Book title in original: Talmage Powell. The Second Talmage Powell Crime MEGAPACK™: 20 More Classic Mystery Stories

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Talmage Powell

The Second Talmage Powell Crime MEGAPACK™: 20 More Classic Mystery Stories

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“The Vital Element” originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , November 1967. Copyright © 1967 by Talmage Powell.

“Psycho-Symptoms” originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , November 1968. Copyright © 1968 by Talmage Powell.

“Stranger’s Gift” originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , December 1969. Copyright © 1969 by Talmage Powell.

“The Way Out” originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , July 1969. Copyright © 1969 by Talmage Powell.

“In the House of Rats” originally appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine , September 1970. Copyright © 1970 by Talmage Powell.

“The Inspiration” originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , October 1970. Copyright © 1970 by Talmage Powell.

“To Spare a Life” originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , March 1970. Copyright © 1970 by Talmage Powell.

“Easy Mark” originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , May 1971. Copyright © 1971 by Talmage Powell.

“Gator Bait” originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , March 1971. Copyright © 1971 by Talmage Powell.

“The Commune” originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , January 1971. Copyright © 1971 by Talmage Powell.

“The Delicate Victim” originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , July 1971. Copyright © 1971 by Talmage Powell.

“Trial Run” originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , August 1971. Copyright © 1971 by Talmage Powell.

“The Tip-Off” originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , August 1973. Copyright © 1973 by Talmage Powell.

“The Ultimate Prey” originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , December 1974. Copyright © 1974 by Talmage Powell.

“New Neighbor” originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , October 1975. Copyright © 1975 by Talmage Powell.

“Till Death Do Not Us Part” originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , August 1975. Copyright © 1975 by Talmage Powell.

“Hope Chest” originally published in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine , August 1976. Copyright © 1976 by Talmage Powell.

“The Holdup” originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , May 1979. Copyright © 1976 by Talmage Powell.

“A Way With A Will” originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , April 1981. Copyright © 1981 by Talmage Powell.

“The Beacon” originally appeared in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine , April 1981. Copyright © 1981 by Talmage Powell.

A Note from the Publisher

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Welcome to our second Talmage Powell collection!

Talmage Powell (1920–2000) was one of the all-time great mystery writers of the pulps (and later the digest mystery magazines). He claimed to have written more than 500 short stories (and I have no reason to doubt him — I am working on a bibliography of his work, and so far I can document 373 magazine stories... and who knows how many are out there under pseudonyms or buried in obscure magazines!) His pen names included Robert Hart Davis, Robert Henry, Milton T. Lamb, Milton T. Land, Jack McCready, Anne Talmage, and Dave Sands. Some (like Robert Hart Davis) were “house names” shared by many different authors. (Bill Pronzini also wrote as “Robert Hart Davis,” for example.) His work appeared in Dime Mystery, Black Mask, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Magazine, Manhunt , and many, many more

He wrote his first novel, The Smasher , in 1959. He went on to pen 11 more novels under his own name, 4 as “Ellery Queen,” and 2 novelizations of the TV series Mission: Impossible . Clearly, though short stories were his first love.


— John Betancourt

The Vital Element

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Originally published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , November 1967.

I would never again love the warm water of the Gulf of Mexico... never find beauty in its blue-green color... never hear music in its rustling surf...

The dead girl had been hurriedly buried in the Gulf. She was anchored in about thirty feet of water with a hempen rope that linked her lashed ankles to a pair of cement blocks.

I’d stirred the water, swimming down to her depth. Her body bobbed and swayed, with her bare toes about three feet off the clean, sandy bottom. It was almost as if a strange, macabre, new life had come to her. Her long blonde hair swirled about her lovely gamine face with every tremor of the water. A living ballerina might have enjoyed her grace of motion, but not her state of being. I wept silently behind my face mask.

A single stroke sent me drifting, with my shoulder stirring silt from the bottom. I touched the rope where it passed into the holes in the cement blocks and out again. A natural process of wear and tear had set in. The sharp, ragged edges of the blocks were cutting the rope. In a matter of time, the rope would part. Her buoyancy would drift her toward the sunlight, to the surface, to discovery.

I eeled about, careful not to look at her again, and plunged up toward the shadow of the skiff. My flippers fired me into open air with a shower of spray and a small, quick explosion in my ears.

I rolled over the side of the skiff and lay a moment with my stomach churning with reaction. Sun, blue sky, the primitive shoreline of mangrove and palmetto, everything around me was weirdly unreal. It was as if all the clocks in the world had gone tick , then forgot to tock .

“You’re a too-sensitive, chicken-hearted fink,” I said aloud. I forced myself to peel out of my diving gear, picked up the oars, and put my back into the job of rowing in.

I docked and tied the skiff, then walked to the cottage with my gear slung across my shoulder. Sheltered by scraggly pines, the lonely cottage creaked tiredly in the heat.

I stood on the sagging front porch. For a moment I didn’t have the strength or nerve to go inside. The cottage was its usual mess, a hodgepodge of broken down furniture, dirty dishes, empty beer bottles and bean cans, none of which bothered me. But she  was strewn all over the place, the dead girl out there in the water. She was portrayed in oil, sketched in charcoal, delicately impressed in pink and tan watercolors. She was half finished on the easel in the center of the room, like a naked skull.

Shivering and dry-throated, I slipped dingy ducks over my damp swim trunks, wriggled into a tattered T-shirt, and slid my feet into strap sandals. The greasy feeling was working again in the pit of my stomach as I half-ran from the cottage.

Palmetto City lay like a humid landscape done with dirty brushes as my eight-year-old station wagon nosed into DeSota Street. Off the beaten tourist paths, the town was an unpainted clapboard mecca for lantern-jawed farmers, fishermen, swamp muckers.

I angled the steaming wagon beside a dusty pickup at the curb and got out. On the sidewalk, I glimpsed myself in the murky window of the hardware store: six feet of bone and cartilage without enough meat; thatch of unkempt sandy hair; a lean face that wished for character; huge sockets holding eyes that looked as if they hadn’t slept for a week.

Inside the store, Braley Sawyer came toward me, a flabby, sloppy man in his rumpled tropical weight suit. “Well, if it ain’t Tazewell Eversham, Palmetto City’s own Gauguin!” He flashed a wet, gold-toothed smile. “Hear you stopped in Willy Morrow’s filling station yestiddy and gassed up for a trip to Sarasota. Going up to see them fancy art dealers, I guess.”

I nodded. “Got back early this morning.”

“You going to remember us country hoogers when you’re famous, Gauguin?” The thought brought fat laughter from him. I let his little joke pass and in due time he waddled behind the counter and asked, “You here to buy something?”

“Chain.” The word formed in my parched throat but didn’t make itself heard. I cleared my throat, tried again, “I want to buy about a dozen feet of medium weight chain.”

He blinked. “Chain?”

“Sure,” I said. I had better control of my voice now. “I’d like to put in a garden, but I have stump problems. Thought I’d dig and cut around the roots and snake the stumps out with the station wagon.”

He shrugged, his eyes hanging onto me as he moved toward the rear of the store. “I guess it would work — if that bucket of bolts holds together.”

I turned and stared at a vacant point in space as the chain rattled from its reel. “Easier to carry if I put it in a gunny sack, Gauguin,” Sawyer yelled at me.

“That’s fine.” I heard the chain clank into the sack.

Seconds later Sawyer dropped the chain at my feet. I paid him, carried the gunny sack out, and loaded it in the station wagon. Then I walked down the street to the general store and bought a few things — canned goods, coffee, flour, and two quarts of the cheapest booze available, which turned out to be a low-grade rum.

I’d stowed the stuff beside the gunny sack, closed the tailgate, and was walking around the wagon to get in when a man called to me from across the street. “Hey, Taze.” The man who barged toward me looked like the crudest breed of piney woods sheriff, which is what Jack Tully was. Big-bellied, slope-shouldered, fleshy faced with whisky veins on cheeks and nose, his protruding eyes searched with a sadistic hunger. His presence reminded me that not all Neanderthals had died out ten thousand years ago.

He thumbed back his hat, spat, guffawed. “Kinda left you high and dry, didn’t she, bub?”

An arctic wind blew across my neck. “What are you talking about, Sheriff?”

He elbowed me in the ribs; I recoiled, from his touch, not the force behind it. “Bub, I ain’t so dumb. I know Melody Grant’s been sneaking out to your shack.”

“Any law against it?”

“Not as long as the neighbors don’t complain.” He gave an obscene wink. “And you got no neighbors, have you, bub?”

His filthy thoughts were written in his smirking, ignorant face. No explanation could change his mind, not in a million years. Might as well try to explain a painting to him.

“Maybe she ain’t told you yet, bub?”

“Told me what?”

“About young Perry Tomlin, son of the richest man in the county. She’s been seeing him, too, now that he’s home with his university degree. Going to marry him, I hear, honeymoon in Europe. Big come-up for a shanty cracker girl, even one as pretty as Melody. I reckon that shack’ll be mighty lonesome, knowing you’ll never see her again.”

“Maybe it will, Sheriff, maybe it will.”

“But...” We were suddenly conspirators. He gloated “...there’s one thing you can waller around in your mind.”

“What’s that, Sheriff?”

“Son of the county’s richest man is just getting the leavings of a ragtag artist who’s got hardly a bean in the pot.” Laughter began to well inside of him. “Bub, I got to hand you that! Man, it would bust their blood vessels, Perry’s and the old man’s both, if they knew the truth.”

Raucous laughter rolled out of him, to the point of strangulation.

When I got in the station wagon and drove off he was standing there wiping his eyes and quaking with mirth over the huge joke.

Back at the cottage, I opened a bottle of the rum, picked up a brush, and stood before the easel. I swigged from the bottle in my left hand and made brush strokes on the unfinished canvas with my right. By the time her face was emerging from the skull-like pattern, the rum had begun its work. I knew I wasn’t cut to fit a situation like this one, but the rum made up a part of the deficit.

I dropped the brush and suddenly turned from the canvas. “Why did you have to leave me? Why?”

She was, of course, still out there when the gunny sack dragged me down through thirty feet of water. Her thin cotton dress clung to her as she wavered closer. Behind and beyond her a watery forest of seaweed dipped and swayed, a green and slimy floral offering.

I felt as if my air tanks were forcing raw acid into my lungs as I spilled the chain from the gunny sack. My trembling hands made one... two... three efforts... and the chain was looped about her cold, slender ankles.

I passed the chain through the holes in the cement blocks, and it no longer mattered whether the hempen rope held. The job was done. No risk of floating away.

In the cottage, I picked up the rum jug and let it kick me. Then I put on a clean shirt and pants and combed my hair nice and neat.

I went to the porch and took a final look at the bloodstains on the rough planking. My eyes followed the dripping trail those blood droplets had made down to the rickety pier and the flat-bottom skiff. Before my stomach started acting up again, I dropped from the porch, ran across the sandy yard, and fell into the station wagon.

I pulled myself upright behind the wheel, started the crate. Through the non-reality of the day, the wagon coughed its way over the rutted, crushed seashell road to the highway. Trucks swooshed past and passenger cars swirled about me.

On the outskirts of Palmetto City, I turned the wagon onto the private road that snaked its way across landscaped acreage. The road wound up a slight rise to a colonial mansion that overlooked half the county, the low skyline of the town, the glitter of the Gulf in the far distance. A pair of horse-sized Great Danes were chasing, tumbling, rolling like a couple of puppies on the vast manicured lawn.

A lean, trim old man had heard the car’s approach and stood watching from the veranda as I got out. I walked up the short, wide steps, the shadow of the house falling over me. The man watched me narrowly. He had a crop of silver hair and his hawkish face was wrinkled. These were the only clues to his age. His gray eyes were bright, quick, hard, as cold as a snake’s. His mouth was an arrogant slit. Clothed in lime slacks and riotously colored sport shirt thirty years too young for him, his poised body exuded an aura of merciless, wiry power. In my distraught and wracked imagination he was as pleasant as a fierce, deadly lizard.

“Mr. Tomlin?”

He nodded. “And you’re the tramp artist who’s become a local character. Didn’t you see those no trespassing signs when you turned off the highway?”

“I’ve got some business with your son, Mr. Tomlin.”

“Perry’s in Washington, tending to a matter for me. He flew up yesterday and won’t be back for another couple days. You call, and make a proper appointment. And get that crate out of here — unless you want me to interrupt the dogs in their play.”

My stomach felt as if it were caving in, but I gave him a steady look and said in an icy voice, “If Perry’s away, you must be the man I want to talk to. Sure. Perry wouldn’t have killed her, but you didn’t share your son’s feeling for her, did you?”

“I don’t believe I know what you’re talking about.” He knew, all right. The first glint of caution and animal cunning showed in his eyes.

“Then I’ll explain, Mr. Tomlin. Yesterday I went to Sarasota to try to interest an art dealer in a one-man show. When I got back this morning I found some bloodstains. They led me to the water. I spent the morning diving, searching. I found her in about thirty feet of water.”

I expected him to say something, but he didn’t. He just stood there looking at me with those small, agate eyes.

“It wasn’t hard to figure out,” I said. “She’d come to the cottage to tell me it was all over between us. The shanty cracker girl was marrying the richest son in the county. But you didn’t cotton to that idea, did you?”

“Go on,” he said quietly.

“There’s little more. It’s all very simple. You sent Perry out of town to give you a chance to break it up between him and the cracker girl. Not much escapes your notice. You’d heard the gossip about her and the tramp artist. When you couldn’t find her in town, you decided to try my place. I guess you tried to talk her off, buy her off, threaten her off. When none of it worked, you struck her in a rage. You killed her.”

The old man stared blindly at the happy Great Danes.

“Realizing what you’d done,” I said, “you scrounged a rope, couple of cement blocks, and planted her in thirty feet of water.” I shook my head. “Not good. Not good at all. When the blocks sawed the rope in two, a nosy cop might find evidence you’d been around the place; a tire track, footprint, or maybe some fingerprints you’d left sticking around.”

He studied the frolicking dogs as if planning their butchery. “You haven’t named the vital element, artist; proof of guilt, proof that I did anything more than talk to her.”

“Maybe so,” I nodded, “but could a man in your position afford the questions, the scandal, the doubts that would arise and remain in your son’s mind until the day you die? I think not. So I helped you.”

His eyes flashed to me.

“I substituted a chain for the rope,” I said. “The cement blocks will not cut that in two.” I drew a breath. “And of course I want something in return. A thousand dollars. I’m sure you’ve that much handy, in a wall safe if not on your person. It’s bargain day, Mr. Tomlin.”

He thought it over for several long minutes. The sinking sun put a golden glitter in his eyes.

“And how about the future, artist? What if you decided you needed another thousand dollars one of these days?”

I shook my head. “I’m not that stupid. Right now I’ve caught you flat-footed. It’s my moment. Everything is going for me. You haven’t time to make a choice, think, plan. But it would be different in the future. Would I be stupid enough to try to continue blackmailing the most powerful man in the county after he’s had a chance to get his forces and resources together?”

“Your question contains a most healthy logic, artist.”

“One thousand bucks,” I said, “and I hightail it down the driveway in the wagon. Otherwise, I’ll throw the fat in the fire, all of it, including the chain about her ankles and my reason for putting it there. And we’ll see which one of us has most to lose.”

Without taking his eyes off my face, he reached for his wallet. He counted out a thousand dollars without turning a hair; chicken feed, pocket change to him.

I folded the sheaf of fifties and hundreds, some of them new bills, and slipped it into my pocket with care. We parted then, the old man and I, without another word being spoken.

The station wagon seemed to run with new life when I reached the highway. I felt the pressure of the money — the vital element — against my thigh.

The chain on her ankles had lured Tomlin, convinced him that he was dealing with a tramp interested only in a thousand bucks, so he had signed his confession of guilt by putting his fingerprints all over the money.

I didn’t trust the gross sheriff in Palmetto City. I thought it far better to take the vital element and every detail of the nightmare directly to the state’s attorney in St. Petersburg.

I was pretty sure the battered old station wagon would get me there.


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Originally published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , November 1968.

On the sun-kissed crescent of private beach adjacent to Uncle Joe’s luxurious Florida home, Biff sat on the enormous towel beside Reena’s relaxed, bikinied form. Lying on her stomach, she murmured a warm, sleepy sigh as Biff lazily rubbed suntan lotion on her perfect back.

They were a striking young couple, she with her leggy figure and jet-black hair and Biff tall, wide-shouldered, sinewy, his short-cropped blonde hair tousled from their swim.

With his eyes fixed on the rambling tile and glass home sketchily visible beyond the lush foliage of Florida landscaping, Biff said, “He’s really taking Aunt Ethel’s death hard. Moped in his room all day again today.”

“It’s all so tragic,” Reena murmured drowsily, “that your Uncle Joe was driving the car when they had the smashup that killed his wife. The poor dear blames himself. He wishes he’d been the one not to walk away.”

Biff’s mouth tightened, thinning away its usual expression of boyish petulance. “If he hadn’t, think of all the money we’d have now! He has no blood relation, except me.”

Reena’s large, violet eyes flashed open. “Biff, really!”

His gaze met hers. “You’ve thought about it, too. Don’t tell me you haven’t.”

Her drowsiness evaporated. She flipped about, sat up. “I’ve also thought about the penalty. No matter how clever, murderers do usually get caught, darling.”

“I haven’t the stomach for it, either,” Biff admitted. “But if cats are subject to multiple skinning, there’s more than one way to bury a man.”

Reena reached for cigarettes and paper matches, her slender hand trembling a little. “Buried alive... shut away somewhere... Is that a bit closer to what you mean?”

“He really is in a state. The right kind of push should send him over the edge. If he were declared incompetent and bundled off to a private sanitarium, my appointment as administrator would be little more than a formality by any court in the state. We’d have control of all his money. Neatly. Safely.”

Her eyes slanted in a conspiratorial glance. “Biff, you’re terrible.”

He matched her sly smile. “It wouldn’t be as if we were vicious,” he said. “He’s lived more than his own share of years, and with the wife he doted on for thirty-five years gone, he has nothing much left.”

Reena’s smooth brow crinkled. “It would take some doing.”

“But the price is right, and the opportune moment is now, while he’s suffering the aftermath of Aunt Ethel’s horrible death.”

Reena drew hard on her cigarette. “He wouldn’t be the only rich man for whom the doors never open.”

“Not by a long shot,” Biff agreed. “You pick the right place, cross the right palms, and Uncle Joe joins the forgotten stored-aways forever. Right off the top of my mind I could name at least four members of the Yacht Club who have antique, but oh-so-rich relatives tucked safely away in expensive sanitariums.”

Reena studied him. The small, frothy surf of the Gulf of Mexico made a salty whisper on the sand. A wheeling gull screamed.

“I could weep,” she murmured, “thinking of poor Uncle Joe rattling around in that lonely house with all its memories.”

“And its ghosts of Aunt Ethel,” Biff said.

Uncle Joe was one of those lean and wiry men with sandy coloration who seem to forget to age after they’re fortyish. His life had been energetic, productive, satisfying, until a week ago. Then everything had seemed to end in a grinding and tearing of metal. He’d swerved to avoid a kid driver who’d shot onto the highway from a side road; swerved, and lost control, and glimpsed a concrete bridge abutment materializing out of the night...

The car had been totaled, and Uncle Joe hadn’t seemed able to understand the miracle that had left him unscathed, except for a few bruises, while the life had been crushed out of Ethel.

When Biff and Reena came up from the beach at sunset, Uncle Joe was still in his room. He didn’t make an appearance until almost midnight. At that time, Biff was sprawled on a recliner in the Florida-room, sipping beer and watching a late TV show. Biff flipped the recliner upright as Uncle Joe brushed past him and turned down the sound on the TV.

“Hey,” Biff said, “what’s the idea?”

Uncle Joe crossed a finger on his lips for silence. He stood listening for a moment, then said, “Can’t hear her from here, like I could from the windows of my room. Come on.”

Before Biff had a chance to question him, Uncle Joe had crossed the room and was sliding back the glass panel that yielded on the patio. A breeze had freshened with the coming of darkness, and now it was sighing almost angrily through the stand of royal palms whose shadows marked the twining driveway. Far beyond the swaying banana plants and poinsettias of the profuse garden, a glimmering necklace of light marked the causeway connecting the island of plush estates with the mainland, where Sarasota cast a diffused glow against scudding clouds.

The shadows folded about Uncle Joe as he stalked toward the greenhouse where Aunt Ethel had grown her prize orchids.

“Uncle Joe,” Biff said, tagging behind, “what in blazes...”

“Shhh! Listen!”

Biff bumped into him as Uncle Joe jerked to a stop. From beyond the greenhouse, a woman’s voice was calling: “Joseph... Dear, the orchids... Don’t let my flowers die, Joseph...”

“Somebody,” Uncle Joe muttered tightly, “is a darn good mimic. Sounds just like Ethel.”

“What are you talking about, Uncle Joe?”

“The voice, of course.” Uncle Joe snapped. “Listen... there it is again!”

From the darkness came a thin wailing, a disembodied plea for Uncle Joe to give the orchids tender care.

Biff winced as Uncle Joe grabbed his arm. “Biff, I know blamed well you heard her that time!”

“Not a thing, Uncle Joe. Just the wind...” Biff touched Uncle Joe gently on the shoulder. “Just take it easy. You’re having a tough time believing Aunt Ethel is really dead, that’s all.”

Uncle Joe shook Biff’s hand away. He gave Biff a strange look. “I’m more aware of the fact than anyone else,” Uncle Joe bit out. “I also know that the dead don’t come back and talk!”

“Sure they don’t,” Biff agreed smoothly, “at least so that just anybody can hear them.”

Uncle Joe kept staring at Biff, and Biff had a satisfying glimpse of glinting, clammy sweat on Uncle Joe’s pale face.

“Biff, why would you pretend not to hear that voice?”

“I wasn’t pretending. But if it’ll make you feel any better, I’ll pretend that I did.”

Uncle Joe’s gaze drifted to the shadows of the greenhouse. “Somebody  was out there. Biff...”

“Yes, Uncle Joe?”

“Where is Reena?”

“Reena?” Biff echoed. “Why, in her room of course.”

“You certain about that?”

“Certain,” Biff said glibly. “She had a headache — too much sun on the beach today — and went to bed early. I looked in on her just before you busted into the Florida room.”

Biff enfolded Uncle Joe’s taut shoulders with his arm. “Have a nice tall toddy, Uncle Joe. Relax. Get some sleep. You’ll feel better tomorrow.”

Later, Biff watched Reena brush her hair at her dressing table. He stood behind her with a nightcap drink in his hand. Their eyes met in the mirror.

“You were perfect darling,” he grinned.

Her brush paused in mid-stroke. “I heard what he said out there, Biff. Sounded for a second like he was onto us.”

“He was scared and desperate for a logical explanation,” Biff assured her. He patted her shoulder. “Don’t worry, baby. He’s a tough old codger, but by the time we’re through with him, he’ll be walking on his hands!”

Uncle Joe kept to his room most of the next day. Just before nightfall, Biff, from the Florida room, saw Uncle Joe sneak to the greenhouse, and he smiled thinly as he watched Uncle Joe prowl about. It’s getting to him, Biff decided with warm satisfaction; he’s less sure of himself with every passing hour.

Shortly after midnight, Biff heard the sound for which he was waiting — a yell from Uncle Joes room, the banging of a door — and he entered the hallway as Uncle Joe rushed past.

Biff took a leaping step, caught Uncle Joe’s arm. “What is it, Uncle Joe? Prowler in the house?”

“Out there, hovering over the far end of the greenhouse,” Uncle Joe was breathing hard. “Ghostly figure... wearing a white lace dress. Ethel’s dress. I’d recognize it anywhere.”

Uncle Joe broke away, and Biff had to run to catch up with him in the patio.

Uncle Joe jarred to a stop, jerked up an arm, and pointed. “Look, Biff, going around the side of the greenhouse!”

A white figure seemed to flow along the side of the greenhouse in supernatural silence.

“What is it, Uncle Joe? I don’t see a thing.”

A stiffness settled through the old man’s body. He drew in a breath. “Biff, I know what I saw. And I’m not crazy. I tell you, I’m definitely not crazy!”

“Of course not,” Biff soo

thed. “Come on. We’ll have a drink. It’ll relax you and you can get some sleep.”

Biff led the way into the kitchen. While he mixed a pair of stiff drinks and pressured one into Uncle Joe’s hand, Biff chatted about the weather, the upcoming regatta at the yacht club, and Uncle Joe’s Friday golf dates with Dr. Ned Barringer, the wealthy psychiatrist who was Uncle Joe’s oldest friend.

“Maybe,” Biff said mildly, “you ought to ask Barringer about these voices and visions.”

“I don’t need Ned Barringer in a professional capacity,” Uncle Joe snorted. “Never have. Never will.” Biff smiled to himself. Uncle Joe’s quick vehemence was a clue to the uncertainty and fear growing within him.

Uncle Joe finished off his drink, then snapped his fingers as a sudden thought came to him. He wheeled and hurried out.

Biff followed. “What is it, Uncle Joe?”

Uncle Joe didn’t answer. He strode across his bedroom to the adjacent dressing room, yanked open a closet door, and then just stood, staring at the white lace dress.

“It was positively scrumptious,” Biff told Reena when they were alone in their room, “that look on his face.”

“Good thing you kept him in the kitchen and gave me plenty of time to put the dress back,” Reena said. She wriggled more comfortably in her boudoir chair and sipped a drink.

Biff leaned down and kissed her lightly. “We’re a terrific team, darling. It was wonderful, really inspired, your standing on the ladder at the far end of the greenhouse for the first appearance. Seemed as though the figure in the lace dress was hovering against the sky.”

Reena reached and tousled his hair. “I do believe you’re enjoying the game, darling.”

“Who wouldn’t, with a fortune on the table? Aren’t you?”

“More fun than a Beaux Arts masquerade,” Reena assured him.

Biff paced the carpet, rubbing his palms together. “Sure you’ve got everything in order for tomorrow?”

“To the last detail,” Reena promised. “I’ve the photograph of Aunt Ethel. The artist in Sarasota is a genius, no less, as well as money hungry and most discreet. Don’t worry. By tomorrow night we’ll have a death mask of Aunt Ethel so lifelike you’ll expect it to speak.”

“Luminous, don’t forget,” Biff said. “One that glows in the dark. While you’re across the bay tomorrow getting the mask fixed up, I expect I should phone Dr. Ned Barringer. It’s time for the worried and solicitous nephew to ask a question or two about his uncle’s condition...”

Biff timed his phone call to intercept Barringer as the doctor was preparing to go to lunch. Biff chatted about Uncle Joe’s golf game for a moment, then his voice broke lamely, “To tell you the truth, doctor, I’d like you to make the usual Friday date this week something more than a round of golf.”

“In what way?” Barringer had a quiet voice that, even so, suggested substance and command.

“Well... he hasn’t been himself since Aunt Ethel’s death.”

“I’m aware of that.”

“You are?” Biff asked brightly, then quickly changed his tone. “You are? I didn’t know anyone else had noticed. He’s getting — I hate to say this — but, well, worse every day. Thinks he hears her voice. Believes he sees her walking in the garden at night.”

“Thank you, Biff. You did the right thing in calling me.”

Biff hung up, containing a yelp of pure joy.

That night, it seemed that Uncle Joe would never go to sleep. Biff and Reena waited in their bedroom, trying to read, pacing the floor, watching the clock, mixing drinks to keep their hands and minds busy.

Finally, when the deep quiet down the hall had remained unbroken for more than an hour, Reena crossed to the table near the windows and poured her third drink. “Biff, he simply must be asleep by now! Why wait longer?” Biff took the glass from her hand and downed half the slug of straight whiskey. “Okay, get the mask!”

Reena hurried to her closet, slid the door open, stood on tiptoe, and lifted an oval-shaped hatbox from the top shelf. She carried it to the bed, opened it with Biff hovering beside her. The empty eye sockets of Aunt Ethel’s countenance looked up at them. Biff caught his breath as Reena lifted out Aunt Ethel’s face. He’d seen the death mask earlier, but he stared in fascination. Reena was right. The artist in Sarasota had done a terrific job. Looking at the shell of Aunt Ethel with the vacant, parted lips, Biff felt the hackles creep across his neck.

“Hello, Aunt Ethel, you stupid old biddy.”

“Hurry, Biff!” Reena said. “I can’t take much more of this waiting.”

“You won’t have to. The old boy might even favor us with a heart attack when he gets a load of this.”

Biff dropped to one knee beside the bed and dragged out the slender bamboo casting rod he’d cached there earlier. Reena handed him the mask, and he attached it to the end of the pole with two pieces of black silk string. With the pole extended, Aunt Ethel’s kindly old visage seemed to float in midair.

“Now don’t forget to give me time to get in his dressing room,” Biff said. “I’ll work from there. I don’t dare stick the pole in from the hallway. If he bolts — and he’s bound to — that’s the door he’ll use.”

While he was speaking, Biff slipped into a black dressing gown, turned the collar up, and pulled an old dark deckhand’s stretch cap over his head and ears. In darkness, he would be an invisible shadow.

Reena gave him a little shove toward the door. “Don’t worry about my end of it, darling. Just get moving!”

Biff peeked out, then slipped into the hallway. He tiptoed to Uncle Joe’s doorway carrying the disjointed sections of the casting rod and death mask tucked lightly under his arm.

He put his ear against the door. The room beyond was silent. He turned the doorknob with the delicate touch of a safecracker, opened the door a few inches, and listened again. He heard Uncle Joe’s breathing; shallow, but regular and even. Uncle Joe was sound asleep.

