The phosphorescent red letters glowing in the darkness said, “THE STATE’S BEST FRIED CHICKEN at RANDY-RAY’S in HOBART 2 MILES.”
Hunger added a fraction of an ounce to the pressure of Alex Fenske’s foot on the gas. The speedometer needle crept from sixty-five to sixty-eight. The exhaust noise from the slightly defective muffler gave the speeding Ford an added sound of power.
The next sign leaped out of the darkness a minute later. “HOBART pop. 168 CITY LIMITS.” Under it on the same pole was a bigger sign with a foot high 25 and under it “SPEED LAWS STRICTLY ENFORCED.”
Alex took his foot off the gas. The lights of the town weren’t visible yet. He could let his speed drift down to twenty-five without using his brakes.
Then he saw the station wagon parked on the shoulder, the soulless intelligence of a rectangular radar eye watching him from the interior. The hair on the nape of his neck rose. He was even with the station wagon before the paralysis of surprise eased off enough for him to put his foot on the brake.
A flashlight’s beam suddenly appeared, making rapid motions. Alex was frantically braking as he shot past that. A siren exploded into predatory life. Alex caught a glimpse of the red and white lights of a motorcycle in the rear-view mirror as he finally braked to a stop.
The motorcycle, siren screaming, pulled in front of him. Its rider was resplendent in the very smartest of motorcycle cop uniforms, complete with white crash helmet with a blue cross in a red circle.
It was a ludicrous uniform for a man so short and so slight of build. He could not have been more than five feet two, nor weighed more than one-twenty. But there was nothing ludicrous about his prominent cleft chin, his small thin-lipped mouth, his narrow-set eyes, or the small cannon that dangled from his right hip.
He came toward the car, flashing his light briefly into the car, directly into Alex’s face, then lowering it slightly. “Let’s have your driver’s license,” he said.
“Yes, sir,” Alex said. He took out his billfold and extracted the license from its plastic window and held it out.
“Alex Fenske, huh?” the cop turned the flashlight full in Alex’s eyes again for a second. “Age twenty-six. You live in Chicago?”
“Yes, sir,” Alex said.
“You leave there this morning?”
“No, of course not,” Alex answered. “It’s about twelve hundred miles–”
“At the rate you were traveling you could have,” the cop said. “The radar clocked you at a hundred and twelve.”
“That’s impossible~” Alex said.
“Are you calling me a liar?”
“My speedometer said sixty-eight,” Alex said carefully.
“Faulty speedometer,” the cop said. “And one headlight out.”
“I didn’t know a headlight was out,” Alex said.
“I’ll take your word for that,” the cop said in a friendlier tone. He took a ticket book from his breast pocket. “I’ll give you a ticket for speeding. Twenty-five from a hundred and twelve is eighty-seven dollars. You have the choice of paying it now or staying overnight in jail until court opens in the morning. Court costs are twelve dollars. You can save that by paying now, too.”
“What if I don’t have that much money?” Alex said bitterly.
“Brother, you’d better have,” the cop said. “If you don’t, you’ll have to work it out on the road gang at three dollars a day, and a buck of that’ll go to storage for your car.”
“Eighty-seven?” Alex said.
Alex counted out four twenties, a five, and two ones, and held them out, his hand shaking with anger. “I want a receipt.” he said.
The cop took the money and stuffed it in his pants pocket. “No receipt,” he said. “Now drive along slow into town and pull into the service station.”
“What for?” Alex demanded.
“To get a new headlight and your speedometer fixed. You aren’t going anyplace until you get that done.”
There was a family resemblance to the cop in the service station attendant’s face. “The headlamp will be thirteen bucks and fixing the speedometer will be twenty-five,” he said. “You might as well go down the street to Randy-Ray’s for a bite to eat. It’ll take an hour, anyway.”
“I’d just as soon stay and watch you take out the speedometer,” Alex said.
“Suit yourself.” The man slid into the front seat, twisted around until he was draped under the dashboard with his feet draped over the backseat. Five minutes later he had the speedometer free. “I’ve had a lot of practice,” he said with modest pride, displaying the unit.
