If Shirley is surprised that someone wants to kill her, she does not let the gunmen know. As far as she knows, Shirley is no different from any other employee at the Bushwick Brothers plastics factory. So why has she been forced from her home and shoved into the front seat of a kidnapper’s car? There is no time to wonder why. Shirley Campbel has not cried since she was ten, and she will not start now. She jams her foot on the gas pedal, rocketing the car into a storefront. Her assailants are dead, but she is unscratched. Shirley goes home, knowing that more killers will come. Next time, she will be ready. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Howard Fast including rare photos from the author’s estate.
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By Howard Fast
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1964 Doubleday & Company, Inc.
All rights reserved.
In the course of her twenty years, so much had happened to Shirley Campbel—and so little of it pleasant—that she was not surprised that two men whom she had never seen before should express a desire to kill her. Of course, she was frightened and unhappy, but not unduly surprised. Out of her own knowledge and experience, no girl had the right to be surprised at anything a man did, and conversely, nothing that a man did should be entirely unexpected.
Yet with a thing as drastic as this, Shirley felt that a certain amount of forewarning or preparation was both required and deserved. Her own mother, in her sober intervals, had been fond of saying that where there is smoke, there's bound to be fire. Shirley properly felt that where there is fire, there should be a little smoke. That only made sense. In films and television and books—the only clarification for the confusion that enclosed Shirley and which was popularly called life—victims were dolts. They were surrounded by signs of impending doom that everyone else recognized, and which only they failed to perceive. But thinking back over this particular night, Shirley could not recollect one single thing that had impended.
She had gone to work in the morning—a morning no different than any other morning. She worked for Bushwick Brothers, who were manufacturers of various things in plastics and who occupied an entire building on East Houston Street. Shirley was in the credit department, and operated an automatic billing machine, a reasonably skilled and important job, the result of the fact that she tested well. She had always tested well. In her first year of high school, she had come out of a series of tests with an IQ rating of 127. Her card said, "High degree of native intelligence." That was a sort of consolation prize for the teachers who had to teach her and face, each day, her hard, dark and veiled eyes. Never knowing what lay behind them, it was some relief to accept that fact that, if nothing else, at least 127 degrees of intelligence were present and active.
Shirley's boss at Bushwick, Mr. Morrow, often felt the same way. He made a habit of walking down the aisle at the office, twelve desks at each side of him, a girl and a machine at each desk, and passing his grimly aware look over each of them, as if he were daring them to face him. The only one who ever did was Shirley; it made for no joy between them. Mr. Morrow was a small, fat man, and Shirley looked through him, and as he told his assistant, Mr. Bergan, he was only waiting for his day. "The day comes, she goes. I don't like that girl. I like to know what someone is thinking. I like a bright-faced, open-eyed girl."
"You're a fat little ass-pincher," Mr. Bergan said to himself. "You're a miserable slob, and you can't make a minute of time with her, so you want to fire her. People like you turn my stomach."
But aloud, he agreed. "Absolutely, Mr. Morrow," he said, thinking that if it wasn't for the way Shirley did her hair and that if she cared one damn about how she looked, she would be the best-looking kid on the floor. Like hell he would fire her! When the lunch break came, he met her on the way to the elevator, and said, "How about it, chickie, you and me and my little place in the Village? We can just complete the frame in one hour."
"Drop dead," Shirley told him, smiling.
"Why?" Mr. Bergan demanded.
"What do you mean, why?"
"You tell me to drop dead," Mr. Bergan specified. "Then I got a right to ask you why. In fact, it is implicit upon me to ask you why."
"Who told you to drop dead?" Shirley wanted to know.
"You did. Just a moment ago."
"Oh? Well, didn't you proposition me just a moment ago? Didn't you make a stupid crack about going down to your place in the Village during my lunch hour? Well, I feel constrained to set you straight about one thing, Mr. Bergan. In my lunch hour, I eat lunch, period."
"So what else did I ask you but to eat lunch with me?"
"The little place in the Village?"
"That was just in a manner of speaking," Mr. Bergan explained.
"So just in a manner of speaking, drop dead."
"There you are. That's positively the most hostile thing you can say."
"What's hostile about it?" Shirley asked indignantly.
"How would you feel if I dropped dead?"
"I'd feel that you had a very bad heart, Mr. Bergan, and why do you have to take every word I say personally?"
"Because I just happen to feel personal about what you say."
"So as soon as you start feeling personal about what you say instead of what I say, Mr. Bergan, we will re-examine the situation. And furthermore, the next time you proposition me for a lunch, leave your little place in the Village out of it."