Biff eeled into the room, closed the door soundlessly, and crept across the thick carpet, as silently as an inching caterpillar.

In Uncle Joe’s dressing room, Biff treated himself to a long-drawn breath. Slightly ajar, the dressing room door was a perfect shield, not that he needed one in the darkness. Feeling with his fingers, he connected the sections of the long, thin bamboo pole. He shook out the death mask and it swung freely. Its pale, frosty glow seemed to leap at him.

Inch by inch, he extended the pole out into Uncle Joe’s room. By leaning forward a little he could bring the mask within inches of Uncle Joe’s face, or send it swooping to the ceiling.

Come on, Reena , he thought tightly, get with your end of it .

As if on cue, a moaning voice rose in the darkness. “Joseph... Ohhhhhh, Joseph...”

Biff dropped the pole, letting the mask float about six feet directly above Uncle Joe’s sleeping face.

“Joseph... can’t you hear me calling? Joseph...”

Biff gulped. He could have sworn it was Aunt Ethel’s voice wailing the name from some cold, damp, sepulchral place. Slipping along close to the windows outside, Reena was really doing it up brown.

“Joseph... Come to me... I need you, Joseph... You must come...”

Suddenly, there was no sound of Uncle Joe breathing. Biff knew he was awake — awake, and paralyzed for a fractured second. Biff gave the rod a slight twitch, and Aunt Ethel’s shimmering face made little movements against the dark ceiling. It seemed, even to Biff, that the mask was the source of the ghostly voice.

Uncle Joe recovered the capability of sound at last. “Aaaaggghhh...!” he screeched.

Snatched from slumber by the circumstance, even a stronger man might have fainted. Uncle Joe leaped straight up, then came down in a crash of bedsprings and tangle of covers.

Aunt Ethel’s face swooped toward him. He floundered to one side, tripped, spilled from the bed onto the floor. He left a trail of bed linens as he fought the entanglements to the door and the hallway beyond.

Biff quickly broke down the rod, stuffed it and the mask under his dressing gown, then ran to the hallway. It was empty. Biff ran to his own room, opened a closet, and pushed the ghost-making paraphernalia out of sight. As he closed the closet and turned, Reena slipped in from the hallway, a bit disheveled and breathless.

“He cut a swath through the garden like a small hurricane,” Reena said.

Biff rubbed his hands together. “Good!”

“Should we go look for him?” Biff speared her with a glance.

“Perish the thought! We go beddy-bye. Just a pair of innocents who slept through the experience of a pixilated old man. How could we know he was so far gone, until someone discovers him wandering in his nightclothes?”

Reena fell to a sitting position on the edge of the bed. “You really are terribly clever, darling.”

“I know,” Biff said. “Let’s tuck in and dream of his millions.”

It seemed to Biff that he had barely drifted off before a hand was shaking his shoulder, awakening him roughly.

Biff blinked against the bedroom lights that had been turned on. His sleep-gritty eyes focused on the figure of Uncle Joe. Seeing that Biff was awake, Uncle Joe drew back from the bed, and Biff’s first thought was that Uncle Joe looked a bit ludicrous. The old man was swallowed by a bathrobe that he’d borrowed from someone and draped over his nightclothes. It hung to his fingertips and flapped about his ankles.

Reena stirred in her warm cocoon of sleep. “Wassa matter, darling?—”

“It’s Uncle Joe. He’s back.”

Reena’s eyes snapped open. She sat up as Biff got out of bed and stood beside Uncle Joe.

Biff patted Uncle Joe’s shoulder. “There, there now. Just take it easy. What are you doing running around in the middle of the night in that funny looking getup?”

Uncle Joe slapped Biff’s hand away. “You crummy young punk! I borrowed the robe from Ned Barringer. I went straight over there. Figured it was about time a good psychiatrist and I talked about your case.”

Biff’s mouth fell open. “My case?”

“When I heard a voice that you denied hearing,” Uncle Joe said icily, “it meant one of two things. I was crazy, or you were a liar. If you were a liar, it meant you and Reena were up to something. It wasn’t hard to figure then what it was and what your motive was. I hoped I was wrong about you two. I hoped you wouldn’t go through with it.”

Uncle Joe watched Reena slip quakingly to Biff’s side.

Uncle Joe’s eyes raked over them. “But I sort of hoped in vain, didn’t I? And tonight I figured it was high time I got something done — before you let the thought of all that money poison you into doing something really crazy, like murdering me in my sleep!”

Uncle Joe switched his gaze to the doorway. Numbed, hypnotically, Biff and Reena turned their heads. The portly figure of Dr. Barringer loomed before them. Worse, Barringer wasn’t alone. He was followed by two huge fellows in white coats.

Uncle Joe walked over to the doctor. The two giants in white coats advanced. Biff and Reena sagged against each other in a half faint.

Vaguely, Biff glimpsed Uncle Joe and Dr. Barringer leaving the room arm in arm. Barringer was speaking words of comfort to his dearest friend and fiercest golfing pal. A little of what Barringer was saying drifted back:

“Just remember, Joe, you’re not the only fine senior citizen of wealth to have a weirdo family offshoot comfortably and securely ensconced in a discreet private sanitarium. Believe me, right in our golfing gang I could name some names. But of course I never reveal privileged information...”

Stranger’s Gift

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Originally published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , December 1969.

Detective Shapiro took a personal interest in the case from the start. He was mildly surprised by his reaction. A man doesn’t stay on the police force for twenty-five years without developing the inner armor necessary for the protection of his own spirit. He had dealt with just about every act of violence the human mind could conceive, and prior to the murder of one of the elderly twins, he believed that he could handle any case with detachment.

Perhaps it was the quiet bravery of Miss Nettie, the surviving twin, that got through to him; or maybe in her gracious and fragile personage he glimpsed the last fragments of a genteel world that existed only in memory or storybooks.

Be that as it may, he was not altogether the tough cop when he escorted Miss Nettie home from the hospital, where emergency measures had failed to keep life from leaking from her sister’s broken skull.

The headlights of his unmarked car picked through a neighborhood of large, once-fine homes now suffering the blight of urban decay. The present dreary reality was one of converted apartment and rooming houses, a junky filling station on a corner, faded signs offering rooms to let, a gloomy little grocery store secured for the night with iron-grille shutters.

With Miss Nettie’s tea-and-crumpets presence beside him, it was easy for Shapiro to imagine the street as it had been in forgotten days: well-trimmed hedges, houses proud with paint, limousines and roadsters in the driveways, people enjoying the evening cool in porch swings; here or there a house blazing with light and the activity of a party, with Gene Austin crooning from a Gramophone.

Shapiro could see in his mind’s eye a Sunday morning with two little twin girls ready for church in the rambling house halfway down the block, bright-faced and scrubbed in their starched crinolines, white gloves, Mary Jane shoes, and white sailor straws with ribbons spilling down their backs.

Now one was dead, beaten to death by a mugger who might occupy the very house across the street, dismal as the neighborhood had become.

“This is our driveway, Mr. Shapiro,” Miss Nettie instructed politely.

As Shapiro turned, the headlights swept a two-story frame house with a long front porch. The grounds and structure were in better repair and upkeep than their surroundings. Shapiro’s sharp instincts painted in history. He guessed it was the only home the twins had ever known. It had been theirs after the demise of their parents. Dr. Cooksey, whom Shapiro vaguely remembered by repute from his boyhood, had left his maiden daughters modestly fixed, and they had continued on until one day it was too late for them to move, to change, to shed the tiny habits of endless days.

Shapiro braked the car in the shadows of the porte cochere, got out with an energy that denied his bulk, his sleepy-looking, rough-hewn face, his forty-nine years. He hurried around and opened the door for Miss Nettie. She was a soft, decorous rustling as she got out and laid a slender, waxen hand on the beefy arm he offered. He escorted her to a pair of French doors that glinted in the darkness, and followed as she unlocked and went inside.

She turned on a light and Shapiro glanced about a parlor straight out of a yellowed issue of Better Homes ; velour, velvet, and mohair, heavy, overstuffed couches and chairs, lamps with tassels and stained-glass shades, tables with clawed feet resting on glass balls.

Miss Nettie, trim and girlish as a seventy-five-year-old woman could be imagined, brushed a wisp from her forehead. Her eyes were blue pools of grief in a delicately boned face cobwebbed with fine wrinkles, but her control was superb. She remembered the proprieties. “May I take your hat, Mr. Shapiro? Do sit down and make yourself comfortable. Would you care for some tea?”

Shapiro was a coffee drinker, with a cold beer when he was off duty, but he was suddenly aware of the silence and emptiness of the slightly musty house, and of this little woman’s determination to bear up, to hold life on a normal keel. “Some tea would go nicely, Miss Cooksey.”

She seemed to be grateful for the chance to be doing something. Shapiro sank into a chair as she hurried out. He pulled a package of cigarettes from his suit coat pocket, but his glance didn’t locate any ash trays, and he put the smokes back, patted his pocket.

Miss Nettie came in carrying an old and ornate tea service. Shapiro stood up. Miss Nettie placed the tea things on a table before the couch.

As she busied her hands with teapot and cups, she said, “I know there are questions you must ask. Please do so, freely. I’m quite prepared and now in control of myself, Mr. Shapiro.”

His preliminary questions established what he had already guessed. Yes, she and Miss Lettie, her twin, had lived here all alone, except for a yardman who came one day every other week. They entertained rarely, a small tea or game of bridge with the two or three old friends they had left.

“Most of the girls with whom we grew up,” she explained, “have either passed away, yielded to the care of nursing homes, or live a world away from the old neighborhood. Sugar, Mr. Shapiro? One lump or two?”

When he sipped, his distaste for tea was pleasantly soothed. “I didn’t know it could be brewed like this.”

“Thank you, Mr. Shapiro.”

He cleared his throat. “Now about the events of this evening...”

“It all hardly seems real, Mr. Shapiro. Lettie was so kind... so harmless... How could anyone be so bestial as to...” Her cup rattled on its saucer. Perched on the edge of the overstuffed couch, her back stiffened. She looked at her hand as if daring it be unsteady again.

“Nothing that happened during the day warned of what the evening would hold,” she resumed, her sweet maidenly-aunt voice only slightly off-key. “In the afternoon I made a batch of coconut bonbons, with freshly grated coconut. Making the bonbons is a now-and-again hobby with me, Mr. Shapiro. Specialty of the house, you might say.”

She drew in a shallow breath. “A very poor family lives a couple of blocks west, on the same side of the street. A young mother whose husband deserted her and four children. Two of them twin girls, strangely enough... like Lettie and me.”

Shapiro nodded his understanding that an affinity might develop between two little twins and two old ones.

“We became acquainted with the family,” Miss Cooksey said, “through the twins, whom we saw now and then in the grocery store or playing along the street. During the past year or s

o, Lettie and I had the privilege of doing little things for the children, assisting the family in some small way.”

“That was kind of you,” Shapiro remarked.

The eyes in their shadows of transluscent blue lifted to his. “Kind? Not at all, Mr. Shapiro. The rewards were ours. We enjoyed the children. And today, when we heard that one of the twins had come down with a little flu bug, I dropped over to make sure a doctor had come. The child was doing nicely, but I noticed an expectancy and then a disappointment in her manner. She was too polite to tell me what was on her mind, but I wormed it out of her. When I’d arrived, she’d thought I was surely bringing her some bonbons.”

“So you returned home and made her some,” Shapiro said.

“Why, of course. I regretted not having thought of it sooner.”

“And Lettie was taking the bonbons to the child this evening?”

She nodded, her slender throat working. The first hint of tears glinted in her eyes. “Lettie never reached her destination, Mr. Shapiro. She intended to deliver the candy, visit briefly, and return right away. Her lengthening absence didn’t upset me right away. I assumed she’d got talking with the little girl and forgot the time. But finally I grew uneasy. I called the building super and asked him to step to the apartment and have my sister come to the phone. When he returned, he reported that she wasn’t there, hadn’t been there.”

She lapsed from the present for a moment, her soft mouth drawing into a thin, tortured line.

Shapiro quickly envisioned it, the chill that must have come to the silent vacancy of the house as she’d hung up the phone. She’d probably sat a moment, a cold pulse beginning deep within her, telling herself it didn’t mean too much, Lettie was all right and would have an explanation that would make her sister’s fears seem silly.

“You went out to look for her and found her... in the darkness of the alley beside the grocery store,” Shapiro reprised gently.

“Yes, that’s right.” The teacup began rattling again. This time she had to set it on the table and clasp her hands hard in her lap. They continued to tremble slightly. “I might have gone past without knowing she was there, Mr. Shapiro, but I heard the faint sound of her moan. It was almost the last sound she made. I stopped, listened, edged into the alley. Then I saw the pale shadow of her lying there... He had smashed her head, dragged her off the street... and gorged on the coconut bonbons while he rifled her purse...”

A hard shiver went through her. “What sort of beast, Mr. Shapiro?” The words dropped to a whisper, “Eating candy while his victim dies at his feet.”

“Maybe a drug addict,” Shapiro said. “Maybe the craving for sweets suggests a hard-drug user.”

“He was young, rather tall and skinny, with a scar on his cheek shaped like a W. Lettie managed to tell me that, Mr. Shapiro. And then she said, ‘I won’t be able to dust my rose garden tomorrow, sis.’ Her last words...” She strangled and was very pale.

Shapiro reached and touched the thin shoulder. It made him think of the soft wing of a bird. “Miss Cooksey, let me arrange for you to stay someplace else tonight.”

“Thank you, Mr. Shapiro. But no. This is my house and I’ve no intention of running from it.”

“Then at least have someone here. We have police matrons who are quite good company.”

“I’m sure they are.” She moved a little, as if not to hurt his feelings in casting off the support of his hand. “But I’ll make do. The quicker I accept the... the silence, the better it will be.”

“All right.” Shapiro slumped back. “But I must warn you. This is the fourth reported mugging in this general area in the past six weeks. There might have been others we don’t know about. Your sister was the first fatality.”

A quick touch of color splashed Miss Nettie’s cheeks. “All by the same young man?”

Shapiro lifted and dropped his shoulders, standing up as he did so. ‘“We can’t be sure. One other woman got a look at his face before she was slugged unconscious. She gave us the same description — including the W-shaped scar on his cheek.”

Her eyes reflected the way she was twisting and turning it all in her mind. “Then you’ve been trying to stop this pathological beast for some time — without much luck.”

“Without any luck,” Shapiro admitted. He hesitated. “But we try, Miss Cooksey. I want you to believe that.”

Her eyes met his. She seemed to sense something of his job, the dirtiness and thanklessness of it, the frustrations that were all too much a part of it.

“The public doesn’t always understand,” he said. “I’m not complaining, but we’re under-manned, always facing a job that grows more impossibly big every day. We can’t blanket the city looking for a single mugger. We just have to do the best we can with what we’ve got.”

She touched his hand, gently comforting him. Even in her own extremity , he thought.

“Good night, Mr. Shapiro, and thank you for your kindness. You’ve made it easier for me.” Shapiro drove back to headquarters with the thought of her haunting him, piercing the armor of twenty-five-years of being a cop, of seeing it all.

On his way through the corridor to Communications, Shapiro bumped into Captain Ramey. Ramey’s eyes widened as he took in the cast of Shapiro’s face.

“Wow! Who licked the red off your candy?”

Shapiro steamed a breath. “Don’t mention candy to me, Cap! Not right now. And don’t ever mention coconut bonbons!”

Ramey scratched his head and stared as Shapiro continued his stormy way to the radio room.

In the den of electronic gear, Shapiro had the order put on the air: Pick up slender man probably in his twenties, W-shaped scar on cheek, wanted on suspicion of murder committed during course of forcible robbery.

He was afraid it wouldn’t do any good — and it didn’t. He went off duty at midnight, and when he got home and sacked in he kept his wife awake grumbling in his sleep.

Between calls to knifings, shootings, and sluggings, Shapiro’s unmarked car cruised the Cooksey neighborhood nightly for more than a week.

His trained eye picked out details, the young girl who was peddling herself; the strident woman who beat up her day-laborer husband when he came home drunk; the broad-shouldered teen-ager who undoubtedly was gang chief of the block; the old grouch who chased dogs and kids from his yard with sticks and rocks.

Shapiro liked least of all the actions of Miss Nettie. Each evening right after dark she came out of the ghostly old house and walked west, past the steel-shuttered grocery, across the intersection, the full length of the next block. Then she turned and went back the way she had come, a fragile, helpless figure. She would pause at her front walk and look back at the long, dark sidewalk she had traversed. Then she would slip into her house, and a dim light would turn on behind a curtained window upstairs, and Miss Nettie would be in for the night.

She started the excursions the night after her sister was buried. Nothing discouraged her. She walked if it rained, if the wind blew, if the moon shone. It was as if the void of grief had filled her with a compulsion to retrace the steps and feel the same feelings suffered by that other twin image of herself.

In a corner of his mind, Shapiro knew he was making a cardinal mistake in police work. He’d let Miss Nettie become an entity, someone very personal. She was the memory of the grandmother he’d known in childhood, the echo of lost days buried in the smogs of time when cookies had tasted of a never-again sweetness and a tree house in a back-yard oak had soared over a world without ugliness.

The unseen observer in the shadows of a tree or dark, deserted doorway, Shapiro fretted about her. Her newly developed quirk, he told himself, was the result of her sudden bereavement. It was temporary. It would wear itself out. But if not... then he would take an off-duty hour to talk with the department psychiatrist about her.

Three weeks passed before Miss Nettie varied what had come to be her norm. Staked out in the concealment of a peeling billboard, Shapiro watched the opposite sidewalk. The night was gloomy, with low gray clouds. He looked at the luminous dial of his watch. She was ten minutes behind schedule, then twenty, with no sign of her coming shadow-like along the street.

Shapiro drew a deep breath, but held it suddenly. The familiar, slight figure with the short, graceful steps seemed to flow out of the darkness. Shapiro watched as she neared the shadows of the grocery store across the street. His face drooped with sadness. As much as he disliked the thought of her subjected to psychiatric probing, he knew it must be. He couldn’t let her continue this way.

Out of habit, his gaze swept the street as he started to move out and cross diagonally to intercept her. His reluctant journey toward a face-to-face confrontation with her suddenly became a charge. He saw the slender figure of a tall, crouching man resolve from the alleyway darkness and slip up behind her. Unreal and dream-like, the shadow seemed to fold about her as the mugger crooked an arm about her neck and snatched her purse.

“Hold it!” Shapiro shouted the order savagely.

The man threw Miss Nettie to the sidewalk and lunged into the well of darkness alongside the grocery.

Miss Nettie scrambled to her feet, rearing in Shapiro’s path.

“Mr. Shapiro!”

She grabbed his arm and fell against him. Her weight, even as slight as it was, and his momentum threw him off balance. He twisted and almost fell, banging his shoulder against the corner of the building.

“You’re not hurt, obviously,” he said, short-breathed. “Just sit tight. That rat won’t find a hole big enough to hold him.”

She hung onto him. “I didn’t know you there, Mr. Shapiro.” Her thin hands were talons, clutching his clothing.

He tried to brush them away. “For heaven’s sake, Miss Cooksey, let go! That guy’s getting away.”

“Don’t risk yourself for me, Mr. Shapiro. He may be armed.”

“My worry,” he bit out, “if you’ll let me do my job.”

He grabbed her wrist, discovering a surprising strength. The ever-lurking hunting instinct was aware that the fleeing feet had departed the farther end of the alley.

“Miss Nettie!” he snarled in exasperation. He let his hands apply enough pressure to break her grip and shove him free. She stumbled backward and collapsed with a small outcry. Shapiro threw a despairing look down the empty alley as he dropped to one knee beside her.

Her face was a pale, soft etching in white.

“Miss Nettie, I didn’t mean...”

He slipped a hand behind her shoulder to help her up.

“I know you didn’t, Mr. Shapiro.” She got up with but little assistance, brushed a wispy spill of white hair from her forehead with her fingertips. “Don’t blame yourself. Really, I tripped over my own feet, but I’m quite all right.”

“Did you get a look at the mugger?”


r eyes glinted, blue candles in the faintest haze of street glow. “Not clearly — but enough. He was young, tall, skinny, with the telltale W-shaped scar on his cheek.”

Shapiro dropped his hand from her shoulder, muttering an ungentlemanly word under his breath. “Well,” he sighed bitterly, “the bird seems to have flown the coop. The best I can do now is put him on the air and hope for a pickup.”

“Do you think it will work?”

“I doubt it. He’s managed to hole up pretty well so far.”

She dropped her eyes, making Shapiro think of a chastised child. “I’m glad you didn’t get hurt, Mr. Shapiro.”

“You took care of that, Miss Cooksey, delaying me as you did.”

She sighed softly. “Please don’t be angry with me. Even if you had caught him at the risk of your life, would it have done any good? The court decisions nowadays, the parole system — wouldn’t he have been back on the streets in a few years?”

“Maybe so,” Shapiro admitted, “but he would have been off of them for a few, too.”

Her eyes inched back to his. “Yes, I guess you have to think of it that way, or your lifework would be for nothing.”

The words were a gentle mirror held up to him. She had sized up the policeman’s one excuse for being with uncomfortable accuracy. By the time he was ready to sign out at midnight, he had a case of heartburn, bloodshot eyes, and a headache that would do for the whole department.

He had showered (without relieving his symptoms) and dressed, and was slamming his locker door when Browne from Communications called his name from the doorway.

“Yeah?” Shapiro growled, glancing briefly across his shoulder.

“Bounced down hoping I’d catch you,” Browne, robust and dark and an enviable twenty-seven, said. “The call just came in. I think we’ve turned up your mugger-killer. Young, skinny — with the cheek scar.

Shapiro whirled toward Browne, his headache dissolving. “Where?”

“Fleabag rooming house. One-one-four River Street. His girlfriend, a late-working waitress, breezed in for an after-work date and came out squalling. She found lover boy on the floor. Dead.”

A uniformed patrolman had cleared the curious from the scabby, odorous hall and stairway. Adams and McJunkin had arrived to take charge of the investigation. The lab men and photographer had taken their pictures and samples, and Doc Jefferson, the medical examiner, was snapping his black bag closed when Shapiro’s rough-hewn and iron-gray presence loomed in the doorway.

Shapiro nodded at the departing lab men, said hello to his fellow detectives, and crossed the dreary, stifling room to the figure sprawled beside the grimy, swaybacked bed.

“Who is he?” Shapiro looked down at the bony face with its scar and bonnet of wild, long, brownish hair.

“One Pete Farlow,” Adams said. “Or maybe it’s an alias.”

“Whoever, he must be our boy,” McJunkin added. He was a stocky, freckled redhead, ambling toward Shapiro’s side. “That scar is just too unique. Odds are a million to one against its duplicate in a city this size.”

“Drifter?” Shapiro suggested.

“I wouldn’t bet against you,” McJunkin said, “the way he showed up and took the room, according to the building super. Same old pattern. He works a town until it gets too hot and then drifts on to another room, girl, way of life just like the one he left behind him.”

“He seems to be the solution — in addition to the murder of Lettie Cooksey — to a string of muggings, drunk-rollings, and strong-arm robberies we’ve had,” Adams said. He was the tallest man in the room, dark and ramrod straight. He motioned with his hand toward the narrow closet, where the door stood open. “He’s stashed enough purses and wallets in there to open a counter in a secondhand store.”

“Maybe in his private moments,” Doc Jefferson said, “he liked to look in on them, touch them, sort of relive the big-man moment when he had taken this one or that one.” Doc shook a fine head of silver hair. “You never know about these guys.”

Shapiro drifted to the closet. Which was hers? He tried to remember; a flash of white when the mugger had grabbed it there at the steel-shuttered grocery, but not all white; not large, either — relatively small handbag, black or brown, trimmed in white.

On top of the jumble at his feet, just a little to the left of the doorjamb, lay a woman’s purse with its dark blue relieved by a diagonal band of white; a rather old-fashioned purse.

Shapiro hunkered and picked it up. Its clasp was broken. He pulled it open, and stopped breathing for a second. In one corner was a tissue-wrapped ball of candy. As if fearfully, his forefinger inched and pushed the tissue aside to expose the tempting creaminess of a coconut bonbon.

“Doc,” Shapiro said in a far-off voice, his broad, bent back toward the room, “what did our killer pigeon die of?”

“I won’t have a complete report until after the autopsy,” Jefferson said.

“But you could give me a very educated guess right now.”

“You birds always want your forensic medicine instant,” Doc said. “Okay, for what it’s worth, I’ll wager McJunkin’s freckles against Adams’ eyeteeth that the autopsy will back up the symptoms. Our vulture died of poisoning. Arsenic, I’d say. He gulped a walloping dose of arsenic.”

“The lab boys found little tissues scattered all over the floor,” McJunkin said, “the kind they used to use in the old-fashioned candy stores.”

Shapiro mumbled to himself. McJunkin said, “What’d you say, Shappy?”

“I said,” Shapiro bit out angrily, “that I’m never surprised at anything the lab boys find.”

Wearing a flannel robe, felt slippers, and a net about her soft white hair, Miss Nettie ushered Shapiro into her parlor.

“I’m very sorry to rouse you at this hour,” Shapiro said, “but it was necessary.”

“I’m sure it must have been, for you to have done so. Would you like some tea?”

Shapiro gave her a stare and sigh. “Not this go-round. Sit down, please.”

She sank to the edge of an over-stuffed chair and clasped her hands quietly in her lap.

Shapiro faced her with his hands cocked on his hips. “Was your purse a dark blue, with a white band across it?”

“Yes it was, Mr. Shapiro. And I assume from your question that you have found it.”

“In the room of a dead man. A young, skinny dead man with a W-shaped scar on his cheek.”

He thought he saw the faintest of smiles on her soft lips.

His hands came loose from his sides. He banged a fist into a palm. “Miss Cooksey, blast you, you’ve made a total fool of me!”

“Oh, no, Mr. Shapiro! I’m much too fond of you to do anything like that.”

Shapiro snorted, kicked a table leg, spun on her again with the mien of a grizzly. “You made bait of yourself, Miss Cooksey. I had told you about the previous muggings he’d pulled around here. You saw a pattern. You hoped he’d return — and take the bait.”

“Mr. Shapiro—”

He silenced her with a stern finger waggling in her face. “Don’t you open your gentle little peep to me one more time until I’m finished. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Mr. Shapiro.”

“You took those nightly walks, waiting for him to return, wanting him to, hoping he would strike again. And when he struck, you threw a veritable body-block at me so he could get away with your purse and everything it contained — maybe a little cash, and a batch of bonbons loaded with arsenic!”

“Where would I get—”

“Don’t play innocent with me!” Shapiro almost popped a vein across his forehead. “You have a yardman. Your sister grew roses. Anybody can get arsenic, in plant sprays, insecticides.” His teeth made a sound like fingernails scraping across sandpaper. “You pegged him to a T, Miss Cooksey. He gulped the arsenic-loaded candy. Almost all of it.”

“Almost, Mr. Shapiro?”

He reached in his side pocket and brought out the tissue-wrapped bonbon he had taken from the rooming house closet.

With exaggerated care, he peeled back the tissue and extended his palm. “It’s the one that stuck in the corner of the purse when he dumped it on his bed or dresser. It’s the one he didn’t eat. Do you deny making it?”

She rose slowly. “It’s a lovely bonbon, Mr. Shapiro, although a bit squashed from so much handling.”

She peered, lifted a dainty forefinger to touch the candy. She picked it up. Then she popped it in her mouth and swallowed before Shapiro had the first inkling of what she was up to.

Flat-footed and with a dumb look on his face, Shapiro received her soft smile.

“Mr. Shapiro, would I eat poisoned candy?”

He shook off a faintly trance-like state. “Yes,” he said. “Faced with a situation of sufficient urgency, I’m beginning to believe you’d have the courage to do anything, Miss Cooksey. I think your question is rhetorical. I think you have already, just now, eaten a piece of poisoned candy. I’m also certain that the amount contained in a single piece is not enough to kill you.” He shook his head hopelessly. “Whatever am I going to do with you, Miss Nettie?”

“Arrest me for destroying evidence?” she suggested.

“I doubt that I could make it — or any other charge — stick,” Shapiro said. “Even if we could prove you made some poisoned candy, you didn’t offer it to anyone. The only shred of evidence we have that involves you, come to think of it, is the purse — evidence of a crime against  you.”

She strolled with him to the front door. “Will you come some afternoon for tea, Mr. Shapiro?”

He studied her a moment. “No, Miss Nettie — I think I never want to see you again.”

She nodded and patted his hand with a touch of gentle understanding. Then she turned a little in the dark front doorway, looking from his face to a point far along the sidewalk.

“Given the chance,” she said almost in a whisper, “I’d have been the first to warn the young man to mend his ways in time — and never to take candy from strangers.”

The Way Out

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Originally published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , July 1969.

Stanley didn’t bother to stir on his bunk when he heard the guard rattling keys in the cell door.

“Mr. Graves,” the bulky guard said in a polite tone that even a civilian review board would have approved, “you have a visitor. Fellow wants to talk to you.”

“Tell him to see my secretary for an appointment,” Stanley grunted, his eyes remaining closed.

“That’s pretty good, Mr. Graves,” the guard chuckled courteously. “But this fellow is a lawyer. He wants to take up your case. He arranged his appointment through the judge.”

Stanley lifted the long, thin arm draped across his face. He cracked one eye against the bands of sunlight streaming through the cell window.

