Copyright 2010 Linda Hahn
Murphy remarked to me, “Take a look at that damned cat, will ya? Runs like a thief in the night.” He laughed as we watched it go. The small black feline was torpedoing across my lawn, somersaulting and leaping as it went. I was not amused, nor did I find its behavior irresistible, as did its owner.
When it drew abreast of me, the devil’s spawn paused to look me in the eye, arch its back, and hiss with an unmistakable malice. In return I merely looked at it thoughtfully.
Later that night I killed it. It was the principle of the thing that forced me to it. When a man lets his boundaries be broached, it is the beginning of his own undoing.
I prepared a simple sedative by mixing a small amount of sleeping medication with tuna. There was not a long wait; cats always go first where they are not wanted. The cat was at first suspicious when it located the treat in my back yard. I watched from an upstairs window as it sniffed carefully at the tuna. After circling it twice, it sat down for a moment’s consideration. Finally it raised its head and looked about the yard, most likely looking to see if I was in hiding somewhere and waiting to leap out.
Wise cat, though not wise enough. A few minutes after the bait was taken, when it grew too drowsy to escape me, I went outside and snapped its foolhardy neck.
The next day I buried it under a rosebush that I planted by the back porch. There was a ring of eight now surrounding my porch. They were beautiful and healthy and when they bloomed, they did so magnificently. My neighbors, indeed all passersby, enjoyed them immensely, as did I.
Murphy was one of my neighbors and he always called me boss because I take it upon myself to police the area for garbage and strangers. He is the only ex-convict I have ever had occasion to meet. Certainly I have little in common with such a group; however, I could not help but like Murphy when I first met him.
Murphy himself was a squat muscular guy, full of suspicious sidelong glances and low-down opinions. As soon as I caught the whole effect, I invited him for supper right off. I’d had an inkling that the man would be a passable conversationalist if properly pushed; and indeed, he proved himself more than passable. Over the can of corned beef hash we shared, I was engrossed by his tales of senseless justice and by the splendors of graphic violence he was able to portray. And all this for my solitary amusement, I was duly impressed by his talent.
Particularly I had liked his lead-off story, a wild tale of rage and running. What happened was he’d just gotten out of the joint after a two year stretch, his longest stay so far, and he was still sucking down the clean air and springing off his toes. There he was, free and light, and ruined only by his flinching at any inconsequential noise.
It was a prison acquaintance that stopped him from further enjoying his freedom, a night guard with a hard reputation. This wheeler/dealer never stopped counting his money or scheming for his next eye of newt. Murphy said that he felt chills when he looked him right in the eye. Their earlier acquaintance at the prison had never brought them together to do business. Murphy added, thank God, prison had been hard enough without that happening.
As Murphy told it, he wanted no part of it, right from the start. Threatened and blackmailed he was. It was all a matter of doing the job as requested or being arrested, hauled off, and beaten cruelly. The cake’s frosting being a weapon planted on him to violate his parole. I told him it was a tough choice and he agreed.
It was also this first night that Murphy told me he would never risk going back to prison. He held up his left thumb and forefinger to indicate how small the space had been between him and lifer status. He said never again and I could see he meant it. Reform comes about for many reasons and Murphy had his.
And I greatly admired the way he handled the telling of it, squaring up his brawny shoulders and maintaining his broken dignity. It was just another job he said. But from the way he looked, I knew better. There was the hint of danger in his story, enough to make us tense as if to defend ourselves. We both felt it.
His beady eyes followed the imaginary guard as he walked away, smug and powerful. He wanted to run up behind him and kill the guard all over again I knew. I saw him relive it then – holding back the killing rage, smothering it, then swallowing the proposition because he had to. He had already found out the unfairness in living, reminders were unwelcome.
It was no more than a dirty common robbery he was required to do and it was accomplished in a twinkling with minimal pain. So he said. It was merely a necessity of circumstance to put the security man out of the way with a gentle tap to the base of the skull. His eyes removed themselves from involvement as he told me this. Some things are as painful in memory as they were in fact.
Then, in a flash of humorous insight, Murphy allowed that the headache must have been a real ball-buster. That was Murphy in a nutshell, mixing violence, humanity, and merriment like a maniac chef. He was a morose, black-humored man, and as quick with a story as he was with his fists.
At the end of his story, I asked if he’d been able to square accounts with the rogue and he’d growled a deep dangerous not yet in reply. After a short lapse for vengeful contemplation, he let go with a hearty laugh and ruefully conceded that the big ones always got away. Just my luck, I guess. He thought some more and shook his head, negating whatever revenge might have been lurking in the shadows. I’m all through with that kind of trouble he swore.
With no more pause for thought, he went on to tell me a wicked tale involving the creative way a friend had punished his adulterous wife. If I remember correctly, the abused husband managed to get inside the trysting place ahead of time. He installed a few extra lights and invited friends and family to a surprise party for his loving wife.
