Texas is one of the centers of a profession devoted to death. Its practitioners believe in the American way of life, love their kids, go to church, and never leave fingerprints.
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THE ENGINES OF THE DC-9, taxiing out to the takeoff stand, send a soft vibration, a pleasing electric jiggle, coursing through the plane; Dr. John Hill, tired after the long Las Vegas weekend, is lulled to sleep. It had been an enjoyable little vacation, a respite from the seemingly unhazardous task of being one of the world’s great plastic surgeons. He has seen many of his former patients in Vegas, all of them wealthy, some of them famous.
While John Hill is being quietly vibrated to sleep, a telephone call is placed from a pay phone booth in the Vegas airport to the pay phone in the International House of Pies on Kirby Drive in Houston. The phone is in the back of the all-night, well-lit, L.A.-plasticized, pink-and-white little restaurant, in the corridor between the Men’s and Ladies’ rooms, and is very private. The conversation is brief: the flight number of the plane and the time it will land in Houston.
Another call, equally brief, goes from the House of Pies to the pay phone at the all-night Stop-N-Go on West Gray, just across the street from the River Oaks Theater. The man who takes the call begins walking casually up the street, past Shepherd Blvd. and into the lush, wooded enclave that houses Houston’s wealth.
September of 1972 saw Indian Summer in Houston, and it is still somewhat light out when Dr. Hill pulls into his wide, looping driveway. Like most of his neighbors, he is near the pinnacle of his profession, and he has garnered respect and fortune from that status; he has not earned much affection. In a few weeks he is due to stand trial, for the second time, for the murder of his first wife. She had died a slow, gruesome death by poison; the police say her husband, the eminent physician, just watched it happen. Unlike her husband, she was much loved.
With heavy thoughts on his mind, Dr. Hill opens his front door. He is shot five times; his mother and 10-year-old son, bound and gagged, are witnesses. The man who shot him, now a murderer, leaves quickly. He walks (not running, it looks suspicious in a neighborhood like this; people remember a man who runs) back to the Stop-N-Go, discarding on the way a gun and a wig.
The police find the gun. They investigate furiously and decide that the man had intended to rob the house, had murdered only by accident. They were supposed to think that. He had, in fact, murdered with precisely-timed intent, was paid handsomely to do it. The same job had once been turned down at $25,000.
Professional murder is one of the few vocations left in the world devoid of statistical tables. Since it is both covert and personal, no scorekeepers allowed, wildly disparate tabulations are always turning up: hit-men and their friends provide variable lifetime totals for themselves, inflating and deflating as the occasion demands, and the police do the same thing—dead murderers are always assigned lists of victims, previously unsolved—in the interests of better bookkeeping. It’s the kind of confusion you’d expect to find in a game where the winner and the referee are always the same person.
Regardless of statistical method, however, there is little doubt that the king of Texas hit-men, until about this time last year, was a Dallasite named Stanley Cook, cheerfully known to his friends and fans as “the Creeper.” Variously credited with anywhere from ten to 50 murders, Cook was easily the best known and most feared hit-man in the state, labeled by both the Texas Rangers and the Dallas Morning News as “an enforcer for the Dixie Mafia.” The last Texas Attorney General’s “Report on Organized Crime” virtually gloated over Cook’s demise last August, when he found himself on the wrong end of one of those contracts.
(A cavil is in order here on the subject of “Reports on Organized Crime” from Texas Attorneys General: such epics are regularly produced by publicity hacks at the Department of Public Safety, and are little more than jazzed-up harangues about how the DPS needs more laws governing everyone but themselves, and bigger budgets. If you really want to know about organized crime in Texas, you’ll learn a lot more by going somewhere like the Lemon Twist Lounge up in Dallas, and just hanging out for three hours.)
A friend of Cook’s, named Jimmy, remembers him: “You’d’ve never believed all that stuff about him if you just met him. He was just a dumpy little bastard. Almost everybody’s first impression of Stanley was he was a faggot, just this scrawny little guy that didn’t say anything. He wasn’t ever a scarey guy. My wife usedta send him grocery shopping for us.