Pushing past the uniformed guard was a plump, earnest young man in a gray suit cut in the latest Madison Avenue fashion. He brought into the antisepsis of the cell a hint of good cologne. His necktie, shirt, and shoes were carefully coordinated. His face was round and pink, the kind that men ignore when replaying a golf match at the nineteenth hole. Behind heavy, square-rimmed glasses, his china blue eyes beamed at Stanley with a consciously summoned vitality, optimism, and determination.

The gray-suited figure cleared its throat in a good imitation of a masculine rumble. “Tough spot, eh, Graves? Convicted of a capital crime, gas chamber the next stop, cards all stacked against you. One lone man against the massive Establishment.” The rosebud mouth curled in the best Mittyish mimicry of a John Wayne grin. “But the ball game isn’t over, even in the ninth inning. Right Stanley? We’re not licked yet. We’ll find a way out.”

Stanley raised his head a few inches from the lumpy pillow to study the stranger. Even with the prison haircut, Stanley managed a hippie look. His sprawled body suggested ennui. His gaunt hungry-looking face hung in lines of self-sorrow. His large brown eyes, in the shadows of cavernous sockets, were depthless pools of soul. “Go away,” he muttered. “I didn’t smoke any signals. I got no bread to fee a lawyer.”

“That doesn’t matter,” the lawyer said generously. “You’re in trouble. Forty-three days from today the state is going to gas the life out of you for the crime of murder. Nothing else counts.”

“You’re telling me?” Stanley said. He fell back and stared at the ceiling light in its wire-mesh cage. “Why come in here and rake up old leaves, Mr. Whoever-you-are? What is your name, anyway?”

“Cottrell,” the plump young man said. “Leonard Cottrell. Of the SPCD.”

“Never heard of it.”

The guard coughed politely. “Take all the time you need with your client, Mr. Cottrell.” The turnkey eased from the cell, locking the door.

Leonard Cottrell frowned at Stanley’s indolent form. “We’re quite well known, Stanley. Society for the Protection of Civil Dissent Nonprofit organization. Funded with a trust set up by an old lady who lived alone with three cats.”

Stanley shifted on the thin mattress, facing the bleak stone wall a few inches away.

Leonard studied Stanley’s curled spine and bony shoulders. He shook his head slowly. “Monstrous — the way a heartless society can break a man’s spirit. But cast off this despair, my friend. Yours is exactly the type of case that interests us most. Come on, Stanley, where is the old pepper?”

“Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy,” Stanley muttered. “Get a load of this guy.”

Leonard looked about for a place to sit down. The only seat was a wooden stool of questionable size for his ample bottom. He eased onto it, still looking at Stanley’s back.

“We’ve reviewed your case, Stanley, but a legal record skims the essence of man. Right? It would help if I knew everything there is to know about you as an individual, a man, a suffering human being.” Stanley said nothing. Leonard waited, gradually pursing his lips. “Hmmmm. Just as I suspected. This job has many facets. They’ve really crushed your personality, haven’t they, Stanley?”

“Mr. Cottrell,” Stanley said to the wall, “why don’t you just split? It wouldn’t be like you were copping out. You don’t owe me anything.”

Leonard’s brows escalated. “That’s where you’re wrong, Stanley. ‘Think not for whom the bell tolls...’ If for thee, then also for me.”

“Yeah,” Stanley said. “I know.”

Leonard reached out to pat the knifeblades of Stanley’s shoulders. “Buck up, old man. You’ll feel better as we talk. Believe me, we have a Sunday punch, a way out.”

Stanley inched his head to look at Leonard over his shoulder. “Ah, ha!” Leonard grinned. “I thought that would bring a reaction.”

Stanley’s head dropped back. Again, he was staring at the wall.

“I see,” Leonard murmured. “They’ve so desecrated the inner man that he no longer believes in Sunday punches.”

“Okay,” Stanley sighed. “What’s the Sunday punch?”

“Not so fast.” Leonard waggled a breakfast-sausage finger. “Let’s start at the top. I’m sure your parents are much to blame for your present plight.”

“Yeah,” Stanley said. “They gave me birth.”

“And they were so grossly involved in material things they never had time for you.”

“Nope,” Stanley told the wall. “My mother kept house and darned my socks, and my old man took me fishing and to ball games.”

“Yes... well...” Leonard was wordless for a moment, growing a silent frown. Then he brightened. “Then they spoiled you, smothered you with attention, never gave you a chance to develop in your own way.”

“They treated me like family,” Stanley said. “I was neither spoiled, nor a whipping boy.”

“But surely,” Leonard pleaded, “they scarred your psyche in some way.”

“I don’t think so. I’m the one who left the scars.”

“So that’s it!” Leonard almost tipped his stool over. “In its early contacts with a hostile social environment the organism developed a guilt complex! When did you first start feeling guilty. Stanley?”

“I don’t. Never have.”

“How about the murder of Dominic Asalti?” Leonard prodded.

“He was a sick old man,” Stanley yawned against the wall. “He’s better off.”

Leonard sat plucking the lobe of his ear, looking at Stanley’s back. “I really must understand you. Stanley, if I am to help you. It’s my duty to help, whether you think you need it or not. My duty, my job, my dedication.” His voice notched on an angry twinge. “You’ve no right to spurn me, Stanley.”

“Man. I am so loaded with rights they’re breaking my back.”

Leonard pinched the bridge of his nose. “The higher the obstacle, the greater the sense of fulfillment,” he sighed. He drew in a long breath. “Now let’s get some building blocks in a row, shall we? When did you leave home, Stanley?”

“Four years ago.”

“Couldn’t stand the communication gap any longer, of course.”

“Nope. I just packed up one day and left.”

“But why, Stanley?”

“I didn’t like the taste,” Stanley said.


“Of life. I thought at first I was looking for something. I mean, I kidded myself by pretending I was looking. Later, I knew the truth. I just couldn’t stand the taste of life. I went a little empty and sick inside every time I thought of the long years ahead. Years of what? Routine. Sticking to a job. Taking the lumps and being satisfied with the rewards. Getting old and full of pain, and then dying, like I had never been. When I was finally honest with myself, I just wanted to spit out the taste.”

Leonard was glowing, fascinated. He stared at the prone figure as if stripping the flesh naked and the flesh to the bones. He was digging into the problem at last. “Where were you when the self-confrontation took place, Stanley?”

“I dunno,” Stanley said. “I guess I placed myself by degrees. No blinding light. No sudden revelation. I drifted out to L.A. first and joined a hippie colony. I listened to the talk, but they didn’t have the answers. They were all ducking, scared of the taste, just like me.”

“Did you have lots of girls, Stanley?”

“Sure. All the same, like programmed dolls on which somebody had turned a switch, all as tired as I was. So I bummed to New York and the east side. Might as well have stayed in L.A. Faces the same. Words the same. The winter was a little colder, that’s all.”

“Drugs, Stanley?”

“Sure. The route. The in thing. Part of the scene, man. Pot, LSD, the hard stuff. But none of it killed the taste.”

“How did you get money to live, Stanley? Steal?” Leonard’s words were eager, dissecting knives. His eyes sparkled. What a case history to mull over and discuss!

“I padded with a runaway chick from Scarsdale,” Stanley said. “She had plenty of bread. She turned on the gas one night while I was out. I came back as the ambulance was hauling her away. Later, I tried the same trip, but I couldn’t cut it. I was running to open the windows before the room was half full of gas. I just couldn’t stick it out.”

Leonard breathed in tremulous excitement. “Was that the only time you tried to kill yourself, Stanley?”

“You kidding? I tried to fall in front of a subway. Couldn’t move, glued to the spot. Went up to a roof top in Atlanta. Couldn’t step over the edge. Peeled a razor blade in New Orleans, but my fingers wouldn’t take it to my wrist.”

Leonard’s head made small movements of incredulity. How warming the knowledge that he was not like this caricature on a jail cell bunk.

“From New Orleans you drifted here, didn’t you, Stanley?”

“It’s all in the record.”

“But I want the little things that aren’t there, Stanley.”

“You’re a sick, meddling old maid, Mr. Cottrell.”

Leonard whitened, then steadied himself. “I understand, Stanley. You’ve been through a horror. You’re facing a worse. Take it out on me, if you like, if it will help.”

“Just go to the record,” Stanley said. “It’s all there. Old man Dominic Asalti wanted to help, too. A real square. He didn’t know anything about the nothingness, the emptiness that even an LSD trip doesn’t fill for long. He had some dough, not much, so I beat him to death and the cops came to my room and found the piece of bloody pipe. The state provided a judge. My folks hired a lawyer. Nobody beat a confession out of me with a rubber hose — but I’m here. And what else did you expect?”

Leonard rose to his full height and shoved the stool back with his heel. In his best stentorian tone, he said, “Truly you are here — but neither forsaken nor forgotten, Stanley. Have faith, the doors will open shortly.”

“Doors of the gas chamber,” Stanley said.

“Never!” Leonard cried. “We shall succor you!”

“But I’m guilty...”

Leonard broke his brisk pacing. “What’s that got to do with it? Guilt or innocence is beside the point.” Leonard’s face flushed even pinker with a sense of impending victory. “The record, you said — and it’s there, in the record — the way out. The fact remains that the officers who came to your room and arrested you entered without your permission and found the murder weapon.”

Stanley began turning slowly on the bunk. Leonard nodded with delight at the first small show of animation.

“That’s right, Stanley, the arresting officers were guilty of illegal entry — not in arresting you, mind you, but in searching your room.” Stanley stood up, eyes glazed, as if trying to comprehend all that was being offered to him.

“You mean,” Stanley said, “the technicality will put the gas chamber on the moon as far as I’m concerned?”

Leonard looked as if he were about to dance a jig and click his heels. His smile was radiant. “I mean exactly that Stanley, fellow human being, victim of a vicious society.”

“How about that?” Stanley said. His hands thrust out, and before Leonard knew what was happening, Stanley’s hands were on his throat.

Leonard emitted a single muffled scream as Stanley cracked his head against the wall.

Stanley was still beating Leonard’s head against the stone when the guard rushed in. Glimpsing the guard’s movement. Stanley quietly turned loose of Leonard’s neck and let the dead plumpness collapse to the floor.

Stanley looked at the guard’s ashen face and noted the trembling in the hand that held the drawn gun. The guard was terribly upset, and Stanley was coldly impersonal about that.

“This time,” Stanley said, “I want you people to be very careful. Don’t make any technical mistakes!”

Then with very tired movements he crossed to the bunk, settled himself, and lay staring at the wall.

In the House of Rats

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Originally published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine , September 1970.

Paralyzed from the waist down, the rich old man lay in bed and contemplated the absurdities of life, death, and the game of golf.

The bandages were off now, and a silver stubble glinted where the skull had been shaven. Under craggy brows his gray eyes were coldly clear as he watched the play of sunlight through the tall windows of his spacious bedroom. He haled the antisepsis of the hospital room and had wanted the hell out. If he had to be flat on his back for a while, let it be in his own giant four-poster bed. But he hadn’t counted on returning to a conspiracy to kill him...

Miss Castleberry, the private nurse, was a plump pleasant shadow beside the bed as her light touch on his hickory-like wrist checked the strong, steady pulse.

He was a lean, rugged, rawboned old man, gnarled and toughened by early hardships and a lifetime of work. Unlike most old men he’d never thought much about dying. Until that outlandish accident, death had seemed as remote and impersonal as it had when he was, say, twenty-five.

He wasn’t afraid to die. But the way  he would die was what stuck in his craw. The accident had failed to kill him. But the accident had set him up. Who could say that an old man, not long out of brain surgery, hadn’t simply stopped breathing during the night? Who could prove that he hadn’t taken an overdose of sleeping pills, an old man preferring the peace of final sleep to paralysis for the rest of his life.

He didn’t know how The Rats would tip him over the edge. He couldn’t actually prove that they would. His suspicions could be dismissed as the ramblings of a senile old man. But he knew. His death was being arranged, right here in his own house, and he felt a sense of degradation and personal violation. He’d felt much the same way many years ago when without warning a small rattlesnake had bitten him above the left ankle. He’d stomped the snake to a pulp and then walked three miles across the sun-blasted Texas earth to the drill site and medical aid. The snake’s attack had been a blasphemy, an outrage against his sense of decency and fair play...

Miss Castleberry dropped his wrist and made a pleasant face.

“A man of thirty-nine should have your heartbeat and pulse rate. What are we having for lunch?”

The thought of food had lost its usual savor. But he’d never cowered before any threat in his life, so he was damned if he’d start now. “A steak,” he said, “burned on the outside and bleeding in the middle.”

“Tiger meat,” Miss Castleberry laughed.

“Maybe Katherine will arrive in time to join me,” the old man said. “Her plane lands at one o’clock. An hour from the airport — hold the steak. Miss Castleberry, and then make it double.”

Dropping his head back, he half closed his eyes. He heard the starched rustle of Miss Castleberry departing, the click of the door as it closed, leaving him alone in the silence.

Katherine, his niece, was the only member of the family still absent. The thought was a reminder of how few people he really had. There was George, his son, who could pretend that he was having no part in his father’s murder. And Claudia, George’s wife, who could plan it with all the emotion of a Lady Macbeth. And Elwyn — he of the hippie hair and bell bottoms of psychedelic hues — who could execute it.

My son. My daughter-in-law. My grandson. The old man wept silently.

For them the emergency summons had been a happy announcement. The old geezer worth $6,000,000 was in brain surgery. Perhaps he would die under the scalpel. They had flown joyfully in from New York.

But the old geezer hadn’t died on the operating table. The heart, the constitution and iron will, had pulled the old geezer through. He would, the doctors were certain, regain at least partial use of his legs in time and live to see any great-grandchildren that Elwyn might spawn. The time for The Rats to strike was here, now — or wait another lifetime to inherit the six millions.

The news of the old man’s accident had taken much longer to reach Katherine. She was off in some remote village in the mountains of Bolivia, where she was serving as a Peace Corp volunteer. Probably the message had finally been handed to her by a barefooted courier and the ragged, brown-skinned people of the village had shared their meager rations to pack her out by burro.

Such a long arduous trip for Katherine to make, all because of an errant golf ball and an accident almost too freakish to be believed. The sliced tee shot on the eighteenth hole fading into the trees — the opening between two live oaks that offered enticing distance down the fairway — the one-up advantage the old man was dead set on holding — the ball sitting up well on a small clump.

The old man had chosen a three wood and the gamble on reaching the green. Grip, stance, balance — eye on the ball, body turn, pivot, downswing, with the club-head hissing, packed with power. Then the slight yielding of twigs and desiccated vegetation under the firm left side — just enough to result in a slightly pulled shot. The ball had hit a live oak trunk dead-center and returned straight to his temple with a speed a little less than that of a bullet. Two sounds, like the rapid-fire echo of a cracking pistol. A flare of white light through the old man’s brain. Then temporary oblivion...

The old man heard the sigh of his bedroom door. George, Claudia, and Elwyn came in and ranged along the foot of his bed. The old man’s eyes swept them, and their images underwent a subtle transformation. He could imagine them with twitching whiskers. Rats. Skittering toward the prize. Sniffing at the bait, cautious, but ready to dart and strike and flee back to their hole with a six-million-dollar morsel in their mouths.

George, his inner weaknesses visible at last, magnified by Claudia’s domination. George, the mangy gray Rat, squeaking a feeble protest but ticking his paws along with the rest of the pack.

Elwyn, with the glittering eyes of the young Rat totally consumed by greed and by contempt for an old man of the Establishment.

And Claudia, sleek and dark, avaricious, a polished and lacquered scavenger. Vampire Rat, who’d years ago got her claws in a weak, foolish heir to a fortune.

George was unable to meet the old man’s eyes. “Good morning, father,” he squeaked, with perhaps a note of shame and despair in his voice. But not enough shame. And too little despair.

Elwyn said nothing; he stood with his head tilted, his nose twitching, as if measuring the distance f

rom one dark hole to another.

“Nurse tells us you’re feeling well today,” Claudia said.

The old man said nothing.

“Anything we can do for you, father?” George murmured feebly.

“Not a thing,” the old man said. He closed his eyes and turned his head away. He couldn’t bear to look at the mockery of the son he might have had.

They stood a moment with rat-like uncertainty; then they turned and slithered out.

The old man heard the door close behind them. He didn’t open his eyes. Against the closed lids he saw the scene again of last night, dreamlike in its unreality.

He’d been lying there in the silence, hating the pressure of the bed, despising his inactivity. How long? he’d thought. How long before that first tingle of feeling would return to his toes?

He’d struggled up on his elbows and the need to be in motion, to move under his own power, to forsake the hateful bed if even for a few moments had flamed through him.

His eyes had gleamed when their roving was arrested by the sight of the large square hassock.

It was mounted on rollers, and Miss Castleberry had left it quite close to the bed. She’d rested her feet on it while sitting in the chair and reading the evening paper to him.

The old man had turned his body with his corded arms, struggling until his torso had twisted from the bed and draped across the hassock. He’d encouraged himself with a soft, delighted laugh, reached down to the carpet, and inched the hassock with the pressure and push of his palms. His legs and feet had trailed slowly, dropping at last from the bed with a faint thump.

His vigor had renewed itself as he rolled himself across the bedroom, his chest and belly down on the hassock. He’d exulted in the feeling of freedom, looking over his shoulder and giving the bed a friendly sneer.

Grunting and breathing a little quicker, the old man had reached up, grasped the knob, and struggled to open the bedroom door.

The hallway had yawned. The truancy of what he was doing struck him, and the old man had hesitated. Then he’d propelled himself forward, like a legless man on a rollered wooden platform. The trip was, he’d decided, worth all the riot act the doctor could dish out later.

With dim night lights burning here and there, the hallway had been spangled with shadows. Then he’d heard their voices, through a door that was ajar down the hall. Soft, brittle, like the scurrying of tiny claws in the walls:

George: “No, I won’t listen! After all, he is  my father.”

And Claudia: “I don’t think you have any choice. George. Just what would you do after it’s done and over? Be a big brave man for once? Tell the world? I don’t think so. I think you’ll do just as you’ve always done in your gutless way. Nothing.”

The old man had frowned, supine on the hassock in the sudden chill of the hallway. Gradually, the meaning of the conversation began to eat through to him. He’d been numbed, hurt beyond endurance, listening to the snatches of talk until one of them had noticed the door was ajar and closed it.

The old man had managed to roll back to his bed and pull himself onto it. The enormity of the thing they were planning had overwhelmed him. He couldn’t digest it all at once. Tell someone? The doctor? Miss Castleberry? The police?

No, that wouldn’t help. Just his word against theirs. They would dismiss his unlikely tale as the rambling of an old man who’d suffered a bad head injury.

When he’d drifted at last into exhausted, troubled slumber he’d dreamed of rats. Perhaps that skittering quality of their voices had suggested it. Three rats, circling him on scratchy claws. Three rats with familiar faces...

The old man snapped out of his long reverie with the feeling that someone had opened the door. He turned his head.

Katherine had arrived at last. She smiled a warm “Hi!” and the old man didn’t trust himself to speak.

“You had one hell of a nerve, scaring me so badly,” she was saying, misty-eyed and throaty with the joy of seeing him. “I counted every endless mile back home.”

It was exactly the way the old man would have said it himself. She was so like him in so many ways — fiercely loyal, tenacious, durable — qualities his own son had somehow missed. She was his favorite person in the world, and he knew that he was hers. He felt the old rapport, the bond between them, stronger than ever, if that were possible.

“Katherine... Kit...” The old man could barely talk. She’d been more than a match for the hardships, the jungles of Bolivia. Lithe, lean, and burned to a dark and savage beauty, she’d come out of the jungle concerned only for the old man’s recovery and well-being.

The old man had struggled his shoulders up and was reaching for her.

“My — blessed — Kit!”

His dearest Kit, returning to a house of Rats...

Then, as she closed the distance to his bedside, the old man had the strangest impression. She moved with the effortless grace of a feline still in the jungle. He noticed the peculiar slant of her eyes. A nudge of the imagination and the pupils were elliptical and vertical. The sinewy flow of her as she sat lightly beside him suggested the pent-up power of a guarding leopardess crouched at her maharajah’s side. Her voice was a purr, as she told him he looked wonderful and everything was going to be fine.

The impression was all in his mind of course, but—

A soft chuckle formed in his throat. Look out, Rats, he thought, the odds have changed!

The old man closed his eyes. He could relax now. She was stroking his forehead with a velvety paw, the talons sheathed, and the old man murmured under his breath in quiet contentment.

“Kit — Kitty,” he was saying. “Pretty Kitty. Nice kitty.”

To Spare a Life

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Originally published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , March 1970.

Marilyn speeded up, and so did the souped-up yellow and black striped hot rod behind her. Straining, she watched a lonely, twilight half mile sweep past. She took her sandaled foot from the gas pedal, slowing to a crawl. Her gaze inched to the rear-view mirror. Instead of

swinging out to pass, the hot-rodder applied brakes, matching her own pace.

A shallow pulse of panic raced through Marilyn’s throat. The steering wheel began to feel slimy beneath her long, tapering, hard-curled fingers. No doubt of it now, the cats in the hot rod had cast her in the role of mouse.

She looked at her surroundings for some sign of life. The emptiness of interior Florida threatened her, endless acres of greasy-green palmetto broken by patches of saw grass. Here and there reared a lonely, twisted pine tree or desolate, heat-blasted cypress in funereal shrouds of gray Spanish moss. The narrow state road was a vacant needle point in the grimly darkening distance, not a light in sight.

Marilyn drew a breath, clinging to calm. Please , she thought, be a pair of harmless kooks getting bored with the game, ready to break it off... 

A college junior, Marilyn had worked most of the summer in her father’s modest real estate and insurance company. Five days ago, his hearty, benign presence had loomed beside her desk.

“You’re fired,” he’d said, grinning. “Take that house guest invitation from your classmate in Sarasota. Go and get your water skis wet before you have to go back to school.”

It had been a dreamy time, with an assortment of healthy young males vying for the attention of a glowing, lovely raven-haired girl with large, dark eyes and a sense of fun and humor.

Marilyn had stretched out the final day with the gang on the beach, her packed bags stowed in her car. Shouted good-byes, an impromptu snake dance, promises of a reunion when the new semester opened in Gainesville had marked her departure.

She hadn’t noticed the disappearance of the two shaggy youths who had loitered some distance away and watched the beach party disdainfully. She’d seen them again briefly in the parking area, lean, tanned, tawny-maned as young lions, their bell-bottoms garish splashes of color below open-fronted shirts. They’d lounged beside the zebra-striped rod. The taller had tossed a blue pill in the air, like a peanut, and dropped his head back to catch it in his open mouth. The action had caused an uncomfortable squirm of distaste in Marilyn. She’d got in her car and quickly driven away. By taking the short-cut on the state road she could be in her small home town in north-central Florida and having dinner with Mom and Dad in less than two hours.

With a sudden whine of racing cams and squeal of rubber, the hot rod was a yellow-black blur swinging out and roaring past. It snarled its twin chrome exhausts at her, catapulting half a mile ahead in a matter of seconds.

Marilyn drew her first deep breath since the rod had revealed itself a few miles back. They’d been very clever and deceptive following her through city traffic and deciding which road she would take. Now they had lost interest, and her fears—

She broke the thought with a gasp. In a grayish cloud from smoking tires the rod had slammed to a stop, reversed. It was a returning projectile.

Drenched with icy feeling, Marilyn saw the driver looking back over his shoulder as he steered. His companion was on his knees in the seat, facing rearward, half crouched on the turtleback of the open-topped rod. He seemed to be yowling something in wild excitement.

“Crazy pillheads... goofballs...” Marilyn choked. She twisted the wheel, taking to the outside lane, giving the rod room. In the rearview mirror she saw it again screech to a stop, almost lifting the front wheels from the rough, graveled macadam.

She mashed the gas to the floor, gaining a bare quarter-mile lead while the rod was meshed into forward gear.

Spidery prickles swept over Marilyn as she heard it coming, a high keening in the turgid silence. Her thoughts tumbled desperately. Can’t outrun them... Narrow road... Tricky, sandy shoulders... Don’t give them room! 

Her heart matched the laboring of the two-door’s engine as it hurtled along the very middle of the road. She watched the intermittent white lines come slashing at the center of the windshield.

The rod rocked from one side to the other, the driver not quite taking the chance of trying to pass with two wheels on the shoulder.

An image of coiled tension, Marilyn flicked a glance in the rearview as the rod beeped a horn that played a raucous how-dry-I-am.

The highway was surging at her with terrifying speed, but she kept those center-line marks streaking under the hood.

Then a hard thump and shattering of broken glass on the roof jarred the sedan. In the small mirror, Marilyn glimpsed the other car close on her rear bumper. The driver’s companion was standing crouched, holding the top edge of the windshield, drawing his arm back to throw another empty beer bottle.

A wave of fear left Marilyn feeling faint at the thought of mangled wreckage, bloody human forms.

She shivered, fighting the faintness. Ahead, the road made a long bend through a lovely area of banyan trees and vine-trellised cabbage palms, and fifty yards to the left of the highway in the shady clearing stood one of those out-of-the-way country stores. It was an ugly, unpainted, rambling wooden building with a long ramshackle porch and rusty tin roof, but a dim light glowed from one of the dusty windows, warmly beautiful to Marilyn.

She did nothing to telegraph her intention to the other driver. When she was almost abreast of the store, she slammed down the brake and pulled the steering wheel over hard.

The sedan pitched and slewed in a sickening half-spin. She fed gas, and the tires took hold. The building and lacy banyan trees swam at Marilyn. She mashed the brake pedal and the sedan slithered to a stop in a shower of sand, dust, and dead pine needles.

She was out of the car before it stopped rocking. From the highway came the sounds of screaming rubber, the rise and fall of an angry engine, the crash of changing gears.

Marilyn raced across the gritty planking of the gallery and threw herself against the front door. The latch was an old-fashioned metal lever which rattled as she depressed it. The door yielded perhaps half an inch. She shook it and banged on it with her fist.

“Please... whoever’s in there... open up!”

Her efforts created sepulchral echoes. She drew back a little. The iron hasp and heavy padlock securing the door loomed in her vision.

A soft whimper fell from Marilyn’s lips. She slipped a glance over her shoulder. The zebra-stripe had skidded to rest near her sedan. Both youths had got out, a little hesitantly at first.

Marilyn was chilled to inaction for a moment. Then she forced herself to move. A glance through the iron-barred window beside the stout door revealed a gloomy interior of shelves cluttered with a few canned goods, a plank counter bearing a small glass showcase, a table near the rear stacked with work clothing. There was no movement, no sign of life. A single small naked bulb dangled over the rear counter, a night light, Marilyn realized dimly, required by the county sheriffs department.

Her cheek pressed against the rough planking, her nails dug in as voices rose behind her.

“The babe has found an empty pad, Rajah.”

“How about that, Zeno?”

Footsteps softly crushed across the blanket of dry pine needles on the yard, voices in the dusk...

“She sure turns me on, Rajah.”

“From the sec I glom her on the beach, Zeno.”

Marilyn broke free of her paralysis, peeling away from the wall and dashing toward the end of the porch.

“We got a hunt, Rajah.”

“My bag, Zeno!”

Marilyn jumped from the open end of the porch, half stumbled, darted toward the rear corner of the building.

She heard them yelling instructions to each other. They were splitting up.

Beyond the store, the landscape was indistinct in the twilight pall but she had an impression of swampiness, tall grasses, and a tangle of trees in the distance. Her running feet were renewed with faint hope.

She angled away from the one who seemed nearer. She could hear his running feet directly behind her. Then she saw the shadow of the other one, flowing across the clearing to cut her off.

She tried to change directions. Her toe caught in a tough root She pitched to her knees, flinging out her left hand to break her fall.

She was scrambling up when she felt his presence flowing over her. She heard his breathing, glimpsed the white savage mask of a face in its growth of heavy beard.

“No!” The word was a crazed mingle of snarl and scream. “You won’t... I won’t let you... Let me go!”

Her left arm felt as if it were being torn from the shoulder socket. She thrashed wildly in his grip. Her mind seemed to burst. Nothing was real. Nothing mattered right then, except the sanctity of her person.

She felt the hands of the second youth grabbing at her free arm, her shoulder, her throat. They grunted soft, vicious curses, almost no match for her transformation in this insane moment. She fought bitterly, clawing, kicking, biting.

Then her face exploded. One of them had struck hard with his fist. The back of her head struck the stone-like bole of a wild palm as she hurtled backward and down.

The pain lasted for a fiery fraction of a second. Then she seemed to float in a weird nothingness. She had the strangest sense of detachment, as if a stranger lay here with two sweaty, hard-breathing strangers standing over the limp body.

A soft breeze flapped the bell-bottoms and touched bearded faces marked by her raking nails. The two standing figures were quite still for a moment, immunized to real fright by pills but touched with caution.

“Glom the back of her head, Zeno.”

“Yeah, all bloody.”

“Is she dead?”

“Who cares?”

“Nobody saw it.”

“That’s right.”

“But they’ll see her car, some cruising county fuzz.”

“So we’ll park it out of sight behind the store.”

“How about her? She comes to, busts a window in the store, finds a telephone before we’ve made miles.”

“Not if she’s in her car trunk.”

“Hey, man! That’s cool! If she ain’t kaput already, she’ll suffocate before anybody finds her.”

“Go get her car. I’ll drag her out of here.”

Marilyn was vaguely aware of hands shoving under her armpits, of muscles straining against her weight. She sensed she was being half lifted and dragged, her heels bumping roots and grinding through sandy soil.

She floated away. Then the pain of twisted arms and legs came through as they lifted her and stuffed her callously in the car trunk. Somewhere in her mind despairing words formed, begging for mercy. The trunk lid slammed shut over her, locking automatically, the thud of a sealed coffin.

