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It was almost quitting time when Toddy met the man with no chin and the talking dog. Almost three in the afternoon.
House to house gold-buyers cannot work much later than three nor much before nine-thirty in the morning. The old trinkets and jewelry they buy are usually stored away. Few housewives will interrupt their after-breakfast or pre-dinner chores to look them up.
Toddy stopped at the end of the block and gave the house before him a swiftly thorough appraisal. It was the last house in this neighborhood. It stood almost fifty yards back from the street, a shingle and stucco bungalow virtually hidden behind an untended foreground of sedge and cedar trees. Crouched at the end of the weed-impaled driveway was a garage, or, rather, Toddy guessed, one end of a three-car garage. An expensive late-model car was in view, and a highly developed sixth sense told Toddy that the other stalls were similarly occupied.
Hesitating, wanting to quit work for the day, Toddy flipped open the lid of the small wooden box he carried and looked inside.
In the concealed bottom of the box were the indispensables of the gold-buying trade: a set of jeweler's scales and weights, a jeweler's loupe -- magnifying eyepiece -- a small triangular-faced file and a tiny bottle of one hundred percent pure nitric acid. In the tray on top was a considerable quantity of gold-filled and plated slum, mingled with the day's purchases of actual gold. The latter included almost an ounce of high-karat dental gold -- bridges, crowns and fillings -- plus an approximate two ounces of jewelry, most of it also of above-average quality.
A man who buys three ounces of gold a day ismaking very good money... if he buys at the "right" prices. And Toddy had bought right. For an investment of twenty-two dollars, he had acquired roughly eighty dollars' worth of gold.
It had been a good day, as good as the average, at least. He was under no financial pressure to work longer. If he knocked off now, just a little early, he could miss that clamoring and hopeless chaos which is Los Angeles during rush hours. He could be back in town inside an hour or less.
Elaine always slept late -- of necessity. If he got back to the hotel early enough, he might be there before she started stirring around. Before she had a chance to raise any of that peculiarly hideous hell of which only she was capable.
Toddy lighted a cigarette fretfully, all but decided to begin the long trudge back to the bus stop. Still, if he quit early today, he would do it again. It might become a habit with him, complemented by the equally dangerous habit of starting to work late. Eventually, he would be working no more than an hour a day. And then the day would come when he would not work at all. That would be the end, brother. The end for him and a much quicker and more unpleasant end for Elaine. For regardless of her vain and frequent boasting, no one else but he would put up with her indefinitely.
With a shrug, he ground out the cigarette beneath his heel and took a decisive step up the walk. Swearing silently, he stopped again. Dammit, it was almost three -- only ten minutes of. And it was such a hell of a gloomy day. Smog had settled over the city like a sponge. Gray, dank, sun-obscuring smog. Even if Elaine was all right when she awakened, the smog would start her off. She'd be depressed and blue, and if he wasn't there...
Not only that, but he would be wasting his time at this particular house. Obviously, wealthy people lived here, despite the air of desolation. And wealthy people, even when they were inclined to dispose of their old gold, usually knew its value too well to make the transaction profitable.
"Sharp" gold-buyers have no contact with the law... willingly. The law, as they well know, takes a very dim view of their activities. Their licenses may be in order; they may have done nothing provably illegal. Still, a steady stream of complaints flows in their wake, and the police become irritated. The police reason that a man who persuades a housewife to sell him a hundred-dollar watch for five possesses no very high moral tone. He need get out of line very little, rub them the wrong way in the slightest, to be jailed for investigation and eventually "floated" out of town. Toddy had stayed clear of the police so far, and he intended to keep right on doing so. There'd be no floater for him if he was ever picked up. Once they fingerprinted him, they'd be passing him from city to city until he got train sick. He couldn't remember all the places where he was wanted, but he knew there were a great many.
But -- and he hated to admit it, in this instance -- he was in little danger from the police unless he deliberately and flagrantly annoyed them. If he had run out of cards, the situation would have been different. But he had not run out; he was always careful to keep supplied. His reluctant fingers found one now, drew it from the breast pocket of his smart tweed coat.
The Los Angeles Jewel & Watch Co. was a side-street watch-repair shop. Its owner was a beer-loving, bighearted little Dutchman named Milt Vonderheim.
Most wholesale buyers of precious metals give their door-to-door men the same kind of skinning that the latter deal out to their clients. They downgrade your ten-karat gold to eight; they weigh coin and sterling silver together; they "steal" your platinum at a price merely twice as high as that of twenty-four-karat gold. But tubby little Milt, with his beer breath and perpetual smile, was the golden exception to the base rule of other buyers.... So a man needed his money every night -- was that a reason to rob him blind? So he had no regular residence in the city and was at the mercy of one who did -- should you charge him a profit for not speaking to the police?
