Just before midnight the thin December fog came slithering down from the hills to the city streets and spread a sickly haze over the ugliness of South Main Street. It left a film over the darkened store windows, and brought enough damp cold to make the tinny saloons which dotted the neighborhood look warm and cheerful.
The business curve of the fifteen-cent flophouses took a big upward swing. It figured. The stink and vermin of the cheap beds were lesser evils than the chill rawness of the Plaza benches.
The bums and floaters who had panhandled the price in the course of the day disappeared into the murky halls and up the creaking wooden stairs of a dozen of these rat traps. The others just continued on their way, wandering aimlessly.
Detective Sergeant Brady of the downtown station stopped to light a cigarette before he went into Carrol’s Bar and Grill. With a cigarette dangling between his lips, he might possibly be able to affect a sort of casualness that could help to disguise somehow the cop which otherwise stood out glaringly all over him.
He cupped the cigarette in his hand, shielding the match against the cold wet wind. While he paused there, outside Carrol’s, a middle-aged, stubbly faced tramp in a broad-brimmed Western hat came shambling up, already going into his spiel when he was five feet away.
"It’s a lousy night, mister, and you look like you could spare it. Only a dime. Only a dime for one lousy cuppa coffee."
"On your way," Brady muttered. The panhandler seemed to shrink back into the darkness. Brady pushed the blue enameled door open and walked in.
The saloon was crowded.
Small parties of men and women sat in the booths near the wall, talking and laughing noisily. A row of broken-down men sat lined along the bar—drunks in varying stages of cheer and despondency.
Five B-girls in cheap evening gowns sat on the high stools scattered down the length of the bar. The deep necks of their gowns revealed their breasts—some big, others scrawny. The men clustered about the five allowing the bartender to refill their glasses before their drinks were half finished. Down at the end of the bar, one of the drunks was trying to put his hand in one of the girls’ dress-fronts. He got a good squeeze of a breast that had seen better days before, giggling and squealing shrilly, the girl pushed him away.
At the farthest end of the room, Sergeant Brady saw Carrol, the proprietor, leaning against the big, shiny record player. The juke was going full blast. Carrol glanced solemnly at Brady, his face not displaying the faintest show of recognition. He covered his wide mouth with the hand that had been supporting his chin, and watched as Brady squeezed in between two customers at the bar.
The man on Brady’s right had one of the stools. He was fat and sweaty-smelling, and he dawdled half asleep over his drink. The man on Brady’s left waved his hands about in vivid gestures as he spoke. He was talking to the red-haired B-girl next to him. The girl was the youngest of the five, and the open front of her gown revealed firm, creamy young breasts that hadn’t yet acquired the B-girl sag.
He was a young man with good looks—but you had the impression that his looks were fading right before your eyes. A shock of straight blond hair fell across his forehead as he shook his besotted head. The clothes that he was wearing were in the last stages of shabbiness, but they still bore signs that indicated they had been expensive at the outset.
Brady huddled over his drink and listened to the conversation of the young man and the girl, and felt lucky. They were talking about the very thing that had drawn him there that evening. In a way, that was natural enough, not really surprising. The affair was fresh in everyone’s mind, and Brady had counted on Carrol and the girls to steer the talk around it. Brady looked the man over from the corner of his eye.
"I warned Doris," the drunk was saying, making dreamy circles in the water on the bar. He shrugged sadly, his face taking on a bleary-eyed but philosophical expression. "Not that it makes a damn bit of difference whether you live or die, you know that? Not a single goddam bit of difference in this filthy kind of world we have to live in. They shovel you into the ground and that’s the end of you, and it don’t matter a damn who you were or what you did." He paused to belch. "No, it don’t matter. But I warned her anyway. I warned her there’d be a rotten finish waiting for her if she didn’t pack up and go home." He waved his hand again. "What kind of a life was that for a girl with her looks anyway? Selling her rear like a cheap floozie. Hell," he finished, "you know what? She’s better off dead."
"What the hell do you know about it?" the girl asked in a surly voice.
The drunk scowled and tried to draw himself up straight. "I know it’s no good. Not one goddam good thing about it. It doesn’t lead any place. Oh, it’s all right when you’ve had everything else and hit the skids. Then you’ve got nothing to live for anyway."
"Like you, for instance," the girl jeered.
The drunk wasn’t offended. "That’s right," he agreed, his voice thick. "Like me. For me that would have been just fine. I’d have been a stand-in for her if the guy had asked me. All he had to do was come to me and say, I’m gonna kill somebody, bud, and you want it to be you or this girl here? And I’d have said kill me, I’m no use for anything, let the girl live. She’s still got time to pull herself outa the mud."
"You liked Doris, huh?"
He finished his drink before he answered. "Yeah, why not? Everybody liked Doris."
"For what she gave you?"
The drunk glared. "You got me wrong, sister. I wasn’t interested in Doris for that. Oh, no. I was finished with all that, too—a long time ago. A...goddam...long... time...ago..."
His voice trailed off sadly and he looked out into nowhere, humming to himself.
Copyright © 1960 by Agberg Ltd.