Killing Time — a short story by Magna’s Clair Huffaker

Killing Time

Short Story by Clair Huffaker

Clair Huffaker was born in Magna, where his family owned a popular furniture store. He was looking for something more creative for himself, and carved out a national and international career as a journalist, editor, novelist and screenwriter. He wrote, produced, and sometimes directed films featuring talent such as John Wayne, Elvis Presley, and many, many more.

This is a short story of a criminal episode typical of the “Hard Boiled” fiction trend of the 1950s.

Originally published in “Sir!” magazine in the 1950s

A man feels dead an a prison cell.

He never wants to spend time that way.

IN a way, Mark was a friend of mine, but it wasn’t a nice way. We’d done a couple of jobs together, and they’d worked out. Then Mark had the idea of taking the Jensen Company payroll. That’s how we wound up killing time for seven years.

“You know how much dough old man Jensen pays out every two weeks?” Mark asked me once.


“Almost forty grand. Found out from a girl friend of mine. Her sister works in the bank.”

“Forty grand?”

“Yeah. Jensen packs it between the bank and his factory all by himself. It’s only a few blocks, but think what might happen in that few blocks.”

“Yeah. I’m thinking?

So we figured what seemed to be a neat trick. I trailed Jensen in my car. At the loneliest stretch of his walk Mark stopped him to ask him how to get to City Hall.

As Jensen hesitated, Mark slugged him and I pulled up to the curb. Mark grabbed the dough, hopped in and we were off in two seconds flat.

LIKE Robert Burns used to say though, plans do have the damnedest way of not working out. We only got about half a block before a rear tire was shot out from under us, and three slugs whined through the windshield.

Naturally, I slammed on the brake and got out of the car. That Mark, though, he shoved over to the driver’s seat and started up again. The crazy mug got around the corner in a hail storm of lead.

The prowl car that had been about thirty feet behind us when we pulled the job went tearing after him. It just slowed down long enough to drop off a cop who took me in tow.

They caught Mark, of course, but not before he’d had a chance to hide the forty thousand bucks.

That, in a few well-chosen words, is how it came to pass that we spent seven drawn-out years in government lodgings, killing time.

The only advantage was that we had something to look forward to when we got out, because the dough was still sitting where Mark had hid it.

Mark was actually convicted on circumstantial evidence. Jensen identified the wrong guy in a lineup– guess he was near-sighted. I claimed right along that Mark wasn’t my sidekick, and he never confessed.

But the cops found him in my car, and they knew we’d been buddies, so they sent him up with me just to be on the safe side.

About every two weeks the insurance boys would drop up and try to pump Mark for the hiding spot. He’d just tell them he was innocent, and they’d look disgusted and go away.

KILLING seven long years of time is hard to do. It’s a big slice gone out of a guy’s life, Mark and I used to figure what we’d do with the cash when we got out.

If no one was in hearing distance, we’d think out loud, and brag about the big parties we’d throw, the dolls we’d show good times and the good times they’d show us.

“Just killing time, just killing time,” I’d say to Mark, and we’d wink at each other and laugh.

That was the good side of it, but there was a bad side too. Alone on the wire cot at night was unbearable more often than not.

I’d think of the lousy food and sadistic jailers and icy cold winters and steaming hot summers, and then grit my teeth so hard that they’d almost crack against each other.

I’d think of tomorrow and the day after and then the next day and on and on.

Sometimes I’d scream in my sleep and Jack, the fat guard on duty nights, would stick his arm through the bars and wallop my shin with his billy.

No, killing time, when there is so much of it, is not always easy.

“We’ll have to move to someplace else, once we get out of this place,” Mark said.

“Yeah. There’s lots of places we can go. I’d like to hit some of the West Coast maybe. L.A. and Frisco.

We’ll get the dough and head out there.”

“Yeah,” Mark said. “Hafta be careful about getting the dough though. The cops and insurance boys will be on our necks when we get discharged. Hafta be smart about it.”

“Something else, too, Mark. You know, when I get out of here, there’s one thing I’m never, never going to do again so long as I live!”

