A Bullet For Cinderella [MultiFormat]
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eBook by John D. MacDonald
eBook Category: Mystery/Crime/Suspense/Thriller
eBook Description: Her veneer was big city--but one look and you knew that Toni Rassell's instincts were straight out of the river shack she came from. I watched her as she toyed with the man, laughing, her tumbled hair like raw blue-black silk, her brown shoulders bare. Eyes deep-set, a girl with a gypsy look. So this was the girl I had risked my life to find. This was the girl who was going to lead me to a buried fortune in stolen loot.
eBook Publisher: Wonder Audiobooks, LLC/Wonder eBooks
Fictionwise Release Date: August 2009
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6 Reader Ratings:
"The great entertainer of our age, and a mesmerizing storyteller."--Stephen King
* ONE *
A steady April rain was soaking the earth. It hadn't been bad to drive through until dusk came. In the half-light it was hard to see the road. The rain was heavy enough to reflect my headlights back against the windshield. My mileage on the speedometer told me I couldn't be very far from Hillston.
When I saw the motel sign ahead on the right I slowed down. It looked fairly new. I turned in. The parking area was paved with those round brown pebbles that crunch under the tires. I parked as close to the office as I could get and ran from the car into the office. A woman with the bright cold eyes and thin sharp movements of a water bird rented me a room far back from the highway sound. She said the place was just four miles from the Hillston city limits.
Once I saw the room I decided that it would do. It would be a good place to stay while I did what had to be done in Hillston. I stretched out on the bed and wondered if I had been smart to use my right name on the motel register. But if I could find the money, there would be no one to say that I was the one who had taken it. And using my right name wouldn't make any difference at all.
When at last the rain eased up I went and found a small roadside restaurant. The girl behind the counter told me where I could buy a bottle of liquor. She seemed open to any invitation to help me drink it up, but though she was reasonably pretty I was not interested. I had this other thing on my mind and I wanted to go back alone and have some drinks and think about it and wonder how I could do it.
Maybe you saw pictures of us, the ones who were really bad off when the prisoners were exchanged. I was one of the litter cases. My stomach had stopped digesting the slop they fed us, and I was down to ninety-three pounds. One more week and I would have been buried up there beyond the river like so many others were. I was in bad shape. Not only physically but mentally. I was too sick to be flown back. Memory was all shot. I went right into hospital and they started feeding me through a tube.
It was during the months in the military hospital back in this country that I began to sort things out and began to remember more of the details about Timmy Warden of Hillston. When the intelligence people had interrogated me I had told them how Timmy died but nothing more than that. I didn't tell them any of the stuff Timmy had told me.
We were both captured at the same time in that action near the reservoir. I'd known him casually. He was in a different platoon. We were together most of the time after we were captured. Enough has already been written about how it was. It wasn't good.
That prison camp experience can change your attitude toward life and toward yourself. It did that to Timmy Warden. His one thought was to survive. It was that way with all of us, but Timmy seemed more of a fanatic than anybody else. He had to get back.
He told me about it one night. That was after he'd gotten pretty weak. I was still in fair shape. He told me about it in the dark, whispering to me. I couldn't see his face.
"Tal, I've got to get back and straighten something out. I've got to. Every time I think about it I'm ashamed. I thought I was being smart. I thought I was getting what I wanted. Maybe I've grown up now. I've got to get it straightened out."
"What was it you wanted?"
"I wanted it and I got it, but I can't use it now. I wanted her too, and had her, but she's no good to me now."
"I'm not following this so good, Timmy."
He told me the story then. He had been in business with his brother George Warden. George was older by six years. George took him in as a partner. George had a flair for salesmanship and promotion. Timmy was good on the books, as he had a natural knack for figure work. They had a building supply business, a retail hardware outlet, a lumberyard, and several concrete trucks.
And George had a lush, petulant, amoral, discontented young wife named Eloise.
"I didn't make any play for her, Tal. It just seemed to happen. She was my brother's wife and I knew it was bad, but I couldn't stop. We had to sneak around behind his back. Hillston isn't a very big city. We had to be very careful. I guess I knew all the time what she was. But George thought she was the best thing that ever walked. She was the one who talked me into running away with her, Tal. She was the one who said we'd have to have money. So I started to steal."
