Authors: Charles Runyon
“… a hand clamped over my mouth. I heard a grunt and smelled stale tobacco. I curved my fingers and twisted, trying to face him. But his arm was a steel clamp holding me to him. Like a striking snake, his hand darted upward beneath my dress. I heard the top of my panties give with a rubbery tear, and a fingernail raked my stomach.
“The next thing I knew was the pain going down my legs and up my back. It had the rhythm of a headache—each thrust of pain marked by a movement of the shadow and a hiss of breath.”
“You’re the prettiest, so you’re probably the most dangerous. The prettiest flowers have the longest thorns, the loveliest snakes carry the strongest venom.”
She wanted to be an actress—until her very life depended on it.
Being in love with the wrong girl made him a target for suspicion.
This puppet would stop at nothing to do as he was told.
She couldn’t resist her first lover, even though she detested him.
He was so used to success, he longed for a chance to fail.
When he tried to do things lawfully, he found he’d made a mistake.
She could make raw lust seem like warm love.
The Anatomy of Violence
CHARLES W. RUNYON
a division of F+W Crime
a twilight wind blows through Curtright City. Old newspapers flutter down wide, empty streets. A beer can rolls and tumbles into the gutter. Loose windows rattle as the train roars through on its way from Chicago to Los Angeles.
You watch from the club car, a glass cool against your palm, and think of people living in Curtright City. Or dying there. You suddenly appreciate the noisy chatter around you; the voices brush away the prickly discomfort of looking at death.
Curtright City isn’t dead, though many cities die in this unrelieved country where the Great Plains reach for the Rockies like a tilting table. They live on a single industry. Like many parasites, they die when the host dies.
Death isn’t sudden. The town shrinks and the graveyard grows. One by one, salesmen mark it off their stopping lists and chain stores close their outlets. One day the sheriff holds his last sale and the graveyard covers the entire town.
Curtright City lives, after a fashion. And its people live, caught in the city’s ebbing tide. They watch the stripper wells pump more slowly each year, dipping their heads like drowsy giant mosquitoes drinking from the earth. They watch the great machines march through seas of wheat. Some years the seas are bright gold, some years, a sickly beige. Otherwise each year is like the last.
Here the girls ripen young. Their skins glow with the velvety texture of a plum about to fall. They feel their juices boiling in the hot sun and for a time they live frenetically, like fever victims. One day they find their skins have dried and flaked and wrinkled, and they settle back to share the fate of the city.
Not long ago a man changed in Curtright City. A rot spread inside his mind. One day he crossed to the dark side of that vast, shaded area that runs between the sane and the sick.
They found a girl ripped and torn at the bottom of a new swimming pool. Dead. She’d won a beauty contest that afternoon.
For a week the people suffered the bright glare of notoriety. They were glad when it went away. They were glad when the girl’s parents buried their dead and moved away. It helped erase the unpleasantness. Nobody suggested canceling the contests—they brought in trade. Besides, it couldn’t happen again.
But it did. This time the girl lived.
slowly, from the inside out; and it was only when I reached a certain point of consciousness that I realized that something was terribly wrong.
Instead of sunlight, darkness pressed against my eyelids. Instead of soft flannel pajamas, nylon enclosed my legs with a warm, gentle pressure. Above them, there was only the tingle of cool air.
In the next second I became fully awake and then I was like a person awakened in the night by a crash of thunder. My ears rang and my mind held only an echo of terror. For a minute all I knew for sure was that my name was Laurie Crewes.
Minutes ago, the fight had ended in smashing violence. I remembered only the sound of hoarse breathing somewhere above me. Now currents of pain wriggled along my legs and dug into my stomach. I tried to gasp and nearly choked. My mouth and chin felt drawn and sticky, and my lips refused to part. He had sealed them with tape.
Still I hadn’t tried to move my body. He was near, waiting for something. I could feel his eyes crawling over my skin like the little gray bugs that scurry when you lift a rotten board.
