SUNSET STORIES : NUMBER FIVE
It was a fine, bracing spring morning in Arizona, the air still crisp from overnight frost. Hissing, hooting and clanking, the short train came to a halt. The manager bustled out of his office in the weather-beaten wooden station building, calling a greeting to the footplate crew. The guard jumped down from his caboose, hauled out a crate and an assortment of parcels and sacks, then loaded a small pile of items left for him on the platform.
On this occasion no passengers boarded and the only one to alight was a man, five feet ten inches in height and slimly built. In this seedy township, he was turned out well enough to attract attention, if there had been anyone around interested enough to pay it. He wore a thigh-length black coat of top quality, matching pants, white shirt, narrow black tie, low-crowned black hat and lightweight black shoes, well polished – a smart dresser, if a little funereal in appearance.
It was, however, not so much the man’s garb as his face that was arresting. Though he came from the heart of the West, he had nothing of the tanned, weathered look exhibited by so many men who shared his background. His sharp, narrow features were set in the sallow parchment skin of a clean-shaven face. Not the appearance of a man who spent much time outdoors. It was a closed face, the thoughts and feelings that went on behind it veiled from inspection. He didn’t look like a man who would have much need of company, or much taste for it. The glittering black eyes flickered around, missing nothing.
For perhaps a minute, the newcomer stood on the platform, then he picked up his single item of luggage – a large carpet-bag – in his left hand, walked softly along the sun-bleached boards and down the ramp which led to the dusty yard. He set down the bag by the slumping fence of a disused cattle pen. As he bent, the long coat fell open, revealing a gun belt, the open-ended holster carrying a Colt revolver with a long barrel and walnut hand-grips. He straightened up and took a leather cigar case from an inside pocket, extracting and lighting a long black cheroot. Then he looked at the town.
It wasn’t much. Seventy or eighty buildings, he guessed, almost all of them wood frame. Just enough to form two intersecting streets, plus a few nondescript shacks, straggling out into the seemingly endless surrounding space. None of the structures looked any too solid and there was scant evidence of paintwork. That wasn’t important to the new arrival. He didn’t plan to be there long.
The train did some more gasping and snorting, then hauled itself off to another town, further east. The depot manager, apparently exhausted by his minimal burst of effort, dumped his ample backside onto the platform bench with the air of a man who had little to do until the evening train arrived, and was not too sorry about that.
Invigorating though the atmosphere was, it did nothing to encourage activity beyond the station. The town’s somnolence, barely and briefly lifted by the train’s arrival, descended again. The only movement around the drowsing depot was provided by a boy of about ten, who was performing handstands outside the waiting room abutting the manager’s office, his shoes slapping the plank wall like a slow-set metronome. The newcomer watched the display for a while, then called to the boy. “Hey, kid.”
The youngster aborted his latest short run-up and wheeled to face the voice. “Yes, mister?”
“You know Bob Michaelson?”
“Sure do. Everybody knows him. He runs the saloon.”
The stranger nodded. That would be Bob all right. It was the sort of thing he’d be doing. No cowpunching or mining for him. With a thin smile, the man fished a silver coin from his left-hand coat pocket, spinning it through the air, a couple of feet to the boy’s right. A grimy little hand flashed out, fastening onto the precious object.
“Go find him,” said the stranger. His tone was low and flat, cutting through the still air. “See he’s alone. Tell him Eddie Geller’s here. Say I’ll be paying my respects soon. Then come back and let me know you’ve done it. And be sure you don’t tell anybody else. You got that?”
“Okay,” said the boy. “I’ll be right back.”
The move was typical of Eddie Geller. A man should make use of the resources around him efficiently and economically. If you wanted a job done, get a boy to do it and pay him well. He wouldn’t think things over or ponder about the consequences. He would do exactly what was wanted of him.
Geller dismissed the impending business from his mind, quietly enjoying another inch of his cheroot while he waited. That was true to type too. A man did what he had to do, when he had to do it, then switched off and waited. No philosophy, no moralising. Good smokes and quality liquor, both in moderation, a wide spread of reading, especially about financial matters, and a little card-playing. Long periods when nothing happened, then a job would come up and a man had to bustle around for a while. When Geller worked, he was paid handsomely, but never spent much, preferring to tuck most of his earnings away, thinking of the future.