“I’ll bet you have at that!” Alex said. He followed the attendant over to a bench and watched until the speedometer was partly disassembled. “I think I will get something to eat,” he said.
Randy-Ray’s was crowded. All the teenagers in Hobart seemed to be there, occupying the booths. Alex sat down at the deserted counter.
Randy-Ray dwelt on a stool behind the cash register. A faded and dispirited woman of fifty waited on Alex.
“The fried chicken,” Alex said, noting the family resemblance of Randy-Ray to the cop and to the service station man.
“Sorry. We’re all out of it,” the waitress said. She opened a menu and put it on the counter.
It was a printed fountain menu with a copying machine insert, soiled by much handling and yellowed along the borders by age.
“I’ll have the roast beef,” Alex said. “And coffee.”
The waitress brought the coffee. The jukebox erupted to ear-shattering life with an adenoidal singer whining his accompaniment to a git-tar. Alex sipped the coffee cautiously. It was hot and good. He took a bold swallow.
The waitress brought his roast beef dinner. It was thin slices of roast beef and chunks of white potato, generously covered with a brown gravy that glistened coldly in the reflected rays of the overhead lights.
Alex tasted the food carefully. The gravy and potatoes were room temperature, the roast beef slightly colder. He glanced in the direction of the cash register. Randy-Ray was watching him. Alex grinned at the man and pushed the plate away.
He finished his coffee leisurely. As he strolled toward the cash register, he glanced at his check. It listed roast beef, eight ninety-nine, and coffee, ninety cents.
Alex laid the check carefully on the counter and took a dollar out of his pocket. “The coffee was very good,” he said quietly, “but the roast beef was ice-cold and so were the potatoes and gravy. I couldn’t eat them.” He placed the dollar on the counter. “I’m just paying for the coffee.”
“Well now, we’ll just see about that,” Randy-Ray said, getting off his high stool. “Wait right here.” He went down the length of the counter to the kitchen, was gone for about five seconds, then came back. “My wife is the cook, mister,” he said. “She says your food was hot.”
“I say it was cold,” Alex stated.
“Are you calling my wife a liar?” Randy-Ray said.
“If she said my food was hot, yes,” Alex said.
“What seems to be the trouble?” a familiar voice said behind Alex.
Alex turned. The motorcycle cop stood there.
“You got here pretty fast,” Alex said.
“This stranger refuses to pay his bill, Jimmy-Jeff,” Randy-Ray said. “And he just called my wife a liar.”
“You’re just alookin’ for trouble aren’t you, Mr. Fenske?” the bantam cop said, resting his hand on the butt of the small canon. “Now I suggest you pay your bill and apologize for calling Aunt Romell a liar.”
Alex hesitated, then took out his billfold and extracted a ten dollar bill. Randy Ray took it and slid eleven cents toward him.
“Here’s your change, Mister,” he said.
Alex took out another two dollars and laid it on the counter. “Give this to your wife–with my apologies,” he said.
“Well now, that’s mighty nice of you, Mister,” Randy-Ray said.
“I’m glad you think so,” Alex commented.
Jimmy-Jeff opened the door and said, “I’ll just walk back to the service station with you–sort of keep you out of trouble.” He smiled. “It would be a shame if you wound up on the road gang now. You can work it off. But assault and battery carries six months to a year. If Randy-Ray had come out from behind the counter and poked you for calling his wife a liar, and you’d poked him back–” Jimmy-Jeff shook his helmeted head sadly.
They reached the service station. Alex glanced in his car. The speedometer was missing.
The service station man was sitting inside the station reading a battered hunting magazine.
“Isn’t my speedometer fixed yet?” Alex asked.
“Nope,” the man said. “Have to send to the Cities tomorrow for some parts. Can’t fix it till they get here.”
“Well, couldn’t I–?” Alex saw the expression on Jimmy-Jeff’s face. “No, I suppose you won’t let me.”
“That’s right,” Jimmy-Jeff said. “Now, you have to have someplace to stay for the night, and we don’t have a hotel.”
