October 4, 2013
Author: Chilton Williamson
Excerpt from The Hundredth Meridian
Lynette Lyon Hollow liked money. Because she had never had any of her own before, though, having it around made her nervous, and so she spent it whenever she saw something she thought worth spending money on. When more money kept coming in anyway than went out, she spent faster and faster on bigger and bigger ticket items to make herself feel better, until presently she was feeling very, very good. So was Hasty, who hardly ever had to crawl out of a Johnny Walker Black bottle anymore, even to talk to his money managers. Lynette had fired all of them.
Right after Hasty’s divorce from Happy and his immediate remarriage to Lynette in Las Vegas, the Hollows had closed up the house in Durango and flown to Jackson, Wyoming, where the new Mrs. Hollow sold the condo at Spring Creek Ranch and moved them into a much bigger home, with pasture for her champion cutting-horse adjoining the property, next door to the Rockefeller compound between town and the airport. The new house had a magnificent view of the Grand Tetons and also on occasion a Rockefeller, which Lynette found still more imposing, even it was wearing shorts and a T-shirt and riding a bicycle. (She’d stopped off at the compound once to see if she could interest anyone in Western Swing lessons, but found no takers.) Her sister Lisette and Lisette’s husband Slim lived on a ranch outside Soda Springs, Idaho, not more than a couple of hours away; while Happy was safely settled in Durango where Lynette confidently expected her to stay put, with her Carrera marble floors and a Johnny Walker bottle of her own. She never minded when Hasty, in his confusion, mistook her for his first wife, because it meant he wouldn’t notice anything when her boyfriend Rick invited her into the caretaker’s house after supper to dance to swing records.
Lynette and Hasty enjoyed what most people would call a good marriage, neither one of them given to interfering in the other’s life, and with nothing to quarrel about except for the cat Puddy that Lynette had brought with her from Colorado. Lynette had had Puddy around for ten years now, ever since she was a kitten. Puddy was white with a black patch on her back and about the size of a small beaver, weighing thirty-five pounds and requiring an insulin shot daily for her diabetes, which hardly ever caused her to wake up. When not crouched at her feeding station which Lynette kept supplied with delicacies purchased from a gourmet shop in Jackson, Puddy slept most of the day in out-of-the-way places, an offense to no one except Hasty, who couldn’t bear the sight of her. He’d never cared for cats much anyway, and this particular specimen, with its grossly distended stomach, pendulant dugs, and infuriating air of self-indulgent entitlement made him see red every time he laid eyes on it. When Lynette wasn’t around and he was relatively sober, Hasty was fond of playing it mean tricks: sprinkling cayenne pepper on its favorite morsels, picking it up by the scruff of neck the way no cat weighing thirty-five pounds ought to be picked up, and rolling it onto its back for a violent game of patty-cake until in fear it lost control of its rectal muscles and slowly soiled itself.
After only a few months of marriage Puddy had become an obsession with Hasty, though Lynette seemed not to notice, what with her romance with Rick the caretaker and the fact she was drinking more than she used to do. On top of everything, the notes had started arriving-a couple at least a week, all of them post-marked “Durango CO” and hand-written on elegant letter paper bearing the Tiffany watermark that contrasted oddly with the inelegant messages inscribed there. “You dirty little man-rustler,” the latest–in part-had read. “Think you’re a real Western swinger, don’t you? You deserve to be swung around til you’re silly, then thrown away with your throat cut.” Lynette, recalling Happy’s psychotic spells in which she’d seen the Johnny Walker figure with his cane on his arm standing in the driveway, had tossed the first two or three notes contemptuously into the wastebasket. Later, she became slightly nervous and shared the most recent ones with Rick.
“I don’t get it,” Rick said. “The rich bitch lives in Durango, don’t she? Most of the time, she don’t know where Durango’s at, and you can forget Jackson Hole-right? Finally, she’s a woman, ain’t she? You think some broad’s gonna get past me in the middle of the night? What the hell you worried for, baby?” he added, folding a pinch of chew under his lower lip.
