In Cold Blood: The Last to See Them Alive (2024)

The doorknob turned, rattled. Dick said, “Want some candy? They got a candy machine out here.”


“You O.K.?”

“I’m fine.”

“Don’t be all night.”

Dick dropped a dime in a vending machine, pulled the lever, and picked up a bag of jelly beans; munching, he wandered back to the car and lounged there watching the young attendant’s efforts to rid the windshield of Kansas dust and the slime of battered insects. The attendant, whose name was James Spor, felt uneasy. Dick’s eyes and sullen expression and Perry’s strange, prolonged sojourn in the lavatory disturbed him. (The next day, he reported to his employer, “We had some tough customers in here last night,” but he did not think, then or for the longest while, to connect the visitors with the tragedy in Holcomb.)

Dick said, “Kind of slow around here.”

“Sure is,” James Spor said. “You’re the only body stopped here since two hours. Where you coming from?”

“Kansas City.”

“Here to hunt?’

“Just passing through. On our way to Arizona. We got jobs waiting there. Construction work. Any idea the mileage between here and Tucumcari, New Mexico?”

“Can’t say I do. Three dollars six cents.” He accepted Dick’s money, made change, and said, “You’ll excuse me, sir? I’m doing a job. Putting a bumper on a truck.”

Dick waited, ate some jelly beans, impatiently gunned the motor, sounded the horn. Was it possible that he had misjudged Perry’s character? That Perry, of all people, was suffering a sudden case of “blood bubbles”? A year ago, when they first encountered each other, he’d thought Perry “a good guy,” if a bit “stuck on himself,” “sentimental,” too much “the dreamer.” He had liked him but not considered him especially worth cultivating until, one day, Perry described a murder, telling how, simply for “the hell of it,” he had killed a colored man in Las Vegas—beaten him to death with a bicycle chain. The anecdote elevated Dick’s opinion of Little Perry; he began to see more of him, and, like Willie-Jay, though for dissimilar reasons, gradually decided that Perry possessed unusual and valuable qualities. Several murderers, or men who boasted of murder or their willingness to commit it, circulated inside Lansing, but Dick became convinced that Perry was that rarity, “a natural killer”—absolutely sane, but conscienceless, and capable of dealing, with or without motive, the coldest-blooded deathblows. It was Dick’s theory that such a gift could, under his supervision, be profitably exploited. Having reached this conclusion, he had proceeded to woo Perry, flatter him—pretend, for example, that he believed all the buried-treasure stuff and shared his beachcomber yearnings and seaport longings, none of which appealed to Dick, who wanted “a regular life,” with a business of his own, a house, a horse to ride, a new car, and “plenty of blond chicken.” It was important, however, that Perry not suspect this—not until Perry, with his gift, had helped further Dick’s ambitions. But perhaps it was Dick who had miscalculated, been duped; if so—if it developed that Perry was, after all, only an “ordinary punk”—then “the party” was over, the months of planning were wasted, there was nothing to do but turn and go. It mustn’t happen; Dick returned to the station.

The door to the men’s room was still bolted. He banged on it: “For Christsake, Perry!”

“In a minute.”

“What’s the matter? You sick?”

Perry gripped the edge of the washbasin and hauled himself to a standing position. His legs trembled; the pain in his knees made him perspire. He wiped his face with a paper towel. He unlocked the door and said, “O.K. Let’s go.”

Nancy’s bedroom was the smallest, most personal room in the house—girlish, and as frothy as a ballerina’s tutu. Walls, ceiling, and everything else except a bureau and a writing desk were pink or blue or white. The white-and-pink bed, piled with blue pillows, was dominated by a big pink-and-white Teddy bear—a shooting-gallery prize that Bobby had won at the county fair. A cork bulletin board, painted pink, hung above a white-skirted dressing table; dry gardenias, the remains of some ancient corsage, were attached to it, and old valentines, newspaper recipes, and snapshots of her baby nephew and of Susan Kidwell and of Bobby Rupp, Bobby caught in a dozen actions—swinging a bat, dribbling a basketball, driving a tractor, wading, in bathing trunks, at the edge of McKinney Lake (which was as far as he dared go, for he had never learned to swim). And there were photographs of the two together—Nancy and Bobby. Of these, she liked best one that showed them sitting in a leaf-dappled light amid picnic debris and looking at one another with expressions that, though unsmiling, seemed mirthful and full of delight. Other pictures, of horses, of cats deceased but unforgotten—like “poor Boobs,” who had died not long ago and most mysteriously (she suspected poison)—encumbered her desk.