“The thing that made him so bad was he just didn’t care about killin’ people, he’d shoot you in the goddamn middle of Times Square if he felt like it. He got inna fight at a bar one time, and these two guys beat the shit outta him. He just borrowed a gun and went out to the parkin’ lot and started blowin ’em away. This cop comes up behind him while he’s doin all this and tells him ‘hold it.’ Stanley just tells the cop ‘as soon as I’m finished’ and keeps blazin’ away at those two bastards until he’s outta shells. That’s how crazy he was. He shot a guy in the middle of rush hour traffic on the Northwest Freeway one time. That’s the one they’d busted him on when he got killed.
“Boy, he was heavy in Dallas. Everybody was scared a that sonuvabitch. That’s how he made so much money, people’d just pay him to use his name on a deal, like bein’ on retainer, y’know, and, Jesus, people’d jump.
“We were on this job with him once, was kind’ve a set-up deal where we were getting an this furniture out’ve a store. We’d just drive up at night and load up our truck. Well this other dude got hip to what we were doin’, so he started leanin on us for part of the juice. We told him it was Stanley’s party, y’know, and next thing we know this guy is carryin’ tables out for us. That’s how strong old Stanley was in that town.”
Old Stanley’s strength, though, proved less than he would have liked. At two o’clock in the morning of August 30, 1972, Cook left the Lemon Twist Lounge with two friends. He unlocked the passenger door of his car for them, then went around to the driver’s side. Just as he opened the door, while he was framed in it, lit by the interior light, one .30 caliber soft-point rifle shell ripped through his chest. The attendant at an adjacent gas station saw “two well-dressed, clean-cut men” drive hurriedly off in a late-model car.
Possible motives for Stanley’s murder were, of course, abundant; considerably more than a few people were pleased to see him dead. But, as Jimmy figures it, it was Stanley’s Mafia friends who did him in: “He was gettin’ to be too well-known was his problem. He even had his picture in the paper. Now what the hell good is a hit-man who’s got his picture in the goddamn newspaper? He was just too risky a dude to have hangin’ around.”
THE PHONE RINGS, LIKE ANY other ring, giving no warning, just announcing.
“Hello….Is this Mister Davidson?”
“Well, Mister Davidson, I was given your name by a, uh…a friend…”
“Yes?” anxiously. Maybe this is… A nervous well opens in the stomach, adrenaline rushing, hesitantly, into it…
“Well, this friend knows you. Or he’s talked to you, I think, or knows somebody who has…”
“Yes?” Jesus, this has got to be it.
“He says that if I called you, you might have some work for me to do.”
My God, this is it! What do you say? Answer him, for crissakes…”Yes…I think I know what you mean.” There. His move.
“Perhaps we could talk about it.”
“Now?” adrenaline pumping.
“Of course not. Not on the phone. I could meet you somewhere.”
“Certainly. Could we have lunch tomorrow? I could buy lunch. I know a…”
“I’d rather not meet someplace where there’s a lot of people.”
“Oh…” That’s exactly the point. “Well, okay.”
“Could you come by my motel room?”
“Oh? When?” Oh God, is there any way to stop this.
“Some time tonight.”
“Well, I guess so.” Isn’t there another way? “Where is it?”
“I’m at the Holiday Inn on the Gulf Freeway…Room 263.”
“Ohmmm, okay. Yeah. Well, I’ll be by about ten or so, is that alright?”
“That’s fine, I’ll be here waiting.”
“Okay, well, I’ll, uhhh, see you later then?”
Holy shit. So that’s the way it works, how it all gets started. Don’t call me, I’ll call you. Just talk around enough, ask people who you think ought to know enough, open your mouth enough, and it happens. They call you. Just like that. Like he was a damn insurance broker or something…and he even knew the unlisted phone number…hmmmphh. That’s pretty impressive really. When you think about it. Well, it’s now or never. Do you really want to do this thing…
Room 263 is in the back of the motel, dimly lit, facing nothing but a parking lot, close to the stairs. Knock on the door, trying to make it sound friendly, tap-tap-ta-tap-ta-ta, a little tune. You hear the chain rattle as it comes off. The door opens a little, a little more, two inches, enough to reveal a…
…twelve-gauge shotgun. Jesus Christ.
Then an eye from around the edge of the door, the long gun barrel sags toward the floor. “C’mon in.”
