
"Fair's fair. I told you my troubles, now you tell me yours."
"Well ... I'm just afraid I'll start crying again if I talk about it."
Grofield twisted half-around in the bed and looked up over his hurt shoulder at her. She did look sad, very small-girlish. "You'll feel better if you talk it out," he said. It was the kind of bushwah line that seemed appropriate under the circumstances, just as the tale of the cuckolded politico had seemed the appropriate kind of bushwah story to tell.
It apparently worked, because she said, "All right, I will. I owe you that much."
Grofield relaxed again, facing front, resting his cheek on the pillow.
The girl said, "My troubles are all about love, too, but a different kind of love from yours." She sounded very puritanical, very disapproving, when she said that. "I love a boy who has no money at all," she said, "and my aunt wants me to marry a man I can't stand."
Could that possibly be legit? Grofield turned his head and looked up at her again, and her face was as guileless as a choir boy's. "Things like that don't happen," he said.
"You may think it's funny," she said, and now her lip had started to tremble, "and I don't blame you if you laugh, but after all, it's my whole life."
"All right, all right. I'm not laughing." Grofield subsided, giving her the benefit of the doubt. After all, even cliches come true every once in a while.
"I know it sounds silly," she said. She'd stopped scratching his back now and was massaging it instead, which felt even better. "I'm so young and all, I suppose I sound foolish. But I do love Tom, and I don't love Brad, and that's all there is to it!"
"I'm for you," Grofield said. He was getting sleepy again.
"My aunt took me away on this so-called vacation," she went on, "to get me away from Tom. And now Brad's down here, too, and my aunt is talking about us getting married right away, right here in Mexico City, and I absolutely refuse to do it. It got so bad, my aunt locked me in my room, because she knows all I want to do is get back home and be with Tom."
"So you tied sheets together," Grofield said drowsily, "and climbed down them to my window."
"But the sheets are still there, hanging out the window. Your aunt will look down, and she'll know you're here."
"She won't believe I stayed here. That's why I want to stay, don't you see? She'll call the police and everything, hire private detectives, have the airport watched, and all the rest of it. She and Brad both. But if I wait here a day or two until they're sure I've slipped out of their grasp, then they'll stop looking so hard and I'll be able to get away. Also, I'll have to wire Tom to send me some money."
"I thought he was broke."
"He can get some, enough for plane fare for me."
"Good for Tom." Grofield closed his eyes and gave himself up to the pleasure of having his back massaged. "Stouthearted Tom," he mumbled, "he's true-blue."
"He's the man I'm going to marry," she said, sounding young and delicious and determined.
"You go to sleep if you want," she said. "Sleep's what you need now, while you recuperate."
"Oh, no," he said. "No, no, I won't be sleeping. I just woke up." Besides, something was bothering him. Wasn't there something she'd said, something when she'd just come in, something ..." Something that didn't connect with this Tom-Brad-aunt story, something ...
"Go on and sleep," she said soothingly. "Rest. Relax. Sleep. I'll be here."
Grofield was as relaxed as a puddle of ketchup, but still that something was tugging at his brain, until all at once he thought: Are you one of them?
That was it, that was what she'd said. Are you one of them, that was the sentence. It didn't make any sense with the aunt story, not a bit of sense. He ought to ask her about that, but somehow speech would take too much effort. In fact, thinking was taking too much effort. Not that he was going to sleep, it was just—
He opened his eyes and knew at once he'd been sleeping, but he had no idea for how long. A minute? Five hours?
He was lying on his back now, staring up at the ceiling. He was abruptly, electrically, immediately awake, as though some sudden noise had jolted him from sleep.
He looked around the room, raising his head from the pillow, and saw the girl standing at the foot of the bed. She had taken his suitcase from the closet, had put it on the rack at the foot of the bed, and had opened it. It stood open now, and she stood on the other side of it, looking at him.
He said, "What have you done?"
"I was going to hang your clothes up," she said. "I saw your suitcase on the closet floor, and nothing on the hangers at all, so I thought I'd empty the suitcase, let your clothes hang their wrinkles out."
"You're too kind," Grofield said bitterly.
She reached down into the suitcase and held up two handfuls of money, American currency. "Maybe you'd better think of a new story to tell," she said.CHAPTER 2
Grofield said, "I wear money."
"That isn't funny," she said. "That isn't at all funny." She threw the double handful of bills back into the suitcase.
"I thought it was pretty humorous," Grofield said. "Not a kneeslapper maybe, but surely worth at least a chuckle, a little smile, a—"
"Oh, stop it. You had me going, I admit it, you had me feeling sorry for you, thinking you had this fantastic romantic adventure, and now you're in desperate trouble, all for love, and all the rest of that malarkey."
"I was rather fond of that story, myself," Grofield admitted.
"Well, you'd better try for a better one," she said.
Grofield considered, and wondered if it was time for the truth. Sometimes the best way to hide the truth is to tell it at a time when your listener expects a lie—a variant on The Purloined Letter. Having already rejected the truth as a lie, the listener is later more likely to misinterpret any inadvertent slips or unforeseen clues that might arise.
This seemed like such a moment, so Grofield smiled a cunning smile and said, "I stole it."
"I've already guessed that part of it. The question is, where?"
"From a gambling casino on an island off the coast of Texas. You see, I'm an actor, and it's impossible to make ends meet these days as an actor in the legitimate theater. Unless you're willing to peddle your integrity to the movie and television people, there's nothing for it—"
"What on earth," she said, "are you talking about?"
"Acting," he said. "Do you realize that in my peak year so far I earned a miserable thirty-seven hundred dollars from acting?"
"What about this money here?" she demanded, pointing at the suitcase.
"Sixty-three thousand dollars. A bunch of us knocked over that gambling casino, and that's my share."
"Gambling casino," she said contemptuously. "Off the coast of Texas. So how do you wind up here?"
"It's a long story," he said.
"By the time you're done making it up," she said, "I suppose it will be. The last story you were Casanova, this time you're Robin Hood. Who are you going to be next time, Flash Gordon?"
"You mean you don't believe me?"
"Of course not," she said.
Grofield hid a grin with a look of mock distress. The fact was, everything he'd just told her was true. He really was an actor, and a moderately good one, tall and lean and darkly handsome, usually cast as the evil brother or weak son or charming knave. But his attitude toward movies and television kept him limited to the poverty-stricken arena of legitimate theater. Happily, he had an outside source of income, a second profession, from which he made a great deal of money indeed.
He was a thief. In company with small groups of other professionals like himself, he took large amounts of money from institutions, never from individuals. Banks, armored cars, jewelry stores, factories, these were the targets. Once or twice a year he went in on a job like that, and made enough to support himself in style while working as an actor.
Excerpted from The Damsel by Richard Stark. Copyright © 1967 Richard Stark. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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