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Thomas H. Cook


  and other stories

  Thomas H. Cook



  To Claiborne Hancock

  for collecting a lifetime of short stories into this single volume.







  THE FIX from Murder on the Ropes







  The phone rang at six in the morning.

  J. R. Ballard grabbed the receiver, squeezed it like a chicken neck.

  “Ballard here.”

  He’d thought that maybe, just maybe, it being the morning after Confederate Memorial Day, the bigwigs downtown might have considered a slow start. But that illusion died on the back of Eddie McCorkindale’s boyishly excited voice.

  “Got something Chief Langford wants you to see, J.R.”

  He meant Newport Langford, Chief of Detectives, Atlanta Police, a polite, well-mannered man, almost courtly, who had, over the years, come to trust Ballard more than anyone else in Homicide.

  “And what might that be?” Ballard asked.

  “A girl.”

  Ballard languidly stroked his substantial jowls. “A girl not altogether well, I take it?”

  “Dead,” McCorkindale said. “White. Thirteen–fourteen. Something like that.”

  “What happened to her?”

  “Beat up, looks like. Strangled, too. Been dead about twelve hours or so, we guess.”

  The “we,” as J.R. surmised, was probably McCorkindale and a few other layabouts who, despite their rank stupidity, held to the dream, more of a fantasy, that they might one day be competent homicide detectives. The guess was precisely that, with nothing to back it up but the thoroughly unjustified self-confidence of those who’d made it.

  “In a basement,” McCorkindale added. “On Forsyth Street.”


  “Over next to the coal chute.”

  “I don’t mean whereabouts in the basement, Eddie,” Ballard said crisply, though not without trying to keep the tone of condescension from his voice. “I mean whereabouts on Forsyth Street.”

  “Oh. National Pencil Company. You know it?”

  Of course he knew it, but J.R. let it go.

  “We’re trying to locate the guy who runs the place.”

  “I wouldn’t even bother with that, Eddie,” J.R. said.

  “You wouldn’t? How come?”

  “Because there is a likely suspect,” J.R. said. “A colored man who works at the building. He’s been in a good deal of trouble before now.”

  “Colored man? Would that be Newt Lee?”

  “No, that would not be Newt Lee,” J.R. said, no longer able to keep the snappishness from his voice. “Newt Lee is a family man. A fine man, by all accounts. I’m talking about the roustabout. Jim Conley.” He drew in a soft, weary breath. “Follow me here, Eddie. You have a dead girl in the pencil factory, and you have a colored man of very low reputation like Conley working there. Does the logic strike you?”

  “Well, the thing is, nobody’s seen another one. Just Newt.”

  “Well, you ask Newt where Conley is, and then you go get him,” J.R. said in a measured, though still not impolite tone.

  “Yeah, but what …”

  “Eddie, please,” Ballard said. “Just do it.”

  “Okay,” Eddie said. “The name’s Conley, you say?”

  J.R. knew he was writing it down, misspelling it, trying again, Conly, Conlee, Konley.

  “That’s right,” J.R. said softly. “Jim Conley. C-O-N-L-E-Y.”

  “Got it, J.R.”

  “Good,” J.R. said. He dropped the receiver back into its cradle, the murder already playing out in his mind, Conley stumbling backward, dragging a girl along the floor, out of breath and sweaty by the time he reaches the coal chute, reaching for his battered thermos, munching a banana sandwich. Case closed, J.R. thought.

  Confederate Memorial Day had been a cold, drizzling affair, and as he drove down Peachtree Street, J.R. surveyed its sodden aftermath. Drenched battle flags hung limply, dripping water from their tips. Blue and gray bunting whipped about the streets or hung in ragged clumps from trees and bushes. Some of it slumped, wet and soggy, from over doors and fence railings. It gave the whole city a miserable, defeated look, just the opposite of its original intent. The only Lost Cause it brought to J.R.’s mind was the one of finally cleaning it all up.

