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James M. Cain (1892–1977) was one of the most important authors in the history of crime fiction. Born in Maryland, he became a journalist after giving up on a childhood dream of singing opera. After two decades writing for newspapers in Baltimore, New York, and the army—and a brief stint as the managing editor of the New Yorker—Cain moved to Hollywood in the early 1930s. While writing for the movies, he turned to fiction, penning the novella The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934). This tightly wound tale of passion, murder, and greed became one of the most controversial bestsellers of its day, and remains one of the foremost examples of American noir writing. It set the tone for Cain’s next few novels, including Serenade (1937), Mildred Pierce (1941), Double Indemnity (1943), and The Butterfly (1947). Several of his books became equally successful noir films, particularly the classic 1940s adaptations of Mildred Pierce and Double Indemnity. Cain moved back to Maryland in 1948. Though he wrote prolifically until his death, Cain remains most famous for his early work.
THE REVOLVING DOOR REVOLVED, and into the bright mountain morning stepped a girl in slacks, a red ribbon around her hair. She was an uncommonly pretty girl, with blond curls showing that glint of gold which cannot be obtained with chemicals, and a skin with high, dappled flush. Yet her good looks went beyond prettiness, and often touched beauty. For the actual moulding of her face was plain, with a wistful, haunting sadness that reflected the soul of every homely girl in the world; but she had a curious trick of seeing far horizons, of smiling at invisible stars that gave her a rapt, exalted expression. In contrast with this, her figure was wholly sinful. It may have been part of the reason, indeed, for the spirituality of her face, for its breath-taking voluptuousness could not be concealed under any sort of clothing, and condemned her, no matter where she went or how, to the role of nude descending perpetual public staircases; thus she moved as though withdrawn into herself, with an abstracted, Godivanian saunter that was aware of nothing nearer than the sky.
She set off at this gait now, but at once noticed the little knot of children across the street, who had stopped playing and begun staring at her the moment she left the hotel. Smiling at them, she crossed over, shook hands, asked names, and distributed chewing gum from her handbag. Then she recrossed the street and resumed her way.
She had gone only a few steps, however, when she heard her name called, and turned to behold a spectacle as unusual in its way as she was in hers. Estimating conservatively, one would have said there was 6' 2½" of man approaching, mounted on 2½" of bootheel, and mounting 1' of hat, making a rough, overall height of 7½' of lumbering, graceful lankiness. But this 7½' had strange, not to say bizarre aspects. There were the flapping, workworn, cowhide chaparajos, covering long, indeterminate legs; a holster over the right hip, from which protruded the butt of a big pistol; a heavy flannel shirt, featuring 3" x 2" blue-and-red checks; and the fawn-colored hat already noted, which was big as well as tall, and probably held 12 gal. Even as this was being swept off in a fine, Rocky Mountain arc, she was staring in unconcealed wonder, and said: "Darling, I see it, but I still don't believe it. Nothing personal, but I just don't think they make them like that any more."
"You mean these chaps?"
"I mean all of it."
"I been breaking a colt, and they save pants. Well, I started out as a packer, and kind of got used to the clothes that kind of work calls for."
"What's a packer?"
"Oh"—with a wave at the snow-capped Sierras in the distance—"he packs stuff up in those mountains. Miners, prospectors, or just plain dudes, they've all got to be packed, or they'll be getting a little hungry along about the second day out."
"And that was your start in life?"
"I owned eight mules before I could vote."
"And now?—No, don't tell me, I see it all, as it were a crystal ball. Now you rope. You rope, with gags. Last year you M.C'd. all the rodeos in the Western Panhandle of Texas, and one in northern Wyoming. And when I get back to California, you want me to get you a part in a Western. Well, here's where it gets good: I'm going to do it. So far as I'm concerned, you've got what it takes. But hold!—a horrible thought enters my mind. You don't sing, do you? You wouldn't yodel Home on the Range? You're not that kind of a cowboy?"
Had she been less concerned with the clothes, she might have noticed his eyes, which were the most arresting, as well as the most Western thing about him. They were a light, china blue, with a look of bland, childish innocence in them, until something troubled him, when they seemed to develop the eerie faculty of seeing right through whatever they focused on. They focused now on his hat, which he was pulling through his fingers in such a way as to cause the silk binding to make a harsh, rasping noise. Then, rather slowly, he spoke: "Miss Shoreham, I'm not no kind of a cowboy. I'm Sheriff of this county, and as I saw by the papers it was your last day in town, I was going to ask you to step over to my office and sign a couple of legal papers. But as it was to be more of a joke than anything else, it won't be necessary, and I'm sorry if I bothered you."
The 7½' grew to 8' as he bowed, put on the hat, and strode off in the direction of a group of public buildings down the street. She went as far as the clear mountain stream that boiled its way through the city, then stopped and stood frowning down at the water. Then she turned, walked back to the hotel, and went in. To the clerk she said: "Can you direct me to the Sheriff's office?"
