Cold in july, p.6
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       Cold in July, p.6

           Joe R. Lansdale
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  I must have been out only fractions of a second, because by the time I got up and wobbled after Russel, he had only made it halfway to Jordan’s bed, and I could see Jordan sitting up with his back against the headboard, looking at Russel.

  I leaped on Russel’s back and landed with my legs wrapped around his waist and my arms around his throat. He stumbled, then ran back, smashing me against the wall so violently I felt as if my spine were being pushed out through my chest. The breath went out of me and my legs and arms wouldn’t hold and I let go of him and slid down the wall like a dying slug.

  But now Ann was on him, almost in the same position I had occupied, and she was clawing at his face, and he was spinning in pain, trying to toss her off, but it was like trying to fling off a sheet wet with glue.

  Finally he reached over his shoulder and got hold of her hair and jerked and bent forward at the same time and she slammed against the wall next to me and crumpled in a twist of arms and legs.

  I tried to get up, but there was nothing left in me. It was as if someone had opened up a valve and let the life out of me. My breath wouldn’t come. I couldn’t even gasp; my lungs were jammed between a breath and an outburst. The room tilted. Russel reached the bed and Jordan screamed “Daddy” again. Russel grabbed Jordan by his pajama shirt, and with his other hand he produced from his back pocket a black shape that with a flick of his wrist sprouted a blade like a beetle showing a silver wing.

  My breath came and I coiled my legs beneath me and I was moving. But I knew I was too late. Nothing could stop the thrust of that knife.

  Except Russel. He froze with Jordan’s pajama shirt bunched in one huge fist, the knife poised in the other like a scorpion’s stinger. “Damn,” he screamed, and he threw the knife hard into the headboard of the bed and let go of Jordan and I hit him like a hammer securing a nail, threw my shoulder against him and we both went flying across the room. He got his hands around my neck and stood up and my feet dangled off the floor. I tried to kick as I hung there, but I couldn’t get any power in my kicks; my legs slapped at him like wet noodles.

  He shoved me against the bed and kicked me in the groin and it felt as if my balls were in my ears. Then he had me on the floor, his thumbs locking behind my windpipe, and he was slamming my head against the carpet yelling, “I couldn’t do it, you sonofabitch, couldn’t do it you goddamn murdering bastard.” He let go of me with one hand, and still pinning me to the floor with the other, he rained knuckles on my head. In the dim light from the hallway his teeth looked like jammed machinery gears and there were tears in his eyes big as pearls and they fell on my face hot as fresh asphalt. His blows became weaker and weaker and he kept repeating breathlessly, “you sonofabitch,” and I struggled uselessly against him, flailing my fists at his side, and then Ann hit him with Jordan’s Little Sprout lamp and he collapsed on top of me.

  Ann stood over me, looking like a Valkyrie in her nightgown, holding a lamp in place of a sword. She looked as if she badly wanted to hit Russel again.

  At first I thought my head was ringing, but it was the world coming back into focus, sight and sound. It was the alarm. The police had set it off. I could hear them wrecking the front door. They had most likely been after it ever since the shotgun had gone off. The entire battle with Russel, though it seemed longer, had taken only a few minutes.

  I rolled out from beneath Russel, and Jordan ran to me. I hugged and kissed him. “It’s okay,” I said. “Go to your mother.”

  Jordan grabbed her leg and held her tight and Ann kept the lamp cocked, ready to bash Russel should he so much as fart.

  I went to the front just as the police tossed aside the door and were about to shoot a riot gun into the lock on the grill.

  “It’s all right,” I said. “He’s down,” and thought, bless his black heart, he couldn’t do it. I got the key to the alarm and the grillwork and let the police in. They handcuffed Russel and he came to enough for them to walk him out. As he passed me, he turned and said, “I think I knew all along I couldn’t do it.”

  “That’s a big comfort to them,” Price said. “Let’s go.” Two policemen took Russel out to a cop car that had appeared seemingly out of nowhere, and they drove him away.

  Price and another officer got Kevin awake and onto the couch to look him over.