The boy came scampering back. “I done what you said, mister,” he gasped.
“Good. What did he say?”
“He said he understood an’ he’d been expecting somebody. Said he figured it would be you or Newt Bradley. Does that make sense?”
Geller nodded. “Yeah, it makes sense.” His lip curled slightly at the mention of Newt Bradley, a man he considered distinctly inferior to himself in the profession the two shared. “Okay son, you did well. Now keep your mouth shut tight and there could be five dollars more for you in a day or two.”
The boy was overwhelmed. “Mister,” he said, “for that much money I’ll stay dumb till I’m twenty-one.” He turned and expressed his joy by resuming his exercise with such vigour that the dozing depot manager leapt up, threatening to thrash him if he didn’t stop trying to demolish the building.
Eddie Geller hefted his bag and walked slowly along the main, east-west street, then along the shorter intersecting one, his eyes darting jet chips, taking in every detail. His stroll took less than ten minutes, but that was enough, for this was an art form with him. He could have departed right away and drawn as accurate a map of the town as any local resident could have done, without a day-long study. Much of the time, most people see things without really registering them. Geller always did both. That was often useful and occasionally vital in his line of work.
At the western end of the main street, the last place on the right was a two-storey house, set back a little from the from the neighbouring street-side buildings by a garden, somewhat unkempt but bearing the marks of toil. Well, at least somebody had tried and the house looked smarter than most of the others. A sign in the front window offered a room for rent. Apart from the hotel – not a good option, as it would probably mean people around – there was no other place that looked promising. Geller settled for what he was looking at.
The house was owned by a widow, about sixty years of age, grey-haired, and with a weary, careworn look. She explained that she made ends meet by renting out the room, following the loss of her husband, who had been killed in an accident at the silver mine, which had been the basis of the town’s former prosperity. Now the heady days were over. Digging had stopped over a year ago and those who stayed on did the best they could. That tallied with Geller’s information about the place. It was surviving on inexorably depleting capital. Soon it would fold up and die.
Geller wasn’t interested in his prospective landlady’s travails, but listened politely. The woman, her eyes telling the story of defeat better than any words could, made only the most perfunctory enquiries of the welcome, respectable-looking guest. He told her that he was recovering from a lung complaint and that a spell of Arizona air had been recommended to him. It wasn’t a particularly convincing story, but didn’t need to be. The woman offered to supply breakfast along with the room and Geller paid her a week’s rent in advance, though he had no intention of staying so long. One day would probably do, but he reckoned that the extra payment would add substance to his story in a place where tongues might wag, and anyway, to do him justice, he was generous in some ways. He could afford to be.
Having dumped his bag and freshened up, Geller went to the livery stable, adjacent to the railroad depot. He bought a durable-looking horse – one way or another, he would dispose of it later – and arranged that it be kept ready for him. Being an amateur astronomer, he explained, he was fond of riding out at night, under the stars. A much-used but serviceable saddle completed the deal. Geller wasn’t concerned about the cost. Even if he didn’t bother to sell his acquisitions, the investment was trifling in the context of his financial affairs. Satisfied, he returned to his room. He didn’t unpack – there’d be no need for that. He took a bottle of rum from his bag, removed his coat and shoes and lay on the bed. Clasping his hands on the pillow behind his head, he reviewed his position.
For three years now, Eddie Geller had been promising himself retirement at forty. Well, he was now four months short of that, so this would be his last job. It was a fitting finale, for this was the first occasion on which the man who was to receive his attention was known to him. All the others had been simply cases. They were objects rather than people. Bob Michaelson was different, for the two had known one another years earlier. They’d drunk whiskey and played cards together, each knowing the other’s business, each respecting the other. But they had never been friends.
It was because of their earlier acquaintanceship that Geller had taken the unusual step of informing Michaelson of his arrival. That was a special touch to mark the fact that this was Geller’s final bow. He was tired of his way of making a living. He had started out on it almost by accident, shortly before his twenty-sixth birthday. At first there had been a kind of stage-fright before each performance. That was history. Time now to call it a day. Geller had no illusions about growing old in his trade. He reckoned he had already beaten the life-expectancy odds for that kind of work by several years. If he were to continue, he would take on one job too many.