Three startled deputies, reading the morning paper, jumped to their feet when she came in, and she spent a minute with them. Like most actresses, she took delight in the commotion she caused, and had a real affection for rough men. Unlike most of them, she had a marvelous memory for names, for she had been a restaurant hostess, and had a mind like a card index. As with the children, she asked names now, smiling a little at the surprise she would cause when, on leaving, she would get all the names straight. Then she asked the Chief Deputy, whose name was Flynn, to announce her to his chief.
The sheriff seemed a little confused as she strode into his private office, and he covered something with a filing basket before taking her proffered hand. The chaps, gun, and hat hung on a tree now, and he had put on a coat. But it was not the change in his appearance which caused her to stop in the middle of her greeting and stare down at the desk. It was something familiar about one corner of the picture under the basket. She pulled it out: it was a large photograph of herself as Edith Cavell, her most celebrated picture role. Lifting the basket, she found other photographs under the big one: snapshots, blownup candid camera studies, one or two items she had never even seen. She said: "Are these the legal papers?"
"They might be."
Picking up a pen, she leaned over on her elbows. "What's your name?"
She signed the big picture, "To Parker Lucas, the high-mindedest Sheriff I know, with best regards, Sylvia Shoreham." Then on the others she wrote. "To P. L. from S. S." It took a minute or two, and when she was done he said, "That was most kind."
But his eyes were still cold and she looked away. After a short silence she said: "And I want to apologize."
"There's nothing you got to apologize for."
"I trifled with the law."
"The law wasn't after you."
"I trifled with a man."
"Men generally get trifled with."
"Nevertheless, I have to apologize. For shooting past a big moment in my life. For not knowing it was a big moment. I think, from these pictures, from something I felt after you left me just now, that I mean a lot to you, more than you'd be willing to admit, except that I'll make you admit it before I get done. And I treated you like—somebody to chatter at for a minute, and then get rid of with some kind of brusheroo that wasn't too much trouble. Most of the time, if you're in pictures, you can't help that. It's just part of the business. But sometimes it's just dumb. That's why I want to apologize."
If his heart had softened, his face gave no sign. He had got up the moment she came in, and she now went over to him, her mouth thick, her eyes glinting in anger. "Listen, you big lug, Sylvia Shoreham doesn't apologize to every county sheriff, you know."
His face lit with a delighted grin. "Don't she?"
"Gee you look sweet."
She gave his necktie a yank that left both ends dangling down his shirt, then deftly retied it so that instead of looking like a double-wrapped breeching, it looked like a necktie. As she did this she gave a startling take-off of his recent remarks: "Ah'm she'ff dishere county. Ah'm root'n-toot'n-shoot'n man. Ah'm old-time pack'n man, bit haids off eight hot rattlers 'fore Ah could vote. Ah'm bad hombre. Cattle rustlers, train robbers, bandicks, varmints, and bums, take notice and lam out!"
"It's murder, but keep on. I just love it."
"When did you start collecting Shorehams?"
"Three-four-five years ago, when you first came out. You made quite an impression on me in those days."
"Oh in those days."
"Even if I don't like your last pictures."
"Not even Meridian 1212?"
"Specially not Meridian 1212. That cheap, gum-chewing, lolly-gagging telephone operator you were in that picture just made me sick. You know the best picture you ever made?"
"The Glory of Edith Cavell was the best picture that ever was made, if you ask me. I saw it at least twenty times, and I know it by heart, some of it. And how anybody that could make a picture like that could turn around and make some of this junk you've been in, like Sarong Girl and Love Pirate, and I Took the Low Road and Swing Chum. I don't know, and specially I don't know how you could do it. You called it right just now. You mean plenty to me, or did anyway. And I don't mind telling you, here lately you've been giving me the colic bad."
He wasn't smiling, but had turned solemn, and so in a moment did she. After a long, grave silence she said: "You believe in pictures, don't you?"
"I believe in the good they can do."
"I'd like you to know I hated those parts just as much as you did. But, I've been working for men that don't believe in anything about pictures but the money they can make out of them, and Sylvia Shoreham in a tight sarong sells tickets. I had to wear that sarong. It was that kind of contract. But now, I'm happy to say, that's all over." Haltingly, she explained a little about her commitments, and the relation they bore to the man who would be her husband for an hour or so longer, or until the court of this state handed down its decree of divorce. "So you see, it's a little more complicated than you think. It's been all mixed up with a marriage, and a contract, and a lot of personal things that got pretty messy, but that you had to do something about. That's why today is a pretty important day with me. Everything's been pretty well straightened out, and while the papers will say divorce, it'll really be a little Declaration of Independence, so far as I'm concerned. Sort of a Battle Cry of Freedom. This afternoon Sylvia Shoreham starts a new life."
"I'm glad to hear that."
"So you can keep right on talking."
"I probably said too much already."
