THE LADY KILLER
The Book Folks
© Lee Olds
Other classic literary fiction titles by Lee Olds available on Kindle include:
A captivating coming of age novel set in Alaska.
Rivalry ensues when a mother and her daughter meet a handsome stranger.
An aging writer develops a fixation with a would-be editor.
Table of Contents
Hammond had just emerged from the sliding glass door of the cockpit with two tall Collinses in beaded glasses, which sat on a perspiring aluminum tray. He handed one to me and took the other; then sat on the all-weather transom seat opposite. The radar disc on its pole stuck up from a fiberglass wing above us just higher than the fly bridge to form a makeshift beacon as if it could see. When turned on, mind you. When turned on. Of course it couldn’t see. Only one’s eyes could do that. But like so many of our modern day enhancement instruments, it gave us a greater perspective. Not a final one … nothing could do that … but a greater one, and it might save your life.
We were safely moored at a dock in Sausalito by the bay at the foot of several winding hills upon which were clustered a series of quaint homes. From our west, facing our stern, Mt. Tamalpais broke the land plain. An oval cloud had chosen to surround its peak as though it was skewered on the head of a spear and a little to the south the sun had just reached the crest of the ocean ridge and was descending into upwelling light which, coming later, always somehow flickered with more intensity than its preceding glow until, of course, it too faded. Several motor launches, having entered the corridors of the fingered piers, had passed by and their crews were busy tying up when I said to Hammond,
“You know, since you’ve acquired this beautiful boat I don’t believe you’ve once taken it out … why? What are boats for?”
“See those,” he pointed to a row of cruisers both fore and aft of us. “I’d wager of all those boats (fifty or more) not two are taken out more than once or twice every three months. You’re missing the point, these people don’t own them to use them, and they’ve got money enough so they don’t have to. They do come down for weekends, however. You see them puttering around. They barbecue, marvel at the dirty water and spend the night having been rocked gently to sleep in their playhouses just as we’ll do tonight. That’s what they use them for. They’re places to get away from it all. You don’t have to go out on them and you can say, ‘Guess what, I own a boat!’”
“I see,” said I. “Just the same, I always thought boats were made to cruise the high seas and this is such a nice one.”
My portly friend stood up to survey the harbor like a general surveying his troops just before battle. He’d certainly named the cruiser first class. He’d called it ‘Family Happiness’ after one of Tolstoy’s stories no less. The letters were painted on the stern and both sides of the bow. Having been stimulated by the drink (he mixed strong ones) and perhaps no less by the thought of the nineteenth century author I was suddenly reminded of a tale of my own which, though it had occurred some time ago, had taken place in the vicinity. Not particularly delirious at the thought of Hammond’s quartz set sputtering in the cabin I began to jabber as if in some sort of hypnotic trance.
“You remember Louis Hartwig from the city?” I volunteered. “Well, he and I used to hang out together here …” I pointed at the shore.
“Yes,” said Hammond with a slight amount of disrespect. “I knew Louis, Don Juan or whatever it was they used to call him. Personally I always thought he was a stuck up asshole. He used people, didn’t he? Women mainly. And he never did anything in his life as far as I know, but he didn’t have to. He came from money and he married into it. People like that don’t. Our country’s full of them. That’s why it’s going downhill.”
“Right,” I understood my friend’s umbrage for he hadn’t had it so easy but was indeed a self-made man, “but think back to Sandy Hightower when Hartwig’s in session. Remember her brutal murder…?”
“I do. It was quite awesome and occurred at the beach didn’t it? Oceanview to be exact if I remember correctly, by some nut. But what’d Hartwig have to do with that?”
“You didn’t know. He practically caused it. Here, let me tell you.”
And I began my story.
I used to live over there, I pointed to a low peaked roof along the waterfront. It was barely visible. The place had been used as storage shed but I’d convinced the owner to rent it to me as a studio. I’d been commuting to the city towards my degree at the university, doing a little painting on the side. It had a toilet and a sink, between which I made a little kitchen and I took my showers at the community center in town that charged a hundred dollars a year for membership.
