Cold in july, p.7
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       Cold in July, p.7

           Joe R. Lansdale
 
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  Another pregnant silence before, “So what if I believe you? What do I do?”

  “What do we do,” I said. “I’m in this too.”

  · · ·

  We went to an All-Night Doughnut Shop on North Street. It, along with a Kroger store, are about it beyond ten at night and before six or seven in the morning. They stay open for the college kids.

  The All-Night Doughnut Shop had a couple of young guys at a table drinking coffee looking over books, probably cramming for a test that they should have been studying for a month. A somewhat older guy was behind the doughnut counter and he looked like he’d been there all night and was ready for a fresh recruit. When I ordered a couple of doughnuts and coffees for us, he didn’t say any more than he had to, like maybe his mouth was tired.

  We took a table at the rear of the place and after sipping at our coffee, Russel said, “I still don’t see why you’re bothering. What do you care about me?”

  I slid sideways in the booth so I could put my feet along the seat and my back against the wall and not have to look directly at Russel. “Personally, I don’t give a shit about you. I don’t even like you. Why should I?”

  “Why then? You could have just let things slide.”

  “I’ve been hoodwinked. I don’t like that. I killed a man and I don’t even know who I killed. I don’t like that. Because they said I killed your son it made you crazy enough to threaten my son and try to hurt me and my wife. I don’t like that. But I’m a human being. I think I know some of how you must have felt, your son dead and all. I think I’d have been a little crazy. I’m not forgiving you, mind you, I’m just saying I’ve got some idea about how you must have felt, and then for it all to be a lie…”

  “I never did that boy any real good when he was alive,” Russel said. “I’m not sure why I thought I could do him any now. Guilt maybe.”

  “You see him much?”

  “No. Just when he was younger. Those pictures were about it. His mom may have made him send the one where he was older. I don’t know. That was years back. Me and his mom were separated, but she still kept in touch, let me know how Freddy was doing. The football team, stuff like that.”

  “What were you in for?”

  “Burglary at first. I got out and then I went back in on an armed robbery charge. I got off light because it couldn’t be proved I had the gun. Which I didn’t. The guy with me had the gun.”

  “Same difference, isn’t it?”

  “Just about. I kept him from killing the store attendant. He shot the attendant once and I hit him and wrestled the gun away. It wasn’t supposed to be like that, the shooting I mean. I just needed money and we were going to bluff. Or so he said. I didn’t know the asshole was a cold killer.”

  “So they got you while you were fighting with your partner?”

  “No. I took the gun from him and coldcocked him and waited until they called the law. I figured things were bad enough with the store manager bleeding to death without me making it worse for myself by running. And the truth is, had I left my partner, he’d have talked. I didn’t want to kill him, so I stayed and took my medicine. One of the clerks testified that I had stopped my partner from finishing the man off, but it didn’t matter really. He died later.”

  “What happened to your partner?”

  “He was one of the last to get the chair—this was before the injection stuff. I got a stretch.”

  “What plans did you have when you got out… before this thing happened with your son? Or the man who was supposed to be your son?”

  “I sat in there twenty years trying to figure out what I wanted to do. Some things crossed my mind. Wasn’t any of them any good. I wanted to find my son and make up for lost time. That was about it. I’d have taken any kind of job just so I could be near him, or go to see him from time to time. I had a lot of catching up to do. Some explaining. But that’s all shit under the bridge now.”

  “Your son is probably out there somewhere, we just have to figure how to find him.”

  Russel laid those hands that looked like my father’s hands on the table and looked at them, as if trying to determine how they had gotten there on the ends of his wrists. Finally he lifted his head. “There was this guy I knew once. We were good friends before I got stupid. He was a character. But hell, I haven’t seen him in twenty years. He’d be about fifty now, I think. He wrote me in jail some and I wrote back for a while, then quit. His letters kept coming. He knew me and my family, you see.”

  “What about him?”

  “He was a private investigator. Real good. I worked for him some doing skip traces and repossessions before I got stupid. He had quite a reputation.”

  “Where is he?”

  “I don’t know now. He was in Houston then. He’d been in the military. A Green Beret. Ex peen ?”

  “You think he could help us find some things out?”

  “If he’s still out there and will do it, yeah. If he can’t, no one can.”

  I thought about that a while. In spite of my humanity speech I was beginning to feel like a jackass. I had gotten Russel out of jail and that was enough. Like he said, I didn’t owe that to him. Maybe he was crazy and maybe he didn’t believe a word I was saying. He was just waiting for a chance to finish what he started. And what would Ann think about all this? Not only had I gotten him out of the slammer, I was now planning to help him find out what happened to his son. Hire some private detective to do it. It didn’t make much sense.

  But then again I thought about the man I had killed. You didn’t just kill a man and not know his name. And I didn’t like the idea of being used. I wasn’t sure how the police had used me, but they had. And this poor bastard might never have gone off his head for even a little bit had they not told him the lie they did. And it seemed like the more I tried to rationalize not getting involved any more than I already was, the more I felt I should.