Nancy was invariably the last of the family to retire; as she had once informed her friend and home-economics teacher, Mrs. Polly Stringer, the midnight hours were her “time to be selfish and vain.” It was then that she went through her beauty routine, a cleansing, creaming ritual, which on Saturday nights included washing her hair. Tonight, having dried and brushed her hair and bound it in a gauzy bandanna, she set out the clothes she intended to wear to church the next morning: nylons, black pumps, a red velvet dress—her prettiest, which she herself had made. It was the dress in which she was to be buried.

Before saying her prayers, she always recorded in a diary a few occurrences (“Summer here. Forever, I hope. Sue over and we rode Babe down to the river. Sue played her flute. Fireflies”) and an occasional outburst (“I love him, I do”). It was a five-year diary; in the four years of its existence she had never neglected to make an entry, though the splendor of several events (Eveanna’s wedding, the birth of her nephew) and the drama of others (her “first real quarrel with Bobby”—a page literally tear-stained) had caused her to usurp space allotted to the future. A different tinted ink identified each year: 1956 was green and 1957 a ribbon of red, replaced the following year by bright lavender, and now, in 1959, she had decided upon a dignified blue. But, as in every manifestation, she continued to tinker with her handwriting, slanting it to the right or to the left, shaping it roundly or steeply, loosely or stingily—as though she were asking, “Is this Nancy? Or that? Or that? Which is me?” (Once, Mrs. Riggs, her English teacher, had returned a theme with the scribbled comment “Good. But why written in three styles of script?” To which Nancy had replied, “Because I’m not grown-up enough to be one person with one kind of signature.”) Still, she had progressed in recent months, and it was in a handwriting of emerging maturity that she wrote, “Jolene K. came over and I showed her how to make a cherry pie. Practiced with Roxie. Bobby here and we watched TV. Left at 11:00.”

“This is it, this is it, this has to be it, there’s the school, there’s the garage, now we turn south.” To Perry, it seemed as though Dick were muttering jubilant mumbo-jumbo. They left the highway, sped through a deserted Holcomb, and crossed the Santa Fe tracks. “The bank, that must be the bank, now we turn west—see the trees? This is it, this has to be it.” The headlights disclosed a lane of Chinese elms; bundles of wind-blown thistle scurried across it. Dick doused the headlights, slowed down, and stopped until his eyes were adjusted to the moon-illuminated night. Presently, the car crept forward.

Holcomb is twelve miles east of the Mountain Time zone, a circ*mstance that causes some grumbling, for it means that at seven in the morning, and in winter at eight or after, the sky is still dark, and the stars, if any, are still shining—as they were when the two sons of Vic Irsik arrived to do their Sunday-morning chores. But by nine, when the boys finished work—during which they noticed nothing amiss—the sun had risen, delivering another day of pheasant-season perfection. As they left the property and ran along the lane, they waved at an incoming car, and a girl waved back. She was a classmate of Nancy Clutter’s, and her name was also Nancy—Nancy Ewalt. She was the only child of the man who was driving the car, Mr. Clarence Ewalt, a middle-aged sugar-beet farmer. Mr. Ewalt was not himself a churchgoer, nor was his wife, but every Sunday he dropped his daughter at River Valley Farm in order that she might accompany the Clutter family to Methodist services in Garden City. The arrangement saved him “making two back-and-forth trips to town.” It was his custom to wait until he had seen his daughter safely admitted to the house. Nancy, a clothes-conscious girl with a film-star figure, a bespectacled countenance, and a coy, tiptoe way of walking, crossed the lawn and pressed the front-door bell. The house had four entrances, and when, after repeated knockings, there was no response at this one, she moved on to the next—that of Mr. Clutter’s office. Here the door was partly open; she opened it somewhat more—enough to ascertain that the office was filled only with shadow—but she did not think the Clutters would appreciate her “barging right in.” She rang, knocked, and at last walked around to the back of the house. The garage was there, and she noted that both cars were in it: two Chevrolet sedans. Which meant they must be home. However, having applied unavailingly at a third door, which led into a “utility room,” and a fourth, the door to the kitchen, she rejoined her father, who said, “Maybe they’re asleep.”

“But that’s impossible. Can you imagine Mr. Clutter missing church? Just to sleep?”

“Come on, then. We’ll drive down to the Teacherage. Susan ought to know what’s happened.”

