Authors: Richard Matheson
“Well, here we are,” said Adam; a fleshier more coarse-looking Adam.
Chris tried to think of something to say but his brain felt clogged.
“It’s been a long time,” Adam said as the car was cornered onto Broadway and headed toward the ocean.
Chris stared at him, his heart beating slowly and heavily against the wall of his chest.
“What do you want?” he asked.
Adam smiled contemptuously. “A little charity,” he said.
“We ought t’kill ’im,” Steve broke in.
Chris glanced forward instinctively and saw Steve’s dark eyes watching him in the mirror.
“Relax,” said Adam.
He still sounded the same, Chris noticed—aloof and calculating. Years and prison had not changed that. It was the deep lining around his eyes and mouth that was different; a strained look of humor retained at the cost of nerves.
“We want money, Chris,” said Adam.
“No arguments,” Adam interrupted. His only betrayal of tension was the tightening of his grip on the revolver. “You’ll get us the money. Period.”
Chris pressed his lips together to keep them from shaking.
“I need hardly remind you,” said Adam, “if we’re caught, you’ll be dragged down with us. And now that you’ve killed Cliff—”
It came too unexpectedly. Chris couldn’t stop the twitching of his legs. A smile loosened Adam’s thick lips.
“I wasn’t sure you had, till now,” he said. “Forget it. It doesn’t matter. Cliff always was a bungler. Too emotional.”
Adam grunted amusedly. “Steve is like that too. If I wasn’t here you’d have a bullet in your brain by now.”
Chris labored for breath.
“How much do you want?” he asked.
“How much have you got?”
“Never mind answering. It’ll be a lie. We want two thousand in small bills.”
“You’re getting off cheap,” said Adam, the amusement stripped from his voice. “You’re lucky we don’t leave you in a ditch somewhere.”
Adam blew out breath.
“Banks open at ten,” he said. “You’ll get the money and bring it to us by eleven. You know where Latigo Canyon is?”
Chris shuddered, recalling his idea to bury Cliff in Latigo Canyon.
“Yes,” he said.
“Bring it there.”
“Where in Latigo Canyon?”
“You’ll find us,” Adam said. He looked at Chris appraisingly.
“You can send the police there of course,” he said, “but I don’t think you will. You have too much to lose.”
Chris didn’t reply.
“Let’s make that three thousand,” said Adam.
Chris’s throat felt as if it were lined with dust. He coughed to ease the sensation.
” asked Adam.
“All right.” Chris’s voice was almost a whisper. “All right, damn you.”
“Splendid,” said Adam lightly. “If you fail you’ll receive a visit either from the police or from us. Neither of which will be very pleasant.”
“I said all right,” said Chris.
Adam looked at him another moment. Then he said, “Pull over.”
Steve drew the dark sedan to the curb.
“Remove him,” said Adam.
Chris stiffened as Steve jumped from the car and ran around the front of it. He pressed back tensely as Steve jerked open the back door and reached in for him.
“I can—” he started, breaking off as Steve’s fingers clamped over his wrist. He tried to pull free but was powerless against the stronger man’s grip. His cheek grazed the door jamb as Steve dragged him out.
“If I had my way—” Steve snapped. As Chris stared at his beard-blackened face, he felt a violent blow to his stomach that jackknifed him over, cutting off breath.
” he heard Steve’s savage oath. Another clublike blow struck him on the side of the head and he went flailing forward onto the paving. As he fell, he heard Adam’s voice through the blackening cloud around him.
Then he was on one knee, gagging, hands pressed against his stomach, hearing the car door slam and the roar of the engine as Steve and Adam left.
He struggled to his feet. Dazedly, he stumbled over to a palm tree and leaned against it, tears trickling down his cheeks. Breath did not seem to come. He kept gasping for it.
Across the street, an old man opened the front door of his house and looked at him curiously. Gritting his teeth, Chris pushed away from the tree and started walking. He couldn’t take a chance on the man talking to him.
Abruptly, a sob broke in his throat. Dear God, was he still thinking in terms of escape? He walked more quickly, bent over to ease the pain. What kept him going? Obviously, there was to be no end to it.