Geller was undoubtedly the top man in his line of work, which explained his displeasure at being bracketed with Newt Bradley as a candidate for this job. In Geller’s opinion, Bradley was a crude operator. Not that Geller’s own methods were always the acme of finesse, but to place him alongside Bradley was insulting.
When Geller’s services were required, the process was usually a delicate one, for nobody in his business did any advertising. The principal would have to find someone who in turn might know someone, who might just be able to get word to the master workman. Naturally, no-one wanted to come right out and say he was a friend of a man like Eddie Geller. Nevertheless, the dark, sinister osmosis began, and after muted talks in smoky barrooms, someone would get word to him. In due course, Geller would act. He did not often take a case through direct negotiation with the originating party.
In his fourteen-year career, Geller had accepted twenty-three jobs. He had never failed. Twenty-three contracts, twenty-seven killings, two being doubles and one a triple. Well, twenty-eight disposals to be precise, as one employer had been foolish enough to argue about paying the balance of the fee, claiming that the job had not been done as agreed. He’d been despatched free of charge. Five times, Geller had refused to act. Twice, the proposed targets had been women. Though Geller disliked and distrusted females, he drew the line at killing them. Whether that was attributable to his peculiar brand of chivalry or because he considered such work beneath him, he never said, but simply refused the jobs. The other three cases he had declined because he didn’t consider the transgressions involved as sufficiently heinous to warrant assassination. Nobody could fairly say that Eddie Geller lacked ethics.
Once the contract had been made, there was no escape for the target, not even through his seeking protection from the law. If necessary, Geller would have gone through ten peace officers in line astern to complete his work. Professional pride dictated that. No, if a man had Eddie Geller after him, there was no sanctuary. Not that the quarry usually knew what was coming. Only three of them had known, but awareness hadn’t helped them.
As Geller’s tally of successes had mounted, so had his charges. At first he had worked for sums he would now consider derisory. But of course, a man had to build a reputation, whether he was a merchant, an engineer, an architect, or a killer. Now Geller was atop the heap. He was expensive, but he was infallible. From the moment he accepted a job, it was as good as done.
This, Geller’s final case, was unusual not only in that he knew the target personally, but in that he had also dealt directly with the principal. Knowing Bob Michaelson as he did, Geller would have believed anything of him. Now in his middle forties, Michaelson, a tall, slim, handsome, fair-haired, genial fellow was an inveterate crook, any kind of swindle coming as naturally to him as breathing. Had he used his talents for legitimate purposes, he could have been a wealthy, respected man. But that was not his way. He enjoyed his reckless lifestyle. More than once, his chicanery had netted him enough to retire on and he had promptly gambled it all away. Then he had tangled with the Shearing Company. That had been a mistake.
Eddie Geller allowed his mind to wander back two weeks, to his sole meeting with Gerald Shearing, eponymous head of a large mining company. Using his considerable resources, Shearing had found out about Geller and sent for him, paying handsomely in advance for the interview alone, irrespective of its outcome. Having no conceivable connection with the businessman and seeing no reason to suspect any deception, Geller had accepted the invitation.
The mining boss was a tough middle-aged man and a self-made tycoon. Without much preamble, he had said that he wanted Michaelson taken care of. He didn’t ask about the usual fees, but mentioned a sum that made even so high-priced an operator as the man facing him raise an eyebrow. Nevertheless, Geller had insisted on knowing what Michaelson had done to deserve a death sentence. Shearing, an autocrat, accustomed to giving short shrift to hirelings, intimated that that was his business. Geller had countered that he had his own code – no explanation, no contract.
Having for once met his match, the captain of industry capitulated. He explained that Michaelson had inveigled his way into the confidence of Gerald Shearing Junior, only child of the great entrepreneur. Young Gerald had run one of the company’s mines in Nevada. Michaelson had tried, unsuccessfully, to bring off a crazy, illegal stunt, which had gone badly wrong. As a side-effect of his inexcusable conduct, there had been complications, during the course of which Shearing junior had been killed. Nothing could be proved in law, but Shearing senior told Geller enough to convince him that Michaelson’s time had come.
Through the mysterious nexus of Geller’s contacts, Michaelson had been located. The links were many and varied and few people refused to do a favour for Eddie Geller. After all, a man never knew what might happen if he declined. Now, here they both were, predator and prey, in this decaying community in the middle of nowhere. There was no local law – Geller had checked that. In fact there was no law of real substance for a good long way in any direction.
