In Cold Blood by Truman Capote


  Mrs. Hickock, a plump woman with a soft, round face unmarred by a lifetime of dawn-to-dark endeavor, reproached him. “Three precious little boys, our grandchildren—there, that’s what came of it. And Carol is a lovely girl. She’s not to blame.”

  Mr. Hickock continued, “Him and Carol rented a good-size house, bought a fancy car—they was in debt all the time. Even though pretty soon Dick was making better money driving a hospital ambulance. Later on, the Markl Buick Company, a big outfit there in Kansas City, they hired him. As a mechanic and car painter. But him and Carol lived too high, kept buying stuff they couldn’t nohow afford, and Dick got to writing checks. I still think the reason he started doing stunts such as that was connected with the smash-up. Concussed his head in a car smash-up. After that, he wasn’t the same boy. Gambling, writing bad checks. I never knew him to do them things before. And it was along about then he took up with this other gal. The one he divorced Carol for, and was his second wife.”

  Mrs. Hickock said, “Dick couldn’t help that. You remember how Margaret Edna was attracted to him.”

  “ ’Cause a woman likes you, does that mean you got to get caught?” Mr. Hickock said. “Well, Mr. Nye, I expect you know as much about it as we do. Why our boy was sent to prison. Locked away seventeen months, and all he done was borrow a hunting rifle. From the house of a neighbor here. He had no idea to steal it, I don’t give a damn what nobody says. And that was the ruination of him. When he came out of Lansing, he was a plain stranger to me. You couldn’t talk to him. The whole world was against Dick Hickock—that’s how he figured. Even the second wife, she left him—filed for divorce while he was in prison. Just the same, lately there, he seemed to be settling down. Working for the Bob Sands Body Shop, over in Olathe. Living here at home with us, getting to bed early, not violating his parole any shape or fashion. I’ll tell you, Mr. Nye, I’ve not got long, I’m with cancer, and Dick knowed that—leastways, he knowed I’m sickly—and not a month ago, right before he took off, he told me, ‘Dad, you’ve been a pretty good old dad to me. I’m not ever gonna do nothing more to hurt you.’ He meant it, too. That boy has plenty of good inside him. If ever you seen him on a football field, if ever you seen him play with his children, you wouldn’t doubt me. Lord, I wish the Lord could tell me, because I don’t know what happened.”

  His wife said, “I do,” resumed her darning, and was forced by tears to stop. “That friend of his. That’s what happened.”

  The visitor, K.B.I. Agent Harold Nye, busied himself scribbling in a shorthand notebook—a notebook already well filled with the results of a long day spent probing the accusations of Floyd Wells. Thus far the facts ascertained corroborated Wells’ story most persuasively. On November 20 the suspect Richard Eugene Hickock had gone on a Kansas City shopping spree during which he had passed not fewer than “seven pieces of hot paper.” Nye had called on all the reported victims—salesmen of cameras and of radio and television equipment, the proprietor of a jewelry shop, a clerk in a clothing store—and when in each instance the witness was shown photographs of Hickock and Perry Edward Smith, he had identified the former as the author of the spurious checks, the latter as his “silent” accomplice. (One deceived salesman said, “He [Hickock] did the work. A very smooth talker, very convincing. The other one—I thought he might be a foreigner, a Mexican maybe—he never opened his mouth.”)

  Nye had next driven to the suburban village of Olathe, where he interviewed Hickock’s last employer, the owner of the Bob Sands Body Shop. “Yes, he worked here,” said Mr. Sands. “From August until— Well, I never saw him after the nineteenth of November, or maybe it was the twentieth. He left without giving me any notice whatever. Just took off—I don’t know where to, and neither does his dad. Surprised? Well, yes. Yes, I was. We were on a fairly friendly basis. Dick kind of has a way with him, you know. He can be very likable. Once in a while he used to come to our house. Fact is, a week before he left, we had some people over, a little party, and Dick brought this friend he had visiting him, a boy from Nevada—Perry Smith was his name. He could play the guitar real nice. He played the guitar and sang some songs, and him and Dick entertained everybody with a weight-lifting act. Perry Smith, he’s a little fellow, not much over five feet high, but he could just about pick up a horse. No, they didn’t seem nervous, neither one. I’d say they were enjoying themselves. The exact date? Sure I remember. It was the thirteenth. Friday, the thirteenth of November.”

