I was working on my wall when Wickler came around the side of the house and called, “Hey, Tobin, whatcha doin?” He had no right to use my name that way.
I put down my pick, stepped up out of the hole, walked over to him, turned him around, took him by neck and butt, and double-timed him out to the street. “There’s the front door,” I said. “You want to see me, ring the bell.”
“Christ!” he said, shooting his cuffs. “Christ!”
I brushed my hands and went back to my wall.
A wall is an important thing, a substantial thing, a thing worth a man’s time and consideration. I was finding it possible to concentrate on this wall as I hadn’t been able to concentrate on anything since … for six months … for a long while.
This was my third day of work on the wall. The first day I had designed it, with paper and pencil and ruler: two feet wide and ten feet high and completely enclosing the backyard, with no gates or openings, so people would only be able to get in here by going through the house. The second day I’d gone out and ordered the materials — concrete block and brick and cement — and then come back and laid out the position with sticks and string all the way around the yard. And now today I’d begun to dig.
If you’re going to build a good wall, a wall to stand, then first you have to dig, because the wall should start down inside the earth, down below the frost line. I figured in this climate two feet was deep enough, so I had a piece of one-by- with a pencil line on it at two feet, and I was using it to check my depth as I went along. I also had a level, to be sure the bottom was even; at intervals I would lie my one-by- on the bottom and set the level on top of it. With all this checking, and with my being somewhat soft and out of shape, the work was coming along slowly, but that was all right. I was in no hurry.
I’d done about seven feet so far, and had a hole two feet wide and two feet deep and seven feet long. When I came back to it from removing Wickler, I saw that it looked like a shallow grave, which I didn’t like. I hopped down into it and grabbed my pick and began backing away at the dirt again, in a hurry to make a hole too long to look like a grave. I didn’t think about Wickler. I didn’t think about anything.
A few minutes later Kate came out onto the back porch and called, “Mitch. Somebody to see you.”
“In a minute,” I said. “Put him in the den.”
She stood watching me a few seconds and then went back into the house. I had no idea what she thought about the wall, and that was good. A wife should not have opinions about the way her husband breathes.
I was working with the shovel now, and I kept at it till I’d scooped all this last batch of loose earth up out of the hole. When I quit this time, it looked less like I was working on a grave. I stripped off my canvas gloves, dropped them on the ground beside the shovel, and went into the house.
Kate was in the kitchen, making a meatloaf. She’s a rawboned woman, and I’ve given her lines around the mouth and eyes she shouldn’t have. She’s thirty-five, four years younger than me, but whether she looks it or not I can’t say; when you’ve been married to a woman sixteen years she looks neither old nor young but simply right.
“The store just called,” she said. “They want me to come in, until nine.”
I said, “You already worked two nights this week.”
“We could use the money, Mitch,” she said.
Was she thinking of the mounds of building materials in the backyard? I didn’t know, and I didn’t want to know.
There’s a sullenness that comes with guilt that I’d never known until very recently. I’d always been a big one for speaking out, holding nothing in, but more and more these days I found myself turning away, mouth clenched, eyes lowered, chest filled with grim bile. Over the years most of the punks I’d arrested had the same expression on their faces while being booked that I found these days habitually on my own.
Kate said, “I’ll put the meatloaf in the oven before I go. I’ll leave a note on the table.”
I said, “All right,” gracelessly, and went through the house and up the stairs to the second floor.
The den was what I called the smallest of the three bedrooms up there. Kate and I shared the largest, young Bill had the second, and the spare was to be my office away from the office. Another of my do-it-yourself projects, I’d started to make over the room ten years ago, when we’d bought this house. I’d laid thick carpet on the floor, soundproofed the ceiling, and put sheets of knotty pine paneling all around the walls, but that’s as far as I’d gone. The built-in bookcases were still merely a stack of lumber leaning in one corner, and taped-over wires sticking out of the ceiling marked where I never put the light fixture in. But of course in those days I was busy, and full of activity, and pleased with life, and sometimes the unessential things didn’t get done.
The only two pieces of furniture in the room were a battered desk and chair I’d taken from the precinct house seven years ago. Wickler, short and narrow and dressed like a race track dandy, sat in the chair now smoking a thin cigar with a plastic tip.
I said, “Stand up.”
He wanted to defy me because I wasn’t on the force any longer, but he had sense enough to know I was a man aching to be pushed. After the slightest of hesitations he got to his feet and moved away to the left, giving me plenty of room to go past him and sit down.
I put my forearms on the desk. I felt small nerves jumping beneath the skin all over my body. I looked at my knuckles and said, “What do you want from me?”
“Ernie Rembek sent me,” he said, and stopped as though that explained everything.
It didn’t explain a thing. I’d already known that Wickler never moved anywhere but where Ernie Rembek sent him. I said, “What did he send you for?”
“He’s got a job for you.”
I said, “Be careful. Watch what you say.”
