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The first morning when I showed up on the lot he called me into the office and wanted me to go out in the country somewhere and repossess a car.
"I'm tired of fooling with that bird," he said. "So don't take any argument. Bring the car in. Miss Harper'll go with you and drive the other one back."
I was working on commission, and there wasn't any percentage in that kind of stuff. I'd just started to tell him to get somebody else to run his errands when I saw the girl come in and changed my mind.
He introduced us. "Miss Harper," he grunted, shuffling through the papers on his desk. "Madox is the new salesman."
"How do you do?" I said. She was cool in summer cotton and had very round arms, just slightly tanned, and somehow she made you think of a long-stemmed yellow rose.
She nodded and smiled, but when he told her about going with me to pick up the car I could see she didn't like it.
"Can't we wait a little?" she asked doubtfully. "I think I can collect those back payments. I did once before. Let me go out and talk to Mr. Sutton myself."
He gestured curtly with the cigar. "Forget it, Gloria. We've got more to do than chase him all over hell every month to get our money. Bring in the car."
We took a '50 Chevy off the lot and started out. I drove. "You'll have to tell me where," I said.
"Straight through town and south on the highway."
The business district was only one street about three blocks long. There was a cotton gin beyond that, and a railroad station, with the tracks shining in the sun. It was just nine o'clock, but it was a bright, still morning with the smell of pine and hot pavement in the air.
She was very quiet. I turned and looked at her. She was sitting in the corner of the seat staring moodily at the road and the breeze set up by the car riffled gently through her hair. Any way you tried to describe the hair itself would make it sound like a thatched roof instead of the way it really looked. Maybe it was because it was so straight and wasn't parted anywhere. It was the colour of honey or of straw, with sun-burned streaks in it, and flowed down from the top of her head in a short bob with a kind of football helmet effect and on to her forehead with a V-shaped bang or whatever you call it. Her face was the same golden tan as her arms, and while I couldn't see her eyes very well, I remembered the impression when we were introduced of an almost startling violet splashed into all those shades of honey.
"Cigarette?" I asked.
She took one. "Thank you," she said. Her manner was friendly enough, but I could see something was bothering her.
"What's with this repossession deal?" I asked. "He carry his own financing on the cars he sells?"
"Yes. He's actually in the loan business. He just added the used-car lot the last year or so. Did you see that building right across the street from the lot, the Southland Loan Company? That's Mr. Harshaw's."
"And you work in the loan office—is that it?" I hadn't seen her around the lot yesterday when I got the job.
She nodded. "I run it for him. Most of the time, that is."
We were silent for a moment, and then she asked, "Where are you from, Mr. Madox?"
"Me? Oh, I'm from New Orleans." It would do as well as any.
We hit the highway and went on down it for another ten miles. There were heavy stands of timber along here, and not much farming land. I remembered from driving up yesterday that it shouldn't be too far now to the long highway bridge over the river. We turned off to the right before we got to it, though, taking a dirt road which led uphill through heavy pine. At the top there were a couple of farms, abandoned now, their yards grown up with weeds and bullnettles and the unpainted buildings staring vacantly at the road. The land began to drop away on the west side of the ridge and then we were in the river bottom, driving under big oaks, and it was a little cooler. Most of the sloughs were dried up now, in midsummer, and when we came out to the river itself it was low, with the sandbars showing, and fairly clear. After we crossed it, I stopped the car and got out and went back to stand on the end of the wooden bridge looking at it.
It was beautiful. The river came around a long bend above and slid over a bar into the big pool under the bridge. Part of the pool was in the shadow of the dense wall of trees along the bank and it looked dark and cool and deep. The only sound anywhere was a mockingbird practising his scales from a pin oak along the other bank. There was a peace here you could almost feel, like a hand touching you.
I went back to the car. As I got in she glanced at me questioningly. "Why did you stop?" she asked.
"I don't know. I just wanted to look at it."
"It's pretty, isn't it? And peaceful."
"Yeah," I said.
I started the car. We went on across the bottom and up a sandy road through more timber on another hill.
"Who is this guy Sutton?" I asked. "A hermit? The car must have been worn out before he got home with it."
She came out of her moody silence. "Oh. He's the watchman at a well they started to drill back in here."
"Watchman?" I asked. "Are they afraid somebody'll steal a hole in the ground?"
"No. You see, it's an oil well, and all the equipment is still over here. Tools, and things like that. They started it over a year ago and then there was some kind of lawsuit which stopped everything. Mr. Sutton lives on the place to look after it."
"Do you know him? If he's got a job, why doesn't he pay off his car notes?"