Lynette tried telling herself she had nothing to worry about, that the one thing Happy required to have herself poured aboard an airplane-besides a bottle, of course-was Hasty, and that Hasty was here in Jackson with her, Mrs. Hasty Hollow the Second. The thought gave her comfort before the terrible night when, sitting in her powder-blue cowgirl outfit opposite her husband with a bottle of Dom Perignon between them in Jackson’s most elegant restaurant a block north of the Antler Arch, she glimpsed Mrs. Hasty Hollow the First, seated alone in a corner of the diningroom where two rows of relucent plate-glass windows met at a perpendicular angle, three or four tables away.
The Old Yellowstone Garage was one of those New West restaurants that seemed to be a cross between an old-money, off-Lower Fifth establishment in Greenwich Village and a glitzy Hollywood bar. About a fifth of the diners looked like movie stars, and every seventh or eighth face, children excepted, appeared to have been lifted. The middle-aged woman in pale pink, peering with ancient eyes from behind a mask of taut-stretched and pancaked skin at the side of her escort, a big-nosed gentleman twenty years her senior, looked demonic. She was not half as frightening, however, as the frail figure of Happy Hollow, doubled in the window beside herself and bent as if half asleep above her Johnny Walker-and-soda with a lime twist. Almost for the first time in her life, Lynette knew what fear-real fear-was.
“What’s the matter with you?” her husband wanted to know. “Is the Dom Perignon corked? I’ll send it back, together with a big piece of my mind. They want more for the stuff here even than I’m used to paying in Chicago.”
“The champagne’s okay,” Lynette told him. “Here comes the guy to scrape crumbs from the table cloth with a knife. It kind of gives me the creeps. I was raised in a barn, you know? Pour me another glass while I’m in the powder room, will you?”
She understood before she was halfway across the floor she’d made a mistake, but Lynette wouldn’t let herself be intimidated. She’d just got her lipstick out when, in the mirror, the lavatory door opened behind her and Happy Hollow came floating through it like a ghost. Happy wore on her ring finger the canary diamond the size of a small potato and surrounded by emeralds Lynette remembered, nuzzled against her platinum wedding ring, and in her right hand she carried the half-finished drink she had brought away with her from the table. Without looking at Lynette or acknowledging her presence, she walked up to the basin beside her and, very deliberately, poured the whiskey into the sink, until only the ice cubes and the lime twist remained above the drain. Then she turned, and walked straight out of the lavatory, on her way back to the restaurant.
After that evening, odd things began happening around the Hollowses’ new home. Overnight letters arrived almost every morning by Priority Mail and the phone rang constantly; it seemed to Lynette that every time she lifted the receiver to place a call, Hasty was on the line to a party who had quit speaking abruptly. Once, she saw him hook his shoe under Puddy’s abdomen and kick her violently away from her feeding station. They had a big fight about it, ending in Hasty cracking a fresh bottle of Johnny Walker Black and Lynette running out to the caretaker’s lodge and into Rick’s consoling arms. “I’d ought to shoot the sonofabitch,” Rick said, but Lynette told him no, they couldn’t afford to have anything happen to Hasty, just yet. She also let him know that, in case he happened to catch Happy hanging around the place, she wouldn’t mind his arranging for a little accident that would leave the ornery old bitch just a little dead. Then a castrophe occurred that caused Lynette to put every other trouble out of her mind. She came downstairs one morning to find the door of the laundry room, where Puddy slept in a gilt basket on top of a tanned sheepskin with the wool left on, ajar, and Puddy herself gone.