"You said what I've been needing terribly to hear. I think you believe in a lot of things that Hollywood never heard of, and that I've got to learn all over again if I'm going to do with my life what I want to do with it. So you can begin exactly where you left off. Tell me more about Cavell. And I promise to listen to every word you say."
Before he could say, however, his phone rang, and the conversation indicated an impending visitor. She wigwagged that she was going, but he shook his head. When he hung up he said: "That wasn't anybody but the major. I'm going in the army as soon as I can make my deal, and we generally argue an hour every morning. They'll make me a colonel if I go with the mules, but I'm not keen on remount."
"What do you want?"
"What I want is to fly. I love it. But I'm thirty-two and that's too old, and besides a man ought to do in this war what he can do. Moving stuff in rough country is what I'm good at, so I guess it's the S. O. S."
"Will you have lunch with me?"
"Will a colt eat sugar?"
"I have a sister with me, that's seen me through this ordeal of the divorce. I'd think I want her to meet you. She's younger than I am, and prettier."
"She must be a sight."
"Then, I'll expect you? At the hotel? Around one?"
"At one sharp I'll be there."
They gave each other a long smiling glance, and then she flitted out with the light skip of an actress who has taken a great many exits. She was a patter of feet, a wave of the hand, and a ripple of hair as she went through the outer office; just the same, three names hung in the air as she was gone, and three delighted men looked at each other and said, gee that sure was one swell gal.CHAPTER 2
SHE WAS REALLY GOING to a lawyer's, to await whatever formalities might be indicated on his return from court. But on her way she stopped, to indulge a weakness that had developed during her stay in this city where she was obtaining her divorce: the hazarding of $100 at games of chance before taking up the serious business of the day. The establishment that she entered never closed, its employees working in three shifts of eight hours each, and while it was typical of such places locally, it differed from the great gambling houses of the world, having little of the cold elegance that usually goes with them. Rather it offered gambling along cut-rate lines, and indeed, with the sunlight streaming in, it had some of the petty glitter that one associates with a downtown drugstore. Painted in all sorts of colors, and with all sorts of mirrors in their navels, were whole batteries of slot machines, operating at 5-&-10c limits, and having their licenses framed beneath them; along the walls were electric Keno boards, and in front of them long troughs filled with corn, for keeping score. Wheels of fortune were everywhere, some of them the noisy old-fashioned kind, with a leather finger clicking between the whirling pegs and real money under their numbers; others silent, a revolving light serving all necessary purposes. Every hour on the hour a functionary circulated with a bucket, into which the clientele dropped the tickets that had been issued them for drinks bought at the bar; a few minutes later there was a drawing, and the holder of the winning number received $5.
Then of course, there were the roulette wheels, faro layouts, poker tables, dicing pits, and other mahogany-and-baize installations for the carriage trade, as well as racing results for all.
Sylvia Shoreham's arrival was an event, even in this preoccupied place, and the proprietor hurried forward to meet her. His name was Tony, and he was a grandson of one of the Italian charcoal burners of the sixties, who settled the Sierras to furnish various cities with their fuel, and then left the horde of descendants who so largely populate that part of the country today. Like most gamblers, he took pride in not looking like a gambler; he wore the habiliments of a prosperous undertaker, and would have been astonished to learn that God doesn't see much difference. His rocky face breaking into a smile, his thick body inclined at a deferential angle, he advanced briskly, counting chips with his own lily-white hands. "Baronessa!"
"Just an hour or two longer, Tony."
"Ah, today is the day?"
"It's being done now, let us hope. Then the Baroness Adlerkreutz becomes plain Sylvia Shoreham again, and only too glad to be back with the vulgar herd."
But before she could accept her chips, an attendant hurried up, a girl with a green baize apron over her stomach, and said: "There was a message for you, Miss Shoreham. The hotel called, and said your husband is in town, and wants you to ring him at this number."
She handed Sylvia a slip and went back to her dice game. Tony said: "Come into my office, Miss Shoreham. You don't look so good. You look like you better sit down quick."
He led her into a redwood-and-leather office, seated her, and opened a window. But when he produced a bottle of brandy she waved it away. "No thanks, Tony. I'm not sick or anything. It's just—"
"Bad news, hey?"
"I had no idea he was here."
"He trying to block your divorce?"
"I don't think so. I don't see how he can."
"Maybe wants money."
"I imagine it's nothing but some foolish last-minute stunt to get me to change my mind, and incidentally sign a new contract with that picture company I've been trying to break away from for the past two years. Something silly, but nothing serious. But, I don't want him around! I don't want him around the hotel. I don't want him around my sister. I—"
Tony's eye caught the slip of paper in her hand, and he gave a little clk of surprise. "You know that number, Miss Shoreham?"
"No, I don't."
"That's the Galloping Domino."
"Oh, on the road west."
"My other place."
"Your—What's he doing out there?"
Excerpted from Sinful Woman by James M. Cain. Copyright © 1947 James M. Cain. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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