Talk of the town - By Charles Williams


It wasn't a very large town. The highway came into it from the west across a bridge spanning a slow-moving and muddy river with an unpronounceable Indian name, and then ran straight through the central business district for four or five blocks down a wide street with angle parking and four traffic lights at successive intersections. I was just pulling away from the last light, going about twenty miles per hour in the right-hand lane, when some local in a beat-up old panel truck decided to come shooting backwards out of his parking place without looking behind him.

There was another car on my left, so all I could do was to slam on my brakes just before I plowed into him. There was a crash of metal followed by a succession of tinkling sounds as fragments of grill-work and shards of glass rained onto the pavement. Necks craned up and down the sun-blasted street.

I locked the handbrake and got out, and shook my head with disgust as I sized up the damage. The front bumper was knocked loose at one end, and the right fender and smashed headlight were crumpled in on the wheel. But the worst of it was the spout of hot water streaming out through the wreckage of the grill.

The driver of the panel came charging out. He was about six feet, thin, dark, and hard-nosed, and the bony face he wanted to shove into mine was flavored with cheap muscadel. “Look, stupid,” he said, “maybe you think this is a race track—”

The bad mood had been building up in me for a long time, and I was in just the frame of mind to be jockeyed around by some summer-replacement tough guy with a nose full of wine. I caught a handful of his shirt in my left and started to slap him one across the mouth, but then the childishness of it caught up with me and I merely pushed him away. He sputtered some more, and at the same time somebody behind me clamped a big hand on my arm. I turned. It was a fat man with a hard and competent eye. He was dressed in khaki and wore a gunbelt.

“All right,” he told me. “You want to start trouble around here, start it with me. I’m in the business.”

“Okay, okay,” I said. “There’s no war.”

He kept the flinty eye on my face. “You’re a pretty big boy to be shoving people around.”

The usual crowd was beginning to gather and I could sense I wasn’t likely to be named Miss Northern Florida of 1958. It looked as if I’d started the beef, in addition to running into him, and the Californian license plates probably didn’t help any.

He turned to the driver of the panel. “You all right, Frankie?”

Fine, I thought sourly; they’re probably cousins.

Frankie unburdened himself. The whole thing was my fault; damned tourists, doing sixty through the middle of town. When he ran down, I had a chance to put in my nickel’s worth, and that’s about what it bought. I polled a few of the rubbernecks, looking for witnesses, but nobody had seen anything, or would admit it.

“All right, mister,” the fat policeman told me bleakly, “let’s see your driver's license.”

I was getting it out of my wallet and making a mental note that if I ever came through here again I’d ship the car and walk, when a tall girl with dark hair stepped off the curb and came over.

“I saw the whole thing,” she said to the officer. She told him just how it happened.

In some vague way I couldn’t quite put my finger on, his reaction struck me as a little strange. He apparently knew her, but there was no word of greeting. He nodded, accepting the story, but it was a curt nod, grudging and perhaps faintly hostile. She wrote something on a card and handed it to me.

“If your insurance company wants me, they can reach me there,” she said.

“Thanks a million,” I told her. I slipped the card into my wallet. “It’s very nice of you.”

She went back onto the pavement. Some of the bystanders watched her, and I sensed the same odd reaction I’d felt in the fat policeman. It wasn’t quite hostility—or was it? I had a feeling they all knew her, although not one had spoken to her. But she had poise.

I didn’t know whether it was because of her story or because the officer finally got close enough to Frankie to pick