“America's Best Storyteller.” New York Times Book Review
The Fools in Town Are on Our Sideby Ross Thomas
"Hain't we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain't that a big enough majority in any town?" -- Mark Twain
Ross Thomas chose the quotation from Huckleberry Finn as the text of his post World War II story as well as for the title. When Lucifer Dye is released from three months in a Hong Kong prison, debriefed, handed a false passport, a new wardrobe and a
"Hain't we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain't that a big enough majority in any town?" -- Mark Twain
Ross Thomas chose the quotation from Huckleberry Finn as the text of his post World War II story as well as for the title. When Lucifer Dye is released from three months in a Hong Kong prison, debriefed, handed a false passport, a new wardrobe and a $20,000 check, his haughty control makes it clear that Dye's career with his country has been permanently terminated. But a good agent is always in demand, and just a few hours later Dye is being interviewed for a highly ingenious position. Victor Orcutt, although a not very good imitation of a British pre-war gent, has creative talents of his own. He has his sights a small southern city, with the ordinary run-of-the-mill corruption one would expect in such a place. The canny Orcott knows there's no profit in that . His creed is "To get better, it must be much worse." He and his two associates have looked up Dye's history, and he now offers the ex-spy's a mission. For two and a half times the government's bounty, Dye is to thoroughly corrupt the town. And the sly Dye takes the offer.
“America's Best Storyteller.” New York Times Book Review
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The Fools in Town are on Our Side
By Ross Thomas
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1970 Ross E. Thomas
All rights reserved.
The debriefing took ten days in a sealed-off suite in the old section of the Army's Letterman General Hospital on the Presidio in San Francisco and when it was finished, so was my career — if it could be called that.
They were polite enough throughout, perhaps even a bit embarrassed, providing that they felt anything at all, which I doubted, and the embarrassment may have prompted their unusual generosity when it came to the matter of severance pay. It amounted to twenty thousand dollars and, as Carmingler kept saying, it was all tax-free so that really ran it up to the equivalent of twenty-eight or even thirty thousand.
It was Carmingler himself who handed me the new passport along with the certified check drawn on something called the Brookhaven Corporation. He did it quickly, without comment, much in the same manner as he would shoot a crippled horse — a favorite perhaps, and when it was done, that last official act, he even unbent enough to pick up the phone and call a cab. I was almost sure it was the first time he had ever called a cab for anyone other than himself.
"It shouldn't take long," he said.
"I'll wait outside."
"No need for that."
"I think there is."
Carmingler produced his dubious look. He managed that by sticking out his lower lip and frowning at the same time. He would use the same expression even if someone were to tell him it had stopped raining. "There's really no reason to —"
I interrupted. "We're through, aren't we? The loose ends are neatly tied off. The crumbs are all brushed away. It's over." I liked to mix metaphors around Carmingler. It bothered him.
He nodded slowly, produced his pipe, and began to stuff it with that special mixture of his which he got from some tobacco shop in New York. I could never remember the shop's name although he had mentioned it often enough. He kept on nodding while he filled his pipe. "Well, I wouldn't put it quite that way."
"No," I said, "you wouldn't. But I would and that's why I'll wait outside."
Carmingler, who loved horses if he loved anything, which again was doubtful, rose and walked around his desk to where I stood. He must have been forty or even forty-two then, all elbows and knee joints and what I had long felt was a carefully practiced, coltish kind of awkwardness. The flaming hair that stopped just short of being true madder scarlet half-framed his long narrow face, which I think he secretly wanted to resemble a horse. It looked more like a mule. A stubborn one. He held out his hand.
"Good luck to you."
Sweet Christ, I thought, the firm handshake of sad parting. "By God, I appreciate that, Carmingler," I said, giving his hand a brief, hard grasp. "You don't know how much I appreciate it."
"No need for sarcasm," he said stiffly. "No call for that at all."
"Not for that or for anything else," I said.
"I mean it," he said. "Good luck."