He decided to be aggrieved. “You ain’t on the force any more,” he said, his voice squeaking. “Whatcha being so hardnosed about?”
I said, “You’re not being careful.”
“The bell with careful! You got kicked out, like any alley cat!”
I stood up and slapped him, backhand, not very hard. He fell back against the wall and leaned there, blinking at me. I said, “I never dealt with punks the whole time I was on the force. I was never on the take, not once, not for a penny. No one ever called me for dishonesty. I may have been kicked out, but it wasn’t for being involved with scum like you. You go back and tell Rembek I’m the same man I always was. I never took a crooked job and I’m not going to start now.”
He shook his head, holding his hand to the check I’d slapped. He said, “You got the wrong idea, Tobin.”
He nodded. “Mister Tobin,” he said. “It ain’t the way you think. Ernie Rembek don’t want you to do nothing crooked. He wants you to do a cop job. You used to be a cop, a good cop, and right now Ernie needs somebody to do a cop-type job.”
“Not interested,” I said. “I let you into the house for one reason, and this is it. To give you a message to bring back to Ernie Rembek. You tell him I am not interested in any deals, any offers, any propositions. Everybody’s entitled to one mistake, even Rembek, so this time I do nothing but give you the warning. But he should send nobody else, not ever again.”
“Mister Tobin,” he said, “I swear to you I’m giving you straight goods. Nobody wants you to do nothing illegal, not even a little bit illegal. It’s strictly a cop job Ernie wants done. Detecting, like.”
“No,” I said. I went over and opened the door.
“Lemme tell you the pay,” he said.
“Time for you to leave,” I told him.
But he stood his ground. “A flat five G for openers,” he said. “Plus so much a day and expenses, you and him work it out together when you see him. Plus a bonus if the job works out okay.”
“Wickler,” I said, “it’s time for you to leave.”
He hung on a second longer, and I knew what he was thinking. Ernie Rembek had sent him to get me, and wouldn’t be happy when Wickler went back to him empty handed. But Rembek was a future threat, and I was a threat right in the room with him, so he hung on only for that one last second, and then he shrugged and said, “Okay, if you say so. But you can’t say I didn’t try.”
“You tried,” I gave him.
I had him precede me down the stairs, and past him I could see Kate in the front hallway, shrugging into her coat. “See you tonight,” she called up the stairs to me. “I’ve got to run.” She waved and went out the front door.
It seemed to me Wickler was going down the stairs too slowly. I was anxious to get back to my wall. The last few steps, I prodded his shoulder, muttering at him to shake it up. He trotted on down the rest of the way, saying something petulant, and I opened the front door for him.
It might still have been all right, if I hadn’t seen her. But the angle out the door was just right and I did see her, walking away down the sidewalk, her coat flapping about her shins. I stepped out onto the stoop, crowding Wickler ahead of me, and shouted after her, “Kate! Take the car!”
“No, no,” she called back, airy and effortless, “I feel like walking.”
I knew what it was; she didn’t want to use the gas. A backyard full of bricks and concrete block, and out front Kate was walking over a mile to a part-time job at a shopping center five-and-dime.
Wickler, like anyone unexpectedly present at a moment of domestic tension, was walking away along the path to the sidewalk, head down, affecting not to hear anything. Beyond him was the car. Off to the right, Kate had waved again and was walking on, walking quickly to be the sooner out of earshot.
In a flash, I thought of myself taking her place, showing up at the five-and-dime instead of her, standing at the long and crowded counter-
I could no more do that than I could answer a help-wanted ad in the Sunday paper. The thought of going for a job interview, the thought of that inevitable question about my previous employment, made my cheeks burn and my palms grow wet with nervous perspiration. And what can a man do today without going through that preliminary questionnaire? You can’t even dig a ditch any more until you’ve answered all the questions and filled out all the forms.
I stood on the stoop, sweat cooling on my forehead, and watched Kate walk with quick strides on out of sight. Wickler had turned that, way, too, but was moving more slowly, in no hurry to return empty-handed to his lord.
I called, “Wickler!”
I hadn’t realized until then just how afraid of me the little hood was. He stopped in his tracks when I called his name, hunching his shoulders and ducking his head as though he expected to be pounded from behind at any second. Slowly, reluctantly, he turned to face me.
I’m not a hardnose by nature, it was only because of the last six months that I’d been so immediately hard with Wickler. I felt embarrassed at that now, and ashamed of myself, when I saw the effect I’d had on him. Trying to get more softness into my tone, I called to him, “Come on back here. Come here a minute.”
He came, wary and reluctant, and as he moved toward me I had fresh doubts and second thoughts. But I could at least find out, I could at least do that much.
I said, as he stood below me, “This job. You say it doesn’t break the law?”
“It doesn’t even bend the law,” he said, suddenly eager again. “I give you my word of honor, Mister Tobin, it’s one hundred-percent legit.”
“All right,” I said. “Come in and tell me about it.”
This time I took him into the living room.
Copyright © 1966 by Donald Westlake