Lady In Dread
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by Ryerson Johnson
Description: Her name was Tessie Cullen and she was beautiful, and she shook the dice in a joint in Coalfield--the most sinful city south of Chicago. The hoods owned Coalfield, owned its corrupt, neon body and soul and they had a lease on Tessie, too. A short-term lease, maybe, but it kept her in line. But they never figured on Tessie's falling in love. They never figured on Hally Harper, the crusading young lawyer who came to Coalfield to blow the lid off it and its jungle of rackets. The odds were all on murder. Tessie's.
Coalfield's most popular event, The Sparrow Hawk Derby, is the backdrop for intrigue, deception and greed. It seems the Big Boys from Chicago have a personal interest in the Derby, knowing much dough can be made from all that betting. Harper has an interest, as well. He's actually a federal narcotics agent on the trail of a huge shipment of opium that's gone missing. What he doesn't expect to find is murder. Tessie knows just enough to get herself killed by the Mob--and it's up to Harper to get this case unraveled soon before she becomes the next victim!
About Vintage Paperback Pulp Fiction
A new revolution was underway at the start of the 1940s in America--a paperback revolution that would change the way publishers would produce and distribute books and the reading public would consume them. In 1939 a new publishing company--Pocket Books--stormed onto the scene with the publication of its first paperbound book. Unlike hardback books, these pulp paperbacks were available in drugstores, newsstands, bus and train stations, and cigar shops. The American public could not get enough of them. The popular pulp genres reflected the tastes of Americans during World War II--mysteries, "sleaze", thrillers, and "hardboiled detective" stories were all the rage.
In the early 1950s new pulp fiction sub-genres emerged--science fiction, lesbian fiction, juvenile delinquent and "sleaze", for instance--that would tantalize readers with gritty, realistic and lurid stories never seen before. Publishers had come to realize that sex sells. In a competitive frenzy for readers, they tossed away their staid and straightforward cover images for alluring covers that frequently featured a sexy woman in some form of undress, along with a suggestive tag line that promised stories of sex and violence within the covers. Before long, vintage pulps with sensational covers had completely taken over the paperback racks and cash registers. To this day, the pulp cover art of these vintage paperback books are just as sought after as the books themselves were sixty years ago.
We are excited to make these wonderful pulp fiction stories available in ebook format to new generations of readers, as a new revolution--the ebook revolution--is in full swing. We hope you will enjoy this nostalgic look back at a period in American history when dames were dangerous, tough-guys were deadly and dolls were downright delicious.
eBook Publisher: SRS Internet Publishing/Digital Vintage Pulps, 2010
eBookwise Release Date: January 2011
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [262 KB]
Reading time: 166-232 min.
Lorraine Varney. That was the name she told them on the day she showed up at Farmer McGivern's Top Money Tavern in Coalfield, a county-seat place with the half-wry, half-smug distinction of being the most wide-open gambling town south of Cook County.
She said she was a twenty-six girl.
The Farmer looked her over, all over slow, the parts that would show above his dice board and the parts that wouldn't.
"You'd be wastin' half your talent," the Farmer told her.
She tried to be flippant. "I've got to save something for my true love." She wasn't sure that got across. To show him she was professional enough to know that the owner or at least a bartender commonly went with a twenty-six job, she added, "I'm not looking for a job with sleeping-in privileges."
The Farmer's middle-aged eyes kept unzipping her skirt at the side and unbuttoning her blouse. "I've got a piece in some clubs around here. Talent like yours, I could put you strippin'."
"No," she said, "you couldn't."
He tried once more. "You wouldn't want to work upstairs here?"
She said, "No," as though she meant it. He shrugged and put her on the twenty-six board. A twenty-six girl is hired on the basis of the sex lure of everything she shows above her dice board. It works two ways. It gets the public to buck a sucker's game, and it keeps the public's mind off the score pad.
McGivern's new girl had young round breasts so tenuously contained within her scoop-necked blouse that the slightest lift of nude shoulders could set them sliding. Not much of a dislocation. The gentleman with the dice cup might have to look twice to catch it. But looking there, he wouldn't be watching what her fingers were doing.