  “A detective costs money,” Russel said, voicing my next concern. “I don’t have any, and I don’t think Jim Bob will do it for free. Maybe he would have in the old days, but I don’t know now. Lot of time has gone by. I feel like it was yesterday that we were friends, but my contacts have been kind of limited the last few years. Jim Bob has probably gone on and had a life. He may not want anything to do with me—even if I had money to hire him.”

  “I can supply the money,” I said. “I’m not made of it, but I do all right. First thing, let’s see if he’s still around.”

  I drank my coffee and went outside to the phone booth between the doughnut shop and the Fina station and called Houston information. I asked first for a Luke Detective Agency, then for a Jim Bob Luke. Neither was listed.

  I tried Pasadena, which is a small burg outside of Houston. A lot of people drive to work in Houston from there.

  “Jim Bob Luke on Mulberry Street?” the operator asked.

  I took a flyer. “Yeah, that’s him.”

  She gave me the number and I wrote it on one of my business cards and went back to the doughnut shop. I slid into the booth across from Russel and said, “Bingo.”

  18

  There was a lightening of the sky by the time we left the doughnut shop. I drove Russel to the Lazy Lodge on the edge of town and checked him in for the day. It’s a sleazy place that caters to the wetbacks passing through on their way to shitty jobs and enough money to rent a mobile home for twelve. Meals were served from a candy and soft drink machine in the grungy lobby. For a dollar or so you could have a Snickers and a Coke.

  I gave Russel enough money for emergencies, like Coke and Snickers and a throw-away razor of the sort they sold at the check-in desk.

  “You taking me in to raise?” Russel said.

  “Seems like it,” I said.

  We went into the little room he was assigned and left the door half open as it was hot in there and the air-conditioning wasn’t turned on. The room had the faint smell of an uncleaned toilet and too much lemon air freshener. Three dead roaches had been piled in one corner
on top of one another by an indifferent broom stroke, making them look like an insect balancing act.

  Russel sat on the bed and it sagged so bad in the middle he seemed to be melting from the butt up. He worked his way out of the slump and got down on his knees and looked under the bed and laughed. “Only one slat in the middle. Swank.”

  “It’s all my finances will allow,” I said.

  “I’m not complaining.” He sat on the very edge of the bed and got out his cigarette pack and shook out the last cigarette and put it in his mouth. He didn’t light it, just let it dangle there. “You really going to help me find my son?”

  “Yeah.”

  “You trust me after what I did?”

  “I don’t know. I must. Either that or I’m crazy.”

  “It was a kind of calculated madness, Dane. I thought I knew what I wanted to do, but I couldn’t do it. It seemed sane to me when I first thought it. A son for a son, but I knew inside me I couldn’t do it. But I could have killed you… I’ve thought about it all morning. I told you in the car I didn’t know if I could have. That was a lie. I could have. I thought you killed my son and it wouldn’t have been anything for me to do you in.”

  “You’d have gone back to prison.”

  “Big shit. I’d have been just as happy if they’d killed me.”

  “And now?”

  “I don’t know. If my son’s alive I want to find him. It makes all the difference in the world.”

  I had been standing. I found the only chair in the room and sat down on it. It groaned as if in pain.

  “They don’t hold back on expense here, do they?” Russel said.

  “Was your cell any better?” I was feeling mean. I still didn’t like the sonofabitch and he had just admitted that he could have killed me and slept.

  But my question didn’t bother him. He actually considered it.

  “The only thing that made the cell bad was that the door was closed and I couldn’t open it anytime I wanted. But out here, I’m like a duck out of water. I’ve been away from civilian life too long. I don’t know how to act. Don’t even know how to talk to a woman anymore. I’m not sure which is worse. Here or Huntsville.”

  “Sad how they make you serve your time, isn’t it?”

  He smiled at me. “I deserved my time, Dane. I’m not complaining.” He found a match then and lit his cigarette. “Last smoke and last match.”

  “I gave you enough money for cigarettes and food. I’ll get back in touch with you.”

  “You’re going to contact Jim Bob?”

  “Yeah.”

  “It may not be the same one, you know?”

  “I know, but with a name like Jim Bob Luke, I figure it is. I’d more likely think he might not be in the same business.”

  “Maybe you could let me talk to him. We used to be friends.”

  “So you’ve said. Maybe that’s enough reason for me to leave that sucker alone.”

  “He’s wiser than me,” Russel said. “He believes in justice and truth and liberty and all that shit.”

  “All right, you talk to him. They’ve got a pay phone here. When you’ve gotten some rest and you think he might be up, call him.”

  Daybreak was edging in the open doorway and that made me think of Ann and Jordan. “I have to go home,” I said.

  “When will I hear from you?”

  "I don’t know. I’ve got some thinking to do. You get something from Jim Bob Luke, you call me. My number’s in the book.”

  I stood up.

  “Dane, an apology isn’t much after what I did—”

  “No, it isn’t.”

  “But I’m offering it.”