He told me how he did it. A lot of the gimmicks didn't make much sense to me. He did all the ordering, handled the bank accounts and deposits. It was a big and profitable operation. He took a little bit here, a little bit there, always in cash. All the time he was doing it he was carrying on the affair with Eloise. He said it took nearly two years to squirrel away almost sixty thousand dollars. The auditors didn't catch it.
"I couldn't open a bank account with the money, and I knew better than to put it in a safety-deposit box. I put the money in those old-fashioned jars. The kind with the red rubber washer and the wire that clamps the top on. I'd fill them and bury them. George kept worrying about why we weren't making more money. I kept lying to him. Eloise was getting more restless all the time and more careless. I was afraid George would find out, and I didn't know what he'd do. She had me sort of hypnotized. We finally set the date when we were going to run away. Everything was planned. And then they called me up. I was reserve. There wasn't a damn thing I could do about it. I told Eloise that when I got out we'd go through with it the way we planned. But now I'm stuck here. And now I don't want to go through with it. I want to get back there and give the money back to George and tell him the whole thing. I've had too much chance to think it over."
"How do you know she hasn't taken the money and left?"
"I didn't tell her where I put it. It's still there. Nobody can find it."
His story gave me a lot to think about. Timmy Warden sank lower and lower. By that time those of us who were left alive had become expert on how long the dying would last. And I knew that Timmy was one of the dying. I knew he'd never leave there alive. I tried to find out where the money was buried. But I'd waited a little too long. He was out of his head. I listened to him rave. I listened to every word he said.
But in his raving he never gave away the hiding place. It was in a moment of relative lucidity that he told me. It was afternoon and he caught my wrist with his wasted hand. "I'm not going to make it, Tal."
"You'll make it."
"No. You go back there and straighten it out. You can do that. Tell George. Give him the money. Tell him everything."
"Sure. Where is the money?"
"Tell him everything."
"Where's the money hidden?"
"Cindy would know," he said, suddenly breathless with weak, crazy laughter. "Cindy would know." And that's all I could get out of him. I was still strong enough then to use a shovel. I helped dig the hole for Timmy Warden that night.
Back in the stateside hospital I thought about that sixty thousand dollars. I could see those fruit jars with the tight rolls of bills inside the glass. I would dig them out and rub the dirt off and see the green gleam of the money. It helped pass the time in the hospital.
Finally they let me out. The thought of the money was no longer on the surface of my mind. It was hidden down underneath. I would think about it, but not very often. I went back to my job. It seemed pretty tasteless to me. I felt restless and out of place. I'd used up a lot of emotional energy in order to stay alive and come back to this, back to my job and back to Charlotte, the girl I had planned to marry. Now that I was back neither job nor girl seemed enough.
Two weeks ago they let me go. I don't blame them. I'd been doing my job in a listless way. I told Charlotte I was going away for a while. Her tears left me completely untouched. She was just a girl crying, a stranger. I told her I didn't know where I was going. But I knew I was going to Hillston. The money was there. And somebody named Cindy who would know how to find it.
I had started the long trip with an entirely unrealistic anticipation of success. Now I was not so confident. It seemed that I was searching for more than the sixty thousand dollars. It seemed to me that I was looking for some meaning or significance to my life. I had a thousand dollars in traveler's checks and everything I owned with me. Everything I owned filled two suitcases.
Charlotte had wept, and it hadn't touched me. I had accepted being fired without any special interest. Ever since the repatriation, since the hospital, I had felt like half a man. It was as though the other half of me had been buried and I was coming to look for it--here in Hillston, a small city I had never seen. Somehow I had to begin to live again. I had stopped living in a prison camp. And never come completely to life again.
I drank in the motel room until my lips felt numb. There was a pay phone in the motel office. The bird woman looked at me with obvious disapproval but condescended to change three ones into change for the phone.
I had forgotten the time difference. Charlotte was having dinner with her people. Her mother answered the phone. I heard the coldness in her mother's voice. She called Charlotte.
"Tal? Tal, where are you?"