“What’s ’at?”

Well, we make jokes about it, but I’m never going to kill any more time. As far as I’m concerned, we’re both dead here. Life is no good.

“But I’m gonna make the most out of the time I have when I get out. Never, never gonna kill anymore time.”

“Yeah,” Mark said. “I heard you last night. Can’t you stop yelling in your sleep?”

“Seem to be too nervous, Mark. Can’t help it.”

So it went, day after day, week after week, month after month. My weight when I went into that joint was almost two hundred pounds. Believe it or not, it went down to one hundred and thirty. I started to bite my nails and pop my knuckles and stutter from nervousness. Some guys just weren’t made for killing time that way.

The last few weeks were the worst. Mark and I both knew that there were big parties and gay times right around the corner.

Mark seemed to really get nervous the day we found out that he would be discharged forty-eight hours before me.

That was irony for you. He’d been caught a day after I had, and he was being let go two days before for the same rap. The warden hadn’t marked me in on his guest book, or something like that. At breakfast, the day Mark was going to be given a suit and ten bucks and freedom, I said to him, “You hole up at the Plugged Nickel Bar. Pete there will let you have a room upstairs. Lay low there until I’m out. Then we’ll pick up the dough and blow town.”

“Yeah, OK,” Mark said.

He was nervous.

Two days later, after making sure no cops were tabbing me, I walked into the Plugged Nickel. Pete looked at me as though I’d never been away.

“Mark upstairs?” I asked.


“Where is he?”

“How should I know?”

“He’s out, huh? When’ll he be back?”

“Look, pal.” Pete leaned his hands on the bar. “I ain’t seen Mark for more than seven years. He ain’t been here since you two got out of stir.”

THAT night I went to the field where Mark had hid the forty thousand. Half way between two trees, he’d told me.

He hadn’t been lying. Half way between those trees there was a fresh hole in the earth. I looked at it and felt like crawling down into the clean dirt and dying on the spot. Mark had double crossed me.

I leaned against one of the trees. My stomach seemed to be made out of hollow, lop-sided ice cubes, and thoughts came back to me, “I’m never gonna kill any more time in my whole life. Killing time’s rough when you’ve got so much of it to kill. Killing time, Killing time!”

It took me about two weeks to find Mark. He was in Frisco with a babe. Knowing the boys I knew, it wasn’t hard to track him. I cased the neighborhood where he lived with his doll and watched him a couple of days. Then one night, I set myself up at a spot he had to pass to get up to see her. He usually came along at about midnight.

I stood near the street in a little alley entrance. When midnight came, Mark didn’t show up. I waited and waited. He had to come this way, and when he did he would be one surprised double-crosser.

My back was getting stiff and my arms were cold when I finally saw him coming. It had been a two hour wait, but it would be worth it.

As he walked by, I stepped out and laid a knife across his throat from behind.

“Where’s the dough?” I said.

“I lost it,” he sniffled. “Honest I did!”

“You’re lying,” I said, pressing the blade tighter against his throat.

“No!” he gurgled. He fumbled and took several small slips from his pocket. “I had IOU’s,” he gasped. “I was gambling and just paid ’em up. They’d have killed me if I hadn’t paid!”

THEY found him later on, dead. I’d lost my temper and used the knife. The next morning, I was sitting at a cheap cafe counter thinking of all the time I’d killed for nothing.

Two big fellas came in, and one sat on each side of me.

“Want to come with us to the Police Station?” one of them asked.


“You know, don’t you?”

“Yeah.” I said, feeling pretty tired and disgusted. “How did you find me so quick?”

“Good descriptions from people inside the building you were standing next to.”

“That’s right,”the other big fella said. “You waited around so long, some people in an apartment near you got suspicious. They watched you for half an hour.”

“Yeah,” the first one said. “You were killing too much time.”

I couldn’t stop the jerky little laughter that came out of me all the way to the Police Station.

“What’s the matter with you?” one of them asked.

“Nothing,” I said. “Something you said struck me sort of funny.”

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