To this, Mr. Bergan had no answer at all. Tall, long of arm and long of face, and reminding Shirley of nothing more than an attenuated cocker spaniel, he stood staring after her as she walked away with her friend Cynthia Kugelman. Cynthia was long-limbed, pretty, and had a rich head of hair that was presently blond. In her stocking feet, she was five feet eight and a half inches tall; with high heels, which she insisted on wearing, she was almost as tall as Mr. Bergan. She and Shirley walked over to Mott Street to Mama Maria's Pizza Place, where pizzas were crisper and tastier than anywhere else south of Houston street. Cynthia had her pizza plain, while Shirley had the special, with sausage and anchovies, half and half.
While they were waiting for the pizzas to cook, Cynthia told Shirley that while it was none of her business, she couldn't help overhearing the last of what went on between Shirley and Mr. Bergan.
"I don't read him," Shirley said.
"What is he, a book that you got to read him?"
"Just not interested," Shirley said.
"From your whole approach to this question," Cynthia said, "you would think that single men. grew on trees."
"I'm just old enough to know that the stork doesn't bring them."
It was then that Cynthia made an observation that Shirley would remember during the events of the following three days. She explained that she was not speaking subjectively, but that she felt close enough to Shirley to say whatever was on her mind.
"Feel free," Shirley nodded.
"Who else? This is a very serious world, Shirley. I was reading the other day in an article that we only exist statistically."
"And with the help of some pizza," Shirley said as they were served.
"Exactly. So was my Aunt Leah."
"What was your Aunt Leah?"
"She was clever. In fact, she was too smart for her own good. Nobody was good enough for her, so now at the age of fifty-five, she is unmarried."
"We will introduce her to Mr. Bergan," Shirley replied through a mouthful of pizza.
But otherwise, Shirley's luncheon was no more eventful than on any other day. The weather was excellent, and Shirley and Cynthia strolled slowly back to the factory. It was a pleasant, sunny day, even at Mott and Houston, where enough trucks thunder by to insure a liberal perfume of gas and oil fumes—but not quite enough to blanket the west wind, cool and refreshing as it was this day.
The afternoon at the office passed uneventfully, and Shirley decided to walk home to her apartment in Minetta Street, two rooms on the third floor and no elevator. But the rent was only fifty-five dollars a month. On the way, she stopped at the Hudson Cleaners and picked up a dress that had been dry-cleaned, and she also stopped at the Chrome Delicatessen, where she bought a cornbeef sandwich with coleslaw and mustard, a quart container of skim milk and a packaged pound cake with raisins. Most often, she cooked her own supper if she didn't have a date—and right now she was not dating at all—since she considered delicatessen food a poor reflection on character; but tonight she was too tired to think about cooking. All she was looking forward to was a slow, relaxed spell of food consumption in front of the television.
After she put the milk in the refrigerator, she went into the bathroom and took off her make-up and brushed her teeth.
"See, I'm brushing," she said to the mirror. "See, stupid, I'm brushing, so don't give me commercials from the walls, did I brush my teeth?"
She was going to take off her blouse and skirt and put on a bathrobe, but suddenly she was overwhelmingly hungry, and she decided to eat. The television could wait, she decided, and while she ate the sandwich and the cake and finished the quart of milk, she read her book. It was one of the top four books on the best-seller list. As far as her membership in the lending library was concerned, she read only the top four on the best-seller list; and as she explained to the girls at the office, if it couldn't make the top four, it wasn't worth reading. Also, since she had only a limited amount of time for reading, that was enough. It gave her sufficient status, because most of her associates stuck to television and the films and did not read at all.
Shirley always ate slowly. Odds and ends of things she read impressed her deeply, and she had once read that a slow, unhurried intake of food is a sign of good breeding. Being aware that she was somewhat on the short side with such elements, she had taken to eating slowly.
"It won't make me a debutante," she had explained to one of her friends, "but every little bit helps."
Reading slowed her even further. The cornbeef sandwich took twenty minutes. Four slices of raisin cake took ten minutes a slice. She was sitting at a tiny white enamel table in a tiny kitchen, and as she sat there, eating and reading, it turned dark outside. The doorbell rang as she rose to put on the light, and she turned on a lamp in the living room as she walked through to the door.
There were two men at the door. One was small and skinny and walked with a limp. He was so skinny that he was linear, his shoulders incredibly narrow, his head long, narrow and snakelike. He had the white hair of an albino and pink rabbit eyes, and the moment he came into the room, he took a pistol, with a silencer attached, out of his coat pocket, pushed Shirley back into the room, and pointed the pistol at her and said:
"Right there, sister. Just stand still and don't open your yap. This gun has a silencer. It don't make a bang, it just goes poof. So you open your yap or scream or start any nonsense, you're dead. Get that?"
Shirley nodded. Her first attempt to speak left the words yawning in her mouth. With her second attempt, she managed to ask in a whisper who they were and what they wanted.
