A Parker Novel
By Richard Stark
The University of Chicago Press Copyright © 1965 Richard Stark
All rights reserved.
When the knock came at the door, Parker was just turning to the obituary page. He put the paper down and looked around the room, and everything was clean and ordinary. He walked over and opened the door.
The little guy standing there was dressed like he was kidding around. Dark green trousers, black-and-white shoes, orange shirt with black string tie, tweed sport jacket with leather elbow patches. The fluffy corners of a lavender handkerchief peeped up from his jacket pocket. His left hand was negligently tucked into his trouser pocket, and his right hand was stuck inside his jacket like an imitation of Napoleon. He had the lined and leathery weasel face of an alky or a tout, and he was both. He was somewhere past forty, short of eighty.
He grinned, showing big bad teeth, and said, "Parker, you're an ugly man. You're uglier with the new face, and that's a wonder."
Parker recognized him. His name was Tiftus and he claimed to be a lock man. Parker had never worked with him because he was too unreliable.
Tiftus grinned some more and said, "Invite me in, why don't you? We've got talk to do."
It couldn't be coincidence; this had to be something to do with Joe Sheer. But Parker, to make sure, said, "About what? What talk would we have?"
"Not in the hall, Parker. Where's your manners?"
"Go to hell."
Tiftus kept on grinning. He shook his head and withdrew his right hand from his jacket far enough for Parker to see the silver sparkle of a Hi-Standard .25-caliber automatic. "Be nice," he said. "We have a nice talk about old times. And old friends."
So it was about Joe. Parker stepped back and motioned for Tiftus to come in. Smug as a peacock, Tiftus stepped over the threshold and into Parker's right hand. Parker chopped him midway between belt buckle and automatic, and Tiftus' face turned from tan leather to grey elephant skin. Parker plucked the automatic from his hand, yanked him farther into the room, and shut the door.
Tiftus was making a sound in his throat like an air-raid siren heard from far away. Parker pushed him into the room's one armchair, and went over to the window to look out. Captain Younger was still down there under his cowboy hat, leaning against the fender of his black Ford in the September sunlight. Across the way was the railroad station. Sagamore, Nebraska. The few cars going by on the main street were dusty in the sunlight.
No one else seemed to be hanging around, not outside. If Tiftus had anyone with him, they were either in the lobby downstairs or waiting for him out of sight somewhere.
Parker put the little automatic in the drawer of the writing table and looked over at Tiftus, but he was still sitting ramrod-straight in the chair, forearms clamped to his belly, the air-raid siren still keening far away in the back of his throat.
Parker took the time to finish looking at the paper. He'd already opened it to the obituaries. He looked down the list, and found it, under Joe's alias:
SHARDIN—Joseph T., Sept. 17, no living relations. Funeral Wednesday 10 a.m. Bernard Gliffe Funeral Chapel, Interment Greenlawn Cemetery.
Wednesday; today. Ten a.m. He looked at his watch, and it was after eleven now, so the funeral was probably over. It wouldn't have taken long, with nobody there who knew Joe.
He turned back to the first page and went through the paper completely, reading all the headlines, looking for some reference to the way Joe died, but there was no mention of Joe at all except the obituary notice. The notice didn't say what Joe died of.
There was a photo on page seven of Captain Abner L. Younger and three other stocky types at a Safety First Conference, figuring out how to keep the schoolchildren from being killed by bad drivers. The cowboy hat made it tough to see Younger's eyes.
Parker closed the paper finally and went over to stand in front of Tiftus, who was now breathing again. Tiftus' face had changed color one more time, now being flat white all over except for pained brown eyes and two round red spots of color on leathery cheeks, looking like rouge painted on there to make him look like a clown. He was breathing with his mouth open, and watching Parker with his pained eyes, but he didn't say anything. The bright clothing looked even more out of place than it had before.
Parker said, "You want to talk. Talk."
Tiftus moved his lips, but he didn't say anything. Then he closed his mouth, and swallowed noisily, and licked his tongue across his dry lips, and finally he did talk, saying, "You didn't have to do that." His voice sounded rusty. "I almost threw up," he said. He sounded offended.
Parker said, "How old are you, Tiftus? A hundred? You don't know about guns, at your age? Don't ever show a gun to a man you don't want to kill. You're a moron, Tiftus. Now, what did you want to talk about?"
"Not with you, you bastard." Parker had hurt his feelings, and he was going to pout.
Parker said, "What did Joe die of?"
Tiftus seemed honestly surprised; so surprised, anyway, he forgot about pouting. He said,
"What the hell? How should I know?"
"Weren't you here?"
Parker shook his head, irritated. He rapped Tiftus' chest with a knuckle, and Tiftus winced. He rapped again and said, "Don't ask questions. I ask you a question, what you do next you answer it, you don't ask another question. You ready to try again?"
