Fiction

NIGHT ASSIGNMENT

To Dave everything had an angle. First the brother angle. Then there was the girl angle. Finally — the right angle

BURT SIMS May 15 1949
Fiction

NIGHT ASSIGNMENT

To Dave everything had an angle. First the brother angle. Then there was the girl angle. Finally — the right angle

BURT SIMS May 15 1949

NIGHT ASSIGNMENT

BURT SIMS

LATE summer's humid air hung dispiritedly in the clatter of the long room. Standing beside the city desk, Dave Gillette said, "You wanted a photog?"

“Four stories,” answered Morgan Hugh brusquely. “All fast ones. Take your pick—A three-car crash. A pickup on a girl named Lindstrom. A fire in—”

“Lindstrom?” Dave felt a light shock coursing through him. “What’s that one?”

“You’ve got it.” Hugh’s thick fingers scrawled an address. “They just took her old man to Receiving. He’s a night watchman—got shot busting up a burglary. Pick the girl up at the house if the cops haven’t done it already.” He ran a hand over his balding head, wiped it on his pants. “If she’s left, beat it down there on your own.”

Dave folded the paper carefully, although he wouldn’t need it. It was a small town, he thought. He should have known that sooner or later he would meet Helen Lindstrom again. His grin felt too tight for his face. “You want her with her arms around his neck, or just giving him a transfusion?” Hugh’s own eyes hardened. “Could be there are better photographers out of work, Buster. Just go shoot the picture.” He paused. “And never mind padding the mileage. I know how far it is.”

“What’s mileage?” Dave’s grin still felt tight. “Pennies. You’re getting to be an old maid.”

“A guy gets away with cutting one corner, he’s liable to cut more.” Hugh reached for the phone. “Push off.”

Dave turned. “It’s still pennies. What do you care, so long as the pictures are good?”

AS HE drove his coupe to the assignment, his feeling of sureness was ruffled. He had wondered for a year how it would be to see Helen again; he was surprised that he remembered her now-after a year. Their parting had been a strange and awkward time. It had bruised his pride. For a time it had shaken his belief in his pattern of living.

They had been driving home from a movie, he remembered, talking of Frankie, his young brother. “He starts to college next fall.”

“You should be proud of him, Dave. He seems like such a nice boy.”

“Sure I’m proud.” He grinned. “Shaped him up all by myself. It wasn’t easy, keeping him steady, keeping his mind off the girls and that crazy car. Scraping up pennies— it took a few angles.” Her voice came quietly. “Like telling Hugh you were sick two days—while you worked in Fenner’s photo shop?”

He frowned. “I told you—he had a rush job, the high-school annual. He paid me twice what I get at the office. Maybe it was a little shady—but Frankie can use the money at school.”

“And what does Frankie think of that?”

“Why should I tell him?” He was annoyed at the faint guilt her words stirred in him. “So I work a few angles now and then. Who doesn’t? Living isn’t easy, Helen. Sometimes a guy has to figure a way—”

She said coolly, “Does he?”

“Frankie doesn’t have to know. He’ll find out soon enough—the kid’s all right. I tell him what to do. He does it.”

She sighed. “That’s a new approach. I always

heard you had to show people not just tell them.” He glanced at her, sensing the new strain between them. “I can save him a few bumps, if he does what I tell him.”

“Maybe Frankie is entitled to some bumps.” “Now, listen. Did it hurt anybody I worked for Fenner? It helped him.”

“It helped you, too.”

“All right, I helped both of us. What’s wrong with that?”

Slowly, she shook her head. “You really don’t know, do you?”

He had been proud of himself, and of Frankie, and the way it was working out. Her subtle criticism rankled him. He said dryly, half seriously, “I guess I’m just not your type.”

Her voice betrayed no feeling. “I guess you’re not, Dave.” She sighed, and lapsed into silence.

He had spent a restless, dissatisfied week before he called her. She had been busy. That happened again. His pride had seen no point in letting her turn him down a third time -but he hadn’t known she would stay in his mind, growing there.

UNCERTAINTY was annoying him now as he turned a corner. On this quiet street occasional lights beat ineffectual wings against the settling hood of night. He slowed the coupe as he neared a small, white frame house, set sturdily at the back of a deep lawn.

A girl was hurrying down the walk. She would have hastened up the street, but he called, “Helen.” Her feet made swift, anxious sounds on the pavement. “Are you from the hos—Dave!” Then surprise vanished in the urgency of the moment. “Dave, my father—”

“Get in,” he said, opening the door. “I’ll take you.”