  The National Pencil Company had once been the Granite Hotel, complete with its own theater, the Venable, and J.R. knew that its conversion into a clanging, dusty factory had irritated more than a few of Atlanta’s old guard, another symbol of the “Yankeefication” of their city. But most of that sort of talk had died away over the years, replaced by the sort of sentiment J.R. saw on a large red and white poster as he wheeled onto Five Points, “Watch Atlanta Grow.”

  The National Pencil Factory was part of that growth, and J.R. was perfectly happy with it. He’d been born into a family of hardscrabble tenant farmers in South Georgia, lost his father in the Battle of Lookout Mountain, and had no love for the moonlight and magnolia crowd who ran Atlanta, always “stirring up the ashes,” as he’d once put it, of a world their own arrogance had burned down. Thus freed from a poor boy’s idolatry for his “betters,” he’d struggled to acquire a certain refinement in dress and comportment, adopted an arch manner of speech he’d associated with the highly educated, and even secretly come to admire the sophisticated Northerners his rude associates in the Police Department still insisted upon calling carpetbaggers.

  Luke Rogers was standing in front of the factory as J.R. pulled up.

  “Good morning, J.R.” he said.

  “Not particularly good for one of our female citizens, I hear,” J.R. said. “Have you established her identity yet?”

  Rogers plucked the cigarette from the corner of his mouth. “Phagan. Mary Phagan. Worked here at the factory. Mama said she came down yesterday morning to get her pay.”

  J.R. lumbered toward the door, overweight to the point of being embarrassed by it. To her dying day, his mother had always described him as pleasantly plump, a lie that had signaled a world of liars in J.R.’s mind. After that, police work could not have come more naturally to him.

  “Did the mother have any other pertinent information?” he asked.


  “And the father?”

  “He’s a lint head.”

  “His occupation is irrelevant,” J.R. said. “Was he of help regarding the murder?”

  Rogers shook his head, opened the door as J.R. strode toward it. “The Great J. R. Ballard is now on the scene,” he announced with a broad grin.

  A wall of men in rumpled suits blocked J.R.’s view of the body. John Black and S.J. Starnes, both detectives, along with Craig Britt, a whiskey-soaked police reporter for the Atlanta Constitution whose own activities, J.R. thought, were only a notch above the criminals he covered.

  As J.R. approached, the wall broke up, and he saw the girl lying on a slag heap, the left profile of her face scratched and torn, dotted here and there with splinters, smudged with coal dust.

  Dragged across the floor, J.R. surmised, killed somewhere else.

  The other men grumbled greetings as J.R. joined their circle, looking more closely now, carefully observing the white throat, a cord knotted around it, along with a piece of cloth, as J.R. noted immediately, torn from her petticoat. He glanced about the room, surveyed the factory’s dark innards, boilers, furnaces, a coal
chute, boxes of pencils scattered throughout, some open, spilling out their contents, some tied with—yes, J.R. thought—the same cord that had been used to strangle Mary Phagan.

  “So, what do you think, J.R.?” Starnes asked. “Think it’s the same one?”

  Starnes was referring to the fact that over the last few months thirteen colored women had been murdered in Atlanta.

  “Think he’s jumped from the quarters to the house?”

  Meaning, as J.R. knew, from black to white.

  He returned his eyes to the dead girl, the few parts of her that were visible among the lavender heap of her dress and the soiled swirl of her petticoat. Her tongue protruded from her mouth. One eye was black, swollen. The real wound was at the back of her head, her scalp split open, blood in a dark, sticky wash down her back. The cord around her throat had been wrung so tightly it had bitten into her flesh, leaving a raw, red circle around her neck.

  Jim Conley swam into J.R.’s mind, pop-eyed and vicious, a liar and a thief. “Could be,” he said.

  Rogers laughed. “Newt was shaking like a leaf when we got here,” he said. “I had to practically hold him up on the way to the basement.”

  “Newt had nothing to do with this,” J.R. said assuredly.