  From there, Nye steered his car northward along raw country roads. As he neared the Hickock farm, he stopped at several neighboring homesteads, ostensibly to ask directions, actually to make inquiries concerning the suspect. One farmer’s wife said, “Dick Hickock! Don’t talk to me about Dick Hickock! If ever I met the devil! Steal? Steal the weights off a dead man’s eyes! His mother, though, Eunice, she’s a fine woman. Heart big as a barn. His daddy, too. Both of them plain, honest people. Dick would’ve gone to jail more times than you can count, except nobody around here ever wanted to prosecute. Out of respect for his folks.”

  Dusk had fallen when Nye knocked at the door of Walter Hickock’s weather-grayed four-room farmhouse. It was as though some such visit had been expected. Mr. Hickock invited the detective into the kitchen, and Mrs. Hickock offered him coffee. Perhaps if they had known the true meaning of the caller’s presence, the reception tendered him would have been less gracious, more guarded. But they did not know, and during the hours the three sat conversing, the name Clutter was never mentioned, or the word murder. The parents accepted what Nye implied—that parole violation and financial fraud were all that motivated his pursuit of their son.

  “Dick brought him [Perry] home one evening, and told us he was a friend just off a bus from Las Vegas, and he wanted to know couldn’t he sleep here, stay here awhile,” Mrs. Hickock said. “No, sir, I wouldn’t have him in the house. One look and I saw what he was. With his perfume. And his oily hair. It was clear as day where Dick had met him. According to the conditions of his parole, he wasn’t supposed to associate with anybody he’d met up there [Lansing]. I warned Dick, but he wouldn’t listen. He found a room for his friend at the Hotel Olathe, in Olathe, and after that Dick was with him every spare minute. Once they went off on a weekend trip. Mr. Nye, certain as I’m sitting here, Perry Smith was the one put him up to writing them checks.”

  Nye shut his notebook and put his pen in his pocket, and both his hands as well, for his hands were shaking from excitement. “Now, on this weekend trip. Where did they go?”

  “Fort Scott,” Mr. Hickock said, naming a Kansas town with a military history. “The way I understood it, Perry Smith has a sister lives in Fort Scott. She was supposed to be holding a piece of money belonged to him. Fifteen hundred dollars was the sum mentioned. That was the main reason he’d come to Kansas, to collect this money his sister was holding. So Dick drove him down there to get it. It was only a overnight trip. He was back home a little before noon Sunday. Time for Sunday dinner.”

  “I see,” said Nye. “An overnight trip. Which means they left here sometime Saturday. That would be Saturday, November fourteenth?”

  The old man agreed.

  “And returned Sunday, November fifteenth?”

  “Sunday noon.”

  Nye pondered the mathematics involved, and was encouraged by the conclusion he came to: that within a time span of twenty or twenty-four hours, the suspects could have made a round-trip journey of rather more than eight hundred miles, and, in the process, murdered four people.

  “Now, Mr. Hickock,” Nye said. “On Sunday, when your son came home, was he alone? Or was Perry Smith with him?”

  “No, he was alone. He said he’d left Perry off at the Hotel Olathe.”

  Nye, whose normal voice is cuttingly nasal and naturally intimidating, was attempting a subdued timbre, a disarming, throwaway style. “And do you remember—did anything in his manner strike you as unusual? Different?”

  “Who?”

  “Your son.”


  “When?”

  “When he returned from Fort Scott.”

  Mr. Hickock ruminated. Then he said, “He seemed the same as ever. Soon as he came in, we sat down to dinner. He was mighty hungry. Started piling his plate before I’d finished the blessing. I remarked on it, said, ‘Dick, you’re shoveling it in as fast as you can work your elbow. Don’t you mean to leave nothing for the rest of us?’ Course, he’s always been a big eater. Pickles. He can eat a whole tub of pickles.”

  “And after dinner what did he do?”

  “Fell asleep,” said Mr. Hickock, and appeared to be moderately taken aback by his own reply. “Fell fast asleep. And I guess you could say that was unusual. We’d gathered round to watch a basketball game. On the TV. Me and Dick and our other boy, David. Pretty soon Dick was snoring like a buzz saw, and I said to his brother, ‘Lord, I never thought I’d live to see the day Dick would go to sleep at a basketball game.’ Did, though. Slept straight through it. Only woke up long enough to eat some cold supper, and right after went off to bed.”

