Some Day I’ll Kill You
THE barman was lost in some mournful Irish dream. The languid wavy-haired youth at the hip-pocket piano smoothed his blond marcel and went on carving the banks of “Loch Lomond” into badly-dislocated fragments; I don’t like Swing in any form and I wished he’d stop.
Then he did stop and I got even more nervous, a tableau of Young Love in one corner and a study of Old Lust in another being both as silent as waxworks. I finished my second Scotch. I could feel tension mounting up my spine like mercury up a thermometer in the sun.
My wrist watch said four-thirty.
I pointed at my glass and the barman came out of his trance and reached again for the bottle of Glenlivet. My waiter began making respectful clinkings with ice cubes and a fresh glass and I dug into my pocket and brought out what was burning me.
On a sheet of heavy cream-colored note paper, one half of a dollar bill was pasted flat. In the upper right-hand corner of the sheet a tiny engraved sketch of a train was followed by the words: “old lyme.” Underneath that was a little engraved telephone, with the legend: “south-port 321.” And beneath that a miniature envelope captioned: “birch hill, deep river, Connecticut.” I thought: All it needs is a boy running and “Telegraph Office, Burlington, Vermont.”
The bill, torn in a jagged v down the middle, was pasted in the center of the page. And beneath it were penned just four words:
“Saturday—four o’clock—Zanni’s”—and a long heavy dash. That was all.
And that was plenty. For it said a whole lot, that message. It said too much. It said that time was marching on. It said that a man who wasted his life’s best years mourning over a kick in the teeth was a god-damned fool. It said that no face, no lips, no breasts, however well-remembered, could justify this blind obedience to so imperious a summons. It said —
But here I was. God’s prize ass. I put the Scotch away fast and was reaching to put the note away too when a lovely deep-velvet always slightly-breathless voice said in my ear: “Darling, you might buy a lady a drink.”
The waiter saved the glassware; I took her hand; the waiter pulled the table further out; she sat down; I sat down. My lips felt pasted on my face. Lisa said “Whatever you’re having,” and to the waiter “With plain water,” and to me “You see how your training stays with me.”
“Stop whirling round till I can get a good look at you,” I told her. “Mmmm. Wealth hasn’t coarsened you as much as I expected.”
“Good of you to say so.”
“Are you brown like that all over? Miami, I suppose.”
“Yes. Jim, I’m pleased with you. I’m pleased with how you look. How was Spain? I heard you were flying for Largo.”
“Older,” I said. “Much much older. Reaction time slowed all to hell. Also incipient arteriosclerosis and a detachable tooth. Really just a wreck of the Adonis you knew. Whereas you….”
The bronze hair curled at her shoulders now, smooth and casque-like under a little tilted plate of a hat. Her nose was very straight, and powdered, with tiny freckles that were almost lost on her smooth brown skin; her mouth was always very red and nearly always smiling. She looked like what she was: a charming, willful child who had never grown up. A mockingly demure pageboy out of a Renaissance tapestry. A long-legged, slim-hipped Diana with—startlingly and unforgettably—the breasts of Venus.
I waved at the waiter again, gave her a cigarette, lit another for myself and said: “The meeting will now come to order. I had forgotten your eyes were that funny shade of green. Here we have the summons”—I took her note out and spread it flat on the table—“and here we have the answer.” I unfolded, from where I carried it every day of my life, the other half of the dollar bill and fitted it into place. “Sancho Pan— I mean Don Quixote is here. So what?”
Lisa said quickly: “Still the old exhibitionist. I bet you had hell’s own time finding your half.”
“Why didn’t you just telephone me?”
“I—well, it has been a long time. And I don’t like secretaries who bark at one —”
“So you did phone? I’ve been going to fire that girl for months.”
“No, I didn’t give a name. It just happened to be frightfully important to see you. And I knew you’d realize it if I sent—I knew you’d remember.”
I remembered, all right. I remembered much too well. Caribbean moonlight and a silence that ached because life was too rich, too fine. And me tearing that silly bill in two and saying: “If ever we’re apart and you need me badly—really badly —send me this and I’ll know. I’d fly back from beyond the moon for you.”
“Well,” I said, “a promise is a promise. Anyway, it didn’t involve any lunar flights. Just a six-block walk north on Park.”
She put her hand on mine. I took mine away. She said: “Sorry. But I’ve got to—I’m not—it isn’t….
I said: “I wouldn’t have believed it.”
She turned to me a face like pale coffee. All the blood seemed to have drained suddenly from under the skin, leaving just the sun-brown on top. “Do you suppose I could be going to faint?”
“You look funny. Take a drink.”
The glass shook but she swallowed obediently, let out her breath in a long sigh. She leaned back and took a deep breath, then another. A little color came back under the tan.
“O.K. New experience. Room start? whizzing round.”
“Mean to say you’ve never seen a room whiz before?”
“Not that way.”
“Tell Dr. Steele all about it,” I said.
“All right. It’s very annoying. I’m being threatened with murder.”
“That’s always annoying,” I said. “But probably she doesn’t mean it. Just go to her frankly and promise to leave her husband alone.”
“You mean someone really says they’ll kill you?”
“No. They say I really killed someone and they’re going to tell.”
“Ha-ha,” I said. “A couple of rousing ha-ha’s. What the idle rich won’t be up to next. It must have been quite a week-end. You stuffed the body up the chimney, I suppose?”
“L-listen, you f-f-fool. Dammit, if my teeth would just stop ch-chattering… Maybe a little straight b-brandy.”
“Of course.” I told the waiter so. He was a fine waiter; he evolved the brandy in six seconds. The piano started again, very soft, but loud enough to cover our voices. Lisa said: “Thank you, darling. All straightened out now. Where was I?”
“You had just wiped the bloody knife and put it back in the table drawer.”
“Jim. I’ll start at the beginning.”
I decided brutal candor was best. “If I may slip a word in edgewise before you start,” I said, “you’re wasting time. I don’t know what silly tale you’re going to spin, but I can tell you right now it won’t work. I will not be collected again to play the obedient pup. I barked my last bark two years ago —”
“Delicate way of telling me I’m a Witch, I suppose.”
“About that, I have sometimes wondered,” I said thoughtfully. “But no, I don’t think you are. Just thoughtless. Must you go?”
“I haven’t the faintest notion of going for hours. Truly and honestly, I’m in an unspeakable jam.”
“Forgive my mentioning it, but what about the new husband?”
Her smile was dazzling. “Now I know you’ll help me. Your voice was so nasty when you said that. Look. Take a bit of paper and a pencil and note down the salient facts, the way a good detective should.”
I grunted rudely.
“We’ll start,” said Lisa, “with our heroine. Lisa Mitchell, the Witch. Age 28, hair kind of rust-colored, eyes green, height five four, disposition noble and trusting. Incipient alcoholic, and what wonder, seeing what the girl’s been through? As I live, that glass is empty…. Thanks.
“This little number gets herself married to a—to a —”
“Louse,” I supplied.
“… lad of forty-odd who has been, shall we say, around? Hardly have the happy pair finished a honeymoon cruise round the world and settled down in Connecticut to a quiet country life when an explosion on the Sound wrecks their boat, kills her husband, and leaves Lisa— the W., in case you’re getting mixed up—a widow with singed hair and eyelashes, which however soon grow out all right.”
“It is at this point,” I threw in, “that the young widow meets the love of her life, one James Steele. In fact, the James Steele. The self-same ornament to his profession from whom she is now cadging drinks of a Saturday afternoon, in the self-same boite where he once declared his passion. And what does she do? Once she’s got him hooked, she leaves the poor boob flat and babbling. And comes back from Europe a year later married to a big black gorilla of a doctor —”
“He’s a nice guy, Jim.” Her voice was soft, clear.
“Oh,” I said, “I don’t think any of this conversation is in the best of taste, but you started it. Go on. I think you were just back from Europe, complete with gorilla. Of course, I’ve only seen his picture.”
“A very nice guy, Jim. And you’ll agree when you know him better. All right, she is back from Europe and after a quick run South subsides into quiet country life again.”
“Let’s say peaceful-like. Mike’s got a good practice, and psychiatry isn’t like obstetrics, you can plan your hours pretty well as you want them. Of course, Mrs. Henry Gish may get the screaming meemies at an inconvenient moment, but that doesn’t often happen.”
“All right. I get it. The idyllic peace of the Connecticut countryside broken only occasionally by the rattle of Mrs. Gish’s chains in the coal-cellar. And then?”
“Then I got a letter.”
Her voice didn’t change as she said it. But I was looking at her and I saw the blood all slide away from under the skin again, saw the pupils of her eyes dilate. Until now I’d more than half believed she was acting: now I knew I sat with Terror.
“I’ll show it to you, I haven’t it here. It made no sense to me whatever, but it was—disturbing. A week later came another letter. And this one—Jim, you know how a cat will play with a catnip mouse: I had a horrible feeling that I was being played with—and laughed at. Overtones of hate. Two days ago I got the third. It’s very specific —”
“They want a hundred thousand dollars,” she said in a flat little voice.
“Whoever’s writing. Or, as they quite definitely point out, else.”
“Or else what?”
“Or else they tell Mike and the police.”
“You little fool,” I said impatiently, “what do they tell Mike and the police?”
She said in a low whisper edged with the ice of horror: “Something frightful.”
“Listen, my chick,” I told her, “the old maestro is very, very smart, but he left his crystal ball home today by mistake. Could you throw out a few details?”
She said in the same whisper: “The cruiser. The night Norman was killed. Something happened before that —”
She swallowed twice. I could see the slim brown throat constrict, relax. I said “Cigarette” and put one between her lips, lit it. Women are wonderful. She had everything under control before I had blown out the match.
“I’m such a fool. But you haven’t seen the letters. They say I killed him.”
“If you did,” I said heartily, “you deserve a Nobel prize—”
“All right, I’m serious. I realize it’s all very annoying but it doesn’t mean a thing. Not a thing. You shouldn’t give it a thought.”
“You haven’t seen the letters.”
“I don’t need to. Anyone with your bank account gets things like that. You just lift the receiver and dial Spring 3100. Ask for Lieutenant Decker, mention my name, and your troubles are over.”
“I thought you might say something like that. It won’t work.”
“Don’t be absurd.”
She said, obstinately: “You haven’t seen the letters.”
“Why didn’t you bring them?”
“I—I can’t bear to touch them.”
“Lisa,” I said, “I can see with uncanny accuracy where this conversation will be five minutes from now unless I take a short-cut. You are leading up to suggest that I come out to Old Lyme—or is it Little Wattlington? All those trains and things confuse me….”
“Just for the week-end.”
“Quiet, please. And that I then track the rascals down. Or something. Stop bringing your knee into the situation. You deliberately left those letters behind to whip up my curiosity. Stop leaning toward me that way, it makes me dizzy. You’ve got a perfectly good husband to turn to and the whole thing’s ridiculous. The police can handle it for you without a breath leaking out to hurt Mike’s precious practice…. Did you wear a bandanna above your shorts in Miami or nothing at all? As far as I can see you’re brown all —”
She kissed me, suddenly, impulsively, gratefully. “Thanks, Jim.”
“You’re crazy. I’m just working up to an unshakable conclusion, which is….”
“O.K., boss. Now I’ll buy you a drink and then I’ll drive you past the club so you can throw some things in a bag.”
“It’s kidnapping, that’s what it is.”
“It’s a very grand guy,” she said, “being nice to a wench who needs it.”
I THREW a hastily-scrambled bag into the yawning rumble and Lisa slid over on the red leather cushions to leave the wheel free. “You drive, we’ll make better time. Mind?”
“It’s an honor just to tool a rig like this around a corner,” I assured her. We eased out from the curb and I stepped on it. A mistake. The vast gun-metal hood sang suddenly and I slid back on my spine with a jerk as we took wing. We tooled round the corner all right— with the tires screaming like violin-strings—and did the next block to the red light in nothing flat.
By the time I’d flicked her up Park a dozen blocks there was a new love in my life. Lisa said: “Like it?” I said: “It’s incredible. It’s got leopard blood. Will it to me when you die, will you?”
She said: “It’s yours right now. With love from Lisa. And ever so many thanks.”
And I knew she meant it. A twenty-thousand-dollar roadster because she really did feel grateful. That was Lisa. I felt like a heel. Anything I said would be wrong, because it wasn’t just a gesture, she did mean it.
“Infant,” I said, “it’s very sweet of you. But you can’t bribe us detectives that way. Seriously, it is a fine car. Some day I’m going to get a demonstrator to drive me in one again.”
“Proud, huh?” she said. “I can be obstinate, too. I was going to sell it, Jim—it’s a little on the out-size for me to handle. Anyway, drive on and keep still. Through the elegant evening.”
I said: “I—” Her hand came over and the palm closed my lips. She held it there. Her skin had the texture of that milled French soap that runs a dollar a cake. I didn’t move my lips, though I wanted to; presently she took her hand away. I could feel that my face was red.
We skimmed up the Hendrik Hudson Parkway to where you branch for White Plains, and took the back way through Glenville to the Post Road at Greenwich. The car was a miracle. When we got out of the heavy city traffic Lisa gave a long sigh and lay back. Her hat bothered her and she took it off and tied an orange handkerchief over her head and under her chin and lay back again. Pretty soon her head came slipping across the smooth leather. Her cheek stayed against my arm and her breath was warm through my gabardine sleeve. I kept driving.
Blue lanterns made a pleasant blur in a tree-cluster near the road, and a blue neon sign announced that this was Ye Blue Grotto. The big car whirled gravel noisily as we coasted round a flower-bed and stopped by an outdoor pavilion where half a dozen couples were dancing under the trees to the naked yearning of a hidden radio.
Lisa opened her eyes and smiled up at me with a sleepy intimacy that was disturbing. “Would there be drinking-licker wherever this is?” she murmured. I said I wouldn’t trust their Scotch, but we would give their sparkling water a whirl, and got my flask out of my bag.
It was nearly half past eight, but neither of us felt hungry. She had a small Scotch and I had a large one, and then she had a large one and I had a large one and a small one. I felt more nearly happy than I had been since—but I bit that off. Lisa said softly: “Jim, there are things I ought to tell you.”
“Can’t we skip them? Let’s just let Ye Blue Grotto have its way with us.”
“You thought I was abroad for a year, didn’t you? But no. Your lady-friend was in a hatch.”
“You don’t mean it.”
“Well, perhaps not exactly nuts, but it a hatch all right.”
I said: “You always did have the most original ideas.” I didn’t know what else to say. “Where was all this?”
“It was where Mike was. That is, he was a consulting psychiatrist on the staff.”
I sat up straight, pushed my jaw back into place, and said: “Well, for the love of God. You mean that letter you wrote me saying goodbye, you were sailing, was….”
“Posted in Grand Central on my way to the Retreat, as we elegantly referred to it.”
“You weren’t abroad at all?”
“Oh, yes. I was there at the Retreat seven months. Then I went abroad for a couple of months, and Mike came over and we were married in Paris and came home together.”
“And why, if I may make so bold, did you do it?”
“No, stow away like that to begin with?”
“We’ll only fight about it if I tell you. But I will. Mike thought I ought to.”
I said wearily: “And here I’ve been thinking you met him in Cannes. You can sit there, and tell me that even while you and I were painting the town, you were racing round to this lad and never told me?”
“Just twice. I was in a state. You knew was in a state, but you didn’t know, how bad.”
“I’ve got ears. You could have….”
“I know. It sounds unreasonable from here. But at the time I suppose my judgment wasn’t—I had to get a check-over by some impartial— I told you we’d fight about this.”
“We won’t fight. I’m just full of pure unrefined bull jealousy. Don’t mind me. Will you have a sandwich?”
“I’m not hungry. Look, Jim. You know, like cats when they’re sick. I was in a condition. But terrible. All caved-in inside.”
“I don’t believe it.”
Lisa said triumphantly: “There. That proves my point exactly. You don’t and you wouldn’t have. Even your best friend won’t believe you.”
I didn’t answer. It all came back, etched in bright bitter colors: Lisa laughing in the sunlight of that Long Island summer, Lisa on the tilted deck of the Morley’s yacht as we swung in the blue Bahama swell, Lisa’s face against the September moon at Bar Harbor, and—just once—Lisa’s bright hair tangled on her shoulder as she slept in the red dawn….
Either you take a person seriously or you don’t. Only one of us had been serious, and I had been the one: Lisa was sensuous without being emotional, if you see what I mean. She went through me like an electric shock, but couldn’t, get back at her: it was like loving a quicksilver sprite who quivered just beyond your reach. Everything about her was aquiver and agleam: her thoughts, her eyes, her laughter, hovering, dancing, restless…. People lumbered after her in clumsy chase.
She said: “Mike knows I’m a hedonist. Or was. But not that you and I held hands, my lamb—if that’s eating you. Where do you powder the nose? We probably ought to be moving.”
She slid her slim self away from the table and I finished my drink and paid the check and went over to the car. It was almost dark now. I got in and turned the key and a giant panther began to purr under my feet. Lisa came across the grass smiling. She had a lovely walk. We went away fast.
BRIDAL-WREATH was cloudy-white on either side of the narrow lane: it was a steep grade and the great car whispered to itself as we stole up it slowly. Lisa said “Sharp right at the top,” and we squeezed through an apparently casual break in the stone fence and followed the headlights’ glare down a wide winding drive.
Something moved behind a pergola and a big gray Shepherd stepped with careful dignity into the lights, then raced toward us without a sound. I saw a long low Norman farmhouse of whitewashed brick lying in a grove of silver birches; then, as the drive curved toward the door, the lights swung sidewise and picked up a terrace with chromium winking under bright parti-colored canvas. Dim white masses beyond were the stables, I decided. All very casual, pleasant, with the kind of deliberate simplicity that costs high.
I switched off the engine and climbed out, a little stiff and very, very thirsty. I hated what was coming. Lisa led the Alsatian carefully around the car, holding her collar, and presented me. “Meet Countess Freya,” she said. “Countess, this is Jim. Jimmy. Nice man when sober.”
“Mighty fine animal you got there,” I said. A small Japanese came across the terrace and Lisa said: “O’Mara, take Mr. Steele’s bag to the room in the East wing before you put up the car.” Countess Freya preceded us with immense decorum up the flagged walk. “A lot more restrained than any Countesses I ever met,” I suggested. “Why do you call him O’Mara?”
“Mike’s version of O’Something; I never can remember it. It sounds something like O’Mara.”
The door swung open. One of the biggest men I’d ever seen stood there; I thought for a moment it was Mike and the hair prickled on the back of my neck. Then Lisa said: “Parker, where’s everyone?” A suave English voice said: “Dr. Pvidgman and Mrs. Weston are on the terrace, madam. I’ll tell them you’re here. Mr. Weston and the others drove to town to the movies.”
Lisa said: “Don’t bother, I’ll look them up. I told O’Mara to put Mr. Steele in the East wing. See that he has everything, will you? Did you keep anything hot? I’m starved. We’re both starved.”
“Yes, madam.” The big man stepped back to make way for O’Mara and my bag. He had a face like a large white ham. “Will you come this way, sir?”
I said to Lisa: “Be right with you,” and followed the vast black-coated back.
I realized that the house was even bigger than I’d thought. We turned to the left and passed half a dozen doors to the one at the end of a long hallway. The low square room was drenched with the scent of lilacs. A great Spanish bed and a large French Provencal dresser left a lot of space despite their size; the lilacs were in a blue bowl on a very handsome teakwood table against the near wall, and an ultra-modern chaise longue in deep russet leather faced a window through which I could see dark water and the glimmer of riding lights. The walls were of rough off-white plaster. The only picture was a large Marie Laurencin in a silver frame.
Parker said: “The bath is through here, sir,” and opened a door into a complex blue-and-white tiled dressing- and bath-room, with concealed lighting above a frieze of plunging dolphins. I said that was fine, and he shepherded the respectfully hissing O’Mara out while I threw off my rumpled clothes and did some successful experimenting with a needle spray.
I wandered down the hall twenty minutes later feeling a good deal fresher and several shades less amiable. New flannels were cool and pleasant, and ice water in the carafe by my bed had combined efficiently with the last of my Scotch, but the more I thought of what Lisa had told me the angrier I got. I pushed open a door that led directly from the back of the entrance hall to the terrace, and a shape almost as big as Parker’s in a white silk suit heaved up out of a low chair and came toward me. “Hello, Mr. Steele,” said an extremely deep pleasant voice, “come and have a quick one before Lisa gets down. Mr. Steele, Mrs. Weston. What’ll it be?”
He was around fifty-five, I guessed—a little older than I’d thought. A big beaked nose jutting from a big dark face under twin wings of graying hair; a wide, twisted, ugly yet charming grin that showed very white teeth under a short gray Guardsman’s mustache; a very calm, slow, deliberate speech and manner. He wasn’t my idea of a psychiatrist: he looked like a man who had captained the Princeton eleven in ’05, say, and spent three decades since playing polo at Westbury. Easy-going, correct, not too bright. He had a firm, quick handclasp.
I said it would be a dash of Scotch and sat down on the wide sliding swing where Mrs. Weston was displaying a great deal of leg and an inviting smile. Both looked very nice indeed.
She asked me how the Morleys were, and I said I hadn’t seen them in months, my fault, did she know what they were up to. She said no, the last she’d heard was when they were about to start home from Hawaii. This fascinating topic disposed of, we turned to watch Mike Ridgman finish making three highballs. I wished Lisa would come. Mike handed us each a glass, and Mrs. Weston swiveled one beautifully modeled hip under her as she turned to take it, so that her instep came against my thigh. She didn’t take it away.
“I like you, Mr. Steele,” said Mrs. Weston with careful distinctness. “You’re not n-nerv-ous.” I hadn’t realized that she was quite drunk. “I like your reposeful manner. I r-recommend it.”
Mike said easily, “Cigarette?” and snapped a fighter under her nose with one hand while he inserted a cigarette between her full red lips with the other. He had a proprietary—or was it professional?—air that irritated me. But then everything about him irritated me. His Scotch was even better than mine, and that irritated me too.
La Weston said: “But how is it you two haven’t met before?”
I said: “Oh, we don’t move in the same circles. Dr. Ridgman cures the idle rich. I distract the idle poor.”
“No, radio-scripts. I write half-hour thrillers. Sell toothpaste.”
“Really. Fascinating. And that reminds me: I’ve met you before. Before you were married. You wouldn’t remember.”
She said lazily: “I wondered if you would. With Kathleen Raynor at that frightful cocktail party.”
“Oh, I’m out of movies. Since I married. My husband didn’t like it.” She arched her body a little, like a kitten. “I wasn’t too good. I didn’t mind. I’m lazy.”
Ridgman said sententiously: “Aren’t we all?”
“Your wife isn’t.”
“I don’t know what she isn’t but I know what she is: starved,” said Lisa in a Lanz dirndl at my shoulder. “That’s right, Parker—just over here.” An oversized teawagon preceded Parker’s massive tread. I got a plateful of something hot from the sputtering chafing-dish it bore, discovered that it was a very good Newburg and that I was hungry too. I sat quietly putting it away while Lisa and Mrs. Weston tore a couple of acquaintances amiably to bits. Mike said nothing in a fairly impressive manner. I started to put down my plate and a giant shadow at my elbow said “Thank you, sir” and took it away. I made a mental note that I must kick Parker some time. Just for luck. We drank some coffee, Lisa and I. I felt oddly glad of the darkness spread around us: it was a velvet cloak over the smouldering furnace of my anger. Not anger at Lisa. For some curious reason I had transferred it all to her husband.
“Marian’s gone to sleep,” I heard Lisa say, and realized I had been nodding myself. “Do you want to go to bed, Jim, or wait up with me for the wanderers to get back?”
Ridgman got up slowly, a vast white blur in the gloom. He dropped a hand on the back of Lisa’s chair. “I’ve got a little work to do,” his deep pleasant voice announced. “Hope you’ll be comfortable, Steele.” I murmured vague assurances and the big white shape moved off across the terrace. La Weston was breathing quietly through her small beautiful nose, her honey-colored hair framing a sufficiently distracting face. She smelt of wood-violets and Scotch, and I reflected that it was too bad Lisa left me anaesthetic toward other women.
“It is a shame,” said Lisa mockingly.
“You needn’t jump so guiltily. You can’t understand how transparent you are, my sweet. That is, to a smart girl like me. How about a stroll by the river’s edge? Let Marian sleep.”
I said: “Nice little place you have here. You and Mike build it?”
“No. Norman built it. He gave it to me for a wedding present.”
She slipped an arm through mine as we crossed the lawn. I shortened my steps to hers and we went slowly toward the glimmering dark water.
Lisa said: “How do you like Mike?”
“Very pleasant. How do I know? One o God’s noblemen, I have no doubt.”
“Go to hell.”
I said without meaning to: “I’m there.” She stopped suddenly. “Ah, Jim,” she said in an altered voice. We stood for a moment, quiet, wrapped in the summer night. I put an arm around her shoulders and turned her toward me and bent down and kissed her parted lips, roughly. I felt her breasts rise suddenly against me and I took my mouth away and stepped closer and kissed her twice again. She made a small inarticulate sound and I held her tightly for a moment and then we were standing near each other but apart, and I felt faintly ridiculous. She looked at me and smiled, but I noticed that her breathing was uneven. “You wouldn’t seduce a lady in her own garden, would you?” she asked.
“I generally pick the garden,” I assured her. “Don Juan Steele steamrollers ’em right in their own flowerbeds.”
“What, with all this dew?”
“That’s just a girlish qualm. Isn’t any dew anyway.”
“There’s Marian. She might be shocked.”
“Just amused, I think. Shall we proceed?”
“I’m not going to make a Roman holiday for Mrs. Weston. Besides I think the others are coming back.”
Faintly I heard a motor laboring up the hill we had climbed. “Hell,” I said, “just when I was getting places.”
“Who’s the rest of your party?”
“Tommy Weston—Marian’s husband, but I don’t think he works very hard at it. Henry Allen: nice man, lawyer, you’ll like him. Mike’s half-sister, Marie, who between you and me is something of a problem. And Mrs. Barclay.”
“You mean your ex-mother-in-law? She doesn’t live with you?”
“No, but she’s often here. The poor old soul gets lonely rattling around in a big place she has up the river a few miles. She and I always hit it off beautifully, you know. She really likes me, and I’m ever so fond of her. Let’s slide round and meet them.”
We came round the corner of the house just as a station wagon was decanting its load. A tall blond subtly battered-looking man of some thirty-odd was holding open the door while he helped a little bundle with white hair above a white Spanish shawl to set tiny feet accurately on the stone flags. Two other people standing there turned at Lisa’s hail, and I shook hands with a round brown cheerful little man who was Henry Allen, and won a brilliant careless smile from a seraphic vision beside him. Marie what-ever-her-name was the loveliest adolescent I had ever seen, and I had to tear my gaze—Lisa said later it was a disgusting leer—away to bow to Madam Barclay’s seventy-odd years. The blond man nodded pleasantly at me and I reflected how impossible it was for a woman to judge the effect of a man on other men: I liked this careless wastrel of a husband of Marian Weston’s and I definitely did not like the plump Allen.
The old lady said: “Lisa, I think I’ll be toddling along. Is Jefferson around somewhere? Oh, here he comes.” A big black limousine was crawling toward us from the stables. Mrs. Barclay’s tiny feet clicked on the flags to Lisa’s side and the lips of each brushed the other’s cheek. “Goodnight, youngsters,” said the high old voice and the thin, delicately-rouged lips smiled; her black eyes flashed in the carved old-ivory of her face; the large black hand of large black Jefferson clicked the car door behind her and they rolled away.
We straggled toward the house. Lisa asked: “What about a nightcap for all of us?” There were assenting murmurs. “Outside or in?” The exquisite Marie shivered delicately. “In, if no one minds,” she said. “Tommy drove back at ninety miles an hour and I’m chilly.”
Tommy said: “Sorry, cherub. Should have had an arm around you.”
Lisa made a solicitous clicking noise. “Very careless of you,” she told Weston. I followed them into the long pine-panelled living-room and helped Lisa put some drinks together. Marie in white chiffon with a scarlet-and-gold shawl across her shoulders thanked me for hers and put it down untasted by the low couch. Allen said: “Marian outside? I’ll get her,” and wandered toward the terrace, glass in hand. Tommy Weston draped his long legs over the arm of a club chair and began kidding Lisa about her tennis game.
I felt a little tired, a little sleepy, and quite a little bored. I splashed some water in a tall glass and dropped in a slice of lemon for myself, not wanting any more Scotch or indeed much of anything except bed.
Henry Allen came back murmuring that Marian wasn’t there, and sat down by Marie. I decided there must be Irish or Spanish blood in her and Lisa’s husband: she had one of those perfect dead-white camellia skins and hair so black it looked blue. Under its smooth bands—she wore it parted in the center and brought tightly down to some kind of complicated flowering at the back of her neck—big liquid eyes looked out of a delicately chiselled child-angel face. She was apparently nineteen or twenty. I wondered why Lisa had called her a bit of a problem. The only problem I could see she’d present would be the clutter of college boys at her doorstep.
Lisa said lazily from her chair a couple of feet away: “Oh, but there’s a lot more than meets the eye.”
I said, genuinely startled: “I don’t know where you learned that trick but I admit it’s good. Can you make ectoplasm come out of your mouth, too?”
“It isn’t me, it’s Chief Laughing Water. My spirit control.”
“If he can control you, he’s got something.” I said, so low it would just carry, “You want to show me those letters tonight?”
“They can wait till morning. Now you’re here everything’s all right. I’m through worrying.
“Thanks. You never should have started.” She said in a lazy murmur but with a subtle hardening of tone: “O.K., professor. But as I said before, you haven’t seen the correspondence.”
He hadn’t moved a muscle, yet I realized suddenly that Henry Allen was listening—or trying to. His round brown face was toward Marie and he kept it that way; but there was a sudden curious rigidity in his posture that telegraphed itself as clearly as if one large brown ear had pricked straight up.
I said, a little louder: “I know. They’re terrible correspondents. And since they moved to Santa Barbara they’re even worse.”
Tommy Weston stood up and said: “Lisa, this guest is going to pick a little sleep. Pleas ant dreams to one and all.”
The white chiffon foamed as Marie stood up. “I’m dead myself…. I slept through half the movie. ‘Night, Lisa dear. Breakfast about when?”
“Breakfast about when you want it,” Lisa told her. “Mike’s going in to town early. Me, I expect to he till noon.”
Allen put out a brown hand. I took it because it was under my nose. His grasp was firm and sincere. “Pleasure meeting you,” he said. “Think I’ll run along too. ‘Night, Lisa.” He went up the stairs after the other two.
Lisa stood with me in the hall as they vanished round the bend in the staircase. She put her hand on my arm and said “Thanks again, Jim,” and squeezed my fingers. I said “Goodnight, infant,” and kissed her lips before she could move her head, and went down the hall toward my door, leaving her standing there alone at the foot of the stairs.
AND THEN I couldn’t sleep.
I tried everything, including sheep, rhythmic breathing, a couple of triple bromides, and a lot of good assorted cursing. Somewhere between four and five there came a great twittering of birds in the silver birches outside my window, which didn’t help. I got up and looked out. It was getting light fast. I shut the window to deaden the morning choir, got a drink of water, went back to bed ready for more tossing—and passed out as if I’d been hit with a hammer.
It was eleven o’clock when my eyes opened again, and the lawn outside was brilliant in warm sun. Then I saw Lisa coming across it, in jodhpurs and a yellow silk blouse, both of which did very pleasant things to her figure. I threw up the window and put my head out and called “Hi!”
“Hi yourself,” she said and crossed toward me. “Sleep well? You don’t look it.”
“Awfully nervous group of birds you have here,” I told her. “As a matter of fact, though, I look fine. This is just my before-breakfast face. Muscles haven’t had a chance to harden into the sleek cold lines you love.”
“Yeah. I’ll send you in some coffee. Then how about a snack on the terrace?”
“Give me ten minutes. Are we the only ones up?”
“I like that ‘we.’ I’ve been up hours. Had a ride.”
“So I gather. I like you in that rig. Turn round so I can leer some more at you.”
“Oh, you do leering, too?”
“Sure. Haven’t you seen my cards? J. Steele, Leering neatly done at all hours.”
“You’d better wash your face first.” She wrinkled a disgusted nose at me and took half a dozen steps toward the terrace.
Careless, buoyant steps.
Then she stopped. In mid-stride. It was very curious—exactly like a strip of movie film when the camera suddenly stops turning. She was staring straight ahead at something that was hidden from me by the angle of the house. Something on the terrace that I couldn’t see. In the hot hushed stillness, over the bright gold-velvet lawn, I heard breath sucked in sharply— and then I heard her scream.
I didn’t wait. I went in a neat dive straight through the window and felt my face plough through soft warm grass as I landed in a long flat slide. Then I was up and running.
I reached Lisa in a couple of leaps. I put an arm across her shoulders in a noble protective gesture marred only by the necessity for holding up my pajama trousers with the other hand: the string had broken when I ht. She pointed. Jun…
Then I saw that I might just as well have taken it easy. La Weston had all too obviously been dead all night.
She lay huddled in the swing, exactly where I’d seen her last. Reflex muscular action had kicked both legs straight, and one sheer beige stocking had slipped part way down to her knee. The back of one hand had fallen partly across her face, which I must say was a good thing because that side of her face simply wasn’t there any more. Dried blood had plastered its broken outlines in a heavy dark-brown mask….