“So?” Alex said.
“There’s a house down the street about three blocks,” Jimmy-Jeff said, “where you can rent a room for the night, reasonably.”
“A relative of yours?” Alex asked.
“In a way. Maureen’s the widow of my uncle William-Henry. She has to take in roomers for a living. And Erin–that’s her daughter–is my cousin.”
“That should be recommendation enough,” Alex said. “Does she serve meals too, or do I have to eat at Randy-Ray’s?”
“She might fix you something,” Jimmy-Jeff said.
The house was a two-storey frame dwelling set back from the street behind a row of trees. On one of the trees was a sign: ROOMS FOR RENT BY DAY OR WEEK.
Alex Fenske, suitcase in hand, went up the walk to the porch and knocked. The door was opened by a girl. Her prominent chin, close set brown eyes, and small thin-lipped mouth were somewhat softened by a cute nose. She wore a ponytail, instead of a white crash helmet, and a gingham dress. She was clearly a more recent stamping from the same mold that had formed Jimmy-Jeff. Only she was only fifteen or possibly sixteen years old.
She looked Alex up and down with an open frankness more commonly found in certain types of men looking girls up and down. Alex said, “You must be Erin. Your cousin Jimmy-Jeff said I could get a room here for the night. I’m Alex Fenske.”
“Tell the gentleman to come in, child!” a woman said, appearing from the kitchen and wiping her hands on her apron.
“And you must be Jimmy-Jeff’s aunt,” Alex said with hearty enthusiasm. “Jimmy-Jeff said you might fix me something to eat. They ran out of hot food at Randy-Ray’s before I got there.”
“I might,” the woman said. She was slightly taller than her daughter–perhaps five feet three–on the plump side, with the type of figure where bosom and stomach merge to form an imposing front. Her hair was black and done up in a bun on top of her head. Her face lacked the Jimmy-Jeff stamp, but it bore a striking family resemblance to the waitress in Randy-Ray’s. She went to a large oak hutch and opened a well-worn ledger book. “First you’ll have to register,” she said. “It’ll be ten dollars for the room and four dollars for your supper.”
“That’s very reasonable,” Alex murmured, writing his name and address on the first vacant line.
“From Chicago, huh?” the woman asked. “Your car outside?”
“Uh, no,” Alex replied. “I have to wait until tomorrow for some parts to fix the speedometer.”
The girl, Erin, burst into high-pitched laughter.
“That’ll be enough of that, Erin,” her mother said. “Show Mr. Fenske to his room.”
“Okay,” Erin said. “Come on, Mr. Fenske.”
“Your supper’ll be ready soon as you wash up,” Aunt Maureen said. “And I’ll take the money now.”
“Oh. Of course,” Alex said. He counted out a ten and four ones. “Is that correct?”
“Unless you want to take advantage of our weekly rate.”
Alex picked up his suitcase and climbed the stairs toward Erin who was waiting on the upper landing.
“Twenty-five dollars a week, board and room,” Aunt Maureen called after him.
“No, thanks,” Alex said, looking down at her. “I won’t be here that long.”
Erin opened a door. “This is your room,” she said. “The bathroom’s that door down the hall.” She pointed and then started away.
“Just a minute, Erin,” Alex said.
The girl turned. He was holding a dollar bill, out toward her.
“What’s that for?” she said suspiciously, backing away.
“A tip,” Alex said.
“What on earth for?” Erin said, laughing nervously. “I didn’t do nothin’ but show you your room.”
“You did far more than that,” Alex said. “You’re the only one I’ve met in Hobart that didn’t cost me money. Now is that right? You should have your slice of my bankroll, too!”
“If you say so,” Erin said, taking the bill cautiously. She looked at him, her small thin-lipped mouth curved downward unhappily. Then, impulsively, she whispered, “You should get out of town! Don’t waste a minute. Just git!” Then she turned and scurried down the stairs.
