In Harry Turtledove‘s The House of Daniel, Jack Spivey’s just another down-and-out trying to stay alive in a world of hotshot wizards in Enid, Oklahoma. Sometimes he makes a few bucks playing ball with the Enid Eagles, against teams from as many as two counties away.
Then the House of Daniel comes to town—a brash band of barnstormers who’ll take on any team, and whose antics never fail to entertain. Against the odds Jack secures a berth with them. Now they’re off to tour an America that’s as shot through with magic as it is dead broke. Jack will never be the same—nor will baseball.
It would’ve been the first part of May. I remember that mighty well. Spring has a special magic to it. Or spring did once upon a time, anyway. I remember that mighty well, too. But when the Big Bubble busted back in ’29, seems like it took half the magic in the world with it when it went. More than half, maybe. In the five years after that, we tried to get by on what was left. We didn’t do such a great job of it, either.
Other thing the Big Bubble took with it when it busted was half the work in the world. People who had things to sell all of a sudden had more of ’em than they knew what to do with. They tried to unload ’em on the other people, the ones who all of a sudden didn’t have the money to buy ’em. They couldn’t hardly hire those people to make more things, not when nobody could afford the stuff they already had clogging their warehouses.
It was a great big mess. Hell and breakfast, it’s still a great big mess now. And nobody but nobody has the first notion of how long it’ll go right on being a great big mess.
Take a look at me, for instance. Not like I’m anything special. You can find guys just like me in any town from San Diego to Boston. More of ’em in those big cities, matter of fact. But take a look at me anyhow. You may as well. I’m right here in front of you, talkin’ your ear off.
Jack Spivey, at your service. I know too well I’m not extra handsome, but I’m not what you’d call homely, either. I was twenty-four that May, on account of I was born in February of 1910. Old enough to know better, you’d think. Well, I would’ve thought so, too. Only goes to show, doesn’t it?
So there I was on that bright May morning, walking along Spruce Street in Enid, Oklahoma. I didn’t have two quarters to jingle in my pocket. Yeah, plenty like me, Lord knows. Too damn many like me. I wasn’t thinking about much of anything, if you want to know the truth. Maybe wondering how come the leaves on the trees didn’t seem so bright as they had before the bustup, and why the grass looked to be a duller green.
Your hotshot wizards, they’ll tell you things haven’t really changed. They’ll tell you it’s all in your head. What I’ll tell you is, your hotshot wizards weren’t walking down Spruce with me that morning.
The flour mill took up a whole block of Spruce. The mill got built a year before things went to the dogs. Timing, huh? It hadn’t run flat-out since. It did still run, though. I’ll give it that much. Some of the jobs the big bosses were bragging about when it opened up were there to that day. Some were—but not all of ’em.
Sure, I’ll tell you what I mean. While I walked by there, a man was rolling a big old barrel of flour to a truck. Only he wasn’t a man. He was a zombie. His face was as gray as the slacks I had on, and just about as shabby looking. No, he wasn’t rolling the barrel very goddamn fast. To tell you the truth, he was rolling it like he had all the time in the world. If you’re a zombie, you do, or you might as well.
But how much do you reckon the rich folks who run the mill were paying him? Right the first time, friend. Zombies work for nothing, and you can’t get cheaper than that. Back when times were good, a colored fella or a sober Injun if they could find one would’ve been rolling that barrel. The rich folks wouldn’t’ve paid him much, but they would’ve paid him a little something.
Now they had colored fellas and Injuns working inside the mill. They never would have before, let me tell you. They pay ’em a little something, but not much. And some of the white guys who would’ve earned more, they were out on the street without any silver to jingle in their pockets and scare the werewolves away, just like me.
Difference between them and me was, I knew how to go about it. I’d been scuffling, doing a little of this, a little of that, a little of the other thing, since before I had to shave. Those guys, they thought they had a job for life. They didn’t know what the devil to do with themselves after it got taken away.
Some of them drank at the saloons across the street from the mill. Anything stronger than 3.2 beer is against the law in Oklahoma. That doesn’t mean you can’t get it, only that it costs more. Even before Repeal, mill hands would drink at those saloons when they came off their shift. Now they were in there at all hours—when they could afford to buy anything, I mean.