In the early darkness he saw only a white face, and her shoulder-length dark hair, and a coat not yet buttoned over a house dress. As they pulled away she said shakily, “How is he? They just, called. They said he had been hurt. Did they say . . . shot? I—”

“Take it easy, Helen,” he said carefully, reading the hysteria creeping into her tone.

“It —it was nice of you . . .” Abruptly, she began to cry, muffling the sound in her hands. Without warning, her helplessness touched him, cleaving through that year-old callus of pride. He realized dimly that his feeling was more than sympathy. He wanted to reach out to her, and was frustrated by the realization that this was not the time.

He gripped the wheel tightly, letting her cry out the first shock, and drove on.

HE PARKED behind the brick building which housed the receiving hospital and the police station. Helen had her head up, and was trying to halt the trembling of her lips. Reflected light touched the firm oval of her face. Beneath the alarm still fresh in her wide, grey eyes he read a steadiness, and remembered it. He began to wonder if he would get a picture for Morgan Hugh —or even if he would try.

There was no compromise with that thought, and he shed it automatically as he brought the camera down from the shelf behind the seat. Its flash bulb was ready in the socket, the way he always carried it.

She had already started down the walk in frantic haste. He started after her—caught up to her. They paused outside an opaque-glassed door. “Hang on,” he ordered. “Just—hang on.”

She tried to smile, but it was faint and quickly gone. They went across a wide, white glistening room and into another, where a doctor and a nurse worked over a man stretched on a table. The doctor glanced up, swift irritation drawing lines across his ruddy face. “It’s his daughter, Doctor,” said Dave, and swung the camera up as Helen cried out. “Damn you!” snapped the doctor.

Helen was half-running, half-falling. The nurse caught at her. Dave said, “If he was in bad shape you’d have someone on the door.”

Helen leaned over, the nurse holding an arm, and

tenderly, tearfully laid her face against that of the old man. eyes closed, still. Dave shot two pictures, The doctor advanced angrily. “Gillette!”

Dave squinted past him. “The shoulder, looks like. Dig it out, yet?”

“Just before you barged in like a maniac. Get that girl out of here.”

Helen was sobbing again, struggling to hold it back, and making it worse. The nurse, wide-hipped and stern-faced, led her to a chair and gave her something in a glass. The doctor glared at Dave, then turned back to the table.

Presently Helen raised her face, her long, dark hair framing it softly. “I’ll—I’ll be all right, now.” Her voice quivered. “Will he—is he going to ” “He’s going to be fine,” the nurse soothed. “It was shock, mostly. He’ll be awake in a couple of hours.”

“I’ll wait,” Helen said, her tone imploring. “Please may I?”

Dave cleared his throat. “Look, Doctor. Let her wait. There’s a cot in the first-aid room.”

The doctor gestured impatiently. “All right— Take her, nurse.”

Dave watched them cross the room. Helen’s supple grace, the strength and courage in the lift of her head, the way she moved suddenly hit. him hard. Now he was not surprised that for the past year she had clung to his mind. She belonged there.

At the door, she turned. “Dave ... If it’s going to mean trouble for you —”

“Helen . . .’ He walked to her. His voice was low. “Look—that blowup, that beef—it was all so silly. Let’s forget it ever happened.”

Her gaze dropped. “I—I’d like to—but we just don’t think alike, I guess.”

Urgency shook his tone. “I’m off in a couple of hours. Let me pick you up.”

Except for a pain coming into her eyes he might

have thought she long ago had put him out of her mind. He said, “Wait for me.”

“Dave, it’s no use. You’ll never change. You — ” “Change?” He frowned. “Listen, maybe 1 do cut things close, now and t hen. But

A sob caught in her throat. She shook her head swiftly, and left him standing there.

DRIVING back to the office he saw a light in Menzke’s Garage. At the curb stood a fenderless, topless jalopy. Dave blew his horn, and Joe Menzke came and stood in the wide doorway, blinking.

“Frankie around?”

Menzke shook his head. “Ain’t seen him since about suppertime, Dave. Couple of kids picked him up. Harry Martin, and Jess Clainer, I think t he other one was. The one his old man runs the Ont ral Hotel, down by the depot . They had the old man’s car.”