Milt didn't think so. Milt's prices were only a few cents lower than those of the U.S. Mint, to whom he sold the stuff which Toddy and a number of other young men sold to him. Milt paid five dollars a pennyweight -- one twentieth of a troy ounce -- for platinum. If you'd have a lean day, he was very apt to upgrade your stuff; pay you fourteen-karat prices, say, for ten.
Nor was that all Milt did: fat, shabby little Milt, edging deeper and deeper into poverty. Milt supplied these cards which were literally worth their weight in gold if a cop stopped you. A cop wouldn't bother you when you showed that card, unless he had to. A transient gold-buyer was one thing. A special representative of a long-established local firm, no matter how small, was something else.
Milt had started Toddy out as a gold-buyer a year ago. He had trained him, stood by him through the perils that beset the trade. He had trained other men, too, Toddy knew, most of those who now sold to him, and he stood by them also. But he did not treat them quite the same as he did Toddy. He was always inviting Toddy back into his shop apartment for a beer or a chat. He was always bragging of him.
"That Toddy," he would boast to the other buyers, "from him you could well take a lesson. Regularity, steadiness, that iss the lesson vot Toddy should give you. While you boys are putting on your pants or drinking coffee, Toddy has already made fife dollars."
Toddy's lean face flushed a little as he remembered those boasts. Resolutely, he brushed a bit of cigarette ash from his whipcord trousers, made a slight adjustment on the collar of his tan sports shirt, and turned his pebbled-leather brogans up the walk to the house.
It was even farther away than it had appeared from the street, and he had an uneasy feeling of being watched from the dark interior behind the rusted screen door. But, hell, what was there to be nervy about? He wasn't giving the police any trouble and they weren't giving him any. And what else was there besides a slammed door or a dog? If he was starting to let things like that bother him, he might as well do a high brody right now. He and Elaine together.
He stepped lightly across the porch, splattered with green segments from the cedars, and raised his hand to knock. He jerked it back, startled. "Yes?" said a man's sharp-soft voice. "What is it? You are selling something, please?"
The man must have been standing right in the door, hidden by the rusted screen and the shadowed room inside. Toddy blinked his eyes, trying to get the daylight out of them, but he still couldn't see the guy. All he knew about him was his voice -- a Spanish-sounding voice.
"Not at all, sir," said Toddy, with energetic joviality. "I'm not selling a thing. A friend of yours suggested that I call on you. If I can give you my card..."
The screen opened and a bony, hair-tufted hand emerged. Deftly, it plucked the card from his fingers and disappeared. Toddy shifted uncomfortably.
This was all wrong, he knew. The spiel was off-key here, the gimmick was out of place. He had learned to use the card as a door-opener -- to get 'em curious. To force them outside, or to get him in. He had learned to mention a neighbor, or, better still, a "friend." If they fell for it -- and why shouldn't some neighbor or friend have suggested a call? -- it was all to the good. If they got funny or sharp, he could have the "wrong house," lie out of it some way.
You had to do those things.
Toddy wished that he hadn't done them here.
He looked behind him, down the long inviting walk. He gave a slight hitch to his trousers and snuggled the box firmly under his arm. He'd give some excuse and beat it out of here. Or just beat it without saying anything. After all, he -- he--
The screen door swung open, wide.
Through it, with stately but threatening grace, stalked the biggest dog Toddy had ever seen. He did not realize just how big it was until a moment later.
He knew very little about dogs, but he recognized this one as a Doberman. Slowly, it lowered its great pear-shaped head to his feet and examined each in turn. With awful deliberation, the animal sniffed each leg. It looked up at him thoughtfully, appraising him.
Silently, it reared up on its hind legs.
The front paws came down on Toddy's shoulders. The black muzzle almost rested against his nose. Toddy stared into the beast's eyes. He stared unwinkingly, afraid to move or speak. He stopped breathing and was too fear-stricken to know it.
The screen door closed, slammed at last by its aged spring. As from a great distance, Toddy heard the man's amused chuckle, a seemingly unending chuckle; then, a sharp "Perrito!" -- Spanish for "little dog."
The dog's ears pricked to attention. "Ssor-ree," the dog said courteously. "Ssss ssor-ree."
"D-don't m-mention it," Toddy stammered. "A mistake. I'm-mean--"
The dog dropped back down to the porch and took up a position behind him. The screen door opened again.
"Please to come in," said the man.
"I don't -- that d -- dog," said Toddy. Dammit, was he dreaming this? "Won't he... will he hurt anyone?"
"On the contrary," the man said, and, helplessly, Toddy stepped inside. "He kills quite painlessly."
Copyright © 1954 by Jim Thompson
Posted March 19, 2015
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