Just past the saloons were a couple of pool rooms and a sporting house. The house had to let girls go. That’s how bad things were. It doesn’t get any worse, now does it?
I walked into one of the pool halls. A couple of guys were shooting slow, careful eight-ball at a front table. They looked over when the bell above the door jingled, but they relaxed as soon as they saw it was me. It’s not like I was somebody they hadn’t seen plenty of times before.
Arnie, the guy who ran the joint, he’d seen me plenty of times, too. He hardly moved his eyes up from the vampire pulp he was reading. He was near as pale as a vampire himself—I don’t think he ever went outside. He was wearing a green celluloid eyeshade like a bookkeeper’s, the way he always does.
“How you doing?” he asked me. His voice had more expression than a zombie’s, but not a lot more.
Most of the time, he didn’t talk to me at all. When he did, sometimes it was business. “I’m here,” I answered. “What’s cooking?” Arnie knew people. He heard things.
Like now. “I hear Big Stu’s been asking after you,” he said.
“Has he?” I said. “Obliged.” I touched the brim of my cap—cloth cap, not ball cap. Then I turned around and walked out.
As soon as I got back on the street, the grass looked greener and the new leaves looked, well, leafier. I’m not saying they were, but they looked that way. To me, they did. Amazing what the thought of some work will do.
It wouldn’t be nice work. You didn’t get nice work from Big Stu. Some people wouldn’t call it work at all. They’d call it burglary or battery or some such name—but Big Stu paid off those people. And he paid the people who did things for him. He paid them good. You can’t be too fussy, not since the Bubble busted you can’t.
Big Stu ran a diner on Independence, near the artists’ gallery. You came in from out of town, you could get the best beef stew between Tulsa and the Texas line. The barbecue was tasty, too. You could get other kinds of things at Big Stu’s diner, but you had to know what to ask for and how to ask for it. You also had to know nothing from Big Stu ever came for free. Oh, yeah. You had to know that real good.
Not many cars, not many carpets, parked on Independence when I headed over to the diner. People didn’t come into town from the country the way they had in boom times. They hunkered down, tried to do without, as much as they could. So did most of the folks who lived in town. I know I did, and I still do—I have to. I bet you’re the same way. These days, who isn’t?
So Big Stu’s joint was like the pool hall near the mill. It had some people in it, yeah, but it wasn’t what you’d call jumping. Big Stu worried about it less than Arnie did, though, ’cause he had the other stuff cooking on the side.
The waitress wasn’t too busy to nod at me. “Hey, Jack. What do you know?” she said.
“I’m okay, Lil. How about you?” I answered. Lil’s about the age my ma would be if she was alive. She uses powder and paint, though. Ma never did hold with ’em. So Lil looked younger—most of the time. When the sun streamed in through the big front window and caught her wrong, it was worse’n if she didn’t bother.
But she had a kind heart, no matter she worked for Big Stu. She set a cup of coffee and a small bowl of stew on the counter. “Eat up,” she said, even though she knew I couldn’t pay for ’em. “He’ll still be in the back when you get done.”
“Thank you kindly” was all I had time for before I dug in. Big Stu’s did make a hell of a beef stew. The bowl was empty—the coffee cup, too—way quicker than he could’ve got grouchy waiting.
I touched the brim of my cap to Lil and went into the back room. You could hold wedding dinners there, or Odd Fellows wingdings—or poker parties or dice games. Those mostly happened at night. During the day, it was pretty much empty … except for Big Stu.
They didn’t call him that on account of he was tall. He had to look up at me, and I’m five-ten: about as ordinary as you get. They called him that because he was wide. His double chin had a double chin. His belly hung over his belt so far, you couldn’t see the buckle. Somebody who ate that good five years after the Bubble popped, you knew he had a bunch of irons in the fire.
I touched my cap to him, too. One of his sausage-y fingers moved toward the brim of his fedora, but didn’t quite get there before his hand dropped again. “Heard you were lookin’ for me,” I said. Big Stu, he never fancied wasting time on small talk.
“That’s right.” All his chins wobbled when he nodded. “You’re headin’ up to Ponca City in a coupla days, aren’t you?”
“Sure am. We’ve got a game against the Greasemen Friday.” Back in those days, I played center for the Enid Eagles. Nobody gets rich playing semipro ball—it’s a lot more semi than pro. But it was one more way to help fill in the cracks, if you know what I mean. Ponca City’s an oil town, which is how come their team got the name it did.