It must have been, I remember thinking at that moment, one hell of a blow.
Lisa said, her face against my grass-smeared shoulder: “J-Jim. Am I going to be sick?”
I slapped her face, hard. It worked beautifully. I said, as she stepped back: “Listen. Go straight in the house and get Mike. Send him out here at once.”
“He left for town hours ago.”
“All right. Go in and get Parker. And wait in there for me.”
Her eyes still blazed at me and the mark of my fingers was red on her cheek. She turned to the house without a word. Which was what I wanted.
I stood where I was, maybe ten feet from the body, and looked. No sign of a weapon, no sign of a struggle. The cover of a Lalique glass cigarette box had fallen from a taboret near Marian’s head to the dust-colored fibre rug, but it might have been pushed there by her fingers groping for a cigarette in the dark. The glass tray beside the box was in place, full of mashed stubs. I’d put a couple of them there myself.
She had been lying on her left side, with her face toward the back of the swing. The blow— or blows—had struck her on the right temple and cheek bone. Her skirt had ridden up a little, not much, and her right thigh above the stocking which had slipped was like marble in the sunlight. Remembering the last time I’d seen her and the lazy relaxed curves of her warm living body and thinking how dreadfully easy it had been for whoever hit her, I felt a sudden wave of mingled pity and rage. What bastard would sneak up on a sleeping woman and smash. Well, what bastard had? I looked up. Parker’s great white ham-like face was beaded with perspiration as though he had been running. His features were clustered too close together in the middle of it, and I had a sudden irrelevant thought that he looked something like Herbert Hoover. He said: “Y-y-yes, sir? Mrs. Ridgman says— Oh, my God!” His hands came up in what seemed to me a somehow theatrical gesture, as the little porcine eyes focussed on what lay in the swing. His fat jowls were quivering.
I said: “How come you missed this this morning?”
“I—I beg your pardon, sir?”
“Don’t you clean up in the morning? Sweep, empty ashtrays, wipe off things? Or is that the Jap’s job?”
“It’s his job, sir. But this is his day off. I was a little late.”
Looking at the body I said under my breath: “I’ll say you were.”
Thinking fast under pressure is how I earn my daily bread, but I felt at this moment that the mental motor was missing on a couple of cylinders. One thing was certain, though: I was in a race against time. I had to see those letters, decide what to do about them, before the law arrived.
My watch said eleven-ten. I said to Parker: “I’ll handle the telephoning. Get a large sheet and bring it out here as fast as you can. I’ll wait here.”
He started off at a waddling run. I called after him: “Wait a minute. Where are the others—Mr. Weston especially?”
The ham-face half turned, but he didn’t stop moving. “All in swimming, sir. Foot of the lawn.” He vanished round the corner of the house.
I stood right where I was for two minutes, then he was back. I waved away a little group of eager flies and we draped the huge linen sheet over the whole swing. It made a ghastly-catafalque in the bright sunlight that was slanting across the terrace under the parti-colored canvas roof.
“O.K.,” I said. “Now you stand by till I’ve telephoned. If they come back from swimming will they pass by here?”
“No, sir. They go round the other end of the house. And they won’t be back. I take cocktails down at eleven-thirty.”
“You wait right here.”
The door from the terrace into the hall was open. I went in and called “Lisa!” not very loud. She said “Here, Jim,” from upstairs somewhere. I pushed a couple of wrong doors back, found her room. She was standing perfectly still by the window waiting for me. She had a glass in her hand. I didn’t blame her.
I said: “Look. Sit down. We have to talk fast. She’s very dead. Where do you keep the bottle?”
She moved aside and I saw the Ballantine’s on the table behind her. When I took it from my lips it was a lot nearer empty but the cylinders started firing again.
I said: “Honey, I’m sorry about slapping you. You haven’t used the phone?”
She shook her head. She hadn’t said a word. She stood with her long lovely legs in the tan jodhpurs a little apart, and her breasts under the thin yellow silk were strained with her rapid breathing.
I said: “Lisa. You know I love you.« So don’t mind the question. You didn’t do it?”
Her red mouth trying to smile was somehow deeply pathetic. The bronze hair danced as she shook her head. “She—she was my best friend. That’s the worst of it. Because —”
The deep-velvet voice choked. I saw tears spring suddenly to the wide eyes in her brown face. I said: “That’s all I want to know. The rest can come later. But we’ve got to get at those letters before the law comes. Because either we tell about them now or we never can. Are they handy here?”
She said tonelessly: “If I’d only showed them to you last night!”
“I don’t think it would have made any difference.”
“It might have made a lot. Don’t you see?” “See what?”
“Why Marian was killed.”
“I can guess. That’s why I want to see the letters.”
She crossed the room to a Picasso horse that hung on the wall by her dresser and pushed it to one side. Underneath was a little chromium knob; the wall-safe swung open almost at once. She took out three plain envelopes and handed them to me. I spread all three out carefully on the coverlet of the painted bed and sat down on the edge of the bed to read.
I had to see those letters before I called the law.
They were typewritten, with what I guessed was a very old and decrepit portable, on plain cheap white paper with envelopes such as you can buy at any five-and-ten to match. The characters were smudged and out of alignment, but they were written with a new ribbon and the ribbon was red. The red words looked unpleasant on the sleazy page.
The envelopes were all addressed on the same machine: “Mrs. Michael Ridgman, Birch Hill, Deep River, Connecticut.” Personal was underscored in the lower left-hand corner of each.
Number One, mailed at 10 p.m. in Grand Central zone on May 12, said:
Dear Mrs. Ridgman:
We suggest that neither now nor ever do you show this letter to anyone. You may be surprised at receiving it after so long a time has gone by, but we can assure you that our memory is excellent; indeed, as we often tell each other, it seems as though July 18, 1936 was only yesterday.
We have a very important business proposition to make to you. If you see eye to eye with us on it, our relations will continue cordial and confidential. If you don’t—but why go into that? You will.
The Kestrel was a nice boat, wasn’t she?
There was no signature, just a large rough cross drawn inside a circle. The cheap dark-green ink had spattered a little in making the circle.
I said “Mmmm.”
Number Two, mailed in the same postal district at 9 p.m. a week later, said:
Dear Mrs. Ridgman:
“Some day I’ll kill you!”
Sorry, it just slipped out.
We don’t have to remember it. Or the monkey-wrench. Or what went before. Or what came after. Not that a lot of people wouldn’t like to know. It might make a good deal of difference, don’t you think?
Dr. Ridgman would certainly be interested if you haven’t told him, and Mrs. Barclay would be badly upset. You don’t want that, do you? And of course the police —but you know all that. And we can keep right on forgetting it, providing you follow our instructions. As of course you will. And of course not a word to anyone.
The signature—circle and cross—was the same as in Number One.
Number Three, mailed at 10 p.m. four days later (which was three days ago) said:
Dear Mrs. Ridgman:
The figure is one hundred thousand dollars.
Four days from now—that is, the night of Monday, May 26—please be at home, alone. How to get the servants and your family out of the house is up to you. Have your car ready for the road. Also have ready, in a plain suitcase, one thousand fifty-dollar bills and five hundred hundred-dollar bills, 1,000 $50 bills and 500 $100 bills—is that clear?
At exactly nine o’clock we will telephone you. We will give you complete directions on how to proceed. It will be easy. But it will be awfully tough if you fail.
Same signature—circle and cross.
I said, “That’s tomorrow night.”
I said, “Lisa. We have to talk fast. I ought to be on the telephone this minute. What’s this egg referring to? What happened on the Kestrel the night she blew up?”
She was still standing, still with the glass in her hand. I saw her knees quivering. I got up and took the glass away and put an arm around her shoulders, warm and smooth under the thin yellow silk, and pulled her down on the edge of the bed beside me where I could hold her hands tightly in one of mine. “Tell the old master,” I urged. “What the hell do I care what it was?”
She didn’t look away, she looked straight at me. In the depths of her eyes I could see the little gold spangles that I’d never thought to see again.
She said: “That’s just it, Jim. I don’t know—exactly—what did happen. I was pretty tight.”
“Which means, I suppose, that Norman was stinko.”
“Worse. First amorous, then abusive. We’d been out watching some of the Larchmont Yacht Club trials and he’d been drinking since sun-up. I got bored. So I had quite a few myself. We got back and we anchored and I wanted to come ashore for dinner. Norman wanted to eat some cold stuff aboard. We fought over that awhile and it got quite late—I know it was almost dark. I think I passed out. I’m very vague about what happened just after that, but I woke up suddenly with Norman’s arms around me and I was struggling.”
She stopped. I said “Uh-huh” encouragingly and she went on: “This all sounds so asinine. He—I kicked him. And I got up. And he came at me and I picked up a wrench he’d been loosening up a porthole with and slammed him with it.”
“Why you fiend in human form,” I said. “I’m weak. Pass the bottle. Did you croak him?”
“N-no. But I certainly calmed him.”
“I—I don’t know. That’s the trouble. I had some sort of nervous reaction. Either I fainted or I passed out again; anyway, it’s all blurry. But here’s the bad part. Norman had lurched over to the bunk on the port side—I know that, I remember it before I passed out the second time. But then after awhile I felt awfully hot, and I opened my eyes, and pretty near the whole cabin was in flames, and I rushed up on deck, and jumped overboard without even stopping to kick my shoes off, and I’d hardly got twenty yards away when she blew up with a bang like Judgment Day.”
“I bet Norman was surprised.
“Jim, it’s so horrible I can’t bear to think of it even now. They never found a trace of his body, even. And any way you figure it, it makes me a—a murderess twice over.”
“How so, Mrs. Snyder?”
“If I hadn’t hit him and stunned him in the first place, he’d have been awake and stopped the fire. And if I’d stopped to look for him when I woke up and saw flames, I might have pulled him out.”
“Where’d the fire start? I suppose no one could tell.”
“No. They decided it was defective wiring or something. Might have been a cigarette.”
“How much of what you’ve told me came out?”
“I just said we were both asleep and I woke up and saw fire and ran up on deck looking for him and couldn’t find him and jumped.”
“Well, that’s perfectly true.”
“Yes, but it wasn’t all the truth. Nobody knows that but you.”
“Me and him,” I said. She followed my eyes to the three letters lying open on the coverlet. A very slight shudder, almost imperceptible, seemed to ripple through her. I said, “What’s all this ‘Some day I’ll kill you’ stuff? You haven’t mentioned that.”
A curious look came over Lisa’s face; I couldn’t tell whether it was loathing or anger or fear or all three. She said steadily, “It’s almost incredible. That’s about the one thing I do remember clearly. I remember spitting that at Norman.”
“While we were… fighting.”
“Before you hit him?”
My brain was working, I thought, pretty well. Someone, somehow, had been a witness of the struggle that preceded the explosion. A witness who was close enough both to see and to hear. Just how frank Lisa was being even now I couldn’t tell, but I had an idea there was a bit more to the tale than I’d heard yet. However that might be, her anonymous correspondent seemed in deadly earnest about collecting cash for his silence, and the letters had a competent, confident ring that I didn’t like at all. I tried to formulate a mental picture of their author. Certainly an educated man—or woman. No fool. And no piker. A hundred thousand dollars isn’t coffee money. A sardonic humor, cruel….
All right, so we’d tell the cops about them. And the whole wretched tale of Lisa’s brief marital hell would come out, plus the undoubted fact that she’d conked her husband with a monkey wrench. Which could be hooked up beautifully with the smash on Marian Weston’s brow and with Lisa’s retreat to whatever gilded asylum had harbored her. Unstable, dangerous… it would make a nice case: Lisa had thought that Marian Weston wrote the letters and had smacked her down. And the bright green gold-flecked eyes and the red smiling lips and the shining bronze hair and the glinting mercuric mind would be shut up somewhere forever to dull and rust and rot….
I said, “If you would rustle me some coffee I could probably choke it down. But failing that —”
I put another three fingers where it belonged. It was good Scotch. Lisa didn’t move.
“I’ll give the law a toot. Put the letters back. Forget them. We’ll tend to them later.”
Her head came up. Her breath came out in a long sigh. I’d forgotten how tense she’d been.
“You’re sure that’s right, Jim?” But relief was in every word.
I said irritably: “I’m not sure of anything except that you’re in a jam. And it isn’t going to help to dig up old dirt right now. We’ll say nothing. I’ll call the police, then you call Mike.”
Believe it or not, it was barely eleven-thirty. I patted her hair and reached for the telephone.
THE COUNTY Attorney said to the little circle in the living-room drenched with Sabbath sunshine, “I’ll just get a brief statement from each of you on last night.”
He was a plump young Irishman with a scrubbed round face and a cold eye, whose manner combined the deference due important money with the firm assurance which had put him where he was.
Through one window I could see a couple of State troopers busy with a photographer. I was just as glad that the back of the swing hid their subject. Inside, Tommy Weston, Marie, Henry Allen, Lisa, and I faced Larry Doyle’s cold blue eyes while the local police chief squashed his vast bulk on a fragile chair in the corner and breathed noisily through a flaming crimson nose. His name was Handy.
I said: “You want Parker, Mr. Doyle?”
Irritation edged his voice as he flicked an eye at me. “I’ll get the servants later. We haven’t a stenographer here, Chief, so suppose I just take this down.”
Handy wheezed “O.K.” through blubber lips. He looked like a toad.
Doyle said pleasantly, “Mrs. Ridgman, I’ll start with you. When did you last see Mrs. Weston—alive?”
Lisa’s brown face was a little drawn, but her voice was clear, unshaken. A very fast recovery. She said, “Mr. Steele and I drove up from town last night. We got here around eleven. Mrs. Weston was sitting in the swing on the terrace talking to my—to Dr. Ridgman. We talked for a bit, all four of us, and had a highball and some coffee, and then Mr. Steele and I got up to meet the others who had been to the movies, and my husband went to his study to do some work. Mrs. Weston stayed in the swing. I think she was asleep. I didn’t see her again.”
“That would be around midnight, then? You didn’t say goodnight to her later?”
“It was before midnight. We all came into the living-room for a few minutes, and someone—I guess it was you, wasn’t it, Henry?— went out on the terrace to look for Mrs. Weston, and didn’t see her, and I thought she’d gone on up to bed. So we all went to bed.”
Doyle was scribbling fast. “But she must have been there, mustn’t she, Mr. Allen?” he asked without stopping his pothooks. “I’ll take your statement next.”
Henry Allen’s eyes behind gold-rimmed spectacles looked alert, cautious. Or so I thought. He’d pulled on a pair of rusty-blue crash slacks over his bathing suit and sat straight, feet in their canvas clogs wide apart, his little round belly resting on his thighs. He said: “Just put my head out the door and glanced round. The terrace was quite dark. I didn’t see Mrs. Weston but I never thought of her being asleep in the swing. She might have been there or she might not. I’d seen her last at dinner; we went on to the movies right afterward.”
“That applies to me too, Mr. Doyle,” said Marie’s soft voice. She looked more angelic than ever wrapped in a rough white beach cape with a scarlet kerchief over the dark smooth plaits of her hair and knotted under her chin. Her lips had an exquisitely sensual curve: a Del Sarto angel. I could imagine a man losing his head over her to the point where nothing else counted….
“I asked Marian”—she put a cigarette between the scarlet lips and lit it: callous or careless? I didn’t know—“at dinner to come to the movies with us. She said she’d stay on here. I didn’t see here again at all.”
Doyle nodded, scribbled, turned with a certain gentleness to Weston. This one looked very badly, his battered yet faintly immature brown face yellowish and puffed. He had pulled on a beach robe of violent Roman stripes and sat with his bare legs crossed, his feet in brown saddle-leather sandals. I could see muscles twitch in the calf of the crossed leg. I’d had the job of telling him the news when I went down to the beach after phoning. He insisted on seeing his wife at once. I let him. He’d bit his lip to hold it steady, turned back the sheet a little, and replaced it quickly. He had nerve. I liked him. It was too bad that added to his other troubles he had one of the finest hang-overs I had ever seen.
He said in a rusty voice, his faintly bloodshot eyes fixed on Doyle’s: “In a way, you know, this is all my fault. I went to bed early— in fact I think I was the one who suggested going to bed. When my wife didn’t come up I thought she was probably chatting with Dr. Ridgman and I fell asleep almost at once. Her room was just across a connecting bath from mine, and when I got up to swim this morning her bathroom door was closed, so I didn’t touch it. She likes to sleep late.” He started to say something else, stopped. Then he said, “I can’t— it doesn’t make sense. She didn’t have an enemy on earth.”
Doyle said confidently, “We’ll find out.” Then his blue eyes flicked at me again and he said, “And you, Mr. Steele?”
“I can’t add a thing,” I said. “Mrs. Ridgman’s told you about me. Then this morning I was talking through my window to Mrs. Ridgman on the lawn, and she started to go on the terrace and I heard her scream and I jumped through the window and we found the body.”
“I’ve got that part,” said Doyle, stopping his pencil. He looked round the circle of faces. “It looks as though she slept on right there until— None of you left your rooms last night after you went upstairs?”
No one said anything.
“Nobody heard any noise, any footsteps, any outcry, any commotion of any sort?” Silence again.
Doyle said, “How soon do you think Dr. Ridgman will be here, Mrs. Ridgman?”
Lisa said, “He’s here now,” and gravel crunched outside. I hadn’t heard the car come up the hill. Voices blurred in quick talk, then the hall door opened and Mike came in. A trooper’s beefy hand reached after him, pulled the door shut.
Doyle got up and they shook hands; evidently they’d met before. “I’ll go out with you, Doctor,” Doyle said, “they must be through out there.” He was definitely deferential now. Mike in light grey tweeds looming like an expensive mountain from the solid foundation of his Peele brogues was pretty impressive. His face was a pleasant ugly mask, impassive as rock. He didn’t even glance at the rest of us, but he turned from Doyle and dropped a big hand gently on Weston’s shoulder. Weston said something inarticulate but didn’t move. Doyle said, “Doctor, I understand you were up later than the rest of the household. Did you see Mrs. Weston again?”
Mike Ridgman said gravely, “No. I left Mrs. Weston with my wife and Mr. Steele on the terrace some time before midnight. I was finishing up a paper I’m reading next week on ‘The Social Significance of Alcohol.’ Parker came in to ask if I wanted anything more and I told him to go to bed. I imagine I went upstairs about half past one.”
“You didn’t go outside? Hear any noise, any talk?”
“Not a sound. The house was dark except for hall lights. I was thirsty. I went out in the kitchen and drank a half bottle of Perrier and went on upstairs. This morning I left about seven-thirty; I had an early Sunday appointment at the hospital in White Plains. Ethel, the cook—she sleeps out, you know—was here and made me some coffee. I must have walked right by the terrace on my way to the garage, but of course the swing faces the water, its back is toward the driveway. What time was she killed?”
Doyle said, “The medical examiner’s out there now. Somewhere around midnight, he thinks; maybe an hour or so later. Let’s go and talk to him.”
Handy stirred his gross bulk, heaved out of his chair, waddled toward the door. He looked sore, probably at the lack of attention he’d had. He stood with his back to the door and said in a voice like a broken foghorn, “That’ll be all for the moment, then. But ye’ll all stand by. I have one question. Has anyone in this room an idea of who killed her?”
A very fair question, I thought. But nobody answered.
Doyle looked annoyed. He said, “Chief, suppose we step out with the doctor.”
Handy opened the door.
“THE CURIOUS incident of the dog in the nighttime,” I said.
Lisa asked, “What’s that?”
Mike was outside; Marie, Allen, and Weston had gone upstairs to dress. Lisa and I sat on in the living-room.
“That’s Sherlock Holmes.”
“Sure. I remember. ‘But the dog did nothing in the nighttime.’ ‘That was the curious incident.’”
“Is the Countess loose at night?”
“Always. She’s wonderful.”
“Maybe she was rabbit-hunting when it happened.”
Lisa said, “What you really mean is it must have been someone in the house.”
I said, “I’m just trying to get this straight in my own mind. I thought at first she’d been killed by an outsider who mistook her for you. You’re about the same height, same build, she was lying with her face to the back of the swing, she could very easily have been mistaken for you in the dark. That is, by an outsider: everyone in this house knew where you were. I thought maybe you’d misfired on some of the instructions from your blackmailing friend and were scheduled to be bumped off. And the visitor got Weston instead.”
Lisa said from a pale composed face: “Exactly. And I still think so.”
“No. Now you’ve showed me the letters, it’s obvious that that theory’s silly. You’re due to deliver important money tomorrow night. Why kill you now? Hell, they love you. If you stubbed your toe on the garden path at this point, they’d come sprinting from the shrubbery to pick you up…. Also, I don’t see how any hired thug could have got by the dog. It’s someone in this house, all right, and it’s someone who meant to kill Marian, not you.”
Lisa said slowly, “I want to think that. It’s so much better than the other. It just seemed to me that whoever’s writing those letters must be—must be some kind of homicidal maniac and got tired of waiting. Which would give me another death on my conscience. That’s why I went to pieces awhile ago. I can take anything that’s coming to me, but to think Marian was killed because of me….”
“She wasn’t. Of course what’s going to make this thing difficult is us whispering around like a couple of conspirators when we ought to lay the whole thing on the line for Mike. If you don’t trust him, why’d you marry him?”
I couldn’t help it.
“I thought I’d told you. I should think you could see.”
“I don’t see.”
“Well… it’s a hellish thing to say, it’s so unfair to one’s husband. I was afraid. Mike was— protection.”
“Afraid of what, if I may make so bold?”
Lisa said with sudden violence, “Jim, why will you be so dumb? Afraid of everything. Chiefly of myself. I was all shot, I told you so, I had just sense enough left to know I couldn’t take it alone. Mike’s been a godsend. He knows I don’t love him, he knows I—I mean, he knows I never did. It’s been purely a— a business arrangement. He thought he could help me, cure me. He has. He told me before we got married that I was just a case—a dear case, if you like, but just a case. Is that stripping naked enough or shall I take my brassiere off?”
Something inside me gave a great thump at her words. I hoped my own voice was steady. I said, “None of my blasted business, you might say. Sorry.” But I was anything but sorry.
“Well. Of course in a way I’ve asked you to make it your business. But to me it’s so simple. Mike’s primarily my doctor, not my husband. He doesn’t love me….”
Looking at her, I doubted that. And a reluctant respect for the big man came to me. “I mean,” said Lisa, looking away from me under the long dark lashes, “he can’t love me. Mike’s pushing sixty, you know,” (I was surprised to hear it) “and he’s had a very—a very full life. You’ll laugh when I say I’m a daughter to him, but it’s ninety per cent true.”
I opened my mouth to say something, but she went on: “Also above everything else, Jim, I want his respect. He’s been so swell. He set out to cure me and he’s made a good job of it. And I’m so—so ashamed, so bitterly ashamed of what happened that night on the Kestrel that I’ve never mentioned it. Mike knows my married life wasn’t happy. He knows my emotional boiling-point’s low. He understands all about my nervousness, my depression—from a technical scientific point of view. He told me once that the precise details of what went before weren’t important. I’ve taken him at his word. Now do you see why I wanted your help? Apart from the fact that Mike isn’t a tough egg like you. He couldn’t handle a thing like this, anyway.”
“Fine,” I said. “You make it all clear. Except that for the life of me I can’t see why you should feel so badly over cracking Norman one. I don’t see where the word ‘shame’ comes into it.”
Lisa said with a hardness in her voice that was new to me: “There was just a bit more to it than that. I was—let’s just say, raped.”
“Why, dearie me.”
“Norman was—he was—oh, skip it. He was a Krafft-Ebbing case. I was unconscious and he —”
“I know. He had his willful way with you.”
“You don’t know. You couldn’t even imagine —
Her voice snapped off just this side of hysteria. She stood up and shook herself like a dog coming out of water. She said, “I think I’ll make a cocktail. I think we all need one.”
“I think I’ll be novel and different. Make mine Scotch. I’ll go dash off a shave. I could chivvy a herring about, too.”
“I’ll hook you one.”
STANDING BEFORE the soft diffused lighting of the shaving mirror I ran a blade over my wire bristles and had a really good try at coherent thought.
But it was hard to do; I felt so fine. I felt like a combination of Casanova and Tarzan. Long ago I’d salved and bandaged and stowed away in the depths of my consciousness the raw wound that Lisa’s marriage had carved in my ego, but I knew very well that it had gone on festering like a suppurating sore. Now in a flash my almost paranoid jealousy of Mike had vanished. He was just a figurehead. My girl had in a sense come back to me.
I cut a small hunk out of my jaw and didn’t even swear.
The thin dark face that grinned back at me from the mirror six feet or so from the tiled floor looked somehow different, very different, from the way it had looked all the past year and a half. There is a legend in my family that the first Steele in America married, somewhere around 1638, the daughter of a Mohican chieftain in the Connecticut wilderness. The straight black hair, the thin high-bridged nose flanked by high cheekbones, the enduring smouldering anger which, once roused, becomes an equally integral part of me until satisfied—were all explained to me by my father in this way. I don’t know whether it is true or not, but I hope it is true. They were a great race, I gather, before the white man had his evil way with them.
I thought: “You’re on the rails again, boy. On the rails. She couldn’t help it, she does love you, she bit her tongue but it almost slipped out, she—Christ!”
This time it was a piece of lip. I mopped my blood-streaked chin and thought suddenly of the poor bloody mask in the swing. By God, I thought, I would help run the bastard down. It couldn’t be anyone in the house —
But couldn’t it? I dried my face and set about picking out a pair of socks. Mike, of course, was out. Prominent psychiatrists didn’t go around bashing week-end guests in the head. Lisa was out, I was out. Presumably the servants were out: I couldn’t imagine either Parker or the little Japanese in a dither over Marian Weston. The cook, I had gathered, was just a capable negress: nothing there. There was an aged gardener. That left the husband, the lawyer, and Marie.
About the angel-child, I didn’t know. Lisa had said she was a problem. But grant her any sort of motive imaginable—from a passion for Tommy Weston to a frenzied Lesbian jealousy— I couldn’t believe she’d have the sheer physical strength needed to cave in and splinter half the bones of a face. Anyway, women didn’t kill that way. They might stab, or shoot—they didn’t club.
Henry Allen? I disliked the man, I didn’t know why. But it seemed most unlikely that he, any more than Mike, turned to murder on I country week-ends. I couldn’t see it. Still he might have had a compelling motive. I must ask Lisa how long he’d known the Westons. That left Weston himself.
I tried to think of all I knew about him. Tommy Weston was a pleasant bibulous West Coast playboy. Vocation: none. Avocations: two—polo and starlets. His father did something in steel; he didn’t have to worry about income. I’d met his wife shortly before their marriage a couple of years back when I was on the Coast shaping up a new radio show; she’d had a couple of good small parts in pictures but Weston had yanked her out of that in a hurry once they were married. He was crazy about her. He’d been crazy about two or three others before her, but this fall was the hardest he’d ever taken.
I thought: Two years is pretty short to tire in. But the beggar is irresponsible. Suppose he’s fallen with a crash for Marie. Suppose Marian knew it and refused to divorce him. It’s possible—it’s unlikely but it’s possible—that he’d take a short-cut. But I don’t believe it.
Yet who else was there? I reflected that Doyle would pretty quickly be forced to the same conclusion.
I stepped into some fawn doeskin slacks which were at least less blatant than the noisy Glenurquharts I’d been sporting, stamped into crepe-soled buckskin shoes, and knotted an India-print tie around a fresh dark-blue flannel shirt. Through the window I could just see the hat of a trooper who was standing halfway down the slope to the beach. He didn’t move.
Suddenly I had a nasty thought. It was a hell of a thought. I shook it out of mind quickly but it kept popping back, and I knew that the reason I hated it so was because it was probably true.
And if it were true, I was an accessory—not legally but actually—to murder. And Marian Weston was a wholly innocent sacrifice. And Lisa was in deadly danger—and, if it came to that, so was I.
The last didn’t bother me. I could take care of myself. But Lisa….
I ht a cigarette and took three drags and threw it away. I decided that whether Lisa liked it or not, Mike had better be told about the letters.
Someone tapped gently on my door.
I BARKED, “Yes?” Getting jumpy already. Wouldn’t do.
Parker’s suave British voice said, “Lunch in ten minutes, sir.”
“Right. Thanks.” I strapped my wrist watch on again, kicked my bag shut, and went down the hall.
They were all in the living-room—all but Weston. Lisa in a dark blue birdseye dress with short puffed sleeves and no back sat next to the cocktail wagon. Mike was standing in front of the fireplace with his hands behind his back. Allen, a careful symphony in tobacco brown was walking with short nervous steps up and down the room. Marie Ridgman, in a clinging turquoise jersey skirt and sweater which traced with affectionate accuracy the most astonishing lines I had ever seen, was sitting on the long window-seat, while Parker was puttering with glasses at Lisa’s elbow. The forced composure of his big face was like a badly set custard.
Mike was evidently expounding something. He stopped what he was saying as I came in and smiled pleasantly in my direction, but the smile didn’t touch his eyes. Lisa gave her hand a semi-circular wave that meant “Sit down and listen.” I did.
“I was just saying, Mr. Steele,” Mike’s deep voice resumed, “that I’m not going to try to gloss over the situation. We might as well all understand it clearly. I’ll outline it to you”— his head nodded almost imperceptibly toward Parker—“in just a moment. Parker, will you see how Mr. Weston is coming? And that will be all.”
Parker said “Thank you, sir,” and got to the door just as Weston came in. He said “Excuse me, sir” and drew aside; then the door closed noiselessly behind him. The wrought-iron latch clicked. Weston was still pale behind his short straw-colored mustache, but his hangover was better. A rich aroma of Scotch preceded and accompanied him. He walked over and Marie pulled her feet out of the way and he leaned back at the other end of the long window.
Mike’s big hands were curiously delicate among the glasses. He finished with the shaker and did something briefly with a squat bottle to each of the amber glasses, murmuring “Special prescription.” I took one; it was very fine. Everybody took one. Mike began again, standing where he had before with his glass in his hand.
“Tommy’s wife,” he said, “and one of our very dear friends, has been, quite incredibly, killed.” His voice was deep, gentle. “So far as any of us know, she hadn’t an enemy in the world. I have talked at some length with Mr. Doyle, the County Attorney. I know him fairly well: he is a very astute and capable young man. If he needs New York help he will get it, but I think—and it’s understandable—he would prefer to avoid that if possible.”
Weston put his glass down and said, hoarsely and a little wildly, “Mike, I can have the best detectives in the country out here by tonight. Let’s not waste time with these hick cops.”
“Tommy,” said Mike evenly, “wait a moment. Let me finish. A very careful examination of the terrace has been made. There are, apparently, no material clues whatever. No footprints, at least no visible footprints, either on the tiles, the rug, or the grass. No overturned furniture, no signs of a struggle, no trace of a weapon. The glass cigarette tray and the box alongside it are being tested for prints. They’ll probably be covered with the prints of all of us. Marian never knew what killed her. She was evidently struck in her sleep and died instantly. She didn’t suffer. A very powerful hand struck the blow, perhaps with a metal club.”
For no special reason my eyes noted the contrast between Marie’s slim forearms locked round her knees, and Tommy’s immense wrists toughened on the polo field.
“There are several possibilities. First of course is the midnight prowler. Object: robbery. He sees Marian asleep in the darkness, perhaps she stirs in her sleep, he is afraid she will call out, he strikes her. But apart from the fact that nothing in the house is missing, it’s extremely unlikely that any such person could get past Lisa’s dog. I’ve seen her in action once or twice. She’s very capable.”
I said, “I suppose she’s around this morning?”
Lisa said, “Oh, yes, she’s around. She wanted to come riding with me.”
Mike said, “Now, as I was saying, Tommy, we might as well all understand the situation clearly. No one in this room, of course, has any more idea of who killed Marian than I have. But the fact remains that every one of us in this room is—automatically and inevitably— under official suspicion.”
Allen said, “What?” Mike’s voice was sharp with impatience: “Of course, Henry. You ought to know that better than I. If it wasn’t someone outside, it must have been someone inside. For the moment, at least, Doyle is prepared to concede that a woman couldn’t have struck that blow. That leaves myself, Steele, Parker, you, Henry—and you, Tommy.”
I thought it was very well done. He had to say it, but his manner—dispassionate, expository— took out most of the sting. Lisa said calmly, “Does that mean we’re all under arrest, Mike?”
“Not at all. No one is under arrest. But we are all under observation. We aren’t to leave the grounds until further notice, which will probably be tomorrow. Doyle’s coming back for a long session with us this afternoon.”
Allen said through thin lips, “I have to be in court at ten-thirty in the morning. It’s important.”
Mike was soothing. “Of course, of course. And I had an appointment in town this afternoon and I have no doubt that Mr. Steele is due at his office in the morning too. But that’s how it is.”
“Don’t worry about Mr. Steele,” I suggested. “What I’m wondering is whether your dog is infallible after all.” Weston’s head came up. “Mike, that’s what gets me. It must have been some tramp. Killed Marian, got scared, beat it. And all the time this Doyle’s fooling around with us, the fellow’ll be getting further and further away. I say let’s get after him. I say—”
Mike said, “Tommy, I know how you feel. But no tramp will do any escaping—even if he started last night. State police are closing a fifty-mile circle around here and every road is watched, cars are being stopped and examined, every suspicious or evasive character is going to be hauled in. I think they’ll do a good job.”