He braced himself. No, it was only temporary. He’d give them the money, they’d go to Mexico—and mail a letter from there demanding more money?
Chris stopped walking and stood staring at the sidewalk. One more complication. One more turn in the maze leading to a blank wall.
At the corner, he entered a drugstore and walked to the rear. Sliding into a phone booth, he sank down on the seat and pulled the door shut, grimacing at the pain in his stomach muscles. The sound of his breathing was harsh and labored as he pushed a dime into the slot and began to dial.
“Operator,” said the voice.
“Give me the police, please,” he said.
There was a sound of dialing, a single buzz before Chris hung up.
He leaned forward, suddenly breathless, pressing his forehead against the cold metal of the telephone. He couldn’t, he just couldn’t. No matter what risks it entailed, he had to take them. To lose everything at his age; family, work, hopes; it wasn’t worth it.
Quickly, blanking his mind, he re-inserted the coin and dialed.
“Hello?” she said.
She couldn’t disguise her exhalation of relief. “What?” she asked.
“I have to stay at the store a while. You’d better take the car.”
“I’ll phone you there later,” he said, “and we’ll—discuss it.”
She didn’t answer. Chris winced as the pain in his stomach flared again.
“All right?” he asked. If only he could tell her to leave immediately without making her suspicious.
Another moment she was silent.
Then, softly, she said, “Good-bye, Chris,” and hung up.
“Helen—!” He’d realized, too late, what was wrong. She thought he was avoiding her.
He put the receiver back onto its hook and sat there heavily. It’s just for now, he told himself. She’ll understand later. I’ll make it up to her and everything will be all right.
Chris stood motionless in front of the store window looking in. It was a good display: neat, well-balanced, imaginative. He and Jimmy had worked it out between them two weeks before—Jimmy with his brief training in visual arts, Chris with his instinct for effective order.
He remembered how proud he’d felt of the display when it was completed. How he’d stood in front of the window for a long time looking at it. His store and its operation was an endless source of pleasure to him. At least it had been.
Chris looked at the wall clock inside the store. It was twenty-five minutes to ten. His eyes focused on the lettering—DENIS SCHOOL OF MUSIC—across its face. He remembered the day the head of the school had come into his store and offered the clock. Chris had taken it gladly. He’d just borrowed enough money to buy the store from Mrs. Saxton and he was in no position to turn down a free clock, advertising or no advertising.
A melancholy smile raised Chris’s lips as he recalled those first days of ownership.
Mrs. Saxton was old and tired, anxious to retire. That was why she sold out so cheaply; that plus the fact that she liked and trusted Chris. He’d been with her for almost five years and, during that time, the store had expanded markedly. When he’d started, it had been a run-down place with a few racks of sheet music, outmoded record albums, a modicum of instruments for rent or sale. Nothing like what it became after Chris began working there.
After the purchase, he expanded it further. He took out a lease on the adjoining store which had been vacant for almost two years and had the wall removed. He had racks built for a complete line of records, three listening booths installed as well as a counter with stools where all kinds of music were sold, from orchestral scores to
children’s piano primers and including all the current sheet music. He had a new tile floor put in with a motif of bass and treble clefs and notes in the design. He enlarged his line of instruments and made an exchange agreement with the Denis School and others.
All this put him considerably into debt. He was unable, in the beginning, to afford help. He and Helen ran the store until Connie’s growth made working too difficult for Helen. Then Chris managed on his own. It was exhausting but joyous work. The weariness he felt at night was a wholesome one.
Little by little, his venture paid off. People from the area began patronizing his store to the exclusion of others. It was a pleasant place and Chris was a pleasant host. His reputation as a man who understood children no less than music broadened. He was asked, by the Chamber of Commerce, to take over the operation of the Junior Orchestra; invited to join the Chamber.
As business increased, so did the scope of his work. He began to arrange neighborhood square dances, organizing the local mothers into an entertainment committee. Gradually, he helped convert the Junior Orchestra into a polished group which gave well-received concerts all over the Los Angeles area. He sponsored and coached the Santa Monica Wildcats who played baseball in spring and summer, football in fall and winter. Life became more and more rewarding. The store did more business and he did more for the community. His idea for the creative workshop had come only a few weeks before and it was, already, halfway to fruition. All this, ended by a phone call in the night.