She was swaddled in blackness and silence for a long time. At last she choked a soft moan. Despite bleeding where the scalp had been scraped, her head wound was superficial. Her brain resumed its function with sparkles of pain.

She tried to move. She was wedged between the trunk lid and spare tire, and she thrashed wildly for a moment, in the grip of a nauseating claustrophobia.

She fainted in the midst of the useless, helpless effort. When she came to, she was weak, trembling, bathed in sweat.

She could move her left arm a little, and groped in the blackness. By straining, she reached the latch, but her fingers were powerless against the hard metal.

She fought down a fresh wave of panic. Her moving hand touched a tire tool. It was wedged under the spare. There was no way she could get it out.

Her muscles were cramping, but the growing fire in her lungs was the more real pain. She realized she was having to breathe very fast. Her heart was racing in its hunger for oxygen.

She tried to scream; then restrained herself. Very little oxygen was left in the sealed trunk. The faster she used it, the quicker she would die.

Everything in her collapsed. She closed her eyes and wept silently. The pain was mounting steadily. She felt as if her chest were being crushed with a two-ton weight.

She tried not to think of Mom, Dad, the nice young associate professor at school, the faces she would never see again.

The scene tomorrow morning built frightfully in her mind. The storekeeper would return, see her simple black sedan, look it over, call the sheriff finally. They would talk, search the car. At last the trunk would be opened, and they would fall back and ask, “What kind of beast could do this?”

They would lift out the cold, dead body and wish the stiff, unfeeling lips could answer the question. Perhaps in the light of day they would wish it almost as much as she wished it right now in her dying moment.

A strange warmth suffused her. Then the fire seemed to die as her lungs gave up the impossible fight for oxygen. Bright motes began showering through her brain.

Her face rolled limply against the spare tire. The tread roughness meant nothing at first. Then a final thought struggled — spare tire. Pounds and pounds of compressed air, loaded with life-giving oxygen; enough air, taken a sip at a time, to be alive when the storekeeper came a few hours from now.

The thought of the zebra-striped car gave her a final ounce of strength. Her fingers fumbled along the spare tire, found the valve stem. She unscrewed the cap, set her fingernail on the tip of the core, and pressed her lips about it. She depressed the core and the first squirt of air volleyed deep into her lungs.

Only a little at a time, Marilyn cautioned herself. It was going to be a long night but a brand new morning would come — for her and, incidentally, for a pair of pillheads.

The Inspiration

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Originally published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , October 1970.

Juliano stirred on the soured straw ticking, the movement of his slender body provoking a creak from the hardness of the crude plank bed. A breeze filtered out of the warmth of the Mexican night through the cracks of the slab-and-sod lean-to. It was tainted with the smells of the nearby bullring, parched sand, horse sweat, the faintest suggestion of old and rotten blood.

Juliano stared into the darkness. The silence seemed to pulse. None of the usual small sounds came from the stable or bull pen, the pawing of a hoof, a whinny, the blowing of slobber. Even the gaunt coyotes in the desolate hills above San Carla de la Piedras were ignoring the fullness of the moon.

Juliano squirmed to a half-sitting position, a premonition chilling him. He glanced at the lax form of Jose, his twin brother, beside him. Burro , his edgy mind formed the thought, one could not look at you and guess that our sister is in trouble .

His angry condemnation was followed by a quick barb of remorse. Jose loved Lista even as he did. It was only that, for all their likeness, they were different. When time came to sleep, Jose slept.

Juliano got up and padded to the open doorway. Clothed in the coarse, gray cotton pantaloons in which he both worked and slept, he was tall and very slender for his fourteen years. The moonlight lent a quality of brown satin to his bony, ridged chest, wiry arms, and an almost gaunt, broad-cheeked mestizo face that was shadowed under a mane of coarse, hacked-off, black hair. His details added up to a look of a particular kind of hunger, the hunger one suspects in the sinewy puma that has survived every hardship.

His large, liquid black eyes searched his surroundings, the shadow of the stable against which the lean-to clung, the barren stretch of dusty earth between him and the bullring thirty yards away, the pens against the wooden wall of the arena where the bulls for Sunday’s fight were black, lurking shadows.

Nothing moved, and the night was as silent as death. The scene was suddenly not good, as it had been three years ago when he and Jose arrived barefoot in San Carla, papa’s gift of twenty centavos easing the pain of papa’s explanation that it was now time for their hungry mouths to leave his table.

San Carla had seemed the jewel of cities to their young, goggling, peon eyes. The sun-baked buildings of board and dusty stucco were two, three, even four stories high. The narrow streets spilled their traffic into a broad plaza where pigeons flew from a towering stone monument and a man of great authority in a brown cotton uniform could make the cars stop by blowing his whistle.

Now, memories of the time before that first day came like a burro’s kick, in sharp pictures. The mud-brick adobe on the rocky farm far back in the hills where one coaxed the straggly corn with a tireless hoe and water carried into the fields. A dung fire burning on the hearth. The pat-pat-pat of mama’s hands making tortillas. The ill-tempered old goat with one broken horn. The treasured red hen that laid eggs with two yolks. The corn-husk doll Lista had played with about the time he and Jose were born...

Juliano went rigid in the lean-to doorway as a weak, gasping outcry came out of the night. A similar note of torment was surely what had awakened him.

He’d taken only a few jerky steps when he saw her, a slender, twisted form on the ground beyond the corner of the barn. He ran, and fell on his knees beside her. His mind whipped away from what his eyes saw. For a second he was about to faint.

“Lista! My sister! Por Dios!”

The soft oval of her face was hot and wet with pain. The cascade of lustrous black hair was tangled about her cheeks and forehead. Her large dark eyes were sunken and filled with the sight of death.

Her full red lips parted. Her beautiful teeth gleamed. “Juliano... I knew I would reach you. Help me, Juliano, help me!”

She was trying to rise to an elbow, her other slender arm reaching toward him. He couldn’t move, held by the sight of so much blood. It stained the cotton dress that clung to her slender, once-vibrant and youthful form. It had run glistening down her calves to dye the edges of the guarachas on her feet.

“Lista...” he said in a disembodied voice. “Lista...” Then he was gathering up the loose lightness of her, staggering toward the lean-to doorway, his hoarse shouts rustling the horses in their stalls and the great dark bulls in the pen. “Jose! Quickly! Wake up, you burro, and help me! Our sister, she is dying!”

Dr. Diego Sorolla de Luz stepped onto the front porch of the long, low, mud-brick building that housed the free clinic for the poor in San Carla. He closed the screen door, squinting as he turned into the glare of the early morning sun.

He was a lean, swarthy man dressed in white ducks, smock, surgical cap. He looked for a moment at the backs of the two boys sitting on the farther end of the porch, their legs dangling. He drew a heavily reluctant breath and started toward them.

Juliano and Jose turned their heads toward the sounds of tired footsteps on gritty planking. They read the pity and sympathy in the doctor’s face. Juliano paled a little. Otherwise, they reacted outwardly to their sister’s death with the stoicism of their ancestors.

“I am sorry to be a doctor whose best was not good enough,” he said.

“Gracias, Señor Doctor,” both boys said. Juliano added, “We shall pay you when...”

“It is all paid, my young friend.”

“How? Muno Figero hasn’t been here, and no one else would bother.”

The doctor wedged himself down between them, Jose on his right, Juliano on his left. “Muno Figero? The young torero? Was he the prospective father?”

Juliano nodded. Jose leaned and spoke across the doctor’s chest. “Shhh, Juliano! Lista asked us not to tell.”

“Your sister mentioned her troubles?” the doctor asked.

“Lista and I were very close,” Juliano said. “She always turned to me when the trouble was bad — even at the end. Not to mama, or papa, or Muno, who she loved. But to me...”

“Juliano,” Jose said.

Juliano looked at his brother. “What does it matter now? It is right for the doctor to know.” Juliano lifted his eyes to the man’s. “She was not really a bad woman, Señor Doctor, even though she lived with a man not her husband.”

“I’m sure of that. She was the loveliest of young women. I want you always to remember her that way.”

“I shall remember her grief,” Juliano said. “She was to have a baby, which Muno didn’t want.”

De Luz’s hawkish face with its beaked nose became almost saturnine for an instant, the dark eyes angry and hooded. “I’m sure our torero will be in the clear.” He didn’t say the rest of it, the part that experience and medical knowledge had taught him. The girl, undoubtedly on her lover’s insistence, had crept to some dark hole where some dirty-fingered old woman had used a sharpened stick or filthy hatpin to start the flow again, to abort the living thing in a womb. Then, when things had gone wrong, the old woman, thinking only of her own safety, had abandoned the girl. And the pain-wracked girl had somehow dragged herself to the one person on earth she believed in.

The doctor laid his hand on Juliano’s shoulder, feeling the bony, wiry strength of it. “Don’t brood, my young friend. It won’t help — and she wouldn’t want it.”

“I try to tell him so,” Jose said, “but he thinks of little else for two, three days, since Lista came and told us.”

“Burro,” Juliano said, “she needed to tell someone. Can’t you understand?”

“Did she tell you she was planning an abortion?” the doctor asked.

“Abortion, Señor Doctor?”

“A way of doing away with the thing before it became a baby.”

“She mentioned it.”

“Did she say who, where, or how she planned to go about it?”

“She said Muno knew of such things. I begged her not to do it.”

“I see.” De Luz got up heavily. “The matter will of course be reported to the police, but I doubt that anything will come of it. The young man involved will doubtless exhibit a great shock, and one might as well try to run down an individual rat in the garbage heaps of San Carla as to hope to nail the dirty-fingered old woman. Half the crones in town would take the assignment, for a price.”

Juliano stood up on the edge of the porch. “Well, it will soon be forgotten. We are but peons.”

The doctor looked at him quickly and started to say something, obviously in denial of the boy’s wisdom-hard statement. Instead, he said, “There are details. Your papa will have to be notified. The funeral arrangement must be made. I will see to it.”

“You are most kind,” Juliano said.

Noontime came and went, and Juliano continued to sit in a dark silence on the bench in the city square. Jose grew increasingly alarmed at the change in his brother.

“Juliano, I’m hungry...”

“Then go and eat!”

“But you, Juliano...”

“Shut up, Jose,” Juliano said. Papa and Mama , he thought, I meant for nothing like this to happen when I brought together Lista and Mun

o. I only meant good... Was it I who ignorantly started it all? Or was it a tale written by a finger in the sky

They had squandered the twenty centavos, he and Jose, the first day in San Carla, on cakes of brown sugar candy sold by sidewalk vendors from fly-specked glass showcases.

Their third day in the city, Juliano and Jose had met three others like themselves. The belly cramps were now urgent, and the others were wise in the ways of urban life.

The five spotted a well-dressed man staggering from a cantina. They followed him, invisible shadows on the dark street, and when the moment was right, they sprang on him, beat him down, and ripped the wallet from his pocket. They divided the fortune, forty-three pesos, in the sanctuary of an alley.

Later, bedded for the night in a culvert, Jose patted his comfortably rumbling stomach. “This is a good thing, I think.”

“No,” Juliano said, “it is a bad thing.”

“Well, what are we to do?”

“We’ll find work.”

Jose grunted his disbelief and went to sleep. Juliano lay wakeful, feeling dirtied, remembering the sudden sober, pitiful look on the big, dumb animal’s face when the young wolves had dragged him down.

The day after the robbery was a Sunday, and Juliano and Jose followed the crowds to the bullring. Juliano soaked in every detail, from the tinny trumpet announcing the processional of the costumed matadors to the dragging away of the last dead bull.

“Jose,” Juliano said when it was all over, “we shall be toreros. It is the only way the likes of us can hope to be rich and famous.”

“Not I,” Jose said.

“You will follow where I lead,” Juliano’s voice left no room for compromise. “Come. We are going to see the manager of this place.”

The impresario, located after asking directions of countless people, turned out to be a stooped, sallow man with incredible pouches under his eyes. “So you would go to work?”

“Si, Señor.”

“Doing what?”

“Anything for a start, Señor. Someday I will be a matador.”

“You and a million others of your kind,” the manager sneered. “Would you shovel manure from the stables?”

“Until our arms fell off, Señor.”

“Mend the padding the horses wear? Sharpen the pikes the mounted picadors carry? Curry horses and tend the tame steers we use as Judas goats to lead the bulls into the pens when they’re shipped in from the ranches?”

“Anything, Señor. Any work!”

“Well, muchacho, you challenge me. So I’ll accept, because there is always work for willing hands who don’t demand a fortune. But jump when you’re told, mind you!”

“Forever, Señor!”

“And if I catch you stealing or loafing on the job, I’ll cut off your ears and feed them to my dog.”

“The dog will die of starvation,” Juliano laughed.

“Where do you live, muchacho?”

“In a huge stone pipe that passes under a street.”

“You’ll catch your death in that. You can use the lean-to beside the stable.”

“Gracias, Señor!”

After a hard day’s work, Jose was always ready for his bean bowl and bed, but Juliano enjoyed the evening hours. As the sun set, he was a slender figure in the empty arena fighting imaginary bulls. His weapons were a ragged, cast-off cape, a wooden sword, a muleta made from a piece of sacking. He practiced everything he had seen and been told, and one evening when he turned in a series of veronicas the silence was broken by an “ole” and the clapping of a pair of hands. He looked up in surprise.

So it was that Juliano met Muno Figero, who would fight the next day and had come to the pens to see the bull he had drawn.

Muno was six years older, tall and slender, with devilish eyes and strong, square teeth flashing black and white in a V-shaped brown face. Already he was making a name for himself with his graceful and daring capework.

That season, whenever Muno was in San Carla, Juliano was his dogged shadow. Muno enjoyed the adulation. He coached Juliano and took him sometimes to the cafes where toreros and their followers gathered to sip wine and talk. In these wonderful hours, Juliano soaked up the lore of the ring. He learned of Belmonte, who helped father modern bullfighting, of Procuna, refiner of the dead man’s pass, of Perez, who fought the terrible bull Machin and was killed because a breeze brushed a corner of his cape and exposed him, of Saleri, who defamed the classic art with a cheap, spectacular trick, using a pole to vault over the bull’s head. Saleri got his when he made the mistake of trying the trick twice on the same bull, finding the horns waiting when he descended the second time.

“Which proves,” Muno remarked, “that the bull may be smarter than the man. They are quick to learn — and they never forget.”

“Neither shall I,” Juliano said.

The broadening of knowledge destroyed the illusion that San Carla and its bullring were the center of everything. Indeed, there were dozens of such rings scattered all over Mexico in grubby little cities. Rings whose walls were of weathered clapboard and rusting tin signs exhorting one to Tome Coca Cola , whose seats were tiers of unpainted planking worn smooth. Matadors fought in such rings at two points in their careers, if they weren’t killed in between. They started here, young and eagerly confident. Or here they ended, old, scarred and bitter, gloomily fighting bulls they once would have ridiculed for the uncouth, bumpkin crowds they despised.

During this period, Juliano heard nothing from his family. It was the natural order of things. Each had his or her way to go; mama and papa on the farm and Lista with her husband, an old widower who came one day and gave papa ten pesos for permission to marry Lista, who was fifteen at the time.

Their faces all became affectionate memories; and then one afternoon Lista was waiting when Juliano and Jose returned to the lean-to. They had spent the afternoon spreading fresh sand in the arena. Their sweaty, parched, gritty discomfort vanished when they saw her standing beside the uncovered doorway, a pasteboard suitcase at her feet.

She held out her arms and ran to meet them. The three merged into a confusion of hugs, shouts, laughter. Then Juliano held her at arm’s length. “What a fine woman is our elder sister, Jose!”

With rare vivacity, Jose laughed his pleasure. “But she isn’t real, Juliano. She is too beautiful to be real.”

The thought struck Juliano: “What of your husband, Lista?”

“He is dead,” she said quietly. “He drank too much pulque in the village and fell from his horse and broke his neck.”

Juliano closed the chapter in his mind without regret or sorrow. After all, the old man had had three wives.

“I had no place,” Lista said, “so I came to you, Juliano.”

He put an arm about her shoulders. “You did right. Tonight we go to the Cafe de los Toros and buy a bottle of wine to celebrate the reunion!”

She met Muno that night. After the old man, the dazzling, ardent, young one aroused her love quickly.

Now she was dead.

Juliano raised his head slowly, aware of Jose fidgeting worriedly beside him. He looked about the plaza, at the cars in motion, the pigeons swooping from the stone monument. He felt the sun hot on his face and thought of the coldness of her in the clinic.

He uncoiled his lean body slowly, standing. Jose jumped from the bench beside him.

“Shall we eat, Juliano?”

Juliano gave him a long, baleful look. “No. We go to see Muno.”

Muno was knotting a black string tie about the collar of a white silk shirt when the knock sounded on the door of the bed-sitting room of his cubbyhole kitchenette apartment.

With a final quick glance at his black-haired reflection, he turned from the bureau and crossed the room, picking his way through a small space crowded with sofa, chairs, table, the bureau, floor lamp, a wardrobe made of corrugated cardboard, and a wall bed that was still unmade.

He opened the door and stiffened slightly at the sight of the two boys in the sultry, dim hallway.

“Juliano, Jose...” he murmured. He stood aside and motioned them in, his face a shade lighter than normal. “Has something happened?” he asked, sensing that something had, indeed.

“She is dead, Muno,” Juliano said.

“Oh.” Muno drifted to the worn blue sofa and sat down slowly. He moved as if all of his joints were dry, the sockets grating. “Where is she?”

“At the clinic. The thing went badly, Muno. She won’t have a baby. She bled to death.”

Muno raised a hand and fingered sweat beads from under his eyes. “I’m sorry, Juliano. Truly, I am.”

Juliano looked about the room, at the clothing tossed over a chair, the socks crumpled beside the bed, the bureau where her powder, lipstick and cologne lay as she had last touched them. “Yes, Muno, I suppose you are. She was beautiful, and young, and gave you all of herself.”

Muno bit his lips and moved his head numbly from side to side. “Do you hate me, Juliano?”

“Hate? No. I despise you!”

“You don’t understand,” Muno said. “A baby would have messed up everything, right when I’m on the edge of better things. Did you know that a famous manager has come all the way from Mexico City to watch me in the arena tomorrow?”

“I see.” Juliano made a slight motion of his hand to Jose and they started toward the door.

Muno jerked himself upright from the sofa. “Juliano...”

Juliano pushed Jose into the hall, then stopped and turned in the doorway.

Muno held out a hand. “Juliano, hatred will not bring her back.” Juliano stood and looked at him. “Please, Juliano...” Muno said. “It is over, done. Nothing can change that.”

“How quickly will you forget her, Muno?”


“Will you bring home another tomorrow night?”

Muno’s face hardened. “Get out! Get out! You are a fool, like your sister. Get out, and don’t come back!”

When the full moon was at zenith that night, Juliano nudged Jose awake.

Jose sat up on the straw ticking, rubbing his eyes with his knuckles and making gulping noises. “What is it, Juliano?”

“Come on, we are going across to the arena. It is as bright as day outside. I can’t lay here.”

Jose’s hands fell limply from his face. “What? What is this?”

Juliano was already standing beside the bed, pulling his cotton blouse over his head and shoulders.

“Muno Figero has drawn the bull called Santiago for tomorrow.”

“Si, but what has this...”

“I would try Muno’s shoes,” Juliano said. “I would test this bull. Now. In the arena. Will you help me chute the bull and work him back into the pen — or must I do it all by myself?”

Jose’s eyes showed white with fear. “You are crazy, Juliano. You will kill yourself!”

“But I won’t argue,” Juliano said. “Are you coming to help me or not?”

Mumbling an incoherent prayer, Jose leaped out of bed.

Shortly, the bull Santiago took his first exploratory steps into the strange, new world of the arena when Juliano shouted to Jose to open the gate.

Limned in the moon glare in the center of the arena, Juliano watched the bull pause and paw the sand. He knew that Santiago had seen him and was taking a moment to size up the enemy, the situation. Santiago was a sleek, black Piedras Negras, almost nine hundred pounds with horns that swept dangerously outward and upward at the tips, a far better bull than was usually seen in San Carla.

Afraid that his dry mouth and constricted throat had lost the power to speak, Juliano lifted his threadbare old cape with trembling hands. He stomped the sand. “Toro!” he said “Toro!”

Santiago circled as if unaware of the two-legged creature’s existence. Then the night exploded with the thunder of his hoofs.

Juliano choked back the urge to bleat and flee. Sweat burned his eyes. His hands were shaking the cape almost uncontrollably.

Santiago grew to monstrous size as the charge closed the distance. His eyes threw back red moonbeams. Juliano kept his gaze fastened on the needle-sharp horns. They dipped, hooking, and a flick of the cape changed their course by a scant degree.

Suddenly, the bull was past, and Juliano realized he was in one piece. He turned. Santiago was already wheeling, charging again. This time, it was less frightful. Juliano’s heart ceased to be a choking mass in his throat.

Another pass, with the cape swirling. Then again, and again.

Juliano dared a laugh. He stomped his bare foot. “Toro!”

The seconds became minutes, and a thin haze of dust clouded the surface of the sand. Santiago turned, hooked, and the cape swept him safely past.

“Toro! Toro!” Juliano flaunted the cape. He turned the bull in half a dozen more passes, working toward the side of the arena. Santiago was beginning to lather. It is enough , Juliano decided, and he leaped behind the barricade.

Jose, who had watched it all from the safety of the wooden shelter, pounded Juliano on the shoulder. “You were one of them, Juliano! A real torero.”

“I have practiced the cape many months.” Juliano was out of breath and soaked with sweat. “Now we work Santiago into the chute, back into the pen so that no one will ever know he was in here tonight.”

Jose shook his head, still dumbfounded. “My brother — and a real live bull.”

“Perhaps I had not only much practice but the strongest of inspirations,” Juliano said.

“Did you not feel alone and naked?”

“As naked as Belmonte must have felt.” Juliano’s eyes met his brother’s. “When he was a boy, the Great One would swim a river on a bull ranch at night and fight the bulls alone, secretly. It is the way Belmonte learned. He was too young to know then that he was sending many matadors to their deaths. If he had only known...”

Juliano turned, craned, looking over the top of the barricade. Santiago claimed the center of the arena, head lifted, horns gleaming, forehoof pawing, challenging all comers.

“When they first face a man, they think he and the cape are one. So the cape distracts them,” Juliano explained. “But the second time around — should there be one — the bull in his wisdom knows the truth. This is the reason great care is taken from the day of their birth to keep them from facing a cape, until they go into the arena. Nothing is more deadly than a cape-broken bull such as Muno Figero will face when he meets Santiago in the arena tomorrow.”

Jose nodded in slow comprehension of truths his brother had learned while he, Jose, slept the evenings away.

“I think Muno Figero will not live to see Mexico City,” Jose decided.

And for once Juliano was quite certain that his duller brother was right.

Easy Mark

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Originally published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , May 1971.

The two youths at the front corner table marked me from the moment I strolled into the psychedelic, nether-world decor of the Moons of Jupiter.

I was surely a sudden out-of-kilter detail on the scene. My appearance stamped me as the most reprehensible of straights: businessman, establishment man; specter from the far side of the generation gap. Fortyish, brushed with gray at the temples, lean, conditioned from regular workouts, I was smoothly barbered, tailored in a five hundred dollar suit of English cut, with coordinated shirt and necktie.

A cool young hostess, blonde and topless, decided I was for real. She smiled a greeting to take me in tow and threaded a way through a dimly lighted, pot-smoke-hazed broken field of tables and hovering, pale faces. In passing, I drew a few glances, ranging from the sullen to the amused. Empty, bored young eyes lifted, noted the stranger, and dropped again to contemplation of existence and a world they had rejected. I was of no more real interest than the movement of a shadow — except to the pair at the corner table. They studied every detail about me as I was seated and ordering a drink.

On the bandstand a four-piece rock group, as hairy as dusty and moth-eaten young gorillas, suddenly assailed the senses with electronic sound. The lighting came and went like a Gehenna fire, swirling faces from corpse-green to paranoid purple to jaundice yellow, cycling and recycling until the brain swam and burst from the brew of shattering sound and color.

Throughout the hard-rock number I had the impression that I was being discussed by the pair at the corner table. Their faces in the ghoulish glows turned toward me, turned away, drew close over the table as words blanketed by the music were exchanged.

The music shimmered to a long-drawn wail against a mad rhythmic background and slipped eerily to silence. The lighting settled to a twilight. There was a shifting of bodies and a ripple of applause.

I lifted my drink, covertly watching the pair rise from the corner table. I sensed a decision, and my palms became a little damp as they came toward me.

Their shadows streamed across my table. Suddenly they stopped.

“Hi, pops.”

The taller, huskier one had spoken. I looked up. He was a strapping youth with a heavy-boned face lurking behind a heavy growth of thick black beard and wiry tresses that fell to his thick neck. He wore nondescript poplin slacks, dirty and wrinkled, and a leather vest that partially covered his massive, hairy chest. His swarthy, bare arms were corded and muscled like a weight lifter’s.

The companion beside him was as tall, but much thinner, a fine-boned fellow. Tangled, unwashed locks of yellow and a sparse beard graced a narrow, almost delicate face and high-domed head. The smoldering eyes of a decadent poet peered from the shadows of large sockets. The thin-lipped mouth was faintly quirked, as if sardonic amusement was a habitual reaction.

“We sensed a loneliness,” the poet said, “and would offer a friendly ear if you’d care to rap. Peace.” He had a thin, nasal voice. His jerky delivery and the embers in his eyes were clues to a good high on drugs. Clad in a rumpled tie-dyed gaucho shirt that hung loose about greasy ducks, he slipped with unreal movements into a chair across the table.

“I’m Cleef,” he said, “and my boon companion is known as Willis.”

Willis wiped a palm across his leather vest and extended his hand. “Into the pudding, man.”

I saw no alternative at the moment but to shake his hand. His grip was modestly powerful. He pumped my hand once, then eased into the chair at my left.

“Pudding?” I inquired.

“As your group would put it,” Cleef-the-poet said, “welcome to the club.”

“I see. Well, thanks. Buy you fellows a drink?”

Willis’ heavy mouth curled gently. “You’re out of sight, pops. We don’t ruin the belly with booze. But you might blow the price of a joint.”

He lifted a muscle-lumped arm and signaled a waitress who was moving from a nearby table. She served them joints from an innocent-looking package bearing the brand name of a well-known cigarette. As Willis and Cleef fired the reefers, I ordered a second double Scotch. I figured I needed it.

Cleef drew deeply, half closing his eyes and holding the smoke until his lungs burned for air. Willis was a more conservative pothead, less greedy, less desperate for a turn-on. He puffed, inhaled, exhaled.

“What brings you to a place like this, pops?” Willis asked conversationally.

My gaze roamed the unreality of the room, returned to Willis’ dark face. My shoulders made a vague movement “I’m really not sure,” I said.

“Hung-up man, ice cream man,” the poet suggested.

“Ice cream?” I asked.

“Now and then user of drugs,” Willis explained. “Ice cream habit.”

I nodded, grinned slightly. “Thanks for the translation, but I haven’t an ice cream habit. Just an occasional Scotch does it for me.”

“Translate, extrapolate,” Cleef rhymed. “Rap across the gap.”

Willis reached and patted the back of my hand. “We’ll try to talk your lingo, pops.”

“Thanks. It would be less awkward.”

The waitress came with my drink. Willis elaborately mused on her thin face and slender topless figure. The gesture on his part was almost pathetically obvious, a cover-up for his quick assessment of the thick wallet from which I paid the tab.

I lifted the Scotch. “Cheers.” I rolled the first drops under my tongue for the taste. The liquor dispelled a little of the clammy chill inside me.

I set the glass down and studied it a moment. “I guess it was because of Camilla,” I said finally.

“Come again?” Willis said.

“The reason I came in here,” I said. “Dear Camilla... about the same age as some of the young women in here... early twenties... very beautiful.”

Willis chuckled, eyes brightening. “Well, what do you know! The old boy has got himself a chick!”

“Straight man buys anything his little heart desires,” Cleef said lazily.

I couldn’t help the angry look I shot across the table. “It wasn’t that way at all!”

“Easy, pops,” Willis suggested mildly.

I lifted the glass and threw the remainder of the drink down my throat “Well, it wasn’t!”

“So okay.”

“I want you to understand.”

“Sure, pops. Don’t blow your mind.”

I took out a spotless Irish linen handkerchief and brushed the cold needles from my forehead. “Blow my mind... Sonny, that’s just what I did, with Camilla. Couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t live without her. Went crazy if she glanced at another man. Never wanted her out of my sight...”

“Zap!” mumbled the poet “What a king-sized hang-up.”

My vision cleared slightly. “At last you have voiced a truth. I became a different man, totally different, a stranger to myself.”

“How’d you meet such a chick?” Willis asked with genuine interest.

I drew a breath. “In a place much like this. I... my wife had died I was, you might say, in loose-ends bachelorhood One evening I was entertaining a business client and his wife.”

“How deadly dull,” decided Cleef.

“She, the client’s wife, had heard of a place similar to this one,” I said, as if the poet hadn’t interrupted “She wanted to see the sights. She insisted we go, as a lark.”

“But you, not the fellowship, were the bugs under the microscope,” Cleef intoned sagely.

“Shut up.” Willis glowered a look at his companion. “Let the man talk. Go on, pops.”

“Go on?” I sagged morosely. “Where is there to go, after Camilla? With Camilla you have been all the way.”

Willis’ eyes glinted with a grain of fresh respect. “Tough, pops.”

