Authors: Day Keene
Complete and Unabridged
a division of F+W Media, Inc.
IT was the first time I’d been in the death house. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the feel of the place. I didn’t like the smell. Even the hot Florida sun slanting in through the high-barred windows was somehow different. At that, it wasn’t exactly the death house. It was a row of three cells adjoining the death house proper.
I transferred the sweet peas I was carrying to my left hand. The palm of the hand in which I’d been carrying them was wet with sweat. I wiped it on my trousers.
The fat-faced guard explained, “We never keep dames inside, see?” He inclined his head at the steel door sealing the passage. “We got some plenty tough guys in there. And they’d blow their tops for sure if we put a pretty babe like Pearl in with them. And them not able to get at her.” He nudged me with his elbow. “Get what I mean?”
I said I got what he meant.
Two of the cells were empty. The guard unlocked the third cell in the row. The Mantinover girl was lying on her back with one hand over her eyes. The prison laundry had shrunk the grey denim dress she was wearing. It outlined the contours of her body. Her firm bosom rose and fell rhythmically with her breathing, straining against the cloth. As far as I could tell, there was nothing under the dress but her. Here and there perspiration stained the grey black.
“Nice, huh?” the fat guard breathed.
“Nice,” I agreed with him.
His voice oozed out of his parted lips and crawled over the sleeping girl like a lustful cockroach. “Hey. Wake up, Pearl. There’s a guy from your lawyer to see you.” He looked at my pass from the front office. “By the name of James A Charters.”
Pearl Mantinover sat up. She brushed sleep and hair from her eyes with the back of one hand. As she did, the skirt of her dress crawled up, exposing a patch of cream-colored leg. She saw the guard looking at her. She let him look.
Six months in a cell had tamed her. She was no longer the black-haired vixen who had cursed the prosecutor up one side and blistered him down the other. Leaving nothing unsaid. That, in court. With a blue-nosed judge and a thin-lipped cracker jury looking on with jaundiced eyes. Paying more attention to Pearl’s admitted breach of the seventh commandment than they did to the facts in the case.
It hadn’t helped her any. What burned me at the time, what still burned me, was that Mr. Kendall, for all he was supposed to be a top-flight trial lawyer, hadn’t attempted to explain her outbreak to the jury. I knew just how she felt, how any girl would feel under similar circumstances. Whether she’d killed Joe Summers or not, she’d gone to live with the guy because she loved him. And State’s Attorney Layton had called her a loose woman just one too many times.
“How goes it, Pearl?” I asked her.
Pearl smiled at me, wanly. She still had her cute little dimple. “Not so good, Mr. Charters.” Her big black eyes, the tilt of her chin asked the question.
I shook my head at her. “I’m afraid it’s bad news.”
“My appeal has been turned down?”
“Yeah. And Mr. Kendall says that he’s gone as far as he can, that it’s up to the governor now.”
A flash of her old spirit came back. “But I didn’t kill Joe. That awful woman next door was lying. She couldn’t have heard us quarreling. Joe was dead when I came home!”
So what could I say? That I was sorry? I couldn’t do her any good. I wasn’t a big shot lawyer. I wasn’t any kind of a lawyer. I was only a lawyer’s runner. A glorified messenger boy. Kendall pointed a finger and I went.
Go here. Go there. See if you can find a favorable witness to that accident on Fourth and Hibiscus last night. Take this brief over to Judge Harney. Go tell Pearl Mantinover that she has to die. Get me a ham on rye. And for God’s sake, put some mustard on it this time.
For sixty-two fifty a week. This on my birthday. Me thirty-five years old. And lucky to have a job.
I said, “I know it’s tough, kid. Plenty tough.”
“How much time have I?”
I told her, “Two weeks. And if I were you, Pearl, I’d get a letter off to the governor just as fast as I could. Write it this afternoon. Tell him your side of the story.”
The light went out in Pearl’s eyes. She nodded. Without hope. “For all the good it will do.” She smoothed the goods over her breasts. “I am a b-a-a-a-d woman. No?” The corners of her mouth turned down. “I lived with the man I loved. Without a few words on a piece of paper.” She shrugged. “That I went to church every morning, that there was never any other man in my life, meant nothing. Because I danced and sang in a cafe, I am a bad girl. And Mr. Kendall didn’t even try to explain. He took my money and, if you ask me, he threw me to the wolves.”
I repeated what I’d said before. “You get that letter off to the governor right away.” Then I remembered the flowers I’d brought and offered them to her. “Here. I thought you might like these.”
Pearl buried her face in the sweet peas. When she looked up again, she was smiling through the first tears I’d seen her cry. Her voice was low in her throat. “Maybe it will still be all right,” she said, quietly. “There are some nice men in the world. Thank you. Thank you very much, Mr. Charters. You are married, yes?”
“Yeah. Sure. I’m married,” I admitted.