  “You need to work on your stepover toe-hold,” the officer told him.

  “That old bastard is as strong as God,” Kevin said.

  An ambulance was called out, and a doctor came and looked at Kevin and me and my family. He clucked some, applied a bandage or two and gave us an aspirin. A cop took the knife from Jordan’s headboard and Price said he’d see the front door got nailed up for the night somehow, and that tomorrow morning early he’d send a carpenter out to fix it, at the city’s expense. He shook my hand and went away. Someone put the door up and there was some banging and I went over and sat on the couch with Ann and Jordan, put my arms around them, and as if by secret signal, the three of us began to cry.


  That night Jordan went back to bed with us and I lay there thinking about Russel. After all that had happened, the thing that kept coming back to me was that he had hands like my father and he had had them around my neck. It was like my old man had come back from the grave to choke me for something I had done. I could never quite get it out of my mind—in spite of what I knew about my mother—that I had been in some way responsible for him eating the barrel of his Winchester.

  I eventually gave up trying to sleep and went into the kitchen and put some strong coffee on. While that was brewing I went into Jordan’s room and turned on the light and looked around. The Little Sprout lamp, which had been beside his bed on the nightstand before Ann used it to hit Russel, lay on the floor where she had dropped it when the cops came in. There was a mark in the headboard of the bed where Russel had thrown the knife, but other than that, everything looked normal.

  I walked around the room touching toys and books, assuring myself that things were as they had been and that they would coast along properly from here on out. It was a lie I very much wanted to believe.

  I put the lamp where it belonged and sat down on Jordan’s bed, and while I was sitting there, I saw something dark sticking out from beneath Jordan’s battered toy box. Getting down on my hands and knees, I pulled it out and saw that it was a wallet. Without opening it, I knew it was Russel’s and that it had slid under there during the fight.

  The thing to do was to give it to the cops, but I couldn’t resist a peek inside first. The first thing I saw was a photograph encased in one of those plastic windows. Russel was a young man in the picture and he looked handsome, strong and happy. He was down on his knee and he had his arm around a little blond-haired boy holding a BB gun. The boy looked about Jordan’s age. On the back of the photograph was written: Freddy and Dad.

  There was a photograph behind that one, and it was of a young man in his early twenties. He was blond, blue-eyed, and handsome, if slightly thick in the chin. On the back of the photograph in the same handwriting was Freddy.

  I thought about Freddy the night I shot him, and tried to match his face with this one. The burglar had had brown hair sticking out from beneath his cap and the eye that wasn’t a wound had been brown. His chin had been narrow, and never in his life had he been handsome or even passably attractive.

  If this was a photograph of Freddy Russel, then the man I shot wasn’t him.

  Part Two



  I went to the bedroom and found some clothes in the dark and managed to get out of my pajamas and put them on without waking Ann or Jordan. In the kitchen I wrote Ann a note, then slipped out quietly and drove to town.

  When I got to the police station I sat in the lot for a time and leaned on the steering wheel, trying to decide if I was making a mistake. I got Russel’s wallet out of my shirt pocket and opened the car door so I’d have the overhead light and looked at the photographs again and the writing on the b
acks of each. I must have looked at those wrinkled photographs a dozen times each, but no matter how I turned them or held them to the light, the face of the burglar I had killed was not to be found in them.

  I put the wallet in the glove box of my car and got out.

  Inside the station I told the dispatcher that I had come to see Price.

  “He’s home, sir,” she said. “I can take a message.”

  “I think you better call him at home,” I said. Then I told her who I was and what had happened and that something very important had come up. I told her I wouldn’t tell anyone about it but Price, and it was something he would want to know.

  “Very well,” she said, and she called him, frowning at me all the while she was doing it. I found a chair and sat down and a few moments later she leaned her head out of the dispatcher’s office and called to me. “He’ll be here in a few minutes. He said for you to go to the assembly room and have a cup of coffee if you like.”

  “Thanks,” I said.

  “Certainly,” she said, but she didn’t look like she meant it.