It was the surprise of her life too. The shock of the lights and people during a tender bedded moment changed the woman’s whole attitude. From then on she was a good wife. We laughed to the point of pain over that one.
After that first night, Murphy and I were regular friends. Going on five years now I guess. I hadn’t been retired too long when I started taking more of an interest in the neighborhood. And one of the first things I noticed was Murphy, who had just moved in down the block. He is not exactly living down the street anymore, but I still think of him as being my neighbor.
The two of us happened to have equivalent warped views of the world around us. It’s been many a time we stood together on the sidewalk, watching life swill its way by. It was from here, the walk in front of my house, that we watched the odd pulsing of our neighborhood. A life of its own is how it always felt to me.
And it was here, under the warm old oak tree, we stood just after Murphy had exchanged harsh words with the shrew who worked the corner grocery market. Evelyn Frome was her name. The old biddy had tried to slip him change for a ten instead of a twenty. It was his view that she must’ve thought he was bombed or otherwise out of kilter and he wasn’t a regular anyway. Not that she needed a reason.
I couldn’t help but laugh, she tried it on me fairly regular. But hell, I didn’t get shook by it or anything. I just smiled real nice and kept my palm right where it was until she grinned and slapped down my ten. Didn’t even apologize or call it a mistake after a while. We had attained understanding, at least for business purposes.
Murphy though doesn’t have my tolerance for human nature and he was genuinely pissed about the situation. Told her off good he did. Told her he didn’t like thieves or cheap hustlers. She yelled right back at him too. Let him have what for. I cou
Murphy said he’d been hustled plenty of times before and by women, sure. But he just couldn’t help hating it when he saw women pulling scams. Don’t seem right somehow he said. Doesn’t surprise me though, not one little bit.
Then we talked some about how women should behave themselves better and be more ladylike. I don’t truthfully expect much that way anymore I have to admit, but Murphy does. In his mind he lives in the Garden of Eden I think, before the fall from grace. The way it all should be if it were a perfect world. I can understand that I suppose, sometimes it’s just plain easier to get on that way.
That day he went on for some time about how pregnant women should stay tucked out of sight once they started to showing. He said the sight of the near-to-bursting ones about made him sick. I wouldn’t go that far myself, but I surely do know what he means. There’s something a wee bit queasy about a woman approaching her time.
Murphy was rolling along smoothly then. Like some unrepentant backslider shot straight from hallowed goodness to loud and joyous hell, he went on to say that if women were dropped like stones from the job market, then instantly all unemployment would cease. It would have to, right? I had no answer for this and he went on. There would be an abundance of good jobs. He smiled peacefully while thinking about it.
At this point I mildly interceded on behalf of women by saying that I’d always thought Murphy rather liked women. He did, he did, of course he did. Then he went on to tell a colorful prison break story. As usual, his usage of violence in storytelling was remarkable.
* * *
After Murphy left I got to thinking about Evelyn. I did know her a little better that I’d let on to Murphy. He would’ve been surprised to hear it; but back about fifteen years ago, she wasn’t half bad. Back then the two of us had a romance.
It didn’t last but a few months, the woman was too strong-willed for my taste. And there was that streak of greediness in her. Not that I minded greed in and of itself. A certain amount is healthy when it’s kept in respectable bounds. Evelyn though sometimes had a look that reminded me of a starving wolf.
When she started eying up my assets, it was enough. The way she liked to run things, most men wouldn’t have stood a chance at regaining any kind of freedom. I wasn’t going for it though. I looked her straight in the eye and said no more. She knew what I meant right away, but insisted that I spell it out for her.
It wasn’t pleasant but I let her know straight out that we were finished since that was the way that she wanted it. She didn’t like it much, but we managed to remain cordial. For a long time that worked. Then I as well as everyone else doing business with her began to notice a distinct change. She stopped keeping herself up and began looking like a hag. That was bad enough.
Even worse though were the constant attempts to cheat her customers by shortchanging them. Very uncouth of her, and she became an amusement around the neighborhood and a horrible embarrassment to me. I came to regret our romance and began to hope she would move away.
When I was feeling particularly vengeful, I though that something should be done about her. However it’s only wishful thinking when a person begins to believe that the world can be cleaned up. But no matter, it’s all in the past now.
One fine summer day, as the beat cop moved away from us, we saw him suddenly freeze over about two houses from where we stood. On a regular basis we’d seen this man making his rounds, but never had we seen him react severely to anything. He had only just stopped to pass the time of day with us.
Murphy and I looked to each other for confirmation of unusual behavior. Simultaneously we began to walk in the direction of the cop. He had peered cautiously around him before moving on rapidly toward the corner. Seeing his rigidity and purposeful actions caused Murphy and I to step it up considerably.
The destination of our beat cop was the corner store. He peeked in a window with extreme care, drew his gun, and slinked sideways to the door. He appeared to be in a state of high tension and rigorous listening. Then, of a sudden, he burst his way in.