Dave scowled. Martin and Clainer were in their early 2()’s, slightly older than Frankie. They were uneasy and loud and unpredictable.

The first time he had seen them they had been watching Frankie at work in Menzke’s. Martin, the short, stocky one, was talking. Jess Clainer, slight and with deep-set eyes narrowly separated, was paring his fingernails with a wicked, longbladed knife.

Dave, entering, had heard just enough. “No party for Frankie,” he said curtly. “He’s studying tonight.”

Clainer appraised him insolently. Frankie, his square, young face flushed, said, “Yeah. I have to study.”

With indifference Clainer folded the knife and slipped it into his jacket. “Sure.” His face was a thin, unreadable mask. “Come on, Harry.”

Dave, eyes narrow, watched them leave. Frankie

said slowly, “1 wouldn’t

To Dave everything had an angle. First the brother angle. Then there was the girl angle. Finally — the right angle

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Continued from page 11

have gone. I know I have to study.” “Junior rats. Stay away from them. You don’t need that kind, kid.”

Frankie ran a lean hand through his hair, as thick and black as Dave’s. “Sometimes,” he persisted, “you treat me like a baby.”

“Sometimes you act like a baby.” Dave was impatient. “You listen to me. I can tell you—”

“I know.” Frankie’s face was stubborn. “You keep telling me. Why don’t you ever let me find out for myself?”

“Snap out of it. I’ve never handed you a wrong one yet, have I?”

Frankie sighed heavily. “Okay, Dave. Okay.”

Dave brought his thoughts back; he tapped the wheel of his car restlessly. Menzke gestured toward the jalopy. “He’s bound to come back for his car.” “Yeah. Thanks, Joe.”

/YNLY the skeleton-sized late staff was working when he entered the city room. Scraps of paper and cigarette butts littered the scarred floor. At the far end a teleprinter ticked methodically. The room looked old and tired. He passed the news editor, who was dividing his attention between a sheet of copy and a ham on rye. The thought of Helen Lindstrom, photographed as sharply in his mind as on his negatives, slowed Dave. “Howyou fixed, George?” The news editor raised his bald head, and swallowed. “Slow night,” he rumbled. “I could use something for page three. What you got?”

“Lindstrom,” replied Dave, with an attempt at indifference. “He was nicked in a burglary.”

“Oh, yeah.” George rubbed sandwich crumbs from his chin. “People always shooting people, cutting people,

blowing people up. You'd think— better let me see it. I need something to give the page a lift.”

Dave shrugged. “Well—I tried,

didn’t I?”

“What?”

“Nothing—”

“The old guy’s a one-day hero,” George said, stretching. “Lots of moxie, I guess. Saw the lights in the office while he was out in the lumber yard. Charged in and saw two guys trying to get the safe out on a hand truck. Lots of shooting. Thinks maybe he hit one. Gave the cops a good description . . . Maybe there’ll be a pinch in a day or two.”

Dave nodded absently. “Maybe . . . I’ll have this stuff ready in about ten minutes.”

Waiting for the negatives to develop, he wondered if Helen would be at the hospital when he returned. There must be a way to convince her she was wrong; that his pattern was as good as most, and better than some . . .

SHE came into the parking lot, walking slowly, and he threw away his fifth cigarette and got out. “How is he?”

Worry laced her voice. “He’s going to be all right. He’s weak, but—” “Sure. It’s good you waited to see him. He’ll rest better.”

As they drove through the deserted midnight streets he felt the old strain sidling between them. Anxious to drive it out, he said, “Helen—let’s talk.”

“About us?”

“Yes.”

Her sigh was deep. “I thought you understood how I felt, Dave. The way you are—I could never trust you.” “Now, just a minute. You—”

“No.” Her voice sounded detached. “Some people can forgive mistakes. But some people can’t, when the mis-

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takes are intentional. You seem to think that anything you want to do is all right— if you can get away with it.” She shook her head slowly. “Dave, 1 could never feel secure with that.”

He said doggedly, “You’re making it bigger than it is. lake I’m a hoodlum.” Her voice was lifeless. “Not bigger than it is.”

He turned a corner in silence. A thin worry in the back of his mind was taking him a block out of the way to pass the apartment he shared with Frankie. He saw a light, and welcomed the chance to break the line of thought. “I’d like to stop a minute. It’s pretty late for the kid. Maybe he’s sick.”

“All right.”