McGivern's girl had long smooth fingers, nimble at adding two and two and getting three in the interests of the house. She had other distractions. Oval nails lacquered ruby red. An octagonal chunk of watch on her wrist that looked as though it might be platinum. McGivern's girl "had a sultry mouth and sultry eyes. Her hair arched in a modish pony tail--black hair, a quick kill with her whipped-cream complexion. She even had a personality warmth calculated to sway the man with the cup to disregard her flighty arithmetic if he happened to notice. All that, and an asset over and beyond the limit of expectation in almost any business: brains.
This afternoon she wasn't using any of it. She was sitting on her high chromium stool in a frightened lump while her pencil made nervous doodlings on her fill-in pad.
She was sitting high enough so that she could turn her head and see out the wide front window--see the waiting, watching crowd on the courthouse lawn. The crowd overflowed into the street. It stopped traffic and dammed up against parked cars and store fronts all along the block.
Most of McGivern's bartenders, along with his stick and wheel and card men, were up there in the wide tavern doorway, waiting and watching too. So were the customers and some of the girls from the transit rooms upstairs. That's what they called them here at the Farmer's--transit rooms. The Farmer wouldn't let the girls come down and work the bar; he prided himself on running a high-class place, and he kept all that upstairs.
Two out-of-town reporters stood talking to the girls. Big-town newsmen had been here in Coalfield for a week now--men from the wire services and from St. Louis, Kansas City, and Chicago papers. Every evening around six o'clock they sweltered and watched from the open fronts of taverns like this one of Farmer McGivern's.
They watched a hawk across the street in the courthouse square.
The hawk sat on a golden ball that topped a flagpole. A horde of sparrows chittered under the courthouse eaves. Below and to all sides the restless people waited: coal miners, farmers dusty from their fields, boys and girls dallying on their way home from school, housewives letting dinner hang fire as they clutched their limp bags and parcels.
McGivern's girl wished to God she had nothing more to concern her than a dopey bird on top of a flagpole. The man from New York was looking at her again. Why didn't he watch the damn bird with the same breath-catching interest as everyone else? Why did he have to keep turning and looking at her instead?
She was used to being looked at; that part didn't bother her. It went with the job. But the way this man looked wasn't the way the rest of them did. She didn't know what this man's look said. She only knew it had started making her nervous and, at the last, afraid.
For two days now he had been coldly observing her, and coldly, inside, laughing. As if he knew more than she did about something building up around her, and was just cynically watching, waiting for it to happen, the way everyone else around here waited to see a sparrow, an unaware sparrow, grabbed off by a hawk.
For two days now. Ever since the first time he had come in, a stranger, with that funny little old fuddy who plastered himself so close he must be a bodyguard, only you never could tell it by looking at him.
New York, the pair of them.
That's what the cold-eyed man had told her. Since it was the same thing she had told McGivern about herself when he hired her, she was interested when this man said it. She was especially interested when she heard him call the bartender "bud." If he was from New York, it would be "mac," wouldn't it? "Bud" was as deep-rooted in Chicago as the drainage canal.
So she had put him down in her mind as Chicago, and that was when she had started being afraid, really afraid. She hoped to God she hadn't made any slips like that with McGivern. She didn't think she had, or she wouldn't still be here. She would be at the bottom of a clay bank or somewhere, with maybe a puddle of water and some pieces of bricks and rusty tin cans for company, her legs twisted under her and her skirt up around her waist somewhere.
She shook off that gripping fantasy but she couldn't rid herself of the raw worry. Finally she slid off the high padded stool and came out from behind her board. She knew she was violating a house rule. A twenty-six girl never leaves her board. Not even to join the public in a drink. The bartender sends prune juice over to her. He sends her a chicken-salad sandwich and coffee once in a while. He practically brings her the little girls' room. Because she has to keep that board going. Those ten dice dancing on the green, their spots in a purple glow under the special-effects light, are something to set the pace for the whole joint--a warmer-up, a come-on for the bigger clips in back and upstairs.