"You don't have to do like this, Parker. I just come around here friendly, so I figure we ..."
"With a toy gun."
"All right. All right, you're right, I apologize about that." He was recovering at last, coming back up to be the chipper bantam again. "I shouldn't have flashed the gun on you that way."
"I already knew that. Tell me something I don't know."
Tiftus spread his hands in a gesture of peace. "We've got no reason to fight each other, Parker," he said. "We've never been enemies, never in our lives. There's never been any bad blood between us at all."
"There's never been anything between us. When did you get to town here?"
"Just now. What do you think, for Christ's sake? Parker, I haven't even unpacked yet. I got off the train, I came across the street, I saw you coming into the hotel, I got your room number from the desk clerk, that's all. I got a room, one floor up, left my suitcase there and came right down to see you. Why should we work against each other?"
"Why should we work with each other?"
Tiftus was getting sure of himself again, smug again. "Because we're both here," he said. "We're both after the same thing."
"We are? What's that?"
But Tiftus smirked and waggled a finger and got coy. "You know as well as I do, Parker. You want to find out how much I know, is that it?"
What Parker wanted to find out was what the hell Tiftus thought he was talking about. But he couldn't let Tiftus guess he didn't know, so he'd have to fake it and wait for Tiftus to let something slip.
He said, "I don't give a damn what you know. I still don't see any reason to put in with you. I'd never work with you before this because you can't be counted on, and I'm not going to work with you now."
"Ah, but this is different," Tiftus said. "This time you can count on me. You can count on me to be right here in this monotonous little town right down to the finish. You're here, and I'm here, and neither one of us is leaving. If we fight each other, we'll just draw attention to ourselves. If we work together, we'll be done that much sooner."
Parker didn't bother to tell him about Captain Younger, that attention had already been drawn. Instead, he said, "What if I told you I don't know what the hell you're talking about?"
Tiftus laughed and looked cunning and said, "Oh, come on, Parker! What are you doing here, then? I suppose you're here for your health, or you just thought you'd come by for Joe's funeral, is that it?"
Parker considered. Tiftus was stupid in some ways, but clever in others; it wasn't likely he'd tell Parker more than he'd already told. But if Parker kept poking around asking more questions, Tiftus would begin to believe he really didn't know the story after all, and that would be no good.
Parker leaned forward, his left arm straight out, hand resting on the back of the armchair by Tiftus' head. Lowering his voice, he said, "All right, Tiftus, I'll tell you the truth. I'll tell you why I'm really here."
Tiftus cocked his head, the better to listen.
Parker clubbed him across the side of the jaw. Tiftus' head snapped over and bounced off Parker's left forearm. He sagged forward and would have fallen out of the chair, but Parker pushed him back.
Parker went through his pockets. Nothing in the jacket at all but that lavender handkerchief, which turned out to be scented. In the pocket of the orange shirt was an unopened five-pack of plastic-tipped little cigars. In the right-hand trouser pocket was a Zippo lighter inscribed FROM DW TO SF, neither set of initials having any connection with Tiftus. In the left-hand trouser pocket were fifty-seven cents in change, his hotel room key, and a rabbit's foot. In his hip pocket was his wallet, and in the wallet were a Social Security card made out to Adolph Tiftus, a Nevada driver's license, four black-and-white photographs of horses, a photo of Tiftus himself from a coin-operated photo booth, sixty-four dollars in bills, a clipping from a Daily Telegraph column that mentioned his name as present at the opening of Freehold Raceway one prewar season, a small torn-off piece of adding-machine paper with two telephone numbers written on it in pencil, and an obscene photograph in color of a Chinese couple standing up.
Nothing in pockets or wallet told him what Tiftus was doing in Sagamore, Nebraska, a useless town forty miles from Omaha. The telephone numbers were not the Sagamore exchange. There was no race track in the vicinity. Joe Sheer hadn't had anything to do with race tracks, except to hit them maybe sometimes. Joe had never been a gambler of any kind; that was why he was so good, before he retired.
Parker put everything back in Tiftus' pockets except the room key. He picked Tiftus up like a ventriloquist picking up his dummy, threw him over his shoulder, and went over to the hall door.
There was no one in sight in the hall. Parker took the time to go back across the room and get Tiftus' gun out of the dresser and stuff it in his pocket. Then he went out to the hall, locked the room door, and went down towards the red light that showed him where the staircase was.
Tiftus was all bones and leather flesh, as light as a tick. Parker carried him up the one flight and down another deserted hallway, and used Tiftus' key to open the door.
Tiftus hadn't been lying. His suitcase, closed and full, sat on the bed. A camel's hair topcoat, getting a little seedy at collar and cuffs and bottom edge, was sprawled across the armchair in a debonair manner. Tiftus had divested himself of these two things and gone right on down to Parker's room.