  “What do you make of these, then?” Rogers asked. “Craig found them beside the girl.” He handed J.R. two scraps of paper, one white, one brown, then shined his flashlight on them, revealing a crude scrawl. The first read “he said he wood love me and land down play like night witch did it but that long tall black negro did buy his self.”

  “What do you think?” Britt asked, pencil at the ready, looking for a quote.

  J.R. didn’t answer, went on to the second: “mam, that negro hire doun here did this I went to make water and he push me doun that hole a long tall negro black that hoo it was long sleam tall negro I wright while play with me.”

  “I don’t have to tell you, J.R.,” Rogers said. “Newt’s one tall, skinny nigger.”

  “Here’s the night watchman, too,” Craig said. “Get it? In the note, I mean. Night witch. Night watch.”

  J.R. handed the notes back to Rogers. “Newt Lee has nothing to do with this.”

  Starnes nodded. “J.R.’s right. Newt wouldn’t have the balls for something like this.”

  Britt grinned. “How ’bout the inclination? If that’s strong enough, a man can grow the balls.”

  J.R.’s eyes slid over to Britt, then back to the girl. “Have you located Jim Conley yet?” he asked no one in particular.

  “McCorkindale told us what you said about him,” Starnes answered. “We’re out looking for him.”

  “Try the rail yard,” J.R. said. “Bus depot. He’s probably long gone by now, but try them.”

  “You really think he did it, do you, J.R.?” Starnes asked.

  J.R. looked at him directly. “I’m dead sure of it,” he said.

  Suddenly Eddie McCorkindale burst through the circle. “They found the factory manager.”

  Starnes laughed. “Why, was he lost?”

  “Well, let’s go get him,” Rogers said.

  J.R. didn’t move.

  “You don’t want to come along, J.R.?” Rogers asked him.

  J.R. waved his hand dismissively, then returned his gaze to the dead girl.

  “Name’s Frank, the factory manager,” Rogers said, glancing at his notes as he and the other men headed for the door. “Leo Frank.”

  J.R. was having a cigar, sitting massive behind his small wooden desk in the detective bull pen when Rogers and the others appeared again, Leo Frank in tow but barely visible as they bustled him among the empty desks toward Newport Langford’s office. Watching, J.R. saw only an oily flash of black hair, a glint of spectacles, the gold wink of a cuff link, the rest obscured by a flowing curtain of wrinkled suits.

  He blew a column of smoke into the air, leaned back, sniffed, planned his method of approach when they finally dragged Jim Conley into the bull pen. He was still lining up the questions, planning how he’d lurch forward from time to time, plant his huge face directly in front of Conley’s, close enough, as he imagined it, for a little spit to hit him in the eye with each question, when the door to Langford’s office swung open. It was a crude persona he’d adopted before, in such cases, often to hilarious, but always telling, effect.

  “J.R.,” Rogers called. “Chief Langford wants you in on this.”

  J.R. rose ponderously, put his enormous frame in motion, fat like congealed air around him, forever walking, as it seemed to him, through a thick, invisible gelatin.

  The room was hot, crowded, rancid with tobacco smoke. Frank sat in a plain wooden chair, facing Newport Langford. He was dressed in a black suit, freshly starched white shirt, with gold cuff links, a small, skinny man, so short his feet dangled a good half inch above the floor. He didn’t smoke, and from time to time he lifted his hand and waved away the curls of smoke that swirled around his nose and eyes. The lenses of his glasses occasionally glinted in the light that fell over him from the high window behind Langford’s desk. He cleared his throat every few minutes and sometimes coughed softly into a tiny, loosely clenched fist.

  To J.R. the idea that such a man might have anything to do with the murder of a teenage girl was, to use the phrase he intended to use should such a possibility be offered, “patently absurd.”

  “How many girls do you have working there at the factory, Mr. Frank?” Langford asked.

  “About a hundred.”

  “And you handle the payroll?”

  “Actually, Mr. Shiff pays the girls.”