“Okey-doke,” Big Stu said. “Something you can take care of for me while you’re there. Worth fifty bucks if you do it right.”
“Who do I have to kill?” Oh, I was kidding, but I wasn’t kidding awful hard. You can live for a month on fifty bucks. A couple of months if you really watch it.
“Not kill. Just send a message—send it loud and clear. You know Charlie Carstairs?”
“I know who he is.” Everybody in Enid knew who Charlie Carstairs was. Whatever you needed for your farm around there—a plow, a dowsing rod, you name it—chances are you’d buy it from Charlie.
“That’s good. That’s better’n good, in fact. Wouldn’t want you for this if you were his buddy. I did somethin’ for him—never mind what—and now he won’t give me what he owes. So what I want is, I want you to rough up his kid brother in Ponca City.” Big Stu scowled. “I had to put out a geas to find he had a brother there at all. But I did it.” He looked proud of himself then, like a moss-covered snapping turtle soaking up sun on a rock.
“You never sent me out for strongarm stuff before,” I said slowly, which was … close to true, anyway.
He looked at me. He looked into me. He could see more dark places inside my head than even I knew were there. His mouth twisted. A snapper’s mouth doesn’t work that way, but seeing him would make you think it did. “Hell, Jack, a hundred bucks.”
I was still pretty green some ways. I didn’t know I was dickering. He did, or figured he did, which amounted to the same thing. And when he came out with a hundred bucks, why, my conscience spread its wings and flew away. “You’re on,” I heard myself say. “What’s his name? Where do I find him?”
Big Stu didn’t so much as smile. In his way, he was good. “He lives in a boarding house on Palm Street, not far from the city swimming pool. His name’s Mitch.” He reached into an inside jacket pocket and pulled out a scrap of paper. He held it out for me to take. “Here’s the address.”
I had to unfold it. The pencil scrawl read 527 Palm #13. I gave my best try at a tough-guy chuckle. “Lucky number,” I said.
“Lucky for you,” he answered. “He opens the door, you clobber him good before he knows what’s what. Then go to town from there. And then head on over to Conoco Ball Park and get yourself a coupla the other kind of hits.” He laughed.
Well, so did I. I’m not what you’d call proud to admit it, but I did. “I’ll do that.”
Big Stu reached into a different pocket, the one where his billfold lived. He handed me a sawbuck. “Here. Down payment, like. Buy yourself some groceries so Lil don’t ruin my business trying to fatten you up.”
How did he know? Part of his business was knowing things. The door to the back room was shut till I walked through it. So what? He knew anyhow.
I got out of there. The sawbuck felt funny in my pocket. Heavy. Not just a printed piece of paper. Heavy as blood, maybe. What else was it but blood money?
Then I went back to the saloons by the flour mill. No, not to drink up my dividend. I like it fine, thank you, but I hold the bottle. It doesn’t hold me. I was looking for some of the other Eagles, to let ’em know I’d be going over to Ponca City a day early by my lonesome.
Second place I stuck my nose into, there was Ace McGinty, our number two pitcher. He had two, three empty schooners in front of him, and a full one. You got to work to get plastered on 3.2 beer. Ace, he was working. I told him what I needed to tell him. A slow grin spread across his face. “She must be pretty,” he said, and breathed fumes into my face. His hands shaped an hourglass in the air between us.
If he wanted to think that, fine. Then he wouldn’t think about Big Stu. I told a few lies—you know the kind I mean. That grin got wider on his country-boy mug. He smelled like a brewery. I think he’d be our ace for real if he didn’t drink so much. I had to hope he’d recall my news.
A blue jay on the chain-link fence around the mill screeched at me when I came out. Behind the fence, that damn zombie—or maybe it was another one; I don’t know—was rolling a barrel of flour to a truck. He wasn’t going real fast, but he was going. He’d keep going all night long, too. Why not? It wasn’t like he’d get tired. Or hungry.
I was getting hungry. Back at the shack I had half a loaf of bread going stale and some beans I could boil up. I’ll never make a cook, not if I live to be a hundred. So I headed to Big Stu’s again, to spend his money in his joint. I don’t know if the barbecue is as good as the stew, but it’s plenty good enough.