Water trickled somewhere, and frogs chirred like alarm clocks ringing under water. I smelled damp, rotting wood and wondered where I was.
Something creaked nearby with the slow rhythm of a child on a rusty swing. A parked car. I must be near the rutted dirt road that ran between the ballpark and the river. The parking spot behind the bleachers would explain everything—the lovers, the frogs, and the rotting wood. Except how did I get under the bleachers?
Lord, I ached to move. My back felt as though ice tongs dug at the base of my spine. He’d taped my wrists to my ankles. I lay like a folded ruler, breasts flattened against my legs.
I found I could move my right hand. The man was on my left, I decided, where the seats slanted to meet the ground. I tried to isolate the sound of his breathing but the car was too noisy.
Silently I twisted my wrist and felt the little hairs pull loose. I mentally rehearsed how I’d free the other leg, leap to my feet, rip the bandage from my mouth, and run screaming to the car.
But could they help? There’d be a moment before they became aware of me. Another moment to get out of the car, even longer if they were in the back seat.
I stopped moving.
Hurry, you two!
Something soft was holding my hips off the ground. I moved just enough to identify it: chiffon, bunched and crumpled. It was the white formal I’d worn in the contest.
I remembered sitting on the stage and looking out between the two girls who sat in front of me. Their shoulders were already pink from the sun. The audience filled the infield of the ballpark—unused since our team had moved to another city ten years before.
I watched the girl who stood at the front of the stage, reading from her script in a high, uncertain voice. Sweat gleamed on her bony shoulders. Above her head, a string of service-station pennants sagged between crepe-wrapped two-by-fours.
They hand out a thousand dollar prize, I thought, fanning myself with the script they’d given me, and they can’t afford a decent stage.
The girl walked back to her seat, and applause sounded. Another girl stepped to the front and the planks rattled on their supporting oil drums.
My satin slip stuck to my legs where they touched the metal folding chair. I moved my legs to free them and searched the sky for a cloud. There was only the flat haze that marked the refinery. A chair creaked beside me.
“Son of a
I turned to see Ann pull out the front of her pink formal and blow into the deep hollow between her breasts.
“It was a hundred and five at noon,” I whispered. “And the boys are watching you, Ann.”
Ann twisted to look at the boys and a handful of tawny hair fell over her eyes. I didn’t turn; I’d already seen the group perched on a platform laid across the stock rack of a cattle truck. Parked outside the fence, it gave them a plunging view of the girls onstage.
Well, we’d come to be seen. I remembered when my mother was alive, she would always say an actress’ greatest talent was being a woman.
Not that I hoped to win the contest on physical appeal; I was too tall, too slim. But the contrast might draw attention from the wide-hipped blondes around me. I’d even combed my hair flat against my temples, leaving a loose fringe over my forehead. I hoped my large violet eyes would make me look elfin and not just hungry.
Anxiety gnawed at my stomach with tiny, sharp teeth. Someone on the truck whistled.
“Do it again, Ann!”
Ann turned around and threw her hair back. “Stupid high school boys.” She pulled up the front of her dress. “I wouldn’t care if it was somebody interesting.”
She clasped her hands in her lap, covering first one then the other. She had a man’s hands, with thick fingers, broad palms and dark, wrinkled knuckles. Trying to hide them, she constantly drew attention to them. When we were younger, she’d always twined her arms behind her back and hopped when she got excited. I wondered if she still did it. I’d seen little of her since she’d moved off our street three years before, the day the police brought her dad back from Mexico.
The girl in front of me stood up and walked forward. Her legs seemed to move on unoiled hinges. She was tall; brown hair lay on her shoulders and spilled down her back. She stumbled against the card table in the center of the stage; a water glass rolled off, bounced, but didn’t break. Someone laughed. I could see her script fluttering as though in a breeze.
