4

As long as it had been dark, Billy Chung found the waiting bearable. He had huddled in a corner against the cool cellar wall and had almost dozed at times. But when he noticed the first grayness of approaching dawn at the window he felt a sudden sharp spasm of fear that steadily grew worse. Would they find him hiding here? It had seemed so easy last night and everything had worked out so well. Just the way it had been when the Tigers had pulled those jobs. He had known just where to go to buy an old tire iron, and no questions asked, and just a dime more to have the end sharpened. Getting into the moat around the apartment buildings had been the only tricky part, but he hadn’t been seen when he had dropped over the edge and he was sure no one had been looking when he had jimmied open the cellar window with the tire iron. No, if he had been seen they would have grabbed him by now. But maybe in the daylight they would be able to spot the jimmy marks on the window? He shivered at the thought and was suddenly conscious of the loud thudding of his heart. He had to force himself to leave the shadowed corner and to work his way slowly along the wall until he was next to the window, trying to see through the dust-filmed glass. Before he had closed the window behind him he had rubbed spit, and soot from the ledge, into the marks the tire iron had made; but had it worked well enough? The only clear spot on the window was the heart he had drawn in the dust and by moving his head around he looked through it and saw that the splintered grooves were obscured. Greatly relieved, he hurried back to his corner, but within a few minutes his fears returned, stronger than ever.

Full daylight was streaming through the window now — how long would it be before he was discovered? If anyone came in through the door all they had to do was look his way and they would see him; the small pile of old and cob-webbed boards behind which he cowered could not hide him completely. Shivering with fear, he pushed back against the concrete wall so hard that its rough surface bit through the thin fabric of his shirt.

There was no way to measure this kind of time. For Billy each moment seemed endless — yet he also felt that he had spent a lifetime in this room. Once footsteps approached, then passed the door, and during those few seconds he found out that his earlier fear had been only a small thing. Lying there, shaking and sweating at the same time, he hated himself for his weakness, yet could do nothing about it. His nervous fingers picked at an old scab on his shinbone until it tore away and the wound began to bleed. He pressed his rag of a handkerchief over it and the seconds crept slowly by.

Getting himself to leave the cellar proved to be even harder than staying. He had to wait until the people in the apartment upstairs went out for the day — or did they go out? Another stab of fear. He had to wait but he could only estimate the time by looking at the angle of the sun through the clouded window and by listening to the sound of traffic in the street outside. By waiting as long as he could, then putting it off a little longer at the thought of the corridors outside, he reached the point when he felt that it was safe to leave. The jimmy went inside the waistband of his shorts where it couldn’t be seen, and he brushed off as much dust as he could before turning the handle on the door.

Voices and the sound of hammering came from some distant part of the cellar, but he saw no one on the way to the stairs. As he climbed the third flight he heard rapid footsteps coming down toward him, and he just managed to go back to the floor below and hide in the corridor until they passed. This was the last alarm and a minute later Billy was on the fifth floor looking at the golden lettering of O’Brien once again.

“I wonder if maybe she’s still home?” he whispered half aloud and smiled to himself. “She’s trouble — you want cash,” he added, but his voice was hoarse. There was a clear and insistent memory of those round breasts, rising toward him.

When the outer door was opened it sounded some signal inside the apartment, that was what had happened last night. This was all right, he had to be sure no one was inside before he tried to break in. Before his nerve failed completely he pushed the door open and stepped inside, closing it again behind him and leaning his back against it.

Someone might still be home. He felt his face grow damp at the thought and looked at the TV pickup, then swiftly away. If she asks me I’ll say something about Western Union, about a message. The walls of the tiny, empty chamber pressed in on him and he shifted from one foot to the other waiting for the crackle of the loudspeaker.

It remained silent. He tried to guess how long a minute was, then counted to sixty and knew that he had counted too fast and counted it again. “Hello,” he said, and just in case the TV thing wasn’t working he knocked on the door, timidly at first, then more loudly as his confidence grew.

“No one home?” he called as he took out the tire-iron jimmy and slipped the sharpened end into the jamb of the closed door just below the handle. When it had been pushed in as far as it would go he pulled hard with both hands. There was a small cracking sound and the door swung open. Billy stepped through, almost on tiptoe, ready to turn and run.

The air was cool, the apartment dim and silent. Ahead, at the end of the long hall, he could see a room and part of a dark TV set. Just at his left hand was the closed door of the bedroom, the bed where she had been lying was just beyond it. Maybe she was still there, asleep, he would go in and not wake her at once but… he shivered. Shifting the tire iron to his left hand he slowly opened the door.

Rumpled sheets, tangled and empty. Billy walked by the bed and didn’t look at it again. What else had he expected? A girl like that wouldn’t want someone like him. He cursed and pried open the top drawer in the large dresser, splintering and cracking it with the iron. It was filled with smooth underclothes, pink and white and softer than he had ever felt when he ran his hand over them. He threw them on the floor.

One by one he treated all the other drawers the same way, hurling their contents about, but putting aside those items of clothing he knew could be sold for a high price in the flea market. A sudden banging brought back the fear that had been displaced by anger for the moment, and he stood frozen. It took a long moment before he recognized it as water in a pipe somewhere in the wall. He relaxed a bit, was in better control now and, for the first time, noticed the jewelry box on the end table.

Billy had it in his hand and was looking at the pins and bracelets and wondering if they were real and how much he could get for them when the bathroom door opened and Mike O’Brien walked into the room.

For a moment he did not see Billy, he just stopped and gaped at the ruin of the dresser and the scattered clothing. He was wearing his dressing gown, spattered with dark spots of water, and was drying his hair with a towel. Then he saw Billy, standing rigid with terror, and hurled the towel away.

“You little bastard!” Mike roared. “What the hell are you doing here!”

He was like a mountain of death approaching, with his great face flushed from the shower and reddened even more by rage. He stood two heads taller than Billy and there was muscle under the fat on his meaty arms, and all he wanted to do was break the boy in two.

Mike reached out with both hands and Billy felt the wall against his back. There was a weight in his right hand and he swung in panic, lashing out wildly. He hardly realized what had happened when Mike fell at his feet, not uttering a sound; there was just the heavy thud of his body hitting the floor.

Michael J. O’Brien’s eyes were open, open wide and staring, but they were not seeing. The tire iron had caught him on the side of the temple, the sharp point cracking through the thin bone there and going on into his brain, killing him instantly. There was very little blood since the tire iron remained, a projecting blade handle stuck fast in the wound.

It was just by chance, a combination of circumstances, but Billy was not caught or recognized when he was leaving the building. He fled in blind panic and did not meet anyone on the stairs, but he missed a turning and found himself near the service entrance. A new tenant was moving in and at least a score of men, dressed in the same sort of ragged garments he wore, were carrying in furniture. The single uniformed attendant on duty was watching the people who entered the building and paid no attention at all when Billy walked out behind two of the others.

Billy was almost to the waterfront before he realized that in his flight he had left everything behind. He leaned his back to a wall, then slid slowly down until he squatted on his heels panting with exhaustion, wiping the sweat from his eyes so he could see if anyone had followed him. No one was taking any notice of him, he had escaped. But he had killed a man — and all for nothing. He shuddered, in spite of the heat, and gasped for air. Nothing, it had all been for nothing.

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