I was nearest the door and I thought I heard a board squeak. I got up and walked over there, my rubber-soled shoes making no sound, and swung it open suddenly. Parker’s button-nose was six inches from my own. He didn’t jump, or step back, or even look at me. Staring stolidly over my shoulder, he said, “Luncheon is served, madam,” and turned on his heavy heel.
Luncheon was—and I am not exaggerating— a hellish meal. The roast was excellent; the avocado salad was a masterpiece; there was some fine Stilton in port; but Scotch was served, in the British fashion, throughout, and everybody but Mike seemed to want his nourishment liquid.
There was very little talk. Toward the end Lisa said, “Parker, we’ll have coffee on the—in the living-room,” and bit her hp with annoyance. Obviously the terrace was out. We straggled back into the long living-room and I managed, to come last, next to Lisa. I said, low and very fast, “I have to see you alone right away. Where?” She just nodded and went on. As we came to the living-room door she said casually, “Jim, you ought to know something about radios, you make your living out of them.”
I said with an affectation of weary patience, “Where is it? And don’t blame me if it never works again.”
“After coffee I’ll show you.”
“I don’t want any coffee. Where is it?”
“In my room. I’ll show you.” I followed her up the stairs and into her room and shut the door. She stood with her back against it.
“What is it, Jim?” she said.
I said, “I’ve been thinking. Did I ever tell you I love you, wench? Stop frowning. We must tell Mike about the letters.”
“I’m afraid your first hunch was right.”
“Oh, God!” said Lisa.
“I mean in a way. I mean the letters said you were to say nothing to anyone. Suppose for the sake of argument that whoever’s running this show is in a position to keep some sort of watch on your movements. Hell, it might be Henry Allen. You arrive late, from town, with a strange man in tow. Do I look like a private dick? Anyway, maybe I am a private dick. You’ve violated instructions. You need a warning. A warning as to the kind of people you’re dealing with. Do you good. Throw a real scare into you. Make you all the more likely to shut up and kick through. So—”
“I don’t say it’s so. But it may be so. And if they’re that kind of people, it might amuse them to take a potshot at me. Then you’d have to tell Mike anyway. But regardless of that, it seems to me he’d better know now.”
Her smooth brown forehead wrinkled in the effort to think. She said slowly, “I see what you mean.” She thought some more. She said, “Yes. You’re right, Jim. I’ll tell him. You be there.”
“Not a chance.”
“Please. I ask you, please. It’ll make it much easier for me.”
“All right. Only we ought to get him right away, before Doyle comes back.”
“I’ll get him. We’ll go in his study.”
“You’re a fine girl.”
“I’m scared to death.”
I took her hand and held it very tight. It squeezed back. I said with a confidence I certainly didn’t feel: “We’ll fix it. Trust papa. And don’t go out of my sight.”
“Can’t I go to the bathroom?”
“I guess so. You want to go now?”
Lisa said with defiant ribaldry: “I’m not that scared.”
MIKE picked up a Japanese sword guard, twisted it round in his big fingers, put it down on his desk again. He looked a little tired. He said, “Yes, yes of course. I’m very glad you told me. Naturally, Lisa, I knew that something like this had happened. It was the only explanation of your condition. And I knew that some day you’d tell me about it: it’s best to let worries of this sort come out naturally, in their own good time.”
This was a good egg, I thought. He wasn’t excited, or annoyed, or reproachful, he was just listening. With an occasional murmured soothing, “Yes, yes of course.” He was like a big calm Buddha sitting there. Very restful.
He said, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, “I take it Mr. Steele has seen these.” He tapped the three letters lying before him, and glanced from Lisa to me.
I nodded. Lisa, as relieved now as a youngster who isn’t going to be scolded, said, “I blurted it all out to him last night coming up in the car. He insisted on seeing the letters and then, as I say, Jim insisted that you see them too. Sorry, Mike. I know I should have told you before. Didn’t want to worry you.”
Little liar, I thought. I didn’t care. My girl. Sweet liar….
Mike was saying gravely, pleasantly: “I’m very glad. Steele’s an impartial witness—you write thrillers, too, don’t you?” Glint or a smile, “Obviously we’ve got two things to decide. One is whether we tell the authorities about these letters. The other is whether to prepare to pay any money.”
Lisa said quickly, “Mike, you’re a sweetheart. I was afraid you’d say there wasn’t any question but what we must tell about the letters.”
“Oh, yes. I think—I think it’s a very big question. Don’t you—Jim?”
I said, “If we’re right in thinking that Mrs. Weston was killed as a gratuitously brutal warning to Lisa, then it seems to me that whether you like it or not, the letter story has got to come out.”
Mike asked, “Why? I just want to get your views.”
“For one thing, because the law will be looking for the wrong person if we don’t tell. For another, because her death proves these people literally stop at nothing. For a third, because we’ll be definitely obstructing justice if we don’t tell. Yet I concede there are very valid arguments against telling about the letters under any circumstances. And Marian Weston’s death is one of the strongest. I think perhaps this gang— whoever it is—realized that.”
“I don’t follow.”
I said, reluctantly but deliberately, “If the law knew the whole story it would be a great temptation to hook Lisa up with this murder.”
He picked up the sword guard again, thought that over. “Not necessarily. Suppose Lisa’s story remains exactly what it was at the time of the— accident. She receives a series of threatening letters containing veiled threats which mean nothing whatever to her. She has been undecided as to whether to turn them over to the authorities or simply to disregard them. Her friend’s death may or may not be connected with the letters; she doesn’t know; but she does show them promptly to us, and we all agree the authorities should know about them at once. What’s wrong with that?”
I said, “Nothing at all, if the people who wrote the letters are bluffing. But suppose they have got some tangible evidence as to Lisa’s activities the night the Kestrel blew up—I can’t imagine what it could be, but suppose they have, and they spill it, it puts Lisa in a hell of a hole. Almost be better for her to tell about the fight in the first place.”
“Possibly. Well, suppose we assume for a moment that nothing is said about letters. Lisa, do you want to pay a hundred thousand dollars to keep them quiet?”
He might have been asking whether she cared to buy a new radio.
Lisa said, “But of course I haven’t got it. You know that, Mike. I never even considered paying it. The only way I could get it would be to ask Mrs. Barclay. And fond as she is of me, I can’t imagine her parting with a cent if she knew the whole story: she was fond of Norman, too.”
Mike had an eye like a hawk: he must have noted my head lift ever so slightly in surprise. He said, with no expression whatever in his pleasant voice: “You see, the Barclay money has always been mainly in the old lady’s hands. It made a lot of trouble. Friction. The sons didn’t like it.”
“The sons?” I said, suddenly very alert.
Lisa said indifferently, “Norman’s twin and another brother. Younger. He’s dead. Automobile crash a couple of years ago.”
“Where’s the twin?”
“Paris, I imagine. He lives there. He’s an artist—or thinks he is.”
I said slowly, “I don’t suppose either of you would admit that he might be the villain of this piece.”
Lisa didn’t even stop to think. She laughed. She said to Mike, defending me: “Of course Jim’s never seen Edward Barclay.”
But Mike didn’t laugh. He was turning the sword guard delicately over and over. He said gravely: “I’ve thought of that.”
“Mike!” Lisa protested.
“… but I’m inclined to agree with you that it isn’t likely.” He turned to me. “Edward Barclay is just about as unlike his brother as you can imagine. Of course I knew the brother only by hearsay, but I met Edward years ago through mutual friends. He’s very shy, very retiring—one of those bearded recluses, you know. He’s the last man alive to go in for deeds of violence. And I don’t imagine he cares a nickel whether he has money or not.”
“Well,” I said defensively, “it just occurred to me. Not knowing the lad. But look here. Doesn’t the whole thing boil down to what sort of evidence these people can have? What sort of a boat was this Kestrel, anyway—big yacht?”
Lisa said, “No. Sixty-foot cabin cruiser.”
“And all this funny business happened in the cabin, while you were anchored, well out from shore, about nightfall. Right?”
I said, “Well, unless someone was flattening his nose smack against the porthole I don’t see how any human being could know a thing about it. All right, he was flattening his nose against the porthole. Even so, it’s just his word against yours. And his word at this point wouldn’t go very big. What’s he been keeping quiet all this time for, if he’s an honest citizen who really thinks you killed your—husband?”
Mike said, “Quite right, of course. I wonder—Lisa, were there any boats around that night?”
Lisa looked utterly wretched. “But of course. You know, there are always boats—dinghies, canoes even. It would have been quite possible for someone to come up to hail us, look through the porthole, and see the whole thing. We—I wouldn’t have noticed. At least, I mightn’t have noticed. Oh, Jim, I can’t have all this coming out….”
Her hands twisted together. Her red lower hp had a dent where she’d bitten it. I remember thinking, “You haven’t told me everything yet, my girl.” And thinking that we were just talking, not even talking in circles. And certainly not getting anywhere.
We got somewhere the next minute, though. In the momentary silence there was a perfectly hellish crash. The lower window pane shivered to bits as a jagged lump of rock as big as a baseball smashed through it, bounced off the sill, and skidded to a thumping stop in the far corner of the room. For an instant there wasn’t a sound, then a loose piece of glass chimed faintly as it detached itself and fell.
The three of us sat quite literally paralyzed with surprise. The muscles just stayed frozen in whatever position they were. Then I jumped for the window—I was nearest it—and put my head out through the splintered hole. Mike said, “Careful. Watch your neck.”
The rich green lawn stretched rolling down toward the shore, a good two hundred yards away. The white brick wall of the house ran to right and left of me. Flower beds extended along it, less than three feet from my nose as I glanced down. Two young silver birches brushed each other within reach of my hand. There wasn’t cover for a rabbit in the whole sunlit landscape. And the landscape was empty.
I pulled my neck in gingerly and said, “I’ll be damned.”
Mike and Lisa were standing close behind me. He said, “Who is it? Who threw that?” in a voice I hadn’t heard before.
For such a big man he was very fast on his feet. He had the sash open and half his body out the window while the words were still on my lips. When he pulled it in his face was something to see. He said, half under his breath, “Most extraordinary thing I ever—let’s have a look.”
He pounced across the room on to the rock. We all took a look. A fist-sized piece of jagged white granite. It must have weighed several pounds. No human being could have hurled it, at the speed it had been traveling, from very far away.
And not a soul in sight.
I put out my hand, said, “Let me see,” took it, turned it around and over. Lisa said, “Look, look!” We all stared. There was writing on a flat facet. Two words, crudely printed in what looked like lipstick. I held the stone to my nose. It was lipstick. It said: “last warning.” Underneath was a red circle with a cross.
I said, “It must be a message from Houdini.” Mike reached over and took the rock back. Roughly. I looked at him: his face astonished me. It was crimson with what I guessed was rage. If eyes can blaze, really blaze, his did. Funny, I thought, what egoists we all are at heart. He could take murder and threats to Lisa with at least an outward calm. But now for probably the first time in his whole well-ordered, conventional life, he himself was being treated with effrontery. He was angry all the way through.
Lisa said, “Jim, there wasn’t Anyone—anywhere?”
I said, “Wait just a minute.” I went out and through the front hall and walked all the way around the house, just strolling, my hands in my pockets. It took me about four minutes. When I got back to Mike’s study I knew where the rock came from, all right, but it was too late to do anything about it.
Mike said, “See anyone in front?”
“Not a soul. The troopers must be out by the stables or up at the gate.”
He said abstractedly, “I don’t understand this.”
I said with an airiness that was chiefly an act for Lisa’s benefit, “It makes sense, all right. She was killed for a warning, after all. This is flash number two.”
He looked at Lisa, at me, and back at Lisa again. He started to say something, thought better of it, thought again. He said one word: “No.”
I said, “But of course. Exit tramp, enter torpedo….”
Again he said, “No. Unless someone’s being very smart and trying to hook up Marian’s death with the letters—and he wouldn’t know about the letters… I’d better tell you.”
Lisa said tensely, “What, Mike? What?”
He took a couple of quick turns up and down the long low room, then flung his great bulk into the big chair by the splintered window where I’d been sitting. He said, “I know who killed Marian. It had nothing to do with your letters.”
Lisa said, “Mike! It wasn’t——?”
He nodded. The big ugly kindly face was impassive again, chiselled out of rough stone. Lisa said suddenly, “I don’t believe it.”
“I wish I didn’t.”
“Did you see it?”
“Ass!” he said, not unkindly. “Wouldn’t I have stopped it?”
“Then how do you know?”
“Heard him. I couldn’t sleep. Heard him going downstairs about half past two—and heard him coming back.”
I said, just to be saying something, “Maybe he went down for a cigarette.”
Mike said heavily, “Maybe.”
Lisa gave a little shudder.
I said, “Are you naming your candidate?”
He didn’t answer at once. Then he managed a smile. “Forgive me, Jim,” he said, “if I don’t mention names just yet. But you can see—it’s something to think about. Host accusing guest and all that. Should I or shouldn’t I? It’s got me a little down.”
I said, “Had they ever fought before?”
Mike’s snort was, I guessed, relief. He wouldn’t have to mention names. He said, “Frankly, if it had been the other way round I shouldn’t have been surprised. She certainly hated him. He was so insanely jealous, she didn’t have a minute’s peace. Which was all the more surprising because….”
He stopped. The lovely figure of the angel-child floated through my mind. I didn’t think it was so surprising. I knew lots of dogs in mangers. Didn’t especially want his wife himself any more, but damned if anyone else was going to have her. While he went philandering on…
And yet—I couldn’t get any conviction out of it. Careless, irresponsible—but a sportsman. Sportsmen didn’t sneak up on sleeping wives and crack their skulls. Did they? But suppose your sportsman is soaked, infiltrated with alcohol, suppose he’s driven to the verge of madness by the seductive curvings and yieldings and last minute laughing “No’s” of the mocking virgin who makes matrimony her price… how about your sportsman then? Perhaps it was a cigarette he wanted, then the surprise meeting in the swing, the mumbled colloquy—both brains blurred with drink—the taunting laugh, “Divorce? Try and get it!” the gust of rage, the blow… yes, it could be. It could be.
But that didn’t explain the rock.
I said curiously, “What are you going to tell Doyle?”
The heavy shoulders in the great chair had sagged a little. Mike said carefully, “I think, at the moment, nothing. It’s possible there may be a confession.”
Lisa asked, “What about the rock, lads?”
I said, “Whose room is over this one?”
She said, “It’s empty. It’s an extra guest room. But what—oh, I see!”
I said, “Of course. Just walked in, leaned out the window—which is wide open, by the way— and wham! In she bounces underneath. Good trick. And again, not so good—for him. Narrows things down.”
“Why didn’t you dart upstairs, Dupin?” asked Lisa.
I said, “You don’t think your correspondent hung around after chucking it, do you? He threw his message and came away fast. We stood around gawking at it for a hell of a time. Anyhow, what does it matter? We know who it was.”
Lisa said mockingly, “What a brain!” She was herself again, for the first time since she’d crossed the lawn that morning. I knew why. Not just that the first shock of discovery had had time to wear off, but that—if Mike were right—she wasn’t responsible.
I said, “Well, figure it out. Our shotputting letter writer is in the house right now. Maybe he’s the killer, maybe he isn’t. I wouldn’t know. Either of you want to bet on Allen or Weston? My money’s on Parker.”
Mike said slowly, “It might fit.”
I said, “Might fit? It’s got to fit. Call Weston anything you like—a lad with his bankroll isn’t a blackmailer. Call Allen anything you want— and I know what I’d call him; who is he, by the way?”
Lisa said quickly, “Nice man. Family lawyer.”
“Mrs. Barclay’s, mine, Mike’s—” She gestured vaguely.
“Well, well. Anyway he’s out, surely.”
Mike said, “Yes, yes of course.”
“Well,” I said, “two from three leaves Parker. Easy. Old family servant stumbles on guilty secret, loses shirt at races or fan-tan, needs cash, tries blackmail. And pretty clumsy he is about it, too.”
Lisa said, “It’s an idea. The only catch is that so far as I know, Parker wasn’t in America two years back. So I don’t see how he could have been squinting through the Kestrel’s porthole.”
“You got him in England?”
“No. He applied for a job as butler just after Mike and I got back from Miami.”
“How’d he hear about you?”
Lisa said, “It was funny. There’s a tough little roadhouse about four miles below Southport—a very tough little roadhouse. It’s run by a New York gambler. They say there’s a wheel upstairs. Mike and I drove in there one night around midnight, for a drink. And this great hulk waited on us as exquisitely as if we were Lord and Lady Fitzwilliam in the ancestral halls. He and Mike talked a little. And just as we were leaving, he said, ‘If I might make so bold, sir and m’lady, would you be needing a butler?’ I said, ‘And if I did?’ And he said, perfectly self-possessed, ‘In that case, m’lady, I was eleven years with Sir John Somerset and I am sure I should give satisfaction.’ And I said—I was quite amused—’You drop round tomorrow and we’ll see.’ And he did, and Mike liked him, and we said we’d try him for a month, and he’s still here.”
“What was he doing in the roadhouse?”
“His boss had died suddenly in Miami. Parker was stranded. Worked his way north by degrees. Willing to do anything, I imagine.”
I said, “I’ll bet. Wonder if I could have a talk with him.”
“For God’s sake, what do you think? Go on and ring for him. I don’t have to be respectful of his feelings, I’m not his employer. Besides the Steeles are wonderful at cross-examination. He’ll think he’s back at the Old Bailey again.”
Mike said, “Very good idea.”
I said, “Let me talk to him, and you and Lisa go out and shepherd your guests around. We must have been in here an hour.”
We had. Mike pressed a button on his desk. He said, “Well, what’s the verdict on Doyle? What do we tell him?”
I said—and suddenly it all seemed very simple to me—“I vote we tell him nothing. We’ve got three points—letters, rock, your midnight stair climber. The last is up to you. I agree it had better wait on Weston’s further story. Rock I’m sure is Parker, acting for whoever wrote the letters. Let’s us handle that without the law.”
I was quite pleased with myself.
Sometimes even now I wake up swept with horror and a sick pity, thinking how easily what was to come could have been averted if only all of us had thought a little faster, a little more thoroughly, during our hour together in that room. For it was all there, the whole horrible pattern, luminous and deadly, half-visible in that mysterious Fourth Dimension which is neither Past, Present, nor Future but the Eternal Now. It was all there, traced by the interlocking arcs of our thoughts, our surmises—and I had seen fragments glimmering for a moment, then fading. Yes, I hate to admit it. But I could have saved the other lives.
MIKE said, “That’s funny.” His thick forefinger held the buzzer button down a third time.
I said, “You two stay here. Let me take a look.” I went out in the hall and called, pretty loud, “Parker!” A door at the far end swung open and a round black face with very white eyeballs thrust through. “Ah think he’s upstairs, suh. You want I should get him?”
“I’ll get him, Ethel—it is Ethel, isn’t it?”
“All right. I’ll find him.”
No one on the terrace, no one in the living-room: I could see that from the foot of the stairs. I went up. The long upper hall stretched in two directions from the staircase head. Some doors were open, some closed. I called again, “Parker! Dr. Ridgman wants you.” Footsteps padded on the floor somewhere and a door opened for Henry Allen’s bald brown head. He was in a brilliant Chinese robe. He said calmly, “You call?”
“Can’t seem to locate Parker. You seen him?”
“I’ve been asleep. Any news?”
“No.” I went past him as he shut the door and on down the hall to the tower room at the end, over Mike’s study.
The door was wide open. I could see the sun streaming in from the west window. And I could see something else. A large black shoe with its toe turned straight up lay like a huge fat slug in the clean sunshine. I presumed there was a foot in it. There was. It was Parker’s. He lay, mountainously, on the floor beneath the open window. There was quite a lot of blood beside his head and his eyes were closed.
I let him he and stepped over him and put my neck out the window. As I’d thought, it wasn’t more than four feet down to the window of the study. I called “Mike!”
Mike’s head came out. “Up here!” I said. He screwed round, saw me. “Accident,” I said. “Come up, will you? And bring Lisa with you.”
I felt less than ever like leaving her alone a minute.
Mike must have made the stairs in three jumps. Lisa was right behind him. I said as he bent down by the big body: “Is he dead?”
“Don’t think so.” His fingers were exploring the back of the skull. “Nasty crack…. Yes, he’s breathing. He’d better stay right here for a bit.”
The telephone in the lower hall made us all jump.
Lisa said, “I’ll answer it.” I said, “I’ll go with you. You need a bodyguard.”
The bell kept ringing as we went down the steps. We reached it about the time Ethel did. Lisa said irritably, “You mustn’t let it ring like that, Ethel,” and took up the receiver. I could hear a woman’s voice squeaking over the wire.
Lisa said, “Yes, my dear…. I know, I meant to call you sooner but the most frightful thing…. Oh, darling, I’m so sorry you got it that way…. I’d love it, Anna, but do you really…. Well. It’s dear of you. Right away? Be waiting. ‘By.”
She hung up and said briefly, “Mrs. Barclay. I should have phoned her. She’s coming over.”
“She knew about Marian?”
“The butcher boy told the baker boy who told the chauffeur who told the cook who told her. Some such process. You know how those things travel.”
“She coming over to hold your hand and smooth your brow?”
Lisa said wearily, “I suppose so…. Nice Sunday we’re having, Mr. Steele. What the devil hit Parker?”
I said, “How are you fixed for secret passageways?”
“None today, thanks. We just don’t use them, even if you are working your way through college.”
“That’s too bad. If you just had a nice secret passage we could open it and pull out a lurking fiend. Allen said he’d been asleep. I don’t know where Weston and Marie are. But why should they want to hit Parker?”
“You still think he chucked the rock?”
“He was in that room, wasn’t he?” I said.
“Let’s go see if he’s there now. Maybe he’s disappeared through a trapdoor.”
He hadn’t. He still lay there but he was coming out of it fast. Mike had put a flat pad under his head and sopped up some of the blood. He was sitting on the bed watching Parker’s flabby white face.
Lisa said, “That was Mrs. Barclay. She’s on her way over.”
Mike just grunted. Then he said, “I think he’ll be conscious in a minute or two. Heart’s all right. Jim, how about rousing out Tommy and Allen?”
“All right.” I knocked peremptorily at Henry Allen’s door. This time I heard him get off the bed, and bare feet slapped the floor as he crossed it. He had his glasses on and he didn’t look in the least sleepy, but you couldn’t really tell with a prim cold careful face like his. I said, “Somebody whacked the butler and knocked him out.
Mike’s down the hall there with him. Will you drop in?”
He said, “Well, I’ll be…”
I said, “Where’s Weston?”
He looked surprised. “Didn’t you know? Doyle called by nearly an hour ago and got him and they went downtown, to Southport. I was just coming upstairs to take a nap. I thought of course they’d told you.”
“We were in Mike’s study. They didn’t tell us. Is he arrested?”
“Oh, no. Just a friendly call at the station. Or perhaps at Doyle’s office. It isn’t far to town, you know. Of course Doyle wants all the family background. I imagine his own office would be more convenient than here.”
I said, “You know, something very funny is going on around here. Is Marie upstairs too?”
“I don’t know.” He hitched his robe around his stomach and started down the hall. I said, “Which is her room?”
He stopped, pointed. “Right here.”
I said, “Let’s knock.”
Marie’s lovely young voice said, “Yes?” instantly.
“This is Henry Allen. Mike wants to see you.”
“Be right with you. Where is he?”
“Down at the end of the hall.”
Henry Allen said non-committally but reassuringly, “Not much, I guess.” He went on down the hall without looking round at me, his spindly legs absurd under the hem of the bright voluminous Chinese robe.
Lisa was sitting on the bed and Parker’s eyes were open. He looked all right to me. Mike had sponged his face and it was dripping wet. I said, “Here’s Mr. Allen, your sister’ll be along in a minute. Doyle’s taken Weston downtown. Shall I go corral one of those troopers? They must be around somewhere.”
Mike said, standing enormous beside the big prone shape, “Wait just a second. Can you talk now, Parker? What happened? Who hit you?”
His eyelids fluttered once or twice. He seemed to be trying to focus on Ridgman’s face from this unfamiliar angle. He said dazedly, “Hit me?”
“Someone hit you.” Mike’s tone was patient. “Someone hit you on the head. Who was it?”
“Someone hit me?” He sounded weakly incredulous, still confused.
“Yes. They hit you on the head. You’ll be all right. Who was it?”
“I don’t know, sir.” The heavy voice was stronger.
“How’d you get in here?”
“I was just setting things to rights, sir, upstairs after dinner. I thought I heard a noise in this room. I knocked on the door—it was open—and glanced in, sir. That’s all I know.”
“You didn’t see anyone?”
“I didn’t have time, sir. I put my head through the door and heard something rustle or swish, like, sir, and down I must have gone.”
I said, “That’s funny. You’re six or eight feet from the door now.”
The little eyes blinked at me. “I suppose I took a step or two and fell, sir.”
I said, somewhat forcibly, “You’re a god damned liar.”
“I beg pardon, sir?”
“You heard me. If anyone cracked you as you put your head through the door you’d never in the world have got clear over where you are now. You’d have dropped right in the doorway.”
“They might have dragged him, Jim.” Lisa’s voice held faint reproach.
I looked at the two-hundred-and-fifty-pound mountain lying there and said, “Try it.”
The mountain stirred and sat up. It said tonelessly, “I’m very sorry, sir. I didn’t see anyone.”
I said quickly, “How long you been up here?”
He didn’t fall for that one. He said, “I—I don’t know, sir. What time is it?”
I was so angry I didn’t bother to answer. Mike did. He said, “Four-thirty.” I looked at my wrist watch, surprised to find it so late. Four-thirty—it had been quite an active twenty-four hours since I’d last seen that watch point there. Lisa’s glance flicked across mine. I said, “I’m going to get a trooper.”
Mike said again, “Just a second, Jim. Parker, you’re quite sure you saw no one in this room?”
“Quite, sir. But there was someone here.” He felt tentatively back of his ear, winced. “As I say, sir, I heard a noise in the room and just as I came in the door there was a kind of swish or whistle.”
Lisa said, “It might have been a sandbag.”
I said, “It might have been brass knuckles. Sandbags don’t break the skin.” I said to Mike, “Funny we didn’t hear him fall. I should think it would shake the house. We were right underneath.”
Mike said, “Perhaps that explains his position. Whoever hit him might have caught him and eased him forward a few steps and let him down slowly. He’d turn part way round as he was let down.”
I had to admit there was something in that but I didn’t say so.
Parker said stiffly, “Very likely, sir.”
Mike said, “Here, I’ll help you up. Take it slowly. You may have a slight concussion; you’d better go to your room and he down.”
“Thank you, sir.” He got off the floor like an elephant climbing from its nest. “If you don’t mind, sir, I’ll do just that.” He didn’t look at me as he started for the door.
Mike said, “I’ll come with you. We’ll put a bit of gauze on that scratch of yours.”
Was I mistaken, I wondered, or did Parker’s glance cross Allen’s quickly as he went out? I said to Lisa, “This is just a thought. Can I borrow your car awhile?”
Lisa said gaily in a double entendre that evidently amused her: “It’s all yours, professor.”
Allen observed with what sounded to me like gloomy satisfaction: “I doubt if they let you drive far.”
“Where’s the key?”
“I’ll get it for you.”
She was halfway down the stairs before I caught up with her. She slipped one warm hand into mine and whispered without turning to look at me, “Where you bound, boy?”
I said, “Maybe nowhere. Troopers are pretty tough.”
“Oh, if you want to play mystery man—” she said coldly. She got the car keys in a little pigskin case out of the telephone stand in the hall and held them out to me. “Did you say they’d carted Tommy off somewhere?”
“Doyle came and got him while we were talking in the study.”
He might have told us he was going.”
“We had the door shut, why should he? It’s O.K. You think Allen slugged Parker?”
“Of course not. But I don’t—Jim, don’t be gone long. It’s all so cock-eyed.”
I said brilliantly, “You’re telling me? Look. I’m going to tell the brave lads on guard that there’s a thug loose in the house. Keep ’em occupied till I get the car out, will you?”
“All right. But don’t be gone long. You’re a slob not to tell me.”
“Oh,” I said, relenting, “there’s no mystery about it. Only if the law gets sore you’d better be able to say truly that you don’t know where I am. I wouldn’t call yours a poker face.”
“You want a quick one before you start?”
I said, “No, Delilah. Save it for me.”
I kissed her quickly. She slapped my face. The front door slammed.
THIS is probably silly, I thought, but it’s worth a try. I stood on the blue stone step and called, “Hi, trooper!” From over the curve of the rock garden, up by the stone fence gateway, came an answering hail. Shadows were long and peaceful on the velvet lawn. Over a blue cloud of delphinium on the rock-crest I could see a Stetson-two Stetsons—bobbing toward me. I went a few steps down the drive to meet them.
They were good-looking youngsters, very smart in brand-new whipcord and blue serge. Rookies, I guessed. I said, “My name’s Steele. You know that big butler—Parker?”
“We just went upstairs looking for him when he didn’t answer the bell and found him with his head knocked in.”
My manner, I thought, was a nice display of ill-suppressed excitement. Four youthful eyes widened delightedly. “Dead?”
“Unconscious. Dr. Ridgman’s with him now. Take a look, will you?”
It worked beautifully. If they’d been older, one of them would have stayed with me. As it was they jammed into the doorway trying to beat each other inside.
The garage door wasn’t locked. It slid back on well-oiled rollers without a squeak. Lisa’s athletic Juggernaut stood poised, hood toward me. A smart little black coupe—Mike’s, probably—was on the far side. I turned the key in the dash and listened for a second to the faint contented purring that answered me, then eased her into gear. We swooped down the drive on wings. I thought, “Easy!”
The great shining prow whistled down the hill and nosed left on the main road to town. I didn’t like to drive through Southport but I didn’t see how it could be helped. It was all right: the long main street was drugged in Sunday afternoon peace. We slid down it at a modest fifty like a giant shadow and were gone before the loafers squatting in front of Mac’s Bar and Grill could turn their stuporous heads.
I cut in the supercharger and the needle, which registered in kilometers, swung up and up: 130, 135, 140. A black blur ahead of us grew into a heavy black limousine. As it flashed by I could just see the faintly startled gaze of old Mrs. Barclay in the rear seat. Too bad, I thought: of course she recognized the car. Well, it didn’t matter much. The road swung left in a long white curve. Empty, for a couple of miles ahead. The wide river shone nearer, across the salty fragrance of marshes.
We swept like a gray gull round the curve, swung into another long straightaway. The colored sign flashed by before I could stop. Tires screamed briefly but her rear end held the road as though glued there; I reversed and eased back slowly into a wide gravelled parking space.
The rambling gray-shingled house was built low, almost over the water; a flight of blue-painted steps that matched the blue of the half-moon shutters angled down to the front door. Flowers were a cheerful red-and-pink in window boxes on the second story, about level with my eyes. The curved sign arching over the steps said: “ed’s. bar. dancing.” The dashboard announced that we were 7 kilometers from town. This was it, all right.
I’ll say it was.
A chunky young Italian in a starched white jacket stepped from behind a big Buick and said, “Anywhere you like, sir. Lots of room.” His smile made him look a little less like a gorilla but not much. I eased another foot back to the edge of the gravel, pocketed the keys, and slammed the door behind me. I said, “The boss in?”
He looked doubtful. “I think he’s busy.”
“All right. I’ll find him.”
I slipped between an impressive Mercedes and a depressed-looking Chevrolet moored close together at the head of the steps, and went down to the front door. Inside it was cool and dark, so dark that after the white road-glare outside I couldn’t see anything at first. A very nice soprano voice said in my ear, “Check your hat, sir?”
I said, “I carelessly left it home… Why, blow me down, if it isn’t Louise! What blew you out here, beautiful?”
She dimpled, patting corn-yellow hair. “Just a vacation. I’ve been sick. Town didn’t agree with me.”
“Ah-hah, I told you you’d better let me buy your suppers instead of those smart boys you were playing with. I’d have seen you got to bed early.”
She said impudently, “And did I know it!”
“Honestly I’m awfully glad to see you. You look fine.”
“So do you, Mr. Steele.”
“My God, how long is it since you were at the Simplon—two, four, no, three years.”
“It was a nice place, wasn’t it?”
“You were the best thing in it. I suppose you couldn’t shut up the coatroom and have a quick one with me inside here? Doesn’t seem to be much traffic.”
“Well—hardly. Thanks just the same.”
“Louise, who’s the boss here?”
“Not a local lad, I understand.”
“My God, no!…He, used to run a place in the Village and the Rhumba on 57th Street. He had a spot in Miami, too. Crazy about racing.” She lowered her voice and part of her pertly up-thrust facade brushed my arm. “He’s kind of taken it on the chin the last year, they say. It’s all right for me to be indiscreet with you, isn’t it—Mister Steele?”
I said, “Why, a very happy suggestion. I knew you’d see reason some day. Shall we go right upstairs?”
Red lips mocked in her round child’s face. “Don’t you ever get that off your mind?”
I said, “Well, I’ll die trying. Maclay’s in, isn’t he?” She nodded and I went down the dim hall. It opened into a long low-ceilinged dining-room which led out to further tables on an open porch; sunlight sparkled on water just beyond. The bar ran the length of an alcove off the dining-room. It was all chromium and colored cellophane; in this eighteenth-century house it looked as self-conscious as a Cape Cod spinster caught in a bagnio.