I gasped as Ann’s elbow jabbed my ribs. “She’ll never get it.”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“I do. She’s got nothing up front. Like two raisins on an ironing board.”
I felt the sharp teeth gnawing again. “Ann, this isn’t a dairy show. It’s a drama contest.”
“Yes, but think back. Did they ever pick a flat-chested Miss Stella? Eileen last year was at least a thirty-six. So was Carol the year before.” She leaned back and the tight dress forced her breasts up into sharp relief.
Ann would be at least thirty-six. She’d developed early and kept developing. I thought of something. “Aren’t you over nineteen?”
Her eyes widened. “Don’t tell them,
“You know me better than that, Ann. But you’ll have trouble if you win, being over the age limit.”
“Oh, hell, I can’t win with you here. You can
But would the judges know? I watched the master of ceremonies. He sat on the edge of the stage slightly in front of the girl performing. He stood up and patted his hands together as the girl finished, then crooked his finger at a girl in front of me. She threw back a red-gold mane of hair and swayed toward the front. Her green organdy dress broke like pale surf against her knees.
“Mother, buy me that!” yelled someone on the truck.
Ann’s breath was warm in my ear. “I’ve seen that bitch before. She’s from Chicago.”
“Oh?” It wasn’t unusual for a half-dozen strange girls to turn up each year, either after the two-year dramatic scholarship or the cash. They rarely won; but this one …
Her hair caught the sun, added a touch of burnt gold, and threw it back. She spoke in a throaty voice I could hardly hear, but she didn’t have to project her voice. Eyes followed every twist and bend of her body, and widened as she finished with a pirouette that whirled her skirt six inches above her knees.
In spite of this, the applause was scattered as she took her seat.
Since my turn was almost at the end, I had plenty of time. Minutes oozed by as I studied the monologue.
I remembered how my scalp tingled as a sweat droplet formed, trickled down my temple, rolled along the hollow above my collarbone, then dropped between my breasts. I felt like a wet cat steaming in a petshop window.
Garments rustled, and I looked up to see Jules Curtright slouch into a vacant chair in the judges’ row. He wore a striped sports shirt; a tuft of black hair pushed upward from the open collar. His dark, brooding eyes swept over the girls without a flicker of interest. I closed my script and watched him, noticing how his straight brows met his high-bridged nose like the cross on a T. He flipped out a cigaret, caught it between his lips, and puffed as a judge two seats away stretched forth a lighter. Jules nodded and the man leaned back and looked smug.
I could feel a new tautness in the air, as though the contest had so far been only the tuning of an orchestra. Miss Haggerty, the woman who had hired me to work part-time in her dress shop, had told me: “You’ll be a lucky girl if you’re named Miss Stella this year, Laurie. There sits Jules Curtright. A 35-year-old bachelor with a family tradition as old as Curtright City. Stop saying you’d rather be an actress and let’s look at the record.” She had opened the safe, pushed aside the calendar on which she circled wedding dates and birthdays and pulled out a scrapbook. “Here’s the clipping of Jules’ grandmother, Miss Stella of 1896, she was quarter-blood Osage, always wore the brooding, go-to-hell look she’d passed on to Jules. And there’s his mother, Miss Stella of 1923. Maybe they wanted to be actresses too, but they didn’t pass up million-dollar marriages.”
I didn’t believe in the Curtright tradition she’d mentioned. No Curtright was like another. Jules’ great-grandfather was only a legend, whose vision and dedication in founding the town and naming it Charity was always mawkishly overdone in the special newspaper the
put out every Stella Day. Jules’ grandfather had brought the oil boom to town and changed the name to Curtright City. I might have liked him, if only for his open egotism. He’d ordered no-parking signs set in front of the restaurant where he ate lunch, at his club, at his home—and now and then, a few weeks at a time, in front of some woman’s home.
