07 November 2010

The Business Man

Photo (just for fun!) by the Treasure.

           “Nice place you have here, Langford,” said Stephen Quillen, his keen eyes taking in the polished gas pumps and the clean orderliness of the service station.
            Bill Langford stopped whistling abruptly. As he looked up his eyes were clouded with suspicion.
“I’m doing pretty well,” he said cautiously. “People appreciate good service.”
            Quillen nodded approvingly. “That’s the way to build up a business.”
            As he watched Quillen drive away, Bill frowned thoughtfully. The man’s interest disturbed him. Quillen was a little gray man of undetermined age, admired and feared as a shrewd businessman. He owned half the town, and was always taking over various sorts of businesses, buying them up when the owners seemed in financial straits, or picking up good opportunities. No one could say that he was dishonest, but quiet, secretive actions invited suspicion.
            A small lean dog came running up and sniffed wistfully at Bill’s lunch box, his tail wagging in friendly submission. In contrast with Quillen’s cold shrewdness, Bill’s compassion was stirred, and he gave the dog a sandwich. He chuckled as the dog gulped the sandwich and begged for more.
            “They’re cute beggars,” said a voice behind him.
            Bill turned quickly. “Oh, hello, Elmer.” Elmer was Quillen’s nephew, blinded in the war. He was a likeable chap, and came frequently to the station. “How did you know I was feeding a worthless dog?” Bill asked.
            Elmer smiled faintly. His thin, sensitive face was as wistful as the dog’s hungry eyes. “I heard him—and your laugh was the special kind people reserve for animals.”
            “I like dogs,” agreed Bill, “but a guy can’t feed all of ‘em.”
            “I know,” said Elmer soberly. Then he went on with quick, nervous eagerness. “I’ve been thinking, Bill. You know, I was a mechanic in the army. The smell of gas and dirty oil still gets me. You said you wanted to put in some improvements here. I’d like to work with you if you’d let me, and –well, I have a little money and I could be a kind of partner. I don’t know just what I can do to be useful, but I’ll think of something.”
            Bill was surprised and touched. “I don’t want to take your savings,” and his thoughts swept back to Quillen—“I’m not sure just how things are going to be from now on. But you can have a job here, for the present at least.”
            Elmer’s hand fumbled for Bill’s. His thin fingers squeezed it hard. He spoke a little huskily. “You’re swell, Bill; but Uncle Steve always says a man has to risk something if he’s going to get anywhere. If I work with you I want to put something into the deal.”
            Just then a fussy middle-aged woman blew her horn impatiently, and Bill went to wait on her. When he looked around again the boy was gone.
            A little later Bill remembered that his lease expired soon. He must renew it at once, before—everybody knew Quillen worked fast. Bill’s resentment and fear had built up in him a sharp dislike for Quillen. So, as soon as Spud Jones came on the job at the station, Bill rushed over to the State Realty Offices.
            “I want to renew my lease,” he told the man in charge.
            The man smiled ruefully as he shook his head. “I’m sorry, Langford. The property was sold this afternoon to Stephen Quillen. You’ll have to see him.
            “Thank you,” said Bill dully as he turned away. So his suspicions had been right. Quillen just couldn’t bear to see anyone else have a good thing.
            Quillen was not in his office.
            “He won’t be back today,” the girl at the desk told him. “Is there anything I can do?”
            Bill explained, but the girl shook her head. “I have no instructions. Can you come back tomorrow?”
            Bill left the building with bitter thoughts. If he lost the business, it would take him a long time to get back where he was.
            “But I’ll fix him!” he muttered. “If he won’t renew my lease I’ll fix him. I’ll run the business into the ground, and he won’t have a customer by the time I’m through.”
            Approaching the service station, Bill could see that the rush was on. Perversely he refused to hurry. Then Matt Wilson came out of the barber shop next door, his bald head shining in the slanting sunlight. He was waving the evening paper.
            “Did you see this, Bill?” he cried.
            “No,” replied Bill.
            “Says here the Hinkle Paper Company is all set to start building a big factory at the corner of Main and Oliver Streets.”
            “That’s only three blocks away,” said Bill, with rising interest.
            “I know,” answered Matt. “It ought to throw plenty of business our way.”
            Suddenly Bill stiffened. “That’s right,” he said in an odd, cold voice.
            Matt looked up in surprise. But Bill was striding toward his station. His dislike had hardened into cold hatred. Quillen must have had advance information.
            Blind Elmer approached unnoticed, and spoke eagerly. “Can I talk to you pretty soon, Bill? I have an idea.”
            Bill thrust the hose nozzle into a nearly empty gas tank. He was thinking darkly. He couldn’t be of good to anyone, now. This was his chance! If people saw him give a blind boy the bum’s rush, they would be through with him and his service station. By the time Quillen took over there would be no business.
            He turned toward the blind boy, intending to send him away crushed. But the boy beat him to it.
            “I know you’re busy,” he said apologetically. “If you say I can come back in the morning—or—or, not come back at all!” His thin hands fingered his white cane nervously.
            “Come inside—and wait!” Bill commanded sternly. He put the hose down and led the boy inside the station. As he turned around, he muttered under his breath some unflattering bit about Quillen. Bill stopped as if he had been struck. When he recovered he said in a determined but low voice, “And I don’t have to be a chiseler just because Quillen is!”
            “Sorry to keep you,” he told the waiting customer and his snarl was gone.
            The cars thinned out so that Spud was able to take care of them. As Bill started to go into the station to speak to Elmer, he saw Quillen come out of the barbershop, and walk straight toward the filling station. Bill met him halfway. Quillen smiled as he approached. It looked to Bill like a devilish grin.
            “How are you, Bill?” Quillen greeted pleasantly. The tone of his voice completely unnerved Bill. And the remark that followed left him speechless.
            “How would you like to be head of the Langford Garage, Bill?” Quillen asked. “Wilson wants to sell out. That will give us room enough. I’ll have a garage put here and you can run it. I’ll guarantee you as much as you’re making now, and you’ll get a percentage of the profits.”
            Bill’s jaw only sagged. He wanted to ask, “What’s the catch?” but there was no sound; he merely looked incredibly at Quillen.
            Quillen relieved the situation.
            “My nephew, Elmer,” he began, “lost his eyes, but he’s crazy to work in a garage. He’s smart, and he likes you. So I would like to have you use him, and I feel certain he will make himself useful. I’ll pay his salary myself—until he can earn it. Perhaps you remember seeing him around.”
            Bill nodded. “He’s in there, now—waiting to talk to me, said he had an idea.”
            “I bet he has, too,” chuckled Quillen. “How about our deal?”
            Bill’s face suddenly beamed. “Sure I’ll take Elmer! But I’d rather put him on the regular payroll, even if it cuts down the profits. He’s too fine a boy to be holding a fake job.”
            “I guess you’re right, Bill,” agreed Quillen. “How about our deal?”
            “But why,” exclaimed Bill, after recovering his composure, “are you making me a swell offer like this?”
            “It’s a good investment,” replied Quillen shrewdly. “Anyone who’ll take time out when he’s bust to be nice to a blind kid, has the stuffin’ in him to make a big success of life. That’s why I’m tying to you!” And the two men shook hands heartily.

                                                            --from Mrs. W. J. Lighthall’s collection

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