Now as she came around the cigar counter, her hands reached quickly back to smooth the wrinkles from her skirt where she had been sitting. It was a beast of a hot and sticky day. But she could thank fortune for small favors. She'd never worn a girdle in her life, and here with a job that allowed her to waste half her talent, she wasn't required to wear hose, as the waitresses were. On a hot day that was something, anyhow.
The man who said he was from New York detached himself from the others and came walking straight at her so that she had to stop fast to keep from bumping into him. He didn't touch her. But he gave her the shivery feeling that he might have a whole set of arms on both sides that he could spring out at a whim.
He said, "It becomes you."
The answer jerked from her mobile lips: "What does?"
He had wide nostrils and she could see them flare. "The lily of the valley."
It almost made her revalue him. The springtime' scent had been an artless touch not fully appreciated at the Top Money Tavern, where Tigress vied with Parisian Dawn.
"Yes," he said, "lilies become you."
His voice was as cold as his eyes. And suddenly she got it. Lilies were for funerals.
Or was she in such a morbid muddle about this character that she could believe anything?
He appeared to be around forty and he had smooth hairless skin the color of the imitation ivory of her dice.
The little man who shadowed him was standing close, rubbering. A little old man so normal it was disturbing. So wholesome and normal. He looked like somebody's benign grandfather, in an obviously Sunday-best suit and with what certainly appeared to be a home kitchen haircut. She wondered why he chummed with the other one. He followed him everywhere, apprehension in his eyes and a tight look of perpetual disapproval around his sunken mouth. It was crazy to think of him as a bodyguard. But what else could you think? Anything else was crazier. She had tried to draw him out. He wouldn't talk. Just "Yes'm" and "No'm."
The cold-eyed man said, "Come on back to the board. We'll roll a few."
That's what she was hired for, and she knew she ought to go back.
He said, "You don't look so much on the ball today, Lily. What's the matter--job getting you down? Seeing spots in front of your eyes?"
How would he know that? She had been waking up the last couple of nights sopping with perspiration that wasn't all from this corn-country heat--waking up and sorting out this man's dark, unblinking eyes from the purple eyes on her dice.
But of course he didn't know it. "Seeing spots?" was the weariest rib of the trade. Places like this almost always had a special-effects light over the twenty-six board. It made the spots on the dice show up a luminescent purple, a mad vibrating purple. A nice dramatic effect. It also got the public mixed up sometimes in reading the dice. But it didn't get the twenty-six girl mixed up. It only drove quivering splinters through her eyeballs and gave her a headache four aspirins wouldn't touch.
After the first day she had quit being polite to this ice-face. She said now, "Try having ten souped-up dice blinking at you all through a scab shift. You'll see spots in front of your eyes, bud."
He didn't smile. His face didn't change. His hands didn't touch her. "Come on back to the board. We'll roll a few."
"Don't you ever put your needle in a new groove?"
"Good idea. Come on upstairs with me."
Her face flamed. It always surprised her when she blushed. The times she'd had and the places she'd been, and she could still blush. "I'm not in transit, bud."
"I'll see the Farmer. I'll buy you off the board for the rest of the afternoon."
"The hell you say." She turned aside just enough to walk past him close. If he reached out to touch her she knew she'd scream. He didn't, and she joined everybody else in the big double doorway, wriggling through to put as much solid space between herself and the ice-face as she could.
He followed her out and kept on going. She saw him disappear between two parked cars into the waiting street crowd, tailed, as always, by the funny little old man.
She took a deep breath and stood inviting an outside coolness she knew wasn't here, while she stared across the street with the rest of them. The hawk still sat on the flagpole. She could see it clearly. She looked down at the watch on her wrist, the watch that attracted so much attention because it was octagonal and of a pretentious heaviness, and if it was platinum, the way it looked, it had cost somebody plenty.
It said six-fourteen, and that was late.