The Teacherage, which stands opposite the Holcomb School, is an out-of-date edifice, drab and poignant. Its twenty-odd rooms are separated into grace-and-favor apartments for those members of the faculty unable to find, or afford, other quarters. Nevertheless, Susan Kidwell and her mother had managed to sugar the pill and install a cozy atmosphere in their apartment—three rooms on the ground floor. The very small parlor incredibly contained—aside from things to sit on—an organ, a piano, a garden of flowering flowerpots, and usually a darting little dog and a large, drowsy cat. Susan, on this Sunday morning, stood at the window of this room watching the street. She is a tall, languid young lady with a pallid, oval face and beautiful pale-blue-gray eyes; her hands are extraordinary—long-fingered, flexible, nervously elegant. She was dressed for church, and expected momentarily to see the Clutters’ Chevrolet, for she, too, always attended services chaperoned by the Clutter family. Instead, the Ewalts arrived to tell their peculiar tale.

But Susan knew no explanation, nor did her mother, who said, “If there was some change of plan, why, I’m sure they would have telephoned. Susan, why don’t you call the house? They could be asleep—I suppose.”

“So I did,” said Susan, in a statement made at a later date. “I called the house and let the phone ring—at least, I had the impression it was ringing—oh, a minute or more. Nobody answered, so Mr. Ewalt suggested that we go to the house and try to ‘wake them up.’ But when we got there—I didn’t want to do it. Go inside the house. I was frightened, and I don’t know why, because it never occurred to me—Well, something like that just doesn’t. But the sun was so bright, everything looked too bright and quiet. And then I saw that all the cars were there, even Kenyon’s old coyote wagon. Mr. Ewalt was wearing work clothes; he had mud on his boots; he felt he wasn’t properly dressed to go calling on the Clutters. Especially since he never had. Been in the house, I mean. Finally, Nancy said she would go with me. We went around to the kitchen door, and, of course, it wasn’t locked; the only person who ever locked doors around there was Mrs. Helm—the family never did. We walked in, and I saw right away that the Clutters hadn’t eaten breakfast; there were no dishes, nothing on the stove. Then I noticed something funny: Nancy’s purse. It was lying on the floor, sort of open. We passed on through the dining room, and stopped at the bottom of the stairs. Nancy’s room is just at the top. I called her name, and started up the stairs, and Nancy Ewalt followed. The sound of our footsteps frightened me more than anything, they were so loud and everything else was so silent. Nancy’s door was open. The curtains hadn’t been drawn, and the room was full of sunlight. I don’t remember screaming. Nancy Ewalt says I did—screamed and screamed. I only remember Nancy’s Teddy bear staring at me. And Nancy. And running . . . ”

In the interim, Mr. Ewalt had decided that perhaps he ought not to have allowed the girls to enter the house alone. He was getting out of the car to go after them when he heard the screams, but before he could reach the house, the girls were running toward him. His daughter shouted, “She’s dead!” and flung herself into his arms. “It’s true, Daddy! Nancy’s dead! “

Susan turned on her. “No, she isn’t. And don’t you say it. Don’t you dare. It’s only a nosebleed. She has them all the time, terrible nosebleeds, and that’s all it is.”

“There’s too much blood. There’s blood on the walls. You didn’t really look.”

“I couldn’t make head nor tails,” Mr. Ewalt subsequently testified. “I thought maybe the child was hurt. It seemed to me the first thing to do was call an ambulance. Miss Kidwell—Susan—she told me there was a telephone in the kitchen. I found it, right where she said. But the receiver was off the hook, and when I picked it up, I saw the line had been cut.”

Larry Hendricks, a teacher of English, aged twenty-seven, lived on the top floor of the Teacherage. He wanted to write, but his apartment was not the ideal lair for a would-be author. It was smaller than the Kidwells’, and, moreover, he shared it with a wife, three active children, and a perpetually functioning television set. (“It’s the only way we can keep the kids pacified.”) Though as yet unpublished, young Hendricks, a he-mannish ex-sailor from Oklahoma who smokes a pipe and has a mustache and a crop of untamed black hair, at least looks literary—in fact, remarkably like youthful photographs of the writer he most admires, Ernest Hemingway. To supplement his teacher’s salary, he also drove a school bus.