Knowing Michaelson as he did, Geller was sure that the man would not try to run. For one thing, he would know that flight was useless. For another, in his perverse way, Michaelson would regard this matter as a challenge. Though no great gunman himself, he was an irrepressible optimist. He would conclude that, even with Geller upon him, he would be able to plead, bribe or trick his way out of the situation. Something would save him. Geller chuckled at the thought. Would it now?
As the afternoon wore on, Geller sipped sparingly at the rum, worked his way through three of the long, thin cheroots and concluded that there was no point in delay. He would deal with the matter at once. That decided, he began to plan how he would spend his retirement. His display of showmanship in revealing his identity did not give him any qualms. It wouldn’t help anybody to know that he had accounted for Michaelson. As soon as the job was done, Eddie Geller would disappear forever. A change of name and location would see to that. Edmund Gale of Philadelphia sounded good. Maybe he would get into the mainstream of life. Perhaps buy himself a small business. It was working out right.
Geller ignored the pangs of hunger for some time, then succumbed, taking a chunk of jerky from a packet of emergency provisions stowed in the carpet bag he had been toting largely for the sake of appearance. He chewed away the food, then waited another hour. By then it was dark and time for action. Taking only a small bundle of personal items, he slipped quietly away from the house.
First, he went to the livery stable, now unattended. He saddled the horse, not wanting to waste time when his business was concluded. Hooking his package over the saddle horn, he left the animal and walked off towards his target. He didn’t need to check the position again, his first brief survey having sufficed. Between the saloon and the adjacent general store was a narrow alleyway. As Geller started to enter it, a scruffy mongrel dog rose from the shadows of the sidewalk, sniffing at him. For a moment, he thought that meant trouble, then the animal relapsed into its lethargy, apathetic within the town’s greater apathy.
Geller went to the back of the saloon. At the right-hand end was a small outhouse, its flat roof just below an upstairs sash window, the bottom part of which was half-open. Geller smiled. It was too easy. People didn’t seem to learn. Within seconds he had hauled himself up seven feet and was kneeling by the upstairs window, peering in at a sparsely-furnished room. By the inner wall to his left was a bed, the mattress bare of sheet and blankets. So, seemingly unoccupied. That would do. Pushing the sash fully open, he clambered inside, his intention being to wait here. If anyone disturbed him, that would be too bad for the party concerned. Geller didn’t want to kill a ‘casual’ but a man had to deal with what turned up.
It was a Tuesday and from Geller’s brief glance at the front of the saloon, he judged that business inside was none too brisk. Most likely Michaelson would close early. Even if he didn’t live on the premises, he would be the last to leave – only this night he wouldn’t do that, unless his covert visitor was much mistaken.
Geller opened the door a few inches, hearing subdued conversation from the barroom. He couldn’t emerge further without unacceptable risk. There was nothing to do but settle down and wait, checking the position from time to time.
After a couple of hours, the talk below died down as the few customers drifted away. It was close to eleven o’clock when Geller pushed the door open a little wider, giving himself a view of the room below. There was now only one customer, talking quietly with his host. Twenty minutes later, the man left and Michaelson closed the larger doors behind the batwings, throwing a bar across them – a security precaution, Geller noted, in sharp contrast to the laxity in respect of the rear window he’d used.
This was it. Geller, soft shoes muffling his approach, started down the stairs.
Michaelson was tidying up and had his back to the intruder. “Hello, Eddie,” he said.
Geller realised that he had been spotted in the mirror behind the bar. That didn’t matter, as stealth wasn’t necessary at this stage. “Hello, Bob.”
Michaelson turned. “You didn’t waste much time.”.
“I rarely do.”
“It’s been quite a while, Eddie. How’s life treating you?”
“Can’t complain. You?”
“I’m getting by. Like a drink?”
“As long as it’s a fresh bottle.”
“Pick your own.” Michaelson waved an arm at the selection.
Geller, his still-holstered gun indicating supreme confidence, walked over to the bar. Not satisfied with what was on immediate offer, he went to the backbar shelves, selecting a full, stoppered bottle of whiskey. “Join me?” he asked.
