Harlan Ellison

No Game for Children

HERBERT MESTMAN WAS FORTY-ONE years old. He was six feet two inches tall and had suffered from one of the innumerable children’s diseases at the age of seven, that had left him with a build decidedly pigeon-chested and slim to the point of emaciation. He had steel-gray hair and wore bifocals. It was his avocation, however, that most distinguished him from all other men: Herbert Mestman knew more about Elizabethan drama than anyone else in the country. Perhaps even in the world.

He knew the prototypes and finest examples of the genre of drama known as the “chronicle history.” He knew Marlowe and Shakespeare (and believed firmly the original spelling had been Shexpeer), he was on recitation terms with Dekker and Massinger. His familiarity with “Philaster” and Johnson’s “Alchemist” bordered on mania. He was, in essence, the perfect scholar of the drama of Elizabeth’s period. No slightest scrap of vague biographical or bibliographical data escaped him; he had written the most complete biography — of what little was known — on the life of John Webster, with a lucid and fantastically brilliant erratum handling all early versions of “The Duchess of Malfi.”

Herbert Mestman lived in a handsome residential section in an inexpensive but functional split-level he owned without mortgage. There are cases where erudition pays handsomely. His position with the University was such a case, coupled with his tie-up on the Brittanica ’s staff.

He was married, and Margaret was his absolute soulmate. She was slim, with small breasts, naturally curly brown hair, and an accent only vaguely reminiscent of her native Kent. Her legs were long and her wit warmly dry. Her eyes were a moist brown and her mouth full. She was, in every way, a handsome and desirable woman.

Herbert Mestman led a sedentary life, a placid life, a life filled with the good things: Marlowe, Scarlatti, aquavit, Paul McCobb, Peter Van Bleeck, and Margaret.

He was a peaceful man. He had served as a desk adjutant to the staff judge advocate of a smaller southern army post during the Second World War, and had barely managed to put the Korean Conflict from his notice by burying himself in historical tomes. He abhorred violence in any form, despised the lurid moments of television and Walt Disney, and saved his money scrupulously, but not miserly.

He was well liked in the neighborhood.

And —

Frenchie Murrow was seventeen years old. He was five feet eight inches tall and liked premium beer. He didn’t know the diff, but he dug premium. He was broad in the shoulders and wasped at the waist. The broads dug him neat. He had brown hair that he wore duck-ass, with a little spit erupting from the front pompadour to fall Tony Curtis–lackadaisical over his forehead. He hit school when there wasn’t any scene better to make, and his ’51 Stude had a full-race cam coupled to a ’55 Caddy engine. He had had to move back the fire wall to do the soup job, and every chromed part was kept free of dust and grease with fanatical care. The dual muffs sounded like a pair of mastiffs clearing their throats when he burned rubber scudding away from the Dairy Mart.

Frenchie dug Paul Anka and Ricky Nelson, Frankie Avalon and Bo Diddley. His idols were Mickey Mantle, Burt Lancaster (and he firmly believed that was the way to treat women), Tom McCahill, and his big brother Ernie who was a Specialist Third Class in Germany with the Third Infantry Division.

Frenchie Murrow lived in a handsome residential section in an inexpensive but functional split-level his old man had a double mortgage on. His old man had been a fullback for Duke many years before, and more green had been shelled out on the glass case in the den — to hold the trophies — than had been put into securities and the bank account.

Frenchie played it cool. He occasionally ran with a clique of rodders known as the Throttle-Boppers, and his slacks were pegged at a fantastic ten inches, so that he had difficulty removing them at night.

He handled a switch with ease, because, like man he knew he could do with it.

He was despised and feared in the neighborhood.

Herbert Mestman lived next door to Frenchie Murrow.

HERBERT MESTMAN

He caught the boy peering between the slats of the venetian blind late one Saturday night, and it was only the start of it.

“You, there! What are you doing there?”

The boy had bolted at the sound of his voice, and as his head had come up, Mestman had shone the big flashlight directly into the face. It was that Bruce Murrow, the kid from next door, with his roaring hot rod all the time.

Then Murrow had disappeared around the corner of the house, and Herb Mestman stood on the damp grass peculiarly puzzled and angry.