Alex watched her until she was out of sight. When he went into his room, he was frowning. Had she meant he should abandon his car and take to the road as a hitchhiker? He almost felt like it, but that was absurd. She was, after all, just a kid.
He thought about it while he went down the hall to the bathroom and took a shower and shaved. Everything that could happen to him in this speed-trap town of Hobart had already happened, he decided.
“What else can happen?” he asked his reflection in the bathroom mirror with lifted eyebrows, and answered himself, “Nothing!” Tomorrow morning he would go to the service station and get his car, and drive at a speed of twenty miles an hour until he reached the city limits; then he could forget Hobart and good riddance!
Thus reassured, he went down to eat his belated dinner.
A stranger sat at the dining-room table. Not quite a stranger, because of his prominent chin, small thin-lipped mouth, and narrow-set eyes. But it was as though some cosmic caricaturist, having faithfully reproduced the familiar face, then went overboard. Bushy black eyebrows and a thick mane were tacked on above. Below on the neck was a wing collar and shoestring tie, below that as a white shirt front and a single-button coat that was a dusty shade of black and had black velvet lapels. A gray glove was on the right left hand, its mate lay on the table. To complete the picture of sartorial elegance was a black cane shaped like a dwarf pool cue, with an ornate gold head which was leaning against the edge of the table.
It was not so much the clothing as the exaggerated dignity of the man which struck Alex as indescribably ludicrous. So much so that he burst out laughing.
“What’s so funny?” the man growled in a solemn voice.
“Sorry,” Alex gasped. “You. I can’t help it.”
Alex ducked a wild swing of the cane and was suddenly sobered by the intense rage in the man’s narrow-set eyes.
“Now wait a minute!” Alex said, grabbing hold of the head of the cane. “I didn’t mean anything personal.”
The man kicked Alex’s shin with the point of his patent leather shoe. This was so extremely painful that Alex jerked the cane out of the man’s hand and shoved him away.
The man fell backwards with a violence that later on seemed to Alex to be far out of proportion to the force of the shove. He knocked over two chairs and ended up against the wall with a thump that shook the house. While Alex stared, the man quietly closed his eyes and fell limply to one side.
At that moment Aunt Maureen came into the dining room from the kitchen. Alex had taken an unconscious step toward the stranger, still holding the cane. Aunt Maureen screamed and dropped the cup and saucer she was carrying.
It was a nerve-shattering scream, and, in the midst of it, the front door slammed open. Jimmy-Jeff, looking like a pint-sized storm trooper, rushed into the room with a drawn gun.
“He’s killed Micah-Man!” Aunt Maureen shouted. “With Micah-Man’s own walking stick, too! I seen him do it!”
A significant groan came from the lips of Micah-Man.
“He’s still alive, Aunt Maureen,” Jimmy-Jeff said. “Call Doc and Big Josh.” He looked at Alex. “So,” he said softly, “attempted murder. And you pick as your victim, the Mayor of Hobart himself!”
They came. The doctor first, with his black bag. He glanced with brief curiosity at Alex, before going over to the motionless figure of Hobart’s mayor. Then Big Josh, the police chief, arrived.
One glance at Big Josh and Alex Fenske lost whatever hope he might have had. It was not so much Big Josh’s size as it was his face and eyes. If Jimmy-Jeff and Randy-Ray and Erin and Mayor Micah-Man were stampings from the same mold, Big Josh’s features were the mold itself, leathered and much used. His narrow-set eyes were those of a man who could kill or horsewhip you with perfect calm.
The doctor looked up at Big Josh and said, “The mayor’ll live, but it may be close.”
Jimmy-Jeff spoke his piece. “This is quite a boy we’ve caught us, Uncle Josh. He comes barreling into town at a hundred and twelve; he tries to get out of paying for his supper at Randy-Ray’s; then he tries to kill the mayor with the mayor’s own walkin’ stick.”
“Take him to the jailhouse, nephew,” Big Josh said. “If he tries to escape, shoot his legs out from under him. We want this boy alive. You hear?”