A very tanned boy and girl in riding clothes sat on its high stools; a very fat man with an obvious poule de luxe sat in a corner. I wandered out to the porch and pulled out a chair overlooking the water. A waiter was right behind me. I said I would have a double Scotch with plain water and some ice and was Mr. Maclay around? He said he’d see. What would it be about?
I said it would be about a personal matter and would he snap it up. I didn’t care for his tone, which was one shade this side of insolence. He went away.
It was very quiet. The tide licked lazily at piles somewhere under my feet; the sky was the pale, tender blue of early June. Suddenly it occurred to me that I was tired.
The waiter came back with the Scotch and a good deal more politeness. He said Mr. Maclay would be down in just a moment. It was good Scotch. I needed it.
A man with a square, hard, brown face and hard tight eyes came across the dining-room floor. He wore excellent clothes—a hound’s tooth jacket and brown gabardine slacks above heavy white buckskin shoes—and wore them well. He had a curious horse-head pin in his scarf. There was a vaguely horsey look about him anyway, which I imagined pleased him very much. He came straight to my table and I stood up. He said a little brusquely, “Yes?”
I said, “Mr. Maclay?” He nodded. “My name’s Steele.” He didn’t especially want to shake hands but he did; his manner implied he didn’t care to buy it, whatever it was. I said easily, “Funny I never ran into you in town. I used to get around a good bit. Old friend of Zanni’s, if that’s any recommendation to you.”
His tight eyes didn’t change but the rest of him loosened ever so little. He said, “Zanni was a very good friend of mine. Too bad he went back to Italy.”
“Yes. I was in there yesterday. The place isn’t the same.”
“Just what can I do for you, Mr. Steele?”
I said, “You can give me about ten minutes and maybe a lot of help, maybe none. It’s purely a personal matter. Not, by the way, financial.”
He smiled politely. He said, “Come up to my office. I was just leaving but if it won’t take long— This way.” We trailed back across the dining-room and turned right down a passage that ended in a flight of stairs. I followed him up. His office was a little room about as big as the bar, with an old-fashioned rolltop desk and a couple of easy chairs. He waved at one of them, sat down in the other. I sat down. He waited.
I said, “You’re a horseman, I know. Did you ever meet Johnny Somerset in Miami?”
He looked a little startled. “You mean the Englishman? Sir John Somerset?”
“Yes, I’ve met him. Nice fellow. He’s dead.”
“I know he’s dead. That’s my trouble. I’m interested in a fellow who used to work for him. Fellow worked here later, I understand. Big Englishman, big as a house. Name of —”
Maclay said with a flicker of interest: “You mean that oversized mug Parker?”
“What about him?”
I said with what was meant to be a pleasant smile, “That’s what I’m asking you.”
Maclay said, “What do you want to know?”
I made a quick decision. “Look here,” I said, “I didn’t mean to play it this way at all. But since meeting you I’ve changed my mind. If you can give me a line on this bird I’ll appreciate it. You can probably guess my reasons for being curious.”
“Oh. You mean that murder at the Ridgmans’. You think he’s in it?”
“He might be.”
“I doubt it. He hasn’t the guts of a louse.”
“What I most want to know is, was he really with Somerset or is he a fake?”
Maclay said slowly, “He was with Somerset, all right. What do they call it—’Gentleman’s gentleman.’ Used to follow him around like a lost dog. The idea was all right, at that. You knew Somerset. When he got a few hookers too many….”
“I know. I’ve seen him kill a quart before breakfast.”
“All I know is, when Somerset died this lug was left stranded. He had to hitch-hike north.”
“How come? I thought the trusted valet was always stuffing big chunks in the sock.”
“Not if he’s trying to outguess Hialeah. Parker had it bad.”
“I see. So I suppose he hit you for a job as soon as he got to town.”
“Not at first, he told me. He didn’t want to wait, he wanted to buttle. But you know, buttling’s a kind of a thin market these days. He was pretty well sunk when he looked me up. I was needing another hand, so I took him on. He was only here a little while.”
“Why is he such a mug?”
“Oh,” said Maclay indifferently, “no very special qualifications. I shouldn’t have said that. He’s just a mean slob. He braced Dr. and Mrs. Ridgman one night for a job and left me the next afternoon on one minute’s notice. Two of my other men were sick that day and it made me sore, after I’d taken him out of the rain with his can out of his pants.”
“What’s your interest—personal or official?” His eyes seemed to jump at me.
I said, “Oh, personal” so quickly I could see he didn’t believe me.
“Have you got anything definite on him?” His tight eyes showed now only a casual, natural interest.
I said, “There may be a good deal. I don’t think there’ll be much trouble getting it all out of him. When those big nuts crack, they crack wide open.”
Maclay didn’t answer. He seemed to be thinking. I pulled my feet under me and started to get up. Then he looked up, and he nodded, and it seemed to me that his train of thought must be very absorbing for he wasn’t even looking at me. He was looking over my head….
Unlike Parker, I didn’t even hear a swish. I went out like a light.
MOVING my tongue hurt. But my lips were dry. I knew if I opened my eyes something awful would happen: an alarm clock would go off or a voice would say, “For God’s sake, come out of it, we’re late,” or some other intolerable necessity involving movement and memory would arise. It always had. And this was the worst hangover in history…. Wait. If I made a really heroic effort I could uncradle the phone. Harry would shoot me up something from the bar. There wouldn’t be anything left in my room. There never was when I woke up feeling like this. Only a faint bitter memory of lost lips pressed for a moment in drunken dreams…. No. Better he quiet.
But I couldn’t lie quiet. Something hard and pointed was sticking me in the spine. God help me, I thought, what have I gone to bed with this time—a harpoon? Never mind, roll over and let it go.
I couldn’t roll over.
I pondered this surprising fact for a while. Senile paralysis, that’s what it was. Poor old Steele, since he had his stroke he can’t move hand or foot. Have to feed him through a tube—did you know?
Try again. No, no sale. Feet won’t move, hands won’t move. How about fingers? Yes, they wiggle. Very, very curious. Very interesting case, Steele’s. Can he open his eyes? Sure he can open his eyes. Prove it. Sure I’ll prove it, you want them open both together or one at a time? Oh, it doesn’t matter, let’s see you open the right one if you’re so cocksure.
I opened the right one. If I weren’t drunk, I thought—but of course I am drunk—I’d say I was lying in a boat. Only we aren’t going anywhere. Silly. Hell with the eyes, let’s see you open your mouth. Lips feel funny….
Gosh, that is startling, I thought. Can’t open mouth. We can’t even feed him through a tube; sure we can feed him through a tube only not through his mouth; we’ll just….
I gave a great heave and a wrench and sat up. Simultaneously someone dropped a ten-ton rock on my head. Both eyes popped open without conscious volition. I thought, believe it or not, I am in a boat. A boat in a boathouse, tilted against the wall. I screwed my head around. The harpoon guess hadn’t been so bad. It was the fluke of a small iron anchor that was prodding me.
My arms were pinioned at my sides in an efficient wrapping of the same half-inch line which bound my ankles. I squinted down at a curious whitish mustache I seemed to have sprouted. It explained the lips. It was adhesive tape.
My head hurt like the devil. I still didn’t register clearly. Someone else’s head had hurt—wait a minute, Parker’s! And suddenly the memory-film ran free again, the pictures focussed. Parker, the car, Louise, Maclay, the quick nod to someone above and behind me—and finis. Of course. Cracked on the head at a sign from the boss and dumped in the boathouse. What boat-house? Probably right under the veranda: I remembered the six-foot depth of water just below me when I’d sat there.
I thought: What a sap. Then I thought of Maclay’s square, competent brown face. And his clothes. And his horses. I had some excuse. No, I seemed to be all wrong about sportsmen.
My wrist watch said seven-thirty. I must have been out for an hour or more.
The hell with how I got here, I thought. How do I get away?
The boathouse was about thirty feet long and nearly as wide, with a low ceiling. A kind of flat square box. Most of the bottom of the box was water, but there were two six-foot runways along the sides. The old flat-bottom rowboat in which I was sprawling lay canted on one of these; on the other was a shiny new sailing canoe, dismasted. In the water sat a very competent little speedboat. She was a tight fit: pointing out, her knifelike prow barely cleared the heavy double doors that came down to the water’s edge. They’d be built to cover the entrance at low tide, I reflected, which meant it must be low tide now; at high tide the boat would ride a lot higher at her moorings and the bottom of the doors would be several feet under water.
I thought: Brilliant reasoning, Steele. What does it get you?
I tried to stand up. I couldn’t stand up. I’d been lying atop the anchor on the small of my back between two cross-seats in the aged scow, and where the line ran over my thighs it was evidently lashed under one of the seats. I could, with difficulty, sit up: I had. But I couldn’t stand.
I thought: I bet I can rock the big damn thing over. I tried. It didn’t occur to me that I’d be rocking it over on top of myself. But that battered tub must have weighed a ton. Its slight list was probably because it squatted on a pile of gear, not because it was balanced against the wall. Anyway, I couldn’t move it.
I must admit I couldn’t put my whole heart into the effort, for every time I moved fresh waves of pain swirled through my head. After awhile I decided it was no go. Then I realized it wouldn’t be such a bright idea to rock a tub built like a brick schoolhouse over on top of me anyway. I stopped and sat panting, hunched on my slanting seat; I recalled with a certain pleasure that I had been intercollegiate heavyweight champion not too many years ago; I thought what fun I was going to have with that square brown jaw upstairs when I met it again.
You will note that I still hadn’t grasped the position, as they say.
And suddenly I did. Suddenly it came to me that it didn’t matter such a hell of a lot, my having fun with the jaw; that my headache was a triviality not worth mentioning; that it didn’t even matter greatly if a couple of tough wops came down after dark and hitched the anchor to my pants and dropped me down carefully a long way out in the Sound. Not that I thought they were likely to. The thing that did matter, the urgent all-compelling vital breathless need, was to get in touch with Lisa. Lisa stepping blindly between blackmail and murder. Lisa with only another twenty-four hours to go before a sheet of slime engulfed her if she didn’t pay. Well, I thought, she can’t pay: I thought she had money but evidently the old woman has the money, maybe she could get the money from her but probably she couldn’t. Mike’s all right, I thought, but Lisa was right when she said this was over his head. These boys whoever they are are tough, I thought, these are no cheap torpedoes, men like Maclay don’t have visitors tapped on the head for fun. Well, a hundred thousand smackers isn’t coffee money. Maclay’s in on those letters. Or maybe he’s in on the murder; if he is, Parker is. Or you wouldn’t be here.
All right, the great brain is clearing, I thought. So what, Steele? Let’s go. Let’s go!
A couple of surges at the ropes convinced me that there wasn’t much of anywhere to go.
Heavy feet came down the steps behind me. I slewed around as far as I could and saw my gorilla-man from the parking space. I said; “Ungh-ungh,” which was as near as I could get through the adhesive tape to, “Come over here a minute.” He walked over and stood with his hands in his pockets smiling at me. I could have done without the smile, it was so definitely simian, and I felt the back of my neck constrict with pure bull rage.
He said, “You like it here, no? Plenty of room. Nice, quiet. You take a little sleep, maybe? We fix you up in good shape. You big busher. How you like a good kick in the belly?”
Conversation is so one-sided when adhesive tape is slapped across your mouth.
He said, “You like a cigarette, maybe? Ha-ha-ha. I think you look pretty funny. You big busher. Yes sir, I do.”
I said nothing, quite distinctly.
The fat ape in his starched white jacket lit a cigarette with careful precision. He sucked a couple of deep puffs, then he took it out of his mouth and said, “Wait. Listen. You want to know something? I help you, I fix it up.” He took another deep drag. “Listen, I talk low.” He bent over me. I glared up at him, tense: his thick lips weren’t three inches away.
He blew his whole lungful of smoke into my eye.
“Ah-ha-ha-ha. Oh, that is pretty funny. I think I—”
Well, it was a little thing, if you like; but something burst in me. I must have given the ropes quite a yank. And somewhere in their crisscrossed length one of the hitches gave. And I had a good six inches of play for my lashed hands.
I bent forward until my backbone creaked. It was enough: my finger tips could just touch my mouth. I caught hold of the tape and pulled. It came off. I sat back. My mouth felt as though I’d had a big shot of novocaine: it wouldn’t move. I made it move. I said: “Oo ika ake hum oe?”
He saw I was just being conversational, not yelling or anything, and I think he couldn’t miss the chance for some more excruciating wit. He said, grinning, keeping his lips stiff in imitation of mine: “Wha oo say?”
I moved my tongue over my mouth and said in very creditable English: “You like to make some dough?” The stiffness was passing.
“Dough? Sure. How much dough you got?”
I said quietly, “A hundred dollars.”
This was going to be a very funny joke. “Sure I like to make a hundred dollars. I going to make it from you, mister dick?”
“That’s right. Just turn around and beat it.”
“Oh-ho.” Yes, this was going to be funny. “And after you untie yourself, where you go then?”
“I’ll be all right. And I won’t forget you helped me.”
“So. You won’t forget. That is a hot one. Ha-ha-ha.” But I thought his laughter had a wistful note: money is about the only thing in the world that is never, under any circumstances, funny; and you don’t see a hundred dollars vanish—even if it never existed—without a tinge of regret.
He came a little closer. He certainly loved his garlic. He said: “Listen, you big phoney, you have not got a hundred dollars. You have not got fifty cents. You have not got one red nickel. Maybe you look in your pockets? I guess you find them pretty empty now. Listen, you know what I am going to do?”
“What are you going to do, fat boy?”
“First I put back the bandage. Then I give you a good tie-up. This one will be fine. And then….”
Genuine amusement bubbled up artlessly. “Ha-ha-ha-ho-ho. I show you. Oh, you will laugh.”
I said, “Listen, get wise to yourself. You look pretty smart. I said a hundred and I meant a hundred. You can get ’em right now.”
“You pay me —”
“Only make it fast. You mustn’t be down here too long. A hundred smackers right this minute, then you just turn around and beat it. I’ll do the rest.”
He couldn’t help it, his eyes gleamed. “You haven’t got it.”
“I have got it. Is it a deal?”
“Sure.” He was in a transparent hurry now. First the hundred, then the fun. “Let’s have it.”
I said, patiently indecisive, “You won’t cross me?”
“No, no. I beat it. Let’s have it.”
“All right. There are two fifties folded in a special pocket in my trousers waistband here.” I gestured with my chin. “I can’t turn my hands—you’ll have to get ’em out.”
“Sure. I get ’em, all right. Just a minute, I fix it.” He bent over me as I sat relaxed. I knew how he’d fix it: snatch the money, tie me up again, laugh…. It was getting darker in the flat box room; he fumbled at the tight ropes over my stomach, bent his black bullet head closer, closer….
And I had him.
He was strong, but he wasn’t as strong as I was, and he wasn’t burning inside as I was. And the very fact that my elbows were lashed so tightly to my sides made a fine double-fulcrum for my hands clamped round the thick neck. His arms flailed but he couldn’t get much steam into them; his back humped like a cat’s and his legs were pistons, but there wasn’t as much noise as I’d feared. I could feel him trying to bite, but all he got was rope in his mouth. I don’t think the whole thing took more than half a minute, but I held him for another half minute after he went limp. I couldn’t take chances.
When I let go he slid down over the thwart and his head made a fine bumping sound as it smacked the floor. With that much play in my hands, the knots were easy. That is, if you didn’t bother about finger nails. I couldn’t afford to: I only broke two anyway. I kicked off the last loop and climbed out of my boat.
Edward G. Robinson looked to be dead.
The only window in the place was a little square sash set over the double water-doors. I stepped delicately on to the speedboat’s prow and stood on my tiptoes and looked out. I was right: It was the same view I had seen from the veranda above. But I couldn’t hear a sound from upstairs. That bothered me. Granting it was built like a rock, like all such old houses, with probably a double floor over my head, I ought to be able to hear plates rattle, footsteps, people talking—unless the place were empty. Bad. Still, I thought, they won’t go taking potshots with a rifle at a swimmer in the water in broad daylight.
I took off my coat, kicked off my shoes, hitched up my trousers and slid off the speedboat into the water. It was cold. It was about five feet deep. The lower edge of the doors was about six inches under the water now. Standing on the gravel bottom I ducked my head under and brought it up cautiously on the far side.
Ripples from the incoming tide lapped my chin. Just over my head the veranda floor came out for two or three feet. I still couldn’t hear a sound. The cold water cleared my head, and suddenly I was glad of the silence. A crowd of Sunday diners would have insured my safety, but it might lead to complications. I thought I had a better plan—if I could get away unseen.
But it would mean going back for my shoes.
I ducked under the doors again. I wished I hadn’t. There was a bulb switched on over the boat I’d been tied in, and two men were bending over something on the floor. One of them was Maclay. I knew what they were looking at. They must have come down the stairs not three seconds before. This all happened very fast: I poked my dripping head up out of the water, I saw Maclay’s broad back start to turn as he stood up, I thought: “To hell with the shoes,” and pulled my head down and dug my toes in as I shot clear of the door in a long submarine plunge.
I came up maybe ten feet away, got a lungful of air, and went down again. I came up with my face toward shore, got a breath and a quick glance at the veranda and did another dive. I was perhaps sixty feet away and moving fast; I hadn’t seen anyone at all. I felt pretty good. I thought, “Score one for our side, anyway.” I felt my lungs bursting and I put my head up again, still moving, and something went zzzzing like a hornet past my ear, and water splashed in little spouts as the bullet went skittering like a flat stone.
When I came up again I was quite a good deal further away and off at a sharp left angle. I knew I was a swell target, for the sun was setting behind the house and the light on the water was perfect. The western sky was glowing so that I couldn’t see the house clearly from my distance, but no one was visible. No one had been. I thought “By God, they did use a rifle. With a silencer. Probably poked through an upper window.”
I dived again. The shore swung round in a curve so that at my present angle I’d land perhaps a hundred yards further on. I came up for air sooner this time: the pace was telling a bit. But what I saw shot an extra big charge of adrenalin into the bloodstream and I put on a burst of speed that would have shamed a Weismuller.
The boathouse doors were opening.
Next time I didn’t stop to look back, I just kept moving. I knew I couldn’t keep this speed much longer. I didn’t have to. My arm touched bottom, I took half a dozen steps over hard-packed sand, and I was out of the water and running across a strip of marsh land toward the road.
I looked over my shoulder as I ran. The boat had grounded on a sandspit about thirty yards from shore, and perched there with its propeller churning violently. Maclay and another man were sitting in it. There wasn’t much they could do, for the long white road wasn’t a quarter mile away and down it was humming the regular Sunday evening traffic. They were as conspicuous on the golden sheet of water as if they’d been sitting on a stage with a spotlight.
I slowed down. My soaked slacks and shirt squelched at every step and my right toe was sticking through my sock. At the moment I felt sorer about my shoes than anything else. I’d have to revise my plan of campaign a bit. From the edge of the road I could just see the front of the restaurant. The Buick was still there. The other cars had gone. I thought: “Of course. They’d park Lisa’s out of sight somewhere. The Buick must be Maclay’s.” I peeled off my socks and stood barefoot by the far side of the road, grinning what I hoped was an ingratiating smile.
Six cars streaked by before one stopped. The youngster driving it eyed my appealing thumb and braked his battered chariot out of curiosity. He said, “You look kinda damp.”
I laughed and said, “Out canoeing. Fell in. Can you ride me down a piece?”
“Only goin’ as far as Lyme. Hop in.” We clattered on.
“Is there a hotel in Lyme?”
“Yup. Go right by it. Whyn’t you go home?”
“I’m staying back in the country. I’ll get a drink at the hotel and phone them to come pick me up.”
He said with patent scorn—he was around sixteen—“Fell out of a canoe. Huh.”
I said, “I can fall out of anything. Once I fell out of an airplane.”
“Yes you did.”
“Sure I did.”
“I s’pose you bounced back in again.” I said, “No. It killed me.”
He cackled like a hen. We had a pleasant ten-minute ride to the Red Lion Inn at Lyme.
THE combination desk-clerk, phone operator, and general utility man who was probably also the manager didn’t think much of my looks, but it was mutual. He was an aged Down-easter with steel-bowed spectacles and a face like a dried prune. I told him about the canoe and gave him one of my water-soaked fifties. He did nearly everything but photograph it; finally he gave it a last snap that nearly tore it in two and said, “I’ll have to get change. You want a room, then?”
“Probably just for a little while till my friends get here. But I’ll pay the full day rate. I need a bath and I’d like to wring these clothes out. You wouldn’t have an old pair of canvas shoes around, would you? I’d be glad to pay for ’em.”
“Don’t know. I’ll show ye the room. Sign here.”
The spectacles peered uncertainly at what I’d written. “Flash what?”
“Flash Gordon. New York.”
He said suddenly as he limped up the stairs ahead of me, “What size shoe ye wear?”
“Nines. Anything will do. Is your bar open?”
“Bar’s closed on Sunday.” He opened a door. “Here she is. That’ll be two-fifty.” He added reluctantly, “I could send ye up somethin’, if ye want. Room service, that’s legal.”
“Fine. Could I buy a bottle of Scotch?”
“I guess that fifty’ll cover it.”
“All right. Bring up a couple of glasses and we’ll see what she tastes like.”
He said sourly, “Never drink anything ‘cept for my stummick.” But I heard him clattering down the stairs a lot faster than he’d come up, and he was rapping at the door before I’d climbed out of the tub.
He had a dirty pair of sneakers, a tray, a bottle of White Horse, a yellow bowl of ice, two tumblers, and a look of self-conscious virtue. He said, putting the bottle down, “That’s the best in the house. Cost ye four dollars. I’ll throw in the shoes.”
I said, “We’ll call it ten for everything so far. How about opening her up there while I wring out my pants?”
His stomach must have been in bad shape. It couldn’t be bothered with ice or water. After the third medicinal dose he said tentatively, “Well, thank ye. I’ll be goin’ along.” I said, eyeing him with some awe (they were eight-ounce tumblers and the sufferer had poured his half full each time), “I don’t suppose there’s a fire going where these clothes could get dried out a bit?”
“I’m pretty handy with a iron,” the ancient said spryly. “Used to iron whales. Hee-hee-hee.” He made an obscure and complicated movement with his feet which might have been the first step of a jig, thought better of it.
I said, “That would be great. Just to squeeze some of the water out. Bring ’em back and we’ll have another snifter. Is this phone connected?”
“Nope. But she will be. I’ll switch ye right through to the local op’rator. I’ll get these things pressed out in no time.”
I sat naked in a scratchy red armchair by the window and waited about five minutes, then I went over and cranked the phone box on the wall. A feminine voice said, “Number please.” I said, “Southport 321,” pleased with myself for remembering it.
A rich African contralto said, “Yassuh. This Doctah Ridgman’s residence.”
I said in a high squeaky voice, “I’d like to speak to Mrs. Ridgman, please.”
“Yassuh. Yassum. Who I say is callin’?”
“Mrs. Ridgman, please,” I countered. “It’s important.”
I heard Ethel say, “Lady fo’ you, Miz Ridgman. Ah doan know—” Lisa’s voice—oh, lovely sound, “Yes?”
“Listen, my chick,” I said. “Mention no names. You all right?”
“Oh.” It was a very slight gasp. “Yes, surely. Where have you been keeping yourself?”
“I’m fine. I meant to call you sooner. I take it you are audible to others present?”
“Oh, very much so. But tell me about yourself.”
“I’m calling from the Red Lion Inn at Lyme. I’ll ask questions and you just say yes or no. O. K.?”
Lisa said, “Hold the wire just a moment, Ellen. I’ll switch this into my room. Just a moment.”
I waited. In a minute she said, “Excuse my pants…. I ran upstairs so fast….”
“Can you talk now? Can anyone listen in downstairs where you were?”
“Yes. No, no they can’t. What under heaven have you been doing, you ass? I’ve been wild. And Doyle’s wilder.”
“What’s biting him?”
“Your leaving, of course. God, I don’t care,” she said, talking to herself, “if you’re all right.”
“Certainly I’m all right. Only I seem to have lost your car.”
“Fell out of your pocket, I suppose.”
“A bad man took it away from me. It’s all right. Did Doyle bring Weston back?”
“He did, but Mike thinks he’s going to arrest Tommy any minute. It seems they found a button off his coat right under the swing where Marian was lying. That’s why he took Tommy to town, to give him a kind of refined third-degree. Now I don’t know what to think. And Mrs. Barclay’s here and going to stay the night, and Parker’s up and around, and Mike’s in with Doyle and Tommy now, and the place is simply festooned with troopers, and we all send love and wish you were here. I guess that’s all.”
I said, “Now there is where you err, my dove. That is not all. I’m just as sure of who’s behind your letters as I am that there’s only three more drinks in this bottle.”
“Making a pig of yourself as usual, I see.”
“Damn little went down my throat. One of my scouts drank it. Lisa, do you know this fellow Maclay—the one who runs the place where you hired Parker?”
“So that’s where you went. I thought maybe. Yes. A tough lad, I’ve heard. What about him?”
I said, “He’s in it. In fact I think he may be the original witness. He likes boating. I don’t know. Maybe he planted Parker on you.”
“No, he was very sore about our taking him.”
“He’d pretend to be, of course. Well, anyway, you know where I am. Stay near the phone, won’t you? I’ll ring you again. I’ve got to go feed my bloodhounds.”
“Why don’t you come home?”
I said slowly, “I may, after awhile. I haven’t had time to perfect my strategy yet and I want to pay a couple of calls. Slowly but surely a brilliant plan evolved in the great detective’s mind.”
“Slowly but surely his girl is going nuts,” said Lisa, and hung up.
I felt a little deflated. There were several other remarks I would have liked to make: the Scotch seemed to pack a most unholy punch, making me pleasantly conversational. I wondered whether Moby Dick had filled up a half-empty bottle with some local firewater. Then I thought of Lisa’s last sentence and suddenly I felt wonderful. I said, out loud, “From your lacquered toenails to the top of your silly bright head and back again, dear wench, I love you.”
Another voice said, “Well, sir, we had a little accident.”
He had my slacks over his arm and he seemed reluctant to come in. I said heartily, “Come on, come in. What’s the trouble?”
“That dang iron of mine, she got a mite hot before I knew it.”
“Let’s see.” He seemed shy. “Kind of a hole, I guess. She sure heats up quick.”
I took a look and said, “She sure does. She’s got power, all right.” The black-rimmed hole in the seat was the exact size and shape of his weapon. The edges were still smouldering.
I said, “Well, what the hell, my coat’ll cover that up if I had a coat. Nice try, anyway, partner.”
He said a trifle indistinctly, “God, if I ain’t left her on top o’ your shirt!” and wavered purposefully from sight. I was dressed, if you could call it that, by the time he got back. The shoes were dirty but they were shoes, and they fitted. The shirt, miraculously, was uninjured. I said, “Pour yourself one and sit down, Mr. —”
“Talbot. Hennery Talbot.”
“Mr. Talbot. Maybe you can tell me some things.”
He sloshed another four-ounce stomach treatment around in the tumbler; there was a sucking sound like a vacuum pump and it was gone. He said confidentially, “Doc Harris, he tells me if I drink licker it’ll be the end of me. So I quit.”
“Little for your stomach won’t hurt you.”
“Thanks. Maybe I will, just a splash.” He left a courteous half-inch in the bottle and sat down, holding his glass. It seemed to me that hospitality had gone far enough, we could proceed to business. I said impressively, “Mr. Talbot, you look to me like a man who can keep his mouth shut.”
He looked vaguely flattered. He said, with something close to a modest simper: “Shouldn’t wonder.”
I lowered my voice. “It’s understood that what I say is in this room. And what you say, too.” I looked over my shoulder, leaned forward and announced in a stage whisper “I’m from Washington.”
“What ye want to know?” He was happy as a Penobscot clam.
“You know a fellow named Maclay? Runs a place up the road between here and South-port.”
“I ought to. My granddaughter works for him.”
Inspired, I urged, “Not Louise!”
“That’s her name, last I heard. Where’d you know her?”
“She worked in a place I knew in New York. She’s a nice girl.”
“Little flighty. Guess she can take care of herself, though. What ye got on Maclay?”
“I can’t tell even you—yet. How long’s he been around these parts?’
“Three-four years. Stayed here at the hotel awhile when he first come up. Funny thing, I never liked him. Too slick. What is he, a doper? I bet he’s a doper, you don’t have to tell me.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Just a idee. Got a pretty speedy little boat he runs around in.”
“Do you know anything about his friends in New York? I mean, did he have any visitors while he was here at the hotel?”
“Sure. Three-four hard-lookin’ fellas, looked like perfeshnal gamblers. Then there was a fella stayed here with him, kind of a bodyguard, I figgered. Thick-set fella looked like a monkey.”
I said, “Well, well.”
“You know him?”
“I know him. I don’t know his name, but I know him.”
“Ask Louise,” suggested Mr. Talbot. “She prob’ly knows all about this fella Maclay. She’ll be here pretty soon.”
“What? She lives here?”
“Sure. She’ll be comin’ home early, this bein’ Sunday. She’ll get home round midnight, I guess. I never wait up for her.”
I looked at my watch, which was still running. It wasn’t the first time I had had occasion to bless its waterproof case. I said, “Another couple of hours. Well, I might wait up and have a talk with her. What’s her room?”
“Right down the end of the hall. Number twelve. I’m goin’ to bed.”
“You couldn’t dig up a ham sandwich first, could you? You might as well kill that bottle. I don’t want it.”
Mr. Talbot eyed the last half-inch speculatively. He said in a hopeful tone: “I could bring ye up a fresh one, so’s you’d have it all handy for the morning.”
“No, you take that. But I certainly would like a sandwich. Any kind.”
He took the empty bottle with him. I found some yellowed writing paper and a pen but no ink in the fumed-oak desk. Mr. Talbot brought two sandwiches, a ham and a cheese, loaned me a stubby blue pencil and announced again that he was going to bed. “Anything you want, you just ring that bell there. I’ll hear it. You prob’ly won’t want anything.”
“I probably won’t. Thanks a lot. You’ve been a great help, Mr. Talbot. I won’t forget it.”
I shut the door behind him and tried the red-plush armchair again. I took a bite out of the ham sandwich, which was enormous and tasted fine, and wrote at the top of one sheet of paper “Murder of M. Weston;” at the top of a second, “Blackmail of L.” I sat back and waited for some brilliant thoughts.
None came. I finished both sandwiches. I thought, a button from Weston’s coat doesn’t prove anything. He was probably sitting in the swing himself before dinner. I believe Weston’s innocent, I believe the murder was a warning.
I thought, if I go to the police and report this afternoon’s fracas, Maclay will be arrested. But he would deny tying me up. He would probably say I came to him and threatened him with writing blackmailing letters. He would say he denied authorship, that I attacked him and killed his employee who came to his rescue. What would my story be? Damned if I know. If I don’t go to the police, I bet Maclay won’t either. He’ll hide the body somewhere. One thing is sure, my escape must have him worried.
I had to keep rubbing my eyes, I felt so sleepy. I thought, it’s probably the crack on the head. Gives you a letdown.
I must have slept a little, sitting back in the chair, for when I looked at my watch again it said half past twelve. My room was on the second floor, and through the open window I could see the tunnel of darkness which was Lyme’s main street, dotted economically with street lamps as far apart as the selectmen had dared to place them. I got up and went to the bathroom and drank a glass of water and came back to the window and two blinding headlights moved fast up the street and the big dark car behind them stopped, purring, right under my window.
I reached up and pulled the chain of the one bulb in my room and put out my head. There was a little light on the sidewalk from the front office of the hotel, enough for me to see that the roving granddaughter had come home. She waved a hand at the driver’s seat, called “’Night. Thanks for the ride,” and turned to the Red Lion’s door. The flaming lamps slid down the street and were gone. I thought: Not so good if he’s so close to her he makes a habit of driving her home. But of course his isn’t the only black Buick in Connecticut.
I groped through the darkness and stood by my door. Pretty soon there were light steps on the squeaky stairs; they went past me down the hall and I heard a door knob rattle, a door click shut. I didn’t hear any key turning. I was having some trouble making up my mind.
I guess it must have taken all of three minutes. Finally I thought: Hell, she can’t be tied in very closely with him or she wouldn’t have mentioned his losing his roll. You don’t go blabbing about your sweetie’s hard luck.
The canvas shoes were silent on the worn carpet, and my second match showed me Number Twelve. I just turned the knob and walked in.
Louise was sitting on the edge of the bed with her back to me, dressed with appealing simplicity in one stocking and a pair of yellow panties. She was holding the bare foot tenderly in her lap and probing at what seemed to be a sore toe. Her smooth golden back went well with her dark-gold hair. She jerked her head up as the door opened and her blue eyes widened in utter amazement.
I said, “Foot trouble, lady? Old Dr. Steele treats at all hours, night or day. No extra charge for room service.”
She dimpled over hastily adjusted elbows that only emphasized what they were supposed to hide, then she said, not indignantly but firmly, “Old Dr. Steele had better learn manners, then. I like my visitors to knock.”
“Sorry. Saw a fight and thought it was your grandpa.”
“What do you know about my grandpa?”
“We’re buddies. I’ve been prescribing for his stomach trouble.”
“If you’ve gotten that old fool drunk again I— Will you go now or do I have to yell for him?”
“I want to talk to you.”
“Talk tomorrow. I’m tired. Besides, I’m getting a cramp in my arms here.”
“Unbend them,” I said hastily. “Unbend them and I’ll—ah—rub them.”
“Please, Mr. Steele.”