She was looking down at her hands. "I just know him when I see him. He's been around here about a year, I guess. He doesn't come to town much, though."
For some reason she seemed to be growing more nervous. Once or twice she started to say something and never did quite get it out.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Well, not anything, really," she said uncomfortably. "I was just thinking it might be better if you let me talk to him. You see, he's—well, in a way he's kind of a hard man to deal with, and suspicious of strangers. He knows me, and maybe he'll listen to me."
"What does he have to listen to? We just take the car. That's simple enough."
"Well, I just thought perhaps—I mean, I might be able to get him to pay and we wouldn't have to take the car."
I shrugged. "It's O.K. with me." It wasn't any of my business. I was supposed to be selling cars, not collecting for them.
We went on a mile or so across the second ridge and then came abruptly to the end of the road. Across the clearing a derrick climbed above the dark line of trees behind it and on this side a rough frame shack roofed with tar paper was huddled against the overhanging oaks. The car, a '54 Ford, stood in the open near the small front porch. I stopped and we got out. Both the front and rear doors of the shack were open and we could see right through it to the timber beyond, but there was no one around nor any sound of life.
"He must be home," she said. "The car is here."
We walked over and stood before the porch. "Mr. Sutton," she called out tentatively. "Oh, Mr. Sutton." There was no answer.
I stepped up on the porch and went inside, but there was no one there. It was only one room, untidy—but not dirty—as if a man lived there alone, with a wood cookstove in one corner and an unmade three-quarter bed in the corner diagonally across from it. A kitchen table with dirty dishes still on it stood by the rear door, and clothing—mostly overalls and blue shirts—hung from nails driven into the walls. An armful of magazines lay stacked against the wall and two or three more were scattered on the bed. There was an ash-tray made of the lid of a coffee-can perched on the window ledge, and as my eyes swung past it, they stopped suddenly. About half the butts were smeared with lipstick. She hadn't said he was married. Well, I thought, maybe he's not.
I heard a step on the porch and turned. She had come in and was looking at me a little apprehensively. "Do you think we ought to come in like this when he's not here?" she asked. I kept getting the impression she was scared of him.
"I don't know," I said. "Maybe not. Say, is he married?"
She shook her head. "I don't think so."
She saw the ash-tray then and looked away from me. I watched her as she kept glancing nervously around and it was obvious she didn't like the idea of our being in here. We went back outside. I walked out to the car and hit the horn-button three or four long blasts. Sound rolled out across the timber and then died away while we listened. There was no answer.
A small shed stood beside the derrick platform, over across the clearing, but from here we could see that the door was locked and he wasn't anywhere around it. At the side of the shack a trail led down into a wooded ravine, and when she saw me looking down that way she said, "He might be down at the spring where he gets his water. I'll walk down and see."
"All right," I said, starting to go with her.
"It's all right," she protested. "I'll go. Why don't you just wait by the car?"
I started to say something, and then shut up. For some reason she didn't want me to go. Maybe she was afraid of me. I've got a homely, beat-up face, and I'm pretty big.
"O.K.," I said. I sat down on the side of the porch and lighted a cigarette. She went down the trail. I could catch only glimpses now and then of the blonde head and the crisp blue of her dress, and then she went out of sight around a turn. I waited, smoking, and wondering what she was nervous about. When I looked again she was halfway up the trail, coming back. I watched her, thinking how it would be, the way you always do, and how pretty she was. She was a little over average height and had a lovely walk, even in the flat sandals, and there was something oddly serious about her face, more so than you'd expect in a girl who couldn't be over twenty-one. She looked like someone who could get hurt, and it was strange I thought about it that way because it had been a long time since I'd known anyone who was vulnerable to much of anything. Her legs were long and very nice, and she wore rather dark nylons.
I stood up. "We might as well go," I said. "He may not be back all day."
"Oh," she said. "I found him. He was down at the spring."
I probably stared at her. She hadn't been out of sight more than two or three minutes. And why hadn't he come back with her?
"Did you get the car keys?" I asked.
She didn't look at me. "No. He paid me. Both payments. We won't have to take it."
I shook my head. "You must be a fast talker," I said. "I'm glad I don't owe you any money."
She turned towards the car. "Oh, he'd been intending to pay it. He just hadn't been to town. Hadn't we better go?"
"I guess so," I said. The whole thing was queer, but if he'd paid her there was no use hanging around.