“Sometimes I cover sixty miles a day,” he said to an acquaintance. “Which doesn’t leave much time for writing. Except Sundays. Now, that Sunday, November 15th, I was sitting up here in the apartment going through the papers. Most of my ideas for stories, I get them out of newspapers—you know? Well, the TV was on and the kids were kind of lively, but even so I could hear voices. From downstairs. Down at Mrs. Kidwell’s. But I didn’t figure it was my concern, since I was new here—only came to Holcomb when school began. But then Shirley—she’d been out hanging up some clothes—my wife, Shirley, rushed in and said, ‘Honey, you better go downstairs. They’re all hysterical.’ The two girls—now, they really were hysterical. Susan never has got over it. Never will, ask me. And poor Mrs. Kidwell. Her health’s not too good; she’s high-strung to begin with. She kept saying—but it was only later I understood what she meant—she kept saying, ‘Oh, Bonnie, Bonnie, what happened? You were so happy, you told me it was all over, you said you’d never be sick again.’ Words to that effect. Even Mr. Ewalt, he was about as worked up as a man like that ever gets. He had the sheriff’s office on the phone—the Garden City sheriff—and he was telling him that there was something radically wrong over at the Clutter place.’ The sheriff promised to come straight out, and Mr. Ewalt said fine, he’d meet him on the highway. Shirley came downstairs to sit with the women, try and calm them—as if anybody could. And I went with Mr. Ewalt—drove with him out to the highway to wait for Sheriff Robinson. On the way, he told me what had happened. When he came to the part about finding the wires cut, right then I thought, Uh-uh, and decided I’d better keep my eyes open. Make a note of every detail. In case I was ever called on to testify in court.

“The sheriff arrived; it was nine thirty-five—I looked at my watch. Mr. Ewalt waved at him to follow our car, and we drove out to the Clutters’. I’d never been there before, only seen it from a distance. Of course, I knew the family. Kenyon was in my sophom*ore English class, and I’d directed Nancy in the ‘Tom Sawyer’ play. But they were such exceptional, unassuming kids you wouldn’t have known they were rich or lived in such a big house—and the trees, the lawn, everything so tended and cared for. After we got there, and the sheriff had heard Mr. Ewalt’s story, he radioed his office and told them to send reinforcements, and an ambulance. Said, ‘There’s been some kind of accident.’ Then we went in the house, the three of us. Went through the kitchen and saw a lady’s purse lying on the floor, and the phone where the wires had been cut. The sheriff was wearing a hip pistol, and when we started up the stairs, going to Nancy’s room, I noticed he kept his hand on it, ready to draw.

“Well, it was pretty bad. That wonderful girl—But you would never have known her. She’d been shot in the back of the head with a shotgun held maybe two inches away. She was lying on her side, facing the wall, and the wall was covered with blood. The bedcovers were drawn up to her shoulders. Sheriff Robinson, he pulled them back, and we saw that she was wearing a bathrobe, pajamas, socks, and slippers—like, whenever it happened, she hadn’t gone to bed yet. Her hands were tied behind her, and her ankles were roped together with the kind of cord you see on Venetian blinds. Sheriff said, ‘Is this Nancy Clutter?’—he’d never seen the child before. And I said, ‘Yes. Yes, that’s Nancy.’

“We stepped back into the hall, and looked around. All the other doors were closed. We opened one, and that turned out to be a bathroom. Something about it seemed wrong. I decided it was because of the chair—a sort of dining-room chair, that looked out of place in a bathroom. The next door—we all agreed it must be Kenyon’s room. A lot of boy-stuff scattered around. And I recognized Kenyon’s glasses—saw them on a bookshelf beside the bed. But the bed was empty, though it looked as if it had been slept in. So we walked to the end of the hall, the last door, and there, on her bed, that’s where we found Mrs. Clutter. She’d been tied, too. But differently—with her hands in front of her, so that she looked as though she were praying—and in one hand she was holding, gripping, a handkerchief. Or was it Kleenex? The cord around her wrists ran down to her ankles, which were bound together, and then ran on down to the bottom of the bed, where it was tied to the footboard—a very complicated, artful piece of work. Think how long it took to do! And her lying there, scared out of her wits. Well, she was wearing some jewelry, two rings—which is one of the many reasons why I’ve always discounted robbery as a motive—and a robe, and a white nightgown, and white socks. Her mouth had been taped with adhesive, but she’d been shot point-blank in the side of the head, and the blast—the impact—had ripped the tape loose. Her eyes were open. Wide open. As though she were still looking at the killer. Because she must have had to watch him do it—aim the gun. Nobody said anything. We were too stunned. I remember the sheriff searched around to see if he could find the discharged cartridge. But whoever had done it was much too smart and cool to have left behind any clues like that.

In Cold Blood: The Last to See Them Alive (2024)
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