“Why, the snippy little Peeping Tom,” he heard himself exclaim. And, brandishing the big eight-cell-battery flashlight, he strode around the hedge, into Arthur Murrow’s front yard.

Margaret had been right there in the bedroom. She had been undressing slowly, after a wonderful evening at the University’s Organ Recitals, and had paused nervously, calling to him softly:

“Oh there, Herb.”

He had come in from the bathroom, where the water still ran into the sink; he carried a toothbrush spread with paste. “Yes, dear?”

“Herb, you’re going to think I’m barmy, but I could swear someone is looking through the window.” She stood in the center of the bedroom, her slip in her hand, and made an infinitesimal head movement toward the venetian blind. She made no move to cover herself.

“Out there, Margaret? Someone out there?” A ring of fascinated annoyance sounded in his voice. It was a new conception; who would be peering through his bedroom window? Correction: his and his wife’s bedroom window. “Stay here a moment, dear. Put on your robe, but don’t leave the room.”

He went back into the hall, slipped into the guest room and found an old pair of paint-spattered pants in the spare closet. He slipped them on, and made his way through the house to the basement steps. He descended and quickly found the long flashlight.

Upstairs once more, he opened the front door gingerly, and stepped into the darkness. He had made his way through the dew-moistened grass around the home till he had seen the dark, dim form crouched there, face close to the pane of glass, peeking between the blind’s slats.

Then he had called, flashed the light, and seen it was Arthur Murrow’s boy, the one they called Frenchie. Now he stood rapping conservatively but brusquely on the front door that was identical with his own. From within he could hear the sounds of someone moving about. Murrow’s house showed blank, dead windows. They’ve either got that television going in the den, or they’re in bed, he thought ruefully. Which is where I should be. Then he added mentally,That disgusting adolescent!

A light went on in the living room, and Mestman saw a shape glide behind the draperies through the picture window. Then there was a fumbling at the latch, and Arthur Murrow threw open the door.

He was a big man; big in the shoulders, and big in the hips, with the telltale potbelly of the ex-football star who has not done his seventy sit-ups every day since he graduated.

Murrow looked out blearily, and focused with some difficulty in the dark. Finally, “Uh? Yeah, what’s up, Mestman?”

“I caught your son looking into my bedroom window a few minutes ago, Murrow. I’d like to talk to him if he’s around.”

“What’s that? What are you talking about, your bedroom window? Bruce has been in bed for over an hour.”

“I’d like to speak to him, Murrow.”

“Well, goddamit, you’re not going to speak to him! You know what time it is, Mestman? We don’t all keep crazy hours like you professors. Some of us hold down nine-to-five jobs that make us beat! This whole thing is stupid. I saw Bruce go up to bed.”

“Now listen to me, Mr. Murrow, I saw — ”

Murrow’s face grew beefily red. “Get the hell out of here, Mestman. I’m sick up to here,” he slashed at his throat with a finger, “with you lousy intellectuals bothering us. I don’t know what you’re after, but we don’t want any part of it. Now scram, before I deck you!”

The door slammed anticlimactically in Herbert Mestman’s face. He stood there just long enough to see the shape retreat past the window, and the living room light go off. As he made his way back to his own house, he saw another light go on in Murrow’s house.

In the room occupied by Bruce.

The window, at jumping height, was wide-open.

FRENCHIE MURROW

Bruce Murrow tooled the Studelac in to the curb, revved the engine twice to announce his arrival, and cut the ignition. He slid out of the car, pulling down at the too-tight crotch of his chinos, and walked across the sidewalk into the malt shop. The place was a bedlam of noise and moving bodies.

“Hey, Monkey!” he called to a slack-jawed boy in a stud-encrusted black leather jacket. The boy looked up from the comic book. “Like cool it, man. My ears, y’know? Sit.” Frenchie slid into the booth opposite Monkey, and reached for the deck of butts lying beside the empty milk shake glass.

Without looking up from the comic book Monkey reached out and slapped the other’s hand from the cigarettes. “You old enough to smoke, you’re old enough to buy yer own.” He jammed the ragged pack into his shirt pocket.

He went back to the comic.

Frenchie’s face clouded, then cleared. This wasn’t some stud punkie from uptown. ...

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