  “Wouldn’t have done me much good if you’d have killed me and my family.”

  “I wouldn’t have killed your family. Just you.”

  “That makes me feel a sight better, Russel.”

  “Put yourself in my situation and think about what you’d have done.”

  “I wouldn’t have done what you did.”

  “That wasn’t much thought on the matter.”

  “I know I wouldn’t have done what you did.”

  “No, I don’t think you would have either. I’m not offering an excuse, just an apology.”

  “Your apology is shit, Russel.”

  “We’re going to have to work together on this. Me finding my son and you finding out who you killed, what this is all about. We might as well get along and learn to trust one another.”

  “I don’t know if I can trust you completely, Russel. I’m already having my doubts and thinking I should have left you where you were. Maybe you don’t deserve a son.”

  “I can’t argue with that.”

  I didn’t like the way this was going. “Just lay low. You get in trouble and you’re on your own. I can’t help you anymore, and I wouldn’t if I could.”

  “We’re going to be helping each other plenty if we get into this. If the cops are in on it like you say, they aren’t going to hand us the answers on a platter.”

  “Rest. I’ll see you later.”

  I stopped off at the phone booth between the Fina and the doughnut shop and called home and didn’t explain much, just said I’d be there shortly and I wasn’t going to work today. After that I called Valerie and told her I wouldn’t be in and to take her key.

  When I finished talking and started driving home, I thought about what I had done and I wondered how I was going to explain it to Ann. I wasn’t sure I could explain it to myself. Russel was an ex-con and he wasn’t any saint and he didn’t need a son. He needed a nice warm cell and someone to feed him and tell him when to bathe and when to shit and when to breathe. Why did I want to bother with him anyway? What could possibly come of this? Even if I found out who I killed, how would that change things? A dead Wilbur Smith is no better than a dead John Doe. The earth would not shift on its axis either way.

  So how did I explain? What could I tell Ann that would make her understand? Should I say that Russel had hands like my father?

  19

  When I came in Ann was fixing toast.

  “You want some?”

  “No. I had a doughnut in town. I’ll have some coffee with you, though.”

  “What was with the note? Where have you been?”

  “Where’s Jordan?” I asked.

  “Asleep still. I thought I’d let him skip day school today. I called in at work. I’m not going either. What about my question?”

  “I went to the police station.”

  She considered that a moment. “About getting the door fixed?”

  “No. I went to talk to them about Russel.”

  “Yeah?”

  “I asked them to let him go.”

  She was busy putting her toast on the plate and now she turned to look at me. “Letting him go?”

  “I found a wallet in Jordan’s bedroom. Russel’s. It had a picture of his son in it. It wasn’t the man I shot.”

  “You asked the police to let that bastard go after what he did?”

  “There wasn’t any way it was Freddy Russel. This guy didn’t look anything like him. The man I shot wasn’t Freddy Russel. I went and asked them to let him go and they did.”

  Her knees went weak and she dropped the plate and the toast. The plate broke and the toast went sliding under the table. She leaned her back against the counter and I went over there to help her.

  “Stay where you are,” she said. “Don’t touch me.”

  “Listen, I spent all morning with Russel.”

  “God, they really let him out?”

  “He wants to find out the same things I do. Who it was I shot and why they said it was his son and where his son is. We’re going to hire a private detective out of Houston.”

  “Richard, you’ve gone nuts. That man tried to kill Jordan.”

  “He couldn’t do it.”

  “He tried to kill you. If I hadn’t hit him with that goddamn lamp he would have.”

  “Maybe,” I said. “I don’t t
hink so. He was a little crazy is all.”

  “And now he’s cured?”

  “I spent all morning with him and he didn’t try a thing. He talked sensibly. I think he can be trusted. I put him up in a motel.”

  Ann went over to the table and pulled out a chair and sat down. “You did what?”

  “I put him up in a motel. I’m supposed to call him later.”

  “Why don’t you invite him for supper, you dumb shit? Invite him over. Ask him what he wants to eat, ask him what his favorite is. When he’s finished dinner he can take me in the bedroom and fuck me then kill you and Jordan. Maybe then he might like to set the house on fire. We’ve got plenty of matches and we could always buy some kerosene. Have it on hand.”

  “Ann, you’re not being reasonable.”

  “I’m not? Godalmighty, Richard. What in the world has gotten into you? You’ve flipped that little pea brain of yours.”

  “Don’t talk so loud, you’ll wake Jordan up.”

  “I’ll talk any goddamn way I want to… God, Jesus Christ, Richard… They let him out?”

  “That’s why I know the police were in on this. Hiding the burglar’s identity. Giving him Freddy Russel’s name. Think about it. They wouldn’t have let him out that easy, they just wouldn’t. They didn’t want me to bring in a lawyer and get the whole thing in court and bring some things out they didn’t want to talk about.”

  She hadn’t been looking at me, but now she turned her lovely green eyes on me and stared, didn’t say a word, just stared. I felt like I should start braying.

 
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