“Lovely while it lasted,” I amended. “I met her that night, on the lark. We grooved, as I believe you would put it.” I broke off, numbly, trying to relate the experience in my own mind to the “straight” sitting at the table with Cleef and Willis. “Then she turned me off. It was nightmare. I pleaded. She reviled. I begged — and Camilla laughed...”

“And she split the scene?” Willis finished.

“Yes,” I said, squeezing my eyes tight and seeing her face against the darkness; lovely face, mask-like face; face that could become cruel, unendurably cruel. “Yes, she split the scene.” I wrapped it up in a whisper.

Willis scratched his beard and gave his head a short shake. “Who’d have believed it?” He lifted his eyes and looked about the Moons of Jupiter. “So it was the thought of Camilla that brought you in tonight?”

“You might say that,” I agreed. I washed the final drop of Scotch from the glass against my lips. “You see, after Camilla, my home town was unbearable. I left I’ve wandered, for a long way. It hasn’t been easy.”

“Looking for another Camilla,” the poet said. “I should write about you, man, if it all wasn’t so corny.” Cleef half stood, drugged eyes flicking about the room. “Is she here tonight? Another Camilla? Do you see another Camilla, man?”

“There will never be another Camilla, sonny,” I said. “Once is enough.”

“So now you wander some more, pops?” Willis asked.


“Why don’t we wander together, pops? Have a ball? Cleef and I have rapped about blowing this town. We’d like to see California, New Orleans, Miami when the chill winds blow.”

“Dust to salve the itch in our feet,” the poet supplied.

“That’s right, pops,” Willis nodded. “We yearn to roam. You got a car and dough.”

“Sorry,” I said, suddenly very sober, “but I don’t think...”

“Man,” Willis said, “you just think about Camilla.” His heavy face had changed, hardened. He lifted his right hand almost to tabletop level. I saw the glint of dusky light on six inches of gleaming switchblade. I sat very still. This was the decision the pair had made when I’d strolled in and they’d pegged me for an easy mark.

“Let’s go, pops,” Willis said.

“All right,” I swallowed drily. “I won’t resist. You won’t have to hur

t me.

“That’s good, pops. We don’t want to hurt you. We’re not stupid. Just the dough and the car, that’s all.”

We rose from the table and walked out of the Dantean room and onto a parking lot, Willis close behind me with the tip of the knife against my back.

“It’s the sporty little car right over there,” I said. “Please... careful with the knife.” I eased the wallet from my pocket, stripped it of cash, several hundred dollars, and handed the money to Willis.

His big hand closed over the bread. “Thanks, pops. And look, you ought to be more careful, wandering into places like the Moons of Jupiter.”

“Seeking adventure, you found it,” the poet surmised.

I handed the car keys to Willis. “That’s it. You have got it. You’ve stripped me clean.”

“So long, pops.”

I saw the flash of his big fist. Conditioned as I was, even after Camilla, I could have handled him — both of them, Cleef posing no problem in a rough-and-tumble.

I took the punch on the chin, rolling with it just enough to keep from being knocked blotto. My knees crumpled. I fell on the darkly shadowed asphalt, stunned but not unconscious.

I heard Willis say: “That’ll hold him while we split the scene.”

I heard the poet intone: “Hail the open road!”

I heard the rush of their feet, the starting of the car, the sigh of engine as the car took them from the parking lot.

I got up and dusted myself off in time to see the taillights vanish around a distant street corner.

Good-bye Camilla’s car... Bought with my money, but she’d done the shopping, chosen the model. Not even a fingerprint to connect the car to me; I’d wiped them away before entering the Moons of Jupiter.

I strolled to the street in order to find a taxicab several blocks from the scene.

Good-bye, Camilla...

I still had the smallest catch in my throat. I hadn’t really meant to kill her when I struck her in that final moment of insane rage.

Farewell, Camilla... It was hard to cover my tracks and get rid of you, the evidence. I wonder when they will find you in the trunk of the car? California? New Orleans? At some service station in Alabama when the attendant moves from gas pump to the rear of the car and catches the first whiff of the ripening smell?

As for you, easy marks, you know not from where I came, or where I go, or even my name.

So enjoy the ride...

Gator Bait

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Originally published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , March 1971.

Crouched on the prow of the drifting water sled under a brazen Louisiana sky, Chat felt the old dread pouring through him in sickening waves. It was an icy prickling in his clammy, sun-leathered skin. It blurred his vision so that Fornier’s Bayou seemed to swirl about him, the canebrakes, the hummocks of greasy green palmetto and saw grass, the towering fingers of heat-blasted gray cypress with their festoons of Spanish moss.

A thin, stringy-muscled, undersized thirteen, Chat clutched the scabrous, weathered gunwales and wallowed his tongue inside his mouth, wishing he could spit out the dry, cottony feeling.

He shivered, listening to the watery whisper as Lefevre, his stepfather, stood in the stern, poling the craft. They had inched into the bayou under power fifteen minutes ago. Lefevre had cut the throttle, kicking the air propeller to a stop in its wire-mesh cage. The slow, careful search for an alligator den had begun.

Within five minutes, Chat had spotted the wet hump, the protrusion of tangled twigs that meant ’gator. As if in supplication, a nearly naked young figure clad in tattered jeans and dingy sneakers, he’d crouched with his lips forming a silent plea for Lefevre to miss the ’gator sign. More than anything, he’d wanted to go home today empty-handed, without a wetting.

The sled lurched from a hard jab of the pole. Chat slipped a glance over his shoulder. A big, strapping, Cajun figure in the stern, bending his dark, hairy weight against the pole, Lefevre split his tangle of black, wiry beard with a snag-toothed grin.

“We got us a skin, boy! Get ready. That ’gator is going to shed his hide!”

Lefevre’s words seemed to hang in the muggy, primeval stillness.

Chat closed his eyes, the dread in him sharpening until it felt like fishhooks in his stomach.

“Boy,” Lefevre rumbled, “what’s the m

atter with you? Get a move on! We got to wake that old ’gator up and get him mad enough to come roaring out of his den.”

“I don’t feel so good, Pa.”

“Belly hurting again?”

“Yeah, Pa.”

“Now, boy,” Lefevre growled, “you just cut that sissy stuff out. Hear me? Ain’t you ashamed? What’s the matter with you, anyhow? Ain’t you normal? Toutain’s boy, and those twins of De Vaux, they take to ’gator baiting like it was candy. You going to be the only yellow-belly boy in the swamp?”

Chat clutched his stomach. “I can’t help it, Pa.”

Lefevre cleared his throat, making it a heavy sound of disgust and disparagement “Boy, you lived on your ma’s apron strings too long, just you and a woman. It’s time you quit acting like a girl. Why, when I was your age, I couldn’t wait to go ’gator baiting. I used to beg my pa. I used to prod them out for the pure hell fun of it. You need to change your attitude, boy. It’s the greatest excitement in the world. Running a fox or treeing a coon don’t hold a candle to it!”

“Yes, Pa.” Somehow Chat managed to rise. His knees were weak with an inner trembling, but they supported him. Sparks of panic misted behind his eyes as he saw how close the sled had moved in.

“That’s better,” Lefevre said. He steadied the peeled-sapling pole with his left hand, bent down and pitched the coil of slender hemp rope that had lain at his feet Chat caught the line instinctively. He felt his hands forming the noose, slipping it about his shoulders, securing it under his armpits. Then he was powerless to move further. “Pa, I swear I can’t—”

“Enough!” Lefevre’s voice was a cruel, muted roar, thick with contempt for cowardice. “I’ve heard all the mealy-mouthing I’m going to! Now you get the hell in the water and roust that ’gator out or I’ll whale the tar out of you.”

Shivering, Chat slipped into the water. It was about shoulder deep, a turgid swath hampering his movements. He slipped the long wooden rod from its homemade wire brackets on the port side of the sled. He forced himself to move, taking slow steps on the soft bottom while Lefevre played out the hemp line and steadied the sled, elbow crooked about the pole.

The first rancid mustiness of the alligator’s den came to Chat, choking his thin nostrils. Hesitantly, he lifted the hard wooden rod and poked in the direction of the den.

“In closer, boy!” Lefevre snarled. “You ain’t playing pat-a-cake!”

The merciless sun seemed to hide as Chat edged forward. Holding the long rod with both hands just below water level, he snaked the tip into the barely visible mouth of the den. His heart was a motionless lump of ice as the rod searched and probed. He felt it strike scaly hide. Then a piece of it snapped as saw-toothed jaws clicked.

The water suddenly thrashed and boiled.

“Pa!” Chat screamed. He leaped backward. He felt the noose under his armpits pinch tight as Lefevre hauled in the line, hand over hand. Chat lost his footing, gagging on water pouring across his sun-bleached thatch and into his nose as Lefevre retrieved him like a wriggling minnow.

The man’s strength swooped him into the air, dumped him onto the deck. Supporting himself half-prone and blowing water from his lungs, Chat saw Lefevre out of the corner of his eyes. The towering figure was leveling a thirty-aught-six rifle at the charging alligator. The brute came like a half-submerged log fired from a catapult, leaving an angry wake.

Grinning broadly, Lefevre squeezed the trigger. The rifle-crack jolted through Chat. He turned his face away from the sight of the rolling convulsions, the sudden redness in the black-surfaced swamp water, as the ’gator died.

Lefevre slapped his thigh and his happy guffaw rang like a delayed echo of the rifle shot. “Boy, I got me a skin! It’ll fetch some fine black-market dollars so’s a citified gent can wear hisself a hundred-buck pair of alligator shoes!”

Lefevre usually drank to success, and this night was no exception. In his small room, Chat lay sleepless on his pallet, watching the reflections of a kerosene lamp dance about the doorway as Lefevre sat alone, drinking at the rough plank table in the next room. The man was already talking to himself and singing snatches of old Cajun songs in a broken French patois. Chat could predict the next hours accurately. His stepfather would drink himself into a stupor and brief peace would come to the unpainted, clapboard shanty set high on its stilts beneath a hoary old willow tree.

Chat wanted to sleep, but each time he closed his eyes that moment returned, that harrowing instant when he was sure the ’gator would get him. He’d never heard of a ’gator-baiting kid being eaten up. Their daddies, or uncles, or whoever they were poaching with always snaked them out, but the knowledge didn’t stop Chat’s imagination from working. He could see the unwinking ’gator eyes, the cotton-like interior of the jaws, the cruel teeth.

He clenched his fists and gritted his teeth. “I swear,” he sobbed to himself, “I can’t do it again.”

If Ma were still here, he wouldn’t have to; or Pa. His real pa had died so long ago from cottonmouth bite that Chat could hardly remember him, but he could recall his father’s contempt for the poachers, the black marketeers, the easy-dollar men who were killing off the alligators. Pa had been content to fish and hunt and go off for a few days at a time to work in the distant sawmill when he needed a hard dollar for sugar or gingham or coffee.

After Pa’s death, there’d just been Chat and Ma. Life had been very hard. There were few people so far back up in Big Shandy Swamp, and little a boy and his mother could do for a hard dollar. Ma’s sister, Aunt Mavis, had sent them a little money now and then, and they’d made out.

Then Lefevre had come courting in his secondhand suit and wrinkled necktie in the collar of his blue denim shirt. Chat suspected that Ma had married him because she felt her boy needed a father, a man about the place.

That hadn’t worked out very well, either. Ma had got a terrible pain in her side and before they could pack her out to the half-dozen sunbaked, slab-and-tin buildings of Rickel’s Crossing, much less a hospital, Ma had died from a ruptured appendix.

Aunt Mavis had come to the funeral, hugging Chat long and hard after it was over. She’d told Chat about the strange world far off yonder beyond the swamp, about Houston, Texas, where she made good money working as a waitress in a nice, clean restaurant, where she figured on marrying a fellow named Jim who drove a big trailer truck.

“He would’ve come,” Aunt Mavis had said, “but he was on a cross-country haul when word reached me about Sis. You’d like Jim, little Chat, and he would think the world of you. So you try and get your stepdaddy to let you come and stay with us a while. Even live with us. You’ve always got a home with us, Chat.”

Lefevre had squelched the idea before it could take root. “No dice, boy. I need you here, helping on the trap lines and fish nets and running of the house. You forget it, boy, quick and for good. This is your home. This is where you stay.”

A short time after that, Lefevre had taken to poaching, an activity that made Chat far more valuable than a prime, blooded, redbone hound dog.

The day after his drinking bout, Lefevre stayed in bed, sick, calling out to Chat now and then to bring him endless quantities of drinking water. He was red-eyed and gray-faced beneath his wild bush of black beard. It was no time to cross him, and Chat spent the hours weeding the garden patch where yams, corn, squash, and gourds grew.

The next morning, Lefevre was up and away early. Chat went fishing, content to be by himself, thankful he didn’t run into the Toutain or De Vaux boys. They were always up to something, and when their paths crossed Chat’s he was always in for some rough teasing.

He much preferred to think about Aunt Mavis, how kind and sweet she’d been, how nice she smelled when she’d hugged his neck. He wondered what her Jim looked like. He must be a fine fellow to rate a woman like Aunt Mavis. Chat suspected that they’d written him, perhaps even sent him a little money, but he had no way of knowing for sure. It was always Lefevre who went into Rickel’s Crossing, end of the line for mail.

The following morning, Chat was awakened by the grip of Lefevre’s heavy hand on his shoulder. The instant he opened his eyes, Lefevre’s face, glowing with greed and excitement, filled his vision.

“Get a move on, boy! We got us a big one today.” On one knee beside the pallet, Lefevre rubbed his palms and grinned in high glee. The morning light seemed to make every jet-black, curling hair about his ears, thick neck and heavy-boned face stand out individually. “Cut his sign working the trap lines yesterday. Almost under our noses, boy. Right over there in Berdine’s Lagoon. Claw marks and belly drag say he’s a whopper, twenty-five feet if he’s an inch!”

“Pa, I don’t feel so good,” Chat managed.

Lefevre’s grin faded. His face darkened. “Boy, how come you want to kill the real fine feeling of the day?”

“I can’t help the way I feel, Pa.”

“The devil you can’t!” He grabbed Chat by the shoulder and flung him to his feet. “I’ve heard the last of this I’m going to, boy! It’s time you got over it. You got a job of ’gator baiting to do, and you’re going to do it! I’m going to bust the yellow streak — or break you. You understand that?”

“Yes, Pa.” Teeth chattering. Chat snubbed the cord that belted his jeans.

“And don’t you forget it,” Lefevre warned. “Now you get in there and get ready. I’ve already cooked side meat and grits while you pampered your lazy head. You got exactly five minutes to eat your breakfast.”

With pasty grits and greasy sow-belly wadded in his throat, Chat moved through a morning that didn’t seem quite real. Details all stood out with a strangely sharp clarity as the sled moved through the trackless, watery wastes. Low-hanging vines swayed, threatening. A curtain of gray Spanish moss clutched like cobwebs as Chat reached out to part them for the sled’s passage. Cypress snags reared from the swirling water like sharp, hungry teeth. A five-foot cottonmouth slithered from a mangrove tangle and eeled beneath and past the water sled, a fearsome omen.

Flocks of birds and a long-legged white heron fluttered from jungle growth as the whirring air propeller shoved the sled along over grassy marsh, drawing no more draft than a surfboard.

The early sun was a torment, a glare filling the whole of the cloudless sky and stepping up the tempo of the mallets beating inside Chat’s skull.

The lagoon opened before his gritty-eyed gaze, a long stretch of water with a surface like black glass, hemmed by palmetto, wild cabbage palms, high grass, and a few gnarled pines.

Lefevre cut the engine and the sled slipped forward silently as he began poling.

Crouched in the prow, Chat thought desperately: Maybe we’ll miss the den this time. Maybe the big bull won’t be in it , but he knew he was wrong. From the way Lefevre was tracking the water sled, Chat knew that his stepfather had located the den yesterday, when he’d cut the ’gator’s sign, and he knew the bull would be here. He was emptily certain of it.

“All right, boy, over the side.” Lefevre kept his voice down, but it quivered with eagerness.

Chat stood up, facing the man slowly. Lefevre had picked up the line, was tossing it to him.

Chat caught the thin rope. “Pa, are you sure this is the way it’s got to be?”

Lefevre’s mustache and beard shifted with the angry twisting of his mouth. “Don’t start that again, boy! Fair warning, for the last time!”

“All right, Pa .” Chat wriggled the lasso under his armpits, picked up his long prodding pole, and slipped into the water. It was deeper than he’d thought, claiming him to his chin. Pole upraised like a long, thin spear, he worked his way forward, buoyancy pulling the mucky bottom away from him at each step.

The den was straight ahead, just a few yards now. He could see the mouth of the huge nest just under the surface.

He stopped moving, settled his sneakered feet firmly on the bottom. Glancing behind, he saw Lefevre, solid and spread-legged, playing out the line until it dipped into the water.

“Come on, boy!” Lefevre bit out “Get moving. Take up the slack. You’re just about there.”

“I can’t, Pa.” Chat spoke with head lifted, keeping his chin clear.

Lefevre worked the line in his hands. “Boy,” he said in a low, deadly tone, “if you ain’t moving before I can count to three...”

“You big overgrown fool,” Chat said with a heat he’d never before displayed. “There’s snags in here. You blind? Can’t you see them sticking up here and yonder?”

“Snags in every swamp,” Lefevre said. “You just get your foot loose and be quick about it.”

Chat ducked, then reappeared with water spilling from his head. He twisted his face once more in Lefevre’s direction. “Can’t make it. You want your ’gator, you come in and free my ankle.”

Lefevre measured the distance to the den with a glance. He hesitated. He cursed the delay. He threw the line down savagely. Then he slipped over the side and labored with slogging steps toward Chat, his eyes despising the boy for his awkwardness. He came to rest beside Chat. Again his small, black eyes flicked in the direction of the den.

“Just free my foot,” Chat said, water lapping to his lips, “and then get back and take hold of the line. Please, Pa. Please hurry!”

With a final glower at Chat, Lefevre lowered his bulk beneath the surface. Chat saw his sinking shadow, felt the touch of Lefevre’s hands on his leg.

Then, with a release of his hard, stringy muscles. Chat fired himself off the bottom. He stepped on Lefevre, bearing him down, the surprise of the action addling the man for a moment. The long prod in Chat’s hands shot into the den. It lashed the water. He felt it strike the lurking ’gator — once, twice, three times — with all the strength Chat could put behind it.

Lefevre spluttered up to the surface in the same instant the maddened bull charged from his lair with a bellow that jarred trees at the far end of the lagoon.

“Now, big man,” Chat screamed, “let’s see who’s the best man in the swamp...” He gurgled the final word, surface diving with the agility of a young otter.

Lefevre stared into the enormity of cotton-lined jaws. He endured a fear-paralysis for one second before he broke and thrashed toward the water sled. He was one second too late.

Early the following Monday morning. Chat walked into Rickel’s Crossing. His jeans and red flannel shirt were washed clean. His freckled, snub-nosed face was scrubbed. His sun-bleached thatch was combed.

The village hunkered in its usual air of desertion, a couple of muddy pickup trucks parked on the narrow, dusty road that petered out here on the swamp’s edge.

Chat spotted Mr. Fargo sitting in a cane-bottomed chair on the porch of his weathered general store. Mr. Fargo was dozing in the heat, a big, fat, bald-headed fellow whose short-sleeved shirt looked like an extra skin pasted on with sweat.

Chat halted at the porch rail, where whittlers had carved initials, notches, and little primitive resemblances to human faces.

Chat cleared his throat and Mr. Fargo opened his big, bulbous, blue eyes. “Well, hello there, Chat.”

“How are you, Mr. Fargo?” Chat said politely, looking up from his stance in the dust.

“I’m just fine, boy, but I hear you been in a terrible experience. By the time you run and fetched the Toutains, wasn’t much of your step-daddy left to bury.”

“No, sir.” Chat cleared his throat. “But we give him a right fitten funeral. Now I reckon to go to Houston, Texas, and see my Aunt Mavis.”

“That’s a far piece, boy. You got any money for bus fare, grub, and such like?”

“I figure I can make it.” With plenty to spare, Chat added to himself, feeling the three hundred dollars of poacher’s money pinned beneath his shirt. Lefevre had kept his treasure trove in a fruit jar buried beneath the old willow tree.

“If you can’t hitch a ride, boy,” Mr. Fargo said, “you got a ten-mile walk down our back road to the highway where you can flag a bus. And it’s a mighty hot day for walking.”

“Not to me,” Chat said. “I figure it’s a real fine day for walking. Good-bye, Mr. Fargo.”

“Good-bye, boy, and luck to you.”

Chat nodded, turned, and set off down the road. He began whistling as he rounded the first bend in the road, and it was the note of a bird set free.

The Commune

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Originally published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , January 1971.

The intruder couldn’t have picked a safer place to invade than the rambling, age-musty Victorian house where little old lady Lominac lived alone.

The widow was less than a hundred pounds of dainty bones and wrinkles — incredible wrinkles, like skeins of cobwebs delicately traced in layers, one upon another. Yet even if the widow Lominac’s wrinkles had wrinkles, the effect was not unpleasant. Sweetly formed little bones lurked beneath the wrinkles, and gentle blue eyes peered out.

Physically, she was no match for any intruder stronger than a sturdy six-year-old. Even if she’d had a weapon, it was impossible to think of her firing it at another human being. One might just as easily have imagined Whistler’s mother, mini-skirted in a psychedelic joint, plunging a heroin hypo into her arm.

The widow’s house was, by today’s standards, a gingerbread monstrosity of cupolas, turrets, gables, leaves, tall chimneys, and blank windows. It glowered gothically from a slight rise that overlooked the weedy acres of what had once been a landscaped estate on the edge of town.

Like its owner, the place had an aura of loneliness, as if bewildered at finding itself in an era of split-levels, jet planes, and polluted air. The house lurked with memories of croquet games on sunny lawns, genteel courtships on the porch swing, summer parties lighted by paper lanterns.

Mrs. Lominac’s young husband had gone forth in World War I, never to return to the house. A generation later, her only child, a son born just three months after his father had gone overseas to France, had marched away down the same front walk. It had been the first leg of a journey that ended when a Japanese machine gun cut him in two on a South Pacific island.

Mrs. Lominac bore her losses bravely. If she wept, it was in the privacy of a familiar, high-ceilinged room. She closed off parts of the house as the years eroded her strength. At last she resided in three pleasantly antiquated rooms on the ground floor, with southern exposure. They were all she cared to housekeep, but whatever she did, she did well, with thoroughness. The rooms reflected a quaint, story-bookish comfort, with the brass fire tongs polished, the lace curtains snowy, the heavy furniture (over which an antique collector would have drooled) gleaming from the years-long ritual of anointment with lemon oil.

Making do comfortably on the modest income left by her husband, little Mrs. Lominac gradually curtailed herself, as she had done with her house. She literally hated the moments when she gave up another motion of living. Even more, she would have despised the humiliation of having a red-faced, throat-clearing deacon or committee chairman tell her in a polite, roundabout way that they’d have to get along without her.

She knew the generations had come and gone. Nobody had to tell her. She knew what she was, a cobwebby old woman who lived in a spooky relic of the past. She hardly talked the language of the young people today who made up the church visiting committee, which she had once headed. She was too gray now for the hospital Gray Ladies. Her visage seemed to frighten the tykes at the orthopedic home more than the stories she read amused them when she creaked out there of a Wednesday afternoon.

Each time she retired from this or that with a brief speech or letter, the deacon or committeeman protested, “But, Mrs. Lominac, it won’t be the same — how can we ever get along without you?”... and each time she sensed the relief inside the committeeman when her firm little smile convinced him that she really meant it. The kind and gentle little old anachronism was actually getting out from underfoot.

She would return to her house a bit slower each time, feeling the years, the loss of another particle of herself. The day she gave up the story hour at the orthopedic home, to be replaced by a glowingly healthy college girl with huge glasses and apple cheeks, Mrs. Lominac opened the brass-bound chest in her bedroom and placed the storybook beside her husband’s Croix de Guerre and her son’s Silver Star.

She wondered later if that was the night the unknown visitor had come for the first time. She had no way of knowing for sure. He came as silently and invisibly as the years themselves.

She discovered the first evidence of his presence the next morning. Nothing nerve-shattering announced that she’d had a visitor, no broken window or forced lock, no muddy boot prints. The day dawned like a thousand other winter days, clear and cold, brittling the inch-deep dusting of snow that had fallen the day before.

Mrs. Lominac, almost an elfin impression in the massive poster bed, clung to the warmth of her comforters after her eyes slowly opened. She looked at her window and the ice-laced oak outside... the earth seemed very silent and empty. A lassitude came over her. There wasn’t a reason on earth for her to get up, when you came right down to it. A relic... unneeded... unwanted... a husk enduring beyond its period of usefulness. Then her lips firmed. She threw back the covers and hopped out of bed in her white, ankle-length muslin gown as if she had half a dozen appointments to keep today.

Slipping into a plaid woolen robe and felt slippers, she padded to the kitchen, put water on to boil for tea, and turned on the radio to catch a newscast.

It was when she opened the breadbox that the first question stirred in her mind. In that moment, it was a question relating to herself. Was her memory starting to go? She was certain this fresh loaf had been unopened when she retired last night. She’d bought it along with a few other things on her way from the orthopedic home, put it in the breadbox, and had a leftover corn muffin with her dinner last night.

Yet here the loaf was now, with the end of the plastic wrapper ripped open and a third of the slices gone.

She stood in momentary quandary. Was it possible she had got up, had a night snack, and forgotten?

The thought was scary; until this moment she’d believed her mental faculties were as clear as they were thirty years ago.

As the thought crossed her mind, her gaze drifted to the sink. Her frown, parallel crevices in the maze of lines and cracks and shallower ravines, deepened. Slowly, she extended her hand and picked up the case knife from the bottom of the sink. It simply wasn’t like her to leave a dirty dish or piece of cutlery when the after-dinner chores were over. She always put things away.

She squinted at the brown smear on the knife blade, lifted it to her nose and sniffed. Looked like the residue of peanut butter. Smelled like it. She stripped her finger along the knife and lifted her finger to her mouth. Tasted like peanut butter, too.

Opening the overhead cabinet, she lifted out the peanut butter jar and unscrewed its cap. Staring inside the empty jar, she felt her breath binding. Now who would do a thing like that? Slip in and gobble up all the peanut butter?

The teakettle whistled at her now. She turned it off, bunched the front of her housecoat to keep it from binding about her ankles, and toured her apartment, eyes searching every detail.

Nothing had been touched, nothing taken — except the bread and peanut butter.

Surely there had to be a simple and harmless answer. A youngster, hiking through the woods, perhaps chasing rabbits across the snowy fields, had felt drawn by the haunted aspect of the old Lominac house. In her absence, he’d sneaked in, heart hammering a little, bug eyes exploring. The nerve of the cocky little rascal, Mrs. Lominac chuckled to herself.

Her busy day passed quickly. She cooked, cleaned, filled the bird-feeder in the side yard, washed, ironed, worked needlepoint, watched TV in the evening. It wasn’t until the next morning, early, that her uneasy subconscious mind disgorged the fallacy in her reasoning.

She snapped awake in the gray wintry dawn. The thought was full-blown: I didn’t go out again after I brought the bread home. It means the intruder helped himself in my kitchen while I lay in here asleep...

A faint shiver tugged at her thin muscles. She drew rigidly to a half-sitting position, staring at the closed door of the bedroom, listening to the silence throughout the cavernous old house.

She slipped out of bed, donned slippers and robe, and padded to the kitchen. She looked about carefully. Nothing seemed amiss.

She turned, opened a door, and stepped into a part of the house where she hadn’t been for days. She toured the silent, deserted dining room, the large, vaulted living-room, the library-study, the almost forgotten sun parlor where dust lay on the windowsills. In the gray light, the furniture loomed spectrally with its white muslin dust covers. Out here, the old-fashioned steam radiators had long since been turned off. The chill seeped through her robe and muslin gown. Her breath made faint gray puffs as Mrs. Lominac went from window to window, door to door.

Everything was locked, snug, secure. She paused in the gloomy rear hall, her wrinkles pinched in a pattern of thought. Turning, she opened the basement door. She clicked on a light and went down slowly. The narrow wooden steps creaked a sound of decay even under her slight weight. The faint mustiness of old and dampish concrete, bricks and mortar seeped into her nostrils.

The basement was barren, uncluttered. The fuel oil burner clicked on in obedience to the thermostat in her apartment... the sound was inordinately loud in the silence.

At the rear, a portion of the basement was above ground level. Four small steel-casement windows, widely spaced, admitted dust-filled light from the back yard. At the first of these, the window nearest the north corner, Mrs. Lominac found her answer. She fingered the thin tongue-and-sleeve latch that had rusted through. A person had only to push the window from outside, swing it up, and wriggle into the basement.

Mrs. Lominac lowered her hand slowly. So much for that. She knew how she had been burgled.

But by whom? She found the answer rather touching: obviously by some poor hungry soul who, contrary to intending any harm, had dined on the most frugal food in the house.

At four o’clock that afternoon Mrs. Lominac was in the kitchen taking a load from her clothes dryer when she heard a car approach and stop outside. Visitors were too rare a treat nowadays, and Mrs. Lominac was in an instant flurry, dumping the clothes in a wicker basket and rushing to the side door that served as an outside entry to her apartment.

She flung the door open, a frown catching quickly as she saw the official markings on the car that had halted in the driveway nearby.

