by Joseph Hansen
(as “James Colton”)
Part 3 of 3
Originally published in Tangents 1.5
February 1966 • Pages 19–23
“Hello, Dr. Creighton,” Blessed said. He turned and shouted out into the dark, “Yeah, this is the place. Come on in.” Others, dressed like him—peaked caps, black leather jackets glittering with zippered intricacies, steel-buckled boots — began to file into the hall. Mary Lou stared at them, wide-eyed. At the other end of the hall the kitchen door twanged and Mrs. Bendo appeared, dishtowel in hand. Her mouth dropped open. Outside on the porch some one echoed Blessed’s words: “This is the place. Come on in.” The house was surrounded by the thunder of engines, roaring up, then spluttering into silence.
Creighton said, “Now, just one moment. What’s the meaning of this? If you suppose that I’m going to permit—”
“Permit?” Blessed, still grinning, came toward him and Creighton had to brace himself, clutch the doorframe at his back, to keep from—what?—running, falling? “Why hell. Doctor, you invited me, man. How could you forget? Make yourselves at home, friends.” He jerked his thumb toward the dark living room. They shuffled in, turned on lights, gaping, grunting. One of them held a case of beer. He carried it past Blessed and Creighton and confronted Mrs. Bendo.
“Where’s the cold box, lady?”
“Professor?” she said.
Creighton turned decisively toward the study. “I’m calling the sheriff.”
Blessed gripped his arm. “You’ve got to be kidding. Have you forgotten what I can tell the sheriff of this town about your summer, Doctor?”
“You c-can’t t-tell him—“ Creighton’s teeth chattered. He clenched his jaws. Even then his voice shook “You can’t tell them your part in it. Assault with intent to kill is a crime punishable by long imprisonment.” Blessed moved past him into the study. “What are you doing?”
Blessed yanked the telephone wire from the wall. “You’re not talking to anybody. You wouldn’t, because you don’t want to lose your job, wreck your reputation. That’s why you never spilled your guts after what happened. But, just in case you get any silly ideas —“ He dropped the phone into the waste basket. “Sit down.” He jerked his head at the desk chair. “What’s this?” He picked up the Scotch bottle. “White Horse, huh? Unopened, too. They don’t let ‘em get this dusty in the store. You must keep a case around, huh?”
Roy Creighton said. “It’s too good for you.”
Blessed eyed him up and down.Then, without warning, his hand shot out and lashed across Creighton’s face. His voice was softly reproachful. “There was a time this summer, Doctor, when you didn’t think anything was too good for me.”
It was true. In that cheap hotel room, lighted by the soiled scarlet pulse of the neon across the street, he had worshipped the naked body of this scum. Bleakly now he wished that had been the full extent of his folly. To talk there, lying naked in the darkness, talk and talk and talk—of this place, oh, down to the veriest particular—had been insane, truly insane.
Two more cyclists clumped down the hall bearing cartons of canned beer. Blessed walked to the door. “Get the old bitch to put some chow on,” he told them. “And look around for booze. Like this.” He held up the bottle. One of them whistled, the other chuckled. Red hair. A smear of black grease across a forehead. In the living room somebody howled laughter. The television set blared. Boots thudded on the stairs.
“Lady, we’re hungry. We been ridin’ all day. Start cookin’, lady.”
“You know,” Roy Creighton said as Blessed turned back into the study, “I really don’t have to call for help. You’ve surely attracted notice. Next door is a fraternity house. There’s another across the street. Several. Don’t you suppose those boys will be coming over to see what’s going on?”
“Not many,” Blessed said. “Bryant’s playing football tomorrow with Pierce. Your little boyfriends are all on their way up there. What’s left can come look if they want to.” From his pocket he took a knife. His thumb pressed a button. The blade sprang out, glittering. “They want a fight, we’ll fight.”
Creighton shut his eyes an instant and hoped the boys were all gone. All.
Blessed pushed the bottle toward him. “Open it. Let’s have a drink. To old times.” He glanced around the book-lined room. “Yeah, this is cool. Boss. Like a movie set. You read all these books?”
Really not knowing what else to do, Roy Creighton numbly opened the bottle, poured whiskey into glasses, splashed in soda. He handed one to Blessed, who dropped into the chair where, these last weeks, Frank Hubbard had so often, and so warmly welcome, sat. Frank. Lord, what would he think, walking into this? The true sordidness of Creighton’s summer “accident,” its lack of a single mitigating quality, would be apparent to him at once. Roy hadn’t told him.
“Yes,”” Creighton sighed, “I’ve read them all. But they haven’t made me wise.”