I said, “Seriously, Louise, it won’t keep. Slip on a robe or something and let me sit down, will you? I’m not kidding.”
I think it was my voice and not the commonplace words which convinced her I wasn’t bent on amorous dalliance. She said, keeping her arms crossed and pointing with her chin, “All right. Throw me that, will you?”
“That” was a heavy blue towelling robe. We got it adjusted and I lit her a cigarette and sat down where I could watch her face. It was a pert, fresh, habitually mobile little face and I thought it might tell me as much as her replies.
I said, “I know you’re tired and I won’t keep you up long…. This is pretty serious. It’s about Maclay.”
“Oh, him.” She made a slight involuntary mouth of distaste.
I said, “In your opinion, what sort of an egg is he?”
“He’s a mystery man. He plays them so close to his vest his best friends can’t spot them. He’s harder than nails. I don’t like him. He pays me twenty a week and he’s been trying to make me since the day I went in there.”
I said, “Why, the bum. It’s worth double that.”
“All right, you think it’s funny but I don’t think it’s funny. If it wasn’t summer I’d quit the joint tomorrow and go back to town. But the town’s pretty dead in summer. You know. Jobs are tight.”
She was a rather dumb, pretty gamin: no actress. The irritation in her voice was real. I decided it was safe to go on. I said, “All right, I think you’re a very shrewd judge of people. Would you put murder past Maclay?”
She was a little startled. “I never thought about it. Murder? Yes, if he was really sore.”
“Would he kill for money?”
“That guy would do anything for money. He had a big roll, see, I know that for a fact, and I’ve heard a half dozen people talk about the beating he took at Miami last winter…. Why are you so interested in him, Mr. Steele?”
“He tried to kill me this afternoon.”
“Go on!” She was frankly incredulous. “What would he want to kill you for?”
“He thought I had something on him, I guess. I was sitting in his office talking when one of his boy-friends slugged me from behind. I woke up all tied up in the boathouse, but I got untied and came away and damned if they didn’t start taking potshots at me with a rifle.”
Her face was quite interesting, the red mouth a soundless “O” of surprise. Then she said suspiciously, “Now you are kidding.”
“Word of honor…. Where’d you think I disappeared to so suddenly? Without even telling you goodbye?”
She said, “I—ah—did a spot of nose-powdering, even hat-check girls are human, you know, and when I came back from the ladies’ room your car was gone. I just thought you’d left.”
“Maclay didn’t ask you if you knew me or anything?”
“Not a word. There’s no reason why he should. I don’t think anyone heard us talking in the hall.”
I said conversationally, “I was looking out my window down the hall here and I saw you getting out of his car. I thought maybe he’d mentioned my name.”
She flushed—with annoyance, I thought. She said, “It’s the first and last trip I make in that bus. He battled me all over the front seat. We were doing sixty-five at the time.”
“Well. He didn’t mention any of the help being taken sick, did he?”
“Not to me. Were they?”
“I heard they had a little trouble. Doesn’t matter. Skip it. Where’s Maclay live—near here?”
“Part of the time in town, part of it out here. At the roadhouse, I mean. He has a bedroom next to that little coop of an office of his.”
“You can’t see him tonight, if that’s what you’re after. He’s driving on into town; he told me so. He wanted me to come with him.”
“I don’t want to see him—just yet. Who else sleeps there?”
“At the restaurant? Nobody. The kitchen help’s all local except the chief; he and the headwaiter have rooms in Southport. The waiters five around—I wouldn’t know. Why? You going to turn burglar?”
I said, “Why, Louise!… Has grandpa got a car?”
She snickered. “If you want to call it that. It’s a kind of a truck. It’s out in back.”
“Where’s he keep the key?”
“It’s never locked. You kick it a couple of times and sometimes it starts.”
I said, “Well, I mustn’t keep you. You’ve been a lot of help. Will you do me one more big favor?”
“If it’s your first night in the country and your bed’s so lonesome, I’m sorry —”
“This is business, not pleasure. What I want is—will you forget this talk? Forget you saw me tonight, forget you ever knew me?”
She said indignantly, “I don’t rat. You have a nerve —”
I patted the blue-towelling shoulder. “I know you don’t. I just mean it’s important. I don’t want the local cops to know where I am.”
“I thought you meant Maclay.”
“Or Maclay either. Listen, you said you’d been sick. Just as old friend to old friend….?”
She took a look at the crumpled fifty and raised her eyes. They were nice eyes, blue and clear. She was a nice girl. She said seriously, “Thanks a lot. I would in a minute if I had to— from you. But I’m not broke yet. Besides, you say I don’t know you.”
They were very red lips and their curves were exquisite. Like all of hers. I hadn’t the faintest intention of making more than a dignified bow. I don’t know which of us was more surprised. She smelled something like a sun-warmed peach…. I took my face away and said, not wholly steadily—for I was very tired, of course—“Goodnight, angel-face.”
She breathed “Goodnight.” Her face was still upturned, her lips a little parted. It was quite a feat to get out, and get the door shut, but I did it.
THERE was no moon, but as Mr. Talbot’s truck snorted its indignant way back toward Southport, a swarm of tiny riding-lights glittered across the marshes; the air had the freshness that precedes a summer dawn.
When we got about a half mile from the beginning of the river bend, I drove the clanking chariot into the bushes and stopped. I didn’t see any sense in heralding my raid. The engine spit twice like a machine-gun, and died.
I switched off the lights and went ahead on foot, wishing I had a gun, a jimmy, a flashlight, and a drink. The parking space, when I reached it, was empty. The house, a dark blur against the lighter dark of the sky, showed no lights. I stood for a moment looking up and down the dim whitish line of the road; no sound, no movement, except the faint eternal wash of water down below.
I thought, as I’d thought in Lisa’s sunlit garden a few hours back: This is probably silly, but it’s worth a try. And so, stepping very carefully in my rubber soles, I felt my way down the steps that angled steeply to the front.
I thought: Fat chance of there being an unlocked window. But if there is, it would be in the kitchen wing. A narrow gravel footpath seemed to run round the house; I followed it. Round the corner were more steps, leading down closer to the water’s edge. Halfway down these my fingers, trailing against the wall, struck the corner of a shutter. Window? Yes. Open? No. Give it a good heave, I thought. Nothing happened. But it would obviously be a cinch to kick it in.
I did a little more exploring. Then in the dark I ran my head smartly into a post where no post ought to be. I said, “God damn” half out loud before I could stop it, and felt—up, down. It was a post supporting the end of the veranda. It didn’t seem very strong. I thought: “If I shinny my hundred and eighty pounds up that thing and the railing cracks I’ll fall back and bust a rib. Better kick in the window.”
Then I had a small shock, for I turned to go back and in the darkness something moved, something made a sudden scratching rustle of sound, and someone spit at me. I froze. It was quite a relief to hear the cat’s small feet scrabbling on the gravel as it dashed across the path and away.
Well, I thought, here’s hoping. And standing on the steps I put a careful foot in the middle of the upper pane and pushed it through.
The cat had left me a shade jittery, I suppose, for the crash that glass made sounded louder to me than the noise of Parker’s rock. I got my foot out and my hand in; the catch turned easily; I slid up the sash and writhed feet-first into the room.
There was a little thud on the bare floor at my feet and my muscles tensed again. This time it was just my box of matches which had been scraped out of my pocket by the window sill. I lit one. It was an old junk-room, evidently: dim dusty shapes of discarded broken furniture, rolls of carpeting, a very fine large old New England chamber pot on a table… the match went out. The door was opposite me.
I worked my way, with the help of only three more matches, from the junk-room down a narrow flight of stairs and through the bar and up the stairs where I’d followed Maclay. The rambling old house was cool, soundless. I felt pretty sure there was no one there. I lifted the office latch. The door didn’t move. It was locked.
A fifth match showed an impressive Sargent lock and some fairly heavy planking. The next door down the hall—which from what Louise had said would be Maclay’s bedroom—was similarly equipped. I thought: Well, I’m pretty heavy too, and went back to the office door and got set. The catch was that the hall wasn’t an inch over three feet wide and I couldn’t get a running start. I gave the door six consecutive smashes, praying that the place was empty; then I stopped to feel my shoulder and get my breath. The shoulder was sore; the door seemed in fine shape.
I got a little sore myself. I braced my back against the opposite wall and got both feet against the panel just below the lock and began to straighten out my legs. Something had to give. It did. It was the door panel, not me.
A few solid kicks after that made a hole big enough for me to ease through. The little room was airless, close. The one window showed pale gray: dawn wasn’t far off. I thought: Lord, I’ve made enough noise to wake the dead but I guess it’s all right; and I lit a match.
I was wrong. The dead hadn’t wakened. He lay there on the floor almost between my legs; his tongue was still caught between his teeth and his eyes, staring straight up at me, were like grapes about to pop from their skins. He was my colleague of the boathouse, still in his starched white jacket, and he had my own stag-handled pocketknife driven through his heart.
I WAS very surprised. I stood there looking down at him and the match burned my fingers and I dropped it and stood there some more, not looking at the gray shape in the dawn but thinking.
In a minute or two I wormed back through the hole in the door and went downstairs. I ht another match and chromium winked in the cellophane forest of the bar; I was very glad indeed that I had remembered this. There was even Glenlivet, ready on hand. It made an oily pleasant burning in my dry throat as it went down.
I poured myself another and thought: I wish I weren’t so tired so that I could think more clearly. Maclay must have put him there. And stuck him with the knife he got out of my pockets because it has my initials on the handle. That means he is going to report his death. And try to pin it on me. All right, then why hasn’t he reported it? I don’t see. Unless—well, he might say I got tight and passed out and was left here with this one for a guard when the place closed. Hell, that sounds silly. He’d have a better story than that. But it could be something like that, and he hasn’t reported it yet because he isn’t supposed to know about it yet; he doesn’t want to be mixed in the thing at all.
The funny thing, I thought, is that I did kill him. Funny. Yes, that’s a riot of mirth, that is.
I took the Glenlivet with me and went back upstairs. It was nearly four o’clock and getting light fast. I didn’t have much time. First I took out my knife and wiped it on the carpet and put it in my hip pocket. Then I looked round the room to see if my thoughtful host had distributed any of my business cards or my checkbook, or left my initialled wallet to make the local constabulary doubly sure. I couldn’t see that he had.
Then I tried the connecting door that led, I supposed, to his bedroom. It opened easily. The bedroom had two windows and I could see pretty well without matches. It was as bare as an anchorite’s cell: a big old spool bed, a pine dresser, one chair, a large hooked rug. The dresser held a lot of silk underwear. There were six pairs of shoes and seven suits in the closet. All the pockets were empty. I stepped back into the office and picked up the chair I’d sat in and slammed its back legs through the rolltop desk.
It splintered as satisfactorily as I promised myself Maclay’s teeth would splinter one of these days….
Of course, it was almost a hopeless search because I didn’t know what I was looking for. The only thing I could think of was camera-film. And if someone had, by some stupendous coincidence, been furnished with malice and a Leica at the precise moment when he peered through the porthole in the waning afternoon—and had snapped a picture or pictures of what he saw there—it would be a further almost incredible coincidence if the films were now here, in this room, in Maclay’s broken desk. And yet—they might be. Or there might be correspondence that bore on it. Or even a bottle of cheap green ink. I couldn’t tell. But I got to work. I started at the top left-hand pigeon-hole and worked down.
It was a very orderly desk. But it held a tremendous amount of stuff. Old bills, new bills, half a dozen ledgers, manila envelopes stuffed with old vouchers, a file of old racing sheets… in ten minutes I stopped and surveyed what I’d got through so far, and realized I had a two- or three-hour job.
I couldn’t risk it: day was too near.
I was just turning to the door when my eye saw what it should have looked for in the first place. A flat black box with a handle standing in the little recess between the end of the desk and the wall. But I lifted it and I knew what was in it, and I only hoped it had a red ribbon.
I didn’t stop to turn the little key. I got to the door again—the eyes on the floor bothered me a little—and this time I made for the kitchen. I found exactly what I wanted. And not over fifteen minutes later I was stowing the second of my two big cardboard containers under the tarpaulin crumpled in the rear of Mr. Talbot’s trunk. They had held, according to their cheerful blue stencilings, “4 Doz. Supersuds, Giant Pkgs.” They now held, according to my certain knowledge, every scrap and particle that the desk could contribute to the operations and correspondence of Mr. Maclay. And a portable typewriter.
I felt quite pleased. I thought, as we banged along toward Lyme in the pale yellow glow of morning, “Score two.” And then, as I felt the bulge of the knife in my hip pocket, I corrected myself. Score three for our side.
Only it seemed, all in all, to be quite a nasty game.
SOMEONE was pounding on my head. No, it was on my door. I turned over unwillingly on the sagging bed and said “Yes?” out of a dry mouth.
A voice I knew said, “Why don’t you answer the telephone? She sounds pretty mad.”
I said, “Louise, darling. I didn’t know it was you. What a nice truck grampa has.”
She was tart. “Answer your phone, please. I’m just leaving.”
I got to the door somehow and wrenched it open. She gave a small shriek. “Mr. Steele—” She looked very nice in white pongee.
I hid most of my epidermis around the edge and said, “Tell grampa to bring me some coffee. I feel awful. Will you?”
“There’s someone on your wire.”
“Why didn’t you say so?”
“I’ve been telling you for five minutes. G’bye.”
I kicked the door shut and picked up the receiver. Lisa’s voice said coldly: “How’s the blonde menace know so much about your habits?”
“How do you know she’s blonde?”
“I know. I can tell. She said you were still in bed, but she’d come back and wake you.”
“She’s a thoughtful little thing.”
“Have a nice evening?”
I said, squinting at my wrist watch, “Darling, I—Good God!”
“It’s ten o’clock.”
“Yes. How time does flit by. May I ask your plans for the day?”
“Well,” I said, “they include a shave if I can get one and maybe a cup of coffee, and a lot of research work. How’s the family circle in your house?”
“You make me sick,” she said with some emphasis. “When are you coming back?”
“Can’t say yet.”
“What are you going to tell Doyle about where you’ve been?”
“The truth. Only maybe not all of it.”
“He’s been pretty nasty this morning. He thinks we know where you are.”
“See, I told you you haven’t a poker face. But it will be all right. I’ll explain I had a hunch about who smacked Parker, and drove over to see Maclay about it; then I checked in here at the Red Lion to ease your hostess troubles and I’ve been here ever since.”
“With one side excursion, yes. Don’t worry about that.”
“There’s going to be an inquest on Marian tomorrow.”
I said, “There’s going to be dirty work at the crossroads tonight.”
The words were still in my mouth when I heard, faint but clear over the wire, a hard tattoo like someone striking a door very fast. Lisa said, “There’s someone— Just a minute, Jim. Come in.
Silence. Then a low rumbling. Then I heard her breath drawn in with an anguished gasp. I said sharply, “Lisa! Lisa! Are you all right?”
She said, to someone in the room, “Oh, no! Oh, dear God…”
I said, “Lisa, answer me! Who’s there?”
Her voice came brokenly: “Jim, I can’t—it’s too —”
“What is it?”
I was practically bellowing.
“It’s Mrs. Barclay. Parker’s just found her. She’s dead.”
I said stupidly, “Dead?”
“Mike, you talk, I can’t. It’s Jim. Tell him.”
Mike’s deep baritone lacked its usual resonance; it had the flat tonal quality that voices get when you’re keeping the brakes on by sheer will-power. He said, “Hello, Steele. You’d better get back here as soon as you can. Mrs. Barclay’s just been found dead in bed.”
“I wish it were. She’s been murdered.”
I said, “Well, for— Didn’t you have troopers around last night?”
“Exactly.” He made it quite an eloquent word.
I said, “Look. I have a couple of very special reasons for wanting to stay away for the next few hours. Lisa knows where I am. Could you get away unattended and drop by here pretty soon? Invent a sick patient, maybe?”
“I could get away, of course. They might send a man with me. I don’t know.”
“I don’t think they will. You can move Doyle around.”
“It’s going to be fairly hectic here for a while. Perhaps in two or three hours—is it important?”
“I’ll say it’s important. Grade-A, copper-riveted, brass-bound proof.”
“I’ve got the machine that wrote those letters, and I know who did the writing.”
“Really?” His voice was all different; you could feel its excitement. He said, “I’ll get there somehow. You think it’s all right to leave Lisa?”
“I don’t see how much could happen in broad daylight. Does Doyle still think Weston killed his wife?”
“I don’t know, he isn’t here.” His voice changed again; evidently someone had come into the room. “Well, doctor, I’ll make it if I can. Around noon, you say?”
I said quickly, “Make it as soon as you can,” and hung up.
The tub full of cold water was a help; a pot of really excellent coffee brought up by a little fish-eyed serving girl helped some more; the last of my illicit Glenlivet contributed still further, and by the time the young woman was back with a thirty-nine-cent razor and a tube of Barbasol, I felt about normal. I took the change from my fifty, thanked her, and asked, “How’s Mr. Talbot this morning?”
She sniffed. “He’s gone fishin’. He’ll be back after dinner. You want anything else?”
“Not a thing. Let me know when he comes back, will you? And I may have a visitor after awhile. If I do, show him right up.”
“Sure.” She wanted to ask what all the mess in the corner was, but she didn’t quite dare.
I got the beard off and drank the rest of the coffee. Then I went back to my paper-sorting, though I didn’t believe I’d find anything else of value to me. The little brown book that was keeping my knife company in my hip pocket was all I needed. I didn’t even need the typewriter. When I got through, I dumped everything back into the packing cases and carried them into the bathroom and set them behind the door.
I got a fresh pack of Chesterfields from the carton my fish-eyed handmaid had brought, and sat down by the window once more. It was a big Monday morning in Lyme: I could see at least a dozen cars parked before the little shops that lined the dusty Main Street, white in the June sun. I lit a cigarette and pulled the book out of my pocket.
It was one of those “Line-a-Day” inventions, covering a period of five years. Between its thin brown covers, methodically and exactly entered in the same precise spirit which had governed the arrangement of his desk, was the story of four years of a man’s life.
And a very curious life it seemed to have been.
Of course a lot of it meant nothing to me. I couldn’t get cryptic allusions to “Torgerson N.G. Slop Emma. No dice,” to “G.W. maybe. Hold rise. S. tr. hd,” or “Bal. bl. US no. 21 Kitty.”
But there were others whose meaning was more transparent.
“Gd day. Sir Ascom 8 to 1, $10M. Larry sore.”
“Triborough faded. Din. Marge @ Tony’s. Mst gt mr.” Would that be “must get more,” I wondered? More of what? More of Marge?
“Opened at Sthpt. 1st da. net $250. Wheel tomrw.” That was easy.
And still others which were very clear indeed:
“Hrd HM am, frd pm. Hophead. SB scrthd Aqdct. Boston J. in bt broke. H. Kelly cald. Phnd M. no go.”
Little man, I thought, you had a busy day: hiring and firing HM, finding SB—would that be Seabiscuit?—scratched at Aqueduct, greeting Boston J. but discovering he was broke, answering the call from H. Kelly, and phoning Marge it was no go.
“Saw Flo off last nt. J. wht hd ths am. Lv. Miami tmw.” I thought, with what simple beautiful inexorability does “J. wht hd ths am!” following the seeing of the Flos of the world off last nt!
And then, clear and damning in the tiny spidery writing, under the date of July 18, 1936: “Cr. Kestrel. Prthole shwd mrdr. This slid be gd sm da.”
July 19 continued jubilantly: “Hell bng raised locally. Will fade, of course. Bet cd pt B on Mrs. B. for $50M.”
I thought, “But you had to get ambitious and put the bee on her for a hundred grand instead.” I thumbed the pages over to the point—less than two months ago—where Lisa had reopened the house at Birch Hill. There was something uncanny in the accurate candor of this little mirror of the unburied past. March 28, 1938, said:
“Hrd P. fr Miami. Mabe can do. The R. place open agn.” A week after that it said:
“Miami P. at R’s. Will get Max set.”
Who was Max, I wondered. It didn’t matter. I went on reading. For some weeks there were no more allusions that I could detect to our particular problem: just more horses, more women, a hard shiny life lived now, in early middle age, with a certain hard competent desperation that in a way I could understand; balanced always one step this side of disaster, precarious, ruthless.
And then the three entries on dates I knew. The dates Lisa’s letters had been posted in New York. Under May 12 it said: “#1 wnt off.” May 19 said: “#2 in mail per Max.” May 23 said: “#3 as pr schule.”
I wished Mike would hurry.
Around eleven-thirty I saw his shiny black coupe spin up the road and turn the corner to the parking space behind the hotel. I hoped he was alone, without one of Doyle’s huskies camped on his tail. At least I didn’t see any car following him. Then his knock was urgent on the door. I opened it, still hoping.
It was all right. He was alone.
I said, “Come in. You didn’t have any trouble?”
He was very grave. He looked terribly tired, also his manner was tinged, definitely, with frost. He said, standing just inside the door, “I don’t like this sort of thing, Steele. I told Doyle it was a consultation. He’s going to bear down pretty hard when he gets you, by the way. I can’t stay long. What have you got?”
“Sit down. It won’t take long,” I said in a tone quite as chilly as his. “I don’t think it’ll be any great surprise to you.”
He sat down and I pulled out the book and sat on the arm of his chair and he followed my pointing finger as I aimed it at:
“Cr. Kestrel. Prthole shwd mrdr. This slid be gd sm da.”
Dr. Michael Ridgman looked up at me and his ugly pleasant face was suddenly a good ten years older. He said in a tired tight voice: “Of course we both knew it. The thing didn’t make sense otherwise. She knew—she knew all along that she’d killed him….
“Whose book?” the tight voice went on. “How’d you get it?”
I told him, in some detail. He didn’t speak while I was talking. When I got through he said: “Just two things I don’t get. Why this fellow waited so long—and why he cut Parker in on it. Also—did he kill Marian for a warning, after all?”
I said: “Answering in order. I don’t think he’s a professional blackmailer, his line is a different one. It was just something to file away. Then he went broke, or nearly broke, and you two came back here where Lisa’s in easy reach, and he decides he’ll act. As for Parker—an inside man like that could be useful. He could make sure Lisa was alone when pay-time came. He could write warnings on rocks to put on extra pressure —”
“But if he threw that rock, who hit him?”
“Rats. He knocked himself out—if he was out. I can tell you how it’s done….”
Mike said thoughtfully, “I know, thanks. But why did he throw the rock when Lisa wasn’t alone? She wasn’t supposed to tell anyone about the letters —”
“You can learn a lot with your ear at the keyhole. Parker knew damned well she’d told us. At least, that’s my guess.”
He thought some more. He said: “But did he kill Marian? Tell me that.”
I said, “Look, Judge, I’m not a crystal gazer.” My temper was a bit ruffled at the moment. “I’ve got the typewriter the letters were written on, though. Not that we need it, what with this book.”
Ridgman said again: “All right, I’m asking you, did Maclay in your opinion kill Marian? And what about Mrs. Barclay’s death?”
I looked him in the eye and said: “You probably know Lisa can have my right hand any time she wants it. The book says nothing about Mrs. Weston, nothing about Mrs. Barclay. You’re a doctor, you know about some things I don’t. I’m asking you—could Lisa possibly….”
There was a hard ball suddenly in my throat; I couldn’t finish. I didn’t need to.
Ridgman said, “We know so little about the mind—if we tell the truth. But I’ll tell you this: Norman Barclay’s death was one thing. Any woman under similar circumstances might have done that. Self-defense, when you come right down to it. She couldn’t possibly, not conceivably, be involved in either of these other killings. She simply isn’t the type. I’d stake my professional reputation on it. In fact,” he said with his pleasant twisted smile, “I did stake my professional reputation on it when I married her.”
It was so good to hear that I wanted more. But I said, “Stupid question, I know.”
“I don’t blame you.”
“Tell me about Mrs. Barclay.”
His face got old again. “There isn’t much to tell. The place is a shambles now, with photographers, reporters, police over every inch of it. Parker took up her tray at 9:30, as he always does when she stays with us. He knocked, and she didn’t answer; he knocked again. Sometimes she oversleeps, so he opened the door with one hand and went in. She was there in bed—dead.”
“Shot in the left breast. She never knew it. There were traces of powder-burns on her nightgown, the gun must have been fairly close. She’d been dead, I should say, five or six hours.”
“What did Parker do?”
“He dropped the tray.”
“I was going through the hall downstairs and I heard the crash and ran up. If he did it, Steele, he’s the best actor off the screen. He’s scared to death.”
I said, “Mike, who in hell—”
“I know, I can’t figure it. Parker, Allen, Weston—who’s under Doyle’s frank suspicion, by the way, for Marian’s death—and the two girls were in the house. There were two troopers stationed on the grounds all night. I don’t see how it could have been done from outside, any more than I see how Marian could have been killed from outside. Yet I swear I’m about ready to stop suspecting Tommy of that. I’ve had a long talk with him. I’d almost bet he’s innocent. He did want a cigarette, by the way. That was a good guess of yours.”
I said, “Sure, and the button Lisa spoke of might have rolled under the swing any time.”
“Exactly…. But I can’t see any possible motive for killing Mrs. Barclay.”
I said bluntly, “You’d have one, wouldn’t you? I won’t apologize for saying that, I’m just asking.”
He said, astonished, “Why would I….”
“Won’t she leave a lot of money to Lisa?”
“Why should she?”
I said, “I don’t know, except that Lisa said she was so fond of her. I thought maybe with two sons gone she’d leave a big chunk of the estate to Lisa.”
He said a little stiffly, “I don’t know anything about that. She has probably left it all to Edward.”
“Who got impatient for his money and shut up his Paris studio and came over here and shot his mother dead.”
“Of course that’s absurd.”
“Of course. But who did? I suppose everyone says they didn’t hear a sound.”
Mike said, “There’s one rather curious aspect of it that you don’t know. It’s implications may be—well, alarming.”
His voice was steady, but it cost him something to keep it so. “No one heard a sound, as you say. But even a silencer makes some noise. But Lisa’s room is at the end of the wing, with an empty guest-room next to it. And Mrs. Barclay was sleeping in Lisa’s bed.”
I KNOW I just goggled at him, like a fish.
His words hit me harder than anything has ever hit me in my life. Because for just a moment there were not two people in that room; there were three. Two human beings and a shadowy figure who had nothing to do with blackmail, whose business was death, Lisa’s death, who struck at her and missed and struck again. And who, over two bloody corpses, would strike once more.
I said, “Good God, Mike, you shouldn’t be here. Where is she?”
“She’s in my study with the door locked. There are men inside the house and out. But I told you I couldn’t stay long. It’s pretty bad, isn’t it?”
“Who knew Mrs. Barclay was going to be in Lisa’s room?”
“That’s just the point. No one. Ordinarily she takes the guest-room next to it, but a light they’ve just set up off Captain’s Island kept bothering her with its flash. She was exhausted, so rather than have her wait till another room was made up, Lisa insisted that Mrs. Barclay use hers. The light doesn’t reach her window, it’s round the corner of the house. And Lisa parked in with me.”
“You said Parker knocked on the right door. He must have known.”
“He didn’t know. I had to tell him. Nobody knew but Lisa and me.”
I said slowly, “I don’t see how we can get away from it. Marian Weston did look like Lisa in the swing, in the dark. By rights Lisa would have been asleep in the bed where Mrs. Barclay lay. It can’t be Maclay’s gang; she’s the last person they’d want to hurt. Who on earth hates her enough to —”
Mike said, “I know…. Not a soul.”
Then he said, “There was one, of course. But he’s not on earth.”
“You mean Norman Barclay.”
“Did he really hate her?”
Mike said with careful reserve: “I gather it was a pretty bad six months. They were utterly unsuited. The man was, technically, a degenerate. Lisa just wouldn’t play. Frustrated passion makes a fine basis for a really powerful hate. You know that!”
I looked at him quickly but he hadn’t meant to rib me, he was just talking. He went on: “Anyway, he’s gone long ago, thank God. He came mighty close to ruining her life.”
“Only you decided you weren’t going to have it ruined.”
I was standing by the window, staring out, and my tone was—I hoped and believed—not ironic, but simply a polite interrogation.
“Exactly,” said Dr. Ridgman. And let it go at that. The bare little room was full of midday sunlight and a sudden tense, silence.
I said, still staring out the window at Main Street’s preparations for getting home to dinner, “The trouble is, I don’t know who Lisa knows— her friends, her so-called past. Do you?”
The deep eyes on either side of the big forward-jutting nose focussed on me owlishly.
“Lisa’s a bit sketchy when it comes to personalities,” said Dr. Ridgman, “unlike most women, as you probably know. She once commented to me on how little she knows about you.”
We were two fencers, courteous but alert. I said indifferently, not quite fathoming his approach and not much caring, “Damn little to tell about me. Father dies suddenly of peptic ulcer while only child is still in college, leaving architecture and son the poorer, and seriously interfering with his plans for a medical career.”
“So?” said Mike, with a spark of genuine interest whose spontaneity was in amusing contrast to his previous self-conscious watchfulness.
“I probably would have been a lousy medico, so it was all for the best,” I assured him. “Did a spot of newspaper work instead, then went into advertising. Always liked writing, started writing for the radio. Always liked flying, got a pilot’s license. Always regretted I wasn’t old enough to get in the last war, went to Spain and did some flying for the Loyalists….”
I didn’t mention it had been while quite frantic over losing Lisa.
Ridgman was waiting. “That’s all,” I said. “Oh yes, met and grew very attached to your wife. Very upset when she went off to her sylvan retreat, wherever it was. More upset when I heard she’d married you.”
“Yes?” He knew how to wait, this one.
“Yes.” I knew how, too.
He got out of his chair and began to walk with long strides, curiously light for such a big man, around the room. He let the fascinating story of my life lie where I had tossed it. He said, duplicating my own exasperated query, “Who the bloody hell—?”
I said, with a mildness which was deceptive because actually I was tingling all down my spine with such excitement as I’d never known, “I’ve got a couple of ideas. Maybe they’re rotten. I’ll think about them and let you know.”
The pacing stopped. “Tell me.”
“Not yet. Too amorphous. Not now.”
He nearly smiled. “All right. When will you?”
“Before the day’s over, I promise you that.”
“You are coming back, then?”
“Oh Lord, yes. You’re sure Doyle didn’t follow you, by the way?”
“I thought about that. There was an old laundry wagon behind me part of the way, but it didn’t come round the corner into the main street here. What are you going to tell Doyle?”
“I’ll figure that out later. Look, you’d better take the book.”
“It’ll be safer. Doyle would never think of searching you and he might search me.”
“All right. You want me to take the typewriter too?”
Somehow everything we said to each other itched and tingled, like a magneto brush spitting sparks. I said, “The hell with that. We don’t need it anyway. I’ll hide it, though, so Doyle won’t find it. We’ll spring our discoveries on him when and as we please.”
The plural pronoun was pretty magnanimous, I thought. Ridgman evidently thought so too, for he said, quite earnestly, “Apropos of the book here, would you fire Parker?”
“I wouldn’t,” I told him. “He doesn’t know we suspect him particularly—unless Maclay’s phoned to tell him so. And I don’t think Maclay would risk phoning. Might be useful to have Parker around. You keep an eye on him, though.”
“I’ll keep an eye on him. Sure you won’t tell me your ideas now?”
I said rudely because absent-mindedly, “Huh? Oh… no, when I get back. I won’t be long.”
Ridgman shut the door behind him and I heard the long light footfalls fade down the hall.
WELL, pride before a fall and all that. I went into the bathroom. I stuck the typewriter case halfway down in the cardboard carton and reshuffled many papers over it. I ran myself a drink of water, and drank it, and came back into the bedroom and stopped in the doorway. Sitting in my chair by the window was a large fat man I had never seen before, and standing a pace behind him was a tall thin white-haired man with white eyelashes and nervous eyes.
The fat man’s gun was lying comfortably in his lap; the black automatic in the thin man’s left hand aimed its round black eye unwaveringly at my middle.
I said pleasantly, “Put it down, Southpaw; I’m not heeled.”
The white-haired man said tonelessly, “Reach!”
I turned my palms toward him and shrugged my shoulders. “Not a thing on me. What is this, a snatch?”
“Reach!” he said again and took a short step toward me. The flat voice was hard, frozen, detached, as though he spat out bits of ice. I met his eyes and shot my hands up; the pinpoint pupils told me he was past argument.
The fat man snapped his gun-muzzle accurately at me and said in a greasy oily monotone, “Look him over, Sammy.” He seemed bored.
Sammy put the black automatic down on the bed and walked over and slammed me with his left on the point of the jaw. I saw it coming in time to get my head moving, but I didn’t roll enough; I took a step backward and sat down with a crash in front of the bureau. Sammy drew his foot back and the fat man said, “Hold it.”
“I said, Hold it. Look him over.”
I stood up with my hands carefully away from my body, hoping that the red rage which was flowing over me didn’t show in my eyes. The thin man ran nervous-fingered hands over chest, hips, down the inside of my legs. He said with an accent of faint surprise, “Nothin’.”
The fat man said in his greasy half-whisper, “Where is it, lug?”
The fat man said, “Belt him one, Sammy.” The thin man stepped closer, keeping out of the line of fire, and as he feinted with his left to bring up my eyes he kicked me in the groin.