"Sure," I said and picked up the new plastic suitcase that failed utterly in its attempt to resemble cordovan. I turned, went through a door, down a hall, and out onto the semicircular drive where a pair of chained-down mortars that had been made in 1859 by some Boston firm called C.A. & Co. guarded the flagpole and the entrance to Letterman General Hospital, established 1898, just in time for the war with Spain. In the distance, there was Russian Hill to look at.
The cab arrived ten minutes later and I placed the bag in the front seat next to the driver. He turned to look at me.
"Where to, buddy?"
"I haven't thought about it. What do you suggest?"
He looked at me some more with eyes that were too old for his acolyte's face. "You want high-priced, medium high-priced, or cheap?"
"How about the Sir Francis Drake?"
He let me off at the Sutter Street entrance and the desk clerk gave me a room on the seventeenth floor with a view of the Bay Bridge. I unpacked the new plastic suitcase they had given me and hung the two suits and the topcoat in the closet. I was wearing one of the three new suits, the gray one with the small, muted herringbone weave. It had a vest, as did the other two, and I suspected that Carmingler himself must have chosen them. He always wore vests. And smoked a pipe. And fiddled with his Phi Beta Kappa key.
I had been mildly surprised that everything fitted so well until I remembered that they had my exact measurements on file, had had them, in fact, for eleven years and even required new ones every January 15th on the off-chance that I might have developed a penchant for sauce-soaked noodles and ballooned out by thirty pounds or so, or even grown too fond of the bottle, given up eating, and dropped unhealthfully below my normal 162 ½ pounds. They always wanted everything exact. Height, 6' ¼". Neck, 15 ¼". Chest, 41 ½". Waist, 32 ¾. Arm, right, 34 ¼. Arm, left, 34". Shoe 10-B with a double-A heel. Hat, 7 ¼. But they hadn't bought me a hat, just the three suits to replace the gray cotton, pajamalike prison uniform that I had arrived in, plus a top coat and six shirts (all white, oxford cloth, all button-down collars — Carmingler again); six pairs of calf-length socks (all black); one pair of shoes: black, plain-toed, pebble-grained and expensive; six pairs of Jockey shorts; one belt, black alligator, and four ties (awful).
I estimated that it had cost them around seven or eight hundred dollars. Less than a thousand anyhow. If I'd been more important, they might have gone as high as fifteen hundred, but what they had spent accurately reflected my former niche in the hierarchy. It also reflected their fussy conviction that no ex-colleague, regardless of how wretched or ignominious, should be shunted into the real world unless he were properly (if not richly) attired.
The contents of the closet and the bureau were my sole possessions other than the new passport and the check for $20,000. I also owned a renewed aversion, or perhaps only antipathy, toward the word debriefing, but that didn't have any cash value.
After the clothing was stored away I called down to the desk to find out the time and where the nearest bank was and whether it was open. I had no watch. It had been taken from me at the prison, at that damp, sweating, gray stone structure that the British had erected almost a century ago. When I was released after three months, nobody had ever heard of the watch. I hadn't really expected to get it back, but I had asked anyway.
The man at the desk said the nearest bank was just up the street, that it was now 12:36, that the bank was open, and that if I didn't have a watch I could look out the window at an insurance building whose flashing tower sign would tell me not only the time, but also the temperature. I told the man at the desk to send up a bottle of Scotch.
When the sad-faced bellhop handed me the bill for the whisky, I was surprised at its cost.
"It's gone up," I said.
"Talk," I said. "It's still cheap."
I signed the bill, adding a twenty percent tip, which made the bellhop happy, or at least a little less morose. After he left I mixed a drink and stood by the window gazing out over the city with its bridge in the background. It was one of those spectacularly fine days that San Francisco manages to come up with sometimes in early September: a few quiet clouds, an indulgent sun, and air so sparkling that you know somebody's eventually going to bottle it. I stood there in my room on the seventeenth floor and sipped the Scotch and stared out at what was once touted as America's favorite city. Maybe it still is. I also thought about the future, which seemed to offer less than the past, and about the past, which offered nothing at all. Carmingler had seen to that.