Whheeooww. A long exhalation, seemingly the first in hours. Walk in, glance quickly around. He’s barefooted, the first thing you notice.
He’s also completely unlike what you expected him to look like: short, five-five at best, and rotund, well into middle-age with a fleshy, ruddy face. His skin is mottled pink and brown, like he has a liver condition, and his thin hair has steadily retreated beyond the crown of his skull; he looks like the family dentist. In a well-cast murder mystery he’d be playing the pawnbroker’s simpleton assistant.
Lesson Number One in Professional Murder: the best hit-men never look the part.
His name is Paul, he’s 41 but looks ten years older, and he’s one of the best-paid killers in Texas. And one of the most experienced: he murdered his first man at the age of 26, has killed 31 more times in the 15 years since then, at an average price of $10,000.
“I never really planned on doin’ it,” he says of that first murder. “A friend of mine said he’d pay $1000 to somebody who’d kill this other fella, and he asked me if I knew anyone who’d do it. I told him yeah, I did, but I didn’t think it’d end up being me.
“I finally decided Hell, I could use the money. I just went out to his house with a 12-gauge sawed-off and parked in front. When he came outta the door, I just blew him ’bout in half. I felt some remorse, I guess, that first time, but not for long. Hell, I got no conscience.”
Paul lays the shotgun on the bed.
Wow, glad to see that. A box of 12-gauge magnum bucks sits on the table, next to the room-service cheeseburger and Schlitz bottle. God, those things’d splatter somebody all over the parking lot.
“I just bought it,” he says, nodding pridefully towards the gun, “gonna saw it off.”
Sit down, try to look friendly, relaxed. Say something, small talk. What can you ask him? How’s business? Yeah, right, that’s a good one…Finally: “Nice room you’ve got.”
“Yeah.” He answers flatly, finally. “Listen, I don’t like to do this, but I gotta check you out to see that you’re not wired.” He’s standing up.
“Oh sure.” What the hell’s he talking about? Getting up too, what’s this wired crap?
“You wanta spread-eagle over there?” Oh, that’s it, the old frisk, just like in the movies; hands running quickly, expertly, along arms, legs, down the ribs.
“Take your boots off.”
“Sure.” What’s he think there could be in a pair of boots? He shakes them, bangs them on the table, examines the heels.
“Okay. I gotta do that, you understand.”
“Oh, for sure, I can see how you’d have to be pretty careful in your kind of business.” There. That sounded pretty loose, almost normal. Jesus, what a business.
Paul’s eyes. A kind of sleety grey-blue, changeless and void, hidden behind heavy lids, downward angling to form a perpetually squinting, furtive pair of cold murderer’s eyes, the only portion of his anatomy that conforms to his soul. When he talks or laughs, sighs or smiles, the lines from his mouth warp pleasantly, like a doting Irish grandfather’s, and his face is animated, evocative, the cheeks take color. But the eyes, the eyes never change, a vacant, rotted, gravedigger’s death-stare.
Paul’s hands. The palms and fingers are shiny, glossy, like they’re carved from wax. Acid. Twenty years, once a week, rubbing them with acid. It’s almost impossible to take fingerprints from them. It can be done, of course, if done carefully, expertly, with a blotter and slick paper, because the soft whorls are still vaguely visible; but they never leave inadvertent, careless fingerprints behind, on doors or windows, or glasses. Or guns.
Paul grew up in the hard-scrabble environs of Beaumont-Pt.Arthur in mid-Depression, where the squalid dreck of refineries hovered over angry war between union-conscious oil workers and poverty-riddled strikebreakers from Louisiana and Alabama. “We useta go nigger-knockin’ when I was a kid,” he remembers. “We’d drive through Nigger-Town in a ole Model A Ford, crackin’ niggers onna skull with a lead-filled hose.”
The only other entertainment for youths of his time and acquaintance was robbing homosexuals: “I never had no use for queers. All we did was follow ’em around an’ knock ’em in the head and take whatever they had.”
When the war and the draft opened up new jobs at high wages, the lure proved irresistible. Like most of his friends, Paul quit grade school to go to work. Again like most of his friends, he lost his job when the GI’s came home, and he turned to the streets to earn a living. He went on to fashion a dazzling police record, ranging all the way from concealed weapon charges to armed robbery, and he’s spent two stretches in the Huntsville state penitentiary. He’s presently under two federal and three state indictments, a conviction on any of which is strike three, habitual criminal, life imprisonment…None of his arrests, convictions or indictments, now or before, are for murder.