  “Well, you were paying them on Saturday, weren’t you?” Starnes asked, a sudden, accusatory note in his voice.


  “What do you pay them, by the way?” Rogers asked.

  “The girls make twelve cents an hour,” Frank answered.

  Black smiled. “What do you make, Mr. Frank?” he asked. He glanced at the other detectives. “In case I ever got interested in managing a pencil factory, I mean.”

  The men laughed. Frank didn’t.

  “My salary is sixty dollars a week,” he said.

  “And you say you’ve got a hundred girls working for you, Mr. Frank?” Langford asked.

  “About a hundred, yes.”

  “That’s a lot of girls,” Starnes said. “All young, right?”

  Frank gave a quick, jerky nod. “Most of them are young, yes.”

  “You like them that way?” Rogers asked. “Young?”

  Frank looked at him silently.

  “As employees, he means, Mr. Frank,” Langford added softly.

  Frank glanced about nervously. “I don’t have any preference, really. As to age, It just happens that most of the girls are young. I think you would find that in any factory of this kind, that most of the girls are …”

  “What about Mary Phagan?” Starnes interrupted. “When we went to your house, you said you didn’t know who she was.”

  Frank tugged gently at his right cuff link. “At first, I didn’t recognize the name.”

  “So you don’t know the names of the people who work for you?” Rogers asked.

  Frank allowed himself a quick, jittery laugh. “Well, there are so many …”

  “A hundred, yes,” Black said sharply. “A hundred girls.”

  Frank’s eyes darted away, settled briefly on J.R.’s, then fled back to Newport Langford. “Once I saw her … Mary … I knew who she was. I mean, I recognized her.” He adjusted the cuffs of his shirt unnecessarily, twisted his cuff links. “That it was Miss Phagan.”

  “And you remembered paying her on Saturday, is that right?” Rogers asked.

  “Yes, she came to my office.”

  “On the second floor,” Starnes said.

  “That’s right.”

  The men stared at him silently.

  “She asked for her pay,” Frank added. “I looked it up. The amount, I mean. How much I owed her. Then I gave her what she was due.”

; “And she left?” Starnes asked.


  “And you stayed put,” Black said.

  “At my desk.”

  “For how long?” Rogers asked.

  “At least two hours.”

  The questions and answers continued, J.R. listening idly, glancing out into the bull pen from time to time, hoping to see McCorkindale or some other uniform escort Jim Conley into the room. He’d learned by then that Newt Lee was denying everything, claiming that the murder was being “put off” on him. He thought of the notes Craig Britt had found beside the body, the low, subliterate writing scrawled on them.

  “Let’s get back to Mary for a moment, Mr. Frank,” Langford said.

  Frank fingered a gold cuff link.

  “Had she ever been in your office before?”

  “Not that I recall.”

  “What about the other girls?” Starnes asked. “Were they in the habit of coming up to the second floor?”

  Frank looked at Langford quizzically, then turned back to Starnes. “In the habit?”

  “Did you bring these girls up to your office on a regular basis?” Black snapped.

  “I never brought them up,” Frank said.

  “Well, they been seen up there,” Rogers told him.

  “To get their pay,” Frank replied.

  “Do they ever come up there just to see you?” Starnes asked.


  “Pay a call, you might say.”


  “No girl ever comes up there alone?” Black asked doubtfully.

  “To get her pay, she might,” Frank said.

  “Never for anything else?” Starnes asked.

  Frank shook his head.

  “How about Mary Phagan,” Langford said. “Had Mary ever been in your office before yesterday afternoon, Mr. Frank?”

  Frank’s right hand moved from his lap to his left cuff link. “Not that I recall. No.”

  “Well, you would recall it, wouldn’t you?” Starnes asked. “If she’d come up there before?”

  “Not necessarily,” Frank answered. “I mean, I have …”

  “A hundred girls, yeah, we know,” Black said sharply. He looked knowingly at the other men. “We’ve heard all about it.”