I finished the drink and went in search of the bank, which turned out to be a branch of Wells Fargo. One of its minor officers, a young man with a handlebar mustache, seemed busily idle so I told him I wanted to open a checking account. The mustache jiggled a little at that and I assumed that the jiggle was a smile of welcome or at least acquiescence. A nameplate on his desk said that he was C. D. Littrell and I tried to remember whether I had ever seen a bank official with a handlebar mustache before and decided that I hadn't except in some old Westerns and then he had usually turned out to be a crook. But this was Wells Fargo and perhaps its traditions encouraged handlebar mustaches.
After I sat down Littrell produced some forms and the forms contained questions to which I would have to think up some answers. I decided to tell the truth when convenient and to lie when it wasn't.
"Your full name?" Littrell said.
"Dye, D-y-e. Lucifer C. Dye." The C stood for Clarence but I saw no sense in mentioning that. Lucifer was bad enough.
Another good question. "Temporarily the Sir Francis Drake."
The mustache twitched slightly and this time I knew it wasn't a smile. Littrell looked up from his writing and stared at me. I returned his gaze, gravely, I hoped.
"How long do you plan to stay there?" he said, coming down hard on the "there" as if he felt that anyone who stayed at a hotel for an extended period of time was either profligate or flighty. Perhaps both.
"I'm not sure," I said.
"You should let us know as soon as you get a permanent address."
"I'll let you know."
"Your previous address?"
"Hong Kong. You want the street number?"
Littrell shook his head, a little sadly, I thought, and wrote down Hong Kong. He would have been happier had I said Boise or Denver or even East St. Louis.
"Your previous bank?"
"Barclays," I said. "Also in Hong Kong."
"I mean in the States."
"None at all — ever?" He seemed a little shocked.
"None at all."
This time Littrell did shake his head. I couldn't decide whether it was a gesture of disapproval or commiseration. "Where are you employed, Mr. Dye?" he said, and from his tone I knew he expected the worst.
"Your place of business."
"The Sir Francis Drake."
Littrell had given up. He was scribbling hastily now. "What kind of business, Mr. Dye?"
"The name of your firm?"
"I haven't decided yet."
"I see," Littrell said, a little glumly, and wrote down unemployed. "How much would you like to deposit?"
I could tell that if I said fifty dollars, he would be pleasantly sur prised. If I said a hundred, he would be ecstatic.
"Twenty thousand," I said. "No, better make it nineteen thousand, five hundred."
Littrell muttered something to himself which I didn't catch and then pushed two cards over to me. "These are the signature cards. Would you sign them the way that you'll be signing your checks?"
I signed the cards and handed them back along with the certified check for $20,000. Littrell examined the check carefully and for a moment I thought he might even sniff it for some telltale odor. But he went on examining it, knowing it was good and, I thought, hating the fact that it was. He turned it over and looked for the endorsement. There was none. "Would you endorse it, please, Mr. Dye?" I wrote my name for the third time.
"Do you have some identification?"
"Yes," I said. "I have some."
We waited. He was going to have to ask for it. After fifteen seconds or so he sighed and said, "May I see it, please?"
I produced the passport, newly issued, never used, which said that my hair was brown, that my eyes were hazel, that I had been born in 1933 in a place called Moncrief, Montana, and if anyone still cared, I was a businessman. It didn't mention that my slightly crooked teeth had just been cleaned by an Army dentist, a major who wanted desperately to get back into civilian practice.
Littrell accepted the passport, glanced at it, gathered up the forms, and excused himself. He headed for a glass and wood enclosed office a few feet away which barricaded an older man from those who dropped by wanting to borrow money. The older man's head was pinkly bald and his eyes were colored a suspicious blue.
Littrell didn't try to keep his voice down and I easily overheard the conversation, "A hot shot with a certified twenty thousand," he said. "Regular checking."
The older man looked at the check first, riffled through the forms, and then examined the passport. Carefully. He pursed his lips for a long moment and finally initialed the papers. "It's only money," he said, and I had the feeling that he was saying it for the four-hundredth time that year.