Hartwig lived just down the road from me in a houseboat he owned, which his grandmother’d purchased. She was a nice old lady, very cultured, who lived in the city in one of the apartments of a building she owned and although his mother was still alive and, in fact, a practicing attorney, Hartwig whose father’d passed on, didn’t get along very well with her. She wanted him to go to law school and enter practice with her whereas his grandmother always advised her grandson,
“With your looks and talent you can obviously marry a rich woman; then you’ll have no worries. We Hartwigs must always be among the best.” By that she meant the elite. She was a very aristocratic woman, whose legacy backed her sentiments, who nonetheless felt work was beneath a man if he could avoid it. And she wasn’t stupid either, far from it. She was well traveled, highly cultured and educated. … Guess whose advice Hartwig valued most highly…?
“You tell me since you knew him far better than I.”
“Yes, and perhaps that just might’ve been too well though we can’t be held guilty forever by our associations of the past.” Hammond nodded his head and I proceeded.
And to tell the truth it wasn’t all Hartwig’s fault. It never is in a case like that. A man always has admirers in his midst who prompt him to do the craziest of things. And in this case I was reluctant to admit, I was one of them. I was younger. Bedevilment was all the rage to our group. And it seems to me that feature of ours never leaves us. Older fuddy duddies are just as testy, always trying to get one of their associates to make a mistake, which they couldn’t have. It … it’s their way of feeling better than the next man. One’s ashamed to think we need this sort of trivia to get along in life but we do. Our unfortunate nature requires it.
“Wait, just wait a second,” said Hammond. “You just said our nature requires, but does it require or merely suggest? If the former, of course, you’re saying we possess natures that rule us. Not only that but some things about them are unfortunate that we just can’t change no matter how hard we try. We can’t change even though we might will to. That, in this case, would be because we don’t have that freedom. An … an almost intolerable belief for the human being to entertain even if it’s somehow actually true. We like to think we’re free. That our nature does require. But the other fatalism, … no.”
“Again, a false requirement? Hear me out though.”
It was the beginning of summer; the days were long even though we hadn’t reached the new solstice. Wednesday night we played poker at my place. There were six of us. Myself, Hartwig and four others with whom we hung about in the Venice Cafe uptown. One of these gents called himself a photographer when, in truth, he lived off a woman who held down two jobs to support him. She wasn’t bad looking either. Better than him. Another was a philosophy grad who wore his hair pageboy style, dressed invariably in black suits, who we called Dracula. Then there was the dancing instructor and a contractor. Whether any of them had the greatest jobs in the world or not, all except Hartwig seemed to have money. The others of us knew that and that’s undoubtedly why Barry, the photographer and prankster of our group, as we sat at my round table beneath the overhead light, cards fanned out flat, issued the following challenge. Looking directly across at Hartwig, he said,
“No job yet? Why I’ve got an idea.” He glanced around at us as if he’d just had an astounding revelation. As he talked he divulged his fancy that he claimed to have discussed with several of the others which turned out not to be true. Nonetheless by the end of the evening all those involved agreed to participate. We all knew Sandy Hightower had not only a beach house at Oceanview, at which she spent part of the week attempting to raise her wayward teenage son – when she wasn’t there he ran wild – but part in a flat she owned in Sausalito where she retreated to escape the rigors of raising the boy. She was a very nervous and unstable woman herself. Just raising a child at all can be nearly impossible for some mothers. She was one of them.
Somehow Barry thought it’d be a good idea if Hartwig moved in on her and helped himself to a little of her fortune. She constantly went through men, spent money on them lavishly and took them abroad gratis. If Hartwig was willing to make the attempt and he succeeded, the photographer intended to put up a thousand dollar guarantee payable hands down upon Hartwig’s return. By the evening’s end and a lot of diabolical merriment over the matter at Hartwig’s expense, the other three principles had also agreed upon the wager.
“What if I can’t get
to know her
, or I do and she won’t go? What then?” Hartwig was to ask.
“No big deal,” Someone volunteered. “If so you don’t owe us a thing.”
“Really?” Of course Hartwig was interested. Let me tell you why. For one thing, going after her fit right in with his grandmother’s dictum,
“Whenever you marry it must be to a rich woman don’t forget that.”