“Live here, do you?” Lil said.
I kind of grunted and let that one alone. It’s one of those jokes that would be funny if only it were funny, you know? Big Stu’s was an awful lot nicer than were I did live. If it had a bed, I wouldn’t’ve half minded staying there all the time. Then he could’ve found even more ways to land me in trouble.
I ate up the barbecue. Since I had that ten-spot and the promise of more, I ate a slice of apple pie with cheese on top, too. I left Lil a dime for a tip—when I’ve got money, nobody can call me a cheapskate. By that time, it was getting dark outside. I let out a long, long sigh, got up, and went on home.
Be it ever so humble … I know you’ve heard the old chestnut. You want to know what I think, that’s a pile of crap, too. If somebody’d burned down the shack I lived in, he would’ve done me a favor.
It was on the outskirts of Enid, where the town turns into farm country without quite knowing it’s doing that. My pa, he lit out for California year before last. A carpet came by heading west, he hopped on, and he was out of there. He took all the money in the place, too. Seven dollars and some-odd cents, I think it was.
Can’t say I miss him much. We didn’t get along while he was here, which is putting it mildly. No note or anything to tell me where he’d gone—he doesn’t have his letters. The old lady across the street let me know the next day. I was doing something or other for Big Stu, so I wasn’t around when he hightailed it.
Hell, if I had been I might’ve gone with him. Then this’d be a different story. I can’t say how, but different for sure.
It’d be a different story if my ma were still around, too. I just barely remember her. I was five, I guess, and I was all excited on account of I was gonna have a new baby brother or sister. He would’ve been a brother if he’d lived. That’s what Pa told me. Only he didn’t, and neither did Ma.
So it was Pa and me, and then it was only me. I went back to the place to sleep, and to eat when I couldn’t afford Big Stu’s or one of the other joints, and that was about it. Some guys on their own make pretty fair housekeepers. Not me. Pa used to say I could burn water when I boiled it. I won’t tell you he was wrong, exactly, but I will say he was one to talk.
When I got inside, I lit a kerosene lantern. That let me find my beat-up old cardboard suitcase. It’s longer and thinner than most, so it’ll hold a couple-three bats. I put them in—two Louisville Sluggers, one Adirondack—and my spikes and my glove, and the gray flannel uniform with ENID EAGLES across the shirt front in red fancy letters. Then I put in some ordinary clothes, too.
And, since I was supposed to send this Mitch Carstairs a message, I dropped a blackjack and some brass knucks into the suitcase. Big Stu’s plan looked pretty good to me—get in the first lick and make it count. They’d help. Where’d I get ’em? You do things for Big Stu, you get stuff like that, just in case. I hadn’t used ’em much before, but I had ’em.
Across the road, the old gal who’d told me Pa’d headed west had the radio on so loud I could hear Amos ’n’ Andy inside my place. She’s deaf as a brick. She had power in her house, though. We never did. If we had, they would’ve shut it off ’cause we couldn’t pay the bill.
Power. I laughed, not that that was real funny, either. With any kind of power, I would’ve been good enough to play pro ball, maybe claw my way up to the bigs, even. I can run. I can catch. I can throw. You play center field, you’ve got to be able to do those things. But my hitting’s on the puny side. Always has been, dammit. I went to a tryout for the Dallas Steers once. Soon as they saw me with a bat in my hands, they said, “Sorry, sonny,” patted me on the head, and sent me on my way. They reckoned they could find better.
Worst of it is, they were right.
After I packed, I didn’t have a thing to do till I caught the bus for Ponca City the next morning. I carried the lantern into my room, blew it out, and went to bed. I could still hear Amos ’n’ Andy from across the street. I didn’t care. With a full belly and a little cash, I didn’t care about anything, no more than a dog would. You’re poor enough, life gets pretty simple.
I ate stale bread for breakfast instead of coughing up another quarter at the diner. Then I lugged my sorry suitcase to the Red Ball Bus Lines station on East Maple. The bus wouldn’t set out for another hour and a half after I got there, but I could do nothing at the station as well as I could at home.
Better, even. They set out newspapers in the waiting room—today’s Enid Morning News and the Tulsa Tribune from day before yesterday. Pa didn’t know how to read and write, but I do. I’m glad I do. It’s handy and it kills time, both. I grabbed the Tribune. It had a funny page, and theMorning News didn’t.