Littrell took the check and the forms, disappeared behind the tellers' cages, and then came back to his desk where, still standing, he counted $500 on to its surface and then counted them again into my hand. He sat down after that, reached into a desk drawer, and produced a checkbook and some deposit forms, which he handed me.
"These checks are only temporary as are the deposit slips," he said. "We'll mail you a supply with your name and address printed on them, if you get a permanent address."
I ignored the "if" and put the checks and deposit slips in my inside jacket pocket. The $500 I folded and casually stuck in my right-hand trouser pocket, which seemed to irritate Littrell. That's probably why I did it — that and because I had no billfold or wallet or anything to put in one other than the $500. No driver's license or credit cards. No snapshots or old letters, not even a pocket calendar from the corner liquor store. The only proof that I was who I said I was rested with my new passport that, with a few exceptions, allowed me to journey to any spot in the world that struck my fancy, providing I could think of one that did which, as a matter of fact, I couldn't.
I said goodbye to Littrell who gave me a final twitch of his mustache. Once outside the bank, I turned right up Sutter Street. I was looking for a jewelry store so that I could buy a watch and it was at least ten minutes before I found one and five minutes before I spotted the man in the brown suit who was tailing me and seven minutes before I came to the pleasant realization that I really didn't give a damn if he followed me to the ends of the earth — which some thoughtful San Franciscans claimed lay just across the bridge in Oakland.CHAPTER 2
It had all begun, the entire mess, or my fall from grace, I suppose it could be called, when they overheaded the instructions by commercial rate from the home office of Minneapolis Mutual, which was located, for some unfathomable reason, in Las Vegas. The message arrived in Hong Kong on May 20th. It was in an antiquated, one-time code that was keyed that week to page 356 of the thirteenth edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations which turned out to be excerpts from Oliver Goldsmith's The Deserted Village. It took me a good half hour to break it down and I felt that any reasonably bright computer could have made it in seconds and, for all I knew, might already have done so. Decoded, the message was still childishly cryptic, as if whoever had sent it clung to a wistful hope that it would be meaningless to anyone but me. Its four words read: Cipher the Village Statesman.
It was one of their more asinine orders, a shade dumber than most, so I tore everything up and flushed it down the toilet. I then called in Joyce Jungroth, my Minnesota-born secretary who after three years still clung to her romantic notions about Hong Kong, had a bad complexion, and always smelled faintly of Noxzema. I handed her the Bartlett's.
"Get rid of it," I said.
She sighed and accepted the book. "Don't you ever use dirty novels, something that I could read?"
"You're not supposed to read them; you're supposed to get rid of them."
I suspected that she took the books home to her apartment. Not that it mattered, because the method — inexcusably old-fashioned, outdated, even juvenile — was used but once or twice a year and always by someone like Carmingler whose inbred distrust of technological innovations caused him to choose kitchen matches over a butane lighter, a bicycle (whenever possible) over a car, and even a knife over a revolver. You couldn't pay Carmingler enough to travel by subway.
By then I had spent ten years in Hong Kong as managing director of an American-owned life insurance company called Minneapolis Mutual. During that time I had personally sold three policies, all straight life. I was running six agents, supposedly insurance salesmen, who worked the Southeast Asian territory. They were fortunate that they didn't have to live on their commissions because their combined efforts over the decade had brought the total number of Minneapolis Mutual policies sold up to an even dozen.
Excerpted from The Fools in Town are on Our Side by Ross Thomas. Copyright © 1970 Ross E. Thomas. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Ross Thomas is ranked as one of the very top thriller writers by his fellow authors, and his readers loudly agree. Two Edgar Awards, and other prizes, only complement the abundant praise that Thomas has received.
Thomas died in 1995, and since then all but one of his twenty-five novels have gone out of print. This should never have happened to the man of whom The New Yorker has said "Very few...are as consistently entertaining...even fewer can match him for style and power." Minotaur is proud to remedy this situation by reissuing Thomas's novels. So start reading, and prepare to join Ross Thomas's legions of admiring fans.
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This is my favorite Ross Thomas novel - great characters, a fun story, plenty of twists, and the author's superior turns of phrase. A wonderful novel.