I knew little about Jules’ father, the man who ruled while the boom dried up. He’d blocked traffic on the street where he lived, and later built a huge house on a walled estate in the country. His suicide was like a nasty word that wouldn’t come off the sidewalk.
I watched Jules’ hands, noticing how he kept turning his cigaret between his thumb and forefinger. I’d seen him do it on the tennis court between sets. An impatient man, I thought. He wouldn’t follow a tradition even if there was one.
I jumped as Ann squeezed my arm. “What?”
“I asked what you’d do with the money if you won.”
“Nothing. I plan to take the scholarship.”
Her mouth formed an orange O. “Have you told them?”
“Told them what? That I’m going to ask for the scholarship that’s worth three times as much as the cash prize?”
A shrug rippled her pink bosom. “They don’t give a damn. Jules Curtright pays, either way.”
Just then Jules threw down his cigaret and ground it into the stage with his foot. He turned and for a moment our eyes met. I thought I saw a flicker of interest but I wasn’t sure. Did he care whether anyone took his scholarship and became an actress? I knew his great-grandfather, who started the contests, knew nothing about acting. He’d happened to name an oil well after a girl who’d left the village to go on stage. The well gushed, Stella Day was proclaimed, and a beauty queen named to symbolize the real Miss Stella who’d never come back. The scholarship had been tacked on later.
Ann spoke again. “What I meant a while ago was if you’d told Jules Curtright he might have helped you.”
“He’s not a judge. He couldn’t help.” Or could he? Maybe another girl had gone to him and the contest was already settled. The thought had made me feel flustered.
“Me? No.” She didn’t look at me.
“You know anyone who did?”
“No. I was just thinking about it.” She smoothed her dress with a fluttery movement, then hid her hands in her lap. “Could I see what you’re giving, Laurie?”
I gave her my script and started to ask another question. Then I saw that only two girls remained ahead of me. I had to relax.
“Not much,” said Ann, after reading my script. “But better’n mine. Mine’s about a dog dying. A damn dog. I can’t stand dogs.”
“So …” I slumped a little as my back relaxed. “Pretend it’s something besides a dog.”
Ann’s fingers dug into my arm as the girl beside me stood up. “Laurie, you’re next and then me.”
“Yes.” The red spots on her cheeks were brighter.
“I wanted to go after you but now I don’t know. I’ll be an anti-climax.”
“No you won’t. Just relax.”
“Relax? God. I think about going up there and the boys yelling and I feel like throwing up.”
“The boys don’t judge, Ann,” I said.
“No, but they’ll make some smart crack about my old man. Laurie, if I win, I swear this town will never see me again.”
A minute later the girl returned to her seat. My turn. The M.C. beckoned. I stood and felt my palms go slick with sweat.
“Laurie, here’s your script.”
I took the paper, walked forward and gave my name to the M.C. I started on and a hand rested on my forearm. “I didn’t catch the name.” Jules Curtright stood beside me wrinkling his brow. “Do I know you?”
His voice was a deep note that vibrated inside me.
“Do I?” His eyes were dark gray, like oil smoke.
“You—” I cleared my throat. “You should. My dad runs some of your stations.”
“This district?” He tugged at his earlobe. “That would be Ben Crewes. So you’re—”
“I was about to say that. You look nervous. Can I help?”
Self-consciousness had drained the fluid from my joints. I
“No … no, thanks.” I managed to smile.
“Good luck.” He smiled back and his hand cupped my elbow and turned me. I heard him saying to the M.C., “Mort, you should have been with me in Denver …”
Then I was in front, facing the audience. I looked down and thought of the eggs I had made that last Easter, with painted faces and little crepe hats.
I relaxed and opened the script, ready to become the girl in the typed pages. Suddenly my cheeks went stiff. The script was about a little dog. Ann had switched them!
I whirled angrily and saw her watching me, her lip caught between her teeth. I pointed to the script and raised my eyebrows. She raised hers and shrugged. Didn’t she understand, or didn’t she want to?