Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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 Chapter 1

September, 1960

Howie Slattery only got drunk about one night a month, but this was the night. He felt as if he had pretty good control of his feet, but he was naggingly aware of a smaller man pushing him from the back while his two other new friends kept repeating,

"Go on, go on, there she is at the end of the bar. She'll do it with anyone."

It puzzled Howie that they seemed to think they were whispering when it seemed to him that they were shouting. In any case, the woman sat in profile some thirty feet away without moving or giving any sign of having heard.

Howie took a couple of steps in the direction indicated, but then found that his upper body was moving backward while his feet moved on. The man who had been pushing started swearing,

"For Chrissake, you big ox, I can't hold you up."

The others quickly came to assist, and one of them said,

"Howie needs another drink, that's the trouble."

Howie drank thirstily from the glass that was handed him. The wine was cool and refreshing, particularly the part that trickled down his neck. He did realize that, drunk or not, it was a matter of honor. Without even being pushed, he propelled himself across the room toward the lady. She looked extremely sophisticated with her black hair, black dress, and black shoes and stockings. He supposed that she must be the most beautiful woman in Bollinger, Illinois. She might even be a contender for the crown of Miss America.

For the last year of his young life, Howie had wondered how one managed simply to go up and sit next to a lady at a bar when there were other vacant seats. Would it, for example, be necessary to have some reason for rejecting each of the other available seats? This problem solved itself in a simple and elegant way when, in the final stages of his approach, Howie lost his balance and fell partly on top of the desired stool, his upper body coming to rest on the bar. He was trying to think of something to say when she remarked,

"You look like you need another drink, honey."

Howie, delighted at her friendly tone, replied,

"Yes, yes, I believe you're right. I'm awfully thirsty."

The woman laughed in a pleasant way, and said,

"Course I didn't offer to pay for it. If you've got some money, you can get me one too."

Howie, in order to show that he was as gentlemanly as any gentleman in the house, reached with lightning speed for his wallet. This action somewhat unbalanced him on the stool, and he would have gone crashing to the floor if the bartender hadn't reached across the bar and caught his arm. Again steadied, he dumped the contents of his wallet on to the bar. The bills that cascaded out represented most of his recent pay check, but he pushed them toward the bartender, determined to buy his new friend the best drink available. The other man, taking only a couple of singles, pushed the money back toward Howie and set down the drinks.

The drink Howie got, apparently something with whiskey in it, had an odd taste. But it wasn't really a bad taste. He sipped gingerly, and only then noticed some sort of rebellion in his stomach. Between gasps, gulps, gurgles, and an occasional hiccup, Howie addressed the woman in a conversational tone,

"Those guys over there, the ones I was with, I think they may be drunk."

"Let me guess, honey, you've just been to a high school spelling bee, and you won, and you've come in here to celebrate."

Howie felt terribly misjudged. He replied, with great care and dignity, and only two hiccups,

"I'm not a high-school student. I'm an assistant district attorney for Bollinger County."

There was laughter all around him, but it seemed friendly. Then, suddenly, he became aware that his left thigh was extremely wet. Looking down, he saw that he had pissed his pants. The light tan color of the fabric revealed his gaffe only too clearly, and the others would notice at any moment. Thinking and acting with dispatch, Howie spilled the remainder of his drink on to his lap. The woman called out to the bartender,

"He needs to be set up again, Joe."

Money was again counted out from the pile on the bar, and, when Howie began on his new drink, he felt fully in control of all his faculties, including the ones lower down. He smiled winningly at the woman and said,

"You're the most beautiful woman in Bollinger, and I'd like to marry you. Please take all this money as a token of my affection."

The woman touched Howie on the arm and replied,

"That's sweet of you, but your mother wouldn't approve."

As she began to stuff his money back into his pocket, the woman gave Howie a look full of sympathy and good feeling. It was the absolute high point in his relations with women, and it even looked as if she might allow him to embrace her. As he moved to do so, he knocked the bar with his knee hard enough to de-stabilize the stool. His last memory for some time was one of flying through space.