The hour and a half turned into two and a half—the bus came late. I was ticked but not surprised; Red Ball did things like that. The Tribune had a story about a king—or maybe he was just a minister—way on the other side of the ocean who promised he’d make everything run on time. Big Stu would’ve bet against him, I expect.
A guy who looked like a drummer and another one who looked like he’d maybe be a werewolf at full-moon time got off the bus when it finally did chug in. Me and a colored fella, we climbed on. He went to the back. I sat a couple of rows behind the driver. The bus wasn’t anywhere close to crowded.
For twenty miles north from Enid, US 81 and US 60 are the same road. Then 81 goes north into Kansas; 60 swings east. The road wasn’t close to crowded, either. A few trucks, a few flivvers, us. A few carpets overhead. Costs about the same to ship by magic or by wheels. If it didn’t, one would run the other out of business.
Kids played baseball in the fields by the highway. A lot of ’em should’ve been in school, but they played anyhow. I never did any such thing—and if you buy that, I’ll tell you another one. White kids, colored kids, Injun kids, they all just played, together and separate. They’d sort out the rules of how things worked when they got bigger. I must’ve seen half a dozen games by the time 60 forked off 81. There’s Pond Creek and Lamont—little, no-account places—and then, eventually, there’s Ponca City. It’s about sixty miles from Enid. It only felt like forever ’cause the bus went so slow and stopped at every other farmhouse, seemed like.
Halfway between Pond Creek and Lamont, it stopped in the middle of nowhere. Driver said something that made a lady cluck like a laying hen. I leaned out into the aisle to look through the windshield. A load of rocks was spilled across the highway, and a carpet down beside it on the verge. The only way the wizard on that carpet could’ve looked glummer was if the rocks had smashed a car and the folks in it. Drunk or just sloppy, he’d fouled up his spell some kind of way.
We wouldn’t make it to Ponca City or even Lamont till those rocks got cleared. We all piled out of the bus—even the lady who’d clucked—and started shoving. The unhappy wizard helped some, too. So did a family in a Hupmobile. A couple of farmers brought their mules.
The clucking lady wagged a finger in the wizard’s face. “Your company will pay for this!” she said, all angry.
“I am my company,” he answered.
“Then you will,” she said, which sure didn’t turn him any more cheerful.
I wasn’t what you’d call happy, either. I muttered some ungodly things while I hauled rocks. Just what I’d need, to mash a foot so I couldn’t run or smash a finger so I couldn’t throw or hold a bat—or swing a good right at Mitch Carstairs.
But my luck stayed in. I didn’t hurt myself; I didn’t even rip my pants. We finally cleared a path wide enough for the bus to sneak through. The passengers climbed aboard. The family got back into their car. The farmers took the mules away. And the damnfool wizard just sat there on his carpet with his head in his hands like he’d dropped the last out in the bottom of the ninth and cost his team the game. I know that feeling—I wish I didn’t. It’s not a good one.
We left Enid late. We had trouble on the road. So we got to the Ponca City bus station later than late. One guy in there waiting for the bus. Oh, he was hopping mad! He cussed worse’n I did shifting those rocks, and a lot louder. It didn’t do him any good, mind, but he was too steamed to care.
I carried my suitcase to the rooming house where the Eagles stay when they come to Ponca City. It was only a few blocks from the one where Charlie Carstairs’s kid brother was staying, so that was handy. I’d made up some song and dance about why I was in town a day ahead of the rest of the team, but I turned out not to need it. Soon as the landlady—widow woman—saw who I was, she nodded and said, “Heard you were comin’ early. I’ll put you in Seven tonight.”
Heard from who? I wondered. But I didn’t need to be Hercule Sherlock or whatever his name is to cipher that out. Big Stu knows folks all over Oklahoma—into Kansas and Texas and maybe Arkansas, too. One of ’em must’ve put a flea in her ear.
Room 7 was a lot less crowded than it would be with four or five of us in there like usual. I picked the bed with the mattress that was less swaybacked. With luck, I’d get to keep it—well, half of it—when the rest of the Eagles came up from Enid.