When Murphy and I pulled up, we looked cautiously inside and saw the officer moving quickly around, searching those places large enough to conceal a person. Once satisfied that no one was hiding, he moved to the body on the floor and knelt beside it. We could see by the angle of the neck that there was no need for first aid. Then pulling out his radio, he requested an ambulance and assistance.
I called to him from the doorway. “Bob, who is it? Is it Evelyn? What’s happened?”
Bob rose at once from the floor and came to us at the door. “Don’t touch anything.” he said. He motioned us away from the area and informed us that there was nothing he could tell us at this time. Then he pulled out a small notebook and asked us if we had heard or seen anything unusual during the morning. We hadn’t, of course, it was awfully early in the day, so he told us to stay back and not interfere with the scene of the crime. He walked away from us reciting under his breath some sort of emergency checklist.
Soon came the sirens, then the emergency vehicles rushing onto our quiet street. The last time we’d had any excitement on our block was when Mrs. Orloff accidently set her kitchen to fire. She’d been cooking a horrible mixture of meat and cabbage and everyone within smelling distance was fully aware of her kitchen that day. First the cabbage odor, then the ungodly stench of burning cabbage, and finally the smoke came, black and malodorous.
It turned out later that fifteen people called the fire in. One of the firemen I was talking with had joked that she should be cited for releasing pollutants into a residential neighborhood. Personally I favored a somewhat harsher punishment for the old girl since I firmly believed in keeping the neighborhood up.
Well, that incident was a small bit of excitement for us and acceptable, but this, a woman on our very street bludgeoned, this was jarring. Murphy and I stood there for hours watching the police swooping in and around the tiny store. A crowd had gathered and they too watched the hoopla with rapt attention.
Minute bits of information rippled wildly throughout the crowd on an irregular basis. Most of these tidbits were dead wrong and covered ground from butchery to suicide. It didn’t matter; humans are a creative lot, chock-full of conjecture and suppressed fantasy. All of us watched in silence as the body was taken away. It was then that I allowed myself to think of the feisty thieving shopkeeper.
The woman had been no prize and probably wouldn’t even be missed. I certainly wouldn’t much notice the loss. A slovenly type, she’d actually been somewhat of a blight. She’d never mixed much with the neighbors, hell, who did? Her personality certainly didn’t lend itself to friendships either. There was no family to speak of, at least none in public awareness. And she’d had no mate, not even the comfort of a pet. I was forced to conclude, as I was sure the police would, that she’d gotten in the way during a robbery. I never did go much for murder as a thrill sport.
I asked Murphy what he thought and he too said robbery. “That would be my bet.” he said. After a minute he laughed, “You remember how she argued with me that time I accused her of stealing? I don’t think she’d take to robbery very kindly; bet she fought like a banshee. That might be why she looked so twisted.” he added.
As it was, I was inclined to agree with him. Then it struck me and my skin crawled. I’d read on several occasions that criminals often liked to watch the ruckus they’d raised. If a man liked to start fires, the theory said there was a good chance he’d stick around to watch it burn. Then something too about needing to see the reactions he’d caused. A sense of power . . . I can’t remember all of it.
Suddenly I was very chilled, light-headed, and even physically sickened for a moment. I pulled Murphy away from the rest of the crowd a
For the next two hours we observed the observers. Their eyes darted and pranced. Crime theories swung wildly and joyously among them. I was amazed to see the high feelings this incident had elicited. Murphy wasn’t though; he said that the only thing that would make them happier than a murder was a public hanging. He looked gloomy when he said this and seemed to believe what he was saying.
I thought on this awhile, it seemed a harsh assessment to me, particularly since I knew so many of them. But there was no denying the festive atmosphere and the bloodlust that had fueled it. Later, when they were told to move along, they didn’t move right away. It ended with the whole bunch of them being disbursed by the police.
It all started breaking up then. The last of the police cars were pulling away when we finally caught up with Bob again. He looked more tired out than I’d ever seen him. The three of us stood looking at the yellow barricade tape while we talked.
Bob was stunned that a major crime had been committed in his sector. Once he relaxed a minute and thought about it, he said it was awful hard for him to take and he sure as hell was sorry about Miss Frome getting beaten to death. And not a damned thing to go on he said. And no murder weapon either, the assailant had taken it.
The day after Evelyn’s death, I had a visit from two detectives working the case. They didn’t beat around the bush at all. They were right up front with me and said that they’d heard that I dated her some time back. This I agreed to immediately. It would have been a foolish move on my part to lie, no matter my discomfort over the fact. Nothing would have looked more suspicious.
They also wanted to know the nature of our relationship, how long it had lasted, and why we broke it off. After I’d filled them in on the meager details, they wanted to know how we’d gotten along afterwards. I let them know that Evelyn and I had stayed friendly and even continued doing business, although she’d changed drastically in the last few years.