The next morning, Howie awoke with a start when a loud menacing noise approached him from the blind side. He soon discovered that the noise was coming from a vacuum cleaner, and that he was lying on the floor of the bar-room with a pillow under his head and a blanket over him. A red-headed man whom he recognized as the bartender of the night before switched off the vacuum cleaner and said,

"You were too big to move, so we just fixed you up right there. Your money's in your pocket."

"Sorry, I guess I got pretty drunk last night."

"You ain't the first one. How do you feel?"

"Not great, but not too bad, really. As soon as I get cleaned up, I'll be okay."

The other shook his head and said,

"That's youth for you. You in one of the fraternities over in Orrville?"

"No, I live here in Bollinger, just a couple of blocks away."

"We had trouble believing the birth date on your driver's licence, but it's not our fault if a guy borrows somebody else's licence."

"That really is my licence."

"You also said last night that you were an assistant DA, but we figured you couldn't possibly be old enough."

Howie, in a sudden panic, remembered that he had a trial that morning. But the clock said that it was only eight. Picking himself up, he replied,

"Well, actually, I am a prosucutor."

When the other man said nothing, Howie added,

"By the way, I remember sitting next to a woman at the bar last night..."

"Yeah, well, she's a working girl, sort of. She comes in here sometimes. But she's a nice girl who's had some bad luck. Don't start prosecuting her or anything like that."

"I didn't have that in mind."

"Anyhow, if you really are a prosecutor, you shouldn't have her in mind at all. She's moving to Chicago in a couple of days. Figures maybe she can get a fresh start."

Howie thanked the bartender as he left. He was due in court in two hours.

The trial of Wellington Sykes for aggravated burglary was a piece of cake. A house had been well and truly burglarized, but the loot was found in the trunk and back seat of the defendant's car. Most of the witnesses were policemen who, from long experience, knew exactly what to say. Howie, only occasionally feeling odd in the head or stomach, had to give them only minimal prompting.

Sykes, a large ugly red-haired man whose assigned attorney had the sense not to put him on the stand, looked so much like a criminal that the jury might have convicted him even without evidence. They returned their verdict quickly, and Howie exited from the courtroom by the side door. As he walked down the corridor, he heard a commotion and shouting behind him. Looking over his shoulder, he saw that Sykes was having to be hauled and dragged off to jail. Unfortunately, he made eye contact, and Sykes yelled out,

"You young one-balled bastard, if you had a proper daddy, he'd paddle your ass purple. I'd like ta cut your ......"

Howie pretended not to notice, and continued to walk away. To his amusement, the verbal explosion stopped abruptly with a gurgle. The sheriff's deputies had evidently managed to throttle their charge.

Just then, a woman, one of the clerks, came around the corner in front of Howie. Looking past him, she said,

"Hi Howie. Is that Wellington Sykes again?"

"Yeah, burglary. He got caught because he dropped his wallet climbing in a window and forgot it. Judge Doan had to caution the jury against laughter when they heard about it."

"I thought he was more of a bar-room brawler than a burglar."

"He burgles first, and then goes to the bar."

"Was that you he was threatening?"

"I believe so."

"He shouldn't pick on a big young guy like you. You might knock him on his rear."

"Well, I have popped a few people, but old Wellington probably knows every dirty trick there is."

"Yes. That's the one thing they always do know. Well, I'd better get the papers on him together."

In Bollinger, Illinois, a city of some thirty thousand, justice was, in the year 1960, a rather informal affair. Everyone knew who the criminals were, and they were brought through and convicted as a matter of course. If, by some chance, the defendant was innocent of the present charge, he would surely be guilty of many similar crimes for which he hadn't been caught. The only remaining question concerned the length of the sentence. Since the judges had a good deal of latitude in that respect, the sentencing was usually more important than the conviction.

The judge in this case, old Doan, was a man of uncertain health and definite alcoholism. While unstable and unpredictable in many ways, he did generally follow the pre- sentencing recommendations prepared for him by the probation department. The chief probation officer, Sam Herz, wrote or approved each of those reports, and it was to Herz's office in a nearby building that Howie Slattery now proceeded.

The old stone courthouse, with its cupola resting on pillars, had a certain prairie elegance which spread its aura over the square in which it stood. The discordant element in that aura was the probation office. It had been put together on the cheap in less euphoric times, times in which it was realized that the convicted criminal may continue to constitute a problem.