I don’t know whether this has ever happened to you. It had happened to me twice before: once in football practice and once when I got in a row with a Moroccan soldier at Marseilles. If it is a hard enough blow, a white sheet of pain flames suddenly from the point of contact while your knees buckle and your abdominal muscles draw you instantly into the protective simian crouch of your early ancestors; then your knees give way entirely and you smack the floor. If there is any breath in your lungs, you are apt to scream involuntarily like a horse. You may also be very sick at your stomach.
I lay on my face without moving much. The only sound in the room was a hoarse whistling which was my breath. I knew the pain would pass. You think it will never pass, but it does.
The fat man said, “Sit up, lug.”
I heaved over and got my upper torso straightened up by propping it with my arms. There was a warm saltiness in my mouth where I’d bitten my tongue. The oily whisper asked again, “Where is it?”
I said, “We can play this all day, I suppose. Just what are you asking about?”
An obscure emotion which might have been amusement quivered his greasy cheeks. “We can play it; I don’t know about you, lug. Better talk. Sammy gets real nasty when he’s nervous.”
The white-haired man’s icy voice stated, “We’re just wasting time, Max. Let me take him apart.”
The fat man leaned forward over his bulging belly and his accurate revolver, and said, his heavy-lidded black eyes earnest on mine: “We don’t want no trouble, see? You tell us where it is, and also the machine, and we’ll play ball. We got lots of ways to play, but we’ll play ball if you play ball. I’m gonna ask you once more and then I’m not gonna ask you again till Sammy gets through. Where is it?”
I said, “Who wants it?” I was right, the pain was passing. Another couple of minutes….
The fat man said, “Never mind who wants it. I want it; that’s enough, see?”
I moved my legs a little and said, “If you and this lanky hophead yellow belly think you can make me talk, come on and try it.”
It was all Sammy needed. It made him just eager enough to be a trifle incautious, for as he swooped on me his lean gray shanks obscured for an instant the fat man’s gun. And as they crossed the line of fire I shot out of my crouch in a good low tackle around his knees that brought him down on top of me with a jarring crash. I got one of my own knees under me and an arm through his crotch, and heaved the long thin light body in a great arc at the fat man in the chair. And as it cart-wheeled I dived at the bed where the black automatic lay.
I’m fairly fast for a big man and I was lucky. The fat man had held his uncertain fire just an instant too long. Sammy’s head hit him right in the belly. He said something that sounded like “Hoof!” as his breath came out, and I had the automatic and my back against the hall door.
The fat man just sat there, his dark hooded eyes on mine. Sammy sprawled on the floor. He wasn’t out but he was dazed. The fat man still had the revolver in his hand but Sammy’s head had knocked the muzzle sideways. I said, “Hold the pose…. Open your hand and drop that gun on the floor.”
He said, “Quite a handful, aren’t you, mister?” His hand didn’t move.
I said, “I’ll count three. Then, by God, you get it. One —”
He said, louder than his usual whisper but not loudly, just conversationally: “Okay, Joe, come on in.”
I was a fool; of course I was a fool. But I’d been sapped once before from behind. My shoulders were against the door. I turned my head.
The fat man said, so sharply that his voice had an edge through the grease: “Hold it right like that. Just exactly like that, lug. Keep your head right where it is.”
I kept it there, swiveled round to the right. Of course the door hadn’t moved. I could see a little bit out of the corner of my eye, enough to see that his blue-steel muzzle was accurately trained again.
The fat man said, “Drop it, lug. Drop it right on the floor.”
I held my breath steady and squeezed the trigger and the little room was full of flame and thunder as I slid my feet out and came down on my back with my head at the base of the door.
It was a nice shot. It took him right in the side of the head and threw him back against the chair hard, and the gun flew out of his hand and Sammy dived for it. I threw myself up and over the bed and came down on his back with a thud that shook the whole room. His fingers had just touched the butt of the revolver. He lay as limp and still as a dead snake. I couldn’t take chances. I let him have the butt behind his ear, where I thought it would do his nervousness the most good.
The telephone on the wall made a shrill angry noise in the stillness, stopped for an instant, then rang again.
I got off Sammy and took down the receiver. The fat man lay back in his chair with his head sagging on one side, and quite a little cascade of blood running down it into his open mouth. I said, “Yes? Who is it?”
Mr. Talbot’s voice was thin and querulous over the wire: “What in all hell ye doin’ up there? Was that a gun went off?”
I said, “No, no, that was just me coughing, want to bring me up a bottle of cough medicine? I’ve got a little job you might help on.”
He muttered, “I was just fryin’ some fish. Yeah, I’ll bring up somethin’.”
I said, “Wait a minute. You got a nice length of clothesline handy?”
“Guess so. How many fathom you want?”
“Bring up a lot. And make it fast, will you?”
“Got to find the clothesline, ain’t I? I’ll be there.”
He wasn’t five minutes. I opened the door on him and the clothesline and a fresh bottle of White Horse and the ice and the two tumblers and the same look of conscious virtue overlaid with naive curiosity. He came in and looked round and said, “Well, for Peter his sake. You got ’em both, hay?”
I put a finger on my lips and took the tray away from him. He said “Dead, hay?” with obvious pleasure. I said, “If they were we wouldn’t need the clothesline. Did you let ’em in?”
He said, looking at the fat man hopefully, “He looks as if he was dead, all right. No, I didn’t see ’em. I told ye I was fryin’ fish.”
“All right. You’re a sailor, you tie them You got a corkscrew?”
“She’s open. Which one you want I should tie up first?”
“This one,” I said, pointing to the white-haired man. “He’ll be coming out of it in a minute.”
Mr. Talbot said, flourishing his line, “I ain’t had a chance to throw a half-hitch since I took the Susan B. out o’ Gloucester.”
“I’ll help you in a minute.”
“I don’t need no help.”
I poured his usual dosage into a tumbler and said, “This’ll help you whistle while you work.”
MR. TALBOT swallowed his third modicum and said, “What we going to do with ’em?”
I said, “To tell you the truth, I haven’t made up my mind. They look pretty, don’t they?”
Four unwinking eyes stared at us from over large towel-gags where the visitors lay in two neat bundles along the wall. Mr. Talbot’s hand had not lost its cunning and he had an artist’s soul: they looked like two rope cocoons. The fat cocoon wore a wet towel cap tinged with crimson: my aged friend evidently considered the attention to verge on the sentimental until I explained that there was no point in ruining his rug.
I said, “Is there a phone-booth in the lobby?”
“Yep. Right next to the se-gar stand.”
“You sit here and watch these babies, then. Take both the guns. Here. If either of them wiggles a toe, even, let him have it.”
He settled back blissfully, fixed glittering eyes on his guests. “How’d they know you was here?”
I said, not too pleasantly, “That’s exactly what I want to know myself,” and shut the door and left him to his happy vigil.
There was no one in the lobby but a wrinkled villager who had gone to sleep with one leg hooked over the arm of his chair. I dropped a nickel in the slot and asked the operator for Southport 321. Mike answered.
I said, “Mike, Lisa all right?”
“Fine.” His voice was guarded.
I said, “The picture’s changed a bit. I’ve just had two visitors who wanted our trophies.”
“They were very insistent lads and I think I’ll put them in the cellar for a while. I think maybe the check girl tipped them off. Anyhow, it’s more or less open warfare now and I don’t think I’ll go hunting our friend after all. I believe I might come back. Is Doyle there?”
“Yes. Yes, indeed.”
“Let me talk to him, will you? Maybe I can make a dicker.”
He said quickly, “He’s right here. I think you would be very well advised to come back. Incidentally, we have another visitor.”
“Edward Barclay is here. Here’s Mr. Doyle.”
A pleasant, youthful, faintly Celtic voice said, “Yes, what is it? Who is this?”
I said, “This is Jim Steele.”
“Oh, it is!” The voice became more Celtic, more forceful, much less pleasant. “Then let me tell you, Mr. Steele, wherever you may be, if you’re not back here by five o’clock this afternoon I’m going to put you on the tri-state teletype as a possible escaped accessory to murder.”
I said, “You’re not going to do any such thing and you know it. For one thing, you don’t believe it. I had a hunch—I still have a hunch—and I thought you couldn’t help me work it out. Now I think you can. That’s why I called you up just now. I’ve got a lot of fresh evidence and it needs your help.”
He grunted. “’Evidence’ has a lovely sound if you haven’t any of your own.
I said, “I’ll be back there in thirty minutes if you’ll promise me one thing.”
“I’ll promise you nothing. What is it?”
“It’s a very simple thing. I just don’t want any check on my movements.”
“You come back here and we’ll talk about that.” But his voice was a lot more friendly.
I said, “That’s just what I won’t do. You can’t trace this call, it’s a dial phone, and I’m checking out of here now anyway. If I don’t want to come back, you can’t find me. But I’ll take your word as a gentleman that I’m free to come and go as I please if I do come back—and see you in thirty minutes. Is that a go?”
He thought a minute. It wasn’t a dial phone but it sounded well. I said with a show of irritation, “Hell, if you want a check on me, call up Lieutenant Decker at Center Street, New York. He’s known me for years…. Is it a go?”
Once I got Lieutenant Decker some radio-tickets. He wouldn’t even know me if he saw me.
Doyle said briskly and not too sulkily, “Have it your way. Thirty minutes, eh?”
I said, “Maybe thirty-five. Thanks.”
When I got back upstairs the ex-harpooner was pacing up and down beside his prey with the revolver in one hand and the neck of the White Horse bottle in the other. This was quite superfluous. A child could see that the bottle was empty. “Move hand or foot,” he was urging, “and you get a slug in the guts. Move hand or foot —”
He sounded like a recitation by W. C. Fields.
I took the bottle carefully away from him, then the gun. I put it and the black automatic in my two hip pockets. I said, looking at the fat man, “Well, I’m going to talk to the County Attorney. Where can we stow these pretties?”
I thought the fat man’s eyelids flickered. Mr. Talbot said eagerly, “I’ll watch ’em.”
“You can’t watch them all night. How about the cellar?”
He looked fondly at his craftsmanship. “They can’t move hand or foot. Whyn’t we just roll ’em in the bathroom and leave ’em? I’ll look in on ’em every once in a while.”
I said, “Maybe. There isn’t any window. Has the door got a key?”
“It’s got a bolt. I could bolt myself in with em.
“What the hell good would that do? All right, let’s go.”
We laid them side by side on the bathroom floor and propped their heads up comfortably against the Supersuds containers, which I thought was a nice touch. I said, “Rest easy, boys, we’ll be seeing you,” and shut the door.
THE TAXI driver said, “Been having quite a time at the Ridgmans’, I understand. You a detective?”
“No. Just a friend.”
“They say it was a magazine salesman done it. Killed both of ’em.”
“Yeah, they was a queer-looking guy round here a couple of days ago. I’d hate to be him when they catch him.”
I said, “Don’t be silly. It was the Japanese Navy did it.”
“Sure. That Jap they’ve got is a spy. There’s a Japanese gunboat in the river there disguised as a lobster boat.”
He digested this startling news for a mile or so in silence, then he spat accurately overside and said, “Nuts.”
We rolled across the marshes and past the low gray house with the blue shutters and the curving colored sign. The black Buick was outside, and four or five other cars. I wished I’d taken time the night before to locate Lisa’s roadster. Probably there was an underground garage next to the boathouse.
We labored up the hill and swung through the casual stone gate toward a trooper who was anything but casual. He held up his hand and put one foot on the running board. “What you want?” He had the gimlet type of eye.
I said, “Mr. Doyle’s expecting me. Name of Steele.”
He put his foot down, waved us on. “I’ll say he is,” he said sardonically. A gray arrow on the sunlit lawn was the Countess, racing noiselessly toward us as I’d seen her before. We rounded the blue cloud of delphinium on the rock-garden crest and my heart turned over with a leap inside me. Lisa, with the little Japanese behind her, was standing outside the front door.
She looked wonderful. She wore a rust-red skirt and jacket over a tight cashmere sweater, with a scarlet bandanna knotted round her throat and some sort of multicolored band arched over her shining bronze hair. She looked about eighteen. Her eyes as usual were tilted a little in her brown heart-shaped face. She was smiling. She was the only thing in the world that mattered a single damn.
I gave the taximan two dollars before his wheels stopped rolling and smiled back at Lisa a perfectly idiotic grin.
I never could feel the texture of her skin, even of the warm brown hands I was holding, without an alarming acceleration of the pulse. She said in a puzzled way, “The face is certainly familiar, but it’s been so long —”
I said, “It’ll never be that long again if I can help it.”
There must have been a certain emphasis in my tone: for the first and only time in my life I saw her blush. The bright sun enfolded her, the house and the garden and the menace fell away, and we stood for an instant together on a magic mountain of our own. The faint lavender smell of her body was in my nostrils again; the wasted years had never been; she was my perfect mistress and I was her lover, and there was no old man with a whip called Time….
She shivered a little and I heard her say with a quiver of urgency, “Jim! You look funny—” and I said, “I’m fine. Seeing you is like a crack on the head, that’s all. It knocks me sideways.”
“Always the Chesterfield.” She surveyed me critically. “Though you look like Tobacco Road. Come on in. Mike told you Edward Barclay’s here?”
“Yes. Darling, it’s all right. I think I’ve got the answers.”
“You always did know most of them.”
“Don’t be demure, it doesn’t suit you. Where’s the happy throng?”
“In here…. All right, O’Mara, Mr. Steele’s brought just himself…. In the living-room.”
There were bumpings from upstairs. Lisa said quickly in my ear, “Finger-prints and things. Come in. You know everyone but Mr. Barclay.”
A thin brown nervous man, with his mother’s hawk nose above a brown mustache and a brown French spade beard with gray threads in it, got up quietly from a red leather chair by the window and made me a formal bow. He wore loose heather-colored tweeds and his English shoes were the color of burgundy. His thinning hair was en brosse, and his high tanned cheekbones were chapped and cracked as though from spray and sun.
I said, “How do. Deepest sympathy, sir…. Lisa, I suppose Mike’s visitor’s in the study with him? Hello, Mr. Allen. Hello, Weston…. Could I do a lightning change?”
“Of course. I’ll tell Mike you’re here.”
She came out in the hall after me and closed the door behind her. I said, “Where did that drop from?”
“He got in on the Rex Saturday morning. He had some business in New York over the weekend, and walked in at his mother’s this morning. It must have been just about the time Parker was finding her here…. Of course they told him she was here, and he motored over and blew in just as the police did. It was pretty awful. He took it very well.”
I said, “You can’t tell how he’s taking anything much behind that quick-set hedge. Is he a good artist?”
“I believe he’s not bad. He says he’s done very little the last year. His eyes have been bothering him.”
“I’m just an old provincial. His beard is what bothers me. Could you shoot in a couple of sandwiches and some coffee, while I slip into my deerstalker cap?”
“Right. And I’ll tell the sleuth you’re here.”
We were standing just where we had stood before, at the foot of the stairs. I kissed her again. She turned her head so that my lips just touched her cheek. But that was enough, it was the well-known spark to tinder. My arms came up and held her, and I could feel her heart pounding below her left breast under the clinging cashmere that outlined it like a globe. Then she pushed hard against me and said in a stifled voice, but with violence, “No! Not….”
“… here, I trust you’re about to say?” I couldn’t talk very steadily.
“Take a cold shower. Do you good. Icy.”
“All right. Don’t forget the sandwiches. Old Dr. Steele is hungry.”
“Just a mass of appetites today.”
“You’ll see.” I went down the hall whistling “I’ve Got a Pocketful of Dreams.” I felt fine.
I LOOKED at my wrist watch again, and again it said four-thirty, and I hoped that the next time it told me that, this would all be over. I opened Mike’s door and went in. Mike said, “Hello, Jim,” and got up from behind his desk, but Doyle sat where he was, his round intelligent Irish face a bland mask. I said easily, “Hello, Mr. Doyle,” and sat down without being asked in a third chair that faced them both.
Sunlight spilled in the window with the splintered pane and drew a wide gold bar across Mike’s desk. There were still two or three bits of glass embedded in the ash. I said to Doyle, “It was more like forty minutes, but you won’t hold that against me.”
“No,” he said with a steely blue stare, “I won’t hold that against you.”
He made me a little sore. I didn’t want him to know it. I said abruptly, “I suppose there’s no trace of who killed her?”
“We’re, working on it. Where’ve you been?”
Again, facing a man I didn’t know, I made a quick decision. I hoped it was better than my last one. Yet my last one had worked out all right. I said, “It makes quite a curious story. The point is that if I’m right, Mrs. Ridgman is in very great danger.”
Doyle’s face didn’t move except that his eyes narrowed a little. “What makes you think that?”
“I think Mrs. Weston and Mrs. Barclay were both killed by mistake. I think Mrs. Ridgman was the real target. And I think the murderer will have another try at her.”
“You don’t tell me! And why should that be?”
His brogue grew a bit more pronounced in excitement.
I said, slowly, watching him, “I believe that Mrs. Ridgman’s first husband is still alive, and wants her out of the way.”
Doyle’s eyebrows shot up. “Why, he was killed —”
“That’s what I don’t believe.”
“Well,” I said, trying to sound impartial and logical, “for one thing, you can’t make sense out of these two killings otherwise.”
Doyle snorted. “Let’s hear you,” he said, “make sense out of them your way. Killed years ago,” he added in an obviously loud-voiced aside to himself, “and he doesn’t believe it!”
I said, “All right. Point One: They never found Norman Barclay’s body—right?”
“Go on,” said Doyle. “You’re telling this.” His eyes were pinpoints of blue ice.
“So,” I said, getting a little sorer and anxious not to show it, “he could be alive.”
“Let’s start,” I went on, “with the assumption that he is alive. He had a motive, an important reason for wanting to disappear when he did. We don’t know what it was, though I can think of several and so can you. He also wants to destroy his wife, whom he hates.” The eyebrows went up again but Doyle said no word.
“He sets the cruiser afire while his wife is asleep, and leaps overboard just before the explosion. He thinks his wife has been killed, but she isn’t killed: the heat and the noise of the flames wake her up and she jumps overboard just in time.”
I felt myself getting a little red with my effort. I went on: “Barclay has planned all this out, remember. He swims ashore. I don’t know who was waiting for him, but it may have been Henry Allen. His lawyer. With his lawyer’s help he can lie low till he wants to reappear—if ever. Time passes. Everyone thinks he’s dead. In fact, his wife marries again. Have you got a drink of water here, Mike?”
The big hand twisted the knob off a chromium carafe and poured a glassful in what seemed part of the same motion. I drank it.
I said: “Then something happens. I don’t know what, but I can guess and so can you. It was something to do with his mother’s will.” Doyle’s face was getting red too. “Barclay decides he’s got to repair his mistake, kill Mrs.—er— Mrs. Barclay-Ridgman this time and no fooling. And he tries. He tries twice. He misfires each time. He’ll try again.”
Ridgman said, to my relief: “I grant you this, Steele: if Norman Barclay were alive he might try to kill Lisa. He did, from what I gather, hate her. He was, definitely, a paranoid type. But I can’t grant you he’s alive.”
I said, “Grant me that for just a moment and let’s think a little further. Do you realize that Norman Barclay is the one outsider who could have got past the dog without an alarm? Mrs. Ridgman tells me she gave her to Barclay when they first moved into this house.”
Ridgman got up out of his chair and began the long soundless pacing again. He struck his big right fist into his left palm and started to say something, but I went on quickly: “First question is, where can this beggar be keeping himself? I suggest a yacht. One of those downstream this minute. He could paddle his dinghy right up to the landing-stage there—” I waved through the window at the smooth rolling lawn— “and come through the shrubbery at the side till he reached the terrace. He finds Mrs. Weston asleep, alone. One blow—say with a boathook—and he’s back aboard.”
“How does he find out he’s made a mistake?” asked Doyle.
“Plenty of people might have told him Sunday afternoon. The news of Mrs. Weston’s death was all over town, wasn’t it?”
“Wouldn’t he be afraid to come ashore in the daytime?” said Ridgman, stopping his pacing. “Lots of people around here know him.”
I said, “Hell, a set of those side-blinker sunglasses and a yachting cap and your own mother wouldn’t know you.”
“Go on to Mrs. Barclay—the mother,” said Doyle. I didn’t care for his tone. I said: “Obviously Barclay knows this house and the grounds like a book. He slips past your guard—which wouldn’t be a hard job on a moonless night—and slides in the window of the room he presumes is Mrs. Ridgman’s.”
Doyle said quickly: “And why would he presume that?”
“Because it was her room, not a regular guestroom. Mrs. Barclay had moved in there at the last minute because the light on Captain’s Island kept her awake.”
Doyle moved his eyes to Mike and said sharply, “You didn’t tell me that, Doctor.”
Mike said, “I didn’t know it was especially important. This is Steele’s reconstruction, not mine. Go on, Jim.”
“All right. It had always been Mrs. Ridgman’s room, hadn’t it? Even when she lived here before?”
Mike said, “That’s right. Her favorite. She liked the view.”
I said, “All right, Norman Barclay climbs in the window—easy for any active man—and lets off his revolver, which has got a silencer, at the figure in the bed. It happens to be his own mother.”
Doyle said: “You all through?”
“You want to know what I think of it?”
“Why? Tell me a better one.”
“That’s what I’m here for. You mentioned over the phone the word ‘evidence.’ Where’s one bit of evidence for this fairy story?”
I said, “I didn’t see him climb in the window, if that’s what you mean. And your bright boys didn’t either. But I’ll bet you if you dig a little you can find a motive for Norman’s disappearance, and if you dig a little further you might find a motive for his trying to kill Mrs. Ridgman.”
“Such as? Just to give me an idea.” His tone dripped irony.
“Henry Allen is the Barclay family lawyer. Ask him. He could probably fix you up with some Grade-A motives. That is if he wanted to.”
Doyle said, “He could, could he?”
Mike said unexpectedly, “I don’t know whether Steele’s right or not. But if it’s motive you’re after, I think I could suggest one.”
“So?” said Doyle, swivelling round.
“Yes. My wife told me a little while ago that her former mother-in-law was seriously considering revising her will in my wife’s favor. I had never known it. Mrs. Barclay apparently mentioned it not once but several times in the past month.”
Doyle said, with more respect in his tone than he had used on me, “And what do you infer from that, Doctor?”
Mike said a little shortly, “I don’t necessarily infer anything. I say that there is a possible motive for wanting my wife out of the way.”
“Who would want her out of the way?”
“Her first husband—if he were living, as Mr. Steele believes he is.”
“But if the guy’s supposed to be dead, what difference would it make? He couldn’t inherit.”
Mike said, “I don’t, of course, know the details of Mrs. Barclay’s will. I don’t know whether Henry Allen would see fit to make them public as yet. I think he ought to be asked, though. By you, Doyle.”
I said, “Sure, look here. Suppose the will provided that at her death the estate is to be divided between the two brothers or the survivor of them, Norman could come out of his retirement and claim his share. Which he couldn’t do if the will were revised to split the money between Edward and Mrs. Ridgman.”
Mike said, “Yes, or he might not have to do that. Edward might know that his brother was alive, and agree to let Allen handle his brother’s share. We can’t surmise intelligently yet, we ought to know about the will.”
Doyle said ironically, “Who else are we going to get in on this—the State Assembly? Your little group’s growing. First it was Norman Barclay come back from the dead, then it was Norman and Edward, now it’s Norman and Allen and Edward.”
I got up and took some steps around the room. His tone, more than his words, was hard to take. I said, “Maybe this theory hasn’t got all the details straight, but what of it? Two women actually were killed, whether you like it or not. You can’t laugh off corpses. If you can find any other link between them than the one we’re suggesting, let’s have it. They didn’t even know each other, did they, Mike?”
“Barely. Met at this house Saturday night for the first time.”
Doyle said slowly, “I didn’t say there was any connection. There’ve been lots of cases where someone gets bumped off and it gives someone else ideas. Number Two thinks it’ll mess things up and help cover his tracks—the first murder, I mean—so he gets busy.”
I said, “What do you mean by that?”
He glanced from Mike to me and I could see that this will business had given him a whole new train of thought, though he wouldn’t admit it: “You, Steele, you’re so free with tossing motives around and fixing up wills and resurrecting the dead to suit your convenience, where the devil were you last night? And how do you know so much about lights shining in Mrs. Barclay’s bedroom?”
I said, “Oh, hell. I was at the Red Lion Inn in Lyme and I can prove it. Dr. Ridgman told me about the lights this morning. What the hell would I have to do with Mrs. Barclay?”
“I can’t imagine,” he said silkily. “But you might have had a lot to do with Mrs. Weston. I understand you knew her in California.”
“So you say. You knew her well enough to chase her into a swimming pool.”
“She fell in. She was a little tight. It was at a cocktail party. Who told you that?” But of course I knew it was Weston.
He didn’t answer, he saw all kinds of fascinating possibilities opening up. Maybe Weston or maybe me killing Marian Weston in a jealous frenzy; conceivably Mike Ridgman doing just what Doyle had suggested, and figuring that Murder Number One would confuse the issue and so murdering Mrs. Barclay so his wife would get her money. The way his eyes flicked back and forth from Mike to me, you could almost hear the wheels going round in his head.
Or possibly Weston killed his wife and I killed Mrs. Barclay, acting for Ridgman….
He said, “Why did you cut away yesterday afternoon?”
I said, “They told me they’d hired this fellow Parker from a man named Maclay. You know him?”
“I went to check with Maclay on Parker after he claimed he’d been knocked out upstairs.”
“And what did Maclay say?”
It occurred to me that of course Doyle knew Maclay, Maclay couldn’t run a roulette wheel without local political O.K. I said cautiously, “Parker apparently was what he claimed to be— the valet of an Englishman named Somerset who died and left him out of a job. Maclay picked him up.”
“I see. And what do you think about Parker’s —er—accident?”
I said briefly, “What do you?”
“You think it had any connection with these— other events?”
I said, “No.”
“You think he made it up?”
I said, “What if I do? You don’t seem to care for any of my conclusions.”
The annoying voice went on, “You really thought you could slug him and get away with it?”
It took me entirely by surprise. I thought, “This egg may be dumb but he’s not so terribly dumb.” I said, “What the hell would I slug him for?”
“Why the hell do you think he would make it up?” asked Doyle, and he leaned a little forward in his chair.
I said, “I don’t know. I know I didn’t do it, and I know the only persons upstairs were Allen and two women, and I can’t see any of them in a slugging match with the butler.”
“You can see Allen in worse than that, though.”
“Certainly. Shooting for big stakes is one thing. Busting butlers on the skull is something else.”
He stood up. “I see. Well, it’s very kind of you to give us the benefit of your ideas.” His little cold blue eyes had a somehow feline quality: the cat thought maybe it had a mouse. Two large mice, maybe more.
I said, “How would you like one on the end of your jaw?”
Mike made a little deprecatory sound; Doyle went on, unmoved, “Now this idea of yours about freedom of movement. I find that very interesting. Where do you want to go?”
“What’s it to you?”
He stood up too. My nerves weren’t at their best at the moment and it would have been a relief to dissolve their jerkiness in pure fluid action. It would also have been folly. Doyle said, his own temper under perfect control: “It’s a great deal to me. I happen to be responsible for this case. Both cases. You aren’t helping yourself any by these vanishing acts.”
“It’s immaterial to me whether I’m helping myself. It’s extremely important to me to see that Mrs. Ridgman isn’t in danger.”
“We’ll take care of that.”
“It’ll have to be better care than you’ve been taking.”
That irritated him. He said, not quite so evenly, “She’s perfectly healthy at the moment, isn’t she? This mistaken identity business is hooey.”
Mike said gravely, “Let me interrupt a moment. I don’t think we can say it’s hooey until we know about the will. I grant you we’ve just been talking about a theory. I grant you it’s not a highly probable theory. But it certainly seems to me a possible theory that Norman Barclay is your murderer. At least I’m going to be extremely careful to see that my wife is kept under constant observation for the next few days.”
The slight pedantry that characterized his professional manner had its effect. Doyle said, “Oh, don’t misunderstand me, doctor. I don’t say it’s impossible. I just say it sounds wild. It doesn’t ring true….”
I said, “Does murder ever?”
“—but I agree with you that the will is a point worth getting at.”
Mike said, “The only trouble is that if Steele’s ideas are correct, Allen may be a—a conspirator with Norman Barclay. We don’t want him to know our suspicions.”
Doyle said, “We don’t have to. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be asking about the old lady’s will. Natural thing to do. Ask him in now, will you? You might as well stay.” His accent on the pronoun was fairly obvious.
I said, “I’ll be around,” and went down the hall after Mike. I said in his ear, “I’ll look up Lisa. I still think we’re right.”
Mike said, “You know, if we are right, Edward Barclay may be on a spot himself. You think he ought to be warned?”
Doyle still had me sore. I said, “To hell with Edward Barclay, he can take care of himself. He’s safe enough for the present, anyway.”
Which was probably the stupidest remark that ever passed my lips. The truth was shouting at me and I hadn’t the wit to understand.
LISA said decisively, “It can’t be. No.”
“What are you, the Oracle at Delphi?”
“Maybe it’s because I wish so that it were true. Jim, thinking all these years that I’d killed him has been rock-bottomed hell.”
“I know. It’s why you cracked up, isn’t it?”
“Of course.” She said impulsively, “I wish to God I’d told you long ago, and I wish to particular Heaven I’d told you yesterday. I couldn’t, that’s all. But I’m awfully glad you guessed. Sometimes I think you are a very good lad, indeed—for a tosspot, of course.”
The late sun washed her brown face with gold. We were in her room, on the long window-seat. I could see the golden flecks deep in her eyes. I said, “The point is that you never killed anyone, my girl. Outside of damned near killing me when you ditched me. Though it’s bad policy to mention that. You’re drunk with power as it is.”
“Shut up. Listen to me. You didn’t kill him, he isn’t dead, he’s alive and he’s trying to kill you. I thought so before I knew anything about any wills. Now I’m sure of it.”
you stop this spate of chatter? Let me finish. How much money did Mrs. Barclay have?”
“I don’t know. A million—two million—I don’t know.”
“The way estates have been shrinking you can’t—let’s call it half a million. Half of that is still nice. Mother talks to lawyer, tells him you’re going to get half. Lawyer sends SOS to Sonny Boy, who promptly steals out of the shadows complete with club. See? Cousin Norman is no fool. It wasn’t just that he disliked you that brought him round to bump you off, it was a quarter million to a full million of the best.”
Lisa said impatiently, “No, no, you haven’t got it straight. Besides, I tell you I heard his skull crack, Jim. Besides, those letters —”
I said, “All right, we will give the performance once more for the benefit of those who cannot understand English. You hit him, Maclay saw you hit him, but Maclay didn’t hang around as Peeping Tom all night. He got an eyeful and went on home; Norman snapped out of his fog and blew Mama up. At least he tried hard. What a sense of humor!”
It’s curious, how the human mind if it wants to be convinced can often be won over by iteration rather than argument. I wasn’t saying anything I hadn’t said twenty minutes before, but I was keeping on saying it, and Lisa was weakening.
She said in a capitulatory tone, “Allen, though. I can’t believe that Henry Allen —”
I said, “I can. But I will give you Henry Allen. I don’t want him anyway. Hold his dear image to your girlish bosom if you like. He may be as innocent as the babe unborn. All I insist on is Norman.”
“Thanks for Henry. I guess I can’t have him, though. If it’s Norman, Henry must be in it.”
“See, I wash him all pretty and you won’t have him. Of course he’s in it.”
Lisa said, “Well…”
I said, “This is just a thought that comes to me: how long ago did Mrs. Barclay mention to you first that she might change her will?”
“Let me see. It was the night of the Rogers’ dinner dance, I know that because I wasn’t dancing and we sat and talked. That was—the first week in May.”
“Was Allen around?”
“Yes. He spent the week-end at Mrs. Barclay’s. They had a lot of papers and things to go over. She’d been in Mexico all winter.”
I said, “Your first letter was mailed a few days
later. Now, I wonder ”
“What do you mean—Allen might be in the blackmail business?”
“Just thinking out loud. Suppose she mentioned it to him at the same time she did to you. He’s horrified. He protests. She drops the plan for the moment. But Allen knows her. Very determined old girl, I imagine.”
“He knows she’ll come back to it later. He not only notifies Norman to hurry, hurry—but he also inaugurates this blackmail stuff which will work two ways. He knows you’ll have to go to Mrs. Barclay for it. If you kick through with the money, well and good—they’ve salvaged a hundred thousand dollars for him and Norman. If you don’t get it, it’s because you’re discredited with Mrs. Barclay for telling her you bumped her boy, which is even better. Because in that case the will stays as it is. Either way they can’t lose.”
“So then? You know, this is like riding a roller coaster.”
“Then Norman gets back from wherever he’s been hiding, and—probably against Allen’s advice—gets going on his own. Lawyers don’t like murder, even crooked lawyers. But Norman says no, the safest and quickest thing is just to kill you. Does he wear glasses, by the way?”
“He did. Frightfully near-sighted.”
“Well, that’s another reason why he makes two mistakes, and thought it was you each time.”
Lisa said, “But that means Allen is tied in with Maclay.”
“Why not? Funnier things than that have happened.”
She shuddered. “I’ve always liked him.”
“I don’t like his eyes. I think he’d strangle his grandmother for a nickel—if he needed a nickel.”
“Jim, are we being very smart or just terribly dumb?”
“I don’t know. I’m just kind of romancing about this Allen-Maclay angle. Oh, there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you. Why is Marie such a problem?”