As he got out his arm brushed the loaded camera, nearly out of sight behind the seat, and it occurred to him that in a few hours she would find her picture on page three and might not like that about him, either.

Two floor lamps burned in the small lobby. He passed a man and a woman chatting on a lounge, and a man who seemed to have fallen asleep behind a newspaper. He stepped out of the elevator at the third floor and let himself into the apartment.

As he closed the door, Frankie came into the room, pulling a sweater over his chest. Then Dave saw the suitcase, open on the floor and nearly full. “Where are you going this time of night?”

Frankie’s eyes avoided his. “A guy wants me to drive him to Chicago. He —he hurt his leg. He’s going to pay me a hundred bucks.”

Dave stared. He couldn’t believe that Frankie would walk out on him. Not like this. “You don’t lie often enough to be good at it. If you don’t like our setup, kid, let’s have it straight.”

“It isn’t that, Dave. I—I’m not lying.” He lifted the suitcase with his left hand. “I have to hurry. The guy

Dave slammed his fist down hard against the top. The suitcase crashed to the floor. Frankie’s eyes were wide, showing a fright that seemed to have been there for some time. Dave had the incongruous urge to pull him close; somehow to baby him. He said roughly, “Well, Frarkie! You’ve never had to be afraid of me. Spill it.”

Frankie sat down suddenly, his mouth working. Dave stared at the spreading darkness on the sweater’s right shoulder. “What’s the matter?” he asked sharply.

Frankie’s face was pale. “I—I’m in a pretty bad mess.”

With swift care, Dave helped him shed the sweater. “You’re all bloody. Did you pile up that jalopy?” He sucked in a breath as he saw the damp stain on the white shirt. “Take it off. I’ll get. something.”

Hurrying from the bathroom, he said, “We’d better get you to Receiving. They’ll-—”

“No!” Frankie’s eyes were wide. “No I’ll be okay.”

“What’s the matter with Receiving?” Dave paused, and the alarm clock’s rhythmic clucking breathed in his ears. He said quietly, “Too close to the cops? We’d better have it, kid. Did you get into trouble with those two guys?”

“Dave I didn't know,” Frankie said desperately. “They said they just wanted me to drive.”

Confirmation hit Dave like a numbing club. “The lumber yard! Frankie ”

“You told me to stay away from them. 1 know. I know all that. But you re always telling me something.

11 makes a guy— ”

“Yeah,” Dave said heavily. “The

new approach.” He began to dress the wound, deep and perhaps an inch wide, in the fleshy part of Frankie’s upper arm.

“A chump,” Frankie said bitterly. “A Grade A chump! They said Jess’ dad had bought some stuff that had to be picked up. They told me to keep the engine running because the battery was low . . . they came running out. Harry got hit in the leg. Then when I stopped the car and told them I was getting out they got pretty mean.” He swallowed. “Jess claimed I’d squeal if they let me go. We—we had a fight, and he cut me. ’ The bitterness was gone from his voice. His eyes were pleading.

Dave forced himself to think. He wondered how close the police were— and remembered the man downstairs apparently asleep behind the newspaper . “Mow’d you get in here without that cop seeing you?”

“What cop?”

“Downstairs, in the lobby.”

“I didn’t know. I came up the side way the fire escape. I parked a couple of blocks away.”

“Every cop in town knows that car. Dave taped the bandage. “They’re probably staked out on it right now. We’ll use mine . . .” He straightened. “You won’t need stitches. Not if you take it easy. Come on.”

Frankie swallowed hard. “Dave_

I’d better stay.”

Don t be a lunatic! You go in alone, you’ll get stuck for the whole rotten mess. Do it my way!”

“I—-I sure messed it up, didn’t I? You and school, and everything. Then—if they catch Jess and Harry, they’ll drag me into it, all right.” “You’re in it now. The cops got a description of them. Someone probably saw you riding together.” He drew a breath. “I’ll drive you to Mintford. You can catch a bus. Keep going for a day or two. Then write.”

“They’ll be coming down to the paper, ragging you. They’ll—”

“There are other papers, kid.” Dave’s tone softened. “You made a mistake. I’ve made them, too.” He paused, and what he saw in himself twisted his lips. “I tried to keep you from getting little jolts. A few little ones might have taught you more than I could ever tell you. You have a right to learn your own answers.”

Frankie’s voice was dull. “I’m learning one right now.”