She watched Sheriff Grimsby get out, a big, reddish man in boots, poplin jacket, and Stetson. His weight crunched solidly across the snow-crust. His big-jowled face split in a smile to relieve the question in Mrs. Lominac’s eyes. “Just passing, Mrs. Lominac, and thought I’d say hello.”

She ushered him in and took his hat, her eyes sparkling with the advent of company. “It was certainly thoughtful of you, Sheriff, dropping in this way. Do sit down. I’ll have tea ready before you can say Jack Robinson!”

“Well, as a matter of fact, I’m afraid I haven’t time, Mrs. Lominac. This isn’t entirely a social call.”


“I’m doing a favor for some folks who live over in the old Cranston place.”

“You mean that tumbledown shack by the river? My goodness, I thought the place was deserted since Mr. Cranston passed away. His son lives in New York, you know, and never sets foot in these parts.”

Sheriff Grimsby nodded. Under the urging of Mrs. Lominac’s bright eyes, he eased his bulk to the edge of a sofa. “Seems the son was propositioned by some people to rent the place... for next to nothing. They got a legal paper to prove they’re not trespassing.”

Mrs. Lominac, sitting stiffly erect in a Windsor chair facing the sheriff, pursed her wrinkled lips. “I can’t imagine anyone living in that cracker box.”

“These ain’t run-of-the-mill people, Mrs. Lominac. I’m surprised you haven’t heard about them.” Grimsby’s robust, hearty face quirked ruefully. “We’ve had a small hippie commune in our midst for three, four weeks now. Half a dozen youngsters living over there.”

Mrs. Lominac’s eyes sparked with quick interest. “That must have jarred some of our good people, I can imagine, Sheriff!”

The lively remark brought a chuckle from Grimsby. “You imagine right, Mrs. Lominac. Had a delegation call on me, wanted them chased out of the county.” Grimsb

y shrugged. “But what could I do? They were there legally, not squatters. Minding their own business. Soft-speaking kids. Peaceful. Even gentle.”

Grimsby’s voice trailed off. Mrs. Lominac shifted in her chair, the movement impatient for Grimsby to get on with the story.

“The delegation wasn’t happy, but accepted the reality. I thought the matter was closed, figured the kids would hang around for a while and drift on. But a couple nights ago...” Grimsby’s teeth bit off the words. A breath flared from him.

“Yes, Sheriff?” Mrs. Lominac prodded.

“Carload of local toughs went out there,” Grimsby snorted. “Big men, you know. Out for some fun.” The sheriff’s voice thickened with sarcasm and disgust. “They snuck up, busted in, scattered the commune, and chased the kids roundabout the woods and hills until the whole thing got to be a bore.”

“Did you catch them, Sheriff?”

“You kidding? Didn’t know anything about it until a boy from the commune came into town this morning. Said one of them hadn’t returned. So,” Grimsby rose heavily, “I’m just sort of checking around to see if anybody’s seen this kid. About twenty, from the description I got. Slender. Long brown hair and beard. Dressed in Navy surplus pants and pea jacket.”

Mrs. Lominac’s gaze drifted toward her kitchen. She thought for a moment, then nodded decisively to herself. “I haven’t seen him, but I think you’ve solved my mystery. I think he was here.”

Reaching for his hat, which Mrs. Lominac had carefully deposited on a drum table, Grimsby went rigid for a second. “How’s that? Mystery? He was here — in this house?”

“I’ve no real proof, Sheriff. But someone entered and quietly stuffed himself with peanut butter sandwiches. I didn’t know until yesterday morning, when I discovered the food missing.”

Grimsby stood fingering the brim of his five-gallon hat. “It adds up,” he agreed. “The kid gets lost, wandering around. Scared to go back to the commune, anyhow. Probably figures the others feel the same way. Starving and got nothing but the clothes on his back. Then he stumbles onto the sight of this big old house where a harmless little woman evidently lives alone.”

Mrs. Lominac smiled. “Don’t worry about me, Sheriff, I seem to have been quite safe.” Her smile became a brief laugh. “You might even say he was the most courteous of burglars.”

Grimsby paused with his hand on the doorknob. “At least I’m glad none of our local boys, even the punks, are guilty of bashing a head in.”

“Do come again when you can visit longer, Sheriff.”

“Yes, ma’am. It’s always a pleasure to see you, Mrs. Lominac. And thanks for the help.” The sheriff opened the door, glanced across the snow-blanketed, empty fields. “Could be the boy is hitchhiking his way to Florida by this time.”

“Good-bye, Sheriff,” Mrs. Lominac called, framed in the open doorway.

Grimsby waved a reply as he slid into his car. Mrs. Lominac watched him drive away, and then closed the door against the winter chill.

She crossed the room slowly, going to the kitchen. She mulled the whole thing over in her mind while she folded the linens she’d taken from the clothes dryer.

By six-thirty, Mrs. Lominac had finished the few things that needed ironing. She folded the board, swinging it up into its wall niche, crossed the kitchen, and turned on water for tea.

She couldn’t decide what she wanted for dinner. She opened the food storage cabinets over the counter topping that stretched away from the sink on either side. She studied canned goods, boxes, jars, fingertip thoughtfully against her chin.

Then a slow frown began to form in the network over her eyes. Thoughts of dinner faded. She was nagged with the feeling that something was out of place... something was wrong. Her subconscious had noticed and was trying to tell her.

She reached and touched items in the cabinet. It was really quite irksome, this knowing that you were looking at something you couldn’t recognize.

Then it came to her. The glass container of baked beans was missing. She always bought the same brand. She had bought them day before yesterday, in the grocery order she had brought home. She’d put them in this exact spot...

She drew back, a tiny pulse beating in her slender, wrinkle-enfolded neck. The lost, wandering boy had eaten here... peanut butter one night... baked beans the next?

A spark flared in her eyes. In a sudden burst of action, she hurried into the bedroom, slipped into a heavy coat and galoshes. She swathed her head in a woolen scarf as she dashed into the twilight; cold outside. It took her less than ten minutes to circle the house, her eyes surveying the white, unbroken sheet of snow that covered the hills, fields, gullies.

She entered her apartment, cheeks pinked from the cold. Taking off her outdoor garments, she dropped them across a chair, her gaze slanted toward the ceiling of the room.

The snow had fallen afresh after the intruder had come here. Now, there were no tracks going away from the house, except for the sheriff’s and the tire marks of his car.

Mrs. Lominac didn’t feel the chill in the gray, unused part of her house as she slipped from her apartment, crossed the vaulted, spectral living-room, and floated up the long curving stairway with the silence of a little ghost.

Swallowed by the gloom of the upper hallway, she paused to listen. Then she slid along the wall until she came to the narrow stairs that led to the attic. She hardly stirred a mote of dust, going up. She pressed her ear against the small door. The twilight thickened. Then at last she heard the soft sound of a movement in the attic... a rustling... a brief cough.

She lowered her head to keyhole level and pressed her right eye to the aperture.

He had a light — a candle — but he was out of range. Mrs. Lominac waited, and her patience was rewarded when he came into her field of view. He sat down cross-legged on a pallet he’d fashioned for himself, and opened a book he’d borrowed from the dusty library downstairs.

Mrs. Lominac studied all that she could see of him through the constriction of the keyhole: the slender bone structure... the sensitive face under the long beard... the intentness of the hollow-socketed eyes as they strained to read in the candlelight.

Carefully, Mrs. Lominac inched her way back down.

Am I crazy ? she asked herself. She really didn’t care about the answer.

On the main floor she went from room to room, turning on radiators that creaked and popped when the steam began seeping into them.

Returning to her apartment, she decided that yes, she was crazy. But perhaps in the right kind of way. At least it felt pretty nice, this craziness; this feeling that the old relic might still be of use, was still needed, still had a value.

When you’re all used up in one world, she thought, you’re mighty lucky, I guess, if you stumble on another. A strange new world to be explored... new talk... new ideas...

The last thing before she retired that night, Mrs. Lominac wrote the note. She taped it to the door of the grocery cabinet where the boy couldn’t miss it when he eased down later for his monastically simple meal of the night.

She stepped back and read the large block letters of her message over again: “The warmest of invitations is extended to you and the others as well. Please bring them. We’ll have a ball.”

Then Mrs. Lominac turned off the light and went to her bedroom. She sat in a boudoir chair in the darkness, waiting, listening impatiently, filled with the heavy excitement of a girl about to attend her first party.

The Delicate Victim

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Originally published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , July 1971.

Terry Bixby stopped the white convertible in the driveway of the imposing redwood rancher in Tanglewood Heights. Looking at the lovely home, he slumped behind the wheel. Thoughts of the future wrung a groan from him.

He wondered which would go first — the home, the car, the furniture. Everything was third-mortgaged and refinanced to the hilt. He wasn’t a magician, and without a monetary miracle, strangers were going to be enjoying their car and throwing those wonderful poolside parties.

Terry sensed movement beside the car and lifted his face from his hands. In her chic, polished cotton dress and sandals, glistening black hair casual about her tanned, lovely face, Miriam was the perfect image of the smart suburban homemaker.

The deep violet of her eyes went a shade darker as she watched the haggard way Terry got out of the car. “You didn’t get the loan,” she stated thinly.

“When I left the finance company,” Terry snapped back, “I couldn’t even get a drink in Chez Pierre. Seems our liquor bill is more than slightly overdue.”

“Too bad, darling,” Miriam’s words crackled brittle ice shards, “you had to pass up your afternoon cocktail!”

“Don’t ride me, Miriam! Not this evening.”

Of course not, you poor dear,” his wife said nastily. She folded her arms and tapped a toe. “But just what do you propose we do now?”

Terry took a heavy breath. “I don’t know,” he admitted. He looked longingly at the house, the landscaped lawn, the poolside furniture just visible beyond the rear corner. His handsome young face flickered with the look of a small boy who’s just learned there’s no Santa Claus. “All we wanted was to live decently.”

“On easy credit and too little income,” Miriam said, her practical, female side asserting itself. “You’ll have to get up the nerve to ask old man Hergeshimer for a raise, that’s all!”

Terry’s knees wobbled at the mere thought. “Not a chance. I’m hanging onto my job by the skin of my teeth as it is. I don’t want to remind my boss I even exist.” He threw a desperate glance around him. “We’ll not give it up! We’ll find a way, if I have to... to rob a bank or something.”

Miriam’s laugh was remotely amused. “Really, Terry. You, in the role of nerveless bank robber? Whit a quaint notion! Anyway, we have another little problem that just popped in.”

“Spare me.” Terry’s eyes implored heavenward. “I thought we had already cornered the market on problems. What is it now?”

“We have a house guest. A little lady who says she is your great-aunt Griselda.”

“Griselda? I haven’t any... Wait a minute, would her last name be Carruthers?”

“So she says,” Miriam said.

“I haven’t seen her since I was a kid.” Terry glanced at the house. “I vaguely remember her as a slick young woman who supplied the rest of the family with its secret gossip. I think she eventually took off for New York and the lure of footlights.”

“She finally landed in our house,” Miriam said. “She arrived by taxicab about two hours ago. Said she’d flown all the way from Caracas and was delighted to have the phone book turn up the name of her only surviving relative here in the city.”


“A city in Venezuela, darling.”

“I know where Caracas is!” Terry glared at the house. “Okay, we’ll give her a dinner, a roof for the night, and let her fly right out again.”

Great-aunt Griselda was a dainty and wonderfully preserved woman. Her hair was feathery frost about an oval-shaped face that still retained an echo of its once captivating, porcelain prettiness.

The reunion took place in the living-room, Griselda hugging Terry and stepping back to look at him with a gentle hint of warm and happy tears in her flashing blue eyes. “You turned out to be a truly handsome man, Terry! And with such a lovely wife. I’m so happy to know that life has been kind to you, with this charming little home and all.”

“It’s nice to see you, Aunt Griselda,” Terry lied beautifully, remembering that she was only going to be here for the night.

“Perhaps you’d like to freshen up,” Miriam suggested, “while I finish getting dinner together.”

“Don’t put yourself out, dear. Any morsel will do for me.”

She ate more than a morsel of everything Miriam produced on the table.

“Delicious, delightful!” Aunt Griselda remarked throughout the meal.

Terry lifted a dubious brow. The dinner of roast, potatoes, and asparagus had been the usual scorched and lumpy results of Miriam’s efforts in the kitchen ever since their one servant, a cook-maid, had given up trying to collect the arrears of her salary and walked out three weeks ago.

“The General,” Griselda said, giving her lips a last dainty touch of her napkin, “would have enjoyed the dinner. He did so like his spot of roast beef. Perhaps beca

use was English, you know.”

“The General?” Terry looked up from the plate where he’d scooted food back and forth with the tip of his fork.

“But of course you didn’t know,” Aunt Griselda said. “My late husband, dear.” For an instant, despite her years, her eyes were those of a coquette. “The most interesting, lovable, and charming of all my husbands.”

Terry suspected the General wasn’t long gone. “I’m sorry about your bereavement, Aunt Griselda.”

“Thank you, dear, but I’m feeling better already, being here with you and Miriam. The General and I always felt at ease with younger people. Those gouty folks in the diplomatic and banking circles weren’t our speed. Indeed not. The General and I could swim, ride, golf, fly our plane, and party with the jet set — right up to the day when the bomb killed him.”

Miriam sat straighter. “Bomb? Did you say bomb?”

“Planted in the General’s limousine by those horrid terrorists.” Aunt Griselda’s eyes fired with vengeful wrath, “The cowardly, despicable...” She drew a breath to control the direction of her feelings. “But I really didn’t intend to dampen—”

“Not at all, Aunt Griselda,” Terry said. “What happened?”

“The bomb,” Griselda mused on a past moment of horror, “killed them both. The General and Ferdie.”

“Ferdie?” Terry ventured. “Not... your son?”

Griselda returned to the present with a tender look at Terry. “No, dear. The General and I never were blessed with children. Perhaps that’s why I looked you up. My arrival wasn’t at all accidental. I have no one now but you, Terry, and lovely Miriam.” She looked fondly from one to the other. Then she gave a little sigh. “But we were talking about Ferdie. He was the most excellent of chauffeurs; the product of a fine training school in England.”

Quite naturally, Terry and Miriam slipped a look at each other.

Miriam said casually, “I imagine a chauffeur like that would be expensive.”

“Expensive?” Griselda said, a bit blankly. Then she shrugged. “I suppose so. With the General’s millions we never bothered to count trifling costs. Of course I set up a trust to take care of Ferdie’s poor parents. It was the least I could do.”

Terry was becoming itchy with interest. “It reveals but another facet of a remarkable woman. By the way, did you meet the General in Venezuela?”

“No, dear. I was on the Riviera several years ago, the ideal place, really, for one to readjust after divorcing a second husband. I met the General there.” Her eyes grew dreamy. “The man for whom I’d waited all my life; dashing, handsome, debonair. A perfect gentleman, and the lover of lovers...”

Terry held off from intruding in Aunt Griselda’s memories for a moment. “Was he in the military at the time?”

“Military?” Aunt Griselda smiled with a hint of condescension. “His title was purely honorary, dear, bestowed on him by the King of Trans-Kublait. My husband’s interest was oil. He brought in wells from the Middle East to South America. It was his last business coup that took us to Venezuela — and the dreadful bomb.”

A fluttery eagerness to please their guest had crept to life in Miriam. “Wouldn’t you like more dessert, Aunt Griselda? Coffee? An after-dinner brandy?”

Aunt Griselda smiled her pleasure. “A spot of vintage Cognac—” She caught herself. “But of course anything you have on hand will do beautifully.”

During the following week changes took place in the Bixby household. Aunt Griselda was cozily ensconced in the east corner bedroom, the largest and sunniest.

Terry hocked his golf clubs for the price of good brandy. Mornings, he and Miriam tiptoed about the house, Griselda having quietly mentioned that she did enjoy her morning naps.

After dinner one evening, Terry directed a remark concerning money at Miriam, for Aunt Griselda’s benefit.

“I’m glad you brought up the subject,” Aunt Griselda said.

Terry’s heart warmed from the way she’d risen to the bait.

“I’ve had a talk with a local attorney and broker,” she informed them. “You’ll be interested to know that I’ve transferred considerable sums from Swiss banks — and written a will most favorable to my charming family.” She reached across the table and clasped their hands.

“Why... uh... Aunt Griselda... I didn’t mean...” Terry’s soaring spirits choked off his words.

The old lady missed his real feelings. She patted his hand. “There, there, dear, I understand; and please forgive me for referring to that lurking moment in the future when we shall be parted.”

She pushed back her chair. “Miriam, I’ll have a brandy in the den, please. This American television fascinates me, especially the quaint commercials.” Griselda glided toward the den with regal imperiousness.

Miriam gave Terry her I-could-wring-your-neck look. With the old lady out of earshot, Miriam added a hiss, “You lunkhead! You let the chance to put the bite on her slip right through your fingers!”

Terry groaned. “I’m sorry.”

“You should be. I spent the afternoon answering phone calls — from creditors.”

Terry shifted uneasily. “I wonder how much the old fool is worth?”

“From bits and pieces I’ve picked out of her,” Miriam said, “I’d say about five million.”

“Five...” Terry grabbed the edge of the table and hung on. “Get moving with that brandy. We can’t keep five million dollars waiting!”

Terry dreamed that night of monstrous stacks of currency mildewing in underground vaults. He woke with a drained feeling, and was thirty minutes late when he arrived at Hergeshimer & Co., Real Estate, Mortgages, Appraisals, Investments.

Terry tried to slip unobtrusively to his desk in the far corner, but Miss Buttons, the receptionist, must have been watching for him. She called his name and motioned him toward her desk.

“You’d better get into the old bear’s office right way,” she said. “He was out here asking for you.”

The corner of Terry’s mouth twitched. “Did he say what it’s about?”

“You kidding? But from the quiet, overly-polite manner he was wearing, I’d say he’s drooling with sadistic schemes inside.”

Terry forced one foot to precede the other in the direction of Hergeshimer’s office.

The old bear’s private secretary admitted Terry immediately. Hergeshimer rocked behind his desk, regarding Terry’s cowed figure with the gentlest of eyes. “Good morning, Bixby.”

“Good morning, Mr. Hergeshimer.

Mr. Hergeshimer smiled. “You’re fired, you lazy bum.”

Terry sank weakly toward a chair.

“Don’t use the furniture,” Mr. Hergeshimer said, most courteously. “You’re no longer connected with this company. You’re trespassing.”

“But, Mr. Hergeshimer—”

“No need for further talk, Bixby. Your severance pay is waiting at the cashier’s desk.”

Terry’s shaking hands wadded into limp fists. “At least you owe me an explanation.”

The old bear stopped his quiet rocking. “Owe you? If I owe you anything it’s a lawsuit to recover salary taken under false pretenses. As to my reasons for firing you, there are many. You are a prime, double-dyed example of the modern trend toward a half-day’s work for a double-day’s pay. Your sole concern is the salary and fringe benefits. The job involved is a bothersome annoyance to be shirked as easily as possible.”

The creases in Mr. Hergeshimer’s big face wreathed a pattern of raw pleasure. “In short, Bixby, you are a creep. The sword has been hanging over you for some time. Your failure with Conway yesterday cut the thread.”

“I tried to call Mr. Conway—”

“One time, Bixby. Just once. Then you were off to the country club. But Conway reached his office at three o’clock. If I hadn’t thought of giving him a ring myself, we might have lost the account.”

The old bear turned his attention to a tray of papers on his desk, blotting Terry from existence.

Terry dragged his feet into the comfortless luxury of his house and fell into a living-room chair.

Miriam came in, drawn by the sounds of his arrival. With robot-like motion, he turned his head and looked at her. “I’ve lost my job,” he said.

Her lips tightened to the vanishing point. “Oh, great! You’re a real success, Terry!”

He clutched the arms of the chair as if he would rip them off. “Don’t start on me now, Miriam,” he warned. Carefully, he relaxed his hands and drew a breath. “I’ve thought about it all the way home. Where is Aunt Griselda?”

“In the breakfast nook, nibbling a Texas pink grapefruit laced with sherry.”

Aunt Griselda made a rather exotic image against the bay of windows that enclosed the breakfast nook. She was wearing a wrapper of brilliant colors that she’d said the General had picked up for her in Algiers. Touching her coffee with a spot of cream, she glanced up. “Why, good morning, Terry. Taking the day off?”

“Well, not exactly... As a matter of fact, I’ve lost my job.”

The shadow of concern slipped from Aunt Griselda’s eyes. “For a moment, when you walked in with that look on your face, I thought something serious had happened.”

“This is pretty serious to Miriam and me!”

“But you must keep it in perspective, dear. Jobs are lost and found every day. As the General always said, any willing hands can find a constructive task. When one door closes, another opens. If the General were here, he’d advise you to regard this as a great opportunity to go out and find yourself a better job.”

She wavered in Terry’s vision as his control began to slip. He was so sick of the General’s stuffy, secondhand platitudes he could have crammed them back in Aunt Griselda’s small, pearly teeth. “A few empty words are all you’re going to offer us?”

In the act of rising, Aunt Griselda paused. Looking at him, her eyes cooled. “You know,” she said quietly, “I’ve the suspicion that I’m being tolerated in this house.”

Miriam dug an elbow in Terry’s rib. With a sweet smile, Miriam said, “Why would we do a thing like that, Auntie?”

“For my money,” Aunt Griselda said bluntly. “Perhaps I made the wrong entry. Would I have been welcome if I had arrived in rags?”

“Ever so welcome,” Miriam entreated. “Please believe me. We do love you — for yourself.”

“Sure,” Terry said. “I was upset for a minute, is all. Taking my feelings for my ex-boss out on you, Aunt Griselda.”

Griselda looked from one to the other. “In sickness or accident I should put unlimited funds at your disposal. Terry is my only living relative. One day, when I’m gone, you’ll have all that I possess. But you must solve this little present difficulty on your own, Terry. You’ll be a better man for having done so — and that is my sole consideration.”

Terry and Miriam stood perfectly still, watching Aunt Griselda cross the dining room and move out of view.

“We’ll never get it,” Miriam hissed, “until the day she dies.”

“She knows she’s got a grip on us,” Terry said.

“She’s made slaves of us,” Miriam added.

“Even slaves rebel and take what’s rightfully theirs...”

It was out in the open, the tantalizing, overpowering prospect.

Terry stole a glance at Miriam. The cold determination in her face gave him a slight shock. He realized that Miriam was way ahead of him. Miriam had been thinking about Aunt Griselda’s demise from the moment the old lady had revealed her financial status.

“She’s had her years,” Miriam said. “It wouldn’t be any great loss.”

Terry struggled with a single word: “How?”

“She’s going to take her morning shower right now. We are witnesses for each other. No one can dispute our words. Aunt Griselda is going to slip and fall in the bathroom. Start mustering your grief for your dear, departed aunt, Terry,” Miriam stated abruptly.

While her decision retained its initial iron hardness, Miriam hurried across the dining room, shoulders square. She didn’t look back.

Terry stood with everything inside of him drawing tighter and tighter. He heard a door open, voices speak. A muffled scream. The thuds of a struggle in a remote part of the house. Another scream, longer, higher in its wailing pitch.

Terry clamped his eyes shut and clapped his hands over his ears. The silence seemed endless. Then a form materialized in the hallway arch. It was Aunt Griselda. She was wriggling and jerking smooth the wrinkles in a blue silk dress which she had just slipped into.

She looked across at Terry with the degree of frosty contempt that only the very worldly-wise person can muster.

“My dear boy, through a sense of graciousness I’ve endured the boredom of this house, with nothing but stupid TV programs and the oblivion of catnaps to sustain me. I’ve eaten your wife’s atrocious cooking to pay her an unwarranted compliment. I have taken more brandy than is proper in order to lull the gastric destruction resulting from the selfsame cooking and boredom. I have forced an interest in your stupid little ideas and talk. I accepted it all...” her eyes clouded briefly, “because the weight and loneliness of my year suddenly crushed me, when the General passed on. I, who have traveled every continent and consorted with princes, came here resolved to get down to your provincial level, to appreciate the things you do, to be at last the little old auntie someone might take to their heart.”

She was moving briskly to the front door.

Terry broke his paralysis. “Aunt Griselda, we didn’t mean—”

“I know quite well what you meant. But you’ll never inherit five million dollars.” She opened the front door. “By the way, Miriam was quite awkward in her attack. It took, you know, a superb woman to attract a man like the General. One had to know how to sit a spirited horse, fire a big-game gun, strike a golf ball, and appreciate the fine points of a bullfight. One was never far from danger in the exotic, far corners of the earth — and the General taught me karate a long time ago. I never had to use it until today, when the twisted streets and swarthy villains are so far behind me...”

Terry stumbled after Aunt Griselda to the doorway. He watched the delicate victim walk coolly to the sidewalk and start watching for a taxicab. He knew he would never see the trim figure again.

With a sort of rudderless manner in his actions, Terry somehow got turned around and headed for the bathroom.

Miriam was on the floor, looking stringy-haired and half-drowned. Her face was white with pain and the shock of returning consciousness.

Terry’s stomach turned over as he stared at her right arm. It had been broken just below the elbow. He saw the ragged ends of bone that almost burst the skin.

Miriam stirred; moaned; gibbered a scream, and then another.

“Oh, shut up,” Terry said in a nastier tone than he’d really intended. “Now we’ll have to throw my severance pay away on a lousy hospital bill...”

Trial Run

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Originally published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , August 1971.

The three-column heading leaped at Ethel Claridge the instant she unfolded the newspaper that morning:


“Would you ever!” Ethel lectured her silent kitchen. “Those nasty newspaper people, doting on death!”

She sank down at the table, blue eyes devouring the story:

A young man who police said was a model citizen was shot to death last night on Sheridan Avenue as he was returning home from the under-privileged youth center where he was a volunteer athletic coach.

Police said the youth’s wallet and wristwatch were intact, and ruled out any known motive for the slaying of Allan Zeigler, 22, who resided with his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Edward Zeigler, at 1003 Sheridan Avenue.

Zeigler died instantly from brain damage inflicted by a .32-caliber bullet fired into the back of his head at close range, the medical examiner stated.

Preliminary investigation revealed that Zeigler left the Southside Juvenile Center at the closing hour of 10 o’clock, boarded a municipal bus, and got off at his usual stop six blocks from his home.

Taking charge of the case, Homicide Detective Lieutenant Thomas J. Heim said, “This should shock even a city calloused by violence and crime. Here was a fine young man quietly walking his street from bus stop to home. Halfway, someone calmly steps up behind him and blasts the life from him with a small-bore pistol, apparently for the sick thrill of killing. But whatever the motive, this is an all-out case as far as this department is concerned.”

As police activity and news of the shooting aroused the neigh

borhood, angered residents described Allan Zeigler as a young man without an enemy in the world, a capable athlete, and an outstanding student who recently graduated from State University and was working an interim daytime job before returning to the university for postgraduate studies toward a master’s degree.

Zeigler’s mother was taken to City Hospital where doctors reported her in shock and under heavy sedation.

Zeigler’s distraught father was unable to provide police with the slightest clue.

“I don’t understand...” The elder Zeigler wept as he repeated the words endlessly. “He wasn’t just a nice kid, he was a great guy. Everyone felt the same way about him. He liked people, and they liked him in return, respected and trusted him... Those kids on the southside... They’ll miss him. We’ll all miss him... I just don’t understand.”

Engrossed in the story, Ethel didn’t hear George, her husband, come into the kitchen. She started slightly as his shadow fell across her. She got up and turned toward the stove, clicking a burner to bring water to a boil for instant coffee.

George sat down and picked up the paper without saying good morning, rattling the sports pages open.

Ethel’s lips parted on a long-suffering sigh as she separated strips of bacon and stretched them neatly on the broiling pan. She was a tall, strong, spare woman with sallow skin and thin brown hair shot with gray. Her faded blue eyes deepened as she stole a glance at George.

The years had had a curious effect on him. Other men aged; George rejuvenated. At twenty-eight, when she had maneuvered him into marriage, George had the stooped, hollow look of a refugee from a tubercular hospital. Today, the skeletal youth was but a memory. The years had fleshed his frame, filled out the shoulders and cheeks and chased the pallor with the ruddy glow of a robust and virile middle age. Even his drab, mouse-colored hair had gained vitality as the silver claimed it. This morning it was a handsome leonine mane, its tips curling with masculine shagginess from the dampness of his shower.

Looking at him, Ethel was tom by a pang of pity and regret. But let the head rule, not the heart , she thought. The heart is a nest of trickery .

The bacon was sizzling as she made George’s coffee. Slipping the cup on the table beside his elbow, she asked conversationally, “Did you read about the murder, George?”

He rustled the pages to the real estate section. She retreated toward the stove.

“A nice young fellow was killed, George. Named Allan Zeigler. Do you know any Zeiglers?”

He glanced up with irritated eyes. “What? What did you say?”

“I wondered if you know anyone named Zeigler? You know a lot of the businessmen in town.”

“Zeigler? There’s a Zeigler wholesale paper company.”

“Maybe that’s Allan’s father.”

“Allan? Who in blazes is Allan?”

“I just told you, George. The young man who was murdered.”

He grunted and flipped to the stock market reports.

Ethel broke a pair of eggs into a warm, buttery skillet. “He was twenty-two, the paper said. Just about the same age as Patti Warren.”

Her words brought an unpleasant change to the room. She could feel him looking at her.

“You don’t like the setup, you can get out,” he said. “I’d welcome a suit for divorce.”

“I know you would, George.” She stared at the hardening whites of the eggs. “You’ve made that clear enough.”

“Then why don’t you have a little pride and quit hanging on this way?”

“Pride, George?” A short laugh gouged through her Ups. “Would a divorce heal the terrible way you’ve wounded me? I took a vow, George — until death do us part.”