The squat ugly pre-fab building had almost no windows, and the light green interior had an unpleasant airless atmosphere. Facing the front door was a counter behind which sat a considerably overweight secretary who looked as if she might, at any moment, burst her buttons. Behind her, there were cubicles where the assistant probation officers interviewed their charges, more commonly known as 'probes.' In the back, with one of the few windows, was Sam Herz's office.

Since all the worst characters in town came through the front door at one time or another, visitors were admitted only after careful scrutiny. Howie was a distinguished visitor, and the secretary's habitual look of anxious suspicion was replaced by a relieved smile as she said,

"Good morning, Mr. Slattery. You can go right back."

Herz was bent over his desk, his back to the open door. Howie sneaking up quietly, poked a finger in his back, and said "bang!". Herz jumped, swore, and directed his visitor to the better of the two chairs. At thirty seven, exactly twelve years older than the age given on Howie's driving license, Herz sometimes attempted to give the younger man advice on the art of living. At other times, he jokingly despaired of trying to tell him anything at all. This time, it was Howie who began the conversation.

"As I recall, you owe me a big favor. I'd like to use just half of it, and save the other half for later."

Herz smiled wanly and replied,

"I guess you mean Wanda June Harkins."

"None other."

Wanda June Harkins was a habitual thief and forger who also happened to be a police informer. In a deal between the police, the judges, and the prosecutors, she was allowed to escape deserved jail sentences as a reward for past information, and also in the expectation that she would continue to double-cross her friends and associates. Perpetually on probation, she felt that her co-operation with the probation officers was optional. Always ungracious, she had gradually become rude and obnoxious. Finally, she had accidentally, but Herz thought intentionally, upset a cup of hot coffee on to the lap of the young lady who was trying valiantly to re-habilitate her.

Herz, his patience at an end, had spoken to Howie. The latter, somewhat in violation of the arrangement, had taken the next opportunity to convict Wanda June on a charge indisputably serious enough to put her in jail. He had then had to explain it to Major Boyd, the police chief, with whom it was essential to maintain good relations. As a result, Howie was now in a position to ask for a stiff sentence for Sykes. Herz agreed immediately and said,

"I'm afraid, Howie, that this isn't even going to count as half a favor. Here's a guy just convicted on aggravated burglary. In sentencing one of the criteria is whether he shows remorse. Wanting to cut your balls off doesn't sound very remorseful to me. Let's call it a third of a favor. You still have two thirds left."

It then being almost noon, the two men went across the street to the Courthouse Cafe for lunch. Once seated, Herz asked,

"How's your love life coming these days?"

"Absolutely shitty. I got drunk last night and got up my nerve to approach a woman at Kling's Cafe, but she turned out to be a prostitute."

"I hope you haven't got the clap."

"No, nothing happened. It never does."

Herz meditated for a moment, and then replied thoughtfully,

"Here's a possibility for you. Wanda June Harkins is confined up at Circleville. You could go up there on visiting day and tell her you're real sorry you sent her to jail. Then, when she comes out, ... "

Waving aside Howie's rude reply, Herz added,

"You know, she's really not that bad looking. If you ignore the personality, .... "

"Is it possible to ignore a personality like that? I don't think so."

Howie found himself looking glumly down at the familiar menu. It was just possible that, if he looked hard enough, he would find some delicacy he had overlooked the last hundred times. Herz, evidently deciding that Howie's problem wasn't a joking matter, rejoined,

"Seriously, Howie, you'd find someone if you went farther afield. This town is just too small. There are hardly any attractive well-educated girls who're single. If you just look here, you won't do that much better than Wanda June."

Howie agreed without enthusiasm as the waitress came to take their orders, and then explained to him,

"My problem is a bit more basic than that. I've always looked so young. Even now, I sometimes get mistaken for a high school student. That's not what women want."

"I do remember that one of those arsonists you prosecuted last month laughed the first time he saw you in court. He wasn't laughing when you convicted him, though."

"Sometimes the women laugh, too, and there's nothing I can do about that."