You stay at a rooming house, you have supper with the rest of the lodgers. That’s part of the bill. Not a fancy supper, or they’d charge more. I wasn’t fancy. Where else would I go? Ponca City didn’t have a diner anywhere near as good as Big Stu’s. One of the gals at the table—a secretary or something, I guessed—looked nice. Not I want to run off to the Sandwich Islands with you, sweetie nice, but enough to keep my mind off the pinto-bean soup and tinned peas boiled all gray.
She didn’t even notice me—she had eyes for one of the other fellows. So I finished eating, I put my dishes in the sink like a good boy, and I went back to my room. Nothing much to do in there, so I did nothing for a while. Not like I didn’t have practice doing nothing back at the shack.
Must’ve been about nine o’clock when I cinched my belt a notch tighter. Then I put the knuckleduster in one front pocket of my trousers and the blackjack in the other. I walked around in there a bit to make sure the pants stayed up all right. They were fine, so I slipped out of my room, out of my rooming house, and over toward the one where Mitch Carstairs stayed.
Good thing it wasn’t far. I didn’t know my way around Ponca City real well, and it was dark as the inside of a zombie’s brain out there. I wore a cross around my neck to fight off the vampires, but having faith helps, too. I wasn’t feeling what you’d call faithful just then, not with the job I had ahead of me.
I might’ve walked right past the place if a car hadn’t picked that second to turn. The headlight beams speared out and lit up the brass numbers—527—on the building. It was yellow brick, two stories high: bigger than the rooming house where I was.
When I tried the front door, it opened. I figured it would. People still come and go at that hour. More brass numbers over the doorways showed which room was which. I slipped down the hall, quiet as I could, till I got to 13.
Light leaked out under the bottom of the door. That made me let out a sigh of relief—he was home. What would I have done if he’d decided to spend the night playing bridge with his buddies? Wait in the bushes till he came back? I’d had notions I liked better. It was dark out there, and I wasn’t sure I’d recognize him at high noon. I mean, I knew what Charlie Carstairs looked like, but I didn’t have any promise Mitch looked the same way. Big Stu should’ve given me a picture. I should’ve thought to ask for one back in Enid.
But I didn’t have to worry about any of that now. I slipped my right hand into the brass knucks. I made a fist in my pocket while I knocked on the door with my left hand.
Somebody moved in the room. I could hear it over my pounding heart—no, I wasn’t used to the rough stuff. This was worse than facing a wild fireballer with the bases loaded and the team down two in the late innings.
The door opened, it seemed like in slow motion. Yeah, I was that tensed up. Only I couldn’t haul off and coldcock the first thing I saw on the other side. If something had got fouled up some kind of way, if it wasn’t Charlie Carstairs’s brother, I’d feel bad about whaling the snot out of the wrong guy. Big Stu probably wouldn’t pay me the ninety he still owed me, either. Odds were he’d take the first ten out of my hide.
Then the door got all the way open. I started to ask, You Mitch Carstairs? As soon as the guy in the room went Yeah or Uh-huh or Who wants to know?, I’d let him have it.
Only I couldn’t. Even the question clogged in my throat. Because it wasn’t a guy in the room. It was a girl.
She was somewhere near my age. Dark blond hair in a permanent wave, green eyes, pert nose. Prettier than the secretary-type gal back at my rooming house. Not actress pretty, I guess, but not far from it. “Yes?” she said to me, her voice deep for a girl’s.
God damn Big Stu to hell and gone! He didn’t say anything about a girl. She complicated everything—in spades, she did. But I needed that money the way I needed air to breathe. So instead of what I’d meant to ask, I came out with, “Where’s Mitch Carstairs?”
Those green eyes got a little wider. “I’m Mich Carstairs. I don’t think I know you.”
I felt like she’d sucker-punched me, not the other way around. And I realized I hadn’t even known what I was doing yet when I swore at Big Stu in my head before. He’d had a magic done, looking for Charlie Carstairs’s kid brother, and the wizard said, Michelle and he heard Mitchell. Or maybe the wizard screwed it up. I didn’t know, and I still don’t.
But I did know that, no matter how bad I needed those ninety clams, I didn’t need ’em bad enough to beat up a dame to get ’em. I’m no vampire—I have to be able to look at myself in the mirror. I couldn’t do what Big Stu wanted done, not if my life depended on it. That I might be laying my life on the line by not doing it … I didn’t think about that, not then. Fool that I was.