“Might as well,” replied Michaelson, who seemed, despite obvious knowledge of his desperate situation, quite calm. Or maybe, Geller reasoned, it was just fatalism.
The two stood together at the bar. Geller, aware of Michaelson’s deviousness, kept his coat open and clear of his gun butt. Michaelson opened the bottle, picked two large glasses and poured king-sized measures. “I suppose there’s no point in a toast to good health?” he said laconically.
“I reckon not,” Geller answered.
Michaelson downed his drink in one swift gulp and treated himself to another, half of which he also despatched quickly. He was staring into Geller’s eyes as he put down his glass. Rapping it awkwardly on the edge of the bar, he lost control and let it fall, the liquid dribbling across floorboards and sawdust. “Damn,” he said. “Guess I’ve had one too many.” He dropped to one knee to retrieve the glass, stumbling as he did so and feeling for the bar with his left hand. He missed, clawing instead at Geller’s right leg, just below the gun.
Geller stepped back quickly, dropping his right hand to the weapon and whipping round his open left to give Michaelson a vicious cuff to the right temple. The saloon-owner slumped sideways, his head slamming against the bar. “Don’t try anything else like that, Bob,” snapped the gunman.
Michaelson rubbed his head ruefully as he rose. “I wasn’t trying anything Eddie. Just a little unsteady. I reckon a man has a right to feel that way when you come calling.”
“Maybe,” said Geller. “Anyway, keep your distance.”
“Okay. Listen, I’m not feeling so good. Let’s sit down there. That is, if you can spare the time.” He nodded at the nearest table and they walked over, sitting opposite one another.
“Somebody must have put out a contract on me,” said Michaelson.
“That’s right,” Geller replied.
“I suppose it was old Shearing?”
“Well, that wasn’t one of my better ideas.”
“No. Seeing as you’re about to die for it, I guess you could say so.” Michaelson downed another shot of whiskey. “Maybe if I put back a little more rotgut, it won’t come so hard,” he said. “I don’t imagine I can buy my way out of this one?”
“You know better than that, Bob,” Geller answered quietly. “No feelings involved here. It’s just business. I figured you wouldn’t try to run.”
Michaelson shrugged. “I reckon I’m a philosophical man, Eddie,” he said. “I’m near forty-six years old and I’ve used myself up pretty freely. Way I see it, even if I go on, it’s downhill all the way now. Who wants to live another twenty or thirty years, getting older and weaker?”
“You have a point there,” Geller answered. “Anyway, what were you doing before you came here?”
Michaelson laughed. “You know me. Anything for a dollar. I pulled off a few jobs. Some of them were pretty good, too. I made a lot of money. Lost it again. Meantime I filled in any way I could. You might not believe this, but I spent two years working as a magician in a travelling show up north. Got damned good at it too. You’d be amazed what I can do with a pack of cards, a hat and a few other oddments.”
Geller permitted himself a dry grin. “Yes, well, you always were a tricky man, Bob. It’s a pity we’ve got to this. We might have been friends if things had worked out some other way.”
“I guess that’s life,” said Michaelson, shrugging again and downing another whiskey. “How do you aim to play it, Eddie?”
“I figure just one, Bob. A head shot. Whenever it suits you.”
“Might as well get on with it then. With this much firewater inside me, I’ll probably not notice.”
Geller hauled out his gun. At this range, he didn’t need to prepare himself. “See you in Hell, Bob,” he said, levelling the Colt and firing in one smooth flow. The sound of the explosion racketed around the barroom.
The shot didn’t kill Geller, but it didn’t do him any good. As the smoke wreathed up, the mangled gun fell from his twisted right hand, banging loudly on the floor. He sat back in his chair, mouth agape in astonishment, staring at the grinning saloonkeeper.
“I believe you’re slipping a little, Eddie,” said Michaelson. “I just told you I used to be a conjurer. See, your weakness was that open-ended holster. Amazing what happens when you push a little metal wedge into a gun barrel, especially if you know how to do it. Back at the bar there, remember? I had two other ideas in mind in case that failed, but I’ll not need them now. Anyway, like you say, Eddie, see you in Hell.” Michaelson chuckled as he pulled a Derringer from a clip inside his right boot and shot Geller neatly in the forehead.
* * *