Blessed laughed, swallowed some of his drink, asked, “Where do you think you’re going?”
“I’d better talk to Mrs. Bendo. She—“
“My boys will talk to her,” Blessed said. “Sit down.” He lay back in the chair, stretched out his legs and gave a smug grin. “Yeah, when you told me about this place, I figured it sounded about right for us. You don’t want too big a town, too many fat-bellied sheriffs. Nice, quiet little place. And, with college kids, maybe a little action. And when you said you got a big house, you wasn’t putting me on. We can fit in here fine. Great weekend.” He jumped to his feet, went to the door again, yelled down the hall, “Hey, Krebs, she cooking or what? Christ, I’m starving, man!”
“She’s cooking. We found the Scotch. Six bottles.”
The knife lay on the desk forgotten. The initials C. B. were burned into the bone handle. With sweaty fingers Roy Creighton picked it up. He knew he lacked the courage to use it. Yet he got up from his chair and rounded the desk. His knees were wobbly. His heart gave great laboring thuds in his chest. He clutched the knife at waist level, the evil blade pointed at the center of Blessed’s back. He moved like a sleepwalker.
Down the ball came a querulous female voice: “Professor Creighton? What’s going on here?”
Blessed turned, saw the knife and with a sharp, chopping motion struck Creighton’s wrist before the older man could make a move. The knife fell with a clatter. Twisting the same wrist he brought Creighton’s arm up painfully behind bis back and pivoted into the doorway. “Tell her it’s okay,” be growled. “Get rid of her.”
“It won’t seem natural if I don’t go to the door.”
“Alright, we’ll both go to the door.”
The woman was Angela White, house mother for the Pi Rho boys next door, a sharpfaced woman, but not clever. Why couldn’t it have been Mrs. Hobbs from Theta, across the street? She wouldn’t have been easy to fool.
“What’s going on, here, Professor? Are you all right?”
Dared he blurt: Call the sheriff? No. That would only endanger her along with him and Mrs. Bendo and Mary Lou. Dear God, in the midst of all this, where was that child? He forced a smile.
“This is my nephew, Covent Blessed, Mrs. White. Some time ago I told my sister that if ever Covent rode up this way, he must consider my big, empty place his home. Perhaps he’s rather overdone the guest list this time.”
“Well, Harry and I are on our way to Pierce. Wouldn’t want to have to try to sleep through this racket.”
“Well, have a nice trip, ma’am,” Blessed said.
Mrs. White regarded him skeptically, and looked again at Roy Creighton. She started to ask a question, then deciding against it, and turned away. As she went down the porch steps into the darkness, he heard her say, “It’s okay, I guess, Harry. Professor says it is his nephew.”
Blessed shut the door and turned hard eyes on Creighton. “Okay,” he said, “back to the study. I came up here to relax. I can’t enjoy myself if my lousy host keeps coming up behind me trying to run my own shiv in my back.” He jerked his head. “Move, Professor.” At the study door he shouted down the hall again: “Krebs!”
“Yeah?” The redhead appeared in the kitchen door, pushing food into his mouth.
“Get some clothesline from the old dame. On the double.”
“What the hell for? You gonna wash something?”
“I said, on the double, Krebs!”
“Yeah.” He turned back into the kitchen. “Hey, lady . . . .”
The house roared with sound. He made out the persistent television underlying the shouts, the laughter, the curses. Some one of them had a guitar. Songs were bawled and bellowed. Later the tinny speaker of a portable radio strained its throat with the snarl and shriek of electric guitars. Feet stamped. Dancing? There was the race of heavy boots along the hall past the shut door of the study where he sat lashed to his own chair behind his desk. Panting. Some kind of struggle. Low laughter, Some one’s weight falling against the wall. Half giggle, half whine: Naw, lay off you son of a bitch. A sudden deafening clatter. The crash of empty tin cans. Beer cans. Had they dumped them down the stairs? He fought with his bonds. The triple length of clothesline that bound him across the chest —that was the loosest, mercifully. For if he could squirm so that it gradually slid to his waist, then he could bend forward and work with his teeth on the ropes binding his wrists to the chair arms, the hands after an hour of cut-off circulation swollen, purple, nerveless. He expanded his chest and wriggled his shoulders against the ropes … 9:30. It was hopeless. The rope at his wrists was new and tied too tightly. He had only succeeded in making his mouth bleed. He sat back, panting, great pain in his back from the twisted position chewing at the ropes demanded, sweat on his face, tears of frustration and chagrin blinding him.
But not deafening him. What was that? Outside, coming down the hall, a struggle of kicking feet and — his heart contracted — a girl’s voice.