“I never been caught on one. Ever’ hit I’ve done has been a good one. I only ever missed once, shot the guy but didn’t kill him.
“It’s an expensive business, though. I had $25,000 in legal fees just this year. And I always pay my expenses outta what I get fer a job. If I gotta hire a driver or something, or somebody to help me follow somebody, I always pay fer it myself. I’ll take half my money in advance on a job, and I never change the price after we make a deal. It ain’t no shakedown for nobody. Hell, it’s a business for me.”
The business of murder, like everything else these days, is in somewhat of a slide. Just as the sexual liberation of the Aquarian Age resulted in a prostitution depression, a violence-riven America has cut severely into the murder market. There are scores of cheap Texas hoods who will kill a man for $1000 or $2000; a high-class hit-man, like Paul, comes stiffer.
“I wouldn’t go for less than five [grand],” he says, “even if it was just some skidrow bum. I don’t feel no competition from these hoods. They’re used ta robbin’ little old grocery stores, just amateurs doin’ it for a sideline. It’s like any other business: I got more experience, and I got more to lose if I get caught.
“My average price, I’d say, is about ten [grand]. You charge more to hit a law officer, ’cause they’re the only ones ya can burn for anymore. I’ll check out both the guy who’s hirin’ me and the guy he wants hit before I’ll take a job, and I’ll figure out how much to charge him then. And ya gotta ask yourself how much does this guy really want’m hit. If somebody’s gonna make halfa million if somebody else gets killed, I sure ain’t gonna do it fer just ten.
“Mosta the kinda people ya get paid to hit are upper-middle-class, people who gamble a lot, are involved in politics. Usually they’re crooked to start with. Hell, 95 per cent of the people I’ve hit’ve deserved it.
“And it’s usually because of money. I mean, you’ve gotta have a helluva grudge to hit somebody, to have’m killed, unless there’s somethin’ in it. You take a average man, a guy who runs a service station or a beer-joint, what you wanta hit him for?
“It’s like I hadta go to Alabama on a job once. A sister and two brothers inherited a buncha money, and I hit both brothers and that little girl got all of it, see? And nobody ever knew. They never even found one of ’em.”
Paul has plied his trade in several places—”I’ve gone to mosta the Southern states, went as far north as St. Louis once”—but mostly in Texas or California, where he used to live. His most lucrative job was done there: “Was this guy that was heavy in politics, and in the Mafia, too. He was in business with this other guy who’d make a lotta money if he got killed. I got $30,000 in front, and halfa the money he got afterwards. I checked inta the guy and found he was real girl-crazy. Well, I had some girls workin for me then, so two of ’em set him up to go to Vegas one weekend. Left L.A. but he never made it to Vegas. The two girls helped me bury him out there. I don’t even think I could take you back to it now if I tried to.”
According to Paul, Texas is “one a the biggest states around” in professional murder. “California is so damn fulla hippies and beatniks—they’ll go out and hit a man without even tryin’ to. Texas has more experienced hit-men, more professionals, than really any other state I can think of. There’s a lot I guess up in New York, but they’re all in the Mafia up there, that’s like bein’ in the Army and killin’. They just hit each other. But Texas is so damn big, so damn much money in it. I know eight or ten hit men here in Houston, another five or six in San Antonio, four, five in El Paso.
“You have a grapevine in the underworld,” he says, “that runs between me and others in my profession. You just find out about any jobs that’re around, the word gets around. I just came into town yesterday and I heard about this hit. It’s a hot job, which is usually a federal or a police officer, so nobody from around here wants to do it. If you’re somebody lookin’ for a hit-man, you just have to fish around a little bit, and you’ll get a connection.
“Usually when somebody hires me to hit somebody, they’ll tell me who it is, where he lives, what kinda guy he is. Usually they can give you a picture. Sometimes you can just walk right up and ring the doorbell; if the right man answers, then you do it right there. You’d be surprised how easy that is. Whenever other people hear those shots it stuns ’em so bad it’s easy to get gone. I did that to this guy up in Virginia a few years ago, an Army guy, and in a halfa hour they had four different descriptions out on my car. And none of’m was close.