  I went back through the door that led down the hallway to the assembly room and found the coffee machine. I didn’t really want the coffee, but it was something to do. I thought about backing out more than once, but that didn’t happen. I just sat there with my paper coffee cup warming my hands, staring off into space.

  Two cops came in laughing and looked at me in that suspicious way they look at everyone. They got coffee and sat down at the far end of the table and talked quietly and looked at me and finally got up and went out, taking their coffee with them.

  I was about finished with my coffee when Price showed up. As usual, he looked perfect. He looked as if he had already had a good night’s rest. His face was unlined and his black hair was combed neatly. His suit was tan and very fashionable. He had on a light blue shirt and a thin blue and tan tie and the shoes still had that blinding shoe shine.

  “Problem?” he said.

  “Sort of. I want you to let Russel go.”

  He stared at me a moment, then went over to the coffee machine and got a cup and came to sit down near me. “Why?” he said.

  “He didn’t really hurt anyone. He couldn’t kill my son, he just thought he could.”

  He gave me the kind of smile nut ward attendants reserve for their patients who think they can fly. “He hurt an officer of mine. He hurt you. That wasn’t exactly a tumbling act you folks were doing in there before we came in.”

  “No. He was trying to hurt me, all right, but he was out of his head. He wouldn’t do it again. He’s spent. He’s had his shot and he couldn’t do it and he didn’t want to do it.”

  “So you’re saying you don’t want to press charges?”

  “I am.”

  “It doesn’t work like that, Mr. Dane. You don’t have to press charges. We caught him in the act. He hurt one of my men. We don’t need for you to press charges.”

  “I think you do.”

  “It would make it easier if you did, but we don’t need you.”

  “The officer was hurt because he was in my house at your request.”

  “And at your agreement.”

  “Yes, but I was wrong about that.”

  “Come on, what’s with you, Dane? Just a few hours ago you were wrestling this nut around your house, and just before that you were giving me hell for not going after him before he even tried anything.”

  “I know.”

  “Then what gives?”

  I thought about the photographs in the glove box of my car, but I didn’t say anything. Not yet. Something was going on here, and I was sure Price knew what it was. Or at least the department knew. And I wasn’t ready to play my hole cards. I had to put Price to the test.

  “I’ll bring a lawyer in on this if I have to. I don’t want to press charges. I want to forgive and forget, and I have a feeling Russel does too.”

  “Forgive and forget,” Price said. “That’s cute.”

  “It’s what I want.”

  “I feel sorry for you,” Price said. “One moment you’re a fucking Nazi right-winger wanting me to get this bastard off your ass, and now you’re a bleeding-heart liberal leaking blood all over the goddamn floor. You’re schizo. You don’t know what you’re asking. This man is dangerous. He tried to kill your son because you had to kill his. He tried to kill you and your wife and he injured one of my men. If I were you, I wouldn’t take that lightly. I’d leave the turn-the-other-cheek stuff to the Sunday school lessons and the five year olds. We’re living in the real world here, Dane, and Jesus wouldn’t last five fucking minutes in it. No one would bother to crucify his passive ass. Takes too long. They’d run him over with a car or cut his guts out with a rusty can opener.”

  “I don’t need a lecture.”

  “You need something, Dane. Hell, man, you can’t be serious. Think about what you’re asking.”

  “I’ve been thinking about it. I want Russel let go. I don’t want to press charges, and if I don’t get what I want, I’m going to bring a lawyer in on this. I promise you that. I want him out now, where I can see him set free, and I want charges dropped. I just want to get on with my life and let him get on with his.”

  “You really think I can do that?”

  “I think you better.”

  He sat and looked at me and tore his empty coffee cup apart and then tore it into smaller pieces. Finished, he put both hands on the table and kept his eyes on me.

  “Don’t try and scare me, Price, it just makes me tired.”

  “I pity you.”

  “You said that. Now either let Russel out, or I call my lawyer and you folks start having problems.”

  It was my turn to stare this time, and I gave it all I had. After a moment he stood up, raked the destroyed paper cup into one hand, went over to the trash can and deposited it.