  Mrs. Hickock rethreaded her darning needle; her husband rocked his rocker and sucked on an unlit pipe. The detective’s trained eyes roamed the scrubbed and humble room. In a corner, a gun stood propped against the wall; he had noticed it before. Rising, reaching for it, he said, “You do much hunting, Mr. Hickock?”

  “That’s his gun. Dick’s. Him and David go out once in a while. After rabbits, mostly.”

  It was a .12-gauge Savage shotgun, Model 300; a delicately etched scene of pheasants in flight ornamented the handle.

  “How long has Dick had it?”

  The question aroused Mrs. Hickock. “That gun cost over a hundred dollars. Dick bought it on credit, and now the store won’t have it back, even though it’s not hardly a month old and only been used the one time—the start of November, when him and David went to Grinnell on a pheasant shoot. He used our names to buy it—his daddy let him—so here we are, liable for the payments, and when you think of Walter, sick as he is, and all the things we need, all we do without . . .” She held her breath, as though trying to halt an attack of hiccups. “Are you sure you won’t have a cup of coffee, Mr. Nye? It’s no trouble.”

  The detective leaned the gun against the wall, relinquishing it, although he felt certain it was the weapon that had killed the Clutter family. “Thank you, but it’s late, and I have to drive to Topeka,” he said, and then, consulting his notebook, “Now, I’ll just run through this, see if I have it straight. Perry Smith arrived in Kansas Thursday, the twelfth of November. Your son claimed this person came here to collect a sum of money from a sister residing in Fort Scott. That Saturday the two drove to Fort Scott, where they remained overnight—I assume in the home of the sister?”

  Mr. Hickock said, “No. They never could find her. Seems like she’d moved.”

  Nye smiled. “Nevertheless, they stayed away overnight. And during the week that followed—that is, from the fifteenth to the twenty-first—Dick continued to see his friend Perry Smith, but otherwise, or as far as you know, he maintained a normal routine: lived at home and reported to work every day. On the twenty-first he disappeared, and so did Perry Smith. And since then you’ve not heard from him? He hasn’t written you?”

  “He’s afraid to,” said Mrs. Hickock. “Ashamed and afraid.”

  “Ashamed?”

  “Of what he’s done. Of how he’s hurt us again. And afraid because he thinks we won’t forgive him. Like we always have. And will. You have children, Mr. Nye?”

  He nodded.

  “Then you know how it is.”

  “One thing more. Have you any idea, any at all, where your son might have gone?”

  “Open a map,” said Mr. Hickock. “Point your finger—maybe that’s it.”

  It was late afternoon, and the driver of the car, a middle-aged traveling salesman who shall here be known as Mr. Bell, was tired. He longed to stop for a short nap. However, he was only a hundred miles from his destination—Omaha, Nebraska, the headquarters of the large meat packing company for which he worked. A company rule forbade its salesmen to pick up hitchhikers, but Mr. Bell often disobeyed it, particularly if he was bored and drowsy, so when he saw the two young men standing by the side of the road, he immediately braked his car.

  They looked to him like “O.K. boys.” The taller of the two, a wiry type with dirty-blond, crew-cut hair, had an engaging grin and a polite manner, and his partner, the “runty” one, holding a harmonica in his right hand and, in his left, a swollen straw suitcase, seemed “nice enough,” shy but amiable. In any event, Mr. Bell, entirely unaware of his guests’ intentions, which included throttling him with a belt and leaving him, robbed of his car, his money, and his life, concealed in a prairie grave, was glad to have company, somebody to talk to and keep him awake until he arrived at Omaha.

  He introduced himself, then asked them their names. The affable young man with whom he was sharing the front seat said his name was Dick. “And that’s Perry,” he said, winking at Perry, who was seated directly behind the driver.

  “I can ride you boys as far as Omaha.”

  Dick said, “Thank you, sir. Omaha’s where we were headed. Hoped we might find some work.”

  What kind of work were they hunting? The salesman thought perhaps he could help.

  Dick said, “I’m a first-class car painter. Mechanic, too. I’m used to making real money. My buddy and me, we just been down in Old Mexico. Our idea was, we wanted to live there. But hell, they don’t pay any wages. Nothing a white man could live off.”

  Ah, Mexico. Mr. Bell explained that he had honeymooned in Cuernavaca. “We always wanted to go back. But it’s hard to move around when you’ve got five kids.”