The second man was large, fat and swarthy. His skin was yellow-brown. His hat sat on the back of his head, and thick, oily ringlets of hair protruded from under it and lay across his forehead. He had enormous lips that he kept moistening with his tongue. He closed the door carefully behind him, and then examined the room. It was Shirley's living room, ten by twelve feet, and containing a foam-rubber couch, two foam-rubber chairs, a table that opened to a miraculous size, two end tables and a television set. It had cost Shirley an incredible amount of planning, saving and shopping, but he gave it no more than a glance. Then he stepped to her bedroom, gave that a glance and then looked into the kitchen.
"What do you want here?" Shirley whispered. "What is this—a stickup? If it's a stickup, my purse is over there on the chair. Go ahead and take it. Go ahead."
"Shut your yap," said the skinny man.
"Drop dead," Shirley said. She was beginning to return to normal and think and use her 127 points of intelligence.
The fat man had said nothing, and now he took out his wallet, and out of the wallet, he took a picture. Shirley didn't see the picture, only the back of it, as the fat man looked at the picture, at her and again at the picture. He then switched on another lamp, walked over to Shirley and tilted her head with the pressure of one dark thumb. The nail at the end of the thumb was crowned with a black moon, and Shirley pulled away and told him to keep his hands off her.
"She's a snotnose, huh?" said the skinny man.
"Just drop dead," Shirley told him.
"Just shut your yap, sister. That's all I'm telling you—just shut your yap."
"I bet you sit at the manicurist all day," she told the fat man, managing to smile. She was still shaking and her stomach felt like an aching, empty cavern, but all in all, her control of herself was improving. All she had read, experienced, seen on television or in the movies led her to the conclusion that for some incomprehensible reason these two men were going to kill her. Why, she had not the faintest idea, but neither had she lived her twenty years in a world where effect could be traced to cause. Therefore she was less surprised than worried; she had trained herself never to be surprised—or almost never.
The fat man took out his wallet again and removed a second picture. He held the two pictures like cards, looking from them to Shirley.
"Well?" demanded the skinny man.
"It's her, Francis. It's her. Absolutely, I'm sure." He had an accent. Shirley didn't know what kind of an accent. French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian—it could have been any one of them.
"Lousy dump like this—she looks like she belongs here," said the skinny man. "Talks like she belongs here. She got a yap like a tramp, you ask me—"
"Just shut up and drop dead," Shirley interrupted.
"I tell you, this is the girl. She is very clever, this one—always, she has that reputation. How do you expect her to talk?"
"Like Katherine Hepburn. OK—so this is it. Get her coat or something." And then he said to Shirley, "You come along with us, sister, and don't make no trouble."
"Why?" Shirley demanded.
"For Christ's sake—why? Why? Because I say so! Because this says so!" He gestured at the gun.
"I don't want to go," Shirley said thinly.
"You don't want to go. You want me to rap you over the head with this? Is that better? You go. You go quietly like a lady, and you keep quiet."
Meanwhile, the fat man had found a coat in the closet, and he handed it to Shirley.
"That's my winter coat," she snapped.
"So it's your winter coat," Francis said.
"It goes to the cleaner. I'm not wearing it now."
"She's crazy, huh?" the fat man said. "You think she's crazy, Francis?"
"Let her get her own damn coat."
Shirley went to the closet, got her spring coat and put it on—and now her stomach contracted and she felt that she was going to be sick. She controlled herself, however, not only because she couldn't bear the thought of it happening to her brand new living-room rug, but because she felt that her only hope of emerging from this nightmare lay in preserving her physical well-being and her senses too. She was not a hysterical type; she had not actually wept since the age of ten; and while she was still deeply worried, she was less afraid than she had been a few moments before. If they were taking her somewhere, it meant at least that they were not going to kill her right here and now, which would be worse for her rug and for her than being sick.
They let her pick up her purse and open it, and she took out her comb and looked at herself in the small mirror, while she combed her thick, black hair.
"Now what the hell is this—?" the man called Francis began, but interference is almost impossible when a woman is combing her hair, and as she combed it, she assured them that they were making a mistake.
"Sure, we're making a mistake. Enough of the hair."
"Put out the lights," Shirley told them as they pressed her toward the door. "Con Edison will survive better than me."
Shaking his head, the fat man put out the lights. The skinny man assured her that his gun was in her ribs. "It don't go bang, remember—just poof, like that."
"She's a nut," said Francis, the skinny man, as they got into the front seat of a black car that was parked on Minetta Street. "I tell you, she's a nut. Is that what you're looking for, a nut?"
"I'm tired of telling you to drop dead," Shirley said. "You got a big mouth."
"I'll tell you what I'm going to give you, sister, you don't shut up—a mouthful of teeth."
The fat man started the motor, switched on the head-lights and told them to stop squabbling.
"Just like that," Shirley said. "I'm supposed to be killed, but I shouldn't squabble."
Excerpted from Shirley by Howard Fast. Copyright © 1964 Doubleday & Company, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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