She heard him fling the paper down and shove his chair back. “I don’t care to listen to your broken record this morning, Ethel. I’ll breakfast in town.”

She flinched when the front door slammed behind him. He wouldn’t be here for dinner, she knew. He would return late tonight, befouling the house with the mingled smell of alcohol and Patti Warren’s perfume.

Ethel dumped the eggs and watched the disposal gobble them up.

After a breakfast of tea and English muffin, she continued the routine of yesterday, last month, of more years than she could remember: cleaning, dusting, scouring, waxing.

A mist fogged her eyes as she caught the vague, vagrant memory of how she used to hum as she went about her work. She fought the dizzying silence and emptiness of the house with a vigorous assault of her dust cloth on a drum table in the living-room.

“My, you look nice, Table,” she said, stepping back and admiring the soft sheen she’d protected and nurtured for so long. “I’ve a wonderful idea Table. We’ll dress you up with an arrangement of zinnias from the garden!”

She carried the cloth to the kitchen, washed it at the sink and hung it on the rack above the drain to dry. “There we are, Cloth, spotless as ever.”

Glancing at the wall clock, she noted that she’d got rid of another morning. She breathed out a note of tiredness.

“Stove, should we make another cup of tea and rest a bit? Of course we should!”

When the tea was ready, she decided to have it in the den. She padded through the house, carefully balancing cup and saucer.

“Television, have you some news from a vulgar and heartless world? It’s that time of day.”

She clicked on the set and settled on the edge of the couch. The screen came to glowing life. She watched the last couple of minutes of a network game show. She finished her tea during the commercials. Then she set her cup on a low coffee table and leaned forward as the noontime local newscast came on.

Through the camera’s eye, Ethel saw the place where Allan Zeigler had been murdered, the wide, tree-shaded street that looked so serene and secure.

The scene cut to an office in police headquarters, a physically powerful figure standing at a desk. The announcer identified him as Lieutenant Heim, Homicide. They discussed the case, Heim parrying questions cleverly and not revealing much more than the morning newspaper had reported.

Ethel studied Heim throughout the taped interview. Her opinion was expressed with an emphatic nod for this sturdy cut of a man, never the skinny weakling George had once been.

Heim’s face was a collection of lumps and bone, but it came to Ethel, a flashing revelation, that the deep, Lincolnesque eyes were capable of tenderness. She was quite pleased with her insight.

“No one but a person with a deep, secret sensitivity of her own would ever see beyond what the mad-mad, rushing world sees,” Ethel told the electronically-etched image.

She could imagine Heim’s presence warmly filling a modest home when his working day was finished, kissing a happy wife, tumbling with roly-poly children. The images evoked in Ethel a bittersweet sense of being lost that was, somehow, strangely satisfying.

She dried her eyes with the cuff of her blouse, got up, and turned off the TV. Crossing the room, she picked up the phone. She dialed a number that had stamped itself into her mind the one and only time she’d looked it up.

The phone in a distant part of town was lifted. “Hello. Miss Warren’s residence.”

Ethel gritted her teeth, almost choking with nausea at the sound of the warm, feminine voice.

“Miss Warren, this is a friend,” Ethel forced herself to speak quietly, levelly, “of Mr. Claridge. I... hate to break the news, but there’s been an accident.”

Ethel heard the girl — the hussy — catch a breath. “Is George... Mr. Claridge... badly hurt?”

“I’m afraid so. He’s on his way to City Hospital in an ambulance. He was asking for you, begged me to let you know.”

“C-can you tell me what happened?”

“He was crossing the street and a car swerved out of control. He needs you — dear — and will you get over there right away?”

“Sure,” Patti Warren said in a voice tight with concern. “I’ll leave right now. And thanks.”

“Not at all, dear. Glad to do anything I can for George.”

Ethel hung up, smiling. Then her face almost instantly resumed its grim, angular lines. She dialed George’s office, speaking now with her nostrils clamped between her fingers. Her voice seemed to bounce from her sinus passages, disguising itself even from George.

“I’m a maid in Miss Warren’s apartment building,” she told him. “She fell down and got a nasty gash on the head. The doctor’s on his way, but she’s calling for you.” George had a moment of stunned shock. Ethel could imagine him bolting upright behind his desk.

“Don’t let anything happen to her,” he shouted. “Do everything you can for her until the doctor comes! Tell her I’ll be right there!” He slammed the phone down with the energy of a leaping tomcat.

Ethel dialed a third number, ordering a taxi. The dispatcher assured her that he would have a cab at her door shortly.

She went from den to kitchen, moving with a vigor she hadn’t felt in days. She lifted down her flour canister, opened it, and worked her hand down through the fluffy whiteness. She stirred a small snowy cloud of flour as she pulled a ring of keys from the hiding place. They were exact copies of George’s keys.

Last Saturday, while he’d watched baseball on TV, she’d gone into the bedroom where his keys, wallet, book matches, and change lay in the bureau tray. She carried the keys to the neighborhood shopping center. Not knowing which key would fit Miss Warren’s door, she’d cleverly had them all duplicated, returning George’s set without him ever knowing she’d left the house.

The keys emitted a soft, cold tinkle as she dusted the remaining bits of flour from them over the sink. She turned as the door chimes sounded. Her brows lifted. The taxicab had certainly hurried.

Ethel moved from the kitchen, crossed the living-room and opened the front door. “I have to get a thing or two from the bedroom and I’ll be ready...” Her stream of words evaporated, leaving her mouth hanging. Then her teeth clicked. “Why, you’re not the taxi driver. You — You’re the detective I read about and saw on TV. You’re Lieutenant Heim.”

He nodded, mirthless, mountainous, rocky. “Is this the George Claridge residence?”

“Yes, but whatever brings you—” He was looking at her with such a heavy wisdom that her voice again broke off.

“I take it you’re Mrs. Claridge?” Ethel nodded. “Does your husband own a .32-caliber pistol?”

Ethel looked at him carefully. The sunlight hurt her eyes. Her faded blue dress seemed to grow a size larger as she shriveled inside.

“Please step in, Mr. Heim. There’s no need exposing all this to the neighbors.”

He took off his hat in the living-room, and she closed the door quietly. She looked about the room as if it were strange to her. “It’s been so long since anyone but George came into this house... Would you like some tea?”

“No, thank you, Mrs. Claridge.”

“Would you like to tell me about it?”

“Why not?” he said. “That’s why I came, isn’t it? These clueless cases... Sometimes when they start to crack, they break wide open. Last night the crack of the small-bore pistol that killed young Zeigler went almost unnoticed. Almost. But one young woman heard it. She looked from her bedroom window not far away.”

“Did she see the murderer, Mr. Heim?”

“Yes, as a shadowy figure. And the car. She saw the murderer get into a car and drive away. She had run out on the lawn by that time and as the car passed a street light, she got a piece of the license number.”

Ethel sank stiffly on a chair and stared at a worn place in the carpet that was a dreadful dust-catcher.

“The license had an initial that in this state indicates vehicles used for rental purposes.” Heim’s voice seemed to ooze from floor, walls, ceiling. “From then on it was routine. Checking the auto rental places in town, eliminating the cars and renters one by one — until we came to a set of circumstances that filled every requirement of the situation.”

Heim took a side step, trying to look into Ethel’s face. “No wonder young Zeigler didn’t try to run or put up a fight. When he heard footsteps behind him and glanced over his shoulder, all he saw was a harmless-looking middle-aged woman.”

“George had the gun for a long time,” Ethel said. “He kept it in the bedroom, the way a lot of people do. I guess he’d about forgotten it was there. It looked like a toy when I first practiced with it in the basement.”

She looked up at last. Her bland, blue eyes were dilated, her mouth pinched at the corners. “George was going to find out too — about the gun not being a toy, I mean. I was on my way to get my hat, purse, and the gun when you rang. I had it all planned and timed. I was going to Patti Warren’s apartment while she was on a wild-goose chase to the hospital and let myself in. Fighting cross-town traffic, George would be longer getting there. When he burst in, filled with fears for his adulteress, I was going to shoot him. Shoot him, and leave, and let her come back to find him dead, a memory her depraved mind would hold for a long time to come. And I knew then that I could do it, too. I could see it through.”

“But why young Zeigler last night, Mrs. Claridge?” Bewilderment stamped Heim’s face with a dullard’s look. “Wasn’t he a total stranger? Why did you take the gun and rent a car and drive around until you spotted the first person you thought it would be safe to kill?”

“Really, Mr. Heim, I thought you were smarter than that!” She looked at him with mild disappointment as she explained. “The boxer trains. The soldier practices with live ammunition. Each prepares and conditions himself for his ultimate act.”

As her meaning slipped through, Heim stood rooted, frozen. He stared in unwilling belief.

She reached and patted his hand, humbly, gently, as if she’d found an understanding friend at last. “I’m glad you see the necessity for a trial run,” she said gratefully. “I didn’t know how I’d react to the impact of murder. I wasn’t at all sure I could see it through — the killing of George, I mean — without some prior conditioning and practice. After all, he’s been my husband for a long time, and I had to know I wouldn’t get cold feet and panic when George was only halfway dead...”

The Tip-off

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Originally published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , August 1973.

Madame Fouchard’s jewelry store was so very haut monde  that it was known, with snobbish and disdainful simplicity, as La Bijouterie, The Jewelry Store. It was marked on a high-fashion street by a very small sign without capital letters and a single, tiny display window offering plebeian eyes the glimpse of an emerald pendant, a bracelet of rubies, or a diamond necklace.

The subdued plush-and-brocade interior included no welcome mat for the low budget buyer. The décor was intended to rule out the poor and give the rich a sense of importance. As a result, the proletariat rarely ventured past the carven walnut doors. Today, however, was one of the rare exceptions.

An hour after lunch, with business at a total standstill, Richard Nollner was alone in the sales area nursing his boredom. He was well-cast for the role of Madame’s charming young clerk, a cool image that fitted the decor nicely. He was impeccably tailored, his softly waving brown hair carefully styled. His face was lean and handsome with quick, dark eyes. Before he moved or opened his mouth, he was clearly a young man with proper manners and a certain polish in speech. As a salesman, he was especially effective with the older, corseted, buxom matrons who accounted for a good part of La Bijouterie’s patronage.

At the moment, his good looks were clouded with dark dissatisfaction. He’d never let his feelings show to Madame Fouchard, who took a motherly interest in him, but after three years of kowtowing to her patrons he desperately wanted to escape the elegant cell, forever. Money, however, was a major source of trouble. Madame’s fondness didn’t stretch the scanty supply of dollars supplied to Richard each pay day. The job was supposed to carry prestige, but a clerk was still a clerk, even at Fouchard’s. Richard had to dress the part, no mean expense; and he and Willa, his lovely and saucy young wife, had tastes in food and entertainment more easily afforded by Fouchard customers. The Nollner apartment was small and cramped, and they simply had to get out on frequent evenings and weekends. So there were always bills, bills, and more bills, with life a strain and stretch from one pay day to the next.

Richard’s restless musings were broken this day by the advent of the most disreputable youthful apparition that had ever dared enter the elegant La Bijouterie.

A pulse suddenly throbbing in his neck, Richard stood rooted to the thick carpet, staring at what was obviously the lowest rank in the order of hippiedom. The slender figure crossing to Richard looked positively malodorous, clad in an enveloping poncho of dirty gray, baggy jeans that needed a wash, and grimy sneakers. The newcomer’s head and face were bundled in a cootie’s nest of wild and matted brown hair and beard, while eyes lurked unseen behind huge colored glasses.

Richard came to life with a start, lifting a cool brow. “Yes?” he inquired in a tone intended to discourage.

“Like, man, you’re Richard Nollner,” the brash apparition stated in a husky contralto, “and my name is Smith.”

Richard glanced at the street door as if quaking from the thought of a well-heeled Fouchard client walking in while Mr. Smith was present.

“So, if I’m fouling up the joint, take me to your leader,” Smith said. “I want to talk about some diamonds and a mere clerk won’t do.”

Richard was stiffened into momentary silence by a situation which had never presented itself before.

Young Smith snapped his fingers. “Come on, come on! On to Fouchard, the grande dame herself. For all you can see of me, Mr. Nollner, I might be a mentally defective young heir about to buy this decadent adjunct of the capitalistic system.”

Richard managed a movement of muscle. “Why not?” he murmured. “It’s her place, her problem. It’ll at least get the character out of public view...”

Madame Fouchard’s private office, unlike the front of her establishment, was Spartan in its use of space and furnishings. She was behind her old flat-topped desk when Richard knocked and opened the door.


She looked up from the ledger spread before her. She was a trim, silver-haired little figure, with a small, ageless face and china-blue eyes. She was dressed simply in no-nonsense black, her only adornment a fantastic pearl worn about her slim neck on a fine gold chain.

“Yes, Richard? Well, do speak. Are you ill? You look positively pale.”

“There’s a... uh... young man out here who refuses to go away until he has seen you.”

No sooner had Richard made the statement than he was elbowed roughly aside by Mr. Smith, who’d followed on his heels. Smith barged into the office, Richard falling in ineffectually behind him.

Madame looked the youth up and down without batting an eye or flickering an expression; but behind the eyes, Richard knew, the keen old brain was trying to decide whether Smith was a dangerous breed of nut.

“Do sit down, young man,” she said graciously. “What may we do for you?”

Richard suspected that she was playing for time in which to assess the situation. Nothing really fazed the old girl. She’d lost her capacity for dismay during a lifetime that had begun in depression-ridden France. During World War II, she and her husband aided the Resistance. Betrayed, they got out of France a jump ahead of a German firing squad, leaving business and home behind. They went to Spain, Portugal, England, and finally to America, enduring hardship every step of the way.

In the United States, Monsieur Fouchard’s reputation as a diamond cutter quickly brought a change of fortune. In due time, La Bijouterie was established and the Fouchard integrity wrote a success story. Madame had taken over the business helm more than a year ago when her husband suffered a heart condition and went into semiretirement, pursuing his beloved craft of diamond cutting as a part-time occupation.

Smith accepted Madame’s suggestion, slipping to an alert crouch on a hard wooden chair. “It’s not what you can do for me. Rather, what you might do for yourself.”

“In what respect, young man?”

Smith glanced at the clock on the wall. “Old girl, only I can spare you.”

“From what?”

The baleful dark glasses swung back in the direction of Madame’s face. “In just thirty-one minutes,” Mr. Smith said, “you are going to commit murder.”

The breath jolted from Richard. Madame took the outlandish news with the slightest stiffening of her lean old body.

“Why, you...” Richard choked, taking a threatening step. “I’ll call a policeman and have you thrown out of here!”

“That would do it,” Mr. Smith said with contempt. “That would really do it.”

Madame Fouchard made a small motion with her hand. “I think he first owes us an explanation, Richard”

“You’ve a little more gray matter in your skull than your nitwit clerk,” Smith said. “One peep to the fuzz and the tragedy transpires.”

“Who am I supposed to kill?” Madame inquired.

“Willa,” Smith said.

“My wife?” Richard howled. “How dare you suggest—”

“Oh, pipe down.” Smith’s gritty contralto showed the first signs of real irritation. “Every second you waste is one second less that you have. I can make everything clear in a few sentences if you’ll quit interrupting.”

Smith paused for a long-drawn three or four seconds. From somewhere under the poncho he brought out a corncob pipe and filled it from a small, grubby pouch. He didn’t light the pipe right away, but sat tapping it on a knuckle.

“That’s better,” he said into the silence. “The setup is simple. At this moment, an associate of mine is in Mr. Nollner’s apartment — with a knife at Willa Nollner’s throat. He is quite prepared to color the pad red unless I phone him—” the glasses briefly sought the wall clock, “—within the next twenty-nine minutes and advise him that you have extended your full cooperation.”

Richard stared in openmouthed paralysis.

Madame was less slow in her reaction. “Cooperation in what way, young man?”

Smith looked at the rough bowl of the corncob. “I happen to know that a large shipment of uncut diamonds was delivered here under tight security last evening. They’re in your vault right now, destined for cutting by M. Fouchard. You hand them over and raise no alarm until I’m thirty minutes out of the building, and Mrs. Willa Nollner lives. Otherwise, Madame, you’ll be responsible for the young woman’s death. You will have triggered her murder.”

With trembling hands, Richard pulled a spotless, monogrammed linen handkerchief from his pocket, pressing it to his forehead. “I can’t believe it,” he croaked. “It’s too fantastic, unreal. Madame, I for one won’t buy it. Call the police and have this psycho thrown out!”

“Too bad.” Smith sighed. “Willa’s such a lovely young woman, too. Rare jewel. One of a kind. If I were you, pally, I’d phone my apartment before I threw away a chick like Willa.” Richard locked stares with the would-be robber. The glasses revealed nothing, but the hippie’s confident mien did.

Slowly, Richard reached to the desk, picked up the phone, and dialed his apartment number. The phone rang once, and the connection was made.

“Willa... You’re not Willa!” Jaw muscles bunched, Richard pressed the phone harder against his ear. “Who are you? What have you done to Willa?” He squeezed out the words.

A long shiver went through Richard as he listened. “Please...” he said. “If she’s still all right, put my wife on.”

“Ricky?” Willa’s voice came in a near scream. “Don’t let him do it...

Richard sagged, clutching the edge of the desk with his free hand. He slowly took the phone away from his ear and stood holding it awkwardly, staring at it. Willa’s piteous entreaties poured tinnily into the office. “Ricky, he means it... He’ll kill me... Please, Ricky, don’t cross them up... Do as they say... Don’t let me die...”

Smith slipped from the chair, took the phone from Richard’s stiff fingers, and spoke into the mouthpiece. “Save your breath, chick. I think you’ve made a believer. You’ll live — if that’s what your husband and Fouchard want.” Smith dropped the phone into its cradle and returned to his chair.

The blankness of the dark glasses seemed to pose a question: Well, what is your pleasure? You want her dead ?

Richard’s hands curled into fists. “If anything happens to her—”

“Come off it, pally,” Smith said shortly. “This is no time for heroics. A human life is evaporating, second by second.”

“Go to the vault, Richard,” Madame said quietly, “and fetch the diamonds.”

“But Madame Fouchard—”

“We’re insured,” she reminded him. “Even if we weren’t, a few diamonds couldn’t restore a life.”

“Now you’re rapping with some sense,” Smith said. “Not like this creep of a clerk.”

“Madame...” Richard said with a last note of helplessness.

“Do move, Richard,” Madame said. “Even the Nazis had their day.”

“Experience has made you a wise old woman,” Smith said approvingly. Then to Richard, “Drop the rocks into this, pally.” From the depths of the poncho, Smith dragged a large, heavy brown paper bag folded several times over, which he handed to Richard.

With a despairing look at Madame, Richard reeled through the narrow rear doorway of the office. He was absent briefly, noting on his return that Smith had lighted the corncob pipe and was polluting the air with little gray puffs.

Smith leaped up, snatched the loaded paper bag from Richard’s hand, and laughed softly as he looked inside.

“The shipment of uncut stones is all there,” Richard said miserably. “I cleaned the vault. Now, what guarantee do we have that you’ll not harm my wife?”

“My word, Mr. Nollner. And plain common sense. It would be stupid to complicate the gig by harming her now — unless you jump the gun and turn in an alarm. I’ll phone from a place nearby and tell my associate the deal has been satisfactorily concluded. Your worries are over, if you don’t yell fuzz within the next half hour.”

Wadding the top of the paper bag shut and tucking it under his arm, Smith turned and slipped out the door with a quiet swish of the poncho.

A silence followed. It seemed incredible that Smith had really been there.

Richard turned slowly from the sight of the closed door. “Madame, how can we ever repay you? You were so generous.”

Madame fell back in her chair, touched with weariness. “At the moment it seemed a life was in the balance, Richard. One I happen to value very much. Willa has always appeared to me such a lovely, vivacious child.”

“God bless you, Madame. Somehow, we’ll find a way to repay you for saving her life.”

“Never mind that right now, Richard.” Madame shook off her tiredness, planting her feet, and rising. “If the Nazis had their day, remember they also experienced their midnight.”

Her words caught at Richard. He peered closely at the composure of her small, firm face. “You have some plan for trapping our thief?”

“Nothing that would endanger Willa, my boy. I think she should be quite safe by now. Go to her. I’ll be along as soon as our half hour of grace is over.”

With a brief crushing of her little hand, Richard nodded, turned, and rushed out.

Willa was in the living-room of their small, commonplace apartment when Richard burst in and slammed the door shut. He decided that she’d never looked lovelier, a willowy five-five with a pixie face and sparkling golden hair.

They looked at each other across the space of the room, smiles building. Then they rushed together with a shout of laughter. They met in the middle of the room, flinging their arms about each other. Richard swung her in a full circle before dropping her toes back onto the floor.

“Hi, Mr. Smith,” Richard said, trying to control his wellsprings of pure rapture.

“Hello, Harassed Young Husband.”

They drew apart and beheld one another from arms’ length, still holding hands.

“With all that disguise,” he said, “you made a positively noxious hippie.”

“I was worried about the voice,” Willa confessed.

“The hours of practice paid off. You sounded the part. Immature youth with a high-pitched voice. But hey!”

“Yes, darling?”

“You didn’t mean those things you said, like calling me a creep of a clerk?”

“All in a day’s work. Five years married, and you’re still my sugarplum.”

They melted close together for another moment. Richard kissed the tip of her nose. “You really shocked me when you pulled out the corncob pipe. Not a part of the original act.”

“I know, darling. I was still too conscious of being a girl. The pipe was a beautiful last-minute thought, the proper final touch. Nothing so masculine as a pipe smoker.”

“Couldn’t you have bought a better brand of tobacco?” Richard laughed.

“For a one-time run-through?”

“We can afford anything now,” Richard said. He nuzzled her forehead with his lips. “Thin

k of the future, darling — the beautiful, beautiful future. No more boredom, no more borrowing and pinching from pay day to pay day... Uncut diamonds — the safest loot of all. No one can identify them once they’re cut. And we won’t even have to fence them for a fraction of their worth. After three years of picking up rap in the trade, I know of cutters in Amsterdam, Paris, New York, who’ll shape the stones for the right fee with no questions asked. We’re rich, baby, rich!”

“There’s still the final act, Ricky.”

“I know. I’ll have to stick at La Bijouterie a few more weeks so my leaving won’t appear suspicious. But under the c

ircumstances,” he slapped her playfully on the derriere, “I believe we can bear it.”

She looked up at him brightly. “You didn’t play your own role so badly, Ricky. Just the right amount of fear, disbelief, reluctance to take Madame’s lovely diamonds.”

They strolled across the room, arm in arm. “The old girl reacted just as we knew she would,” Richard snickered.

“How else, Ricky? She thought she was sparing the life of a cherished young friend. Even on the million-to-one chance that she would balk, we had virtually nothing to lose in comparison to the stakes.”

His snicker became a chuckle. “The phone call was the real convincer. When she heard your desperate pleas pouring out of the phone, I knew we had her.”

“You’re so clever, Richard.”

“Not really,” he said, with a note of false modesty. “Once we had tape-recorded your voice, it was simple to rig a little electronic switch and relay to tap the phone and turn on the recorder.”

“It didn’t look simple during those evenings you studied the books and kept tinkering with the thing, running test after test.”

“Perfection, Willa darling, is the better part of discretion, or something to that effect.” They had neared the inner doorway, and he changed the subject. “Now, how about the disguise?”

“Stowed in the bedroom closet, Ricky, along with the diamonds. Just slip the hippie garb, beard, and wig into the building incinerator and Mr. Smith will appear no more.”

“I’ll do it right away, and I’ll stash the diamonds in a better place.” Richard glanced at his wristwatch. “The old lady is coming over.”

“’Natch,” Willa said, “to offer me a bit of solace. So on to Act One, Scene Two...”

She stepped away from Richard’s side. She breathed deeply, her face sobering. Her joy vanished. She blinked hard, and a couple of tears trickled down her cheeks. Her body crumpled inwardly. “Oh, it was awful, Madame,” she wept through shivering teeth. “That dreadful man came in and said he would kill me if his partner didn’t get your diamonds—”

She broke off the quick rehearsal, which she’d practiced many times before, and slipped Richard an elfin look. “Okay, Ricky?”

It was better than okay. She’d have Madame offering a motherly shoulder to cry on. And yet... somehow Richard was held in a moment of strange hesitation.

Willa eased out a breath. “Ricky, what is it?”

He shook his head, refocusing on Willa’s face. “I don’t know... Something the old lady said, about evil doers experiencing their midnight darkness. As if she suspected something.”

“What could she possibly suspect?”

“Nothing, of course,” he admitted.

“It’s just the tension of the game, Ricky. But don’t let it get to you. It won’t last much longer now.”

“Don’t worry about me,” he said with sudden shortness. “Just be sure you don’t overplay the description of your mythical assassin to the cops.”

Willa’s eyes sparked, but she held back. “Let’s not fight, darling. It’s neither the time nor the place.”

“You’re right, of course,” Richard said. “It’s just that the old dame shook my nerve at the last minute.” He glanced once more at his watch, making certain he had ample time to take Willa’s hippie costume to the basement incinerator; but he’d taken only a step toward the bedroom when the door from the outside corridor opened without any warning.

Madame Fouchard stood in the doorway, flanked by a lanky, sallow man in a slightly baggy suit.

Willa was off guard for a fraction of a second. Then, her face stamped with pathos, she was rushing across the room. “Oh, Madame, I’m so glad you came.”

“Are you really, my dear?”

Willa was met and sent stumbling back by Madame’s outstretched hand.

The lanky man shouldered the door closed and pulled a leather case from his inside coat pocket, revealing a policeman’s badge. “Lieutenant Sam Gerard,” he said. “Police headquarters. Robbery detail.”

Recovering, Richard started across the room. “Thanks for bringing Madame so quickly, Lieutenant. You can count on our full cooperation to help bring the murderous, thieving hippie to justice.”

Gerard looked at Richard with fisheyes. “I must warn you, Mr. Nollner, that you have the right not to speak except in the presence of your attorney. If you cannot afford a lawyer the state will provide one for you.”

Richard shuffled to a halt in mid-room. He moistened his lips and somehow managed a wry grin. “Lieutenant, if you are accusing me of a preposterous something or other...”

“I’ve discussed my suspicions with Lieutenant Gerard on the way over,” Madame said quietly. “He agrees that the evidence warrants an investigation.”

“Evidence?” Richard echoed. A distinct chill spread through the room. He sensed that Willa felt it also. Instinctively, they huddled a little nearer to each other. “Evidence, Madame?” He struggled to keep strength in his voice. “You heard Willa pleading on the phone for her very life. That was the evidence!”

“I heard Willa’s voice,” Madame corrected. “But nowadays anyone can purchase telephone answering gadgets in any electronics and radio shop. It’s possible I heard Willa’s voice, previously taped for my benefit, while Willa herself was sitting in my office disguised as a hippie, waiting to carry off my diamonds.”

Willa implored with an uncertain hand gesture. “Madame, how can you say such a thing? The experience has been too much for you, you poor dear! You’ve lost—”

“Lieutenant—” Madame broke in coldly.

Gerard said, “Don’t worry, ma’am, if there are hippie clothes and uncut diamonds tucked around on the premises we’ll turn them up. You can bet on that.” Richard stood, unable to move. Willa looked from face to face. Then she went to the couch and sat down in stiff-kneed slow motion. She began crying, very quietly — and now the tears were for real.

Madame nodded for Gerard to go about his work, her gaze coming back at last to Richard. “You seemed like such a nice young man. You and Willa in time might have become like my own children.”


“No, don’t say anything more, Richard! If it’s any satisfaction, you and Willa did it perfectly — right up to the final touch, the tip-off that came during the masculine act on Willa’s part of lighting the pipe while you were ransacking the vault. Until that moment I did believe Willa was in mortal danger. After that, however, I suspected that I was confronted by a clever young woman — not a man — who had access to the knowledge of our diamond shipment.”

“That doesn’t prove anything,” Richard said forlornly. “Anyone might have known about the diamonds. There might have been a security leak from the time they left New York.”

“Perhaps, but it’s far more logical for the theft to have been planned by someone inside La Bijouterie.”

“But if you knew, Madame, why did you let me leave the office?”

She raised a brow at his lack of logic. “I’ve had experience with thieves and Brownshirts, Richard. I was no match for you physically. With the diamonds already in Willa’s possession, I couldn’t be sure to what measures you would resort in your desperation to keep the stones. I simply bided my time until a policeman could even the odds.”

Madame walked toward the couch, looking at Willa with a touch of sadness. “Married to Richard for five years...” she mused. “A woman’s engagement and wedding rings become so much a part of her that she’s never really conscious of them being on her finger...”

The Ultimate Prey

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Originally published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , December 1974.

You’ll understand why I can’t pinpoint the location of the Island. It’s one of those hundreds of pieces broken from the mainland mass along the perimeter of the Gulf of Mexico from eastern Texas around to western Florida.

Countless such islands remain as they were created, semitropical mangrove jungles swarming with poisonous life, separated from the throes of civilization by narrow bays, sounds, bayous. These islands run to a type and therefore have much in common.

Developers have swarmed onto countless other Gulf Coast islands, bulldozing the jungle, pumping, dredging, filling, spreading lawns and domestic palms, laying out streets, marinas, golf courses, sites for homes, schools, and expensive condominiums. Dedicated to the Beautiful Life, these islands also have much in common.

The one I’m talking about, however, is used for a purpose that makes it unique among all islands.