  Perry, as he later recalled, thought, Five kids—well, too bad. And listening to Dick’s conceited chatter, hearing him start to describe his Mexican “amorous conquests,” he thought how “queer” it was, “egomaniacal.” Imagine going all out to impress a man you were going to kill, a man who wouldn’t be alive ten minutes from now—not if the plan he and Dick had devised went smoothly. And why shouldn’t it? The setup was ideal—exactly what they had been looking for during the three days it had taken them to hitchhike from California to Nevada and across Nevada and Wyoming into Nebraska. Until now, however, a suitable victim had eluded them. Mr. Bell was the first prosperous-seeming solitary traveler to offer them a lift. Their other hosts had been either truck drivers or soldiers—and, once, a pair of Negro prizefighters driving a lavender Cadillac. But Mr. Bell was perfect. Perry felt inside a pocket of the leather windbreaker he was wearing. The pocket bulged with a bottle of Bayer aspirin and with a jagged, fist-size rock wrapped in a yellow cotton cowboy handkerchief. He unfastened his belt, a Navajo belt, silver-buckled and studded with turquoise beads; he took it off, flexed it, placed it across his knees. He waited. He watched the Nebraska prairie rolling by, and fooled with his harmonica—made up a tune and played it and waited for Dick to pronounce the agreed-upon signal: “Hey, Perry, pass me a match.” Whereupon Dick was supposed to seize the steering wheel, while Perry, wielding his handkerchief-wrapped rock, belabored the salesman’s head—“opened it up.” Later, along some quiet side road, use would be made of the belt with the sky-blue beads.

  Meanwhile, Dick and the condemned man were trading dirty jokes. Their laughter irritated Perry; he especially disliked Mr. Bell’s outbursts—hearty barks that sounded very much like the laughter of Tex John Smith, Perry’s father. The memory of his father’s laughter increased his tension; his head hurt, his knees ached. He chewed three aspirin and swallowed them dry. Jesus! He thought he might vomit, or faint; he felt certain he would if Dick delayed “the party” much longer. The light was dimming, the road was straight, with neither house nor human being in view—nothing but land winter-stripped and as somber as sheet iron. Now was the time, now. He stared at Dick, as though to communicate this realization, and a few small signs—a twitching eyelid, a mustache of sweat drops—told him that Dick had alread
y reached the same conclusion.

  And yet when Dick next spoke, it was only to launch another joke. “Here’s a riddle. The riddle is: What’s the similarity between a trip to the bathroom and a trip to the cemetery?” He grinned. “Give up?”

  “Give up.”

  “When you gotta go, you gotta go!”

  Mr. Bell barked.

  “Hey, Perry, pass me a match.”

  But just as Perry raised his hand, and the rock was on the verge of descent, something extraordinary occurred—what Perry later called “a goddam miracle.” The miracle was the sudden appearance of a third hitchhiker, a Negro soldier, for whom the charitable salesman stopped. “Say, that’s pretty cute,” he said as his savior ran toward the car. “When you gotta go, you gotta go!”

  December 16, 1959, Las Vegas, Nevada. Age and weather had removed the first letter and the last—an R and an S—thereby coining a somewhat ominous word: OOM. The word, faintly present upon a sun-warped sign, seemed appropriate to the place it publicized, which was, as Harold Nye wrote in his official K.B.I. report, “run-down and shabby, the lowest type of hotel or rooming house.” The report continued: “Until a few years ago (according to information supplied by the Las Vegas police), it was one of the biggest cathouses in the West. Then fire destroyed the main building, and the remaining portion was converted into a cheap-rent rooming house.” The “lobby” was unfurnished, except for a cactus plant six feet tall and a makeshift reception desk; it was also uninhabited. The detective clapped his hands. Eventually, a voice, female, but not very feminine, shouted, “I’m coming,” but it was five minutes before the woman appeared. She wore a soiled housecoat and high-heeled gold leather sandals. Curlers pinioned her thinning yellowish hair. Her face was broad, muscular, rouged, powdered. She was carrying a can of Miller High Life beer; she smelled of beer and tobacco and recently applied nail varnish. She was seventy-four years old, but in Nye’s opinion, “looked younger—maybe ten minutes younger.” She stared at him, his trim brown suit, his brown snapbrim hat. When he displayed his badge, she was amused; her lips parted, and Nye glimpsed two rows of fake teeth. “Uh-huh. That’s what I figured,” she said. “O.K. Let’s hear it.”

 
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