We had just reached the car and were starting to get in when I looked up and saw the man walking towards us. He had come out of the trees on the road we had come in on, and was carrying a gun which looked like a .22 pump in the crook of his arm. She saw him, too. Her eyes were uneasy and when she glanced quickly sidewise at me, I knew it was Sutton and that she had been lying when she said she'd seen him down at the spring.CHAPTER 2
He was a big man, around six feet and heavy all the way up, and walked with a peculiar short stride which some people might have called mincing but wasn't. It was the flat-footed shuffle of a bear or a heavyweight fighter, and men who move that way are balanced and hard to push off their feet. He was dressed in bib overalls and a faded blue shirt, and besides the gun he was carrying two fox squirrels by their tails. He appeared to be around thirty-five or thirty-eight, with a stubble of dark beard on an unlined, moon-shaped face, and he had the expression in his eyes of a man enjoying some secret and very dirty joke.
"Hello," I said.
He came up and stopped, glancing from Gloria Harper to me and back again. "Hello. You boys looking for somebody?"
"Yeah," I said. "A man named Sutton. Would that be you?"
"You've got me, men. What can I do for you?"
Before I could say anything she spoke up hurriedly. "It's about the car, Mr. Sutton. I—I mean could I talk to you for a minute?"
I waited to see what was going to happen next. She'd already told me he had paid up, which was obviously impossible, so what was she going to do? I could feel her begging me not to say anything.
He turned and looked at her again. "Why, you sure can, honey." He was affable and co-operative, while the grin he gave her was crawling with that secret joke of his. It was edged with something like contempt and left her standing there naked and hot-faced and without any pride at all.
Her eyes were miserable and they begged "Please," as she looked towards me and then turned to walk to the shack with him. I leaned against the door of the car and watched them. He sat down on the porch and left her standing and took out a cigarette without offering her one. Just the way he sat there and watched her was a slap in the face, full of calculated insolence and that dirty humour of his. I couldn't hear what she was saying, but he was apparently enjoying it.
In a minute she turned away from him and came back to the car. Her face was still crimson and she avoided looking at me. "We can go now," she said.
"What about the car?"
"It's all right. We don't have to take it."
"He didn't pay you anything. What are you going to tell Harshaw?"
"Please," she said. She was very near to crying.
"O.K.," I said, and we got in. It was her funeral. She ran the loan office and it was her business and Harshaw's, not mine. I backed up and turned the car into the road while Sutton watched us from the porch and grinned.
We were almost back to the river before she said anything. "Maybe I'd better tell him," she said hesitantly. "Mr. Harshaw, I mean."
"It's your baby," I said. "Tell him anything you want."
"I—I know it must look a little funny, Mr. Madox."
"Is Sutton a relative of yours?"
"Well, a hundred and ten dollars is a lot of money."
She glanced at me and said nothing. She either had to pay those two car notes herself or juggle the books to make it look as if they'd been paid, and she knew that I knew it. When we came to the bridge over the river I pulled off the road under the trees and stopped. She didn't say a word, but when I turned to her, she was watching me a little uneasily. I put my arm around her and bent her head back. She didn't struggle or try to slap me. She didn't do anything. It was like kissing a passed-out drunk. I let go and she drew away from me as far as she could. She didn't look at me. I put a hand under her chin and turned it.
"Get with it, kid," I said. "Sutton sent me."
I could see the shame and distaste in her eyes. "You must be proud of yourself."
"We could still go back and repossess the car," I said.
She didn't answer.
"Or we could go in and tell Harshaw he wouldn't let us have it. That ought to be good for a laugh."
"Why are you doing this?"
"You never get anywhere if you don't try."
"Well, would you mind driving on, or shall I get out?"
"You're a cute kid. How old are you?"
"Why're you afraid of Sutton?"
She blushed and looked out the window. "I'm not."
"Cut it out, blondie. How'd he get on your back?"
"It's—it's nothing. You're just imagining it."
"The way you imagined you saw him down at the spring? And collected the car notes?"
"All right, all right," she said desperately. "I lied about it. But why can't you leave me alone?"
"When I see something being passed around I like to get my share. I'm just a pig that way."
Her shoulders slumped and she looked down at her feet. "Well, now that you've expressed your opinion of me, could we go on to town?"
"What's your hurry? We're just getting acquainted. And besides, you haven't taken care of my car payments yet."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"You, angel. Did I tell you that you had nice legs?" I started to go on from there, but she brushed the skirt down and shoved away and finally she did hit me. "O.K.," I said. "You don't have to call the Marines. I can take a hint." I switched on the ignition and turned the car back on the road. She was silent all the way back to town, just sitting in the corner of the seat rolling her handkerchief into a ball in her hands.
Excerpted from The Hot Spot by Charles Williams. Copyright © 1953 Charles Williams. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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