“Only what you guessed, I think. She’s perfectly mad about Tommy. She’s always been boy-crazy, but this—I wish you could have seen her on the beach the other day.”
“I wish I had. Very fine set of specifications, she has. Very fine. You think I could cut Weston out?”
“I thought the happy pair would set about it then and there. Mike nearly died.”
“I suppose that’s why he had such a bad time over thinking Weston killed Marian?”
“I don’t wonder. ‘Sex-Mad Playboy Slays Wife for Love of Leading Psychiatrist’s Sister.’”
“They’d make it sister. What the hell’s keeping Doyle and Allen with Mike?”
“What time is it?”
“Nearly six. That reminds me, my prisoners will be getting hungry.”
Lisa locked her fingers in mine. “I wish I’d seen the fracas. You rate a few orchids on yesterday, too, Jim.”
“It was nothing, said he simpering.”
“It was marvelous. I’ve never seen you really sore.”
“It’s pretty awesome. You’ll have to watch yourself when we’re married.”
Her face was toward the window, her eyes—like another wanderer’s—were full of golden distances. She didn’t move or turn her head. I bent and kissed her fingers in mine. Then I kissed her knees. Then I was holding her. Then the door opened and Mike came in.
The sunlight on his glasses gave him two glinting yellow sparks for eyes. He stood there an instant with his hand on the knob and what I could see of his face was quite expressionless. I took my arms away from Lisa and sat back. I didn’t feel like a heel, I felt like what is even worse: a fool.
Lisa said, “What luck?” She hadn’t moved.
Mike shut the door and came a few steps into the room. He said: “Allen has been quite explicit about the will. It hasn’t been changed. Mrs. Barclay was going to alter it, but didn’t, after Allen says he told her to think it over for thirty days. It leaves the entire estate, minus a few gifts to servants, to her two surviving sons in equal portions. If neither of them survived her, the estate went to Lisa. The will was made a few days after Lisa married Norman Barclay.”
I said, “So it was made after one son was gone. Hmmm. Think of this possibility for a minute: could Norman have been concerned in the younger brother’s death? Could that have been a possible reason why he wanted to disappear?”
Mike said, “I don’t follow,” and moved to a chair.
I said, without thinking very hard but just talking fast: “Just take it for a moment that Norman, with Henry Allen’s help, planned a deliberate campaign to put the other two brothers out of the way. Planned it a long time ago. Probably the estate was left to all three then in equal shares. He gets the first brother killed, but maybe someone suspects him. The best way to avoid suspicion is to be killed himself: in his own good time, he’ll get Edward. But meantime his mother thinks she may change her will a second time and give—according to you, Lisa—half the money to you outright on her death. That’s very bad. Lisa has to be got out of the way pronto, because Mother is old and frail and may die any time. Edward will follow her when Norman gets around to it.”
Lisa said with the fascination of a bird watching a snake: “But what good will it do him? Suppose he did plan that way? He’s dead himself— theoretically, I mean. Norman, I mean.”
I said, “Mike and I agreed he might stage a miraculous recovery from amnesia or something. Or maybe stay dead. If Edward knew, and agreed, and were loyal to his brother and all that, and Henry Allen were handling the matter, Norman could go on incognito the rest of his life. But not if the will’s changed and Lisa gets half. Then he’d have to take Edward’s charity. Also where would Allen’s cut be?”
Mike said, “Yes, yes of course. What about the accident to George Barclay, Lisa?”
Lisa said in the same voice of fascinated horror, “It was just before we were married. They were in Florida. Norman was driving the car.”
IT WAS curious, the way every significant factor in this case had its roots deep, deep in the past. Of course everything has. But I mean—here were no tell-tale footprints, no eloquent cigarette-ash, no poisoned whisky that could be traced. Just a white road under Florida stars, stars that had set three years ago; a blast of smoky flame over dark waters which had flowed round the world since then; a man glancing through a porthole on a summer evening at a terror-stricken girl who had lost—and found—her reason as slow months passed….
Nothing you could touch, or handle, or smell in a test tube: nothing for Doyle.
Except the author of it all. And somehow, despite all our theorizing, I couldn’t make him real.
He was a shadow, a shadow rising dripping from the dark green waters of the Sound, a shadow with measureless patience and inflexible purpose, a shadow who was now both fratricide and matricide as well as murderer.
“Some shadow!” I thought. “It will be fine to meet him.”
I said, “We’ve got a number of things to do, dear friends. Lisa’s car is probably in Maclay’s garage. Let it stay there. I’ve got a couple of captives I’ll have to feed—or something. And at nine tonight—which is only another couple of hours— we shall doubtless hear a mysterious bass voice on the telephone asking for a hundred thousand nonexistent smackers.”
Mike said doubtfully, “You think so? With the police here? If Parker’s in on it—or even if he isn’t—Maclay or whoever’s running that end of the show will know it will be physically impossible for Lisa to be alone in the house tonight. And if Allen’s in on the blackmailing, as you suggest he may be, the need of discrediting Lisa with Mrs. Barclay no longer exists. And for that matter, there isn’t any need to kill Lisa, since the will hasn’t been changed. Has that occurred to you?”
It hadn’t. I admitted it. Mike said, “It’s Edward, really, who’s in acute danger now—if we’re anywhere near right.”
I said, “Hell, he can get Edward any time. He doesn’t need to get him now. Still we might ask for a special guard at the foot of the lawn. Mike and I agreed, Lisa, that he may be on a yacht somewhere.”
Mike said, “I think you’re right. He won’t come after Edward now. Too risky. And no immediate need. The thing that does impress me is that if we’re right, and Norman Barclay is alive, Lisa’s safe. Now that Mrs. Barclay’s dead, I mean to say.”
I said, “Just the same, I think we ought to keep an eye on the little woman.”
“You seem to be doing that very capably.” His voice was without inflection.
Lisa slid off the window-seat saying, “Heaven knows what you’re going to get for dinner…. Has Doyle gone, Mike?”
“Yes. Marian’s inquest is at eleven in the morning in Southport, and I suppose Mrs. Barclay’s will be the day after. We’re all to be there tomorrow, of course. I have an idea Doyle’s going to spring a surprise.”
I said, “Did he mention me again?”
“You heard what he promised me. You suppose he told the troopers about it? I ought to dash back to the Red Lion and feed the zoo.”
“I don’t know. You might ask them.” It was so subtle a change that you couldn’t even be sure of it, but it seemed to me that his manner was different. The lovely camaraderie we’d built up had vanished. I said, “I will.”
There were two swings on the terrace; there had been three, but one wasn’t there any more. As I came round the corner of the house, I saw Marie and Weston lounging on the Roman-striped canvas of one, while Edward Barclay was chatting with Henry Allen in the other. There was a cocktail-wagon conveniently set, but no sign of Parker. I said, “Hello, has anyone seen any troopers?”
Edward Barclay stopped talking and favored me with a long stare over his hawk nose. He also stopped stroking his square brown beard, and shook his head. Marie said pleasantly, “One went up toward the gate a minute ago. They don’t like you, Mr. Steele.”
“No?” I gave her my best smile. She was something to smile at. She would have trouble with her weight some day, I decided, but right now it was just appetizing opulence under bright yellow pique culottes and a white cardigan. Her lovely liquid dark eyes smiled back. “No. You’re never here when they want you.”
Weston cut in, “Heard you’d been sleuthing. Dig up anything?”
He was just pleasantly tight, not drunk. He looked a lot better than when I’d seen him last. The alcohol burned in his heavily tanned cheek bones, providing a fine false flush of health for the faintly immature brown face behind the straw-colored mustache. I liked him, not knowing why or caring. I said indifferently, “Odds and ends. They may help. Doyle doesn’t think so.”
Henry Allen said interestedly, “What do you think of Doyle’s intelligence, Steele?”
“I think he’s a bit thick. But maybe that’s because he doesn’t agree with me.”
“Indeed.” He leaned forward toward me, a little plump brown gnome of a man with the coldest eyes I had ever seen. It crossed my mind that I would hate to play poker with him. “I’d like so much to hear your conclusions.”
“There’s a trooper,” said Weston, pointing. As my eyes left Allen’s face to follow the outstretched arm I thought he looked annoyed. Maybe he wasn’t such a good poker player. A big man in uniform with a seamed red face was coming back across the lawn. He didn’t look too promising. I cut over to meet him and said, “Good evening. Did Mr. Doyle explain about me—Steele?”
He had a very hard eye. He said, opening his mouth very slightly, “Explain what?”
“Explain that I’m to—er—come and go as I please.”
He looked me up, down. “Who’s stopping you?”
I said, “I just wanted to know.”
He gave a kind of grunt and started to move on. His metallic voice came back over his shoulder. “So long as you don’t go far. An’ we’ll see to that.”
I thought I heard a snicker, quickly choked, from the terrace. I didn’t know whether it was masculine or feminine but it was annoying. I said in a different voice, “Listen, hard guy. Doyle told me distinctly I could move around as I pleased, leave any time. And I’m leaving now.”
His jaw stuck out a little and he came back a couple of steps. Before he could get his slit of a mouth open I said, “Have it your way. Where’s your captain?”
“Never mind about the captain. You’re staying right here.”
“So you say. I’ll get him on the phone myself.” I hoped my retreat was executed with dignity. The two cocoons on the bathroom floor at the Red Lion were beginning to worry me. If Doyle happened to check on my stay there, and found them all tangled up with Maclay’s private papers… I should have thought of that before. I might have been a bit nicer to him.
Mike came out to join the group on the terrace as I opened the side door. “Any luck?”
“Damn him, he never left any orders. Flat-foot out there says no.”
“He’ll say he forgot.”
“I’m going to call the hotel.”
Mike said thoughtfully, “It seems to me likely that your captives aren’t there.”
“What do you mean?”
“Maclay must have known where they were going. If they didn’t report pretty soon he’d send reinforcements.”
I said, “Good God, Mike. Of all the dumb— And I told the poor old duck who runs the place that I was a G-Man. If they try to belt him around the way they did me, they’ll kill him—I haven’t told you about that, have I?”
“Lisa was just telling me. She’s quite pleased with you.”
His voice was as delicately interrogatory as a surgeon’s scalpel making a brain incision. I felt my face getting a little red, which is a little unusual for me. I didn’t answer; I headed for the telephone.
I PICKED up the receiver and Lisa dropped one hand on my shoulder and stood behind me, waiting. I asked for Lyme 95. After a bit, a faint voice said, “Yes?”
“I’d like to speak to Mr. Talbot.”
After a pause the voice said, even more indistinctly, “Who wants him?”
“Tell him this is Mr—ah—Gordon calling.”
There was another pause and the voice said dispiritedly, “They got ’em.”
“Is this Mr. Talbot talking?”
“What’s left of him. Come over and I’ll tell you. Where you talking from?”
“I can’t come over right now. Our—er—friend come after them?”
“I was sittin’ there watchin’ ’em the way we said, and the door busted wide open and in come three men and the glass jumped right out of my hand.”
“They hurt you?”
“Nope. They got both guns, though. The guns were on the bed; I’d just put ’em down a minute to get myself a little….”
“All right. Then what?”
“They untied those two. You oughta heard the langwidge. They wanted to know about you and I told ’em I didn’t know nothin’, I just understood you was Fed’ral and they better be almighty careful.”
“They take the boxes in the bathroom?”
“Yep. I couldn’t stop ’em. They give the room an awful goin’-over too. You comin’ back pretty soon? They cert’nly are mad, that bunch. I told ’em I didn’t know anything about you, you just told me to watch them two.”
I could see the wavering ancient telling them sourly the literal truth—that he didn’t know. I was glad he had, somehow, carried conviction. I hated to think what would have happened to him if he hadn’t. I thought: Well, if they did believe his “Fed’ral,” they’d conclude that a country innkeeper in his dotage wouldn’t, after all, have been my confidant.
I said, “All right, Mr. Talbot, you needn’t feel too badly. Would you know them again if you saw them?”
“Certainly I’d know ’em. They ain’t nobody from around here, I can tell ye that. Looked more like N’Yawk.”
“I’ll bet. Well, it’ll probably come out all right. I guess I won’t be back tonight, then. I’ll see you tomorrow.” A thought struck me. “You haven’t heard from Louise?”
“Nope. Didn’t see her all day. I went fishin’ ‘fore she got up. You see her last night?”
“Oh, yes. We had quite a—” I was suddenly aware of Lisa at my shoulder. I said, “—a ten-minute talk. I went to bed right afterwards.”
“You want I should charge ye for the room for tonight?”
“Sure. And buy yourself a drink on me. You must need it.”
“’Tain’t none of my business,” said the Ancient Mariner curiously, “but how’n almighty hell’d you get all them papers up here?”
“Oh. I had a messenger bring ’em. He got there early this morning. It doesn’t matter too much about their finding them. I found what I wanted, and I’ve got that all safe.”
“Glad o’ that.” He said goodbye regretfully. I hung up the receiver and Lisa said, “So her name’s Louise. Dinner’s ready.”
“That’s fine. I could eat roast horse. You wouldn’t have a splash of Scotch in the house?”
“Jim, you drink too much.”
“Don’t be proprietary. Yes, I wish you would be proprietary. You might as well start learning.”
“We’re terribly late. You can have it at the table.”
There was a fine roast duck and a spring salad and some kind of frozen pudding. I ate enough for three. Mike sat at one end of the table and Lisa at the other; Edward Barclay was on her right and I on her left. Weston faced Marie next to me, with Henry Allen beyond her. Nobody had bothered to change. Parker was a vast silent shadow in the candlelight.
It was a question, of course, whether to talk about the only things we really wanted to talk about, or to make painfully exiguous conversation about everything else. I didn’t say anything at first. I thought: It’s Lisa’s house, let her key it. But Lisa was a sphinx, a sphinx delicately masticating slivers of roast duck. And Mike had done his carving in majestic silence. I guessed they were both under a good deal of tension. But then so was Weston, so was Edward Barclay with his mother’s thin body flanking Marian Weston’s in whatever served for the local morgue, so—God knew—was Henry Allen, if my views were sound at all. That left the angel-child, over whose round thighs a dinner napkin curved gracefully. I thought: I have never seen a woman charged with quite so much pure sensuous appeal. If Lisa was electricity, this one was a tinted porcelain furnace. I wondered again: Could Weston…
I said to her severely, and just to be saying something, which apparently was more than anyone else intended: “I trust that rude titter on the terrace, wasn’t yours.”
She turned her angelic lily face toward me. You could drown in those eyes—easily. She said smiling, “Oh, but it was. I couldn’t help it. You looked so astonished at being spoken to that way.”
“I was. But it doesn’t matter. I find I don’t have to leave, anyway.”
“That’s good. I’ll take you on in bridge.”
“Mike doesn’t, Tommy hates it. You play, don’t you, Mr. Barclay?”
Edward Barclay swung an abstracted brown beard up from his duck and slanted his thin sun-scarred cheek bones at her across the table. “I beg pardon?” he said in a pleasant flat monotone, the voice of one who is just a little deaf.
“Bridge,” said Marie a trifle louder. “You play, don’t you?”
“A little, yes.” His smile crinkled the brown beard. He looked strained and very tired about the eyes.
“Will you make a fourth after dinner?… Unless you want to, Lisa.”
Lisa said decisively, “But never. I’m frightful. I shoot a nasty crap, though. You four go ahead.”
That was better; at least it began to seem a little less like eating in a cemetery. There was a spatter of talk about Eagles; I asked Weston about his polo handicap this season and whether he’d ever played in the Argentine; Edward Barclay continued to focus tired eyes on a plate he hardly touched; the last of the sunlight faded and the candles glowed more brilliantly across yellow roses in a silver epergne. Lisa said, “We’ll have the coffee here, Parker,” and Mike gave him the key to the liquor cabinet.
I was doing quite a lot of heavy thinking.
It was half past eight.
THE EXPLOSION, when it came, was like nothing I had heard since Madrid.
We left the dining-room at about a quarter to nine. Parker set up a bridge table in the living-room and I drew Henry Allen for a partner, while Marie arranged herself opposite Edward Barclay. Mike—apparently as usual—murmured that he had a little work to do, and we heard his study door close at the far end of the long hall. Lisa brought her balloon glass with her from the table and, cradling it in her brown fingers, sat with Weston on the divan.
Allen got the first contract with an easy four-spade bid, and I lay down my cards and sat back. That was a break. I wanted to be at the phone at nine.
The minute hand of my wrist watch crept toward 12 about as fast, I thought, as a glacial moraine. When it said two minutes to nine I shoved back my chair and got up and said, “Carry on, partner,” and looked at Lisa, and went out and shut the door behind me tightly, and stood at the foot of the stairs in the hall. I remember I had an unlighted cigarette in my hand and I got it halfway to my mouth when it happened.
The building, brick though it was, shook suddenly and a roar like—exactly like—a bomb when it lands made my ear drums sing. I couldn’t see any flash because the hall faced away from the water, which was where the noise came from. In the shocked stillness that held the world as the concussion passed I heard a faint far-off shouting, and then feet running on the gravel outside the door. I had the door open and my head out in time to see three flashlights bobbing toward me across the lawn as their owners cut down from the entrance gate toward the river.
Silhouetted in the light from the doorway I called, “What was that?” No one answered, and I ran out and around the house and toward the river myself.
Of all the utter fools!
The dark waters at the foot of the lawn showed a transient yellow glow perhaps a hundred yards from shore, aftermath of whatever had gone up. The glow died fast, the last ember snuffed out as o I reached the beach. The three searchlight wielders, who had beaten me to it, were staring excitedly after the ineffective white cones that aimed through the night toward where the explosion had been. Two other uniformed silhouettes were talking—evidently the guard that had been posted there.
I heard, “Not a goddam sound and then she came.”
Another voice said, “I di’n’ see no boat.”
One of the three who had lights said harshly, “Were you watching, you sap, or snoring?” I recognized his metallic rasp.
I couldn’t see anyone else and suddenly the half-formed thought slid across my mind that it was strange Mike wasn’t behind me. And in the same instant came realization of what my subconscious mind had been straining to tell me since I saw the torches bobbing across the lawn: the front gate was unguarded now.
I turned—no one on the beach had seen me— and ran back toward the house faster than I have ever run in my life.
What happened then happened very fast indeed. The boys had used very nice timing. I couldn’t have been more than thirty seconds racing back across the smooth dark turf, and I was perhaps forty yards from the house when every yellow window glowing through the night went black.
I moved my legs still faster and before I’d taken three more strides I heard a great bellow of sound from the dark pile before me—Mike’s voice. And almost instantly a pistol-shot. And then a woman’s scream….
I swerved automatically to the left and plunged on. I came panting up across the terrace and wrenched open the heavy screen door to the living-room. It was pitch-dark. My breath whistled in and out of my lungs as I turned the knob and my knees were trembling. I wasn’t in shape to do two hundred and fifty yards as though I were Owens. I called into the darkness, “Lisa! Are you there?”
Out of the black pit before me came Weston’s voice and Mike’s together.
I heard confusedly, “Steele, she’s gone!”
And then Marie cried hysterically, “They’ve got her!”
And Weston said excitedly, “They got Mike, too.”
I said fiercely, “Who got her? Where is she?”
Mike’s deep rumble answered, “Three men, Jim. Front door. They came in with guns, grabbed her, and rushed. The fights went out —
I heard Weston picking his way toward me as he interrupted, talking fast: “Mike had just come in the room. One man stayed behind and said, ‘Keep quiet!’ The lights went out and Mike gave a yell. The guy must have shot at his voice. Bullet went right between us. He says it’s his shoulder.”
I said breathlessly, “Tear down and get those troopers back here. Phone Doyle and get the alarm in. Mike, is your car in the drive?”
He said jerkily, as in pain, “Yes. I’ll—go with you.”
I said, “You stay here and handle this end. Keys in car?”
“Yes. There’s a gun—”
I slammed the door and had the wheel of Mike’s slim coupe wrenched round and the wheels turning by the time I saw the flashlights converging on the house again. I knew I should have asked—I realized it even as we roared round the curve and up the drive—whether Henry Allen was still there. But my heart was so full of rage and bitterness and terror—terror for Lisa— that I couldn’t waste a split second. The headlights glared at the stone gate, then we were through and rocketing down the grade. Pebbles slammed the fenders, clang on clang.
I thought, fighting to hold her on the rocky road, “They must have dragged her up here, slid her in a car. They must go down this hill to the main road. If I can only make it in time to see them turn…”
We ricochetted over the last bump and slewed to a stop with her nose on the main road. I craned out the left window, then the right, straining to see. It was as dark as your hat both ways. Not even the flicker of a tail-light.
I thought, “Maclay’s? It’s a chance.” I wasn’t thinking very clearly. There was a terrific pressure inside my skull and my eyes hurt. I knew what it was: it was rage, but it was different from any rage I had ever felt before.
I whipped the wheel right and slammed her round the bend and into Southport like a small black comet: I remember just a quick blur of fights and we were through. She was a very fast little car; the trouble was to hold her on the road.
The night rushed toward us and the engine’s whine slid up and up the scale. I steered with one hand and fumbled with my right in the dash compartment. No…. In the right side door pocket. No…. In the crack between the back and the seat cushion. Yes!… The car gave a startled leap slantwise, but I straightened her out and let her slip back to 60 and pulled the little automatic out by its holster, carefully.
I slipped the little gun in my right-hand jacket pocket and moved my hand back to the wheel. And, unquestionably, it was the fact that I had both hands on the spokes that saved my life.
For at that precise moment both front tires blew out like a double-barrelled shotgun, and we curved wildly left, right, then left again in a long screaming arc toward the ditch.
I fought the wheel, the brakes, and with both hands on the wheel I could get enough leverage to net something, but not much. Still, it was enough. The rubber squealed off the road and we plunged sidewise and I saw what was coming and got an arm across my forehead to cushion it and there was a hell of a crash.
I WAS swimming in darkness. I was swimming and my head hurt, and the darkness wasn’t water—it was thick black wool that clogged my nostrils and I was drowning in it.
I moved my neck with a vast effort and gold stars spattered all across the firmament with my titanic stirrings, and air divinely fresh sucked down into my tortured lungs.
Intolerable pains shot down my neck as I moved it again and a small chilled ice-pick entered my skull over my right eye. I opened the eye and pulled my nose out of its cushioning on my tweed sleeve and the world slid dazedly back together again and I thought: The bastards—they must have slashed both front tires just deep „ enough to blow out at speed.
I locked my teeth and got my head up and looked round. It wasn’t so bad. We were lying well off the road, at an angle of about forty-five degrees, with the car’s nose rammed into hard mud. Both head lamps were out but the dash-light was still burning. There was a smell of scorched rubber in the damp night air. I put up my right hand and touched my forehead where the icepick had gone in, and it was wet, and my fingers in the cool white dash-light were red. My left arm was still lying across the wheel and I saw my wrist watch. Forehead had cracked against it, evidently, when my head was thrown forward against that cushioning arm. It wasn’t a bad cut. But the watch had stopped.
I thought: God how long have I been out? And the softly luminous hands of the dash-board clock were like an answer to a prayer. Nine-twenty! I couldn’t possibly have lain there more than five minutes, maybe not that. I got my eyes focussed from the right-hand window.
Under dim clouded stars the thin white road began a long leftward curve. I knew that curve. I knew what lay beyond it. The car door wasn’t even jammed. I got it open and moved, a little stiffly, down the road.
After a few steps the stiffness went out of my legs and a new set of muscles in my lower chest began to hurt where the wheel had rammed them. But it wasn’t bad. And the pressure inside my head was gone. I moved effortlessly under the stars, with a kind of fluid gliding, and my thoughts wheeled in vast clear sweeping patterns as they sometimes do when you have had exactly the right amount of champagne. The world wasn’t quite real; the night and the road and what lay beyond the curve were just parts of a colored picture on a screen. But I was real. I was transcendently real. And I knew exactly what I was going to do. I was going to find Maclay and take him apart piece by piece. The thought gave me exquisite pleasure. Then I would get Lisa and take her home. It was as simple as that.
My feet went forward steadily. Under my breath I began to sing an old song, an old marching song. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade used to sing it, swing it, in Spain—“I’ll Be ‘Round to Get You in a Taxi, Honey.”
Two really smart cracks on the head in a trifle over twenty-four hours aren’t conducive to the best ratiocination.
And yet, perhaps, it was just because of my state of mind that it happened. Normal thought doesn’t move freely, but in a series of small jumps. Lift it outside strict normality by whatever means—traumatic or chemical—and sometimes, instead of travelling from A to B and from B to C, it swoops from A to X in a wild logic of its own which may just happen to be sound. A may run into X—as indeed it does—and X may be really just A in another guise: it’s simply that your normal thought-train never travelled that far.
Maybe that’s sound scientifically and maybe it isn’t. I wish I could ask Mike about it. One thing I’m sure of: between the lifting of one foot up and the putting of it down, my thoughts traced a pathway they had never travelled before and I stopped short with my right foot still in the air.
Then I put it down again and went on, but I wasn’t thinking about where I was going. I was thinking what I had thought at Zanni’s two days before: God’s prize ass…!
I remember I stopped again after a few paces and wondered, “Forward—or back?”
Then I thought, “But that would be stupider still. Go on!”
THE parking space held at least a couple of dozen cars and I could heat an orchestra or a radio swinging “Take a Chance, Says My Heart.” The lights of the mosquito fleet winked across the marshes and the windows of the low dark house were discreet orange squares behind and below the colored neon sign.
Two boys and a red-haired girl in a white evening wrap were getting out of an open Packard roadster with the help of a white-coated figure whose face I couldn’t see, and I wondered again where my simian friend was resting at the moment. I heard one boy say, “Leave the keys in, Harriet.” I dropped my hand in my jacket pocket and skirted the gravel quickly and went down the steps.
It was wonderful luck. Maclay was standing just inside the front door, his hard square brown face turned half away from me, talking to Louise still in her white* pongee. He seemed to be remonstrating about something. I could see her breasts rise and fall under the tight white uniform and her red mouth was sullen.
I stepped across the threshold behind him on silent crepe soles and he started to turn and I prodded him ever so delicately with the steel snout in my jacket pocket and said pleasantly, “Business seems better this evening.”
He stood perfectly still, his left hand in his trouser pocket, and his face stopped turning, and I thought the tight eyes widened a little but that was all. He said, for the benefit of the trio from the roadster as they pushed past us, “Yes. Yesterday was a little slow but I think….”
I said as they got out of earshot, “Take that hand out slowly and take it out empty.”
He brought it out. It was empty. I said, “Yes, it’s going to move a lot faster from now on. Where is she?”
He turned his square face all the way toward me and swung his foot back so that he faced me squarely. He said, “Just what are you talking about?”
I said, with vivid memories, “All right, lug,” and brought my own right hand out empty, feinting at his stomach, and crossed my left to his jaw. It was fine. He ducked just a little and it got him right on the bridge of his nose and I felt the bone cave as his head slammed the pine wall. It kept him on his feet, the wall; he couldn’t fall. I stepped back and got my hand in my pocket again and he got his hands against the wall and pushed himself upright again and stood there looking at me.
A bright scarlet stream spurted from his nostrils suddenly and he moved his hand instinctively to the white cambric in the breast pocket of his dinner coat. I said “Hold it,” and he stopped his hand and I gave him the handkerchief with my left hand and stepped back against the opposite wall. I still don’t know why I gave him the handkerchief. It must have been one of those instinctive things, like saying “Dear me” when you belch.
I didn’t look at Louise. It would be better if he didn’t know I knew her—unless she had crossed me and he knew it already. She hadn’t moved. I said, still pleasantly, “If the young lady will just back into her cubbyhole —”
She backed. I wished I could have seen her face but I thought she’d probably be cooperative. I said—and as I said it my voice wasn’t pleasant any more—“Out that door and up the steps, Maclay. Quietly.”
He didn’t move. Even in the dim hallway I could see the light back of his eyes. He said in a strangled thin voice—I think the blood was running into his throat, too—“You can’t get away with this.”
I heard footsteps down the hall coming from the dining-room and I said, “As sure as God made me, you get it here and now unless you move. And will it be a pleasure!”
Evidently he believed me. He was right to believe me. We went up the steps together like brothers, with the muzzle of my automatic pressed about where I thought his right kidney-ought to be. Half way up, where they angled, I said “Stop.” He stopped and I turned my neck but there wasn’t anyone behind us. Just the yellow rectangle of the open door.
The whole thing hadn’t taken more than a couple of minutes; the orchestra was still announcing its heart’s desire to live dangerously. I said, nodding at the Packard, “Over there.” White Coat was sitting on its running board. Maclay said something through his teeth which sounded as though he were spitting at me.
I said: “If you want to live, tell him to go get you a drink, you’re taking a little ride.”
We strolled over and White Coat got up and Maclay took the handkerchief away from his face long enough to say, “Go and get me some rye, Harry, I’ve got a nose-bleed.”
White Coat said, “Certainly, Mr. Maclay,” and trotted back around the house. He wasn’t anyone I’d ever seen.
I said, “Get in behind the wheel. I’ll ride in the rumble.”
The rumble was open. He slid behind the wheel with a little more alacrity than he’d shown; I imagine he thought he might take a chance and crash her once we got moving. I put a foot on the big car’s fender-step and vaulted into the rumble, and said, “Roll her,” and as he bent over a little to turn the switch I reached forward and gave him the butt of my gun where I’d laid it on one of his henchmen.
My fingers on his collar jerked him sideways out of his slump the next instant, and I twisted my long legs over and down behind the wheel, and dumped the inert body in the corner of the wide leather seat. It wasn’t any too soon. I heard steps coming up the side stairway, and I eased her into gear, and the heavy tires made a spattering gravel shower as we shot away.
I got one quick look over my shoulder as I swung on to the main road: the obedient servitor was staring after us with a tray in his hands. I was very glad it was a tray.
I thought: Even now they can’t have got her very far away. The wind wailed past us as we swung round the curve and two small yellow eyes in the distance came closer fast. I wondered if they could be two motorcycles, hoping…. It was a big beer truck; a brief roar and it was by.
I had seen the road not twenty minutes before: a narrow dirt track winding out across the marshes, only a few hundred yards beyond where Mike’s car lay. Even as I braked for it, Maclay stirred. I slowed some more, whipped right on to the dirt track, and rolled down it for a couple of hundred yards. My ears still throbbed in the dark silence that wrapped us as the great head lamps went off and the engine died.
Maclay stirred again. I shook him as you shake an empty sack. I went round the car and got him by the collar and pulled him out, and the sack sprawled in the damp grasses by the running board. Touching him did curious things to me; I was conscious of sudden small vibrations in my finger tips, and I remember I said to myself out loud: “Careful.” I bent down and shook the sack some more. I kept saying: “Come out of it! Where is she? Come out of it! Where is she?”
Then it occurred to me that he might be shamming. I flicked on my cigarette lighter and knelt down by his head. The bleeding had stopped. The nose was a strange puffed purple blob in the middle of the square face. The eyes were shut.
I said out loud, “I’ll bet he comes out of it when he gets this in his eye.”
It worked. As I brought the flame closer the tight lids wavered open.
I said again, “Where is she?”
I was in a passion of haste. And another passion. He moved his neck and said dazedly, “Where is—where am I?”
“Where is she?”
He said, mumbling, “Wai’ a minute. I—sit up.”
“All right, sit up.”
He got himself partway up and said weakly, “Head,” and lay back again.
“Where is she?”
There was a silence; then he said in his ordinary voice, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I said between my teeth, “Boy, you asked for it!” and shot him in the right knee.
I will say for him that he had guts. The flash and the explosion died away across the marshes and he was sitting up with both hands gripping his leg but with no sound.
I said, “You think that hurts? That isn’t anything. It’s still numb. You’ve got exactly three minutes before it begins to hurt so you can’t think. If you haven’t told me then, we’ll take the other knee.”
He took his teeth out of his lip and said, “I don’t—know—where she is.”
I said, “All right. I guess we’d better have the other knee right now.”
His voice rose half an octave, “No, no. Wait. Who are you?”
I said, “Just a friend of the family. As far as I’m concerned, you and your gang of rats can go hang yourselves. I’m not the law. All I want is Mrs. Ridgman. You haven’t got anything on her, you never did have, and you’ll find it out before you’re much older. If you live. Where is she?”
He said, “Give me that book back and I’ll tell you.
I said, “That book stays where it is. Always. Just to make sure we never have any more trouble. If we don’t, it’ll never trouble you.”
He said, “You mean it? Christ!”
“I told you it would begin to hurt. You want the other knee now?”
He hesitated, then he said, “All right. She’s—”
He said, not triumphantly but thoughtfully, “You couldn’t get her if I told you.”
“I’ll get her. Where —”
“She’s in a barn back of the boathouse at Hewlett’s Landing. Till I get there.”
“Where’s that? Down river? You were going to use your boat?”
“All right, write me a note.”
“They wouldn’t believe it.”
“That’ll be just too bad for them—and too bad for you.”
He lay without speaking, his eyes closed. I knew what he was thinking. He was a gambler, he knew when to cut his losses. This was a shot that hadn’t worked…. If he could get immunity it might be best to wash it up. His leg was agony. Could he believe me or not? Most of all— I imagine—he did believe that another bullet would smash his other knee cap if he didn’t think fast and obey.
I flicked the lighter on again and tore a sheet out of my notebook and found a pencil and knelt down. “Here you are.”
He reached for the pencil and said, “Oh, God!”
“It had better be good. You aren’t getting loose till I get back.”