Real fast, I said, “No, Miss, you don’t know me. But you’re Charlie Carstairs’s sister, aren’t you? Charlie Carstairs over in Enid?”
“That’s right.” She gave kind of an automatic nod. “Has something happened to—?” She broke off.
“He’s fine—now. So are you—now. If you stick around Ponca City for even another day, though, you won’t be.” Once Big Stu found out I’d messed up, he’d send some guys who didn’t worry about what they hit as long as they got paid. Still fast, I went on, “Get out of town. Get out of state. Go to California.” Yes, I had Pa in my head. “Just go, quick as you can. Git!” I might’ve been shooing a stray dog.
Her eyes got wide again, wider this time. “I can’t do that!”
“Sister, you can’t do anything else, not if you want to stay in one piece. I know what I’m talking about.” I pulled out my right hand with the knuckleduster still on it. If I’d tried to take the damn thing off, it would’ve looked like I was playing pocket pool. She saw what it was, of course, but she didn’t raise any fuss. She must’ve seen I wasn’t about to use it. After I stuck it back in my pocket, I said, “Yeah, I know, all right. Some pieces of work, you just can’t do.”
“Thank you,” she said quietly. Her mouth twisted. You want to know how pretty she was? She was still pretty when it did, that’s how pretty. For all I know, she might’ve got even prettier. When her face cleared, she nodded once more, this time to herself and not to me. “All right. I’ll be gone tomorrow. I don’t know where. I don’t know what I’ll do. I haven’t got much money, but—”
“Neither do I,” I stuck in. “Why d’you reckon I came up here?”
“Thank you,” she said again, even softer this time. Then she closed the door on me: not slammed it, but closed it. I didn’t mind. We’d already said everything we had to say to each other, hadn’t we?
I got the hell out of there. I hoped she got the hell out of there, got the hell out of Oklahoma, come morning. Well, I’d done everything I knew how to do. If it wasn’t what Big Stu wanted … I was almost to the rooming-house front door when I really and truly realized I’d just crossed the guy who ran a lot more of my home town than the mayor ever did.
The door opened. A man—I guessed he was one of the lodgers—came in. He was skinny and sad-looking, with worn clothes and gray hair getting thin at the front. He could’ve been anybody. He paid me no special mind—I could’ve been anybody, too. Some other lodger’s friend, or maybe a new lodger he hadn’t met yet.
Only I wasn’t anybody, not any more, or not just anybody. I was somebody dumb enough to get Big Stu pissed off at him. In Enid, you couldn’t get much dumber than that. Big Stu’d wanted to hurt Charlie Carstairs through his kid brother, only she turned out to be Charlie’s sister. He couldn’t hurt me through anybody else. Everyone I might’ve cared about was either dead or gone. No, he’d have to pay me back in person.
All of a sudden, what I’d told Mich Carstairs looked like pretty good advice for me to take, too. The farther away from Big Stu I got, the better off I’d be. If I had any smarts, I’d hitch a ride or hop a freight or jump on a carpet the way my old man did. If I had any smarts, I’d do it tonight. I wouldn’t wait for sunup. The sooner, the better.
But I didn’t have any smarts. What I had was a game tomorrow. I couldn’t let the other Eagles down, not even on account of Big Stu. Hal Snodgrass, our backup outfielder, he was slower’n an armadillo after it meets a Model A.
I almost hoped a vampire would try to jump me while I walked back to my boarding house. Maybe I’d fight him off and work out some of what I was feeling. Or maybe he’d get me and turn me into something like him. Then I wouldn’t care about anything past my next drink of blood—cow or sheep or coyote blood, or maybe I’d go after people, too, if I was bold.
No vampires, though. Nothing but the stars shining out of a clear, dark sky. The air was cool, close to crisp. Pretty soon it would get hot and sticky and stay that way for months, but that hadn’t happened yet. The skeeters hadn’t come out, either. Without so much on my mind, I might’ve enjoyed the walk.
My landlady hadn’t locked the front door. I’d timed it all fine—about the only thing I’d done right since I got to Ponca City. I went to my room, laid myself down, and tried to sleep. Took a while, but I did it. I don’t remember the dreams I had. I do remember they were the kind you’d want to forget.
Copyright © 2016 by Harry Turtledove