PRECEDING him down the cold, narrow side stairs, Dave tried to rationalize; to hold the thought that this was for Frankie’s sake. The boy shouldn’t have to face punishment alone—but he couldn’t escape the drumming thought that of all the rules he had bent or broken, this would be the big one. And, for Frankie, it might conceivably be the beginning of something long, and twisted and ugly.

If only the other two could be caught first, he thought. Frankie might even get probation, with a good lawyer. He had learned his lesson. Over his shoulder he said, “Where are those two guys?”

“I don’t know. I ran, when Jess cut me.”

Sudden rage burned in Dave. The events of the night had piled one on the other, challenging him, mocking him. He had cut a lot of corners, saved a lot of time. But where was that spare time, now? And then, shocked, he remembered Helen was waiting in the car. What could he tell her when she learned that Frankie was one of the three—and he had helped him escape?

He could tell the police he didn’t know where the boy had gone, didn’t know of his part in the affair. But this

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flight, it struck him hard, was not fair to Helen, or to her father. And, he wondered then, how fair it was to Frankie.

He stopped in the darkness beside the building. “Frankie.”

“Yes.”

Dave put a hand on his shoulder. “You knew we couldn’t do it, didn’t

you?”

“I guess 1 did.” Frankie’s sigh was long. “It’s okay, Dave. It really is.”

Pride swelled, and choked him. He said roughly, “Helen Lindstrom is in the car. I '11 handle it.”

Their footsteps were loud on the pavement. Helen said in surprise, “Why, Frankie . . . Something wrong?”

Getting in, Dave said, “There’s something he had to do. We’ll take you home, first.” Later would be time enough to tell her if she would see him again.

As he fumbled for the key a movement glimpsed out of the corner of his eye halted him. Reflected light glimmered on a pistol.

Jess Clainer stood by the car. Helen gasped. Clainer opened the door on Dave’s side. “Get out, Frankie.”

No one moved. Clainer’s voice was high and harsh. “We’re leaving town. You ain’t staying to squeal and get the breaks.”

Helen said hesitantly, “Dave—what is it?”

Ignoring her, grasping at. the fleeting moments, he said, “Where’s Harry?”

“Out back, case Frankie went that way. He just got scratched, but he thinks he’s going to die.” The laugh was shrill and nervous. “Come on, Frankie.”

Dave rested his arm on the back of the seat, as though to get out. Perhaps the cop inside would get tired, he thought swiftly. Perhaps he would come out for air. If Frankie were forced to flee now, everything would be ruined. A little more time and he might be able to . . .

Clainer waved the pistol. Frankie said anxiously, “Dave?”

“You think I’m afraid to shoot,” Clainer threatened. “I’m not waiting. Get out of there.”

Dave’s fingers brushed the camera behind the seat. Without a gun he had thought he was helpless. But now—

Clainer pulled the door wider. Dave’s fingers reached for the shutter release, even as he jammed his eyes closed for protection. He felt a warmth from the flashing dart of the bulb, and a light grey ness sped across his eyelids. In the next instant he grabbed, as Clainer fell back, blinded. The pistol was pointed high over Dave’s head, sending a hard echo bounding down the dimly lit street. Dave had the hot barrel in bis hand, twisting, striking furiously with his other fist. Helen cried, “Dave! . . . Dave!”

Footsteps pounded out of the apartment house, up to the car. Jess Clainer lay on his face in the street. Dave thrust the pistol at Frankie. “Watch him.” He said to Helen, “It’s all right . . . It’s all right, now.” And to the cop, he said, “There’s another one out back. If we hurry . .

rpHEY waited in the lobby. The cop J said, “The wagon’ll be here in a few minutes.”

Helen touched Dave’s arm. “What will they do to Frankie?”

He stared. “You’re worried about him.”

“Of course.”

He paused, somehow ashamed that he had not seen this depth of understanding in her. “I feel like a fool. 1 should have known you were like that.”

She shook her head. “I don’t understand all of it, Dave. I know this—you had a chance to make some more rules. But you didn’t.”

His voice was low. “No.”

She slipped her hand into his. He took a breath, and it was somehow cleansing, and the old conflict inside him died. He turned to the cop. “Say —you won’t forget how the kid helped grab these guys?”

“I guess he’s got that much coming,” the cop said slowly. “No, I won’t forget.”

Helen said, “I I’d like to cry. Dave—I’m not sad, but I’d like to cry.”

“Cry,” he said, his fingers tight around her hand. “Just this once.” ir