Alex made a try. “I don’t suppose it would do any good to tell you I wasn’t doing a hundred and twelve, that the food at Randy-Ray’s wasn’t fit to eat, and that all I did was protect myself when the mayor tried to hit with his cane because I couldn’t help laughing at his getup.”
“Are you calling Jimmy-Jeff a liar?” Big Josh said softly.
Jimmy-Jeff said, “He called Aunt Romell a liar, too.”
“You can have your say in court tomorrow, boy–through your lawyer,” Big Josh said. “See that he gets a lawyer, Jimmy-Jeff.”
The jailhouse was a beautiful brick building on a side street, fronted by a well-kept lawn. Over the entrance was a sign that said HOBART CITY HALL.
The jail part was in the basement. The jailer resembled Jimmy-Jeff except that he was taller and thinner and in his forties. He emptied Alex’s pockets, carefully listing everything and dropping the different items in an envelope. “Three hundred and forty dollars,” he said after counting the currency in Alex’s billfold.
“Then he can pay for the best lawyer in town,” Jimmy-Jeff said.
The jail cell had a wet concrete floor. Alex was pushed into the cell, his wrists finally freed of handcuffs. The overhead light outside the bars went out a few minutes later, leaving him in almost total darkness.
Wearily he lay down on the cot welded to the wall.
Soon after he awoke in the morning, the jailer appeared and slid a rectangular tray under the door. Hunger forced Alex to gulp down the eggs and fried potatoes and to ignore their rancid taste.
The jailer returned for the tray, and handed Alex a pen and slip of paper. “Sign this,” he said.
Alex read what had been scrawled on the paper. It was an authorization for the jailer to pay the sum of two hundred and fifty dollars to one Ulysses-Paul Bryant for services rendered.
Ulysses-Paul will be your lawyer,” the jailer said, and then added in a confidential tone, “If anyone can get you out of here, he can.”
Ulysses-Paul looked very much like Jimmy-Jeff except that he was about three inches taller, wore a business suit, and had an eager personality.
“All I’m going to try to do today is get you out of here,” he said. “Attempting to kill Mayor Micah-Man is quite a serious offense–not that there aren’t others who would like to try it. Bail’s apt to be quite high. How much can you lay your hands on?”
“How high do you think the bail will be?” Alex asked.
“I don’t rightly know,” Ulysses-Paul said. “Uncle–that is, Judge Sunde might make it anything from five hundred to fifteen thousand dollars. Once he sets bail he won’t change his mind, so I’d better have some idea of the most you can lay your hands on.”
“Five hundred or fifteen thousand,” Alex said. “I can’t get it.”
“Too bad,” Ulysses-Paul-Paul said. He stepped back from the bars. Well, I’ll try to earn my fee anyway.”
“Doesn’t it matter that I’m innocent?”
“They have you dead to rights.” Ulysses-Paul shook his head sadly. “You’d better get some money somewhere or you’ll never get out. See you in court.” He turned and left.
Alex sat on the bunk and stared at the wet floor. Hours later the jailer and Jimmy-Jeff appeared. The diminutive cop kept his gun pointed at Alex’s stomach while the jailer put on the handcuffs.
Alex was led upstairs and into a courtroom. There were new faces with close-set eyes, small thin-lipped mouths, and prominent chins. One of them was in the judge’s chair.
Big Josh, the doctor, and Jimmy-Jeff quickly outlined their evidence. Ulysses-Paul, Alex’s lawyer, whispered to Alex, “This is only the preliminary hearing. Unc–the judge will set a date for trial, probably this fall. Then I step in to demand your release on bail.”
“The prisoner will stand trial in this court starting the first Monday of October,” the judge said.
“But, your honor!” Ulysses-Paul said, springing to his feet. “That’s three months away! Three months of confinement in a jail cell! I demand bail be set so my client can be released until the date of the trial!”
“Very well,” the judge said. “Bail is set at six thousand four hundred and twenty-two dollars. Failure to appear at the date of the trial will mean confiscation of the bail and an arrest warrant.” He rapped his gavel, stood up, and went through the doorway at his back.