Even though he hadn’t yet considered Sandy Hightower in that category. Though highly attractive, she was six years older than him and deemed a
among us. Someone to go after and indulge but never get serious about because of her age. Then Hartwig had a girlfriend he wanted to get rid of without hurting. If (if it came about) she saw him in this demeaning situation, he reasoned, she’d drop him like a hot potato and run in the other direction for Sandy didn’t have the best reputation in town with our moral elders and anyone who’d stoop to go with her could be considered undesirable himself. That I’ll presently come to.
We’d finished our drinks; Hammond’d entered the galley, brought back several more and reseated himself apparently content not to catch the eight o’clock news. The sun had set, the clouds above us acquired pink and violet tints and the world (for us) was beginning to shut itself down into what we called night. About dinner we hadn’t even thought.
“So,” said Hammond. “What were his other reasons?”
“Other reasons for what?” I was caught off guard.
“For pursuing the socialite?”
“None that I know of. Hartwig drove an old clunker, a Beetle sedan that was going out on him constantly. The four thousand dollars’d buy him a better one I’m sure, or at least get that one properly fixed…” I paused for a thought. “Ah, and yes,” I slapped my knees. “There was one other reason, or at least there could be though this perhaps was more in our minds than his. The crazy man who’d beaten her up and she’d put in jail had promised to come after her when he got out. We figured if Hartwig was with her that’d never happen. He’d take a hint and move on …”
“Yes,” said Hammond, “depending upon how mad he was, for can a madman take a hint? Can he even respond to such a thing?”
“It wasn’t so much that,” I answered. “This character was afraid of Hartwig. The two’d had some sort of skirmish before and it’d been no contest. Despite what you think of Hartwig’s modus operandi he was a tough guy, very tough. He’d played football in high school and rugby in college and he didn’t dissipate that much. He was in good shape.”
“Well,” said Hammond with a little doubt to my claim. “If he got out and came for her she wouldn’t need Hartwig to protect her I’m sure. She could just call the police again and have him put away for good this time.”
“No,” I admitted. “It wasn’t that simple. Sandy’d been
this individual overcome his innate hatred of his mother. Like so many of us she thought of herself as a lay psychologist and …”
“And, ha, ha, ha,” I’d struck a funny chord. “So she went to bed with him, eh. Morning becomes Electra. Now I’ve heard everything. We’re not only reliving one of our own tales but also a sordid classic that took place several thousand years ago. This is good. Please go on.”
“Again,” I said. “Not so simple. She evidently felt guilty for having had him put away, figured it was partially her fault for arousing his violent tendencies. She visited him at the funny farm every week to bring him treats and to let him know, I suppose, everyone hadn’t abandoned him. For as crazy and hostile as Brochowitz was, he had absolutely no friends; yet was a deeply sensitive individual.”
“Really, who said that, Norman Mailer?”
“His father was a first violinist with the Brooklyn Symphony.”
“Oh?” I wasn’t so sure that was true but it shut Hammond up. He, by the way, loved classical music.
So, I who wasn’t putting up a nickel for this venture was chosen to hold the four thousand dollars in an escrow account, which was Hartwig’s to win or lose. We gave him four months’ time to complete his mission for that was when the madman was due to be released and, quite frankly, if it hadn’t occurred by then chaos’d be on the menu. We didn’t want any further part of it.
On the appointed afternoon then, since one of our spies had seen Sandy drive into town that morning and we knew she’d be spending the night, I marched down to Hartwig’s houseboat. You should’ve seen the area he lived in, you would’ve invariably disapproved but we’ll never know. That cluster of floating shanties is gone. Done away with too by the rich who forced out the mavericks, who couldn’t afford permanent flotation (concrete hulls) for their structures, or for that matter walls that’d stand upright without collapsing after a mild storm. Someone’d finally decided that plot of water was among the most beautiful in the entire bay area and the rush was on. It reminded one of the 1849 Gold Rush. I made my way through the parking lot of those broken down cars where also stood Hartwig’s monstrosity, the little VW. Several of the larger sedans were being tinkered with, for among the other idiosyncrasies these people had, one was to service their own vehicles. They couldn’t afford the high rates of the professional mechanics and like they patched their own boats, they had what was then a self-sufficient community.
helped each other. Many of the inhabitants were on welfare. Few worked except at odd jobs. The moorage fees were almost nil. And, at any rate that’s why they were there. No place else in the country’d have them.