"A place called Hillston."
"Are you all right? You sound so strange."
"What are you doing? Are you looking for a job?"
She lowered her voice so I could barely hear her. "Do you want me to come there? I would, you know, if you want me. And no--no strings, Tal darling."
"No. I just called so you'd know I'm all right."
"Thank you for calling, darling."
"Well ... good-by."
"Please write to me."
I promised and hung up and went back to my room. I wanted things to be the way they had once been between us. I did not want to hurt her. I did not want to hurt myself. But I felt as if a whole area in my mind was dead and numb. The part where she had once been. She had been loyal while I had been gone. She was the one who had the faith I would return. She did not deserve this.
On the following morning, Thursday morning, Hillston lay clean and washed by the night rains, bright and glowing in the April sunshine. Timmy had often talked about the city.
"It's more town than city. There isn't much of a transient population. Everybody seems to know everybody. It's a pretty good place, Tal."
It lay amid gentle hills, and the town stretched north-south, following the line of Harts River. I drove up the main street, Delaware Street. Traffic had outgrown the narrowness of the street. Standardization had given most of our small cities the same look. Plastic and glass brick store fronts. Woolworth's and J. C. Penney and Liggett and Timely and the chain grocery. The essential character of Hillston had been watered down by this standardization and yet there was more individuality left than in many other cities. Here was a flavor of leisure, of mild manners and quiet pleasures. No major highway touched the city. It was in an eddy apart from the great current.
Doubtless there were many who complained acidly about the town being dead on its feet, about the young people leaving for greater opportunities. But such human irritants did not change the rather smug complacency of the city. The population was twenty-five thousand and Timmy had told me that it had not changed very much in the past twenty years. There was the pipe mill and a small electronics industry and a plant that made cheap hand tools. But the money in town was the result of its being a shopping center for all the surrounding farmland.
I had crossed the country as fast as I could, taking it out of the car, anxious to get to this place. The car kept stalling as I stopped for the lights on Delaware Street. When I spotted a repair garage I turned in.
A man came up to me as I got out of the car. "I think I need a tune-up. It keeps stalling. And a grease job and oil change."
He looked at the wall clock. "About three this afternoon be okay?"
"That'll be all right."
"California plates. On your way through?"
"Just on a vacation. I stopped here because I used to know a fellow from this town. Timmy Warden."
He was a gaunt man with prematurely white hair and bad teeth. He picked a cigarette out of the top pocket of his coveralls. "Knew Timmy, did you? The way you say it, I guess you know he's dead."
"Yes. I was with him when he died."
"There in the camp, eh? Guess it was pretty rough."
"It was rough. He used to talk about this place. And about his brother George. I thought I'd stop and maybe see his brother and tell him about how it was with Timmy."
The man spat on the garage floor. "I guess George knows how it was."
"I don't understand."
"There's another man came here from that camp. Matter of fact he's still here. Came here a year ago. Name of Fitzmartin. Earl Fitzmartin. He works for George at the lumberyard. Guess you'd know him, wouldn't you?"
"I know him," I said.
Everybody who survived the camp we were in would know Fitzmartin. He'd been taken later, had come in a month after we did. He was a lean man with tremendously powerful hands and arms. He had pale colorless hair, eyes the elusive shade of wood smoke. He was a Texan and a Marine.
I knew him. One cold night six of us had solemnly pledged that if we were ever liberated we would one day hunt down Fitzmartin and kill him. We had believed then that we would. I had forgotten all about it. It all came back.
Fitz was not a progressive. Yet he was a disrupting influence. In the camp we felt that if we could maintain a united front it would improve our chances for survival. We organized ourselves, appointed committees, assigned responsibilities. There were two retreads who had been in Jap camps in another war who knew the best organizational procedures.
Fitz, huskier and quicker and craftier than anyone else in camp, refused to take any part in it. He was a loner. He had an animal instinct for survival. He kept himself clean and fit. He ate anything that was organically sound. He prowled by himself and treated us with icy contempt and amusement. He was no closer to us than to his captors. He was one of the twelve quartered in the same hut with Timmy and me.
