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