  “You’re making a big mistake, Dane. But it’s your life. And your family’s. I may not be there to pull your ass out of the fire next time.”

  “As I recall, Ann and I did the pulling. Your man was on the floor.”

  He gave me a look that made his handsome face ugly.

  “You got it, buddy. I’ll let him out. Just remember when he comes after you, I told you so.”

  “I’ll wait out in the parking lot just to make sure he’s set free.”

  “You dumb bastard,” Price said, and left the room.

  He had failed the test. It had been too easy. There was more to this than met the eye. And Price was in on it.


  I was in the lot leaning on the hood of my car with Russel’s wallet in my pocket when he came out escorted by Price and a uniformed policeman. The three of them stood there looking at me and then Price gave Russel a slight nudge with his hand and Russel walked over toward me. Price and the uniform stayed where they were.

  When Russel got to me he said, “They’re waiting to see if I try and kill you.”

  “Are you going to try?”


  I waved Price and the uniform cop away.

  “Leave the lot,” Price yelled back. “Get killed somewhere else.”

  Russel turned and smiled at them. “You don’t have faith in me, Lieutenant.”

  “You’re both sick,” Price said and went inside. The uniform stayed where he was.

  “Get in,” I said. “We have to talk.”

  Russel got in and I cranked the car and drove out of the lot and coasted slowly down California Street. “What do you think?” I said.

  “I agree with Price. You’re loony. I tried to kill you a little while ago. You know I was really trying.”

  “You didn’t kill my son. You had the chance.”

  “I couldn’t have… Hell, I don’t know if I could have killed you.”

  “You banged me around good enough.”

  “I thought I wanted to kill somebody. I hate your guts, you know?”

  “Because I killed your son?”

  Russel made a noise
somewhere between a hummph and a cough.

  “I didn’t kill him,” I said.

  “Look. You’re crazy enough to get me out of jail… I don’t know how, but you did, but don’t be so crazy as to think I’m gonna believe that shit. Just let me off somewhere, all right?”

  “Let me show you something.” I fished the wallet out of my shirt pocket and flipped it open with one hand to the photographs and handed it to him. I turned on the inside light. “That’s your son, right?”

  “You know damn good and well it is. If you’re trying to find out if I’ll kill you after all, you’re on the right track.”

  “You’re sure the boy and the man in those pictures are your son, Freddy?”

  “I know my own son.”

  I turned off the inside light. “That’s not the man I shot.”

  We drove on in silence until Russel said, “You mean you don’t recognize him from these photographs?”

  “I mean that isn’t the man I shot. He couldn’t have changed enough to be the man I shot. How tall is Freddy?”

  “I don’t know. Tall. Tall as me.”

  “At least six foot?”

  “Yeah. I haven’t seen him in a while. We haven’t been in contact. He could have changed a lot.”

  “Could his eyes have changed from blue to brown?”

  “Contacts maybe.”

  “No. This man wasn’t wearing contacts. He was also shorter, darker. It wasn’t your son.”

  “What in hell are you saying, Dane?”

  “I’m saying something screwy is going on.”

  Russel thought for a while and I turned right on Crane Street and hit the main drag and turned left. “Why should I believe you?” he said. “Maybe you’re just jerking me around. I’m told by the cops my son is dead and I find out you did it, and now you want me to believe different just because you say so.”

  “What’s in this for me?” I said. “Think about it. You damn near beat my head in earlier and you threatened my son. Not something I’ll forget or forgive you for, even if I do believe you couldn’t have done it. Hell, I could be wrong. You could kill me and my whole family and it would be my fault. But I didn’t kill your son. I knew that when I saw the photographs. I don’t know who I killed or why the police said he was Freddy Russel, but I’m convinced it wasn’t a mistake on their part. They did what they did on purpose. If they hadn’t, they wouldn’t have let you out no matter how many lawyers I threatened. They let you out because they were afraid I’d raise a stink and reveal something else. Something they’re trying to hide about your son.”

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