He didn’t seem to hear me. “You’ll have to prop me up.”
I was very careful. I held the lighter in my left hand and the gun in my right, and knelt behind him so that I could raise him enough, and let him have the notebook to rest the paper on. He wrote in his thin spidery hand that I knew:
Max—it’s O.K. All set. Turn package over to bearer. Call me 9 am.
It was pretty good, at that. No “plans changed,” no overtones of danger, just orders. And orders from Maclay were probably obeyed. I took the paper and said: “How do I get there?”
“Can’t miss it. It’s an old farm on the point straight down the river road. Turn left at the four corners where it says ‘Hewlett’s Landing.’ Ask for Max. For the love of God, Steele, do something about this leg. I think I’m bleeding to death.”
“I’ll make you a tourniquet. Give me your handkerchief and I’ll tie mine to it. Then we’ll go riding.”
“Sure. You’re going to ride in the rumble and the rumble’s going to be locked.”
He looked up at the great dark shape of the car looming above him and said in an anguished whisper, “Christ, not with this leg.”
I said, “It won’t be so bad. You ought to be home inside of an hour.”
I got a small wrench out of the car and twisted the handkerchiefs with it. His trouser leg was soaked, of course, but I know something about knee wounds. I helped with quite a number in Spain. They don’t bleed so much. It’s the network of nerves there that makes them so bad.
I said as I finished, “Did you get much money out of Norman Barclay before his boat blew up?”
His contorted face showed a spasm that might have been surprise. “Norman Barclay? I never knew him.”
“The hell you didn’t. You tried to put the squeeze on him because you knew there was something funny about that auto accident. Not that I care. If you knew Somerset you knew George Barclay. They used to travel together.”
“So what?” His voice sounded faraway.
“So I don’t know; I wasn’t there, but I can guess. That’s why you were looking in the porthole the day the yacht blew up. You were coming over to see Norman, maybe dig some more jack out of him. You don’t have much luck blackmailing the Barclays, do you? Or do you?”
He said just three words before he fainted, but they were enough. “How did you…”
I had quite a time getting his hundred and sixty pounds coiled in the bottom of the rumble. It was probably a good thing for him that he was unconscious.
LISA SAID, “Buy me a hot dog. I’m hungry.”
“We just passed a good place.”
“I’d just as soon put a few more miles between us and Hewlett’s Landing. I think we ought to keep on to Ed’s place.”
She laughed a little and shivered a little at the same time. “Be serious.”
“I am serious. I think it would be a very good idea. There’s probably an alarm out for this car, so it ought to be returned, and we need to do some telephoning, and our passenger will want to be getting home.”
“What passenger?” she said innocently.
“Your friend Maclay is back there in the rumble.”
It was a good thing I was watching the road. I think she jumped straight into the air and her hands on my right arm nearly wrecked us. “Jim,” she said, “he isn’t!”
“He is. And a very fine place for him. First a host, then a hostage. Ha-ha. Not very funny but then I’m tired.”
Lisa only said “Oh”—weakly. Then she shivered again as though I’d told her she was riding on a crate of rattlers. “Let’s get him out quickly. I don’t want to see him.”
“I told you, we’ll take him home. He’s safe as a church. His fangs are drawn. I de-fanged him. He’ll never bother you again. Mike has his little book.”
She said tangentially: “When I think of those men… And you walked me out of there as coolly as—Jim, you’re marvelous.”
“The fat one, Max, didn’t like it much, did he? But they had to take the boss’s orders.”
She said curiously, “How did you make him write it?” I had skipped that part.
I said vaguely, “Oh, you know Silver-tongue Steele. Irresistible.”
“Is Mike badly hurt?”
“I don’t think so. I couldn’t see him in the dark. Someone said it was just his shoulder.”
A short silence and more than a silence came between us. The midnight air was definitely colder. The big head lamps bored steadily on.
Lisa said, “What made the big bang?”
“I don’t know. Maybe a bomb in a canoe. Maclay could have pushed it in pretty close to shore and swum back to his boat. Time-fuse. Quite a good idea.”
“But why grab me like that—without warning?
“Probably because he figured he couldn’t get the money any other way. Parker may have tipped him off you weren’t going to pay. Or at least that you’d called other people in. Me.”
“God, that was smart of me,” said Lisa admiringly.
“Too bad you don’t use your head oftener.”
“Said he viciously.”
“I’m not vicious, I’m just thirsty. Oh, here’s I Lyme. We’re almost there.”
“Let’s not stop, let’s go on home.”
“I’m afraid Maclay may be dead.”
“Stop here and see.”
“All right.” I pulled over to the side of the road, just past a large white sign that said “incorporated village of lyme.” There weren’t any houses yet. I said to Lisa, “You take this,” and gave her the automatic, and stood up on the seat, and lifted the rumble top an inch or so. There was no sound from inside. I said, “Maclay!”
His voice broken with torment said, “This thing has slipped…. Get me to a doctor, will you?”
I said, “Pretty quick. You’re almost home.”
He kept groaning, very low. “Anywhere,” he said, “only hurry.”
I slammed the top down. I couldn’t feel badly about him. The engine was still running. I pocketed the revolver and we drove on. Lisa said, “Jim, what did you do to him? He sounds awful.”
“He feels awful. He’s got a bullet in his knee.”
She didn’t say anything, but I could feel her eyes on my face in the streaming darkness. Lyme slept through our silent passing and we were on the marshes again; then the neon sign was a colored star shooting toward us. I wheeled on to the gravel and stopped. A State Trooper got off his motorcycle and came toward us. I opened the rumble and said to Lisa, “It’ll be all right. Let me talk.”
He put a foot on the running-board and looked us over in the blue-and-red light from the sign. Then he said incredulously, “Why, it’s Mrs. Ridgman. Who found you?”
I was going to keep faith with Maclay as long as I could. I said loudly, “I did. Maclay was with me. He got shot in the leg. He’s in the rumble there, I think he’s fainted. Help me get him out, will you?”
He turned to the rumble without a word. Maclay was still groaning. Between us we got him out. He was right about the bandage. He looked like a slaughter-house, and what you could see of his face where his bloody hands hadn’t smeared it was a nauseating white, like the belly of a dead fish. “Impossible” was the only word for his nose. I got an arm under one side and the trooper took the other, and we made the steps all right but it wasn’t fun for him.
Three waiters and a smooth-looking black-haired man who was the captain stood silently in the hallway. Louise wasn’t around. We got him up the stairs with the help of a couple of the waiters, and put him down on the big old spool bed in his bedroom next to the office. I noticed that the office door was still in splinters. I said to one of the waiters, “Get him a drink quick,” and to the trooper, “What he needs most is iodine and morphine. You want to call the nearest doctor?”
“Yeah. I want to report this, too.”
I said, “Call the doctor first. And when you report we’ve got Mrs. Ridgman, ask them to let her husband know we’re coming straight home. You can come with us if you like.”
He said a trifle grimly, “Yeah? Try and stop me. Where’d you find her? Can they pick up the guys?”
I said, “Call a doctor first, for Christ’s sake. This man’s in bad shape.”
He hung undecided in the doorway, then I heard him thump down the stairs. I said, in the ear of the bloody bundle on the bed, “Maclay. You heard me. I’m trying to give you a hand. What do you want me to tell them about how we found her?”
He said faintly, “Tell ’em Hewlett’s Landing if you want to. The boys’ll be gone. Tell ’em you and I trailed the car. Much—obliged.”
It was curious. I knew him for exactly what he was: a Broadway gambler, a blackmailer, a potential—if not an actual—murderer. But he was more than that. He was a really able man gone wrong. He had courage and imagination and intelligence. It was incredible, but I almost liked him.
“NOW I call that remarkable, Lisa,” I said approvingly. “Most women would have been sitting in the car having hysterics. You sit calmly at the bar guzzling Maclay’s liquor like a soldier…. Pass the peanuts.”
“What did they say about Mike?”
“He came on the phone himself. Bullet went clean through the shoulder. He’ll be all right.”
“I’m all in. Let’s go home.”
“All right. It’s funny about that Packard, isn’t it?”
“See those three in the corner?” I pointed. One of the boys was pretty tight now, slumped down in his chair. The other boy was shaking him. The girl sat without moving, her cold little face aloof and contemptuous under her red hair. Lisa said, “What about them?”
“It’s their car I borrowed. They haven’t even missed it.”
“Are you going to tell them you took it?”
“I don’t see why I should. It’s all right except for the blood in the rumble. We’ll let finding that be their thrill for the day. What I meant was, it’s funny, all the things that happened to us while they’ve been sitting here licking up a couple of drinks.”
Lisa swallowed the last of her Scotch and said, “I forgot. We can’t get home till they send for us, can we?”
“Certainly. Dr. Steele has arranged transportation.”
“I’ll show you. Come on. We’ll go en cavalcade, with outriders.”
She slid off the high red chromium-legged stool and I paid the barman and we left. Louise was standing in the hall. I squeezed her arm as we went by and said: “It’s all right. The war’s over. Thanks a million for keeping quiet.”
She said uncertainly, “I didn’t know what to— I just didn’t say anything.”
I said, “Which was perfect. He’ll thank you for it as much as I do.”
“Is he badly hurt?”
“He’ll get over it. The doctor here?”
“He’s upstairs now.”
I said, “Tell grampa I’ll be round tomorrow— I mean today.”
“Will you tell me what it’s all about?”
“Maybe. You certainly rate it. Goodnight, darling.”
Lisa stopped tapping her foot in the doorway and I followed her slim hips up the wooden stairs. Two troopers were standing beside her Mercedes at the top. Maclay had given me the keys; I’d found it just where I’d thought it would be. Lisa got in and I said, “You boys want to go ahead or behind or both?”
“Go ahead, Hank. I’ll follow,” said the one who had met us first.
His fellow said, “Oke.”
I said, “To Dr. Ridgman’s.”
I got in and the panther began purring under my feet again. The motorcycles took up their nervous chattering and we moved off. Lisa lay back on the seat with a long sigh. I put an arm across her shoulders and she twitched them impatiently and I drove on feeling flat, deflated, a little sulky, and very, very tired.
We swung round the curve and the wind from the marshes was bitter-sweet in our nostrils. The stars were hazy. There was rain in the air. After a while Lisa asked idly, “What was all the blonde stuff?”
“One of my assistants. Undercover girl for Dr. Steele.”
“I imagine she’s quite good under covers. You had her at the hotel with you, didn’t you?”
“What makes you think that?”
“Her voice sounded familiar. Isn’t she the one who answered the telephone?”
I said, “It’s just a peccadillo. I wasn’t even going to mention it.”
“Oh, it’s of no importance,” she said frigidly. “She’s quite good-looking. A little obvious, perhaps.”
“She has quite a nice figure. Her legs are her best feature.”
“I can imagine.”
Wisps of fog blew in across the marshes, and the lights of Southport were a blurred unimportant gleam a mile or so ahead. We were nearly-home.
I said tentatively, “Darling.”
Lisa said, “I’m asleep, please.”
I said, “Sorry.”
We didn’t talk any more.
We whispered up the hill behind our snorting leader, and as the head lamps raked the curving drive, the Countess raced silently across the lawn. I thought: “I’m getting awfully sick of that dog.” Windows glowed all over the house.
I said, “They must have fixed the cable where our boy friends cut it.”
She yawned. “Evidently.” Then as we coasted to a stop by the front door she said, “Jim, I’m sorry. I’m being a pig. I’m dead, that’s all.”
I said, “Forget it. I’m tired too.”
you sleep with that wench?”
I was still a little sore. I said, “And if I did?”
Lisa said, “Oh, excuse me” and got out of the car. I sat there for a moment counting the heads that spilled suddenly from the doorway—Weston and Marie and Henry Allen and Parker and the little Japanese. I didn’t see any brown beard and I didn’t see Mike, but the fat police chief waddled in the rear. The Countess leaped exultantly at Lisa and gave little happy growls. There were also four more motorcycles parked in the cone of light.
Marie said “Darling!” and threw her arms around Lisa’s neck.
Henry Allen got one hand and Weston the other.
Lisa said, “Where’s Mike? In bed?”
Henry Allen said, “He’s lying down in the living-room. He’s all right. He got a little faint when he answered the telephone. Edward’s with him.” He patted her delicately and they all went in.
I thought I’d better make a little character with the law. I got out and said to Handy, “Hello, Chief. Any news?”
“Had a call two minutes ago. They searched the whole place at Hewlett’s Landing. Nobody there.”
“Was their car there?”
“How would their car be there? They’d skipped, I tell you. It’s just too bad you didn’t get the license number.”
“It certainly is.”
“It’s not much of a description of them ye were givin’ the sergeant, either.”
I said with a shade of impatience, “I know. I didn’t stop to study them. I was too anxious to get Mrs. Ridgman away.”
“Ye say ye walked right in on them and held them up?”
“They were just amateurs, I guess. They didn’t give much trouble.”
“How the hell did that fella Maclay get shot, then?”
I said, as had been agreed, “He got shot as we were backing away toward the car. I fired back, with Dr. Ridgman’s gun.”
“You hit anyone?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then we got in the car and drove off.”
He didn’t like it much. He said, “It sounds damn’ funny to me.”
I thought it would probably sound even funnier to Doyle, but I didn’t care. He said, “Y’know, Doyle told me about this theery of yours on the killings. You think this Norman Barclay—if he is alive—had anything to do with snatchin’ her?” I said, “No, I don’t.”
The others had gone in the house; the Chief and I were alone in the yellow light that spilled from the doorway—alone, that is, except for a circle of hard eyes under the Stetsons that ringed us round.
I said, “My idea is that he wants her dead, not kidnapped. It would have been easy enough to plug her when the lights went out. If Norman Barclay had engineered the job, that’s what they would have done. I think it was just some gang that wanted cash ransom money.”
He grunted, “Maybe.”
I could see that he was willing to listen to me, if only to take the opposite side to Doyle.
He said, “I don’t say ye’re right, but I tell ye we got a guard on here tonight that there couldn’t no weasel, even, get by.”
“That’s fine. Look, I want to say hello to Dr. Ridgman. Will you come in with me?”
We went in the hall together. He wheezed when he walked; apparently he bathed in gin, his red bloated toad face was like something out of a Disney cartoon, but he was the local police chief and he hated Doyle. Because he hated Doyle he would listen to me. Just inside the door I put my hand on his elbow and stopped him. Voices were loud in the living-room. I said, speaking low and quickly, “Chief, I want to talk to you alone for ten minutes.”
He said, “Huh?” The swollen eyes were suspicious, yet eager. “You got some more stuff? Spill it.”
“Not here. This is just for you. I don’t want those lads out there to hear it, and I don’t want this crowd in here to hear it. Just you.”
The eyes were avid now. “Where do ye want to go?”
“Suppose I ask Ridgman if we can use his study. Where’s your friend Doyle, by the way?”
“Doyle? He had to go to Springfield this afternoon. I dunno if he even knows about the kid-nappin’. He’ll be back tomorra.”
“That’s good. I’d rather have your help anyway. I’ll tell you: you come in now with me and after a few minutes you say you want to get a full report of everything from me, and ask the doctor if we can have his study. O.K.?”
He licked his fat lips. “O.K. it is, me boy.”
THE CHIEF put down his cigar and pushed a dirty-blue handkerchief around over his red face and said wonderingly, “If that ain’t the gosh-darned-est tale I ever heard.”
I said quickly, “That’s just it. That’s why I anted to talk to a man of discretion. I may be so cockeyed wrong…. And you can see yourself that nothing will happen if there’s any suspicion we’re on to it.”
He liked both the “discretion” and the “we.”
He said, “Where’ll I be?”
“You’ll be in the room across the hall, with the lights out and the door open just a crack.”
He looked relieved. “I thought maybe you wanted me on the roof.”
I said, “I don’t believe the roof will be used. It was used once. But it would be a good idea to tell off some man to roost there, just in case. Have him up there as soon as the house begins to settle down for the night, where he can watch her window clearly. It’s a dormer: he could hide just over the twin dormer and he wouldn’t be ten feet away.”
“Suppose nothin’ happens.”
“All right, you and I are out a night’s sleep and no one’s any the wiser.”
He thought for a full minute, silent except for the labored breathing in his great flabby throat. I had a thought of my own, and I got up from Mike’s desk and put my head out through the sash where the rock had crashed in. No listener huddled there; the dark lawn fell smoothly away toward the far glimmer of riding-lights.
I stepped back and the chief said hoarsely, “I’ll do it. I don’t say ye’re right and I don’t say ye’re wrong, but I’ll do it.”
I said, “Good man. I’ll go in right now, then, and tell them you’ve gone. You stay right on here. There’s a key in the door: better lock yourself in. I’ll send whichever man you want around to this window. You can tell him personally about the roof. Then I’ll let you know when everyone’s safe upstairs and you can whip up and into the room opposite Mrs. Ridgman’s. No, wait! That won’t do. I’m not thinking so well. I want to get there first, of course. How are we going to work this?”
He said, “Why don’t I just come down the hall now behind you, and you go in and shut the door and I go on upstairs? If I see anyone, I’m just havin’ a look round for the night. You’re sure he’s goin’ to use that room? I don’t want to get in the wrong one.”
“She told me so herself, driving back. The day-bed in Dr. Ridgman’s room where she was last night is very uncomfortable, and I don’t blame her for not wanting to sleep in the bed the old lady was killed in.”
He shook his head, as one who meditates the inexplicable perversity of those who fail to share the connubial couch.
I said, “If we do it that way, you won’t be able to tell the trooper about the roof. This is it: I’ll end the trooper around to the window now, and then go in and tell them all that you’ve gone, and I’ll hold them talking in there long enough for you to get on upstairs.”
He said, “All right. You got a gun? One that works?”
I patted my right-hand jacket pocket and thought of Maclay as I’d last seen him. I said, “It works, all right.”
THE FLOOR was very hard. Ruffled satin spilled over my head to within a hand’s breadth of the floor. I wished I were lying on my back instead of on my stomach, but I couldn’t have seen so well, and anyway the bed was built too low for me to turn now.
In the light from the hallway I could see the lower edge of the dresser, the feet of a big Chippendale chair, and the door of the bathroom.
Heels clicked on the polished hardwood of the hall. A switch snapped, light glowed, the door shut; and Lisa’s ankles in dull-gleaming brown brogues passed within a foot of my nose.
There were various disturbing rustlings. Then the ankles, bare, moved in little red satin mules across my line of vision and through the bathroom door. The bathroom door shut, to my considerable relief. The sound of water jetted faintly through the door for what seemed hours. Finally the door opened to emit a warm smell of steam and an expensive scent of Chanel bath salts; also the ankles. They crossed to the dresser and stood there a few minutes while glass clicked on glass and hair crackled under rhythmic brush strokes.
The brushing stopped and I said from under the satin ruffles: “You cheated. That was only fifty-six.”
There was perfect silence. Then a small, choked, furious, frightened voice said: “Jim Steele, are you under that bed?”
“It’s hard as hell. Can I come out?”
The ankles skittered frantically into the bathroom again.
When they came back I said, “You are brown all over, aren’t you?”
There was an audible gasp. “You didn’t!” The ankles took a step backward and one did a definite stamp. It looked very funny.
“Just one eye.”
“Of all the low—I suppose you got the idea from your friend Louise.”
I said, “No, as a matter of fact I got it while I was walking along the road to Ed’s place. Cut the cliches and come sit down on the bed. I won’t bite you—much as I’d like to. Those bath salts are distinctly aphrodisiacal.”
She said, “Really, Jim —”
I said, “Really I’m sorry. If I startled you, that is. Darling, I’m not horsing. This is serious. Talk very low.”
“You’ve had plenty of time to tell me, whatever it is.”
“I told you once before you haven’t a poker-face. It’s very important that no one should guess. Not even Mike. Come and sit down.”
“What is it? I’ll sit here, thanks.”
One ankle disappeared; the other slanted in front of the Chippendale chair. I put my head out; she was sitting there with one leg curled under her, dressed in a translucent green negligee and a look of stifled rage. She said “Yes?”
Watching her closely, I said four words.
It was dangerous, I admit, but I knew Lisa pretty well. She didn’t faint, she didn’t shriek, she simply sat there with her eyes wide and horror-struck while the blood drained from under her brown skin in a way I had seen before. Her hands were squeezed together in her lap. She took a long shuddering breath. Then she said, very low, “So that’s what I felt!”
“I can’t express it. It was so faint I didn’t even know it was there, really, but it was there. Something—subtly—wrong. But I don’t see how you knew.”
“I think it was that last crack on the head. Shook me up, quickened the circulation. Hell, the thing was right in front of us all the time…. You think I’m right, then?”
“I’m sure of it. Sure. Oh, Jim, how can we prove it?”
I said, “At the present moment the thing I’m concerned about is you. If we’re right, proof will take care of itself. But, I don’t know why, I’m really quite fond of you. I want to see you get through this night alive.”
Her arms moved convulsively and the green chiffon slipped off one bare brown shoulder. It was a lovely shoulder. She said in a low voice, “Jim, why tonight—especially?”
I said, “Call it a hunch. Nothing may happen at all. But you agree you’re still in danger?”
“Oh yes—yes. The eyes—they aren’t quite sane, you know. I’ve seen that look in other people, the months I—perhaps that was what I felt without realizing it.”
“Maybe. But I think if you’re marked for slaughter, tonight would seem a fine time. You’re handy; you may not be handy again for some time. Of course it’s risky, but murder’s generally risky. That wouldn’t stop this one.”
“Jim, what’ll we do?”
“We’ll do nothing, that’s what we’ll do. We’ll just wait.”
“You don’t think I’m going to leave you, do you? There’s a man on the roof outside in case anyone tries to come through the window. There’s another man across the hall—your fat friend Handy. But they’re both going to let anyone who tries to get in this room come in.”
“If they don’t there could always be excuses. Sleepwalking—wrong door—anything. We couldn’t prove intent to kill.”
“What’ll we do?”
“We’ll go to bed.”
“Is that supposed to be funny?”
“Not funny, fun.”
“We won’t do any such thing.”
“We certainly will. At least, you will. You don’t want to sit in the bathroom all night, do you? You can’t sit up in this room.”
“Because, Baby Snooks, your visitor might snap a shot at you.”
“I don’t see that the bed’s any safer. Where will you be lurking, my hero?”
“I’ll be under it, of course. With my trusty Daisy air-rifle. And you’d better get started. We ought to put this light out. Maybe it shows under the door in the hall.”
She looked all round the big room, and at the big bed, and at the door. She said obediently, “All right. Wait till I put my nightgown on.”
“Why don’t you be like me? Sleep raw. Saves laundry bills.”
“Is it awfully uncomfortable on the floor there?”
“It’s all right. Go ahead and put your nightgown on, I’ll get back in my cubicle.”
“I wouldn’t trust you.” She got up and picked up what looked like a long pale blue evening dress and went into the bathroom. When she came out with it on it still looked like an evening dress, only more so. I said, “You mean to say you sleep in that thing?”
“Certainly. Goodnight. Shall I turn the light out?”
“Do, by all means. And kiss me goodnight.”
Her long beautiful legs under the clinging silk moved to the door and the lights went out. I felt her hand pat the top of my head twice. Sheets rustled and the bed creaked faintly. I said, “I love you, dearest. Goodnight.”
“Can you see, and everything?” Her voice was a little strained.
“I’ve got that little flashlight off the bureau. I can see fine. My head’s part way out now.”
“Why couldn’t I just bolt my door?”
“You could. And the window. And go right on living every day of your life with death at your shoulder. Much better get it over with now.”
There was a short silence. Then Lisa said, “Jim.”
“I feel very odd.”
“Faint?” I asked anxiously.
“No, not faint. Funny. My heart’s going miles a minute.”
“I don’t blame it. It’ll be all right, honey. I’ve got both the door and the window covered.”
“I think you’d better come up here.”
“I think I’d better not.”
There was another silence. Then Lisa said, “Please, Jim. I’d feel so much better.”
“All right.” I slid out with some difficulty—and stood up. The room was dark and cool. Lisa’s head was a darkish blur in the bed’s dim white vastness. I said, “Just wait till I kick my shoes off. We Steeles are funny that way. We are the soul of old-world courtesy. We always take our shoes off before bedding with a lady. Generally out hats too, but I haven’t got a hat.”
Lisa said, “Stop babbling and come here, you fool. I’m scared stiff.”
“I’m stiff too. It’s from lying on the floor, of course…. Where are you?”
“Oh, is that your shoulder?”
“What do you think it is?”
“It felt too soft for a shoulder. Why, it isn’t a shoulder.”
“Just this arm around you and my hand there. Now. It’s all right, it’s just old Dr. Steele making his evening rounds. There. Now go ahead and snore.”
“I don’t snore.”
“I’ll put your arm to sleep.”
“That’s all right. Kiss me goodnight.”
Her fragrant head moved on the pillow, its faintly slanting eyes enormous in the gloom. I could see her lips curve with smiling. I put my own lips against them and my arms tightened without conscious volition around all that was dear to me, and I heard, above the singing in my ears, my voice saying, “Ah, darling, it’s been so long….”
SHE SLEPT. She slept in the spring night and I lay guarding her.
The stars wheeled in their courses and our star spun through the soft blue darkness silently turning, and dawn was just over the horizon’s vast hidden curve, and Lisa lay in my arms.
Twice she stirred, not waking, and once she woke a little and said “Jim!” and moved her lips against my cheek and slept again.
I didn’t hear a footstep. Or a sound. But suddenly I realized that the dim white square which was the door against the darker wall was narrowing, foreshortening very slowly, as the door swung inward.
I lifted my right hand with the automatic in it from where it lay on my thigh. I could see perfectly, with my head propped against the headboard of the bed.
With the other hand still under Lisa’s head I aimed her little pocket flashlight at the door.
I thought it had stopped. It did stop. Then it swung back a little further and I heard the very faint click of the knob being released and a tall dark shadow slid round the door and the shadow was in the room.
I pressed the flashlight button, and its white finger leaped to dazzle two shining deep-set eyes, and I said, “Come in, Mr. Norman Barclay.”
For a moment he stood there, and I knew what he was thinking. He was thinking that it was all wasted, all useless—the planning and the waiting and the killing. For that accusing finger of light which was picking him out of the darkness was picking him out of his grave.
He stood there, and I saw what Lisa had meant. The eyes that glittered back at me were inhuman eyes. Not mad, but maddened: an animal’s eyes, shining over the thin high cheek bones and the square brown beard.
He must have thought he had a last faint chance of bluffing it through, for he made me a stiff little bow and said, “I’m awfully sorry. I must have got the wrong door in the dark.”
I got off the bed, with the flashlight and the gun both steady, and said, “Come in, come in.” And as he stood hesitant I raised my voice and called, “All right, Chief, come in and look him over.”
Perhaps it was pure reflex action, the jerk of the animal as it feels the trap jaws bite. I don’t know. He jerked his right hand from behind him and I couldn’t wait to see what it held. I fired.
His gun sounded like a wet dish rag thrown in a corner. It was a very efficient silencer. The bullet chipped plaster in the ceiling as his legs went out from under him and he came tumbling down….
MIKE came in to where Lisa and I were downing some breakfast coffee and said, “Well, he’s gone.”
Lisa said in a low voice after a silence, “I’m glad. Poor Norman.”
Mike said severely, “I object to both sentences.”
I said, “Did he regain consciousness? Did he talk?”
“About an hour ago he got delirious, and then they say his mind cleared. There was a police officer by his bed, of course. They told him he was going to die. Curious how that knowledge affects us all. He said enough.”
“Did he tell how he killed Edward? Or admit he killed George? Or Marian and his mother?”
Mike said, “I didn’t get all the details over the phone, of course. I gather he made a pretty complete story of it. There’s one thing that was a little curious. They asked him why he tried to kill Lisa last night, after his mother was dead with the will unchanged. He wouldn’t answer.”
I said, “But of course, that’s obvious. He loved her.”
Lisa said, “He hated me. He hated me as you hate a….”
“Of course. That’s the other facet. Ask Mike, he’ll explain it to you. But over and above that were other motives. He tried to kill you four times, Lisa. The first time, on the yacht, I shouldn’t think was planned. That was hatred plus convenience: he was going to disappear anyway, he just let you he there while he set the thing afire. The second and third times, when he killed Marian and Mrs. Barclay, were hatred plus greed: he thought the will was going to be changed. The last time—and the reason I felt so sure he’d try it last night—was, above everything else, punishment. You’d made him kill his mother.”
I said, “Would there be more coffee?”
She rang the bell and said, “More coffee, Parker,” as Parker’s pallid moon face appeared.
He said, “Yes, m’lady,” and vanished.
Mike winced as his bandaged shoulder stung him, and said, “What’s to be done with Parker?”
I said, “Parker amuses me, on account of he’s such a lousy conspirator. Why don’t you keep him on?”
Lisa looked about five years younger, or roughly twenty-three. Her linen dress had big blue flowers sprawled all over it, which made her eyes look blue instead of green.
She said: “He’s an awfully good butler. Buttling must be pretty dull. I don’t know why I should object to his trying a spot of blackmail to brighten the long days. But I do. I’ll fire him after breakfast. I suppose you’re sure, Jim —”
“Oh yes. Maclay admitted it just before I left him.”
Mike said, “Jim, what I can’t see is how you knew Edward Barclay was Norman. I knew Edward, and Lisa of course knew them both, and neither of us spotted it.”
I said, “I didn’t know either of them, which made it easier for me. People see what they expect to see. You’d seen Edward with a brown spade beard, this man had a brown spade beard; you knew Edward’s mannerisms, this man had Edward’s mannerisms. Those things meant nothing to me. Of course, being twins, I suppose they were pretty much alike; I think it’s quite natural you were deceived.”
Lisa said, “And you think Henry Allen knew all the time?”
Mike said, “I don’t know whether Norman implicated him in his confession or not. If he didn’t, of course, there’s no way of proving —”
Lisa said recklessly, “I don’t care. I’m not revengeful. Norman’s dead. Let it lie.”
I said, “Allen must have been covering Norman all this time. But it’s possible, of course, that he didn’t know about any actual killing.”
Mike said grimly, “I’ll find out, believe me.”
Parker came back with the coffee. When he had gone, Mike said: “Jim, I still don’t see….”
I said, “You know why I thought Norman was alive: it was the only thing that made sense of those two murders. Grant that, and everything fitted nicely together; otherwise it was meaningless.”
“I think it was damned smart of you.” Lisa said, “And you think we’ll hear no more from Maclay?”
“Of course not.”
“What about the man you—ah—removed?”
“His bodyguard. Just a cheap thug. No one’ll bother about him. Maclay’ll dump him out in the Sound somewhere. No, we’re quits with Maclay. They did trail your car when you came to see me, Mike, by the way. That was how they found me at the Red Lion, he told me.”
Mike said, “I understand why you thought Norman was alive. But I still don’t see why you decided that he was impersonating Edward.”
I said, “Because it suddenly dawned on me that Edward’s existence endangered his whole plan— if I was right in assuming that he had a plan to control the estate. His mother was old and frail. Let her catch a cold and die, and Edward would get half the money. So Edward must go. It was while I was walking down the road after the car was smashed that I thought of this, and it seemed to me that Norman would decide that the sooner Edward went, the better. I don’t know, of course; maybe this confession Mike mentions will tell us, but I should imagine that he got out of the country on a fake passport—Henry Allen could help him there—and met Edward somewhere in France.”
Mike said reflectively, “And killed him.”
“And killed him and hid the body—perhaps it was during a journey he’d asked Edward to make to meet him—and continued the journey as Edward, in Edward’s clothes. You can dig dandy graves in the Alpes Maritimes or the Hautes Pyrenees. So last night I said four words to Lisa: ‘Edward is Norman Barclay,’ and she agreed.’
Mike said, “I did get that part of it on the phone just now. You’re right. It was in France.’
There was a silence. Then Mike said, “Henry, though. Who’d have thought —”
I said, “Pass the toast, please. Who was it said ‘The difference between civilization and barbarism is three days’ rations’?”
Lisa obeyed. “You don’t look starved to me,” she said, studying me critically, but she could not hide her happy eyes. “A little bloated, if anything. And that’s your sixth piece of heavily buttered toast, not to speak of the jam and the kidneys….”
“I wasn’t referring to me,” I replied with as much dignity as the toast would permit. “I was thinking of Henry Allen. Maybe he got to speculating and lost his shirt. Poorhouse looming and all that—not literally, of course, but you know…. He might very easily decide to play along with Norman. Selfish little brute anyway, I’d say. Never did like lawyers. Parasitic.”
Mike said suddenly, “By the way, Lisa, with the will unchanged, the whole estate will come to you.”
I swallowed the last of the toast. I could feel the toe of Lisa’s slipper under the table. It wasn’t perhaps the moment to speak but I couldn’t help speaking. I said: “Oh, that reminds me, Mike. I want to marry your wife.”
I doubt if he was greatly surprised; anyway he always rode himself with a tight rein. His wide mouth tightened, his flat gray cheeks flushed a slow brick-red, and I could see the knots of muscle bulging at the corners of his jaws as his teeth clamped hard. When he spoke, his voice was rigidly controlled.
He said, “I am not quite certain of the legal position. I assume you won’t mind waiting a few days?”
Lisa must have felt sorry for him too. She said meekly, “When you gentlemen get quite through discussing me, perhaps I might say a few words?”
I said, “Not at all. You have nothing whatever to say.”
For, I presume, the first time in her life, she hadn’t.