Jimmy looked up from behind the counter as Chris entered. “Hi Mr. Martin,” he said.
“Hello, Jimmy,” Chris smiled at him. “How’s it going?”
“Up to the B’s,” said Jimmy, grinning. “I just put Brahms in his place.” Then he added, concerned, “Gee, Mr. Martin, you okay?”
“Sure.” Chris stopped by the counter and hesitated a moment before speaking. “Oh, uh, my wife has the car this morning, Jimmy. Going to her mother’s.”
Jimmy nodded. “Uh-huh.”
“I’ll be needing a car for a while though,” Chris said.
“And you wanna borrow mine?” said Jimmy. “Sure thing, Mr. Martin. Any time.”
“I’d appreciate it,” said Chris.
“Any time at all,” said Jimmy. “Well, I’ll get back to Britten and Bruckner now.”
Chris managed another smile. “Has Mrs. Anthony called?” he asked.
“Yes, sir. I gave her the message.”
Chris shut the door of his office and drew off his top coat. As he dropped it on a chair, he noticed the smudges on it. He must have gotten them when Steve knocked him down. He checked his trousers and found dirt streaks on the knees, a small rip. If he’d gone home, Helen would have seen them. He’d have had to tell her what happened.
He wondered what she’d say when she found out about the money. They’d been saving for a bigger house; this would reduce their account to almost nothing. Well, there was no help for it. It had to be done. After all these years, three thousand was a cheap enough price for continued freedom.
Suddenly, it occurred to Chris that after bringing the money he would no longer be of any value to Adam and Steve. He heard repeated in his mind what Adam had said:
You’re lucky we don’t leave you in a ditch somewhere
Chris sank down heavily before his desk. Dear God, what was he to do? If he gave Adam and Steve the money, he’d always be subject to their blackmail. If he went to the police, he’d be put in prison—and he had no romantic illusions about “getting a fresh start” after that. If he were twenty, perhaps. Not now.
It was in that moment that the idea came with a flash of hideous logic. An idea that had to do with Cliff’s loaded gun and Chris’s two enemies waiting in Latigo Canyon, with the hills around and the unlikelihood of anyone hearing a shot.
His fingers jerked suddenly into blood-drained fists. No! He was not that kind of man and never would be!
Abruptly, the false defenses seemed to fall away like scales. He’d been wrong. It might entail a kind of courage to go on in the face of pressure but to face the obligation of honesty was the only true courage.
Chris sighed. Strange that, after all his indecision, the solution should prove so simple. He could feel the simple rightness of it in his very flesh.
He pulled the telephone across his desk and, lifting the receiver, dialed quickly.
Helen’s mother answered.
“This is Chris, Mom,” he said.
“Could I speak to Helen for a moment?”
“Helen? Is she supposed to be here?”
“Yes.” Chris felt a sinking of disappointment. “I guess she hasn’t had time to get there yet.”
“I didn’t know she was coming.”
“Yes. She planned to pay you a visit, with Connie.”
“Well, how lovely,” said Mrs. Shaw, “I’ll be looking for them.”
“Would you ask her to phone me when she gets there?” he asked.
“All right. At the store?”
“I will, Chris.”
“Thanks, Mom. See you soon then.”
After he’d hung up, Chris sat restively, tapping on his desk. He was anxious to talk with Helen, to let her know what he was planning to do. He wanted to hear her shocked yet—he felt sure—proud reaction. He needed it before he could call the police.
For a moment, he wondered if what he really wanted was for her to talk him out of it. He thought about that, trying to decide what he’d do if she tried to dissuade him. Somehow, it seemed no problem. He couldn’t believe that he’d change his mind now.
Sighing, he rotated his swivel chair and looked through the glass partition at the store. Jimmy was still hard at work relocating the LP albums. He was a good kid, Chris thought. With Helen’s assistance, Jimmy could manage the store very well while he was gone.