“I was sure I could get you out on bail!” Ulysses-Paul said, beaming with pride. “In fact, I was so sure that I took the liberty of asking Uncle Willie-Wade to be in court.”
“That’s right,” a stranger–with narrow-set eyes, a small thin-lipped mouth and prominent chin–said, coming over, and seizing Alex’s hand and pumping it several times. “I’m president of our local bank. We don’t want you to stay in that jail cell downstairs another night. It’s a disgrace to the community and we civic-minded citizens have been trying to get it improved for years, but traffic fines and bail forfeitures are just about the only new money worth speaking of coming into the city treasury.”
“I see,” Alex said.
“I happen to have with me,” the banker said, withdrawing some papers from the breast pocket of his coat, “the necessary papers to get you out on bail before the day is out. All it requires is for you to open an account in our bank, write a check on that account for the correct amount of the bail, and send a telegram to your bank in Chicago instructing them to transfer the money from your account there by EFT. All perfectly legal and binding.” He laid the papers out before Alex as he talked.
“I don’t like it!” Jimmy-Jeff shouted, slamming his gleaming crash helmet against the table. “He almost killed Mayor Micah-Man. And if he gets out on bail, he won’t come back for trial!”
“Of course he’ll come back,” Ulysses-Paul, Alex’s lawyer, said. “If he doesn’t, he’ll forfeit his bail.”
“He’ll forfeit his bail all right,” Jimmy-Jeff said, scowling. “He won’t stand trial and go to jail for ten years.”
“Ten years!” Ulysses-Paul said. “I’ll bet you a hundred dollars I can get him off with no more than four!”
“I’ll just take you up on that bet, Cousin,” Jimmy-Jeff said. “His car’s ready to roll right on out of town as soon as he pays the nineteen bucks he owes Billy-Bruce for fixing it. And that’s what he’ll do.”
“What if he don’t, Cousin?” Ulysses-Paul said. “What if he sticks around until the trial?”
“Then he’d better just watch his step because I’m going to be following him every minute. But I’m betting he’ll skip.”
“Well,” Ulysses-Paul taunted, “you can’t stop him if he does.”
“I know that,” Jimmy-Jeff said. “That’s what’s eatin’ me.”
Alex took the pen that banker was holding out. He filled in the application for a checking account. He hesitated over the check, then signed it.
“What do I do now?” Alex asked.
“A computer request to your bank asking that they transfer six thousand four hundred and twenty-two dollars to your account in my bank,” Willie-Wade said. “Then as soon as the money comes your check is good. I transfer the money to the City of Hobart, and you’re free to go.”
Alex slammed down the pen and gripped the edge of the table, his lips pressed tightly together.
“Of course,” Willie-Wade said, “you can just write a check on your Chicago bank, and we’ll all wait until it clears. About five days, I would say . . . “
Bitterly, Alex sat down to the computer and logged-in to his Chicago account.
The phosphorescent red letters glowing in the darkness said, “THE STATE’S BEST FRIED CHICKEN at RANDY-RAY’S in HOBART 2 MILES.”
Hunger added a fraction of an ounce to the pressure of Dean Hauge’s foot on the gas. The speedometer needle crept from fifty-eight to sixty one.
The next sign leaped out of the darkness a minute later. “HOBART pop. 168 CITY LIMITS.”
Seconds later, the jaws of the town of Hobart would close upon this fresh morsel of tourist flesh, while far away, with the distance growing greater every minute, the picked bones of what was left (financially speaking) of Alex Fenske hunched over the wheel of his car, headed back to Chicago, interested only in getting there before the few dollars he had left to his name vanished completely.
Suddenly a sign materialized beside the road. “CITY LIMITS.” Tires screamed as Alex’s foot came down hard on the brake peddle and the speedometer needle dropped from sixty-five to slightly over twenty.
Beads of perspiration glistened on Alex Fenske’s forehead. How many such signs were there between him and Chicago? Hundreds. Thousands.
His sweaty hands gripped the wheel. A field of corn moved slowly as he crept toward the distant lights of an approaching town . . .