Parker went over and dumped Tiftus on his back on the bed. He heard a sound just as he let Tiftus go, and turned. The connecting door to the next room had opened. A woman was standing there in the doorway, wearing a white hotel robe on her left forearm and pink, puffy slippers on her feet and nothing else. She was yellow above, black below, and she'd been out in the sun for a tan while wearing a two-piece bathing suit. She was built heavy but not fat; firm flesh well padded over a big-boned frame. Her face would have been beautiful except that she had the eyes of a pickpocket and the mouth of a whore.
She said, "What the hell are you doing?"
So Tiftus had left three things behind before coming to see Parker: bag, coat, and bag. The other bag had been stashed in an adjoining room to take itself a shower. Parker said, "Go back in there and keep your mouth shut."
"Says you. What happened to my man?"
"Never mind, you. He's little but he's wiry." And about twice her age, if she was the thirty she looked.
Parker said, "I'm the one he had business with. Beat it."
As an afterthought, she held the towel up in front of herself. Now she looked like a calendar in a firehouse. She said, "Not till I find out what happened to poor Adolph."
"He fell over an ambition."
"Is that supposed to be funny?"
Parker walked over and put his hand on the middle of the towel and pushed. He shut the connecting door and threw the bolt lock, then went back over to the bed. The woman rapped on the door a few times, but quit when Parker ignored her. He knew she'd have more sense than to holler for the law or anything like that; connected up with Tiftus, she'd have to know that much.
He took Tiftus' suitcase off the bed, out from under one of Tiftus' sprawled legs, and put it on top of the dresser and opened it. He threw clothing out piece by piece, it all piling up on the floor beside him, but when he was done all he had was an empty suitcase and a lot of junk lying around on the floor. Clothing, toothpaste and toothbrush, tube of zinc ointment, tube of some sort of cream for piles, more obscene photographs of the same bored Chinese couple, box of cartridges for the automatic, hair oil, three astrology magazines. Still nothing to let him know Tiftus' game.
Ask the woman? No, even Tiftus should know enough to keep his business to himself. The woman would be along for after work, not during.
Then wait around for Tiftus to come out of it, and ask him direct? No, the hell with it for now. There wasn't much time, and Tiftus shouldn't be allowed to find out how little Parker knew.
Parker dropped the room key in the empty suitcase and went over to the door. He stopped there to look back, but Tiftus was still out. There was no sound from the woman in the next room. Parker left, closing the door carefully behind himself.
Down to the right were the elevator and the stairs he'd come up just now, but there ought to be a fire exit the other way, one that wouldn't lead to the lobby or any part of the front of the building. Parker went off in that direction and found it right around the first turn, a broad wooden door with FIRE EXIT on it in red letters. It opened rustily, reluctantly. Parker came out onto an exterior staircase running down the clapboard back of the building, an old, wide, wooden fire escape with age-warped banisters. He went down it to a little concrete alley lined with green doors and garbage cans. At the end of it was the street.
Parker stood looking out at the street for a minute before leaving the alley. He didn't see Captain Younger, nor anybody who looked offhand as though he might be working for Captain Younger. Nor anybody who looked as though he might be linked up with Tiftus; though on that score Parker was pretty sure Tiftus was working alone. If there were a second man with him, anyone besides the woman, Parker would have seen some sort of evidence of him by now.
He left the alley and started down the street towards a drugstore on the next corner. He remembered the name from the obituary; in the drugstore he'd get the address and the directions for getting there.
The room stank of flowers and death. Orange light-bulbs shaped like wrinkled mosques shone dimly in wall fixtures on the left, gleaming on the tangled pattern of the wallpaper, muting and deadening in the thick maroon rug and the heavy dark draperies around the doorways. To the right, rotting flowers in green wicker baskets stood around a coffinless bier; a few white rose petals had fallen onto the flat tabletop of the bier and were slowly browning and curling into tiny fists.
Parker stood in the main entrance a minute, getting used to the dimness after the bright sunshine of the street. The room was hollow, muffled, empty of people, with no one standing next to the door near the podium containing the book for visitors to sign, and no one sitting on the maroon mohair sofas in the corner alcoves.
Parker shut the front door and started across the room, his passage making no sound at all on the thick carpet.
Going through the curtained doorway at the far end of the room was like time travel, like leaping across the years out of the muffled darkness of the Victorian era and into the plane geometry of the age of IBM. The walls of this corridor, painted grey, looked like some sort of spackled plastic in a poor imitation of stucco; the ceiling was a gridwork of white sound-proofing panels with small black holes in rows; and the floor was black composition that deadened the sound of Parker's feet almost as much as the maroon rug had in the other room. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Jugger by Richard Stark. Copyright © 1965 Richard Stark. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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