Perhaps that does not seem to constitute enough cause to swear to kill a man. It wouldn't, in a normal situation. But in captivity minor resentments become of major importance. Fitz wasn't with us so he was against us. We needed him and every day he proved he didn't need us.
At the time of the exchange Fitzmartin was perhaps twenty pounds lighter. But he was in good shape. Many had died but Fitz was in fine shape. I knew him.
"I'd like to see him," I told the garage man. "Is the lumberyard far from here?"
It was north of town. I had to take a bus that crossed a bridge at the north end of town and walk a half mile on the shoulder of the highway--past junk yards, a cheap drive-in movie, rundown rental cabins. I kept asking myself why Fitz should have come to Hillston. He couldn't know about the money. But I could remember the slyness of the man, his knack of moving without a sound.
The lumberyard was large. There was an office near the road. There was a long shed open on the front where semi-fabricated pieces were kept in bins in covered storage. I heard the whine of a saw. Beyond the two buildings were tall stacks of lumber. A truck was being loaded back there. In the open shed a clerk was helping a customer select window frames. An office girl with thin face and dark hair looked up from an adding machine and told me I could find Fitzmartin out in the back where they were loading the truck.
I went back and saw him before he saw me. He was heavier but otherwise unchanged. He stood with another man watching two men loading a stake truck. He wore khakis and stood with his fists in his hip pockets. The man said something and Earl Fitzmartin laughed. The sound startled me. I had never heard him laugh in the camp.
He turned as I approached him. His face changed. The smoke eyes looked at me, wary, speculative. "I've got the name right, haven't I? Tal Howard."
"That's right." There was, of course, no move toward shaking hands.
He turned to the other man. "Joe, you go right ahead here. Leave this slip in the office on your way out."
Fitzmartin started walking back through the lot between the stacked lumber. I hesitated and followed him. He led the way to a shed on the back corner of the lot. An elderly Ford coupé was parked by the shed. He opened the door and gestured and I went into the shed. It was spotlessly clean. There was a bunk, table, chair, shelf with hot plate and dishes. He had a supply of canned goods, clean clothes hanging on hooks, a pile of magazines and paper-bound books near the head of the bunk. There was a large space heater in the corner, and through an open door I could see into a small bathroom with unfinished walls.
There was no invitation to sit down. We faced each other.
"Nice to see any old pal from north of the river," he said.
"I heard in town you work here."
"You just happened to be in town and heard I work here."
"Maybe you're going around looking all the boys up. Maybe you're writing a book."
"It's an idea."
"My experiences as a prisoner of war. Me and Dean."
"I'd put you in the book, Fitz. The big ego. Too damn impressed with himself to try to help anybody else."
"Help those gutless wonders? You types stone me. You wanted to turn it into a boys' club. I watched a lot of you die because you didn't have the guts or will or imagination to survive."
"With your help maybe a couple more would have come back."
"You sound like you think that would be a good thing."
There was an amused sneer in his tone that brought it all vividly back. That was what we had sensed about him. He hadn't cared if we had all been buried there, just so Fitzmartin got out of it with a whole skin. I had thought my anger and outrage had been buried, had thought I was beyond caring. Perhaps he, too, misjudged the extent of the contempt that made me careless of his physical power.
I struck blindly, taking him almost completely by surprise, my right fist hitting his jaw solidly. The impact jarred my arm and shoulder and back. It knocked him back a full step. I wanted him on the floor. I swung again and hit a thick, hard arm. He muffled the third blow and caught my left wrist, then grabbed my right wrist. I tried to snap my wrists free, but he was far too powerful. I was able to resist the grinding twisting force for several seconds. His face was quite impassive. I was slowly forced down onto my knees, tears of anger and humiliation stinging my eyes.
He released my wrists suddenly and gave me a casual open-handed slap across the side of my head that knocked me down onto the bare floor. I scrambled to the chair and tried to pick it up to use it as a weapon. He twisted it out of my hands, put a foot against my chest and shoved me back so that I rolled toward the door. He put the chair back in place, went over and sat on the bunk, and lighted a cigarette. I got up slowly.
He looked at me calmly. "Out of your system?"
"God damn you!"