Neither man spoke much when the food came. Howie supposed that his experiences of the previous night might catch up with him later in the day, but, for the moment, he felt fine. His appetite was undiminished, and he ate his food greedily. As they finished, a couple of pretty high school girls came in, laughing and chattering. They had evidently slipped out of their school cafeteria to get hamburgers and french fries which they would then smuggle back into the school. Howie found them extremely attractive, and said,

"I'd like to go back to high school, looking as I do now. I might have a little more luck with girls like those."

"Don't we all wish that! I'd be the star quarterback of the football team instead of a bench-warmer, and I'd screw the prom queen after the dance."

Since they played touch football every Sunday, and Herz's throws were notably inaccurate, it seemed unlikely that he was star quarterback material, either presently or in retrospect. Howie also wondered if Herz was the man to charm the prom queen to that extent, but he made no objection as Sam elaborated his triumphant return to high school. Then, suddenly, Herz looked at Howie more closely and added,

"For most of us that's just fantasy. But you could actually do it. You don't look like a high school student, but you could easily pass for a college student. You could be the big-deal college boy who dips into the local high school for the little honeys who think they're too sophisticated for boys their own age."

Returning to his office, Howie put his feet up on his desk and reflected on his life and prospects. Unknown to Herz and almost everyone else in town, he had a highly unusual background, that of a child prodigy raised in an orphanage. With his father dead and his mother hopelessly insane, some cousins had taken one look at Howie, at four years of age, and put him quickly into the Texas state orphanage in which he was to remain until he went to college. The orphanage hadn't been chosen carefullly. It was enough that it was willing to take Howie, and that it was a good three hundred miles from the Dallas residence of the cousins.

A publicly supported and run boys' orphanage in a state which doesn't believe in pampering its public charges is very different from a country club. As Howie grew and developed his remarkable intelligence, he discovered a guiding principle. Indeed, he put it into a code of his own invention and inscribed it on the back of a business card he found in the street. He still carried it in his wallet. Translated, it said,

"Do whatever seems like a good idea at the moment. Lie about it later. Forge any documents that may be required."

In the general spirit of that principle, one of Howie's first moves in Bollinger was to give his age as twenty-five instead of twenty. He was tired of being a prodigy, and he didn't like to have continually to live up to the associated expectations. He also thought that the additional five years might help with women.

It was, indeed, necessary to forge a few documents to get an Illinois drivers' license for his new age, but that was done quickly and easily. As it turned out, the additional five years didn't help much with the women. But, anyway, it was nice not to be the youngest prosecuting attorney in the United States.

Howie shared a secretary with the other assistant prosecutors, a woman named Alice. She was so unattractive, not so much in features and body, but in characteristic facial expression and implied personality characteristics, that he looked a little over her head, or a little to one side, whenever it was necessary to speak to her. Alice was also hopelessly incompetent, incapable of keeping even the simplest messages straight. One day, when Howie had left a written message for his boss with her, he had returned to hear Alice call out in her damaging voice,

"Mr. Slattery, I have a message for you from the prosecutor."

Always uneasy at getting messages from the boss, he then discovered that the supposed message for him was, in fact, the one he had himself left for the prosecutor.

Howie, inwardly amused, hadn't complained. On the contrary, he had quickly realized that there was some advantage to himself in Alice's confusion. In particular, he could give her a story, and then, if it was expedient to change it, everyone would assume that she had gotten it wrong in the first place. On this occasion, he said,

"Alice, I'll be engaged in research all afternoon. Please tell anyone who calls that I'm in the law library."

Alice only nodded and grunted. There was no telling how she might actually respond to any inquiries about him, but it hardly mattered. Howie left for the library with a book, and, on arriving, he chose another from a shelf. This second book was chosen more for its size than its content, and, opening it on a desk in the back of the room, he placed his own book to the side, as if he were comparing two texts. It was true that there wasn't much in the real estate law of Illinois which bore on anything to be found in the memoirs of Colonel General Heinz Guderian, or vice versa, but it was necessary to hide General Guderian only once, when Howie's boss came in. A half hour before official quitting time, Howie made his escape from the building. After all, he reasoned, the conviction of Wellington Sykes should be enough work for one day.

Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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