“Sometimes you hafta follow the guy around for a long time before you catch’m somewheres you can do it and get outta there. I like to do that myself but sometimes you need help if the guy moves around a lot. That’s a bad one. When you do somethin’ by yourself nobody can tell on you but you.
“I’ve used a sawed-off 12-gauge quite a bit, I guess most of the time. Between 40 to 60 feet it’s better’n a machinegun. The rest’ve the time I used a pistol. After I’m done I’ll always get me a cuttin’ torch and melt the gun right into the ground. It’s a lot harder to prove murder on ya if they haven’t got a weapon.
“Killin’ people’s easier’n most any other type of crime if ya do it right. I know, ’cause I’ve done most’ve ’em. But not any more, I don’t do nothin else any more. Other crimes, usually, there’s always other people around who know about it, but not murder, not if you do it right. That makes it awful hard for’m to prove anything on ya. Hell, the cops know who I am, they know ’bout me, they even know ’bout some’ve my jobs. Just from talkin’ around, y’know. But they can’t do nothin’ ’cause they’ve got no evidence. There isn’t any evidence.”
Paul’s clothes. “I like to dress like a businessman,” he’ll tell you, “so people think that’s what I am.” An East Texas businessman, one should know. He dresses in what might be called Omaha Chic, white belt, white shoes, ugly-but-flashy dacron and polyester suits in ludicrous color combination, lavender-on-turquoise with, yea gods, matching stretch socks. Frankenstein meets Super-Fly.
“I got no conscience,” he says, saying it eight, ten times in a two-hour converstation, belaboring it, pleading it, trying to convince—who?—that he really is amoral, that there is no warm breath in that dead soul. “I had to hit a woman once,” he adds, those eyes closing even more unto themselves, staring into those waxy hands, “and I still don’t feel right about that one; I guess. That was a hard one to do.
“I’m not proud of what I do, I’m not braggin’ on it. Hell, I don’t even like it. But you do what you have to do, y’know?”
Paul’s business has earned him, by his count, a pretty fair living, better than most of those long-ago friends he went nigger-knockin’ with, better than most of the friends he made in the penitentiary. Together with the salary from his front job (“I belong to a union and some’ve ’em sorta know what I do. They cover for me when I’m gone, mark me as workin, so I got a sure-fire alibi.”) and the various benefits, always tax-free, that murder provides, protection and the like, Paul has amassed a $50,000 split-level suburban home (with shoulder-high windows and Doberman pinschers), four cars and debts.
He’s sending five children through school (“My two oldest boys’re finished—one’s a rodeo rider an one’s a hippie. My oldest girl’s in college.”), paying alimony to two former wives, and daily confronting that same amorphous discontent that staggers his neighbors in blue-collar suburbia. “This world’s in a helluva place,” he says, pondering his own place therein, “and it’s hard to find your way in it. I’d hate for my kids to live like I do.
“It’s hard to go to a bar and you hear somebody say, ‘See that fella, for enough money he’ll kill ya.’ One time I’d like to hear somebody say, ‘That’s one good ole boy, if yer ever in trouble he’ll help ya.'”
Besides his clothes, he wears other marks of his heritage, that doomed sharecropper legacy of struggle and stumble, among them a belief in a stark Calvinist God of power and retribution.
“I’m a Methodist,” he says, “I go to church twice a week when I’m home, once at least when I’m away. I stop each night and talk to the Old Man Upstairs and try and get him to straighten me out. Someday He will.
“When I get loose from this stuff [his indictments] I wanta get away from here, go somewhere I can work, just live a regular life. I don’t mean just move to Florida or New York or somewhere, I mean go. To Australia. I’m going down there and I’m gonna play it straight, I mean straight. The only thing I hate is I gotta leave my kids.
“But I need to get away from all this. I already quit once, about five years ago, but I went back to doin’ it ’cause I needed the money. But I ain’t mad at people. I’ve never been mad at any man I’ve shot. I’ve never known any of ’em. The first one’s still to come that really bothers me. It’s a good livin, I guess…If you’ve got no conscience.”