Friday, March 14, 2014

it isn't only crocodiles that cry, part 1: the fernwoods

original story by horace p sternwall

originally appeared in the may-june 1945 through the jan-feb 1946 issues of throat grabbing tales

adapted for the 21st-century by chuck leary and roger "peg leg"wilson

illustrated by konrad kraus

part one of thirteen

i needed dough.


i didn't care how i got it or who i got it from.

i was down on my luck and up the creek.

a cold rain was falling. had been falling for days.

it was coming through the roof and the broken window but at least there was a roof.

i had a couple of tin cans and a frying pan that i had put on the floor to catch the water dripping from the ceiling.

they made a racket i knew mcgraw, the landlord, couldn't help hearing - reminding him i was still there - if he needed reminding.

i had been begging him and crying on his not very soft shoulder and giving him sad stories for months.

i didn't have any pride left or anything like that but i finally just gave it up.

i had gotten an eviction notice three weeks ago and i had been stalling but tomorrow was the day.

i hadn't eaten for three days and i was down to my last bottle of hooch.

i hadn't had a bottle of real booze in three months.

so when mr and mrs fernwood showed up at six o'clock - just after sundown if there had been any sun - i didn't like their looks but i would have done anything they asked if they paid up front.

speaking of fronts i made a pathetic attempt to keep one up.

but i knew right away they saw right through me.

i saw right through them too.

a couple of cheap chiselers and losers - guilty as hell of something.

maybe of everything.

i would find out soon enough - if they could pay.

but we kept up appearances, the way people will. you know how it is.

i was talking to the fernwoods in the tiny reception space in front of my office because i didn't want them in the office itself with the raindrops coming through the roof. i was sitting at the desk of my long gone secretary and they were sitting squeezed together on the one couch. mr fernwood was skinny and mrs fernwood was fat.

they were the scum of the earth. like me.

but i guess i already said that, didn't i. one way or another.

try to forgive me. i repeat myself a lot.

it has something to do with being brain damaged.

i was in the war. some war. i won it singlehanded. or maybe i didn't.

or maybe i wasn't even in any war.

was there a war? when? you tell me.

where was i? oh yes, the fernwoods.

mister fernwood looked guilty. even guiltier than mrs fernwood or myself.

what are you guilty of, mister fernwood?" i asked abruptly, cutting through the bullshit and getting to the heart of the matter. it's just my way.

"guilty?" he stammered. "me guilty?"

"of course you are guilty, mister fernwood, why else would you be here,eh?"

"why, because i've been done wrong, of course." he stared at me with his watery green eyes.

"and why would anyone do you wrong, except that you were guilty?"

mister fernwood laughed bitterly. "are you a private detective or a philosopher?" he turned to mrs fernwood. "did you hear that, tanya, this chap is making accusations against us - us, his potential employers. and without even hearing what we have to say. i told you it was a mistake coming here."

but mrs fernwood did not seem so upset with me. she was stating at me with her evil little eyes the color of kitty litter. they were the evilest eyes i had ever seen. and i've seen some evil eyes, in my endless journeys to hell and back.

"i think mister raven was just making polite conversation, philip. weren't you, mister raven?" she took a long drag on her lipstick-smeared cigarette. "i think he was just trying to cut through the bullshit and get to the heart of the matter."

now the rain must have started to come down harder because i could hear it dropping into the frying pan in the office even through the door.

mr and mrs fernwood could hear it too. and they knew that i knew that they could hear it.

but you already knew that.

just like you know if there ever was a war, or if there is still a war going on.

mrs fernwood took another drag of her cigarette.

"yes," i said, "i was. i couldn't have said it better myself. so - what is that you want? what do you want me to do? do you want me to kill somebody?"

"not quite," mrs fernwood answered.

"what then?"

"we just need some dirt on somebody."

now we were talking. "somebody? or anybody?"

mrs fernwood thought for half a second. "this person is more of an anybody than a somebody. she's not not really somebody at all."

"does the dirt have to be true?"

"what do you think?"

i don't know why we were going on like this. i was going to do anything they wanted, for whatever they were willing to give me.

"i think a flat fee would be best, " i tremulously ventured. "that way there won't be any arguing about expenses."

"no argument here," said mrs fernwood. it was obvious that she was completely in charge, especially of the money.

"all right, how about $50 now and $50 when i complete the job."

they both laughed.

mrs fernwood looked me in the eye. "how about $10 when the job is done. and if we think you deserve it."

"that's not very generous. that's not - that's not going to inspire me to do a good job."

"you need inspiration?" mrs fernwood asked. " how about the satisfaction of a job well done?"

i had no answer for that.

mrs fernwood turned to mr fernwood. "that's the trouble with the world today - nobody takes any pride in their work."

"yes, all they care about is money. it's very sad."

"i need a dollar," i begged them. "just one dollar. i'm starving. please."

mrs fernwood looked at me and blew some smoke. "one dollar? have you considered panhandling?"

"yes i have, but i - i'm just not very good at it. i just don't have the touch - i - besides, it's raining."

"panhandling isn't about touch, it's about aggressiveness. isn't that right, philip? philip and i have panhandled many a time when we had to."

"panhandling builds character in a young man," mr fernwood told me.

"i'm not a young man," i answered.

"i used to panhandle in front of the old roseland ballroom. talk about competition! you had to be tough."

i was almost in tears. "look, this is all very inspiring, but can you advance me a dollar."

"i'll tell you what," mrs fernwood said. "we won't give you cash, but when we leave here we're headed for mcdonalds. you can come along and we'll let you have some fries."

i had some pride left. i kept bargaining. "curly fries," i told her. "i want curly fries."

"do they have curly fries at the mcdonalds over on the boulevard?" mrs fernwood asked mr fernwood.

"so far as i know. i'm not a big curly fry person myself."

"all right," mrs fernwood told me, "we'll get you some curly fries if they have them. but it will count as two dollars off on your fee. and then you'll get seven when you deliver."

"aw, come on, make it eight. please!"

she gave me a long searching look. "o k, eight. but just one more thing."


"forget this just digging up dirt on doreen - you'll have to kill her instead."

mr fernwood started to say something but mrs fernwood held up her hand.

"all right," i said.

"so we have a deal?"

i didn't hesitate. i could taste the fries. "yes, we have a deal."

"all right then." mrs fernwood stood up, and mr fernwood stood up too. "let's go get those curly fries."

part 2

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