Lynette, who had slept behind locked doors since she’d watched a rerun of the movie In Cold Blood ten years before, couldn’t understand how the back door had come to be left open. The lock wasn’t jimmied, and nothing but the cat appeared to be missing. Her first thought was to blame Hasty, before she decided he had an alibi, as usual, in Johnny Walker Black. That left the maid, a Mexican girl in the country illegally, who broke down in tears when confronted by the Señora and invoked the Mother of God as her witness. The ransom note arrived the following morning in a plain white envelope postmarked Yellowstone Park. “I don’t keep a supply of insulin around the house,” it said in neat printed letters. “Pack your stuff and leave Jackson by Friday, if you want to see Fat Cat-ALIVE!–again.” The note was unsigned but bore the print of a cat’s paw, dipped in ink.
Tearfully, Lynette carried the note into the caretaker’s lodge and showed it to Rick. “It’s Her,” she wailed. “I know it is! Poor Puddy–she can’t survive a week without insulin and fresh shrimp. What are we going to do, Rick?”
Rick did a bad impression of a thoughtful person, lasting no more than a few painful seconds. Then he tucked a pinch of tobacco inside his lower lip. “Looks to me like you got some kind of problem,” he agreed finally. “You can trust me, baby: I’ll handle it for you. A few days is all this boy ever needs to get a situation figgered out.”
“We don’t have a few days,” Lynette retorted bitterly, and left him.
She phoned the Jackson police station. The dispatcher referred her to the Animal Control Center, and hung up when she demanded the force take action itself. Lynette thought-briefly-of asking Hasty for advice, then poured herself a glass of Johnny Walker Black instead. The phone rang while she was drinking it and Lynette picked up to hear a woman’s low voice, unnatural sounding as if it were strained through silk pantihose, as in the movies.
“Be at the front gate at eleven o’clock Friday night,” the voice intoned. “Have your luggage with you. You will be met by a black car. That.creature of yours will be in a travel case on the floor behind the front seat. You will be driven to the airport, where a private jet will be waiting for you. Speak a word of this to anyone, and the animal will be butchered, pronto, and its remains donated to the Raptor Center. You have been warned. Goodbye.”
Lynette knew only one person who used the word “pronto.”
Even before the speaker finished, she had a plan. Lynette hung up the receiver and ran across the grounds to the caretaker’s lodge where, finding that Rick had devised no plan yet, she told him hers. He acted unimpressed, but allowed that it might work, anyway. “A guy don’t ever want to think too fast,” he explained. “He needs to chew, like, on an idea, like it was a chaw, and spit it out, if need be.”
Lynette was in a hurry for Friday night to come, but she tried to stay calm and work deliberately. Hasty helped, by keeping mostly to his room and out of her way. They saw each other only at supper, when they were waited on by the maid who was still so terrified by Lynette that she fumbled things and served from the right side instead of the left, the way Hasty had repeatedly instructed her not to do. He appeared more than usually fuddled Friday evening, and announced after the meal that he was going up to bed.
Shortly before eleven Lynette was at the gate, with two large and quite empty suitcases on the ground beside her. At a distance of only a few yards, Rick sat crouched behind a young pine tree, fondling a .40 semi-automatic pistol in his hand. They had not waited long when two parallel light beams panned the darkness and held them briefly in their twinned glare, before a black Buick sedan pulled up and, having narrowly avoided running over the suitcases, stopped with a lurch. This was the moment, Lynette thought. She lifted her luggage in two hands, glancing sideways as she did so for Rick, who was just then emerging from the shadows.
“Get in the car,” he ordered, motioning to her with the gun.
“Do what?” Lynette gasped.
“What I tell you-get in the car. Drop them suitcases, first.”
She climbed onto the rear seat and sat, astounded. A catbox rested on the floor behind the driver. Rick opened the trunk, placed the luggage inside, and closed the lid. Then he came around to the driver’s side. The driver pressed a button to lower the window and passed Rick a roll of bills through it.
“But.why?” Lynette protested weakly.
“The goddamn cat–that’s why,” the driver said, with violence. The voice was the voice of her husband, not really sober. “It’s enough to drive a man to drink, for God’s sake. Don’t worry: Happy sent along a bottle to take with you for carry-on.”