Murder By Contract, 1958, USA, Director Irving Lerner


I thought he was cute, cold but cute. In the kind of work I do, most of the men, well, I would not call them cute. Maybe they were once cute, when they were a bit younger perhaps but the time they get round to opening their wallet for me, well, they ain’t so cute, so if a guy is cute and not so old, well, you don’t mind so much him being a little cold except Claude was not a little. Claude was a lot cold. Now I know a lot more about Claude, well, that coldness I remember, it gives me the shivers, knowing he killed people for no reason other than he wanted money to buy his dream house, although why he wanted a big fancy home when he had no one to share the place doesn’t make any kind of sense to me.  Claude also kind of gave me the shivers that one time we met, when I had no idea what was to follow, but they were a different kind of shivers to the shivers I have now because I know now what Claude did to earn his money.  I’m smiling because I know you know what I mean.  And I smile a lot.  I’m that kind of person.


You know, I can’t even remember if Claude ever told me his name. I wouldn’t have said he was a Claude. But after he was killed and they then traced the Mr Brink guy and it all came out, well we all heard plenty about Claude. If Claude was as smart as Mr Brink said, it doesn’t make sense. Whatever, Claude was cute. Most of the story was in the papers but I know more than most, seeing as I have a friend in the DA’s office. This gentleman I could not describe as cute and he is definitely not cold. No sir, but, that’s okay. I like a man that pays you attention. I enjoy being admired and, well, liked. Some men want you to stare at them all night or sit there like a dummy while they play the leader of the pack. I have a friend, she was taken to dinner by Mickey Cohen a few times. Well, the state of her the next day. I said to her, I don’t want no work with the likes of Mickey Cohen, thank you. No, sir, give me the quiet guy who is a little bit shy and wants to pay a girl attention, a guy that likes being with me, a guy that can look at me and be happy.


I’ll be honest I’ve thought about Claude more than I have most men, which is odd considering we spent no more than ten minutes together. But Claude was different. I knew it the moment I saw him and I don’t mean handsome although he was that and built like an athlete. But the whole time I was in his room Claude was, like, locked into something inside his head. Claude gave me a couple of drinks, big ones, and I took them because of how I could see he was in his own space and because I thought the booze might be able to help me reach out to him. The booze worked, and, well, I reached for him but I missed, which I could have predicted because Claude knew how to step out of the way.

Some men do but they ain’t the ones that invite you out to dinner. I wonder now why I’d been invited or even if it was Claude that did the inviting. The whole time I was with him, Claude moved around, always finding somewhere else to stand by himself. A part of me didn’t like it but, I have to be honest, a part did because, well, men, as a norm, do not step out of my way. The opposite if you know what I mean. And believe me most men do not cancel a dinner date with me, and not after meeting and seeing me. I asked to see him again, of course, and why not, I like to keep a full schedule and Claude was awfully cute and I hoped that without a train to catch next time he might be different.


I read all about what that Mr Brink said about Claude, and how they called Claude ‘Superman’, but, of course, by then Mr Brink was facing the rap for hiring Claude in the first place, so Mr Brink would say things. When the trial of Mr Brink started, I worried they’d call me as a witness. But my friend in the DA’s office came good and they left me out. The next time I saw my friend I showed my appreciation. He left me that night ten years younger, I can tell you. I know what you mean, you wonder if their wives notice. Not that I wonder too much about their wives. I don’t see why I should. They might want to look like I do but none would swap with me. So why should I feel sorry for them?


This woman that Claude was hired to kill was a piano player, so the papers said. She had a man’s name, Billie Williams. I’ve wondered what that must be like. Not one of my friends has a man’s name but if one had, in this kind of work, she’d have to change. I would anyway. This Billie was asked what went through her mind when Claude appeared in her home and tried to kill her. I was a little afraid, she said. A little, can you believe it? I’d have been terrified. But this Billie said something, and I don’t know why but it gave me those shivers I mentioned. This Billie said that she hoped Claude wouldn’t kill her and that something inside her half believed that he might not. His plan was to strangle her, she said, and she prayed he’d be just too shy for that, he’d pull back before he touched her. The words she used were that he’d want to keep his distance. This Billie said that she had this idea that if she kept playing the piano it might just make Claude hesitate. And that made me think about how he’d been with me, how Claude had wanted to preserve his own space. What this Billie Williams said didn’t make much sense to the men in court but they weren’t women and they weren’t going to understand how a woman can keep a man at a distance, especially if the man’s heart isn’t really into getting close.

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This Billie Williams said something else that not everyone picked up on but my friend in the DA’s office did because he told me about it. This Billie Williams said she found it impossible to imagine dying in the middle of a tune. Whether that included tunes she was just listening to, I do not know, but that is some imagination, which is what I said to my friend in the DA’s office. But my friend said, and it just shows you, you think you know people but you don’t, because my friend said he couldn’t imagine dying before he finished whatever book he happened to be reading. And I thought about this and I have to admit there is something I can’t imagine dying in the middle of but it ain’t reading a book or hitting the ivories.

Whatever was going on between Billie and Claude something made him hesitate long enough for the police to stop him. Claude ran and was killed trying to escape down the drainpipe. The cops pumped the pipe full of gas and bullets, and there was no more Claude which is kind of sad because no one wants to die in a drainpipe even if the fancy name for a drainpipe is a culvert. If I’m going to die, let it be in the middle of a tune or some book even if it’s not supposed to happen that way. But definitely not in the middle of a drainpipe nor halfway through the something I was thinking about before. Mr Brink was not for saying much in court but it came out that Claude had not been a contract killer for that long. This Billie Williams would have been the third person he killed. Claude would have had to kill a lot more before he could afford his house which means that there are now people walking around Los Angeles who could have been dead but it is also kind of sad for Claude. The poor guy didn’t even kill enough people to find the deposit on his dream house.


After what happened to Claude and in particular after I thought about what might have happened to me I never felt the same about Los Angeles which is one of the reasons why I’m heading to Las Vegas. I have a friend out there, Ginger McKenna, a beautiful girl who knows important people, except the only important people out there in Vegas ain’t my kind because I’m the kind of girl that likes a man to pay attention and not always be being the great I am to his friends. But Ginger thinks she can fix me up with a job as a showgirl in one of the big shows. Why not, I think, I ain’t the best dancer in the world but I can kick my legs in the air. I’ve had practice. I don’t really like dancing that much. But if I’m honest, I’m a little worried about Ginger, and what are friends for if not to protect them from their latest lug. And I do not like the look of this Sam Rothstein that has Ginger in tow. But that’s another story. I need a change. After what happened with Claude, I’m not the same. I still like to be looked at and to be admired but I think maybe some space between whoever is doing the looking and me wouldn’t go amiss.

Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism.  His latest travel book No Tall Heels To Tango is now available here.