“No, let me alone, let me alone. Mother! Professor!” Mary Lou. In a fury of despair, he shouted out: “Leave that girl alone! Do you hear me?”
The door burst open. Covent, with Krebs and the hulking boy with grease smeared across his forehead, stood there with the struggling, weeping girl between them.
“Shut up!” Covent slapped her. He was very drunk. They were all drunk. Great waves of beer stench blew into the room.
“If you do this thing —“ Roy Creighton shouted.
“If? What can you do about it?”
Blessed sneered. He swung away, jerking the girl after him. “Come on, baby, upstairs. What we want is a big, fat bed.”
The door slammed.
Roy Creighton gave a furious heave to bis body and, chair on his back, lurched to his feet. They too were bound so tightly at the ankles that they lacked any feeling now. It was an absurd thing to try. He could go nowhere, couldn’t even really stand. The great weight of the chair—oak, padded leather—dragged at him, he tottered helpless to reach out, then fell with a crash to his side on the floor. He heard Covent’s boots, the boots of his friends, the ineffectually kicking feet of Mary Lou, pass up the staircase.
No, this must not happen, his mind cried. It’s all my doing, my responsibility. And it must not be allowed to happen. Oh, God, somebody help me. Mother…
“Roy! Where are you?”
His heart leaped. That was Frank Hubbard’s voice.
“In the study! “he shouted. “Hurry, Frank.” And when the younger man was bending over him, “Thank God you got here at last. Cut me loose. There are scissors in the desk drawer. Hurry.
They’ve taken the girl upstairs. Mary Lou. They’re drunk. They might do anything.”
Hubbard said, “I’d better stop that first,” dropped the scissors on the desk top, ran for the door.
“Not alone!” Roy Creighton cried. “They’ll kill you.”
But he was gone.
Virgil Apperson, in a vast tweed overcoat, hat, gloves, galoshes, came toiling through the snow that lay new and white—the first snow of the winter—across the cemetery. Roy Creighton watched him come without resentment. He was drained, it seemed, forever now, of the capacity to feel any emotion.
Frank Hubbard was dead. He bad clung to life for ten days in Bryant infirmary without regaining consciousness. Covent Blessed, Krebs, or the big. grease-stained boy, or perhaps all three, had stabbed him brutally, a dozen times. They were in custody. Covent had told every detail again and again. The papers had printed every detail.
Now Roy Creighton stood beside the ugly, raw mound of winter earth that was Frank Hubbard’s grave. At his feet were two suitcases. In fifteen minutes be would be catching a train out of Bryant, never to return. None of it would be hard to leave except this grave.
Apperson stopped beside him, his breath frosty. “You must reconsider,” he said. “It will all be forgotten soon. Anyway, you’re mistaken to think anyone blames you. What could you have done? You were helpless. The girl testified that. What could you have done?”
“I could never have met Covent Blessed,” Creighton said. “Or, at least, I could have avoided telling him who I was and where to find me.”
“Ah, you’re too harsh with yourself. Who hasn’t been a fool now and then — Which of us? The Dean doesn’t—“
“I know. The Dean wants me to stay. Did be send you?”
“I came because I’m your friend and I understand,” Virgil Apperson said, “whether you think so or not. You’re upset and depressed now. That’s to be expected. But why not wait? In time—it will be forgotten.”
“Everyone but me,” Creighton said. “Every place I turn—in my house, on the campus—will remind me forever. No. I’ve got to clear out.”
Apperson studied him a moment, then turned to stare mournfully at the grave. He sighed and his voice was a breathy wheeze. “I see. I see… Ah, it is sad. And who can understand it? Certainly not I. So unjust. Those animals…” He looked earnestly into Creighton’s face, doing his best, bis clumsy best. “But, you did have him for a time. I expect he was—I’m sorry to be impertinent, but I’ve some experience in these matters, some intuition—your first lover. Am I correct?”
“Forty seven,” Roy Creighton said, “is too late for a first anything, Virgil.”
Apperson looked upward. “Snow again?” He held out his gloved hand. One by one, fat flakes settled upon it. He lowered the hand and turned again to Creighton. “How gently it covers everything. How beautiful it makes all that it touches, even the ugliest things.”
Grimly, Roy Creighton wished that it did.
“I mustn’t miss my train.” He shook Apperson’s hand, picked up the suitcases, and walked down the hill toward the station, through the falling snow.
A Tangents Exclusive
This page was sponsored by Robert R. Cook and C. Todd White in honor of the 80th birthday of their friend, Joseph Hansen, on July 19, 2003.
©1966, 2003, 2016, by The Tangent Group. All rights reserved.