Pearl was still sitting on the bunk. She stood up and kissed me. On the lips. Without passion. Sweet. While her free hand fondled my cheek. “Tell Mrs. Charters, for Pearl, she is a very lucky woman.” She buried her face in the flowers, crying harder now. “Is one of nicest things that ever happened to me.”
The fat guard glowered at me. I felt like a fool.
“Your time’s up,” he said, sourly.
I said, “Goodbye, Pearl,” and left.
I was glad to get out of the place. Such a little thing to be responsible for all that had happened. Fifty cents worth of sweet peas.
• • •
It was a long, hot drive back to Sun City. It hadn’t changed in five hours. The waters of the Gulf and Bay were just as blue. The town still sprawled in the sun, an overgrown fishing village dotted with green benches and churches and swank hotels. The royal palm-lined avenues and acres of white beach still crawled with young folks, old folks, Bible thumpers, bolita ticket peddlers, tourists from forty-eight states and swaggering big league baseball players down to begin spring training.
I parked in front of Kelly’s Flamingo Bar and had a hot dog and a beer for lunch, saving my appetite for night. May would have a big supper. She always did, on my birthday. Probably fried chicken and chocolate cake. Home made. With half-inch thick icing.
I finished my beer and walked out. I crossed the street to the office. Kendall wasn’t in.
“I don’t know where he is,” Mabel said. “He was gone all afternoon. Up until a few minutes ago. Then he went right out again. How did the Mantinover girl take it, Jim?”
“How would you take it,” I asked her, “if you had two weeks to live and figured you got a bum deal?”
Mabel was loyal to Kendall. For some reason, most women usually were. “Don’t you even intimate such a thing, Jim. For shame! Mr. Kendall did his best for her, his very best. You know he did.” Mabel lifted her mental skirts from possible contamination. “Besides, Pearl wasn’t even married to Summers.”
I turned in the doorway and lighted a cigarette. “Honey, if every woman in Sun City who ever slept with a man she wasn’t married to was due to be electrocuted in two weeks, there’d be so goddamn many women in the churches that the streets would look like the inside of an Army latrine.”
Then I went in search of Kendall.
He wasn’t at the Chatterbox or Mirror Bar. He wasn’t in either of the J.P.’s offices or at the police station. On the off chance that he might be in the law library, I dropped into the County building. It was after five by then. Most of the county employees were gone.
Tom Benner, Judge White’s bailiff, was just locking the judge’s office. “Hi, there, fellow,” he hailed me. “I been hoping you’d drop in all day, but I almost gave you up.” He went back in, opened the file case in the outer office and took out a fifth of bonded Bourbon with a white tag on the neck of it, reading:
To Jim: — Many happy returns of the day.
The Boys and Girls in the County Building.
Benner handed it to me.
“How come?” I asked him.
He grinned. “Who knows? Maybe we kind of like you.”
It was the first time anyone but May had ever given me a thing. I choked up a little. “Thanks. Thanks a lot, Tom. Thanks to everyone who chipped in.”
I asked if he could go for a drink. Benner said he could always go for a drink. I got two lily cups from the drinking fountain and uncorked the bottle. As I did, high heels clicked in the hall.
Benner peered out, then grinned. “It’s okay. Pour on. It’s only Lou.”
The click of high heels stopped. Lou Tarrent looked in the office door. She was a typist in the sheriff’s office. She wasn’t more than twenty-two, good-looking, vital, with home-grown legs and a body a Powers model could be proud of. Lou wasn’t a tart. Far from it. But it was rumored that if she liked you she would. And Lou liked me. I’d known it for some time. But being a married man, all I had done about it was be a little untrue in my mind.
“Well! What gives here?” Lou smiled.
Her smile was as nice as the rest of her.
“It’s Jim’s birthday,” Benner explained. “Judas Priest, you should know. You gave a quarter towards the bottle.”
Lou was cute. She winked at me. “Then here’s where I get it back.”
I got another lily cup and poured three drinks.
Benner lifted his cup. “Many happy returns of the day.”
Lou pressed up against me. “Amen.”
I liked the feel of her. I poured three more drinks. We drank them and I poured three more.
Lou continued to press up against me. Her cup in her hand, she confided, “I really shouldn’t be doing this. I’ve a dinner date with your boss. We’re driving over to Steve’s Rustic Lodge. And he — ”
Lou stopped and looked at the door. I turned to see what she was looking at. Kendall was standing in the doorway.
Tall and dark, with silvering temples, he looked distinguished and smart. “You just get back from taking my message to that woman?”
I didn’t like the way he asked it. Like I was dirt under his feet. “Why, no,” I said. “I’ve been back for over an hour.”
He knew it all the time. He’d seen Mabel since I had. “I see. Drinking on my time, huh?”
I got a little sore. “No. On my own time. It was after five when I dropped in here looking for you.”
“You expected to find me in a bottle?”
I counted up to ten before I answered. “Look, Mr. Kendall. Don’t ride me. I’ve done your dirty work for three years now. And I’m not kicking. I like my job. But — ”