I first viewed the Island from a low-flying helicopter on a hot, sultry day. It looked so peaceful and inviting, swimming toward us on a blue-green, sparkling Gulf. In shape, it was a finger lying on the serene sea, four or five miles long and a couple of miles wide.

The northern end had been plushly prepared for people. Amid acres of lawn and tropical gardens, a modernistic home of glass and redwood threw its three large, adjacent wings into the sunshine. The lawn sloped to a snowy white beach and marina where a seaworthy cruiser and a small schooner with furled sails bobbed.

South of the house were spread the huge kidney-shaped swimming pool, doubles tennis courts, a landing strip with parked Cessna, and, tucked to one side, a couple of small cement-block buildings that I guessed housed the pumps, generators and other necessities to keep the estate going.

The man-made paradise occupied only the northern quarter of the Island. Less than a mile south of the house the jungle crouched, a thick green tangle creating its own twilight; timeless and self-renewing, it seemed to brood with endless patience, awaiting the time when it would reclaim the small part that people had carved from it. LaFarge, the sheriff, was flying the chopper, and so far he’d merely grunted every time I asked him where he was taking me and why.

Conscious of the weight of the handcuffs about my wrists, I studied his swarthy, big-boned, cruel profile. A flicker in his dark, heavy-browed eyes and gathering of muscle tension in his bullish body warned me that the Island was our destination.

LaFarge’s town, Ogathalla, was an unimportant dot on the map, a crossroads cluster of weathered buildings in piney woods country, little more than a posted speed limit and main street traffic light to halt the big Kawasaki I was riding cross-country.

Before the light changed, a dusty red-and-white cruiser with constabulary markings and blue-flashing blinker quartered in front of the cycle. The big, indistinct image behind the steering wheel leaned in my direction and thumbed me toward the curb.

Obediently, I walked the wheels over, straddling the seat. The man I was to know as LaFarge got out of the cruiser and padded toward me. He studied me closely, my rather skinny face and denim-clothed frame, the curl of sandy hair below the crash helmet, the eyes behind light amber glasses, the leather-strap sandals on dusty bare feet, the blanket roll secured behind the cycle’s seat. “What’s your name, jimbo?”

“Rogers, Officer.”

“Where you headed?”

“Down the coast.”

“Where down the coast, jimbo?”

“Tampa, maybe. Sarasota. Fort Myers. Just someplace to work and spend the winter in the sun.”

“Where you from?”

“El Paso,” I said.

“Before that?”

“Phoenix. L.A. Vegas.”

“You got people?” he asked, his dark, intent eyes making the question important


“Kinfolk,” he snapped. “Someone who can vouch for you.”

I slipped off the riding glasses and looked at him, frowning. “Why do I need someone to vouch for me?”

“The welcome mat ain’t out for motorcycle bums in Ogathalla, jimbo.”

“I’m not exactly a motorcycle bum, Officer. I’ve got money. I pay my way.”

He kicked the front tire almost gently with his toe. “Just rambling around, seeing the country, enjoying your freedom, working when you have to?”

“Something like that.” But it went deeper. It went back to hard questions that crystallized in my mind about the time I was one of the last of the soldier boys debarking from Vietnam. Simply framed questions without ready answers... who I am... where is truth among the falsehoods... what this business of living is all about... what to do with my life...

I was trying to settle a lot of things in my mind, but I doubted that the thug in uniform would understand, even if he were interested So I said, “You’ve summed it up exactly, Officer.”

“We’ll see. We’ll sure look into you.” He moved with a short side step. “Now get off the wheels, jimbo. Our local pokey is just a short walk down the street”

I stood in dumb surprise. The look on my face gave him a short laugh. “Busting the speed limit as you rolled into town will do for a starter,” he said. “You want to add a charge of resisting arrest?” The urge flared in me to flatten him and kick the Kawa to life. He read it in my eyes and dropped his hand to his gun. “Do it,” he invited softly. “I step on your kind, with my heel. Do it — and I’ll take you before the others even have a chance.”

His reference to the others made no more sense than the rest of the situation, but I sensed clearly his sadism, and I hadn’t survived to this point in time to give a prehistoric sheriff quick excuses to get his kicks.

The rest of the day was spent in a six-by-eight cell in the Ogathalla jail. The cells next to me in the decrepit old building were empty, leaving me suspended in sweltering heat and the aftersmells of ten thousand previous tenants.

I wasn’t yet in the grip of real gut-fear. I figured LaFarge for a bored bully shoring up his tough, big-man self-image. He’d picked me up on a pretext, but he could only go so far. This was still the U.S. of A.

I couldn’t see any other angle. I came from nowhere, was going nowhere. I had traveling bread; enough, I hoped, to satisfy LaFarge and a crooked magistrate in a kangaroo court.

I finally slept in a pool of soured sweat and the stink of the lumpy bunk.

After daybreak the next morning LaFarge came to the cell, grinned at me through the barred door, and slipped a tin plate through the slot at the bottom of the door. “Breakfast, Rogers.”

I gripped the bars, white-knuckled. “I want a lawyer.”

“Jimbo,” he drawled, “you’re old enough for your druthers not to hurt you. Relax and enjoy Ogathalla hospitality while you can.”

He didn’t seem to mind the things I yelled at him as he went away. He returned in late afternoon with another tin plate of swill. After the vacuity of the day the sound of any other human footstep was welcome — almost. “Can’t we be reasonable, Sheriff?” I asked, ignoring the food.

“Sure. I’m the most reasonable man in the county.”

“Then what’s the charge against me?”

“Ain’t decided yet, jimbo. I’m looking into you like you never been looked into before. I may be a hick sheriff, but I got a long-distance phone and a badge and a title, and before I’m through I can tell you if you’ve ever spit on Times Square.”

I didn’t have anything to say for a moment, and while I stood there looking at him through the space between the bars the first worms began crawling through my guts.

“Sheriff,” I said, wetting my lips, “I do have some rights.”

“Here, jimbo? Who says?”

“You can’t keep me here forever.”

“Who says? You got anybody to come fetch you out?”

The sun gradually slipped off in its habitual way, and nightfall came as a heavy and unwelcome shadow. The questions that had bothered me for so many months had a particular sharpness there in the darkness of LaFarge’s jail, but I wouldn’t let myself think too hard about anything, including the hours ahead and the idea of LaFarge having the last word.

I stood at the single small barred window listening to the nightly din of the nearby swamp. LaFarge couldn’t have secured me more to his liking if he’d put me in a tomb, although I knew, bitterly, that stockade inmates I’d heard about in Vietnam could have cracked this cruddy, weather-rotten cell without much trouble.

I turned finally and sat down on the edge of the bunk, head in my hands. After a while, I stretched out on my back, feeling the sag of the bunk, listening to it creak every time I drew a breath. It seemed about ready to fall apart... and with that thought my eyes snapped open.

I sat up quickly, whipped the grimy pad to the foot of the bunk. The springs and braces and framing stood out in the moonglow. My hands explored and tested the framework. A diagonal corner brace, a flat piece of old metal about an inch wide and twelve inches long, seemed to be hanging on only with the help of its rust. The rust showered off in grainy flecks as I took hold of the brace and twisted it back and forth.

The job was harder than it looked. The edges of metal rasped my palms to rawness. The effort and humid heat of the night oozed a sticky sweat out of my skin, but I had plenty of time. Patiently I twisted the brace back and forth, gripping it hard and putting muscle into it At last, when the moon had shifted shadows about on the floor, I felt — or imagined — the brace yielding a little further.

Then the rivet at one end slipped out of its rust-eaten hole, and with the direct leverage that this gave me, I yanked the other end free. A pulse lifted through my chest as I gripped the end of the brace and took a couple of practice swings with it at an imaginary LaFarge hovering in the darkness.

He came to the cell two hours later than usual the next morning.

“We’ll talk a little today before you have breakfast, jimbo.” While he fitted the key in the lock, he looked in at me as if to note how I was making out I was slightly ripe by this time, wrinkled, grimy, beardy, a few pounds having melted from a frame that couldn’t afford the loss. LaFarge grinned with satisfaction at what he saw, and the metal weapon felt a few degrees warmer against my forearm where it was concealed by my sleeve.

LaFarge pushed the door open, and as he was wriggling the key from the balky old lock, the metal strap slipped down into my hand.

LaFarge glanced down at the lock, and I moved. He jerked about, glimpsing the metal strap slashing at him. Fear broke his knees and welded him to the door. The reflex saved him. The metal strap missed his head, glanced from his shoulder. Still clutching the door, he threw himself blindly away from me. The metal strap smashed against the edge of the moving door, and before I could balance and swing a third time, LaFarge was outside the cell, the lock snicking, the door a barrier between us.

A moment passed while we faced each other. LaFarge was rubbing his shoulder, but if it hurt, he didn’t seem to mind.

“You’ve made it personal now, Rogers,” he said softly. “I’m going to enjoy taking you to the others. Enjoy it real personal, believe it.”

I looked at the piece of metal in my hand, useless now. I opened my fingers and watched the strap hit the dirty cement floor with a small explosion of grit.

Finally, I looked up and saw the bars banded over the image of LaFarge’s face. “Who are these others? What’s this all about? Why me, LaFarge?”

“Because you were in the right place at the right time, jimbo.”

“This is crazy!”

“Can you think of many things in this world that ain’t?” He slipped the handcuffs from his belt. “Cool it while you can, jimbo. I won’t take any more chances with you. Now then, you just stick your hands out here... both hands through the same opening between bars so’s I don’t hook you to the door... and we’ll fit the bracelets. Then the two of us will march the little distance to the helipad behind the jail and take a little trip in the Department chopper. You’d be surprised at the crime in this bayou country: poachers, moonshiners, thieves and killers. Chopper’s the only way to chase some of them down.”

The ride wasn’t as short as LaFarge had promised. He flew us due south until the shoreline of the Gulf was below. Then we followed the coast eastward. We whirred over a traffic-clogged expressway, bisected the wake of a tanker steaming to the busy port just below the horizon to our rear.

Streaming along far beneath us were Gulf-front homes with private docks, pink-and-white resort hotels claiming miles of cake-icing beaches, little white sails cavorting offshore.

Then the interstate veered north through a wilderness of piney woods and cypress trees dripping Spanish moss, and we veered south with the curve of a shoreline that lost all traces of people.

In eight to ten minutes, LaFarge put the shoreline to our tail, and a scattering of small wilderness islands slid beneath the Plexiglas bubble. None of these interested LaFarge. Then the finger, one-quarter pure plush and three-quarters raw jungle, came into view, and the chopper began to drop.

As we whirred closer to the estate, three people came out of the west wing of the palatial home and started jogging southward across the lawn.

“On their way to meet us,” LaFarge said.

“The others?”

“The others, jimbo.” LaFarge gave a short laugh. “Ten grand to me every time I bring them a tiger, jimbo. Helps a poor country sheriff make ends meet, though I don’t find a special nobody on a motorcycle every day who meets the purely rigid requirements. Make you feel any better, knowing you’re worth ten thousand dollars?”

LaFarge had settled the copter a considerable distance from the house, not more than a hundred yards from where the jungle began.

As LaFarge prodded me out with his gun, the three men who’d trotted from the house came to a halt, semicircled about me and looked me over.

They were all young, very close to my own age, dressed in khaki shorts, bush jackets, and laced boots. Each carried a carbine, lightweight brush guns, in the crook of his right arm.

I had a vague feeling of having seen them before, of knowing them from some time or place, which seemed impossible.

The man on my right was very tall and thin, with muscles like wire, a gaunt face, a corrugated skull that was already totally bald, though he was only in his middle-twenties.

Facing me most directly was a heavyweight whose dark face and build reminded me of LaFarge. On his flank, the third member of the party was tall, broad-shouldered, round-faced, with ash-blond hair done in the wildest Afro style I’d ever seen.

“Rogers,” LaFarge said, “meet the Quixote Hunt Club. Hepperling the bald. McMurdy with the beef. And Convers, the panther here with the big blossom of white hair.”

I knew, hearing the names, why they hadn’t seemed total strangers. I — along with millions — had met them at a distance in newscasts and Sunday supplements.

Hepperling meant sugar millions; McMurdy, shipping; Convers, oil. The three were the latest stems on family trees that in all branches meant a good slice of a billion dollars in economic wealth and power. For each of them the coming of age had meant trust funds, allowances, and inheritances the rest of us wouldn’t risk dreaming about. The three might have pooled their resources and bought themselves a small, undeveloped country rather than a mere island.

As Quixotes, they’d frequently made headlines; crashing a plane and disappearing in Alaska for a week after a Kodiak hunt, going after jaguar in restricted tribal grounds in South America, creating an international incident when Kenyan authorities had arrested them for poaching bull elephants, and they’d taken pains to insult the Kenyan government before a bank of international television news cameras.

LaFarge was saying, “Rogers is completely safe, fellows. No family ties, no close friends. Nobody to ask the first question about his disappearance.”

“We know.” McMurdy dismissed LaFarge as a human being. “We always make our own inquiries when you have a prospect in custody, and we’ve the agents and the means.”

LaFarge endured McMurdy’s insulting tone like a well-trained hound.

McMurdy studied me head to toe. “You seem to come from a tough-luck line, Rogers. Father walked out when you were six or seven — never seen or heard from him since. Mother remarried — a real stinker. Both of them killed in a car crash when you were hardly out of high school. Worked your way through a couple years of college, then the Army taps you. Off to Vietnam. Rough time over there. MIA for a while. Wounded once. Finally hung up dockside, one of the last to leave.”

“I didn’t have much to come back to,” I said.

“But you survived,” Hepperling said. “You seem to survive anything. That’s a good omen. That should make it good.”

“Let’s hope so,” Convers said. “We haven’t had a good island hunt in months now.”

I think I’d suspected the truth when they’d first ringed the grounded chopper with their carbines, but now as it was coming closer to me with every passing second, I still couldn’t believe it I wouldn’t believe it Then I looked at them, at the jungle, and back at them — and I had to believe it Convers bobbed his woolly white mane toward the jungle. “You’ll be given a canteen of water and some field rations before you go in there, Rogers. How much life you buy for yourself is up to you, your wits and strength.”

I was unable to move.

Hepperling said, “You do understand, Rogers?”

“Sure.” The word was a husky whisper. “You guys have hunted everything, everywhere, until you’ve run all the way out of normal pleasure. So now, when you have the chance and can arrange it, here on this island... you hunt the prime game of all.”

“How afraid are you, Rogers?” Convers asked as if the subject really interested him.

“If I wallowed on my knees would it help?”

“Last time the prey almost went nuts before dashing off into the jungle,” Hepperling said, “screaming that we were crazy, not for real.”

“Oh, you’re for real,” I said. “In twenty-seven years of living I’ve discovered that anything can be for real on this planet. Adolf Hitler. Scientists who talk about dedication, and devote their lives to thinking up bigger bombs and deadlier germs. Charles Manson. The Mafia. I don’t doubt that you three are rather mildly real, compared to some of the things that go on.”

I walked a few steps from the chopper and stood looking at the jungle. Then I sat down on the green coolness of the grass. “Only I’m for real, too, fellows. And you’ve left me just one thing. You’ve stripped me down to this one real thing. I won’t do it. The hunt is off.” They came stalking toward me, their shadows flowing across me. “That’s the whole point of it,” I said. “Without the point, there is nothing in it for you. Without fleeing prey trying to hang onto a few more hours of life there in the jungle, you’ve lost the point, and it’s no dice. You’ve got the wrong tiger this time.”

“LaFarge,” McMurdy ordered in a quiet tone.

LaFarge came around to stand close in front of me. He pulled out his gun. “You want it right here, Rogers?”

“No,” I said, “I don’t want it anywhere for years and years yet But you’re betting against an enemy with nothing to lose, LaFarge. No matter what you do, the hunt is off. And I don’t believe you’ll be paid for this one or trusted in the future.”

He fired the gun almost in my face. The flash blinded me. I felt the bullet nip the hair on my crown.

I pushed back the need to be sick all over the place. “You’ll have to do better than that, LaFarge.”

He put the gun to my temple and slowly eased back the hammer.

“That’s the surest way of guaranteeing no hunt, LaFarge.”

Taking a step back, he ventured a glance at the faces of his young employers. He didn’t like the way they were looking at him. He didn’t enjoy what he felt as they measured him. He wasn’t liking any of it at all.

He coupled my name with a curse. “On your feet, Rogers. I’ll make you run! Hit for the jungle!”

He exploded his booted foot directly at my face. He didn’t have nearly the coordination or quickness of a Viet Cong. My handcuffed hands met the driving ankle. I flipped him hard, onto his back, and before he could catch the next breath, I’d wrung the gun from him and spun to face the others.

“Hold it!” I ordered.

Not a carbine moved. They had brains as well as loot. They knew they could have taken me — but not safely.

It was one of those crossroads moments in life for me, not because of anything outside myself, but because of the thought coming full-blown to my mind. I thought about the gig I’d had from the moment of birth. It seemed that the time was overdue for a putting of things in balance for a fellow named Rogers. The big, basic questions didn’t bug me any longer. I was certain, right then, of the direction my life would take. I let a grin build

on my lips.

In response, the first edge of tension eased from the Quixotes. They slipped glances from me to each other. Actually, there was a lot more rapport between the Quixotes and myself than between any of us and LaFarge.

“Fellows,” I said, “being a country sheriff in mean bayou territory is risky business. If LaFarge turned up in some back bayou shot to death, no one would figure it any way except that he’d cornered one mean moonshiner or poacher too many.”

I eased the snout of the gun in LaFarge’s direction. “Into the jungle, big man.”

“You’re nuts, Rogers... Fellows, you tell this character—” His words broke off as he looked at them. He couldn’t take his eyes from their faces. He took a backward step... then another... and whatever it was that he’d substituted for nerve all of his life died inside of him. He broke and ran, disappearing quickly into the jungle.

McMurdy was standing closest to me. Carefully, I turned the police pistol around and handed it to him butt first.

“Gentlemen,” I said, “I think the hunt resumes. And don’t forget to get the keys to the handcuffs when you’ve tracked him down.”

That’s how my association with the Quixotes began. Now I draw seventy-five grand a year, plus expenses. I travel the plushiest resorts. I drive a thirty-five-thousand-dollar sports car. I buy the finest food and wines and wear a hand-tailored wardrobe.

Not surprisingly, I practically have to fight off the chicks. I usually pick the best-looking and healthiest of the crop of empty-headed dropouts and runaways from good, substantial homes. They’re easiest to con, and once on the Island it’s too late for them to come to their senses and realize they’re facing something entirely different from the romantic and exciting weekend they’ve been promised. They’re among the runaways who every year are simply not found. None is ever traceable to the Island. I see to that.

Girls... the ultimate prey. The Quixotes thought the suggestion was the greatest when I hit them with it. I coupled the idea with the offer to act as their agent, roaming the country, recruiting the prey, and bringing them to the Island. I’ve proven my absolute reliability, and the Quixotes respect my advice.

Summing up the brand-new life, I guess you could say I owe LaFarge a vote of thanks.

New Neighbor

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Originally published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , October 1975.

“Each of us lives in one world only,” Mrs. Cappelli said, “the singular world within the skull. No two are alike. Who can possibly imagine some of the dark phantasms within the worlds other than one’s own?”

Isadora, old, gray, spindly, gnarled, more friend and companion than servant, drifted to Mrs. Cappelli’s side. The two women were of an age, in the autumn of their lives, with a close bond between them. The years had touched Mrs. Cappelli with the gentler brush. She was still trim; her face had not entirely surrendered its youthful lines; her once-black hair was braided in a coil atop her head, a silver tiara.

The two stood at the window of Mrs. Cappelli’s slightly disarrayed and comfortably lived-in bedroom and looked from the second-story window at the youth in the back yard of the house next door.

“A strange one,” Isadora agreed.

He was lounging on a plastic-webbing chaise, indolent, loose, relaxed, calmly pumping a pellet rifle. In scruffy jeans and T-shirt, he was long, tanned and lean, slightly bony. Even in repose he was a suggestion of quick, whip-like agility and power. His face was cleanly cut, even attractive, his forehead, ears and neck feathered with very dark hair. Idly, his gaze was roving the bushes and trees, the pines at the corners of the yard, the avocado tree, the two tall, unkempt palmettos.

He lifted the gun with a casual motion and squeezed the trigger. A bird toppled from the topmost reaches of the taller pine tree, the small body bouncing from limb to limb, showering a few needles, hanging briefly on a lower limb before it struck and was swallowed by the uncut grass along the rear of the yard.

The youth showed no sign of interest, once again pumping the gun and stirring only his eyes in a renewed search of the trees.

Mrs. Cappelli’s thin figure flinched, and her eyes were held by the spot where the bird had fallen.

Isadora touched her arm. “At least it wasn’t a cardinal, Maria.”

“Thank you, Isadora. From this distance the details weren’t clear. My eyes just aren’t what they used to be.”

Isadora glanced at the face that had once been the distillation of all beauty in Old Sicily. “I think we could use some tea, Maria.”

Mrs. Cappelli seemed unaware when Isadora faded from her side. She remained at the window, as hushed as the hot Florida stillness outside, looking carefully at the young man on the chaise.

Mrs. Cappelli had been delighted when the house next door was rented at last. It had stood vacant for months, a casualty of Florida overbuild. Dated by its Spanish styling, it was nevertheless a sound and comfortable house in a substantial and quiet older neighborhood where urban decay had never gained the slightest foothold.

Mrs. Cappelli had expected a family. Instead there were only the mother and son arriving in a noisy old car in the wake of a van that had disgorged flimsy, worn, time-payment furniture. Mrs. Ruth Morrow and Greg. A lot of house for two people, but Mrs. Cappelli supposed, correctly, that the age of the house and its long vacancy had finally caused the desperate owner to offer it as a cut-rate bargain on the sagging rental market.

After a settling-in day or two, Mrs. Cappelli saw Mrs. Morrow pruning the dying poinsettia near the front corner of the house and went over to say hello.

It was a sultry afternoon and Mrs. Morrow looked wan and tired, with hardly enough remaining strength to snap the shears. Mrs. Cappelli wondered why Greg wasn’t handling the pruning tool. He was at home. Who could doubt it? He was in there torturing a high-amplification guitar with amateurish violence. His discordant efforts were audible a block away.

“I’m Maria Cappelli,” Mrs. Cappelli said pleasantly. “It’s very nice to have new neighbors.”

Mrs. Morrow accepted the greeting with hesitant and standoffish self-consciousness. Her glance slipped toward the house, a silent wish that her son would turn down his guitar. She was a thin, almost frail woman. She needs, Mrs. Cappelli thought, mounds of pasta and huge bowls of steaming, mouth-watering stufato .

Mrs. Morrow remembered her manners with a tired smile. “Ruth Morrow,” she said. She glanced about the yard. “So much to do here. Inside, the place was all dust and cobwebs.” Her gaze moved to Mrs. Cappelli’s comfortable abode of stucco and red tile. “You have a lovely place.”

“My husband built it years before his death. We used to come here for winter vacations. To me, it was home, rather than New York. I love Florida, even the heat of the summers. My son was born in the house, right up there in that corner bedroom.” Mrs. Cappelli laughed. “Shortest labor on record. Such a bambino! When he decided to make his entrance, he wouldn’t even take time for a ride to the hospital.”

Mrs. Cappelli’s unconscious delight in her son brought Ruth Morrow’s fatigued and hollow eyes to Mrs. Cappelli’s face. Mrs. Cappelli was caught, held, and slightly embarrassed. Such aching eyes! So many regrets, frustrations and bewilderments harbored in their depths... They were too large and dark for the thin, heavily made-up face that at one time mast have been quite pretty.

“My son is named Greg,” Mrs. Morrow murmured.

“Mine is named John. He’s much older than your son. He has a wife and five children — such scamps! — and he comes to see me now and then when he can take the time. He is a contractor up north, always on the go.”

“He must be a fine man.”

Mrs. Cappelli was urged to say something comforting to the wearied mother before her. “Oh, John sowed an oat. I guess they all do, before they settle down. Nowadays John is always after me to sell the old antique, as he calls the house. Come and live with him, he nags. I tell him to peddle his own papers. This is not the old country where three or four generations must brawl under one small roof.”

Mrs. Morrow nodded. “It’s been real nice of you to say hello, Mrs. Cappelli. I do have to run now. I work, you see. At the Serena Lounge on the beach, from six in the evening until two o’clock each morning. I always have a good bit to do to get ready for work.”

“The Serena is an excellent place. John took Isadora and me there the last time he was down.”

Ruth Morrow punched the tip of the pruning shears at a small brown twig. “Being a cocktail waitress isn’t the height of my ambition, but without professional training, it pays more money than I’d ever hoped to make. And God knows there is never quite enough money.”

It might ease the situation, Mrs. Cappelli mused, if her boy dirtied his hands with some honest toil. She said, “The honor of a job is in its execution, and I’m certain you’re the best of cocktail waitresses.”

The sincerity of Mrs. Cappelli’s tone brought the first touch of animation to the tired face with its layered icing of makeup and framing of short, dark brown hair. Before Mrs. Morrow could respond, the front door of the house slammed, and Greg was standing in the shadow of the small portico. Both women looked toward him.

“Greg,” Mrs. Morrow called, “this is Mrs. Cappelli, our next-door neighbor.”

“Hi,” he said, bored. He gave Mrs. Cappelli a single glance of dismissal, dropped to the walk with a single smooth stride and headed around the house.

“Greg,” Ruth Morrow called, “where are you going?”

“Out,” he said, without looking back.

“When will you be home?”

“When I’m damned good and ready!” He rounded the corner of the house and was out of sight.

Mrs. Morrow’s face came creeping in Mrs. Cappelli’s direction, but her eyes sidled away. “It’s just his way of talking, Mrs. Cappelli.”

Mrs. Cappelli nodded, but she didn’t understand. How could Mrs. Morrow accept it? Parental respect was normal in a child, be he six or sixty.

A car engine was stabbed to roaring life and Greg raced down the driveway. He cornered the car into the street with tires screaming.

“I really have to go now, Mrs. Cappelli.”

“It was a privilege to meet you,” Mrs. Cappelli said.

“Well?” Isadora asked us soon its Mrs. Cappelli stepped into the house.

“She is a poor woman in the worst of all states,” Mrs. Cappelli said, “a mother with a cruel and unloving son.”

Isadora crossed herself.

“He is killing his mother,” Mrs. Cappelli said.

Greg was an immediate neighborhood blight, a disease, an invasion. The Ransoms’ playful puppy bounded into the Morrow yard and Greg broke its leg with a kick, claiming that the flop-eared trusting mutt was charging him. He hunted chords on the thunderous guitar at one o’clock in the morning, if the mood suited him. Many evenings he was out, usually returning about three a.m. with screaming tires and unmuffled engine. Frequently he filled the Morrow house with hordes of hippies for beer and rock parties.

Neighbors grumbled and swapped irate opinions of Greg among themselves over back-yard fences and coffee klatches. Lack of leadership was a stultifying, inertial force, and nothing was done about Greg until about two, one morning, when the biggest blast yet hit the peak of its frenzy in the Morrow house.

Mr. Sigmon (the white colonial across the street) decided he just couldn’t stand it any longer. He threw back the cover, sat up in bed, turned on the bedside lamp, and dialed Information on his extension phone. Yes, Information informed, a phone had been installed at the Morrow address. Mr. Sigmon got the number, hesitated for a single minute, then dialed it.

The Morrow phone rang six or seven times before anyone noticed. Then a girl answered, giggling drunkenly. “If this isn’t an obscene call, forget it.”

“Let me speak to Greg,” Mr. Sigmon said, the phone feeling sweaty in his hand.

The girl screeched for Greg, and he was on.

“Have a heart,” Mr. Sigmon pleaded. “Can’t you tone things down just a little?”

“Who’s this?” Greg asked.

“I... uh... Mr. Sigmon, across the street.”

“How’d you like a fat lip, Mr. Sigmon-across-the-street?”

“Now look, Greg...” Mr. Sigmon gathered his courage. “All I’m asking is that you be reasonable.”

“Go cram it!”

A burst of anger burned the edges from Mr. Sigmon’s timidity. “Now look here, you young pup, you quiet down over there or I’ll call the police.”

For a moment there was only the noise of the party on the line, the wild laughter, the shouted talk, the overpowering background of hard-rock rhythm. Then Greg said, “Well, OK, pops. You don’t have to get so sore about it. We’re just having some fun.” The party cooled and Mr. Sigmon stretched beside his wide-awake wife with a feeling of being an inch taller for having put a tether on Greg.

Two days later Mrs. Sigmon got out of her station wagon with a bag of groceries, crossed to the front stoop, and dropped the groceries with a thud and clatter. She put her knuckles to her mouth and screamed. Against the front door lay her cat, stiff and lifeless, its head twisted so that its muzzle pointed upward away from the shoulders.

That night Greg hosted another party, the loudest one yet.

To Mrs. Cappelli it was as if a dark presence had come among them. It wasn’t the same warmly quiet old street. It was like a sinister urban street where the aura urged the hapless pedestrian to hurry along after dark with ears keened for the slightest sound.

“Perhaps the Morrows will move on,” Mrs. Cappelli said at breakfast.

“Yes,” Isadora agreed. “They are Gypsies. But when? That’s the question. Next month? A year from now? Before the youth does something even more dreadful?”

“That poor mother.” Mrs. Cappelli flipped an egg in the pan “If she moved around the world, she would not have room for her problem.”

Later in the day Mrs. Cappelli carried her afternoon tea up to her bedroom. She put the steaming cup on a small table and crossed to the side window. Outside, on a level with the sill, was a small wooden ledge. Two sparrows were hopping about on it, pecking bits of food from cracks.

“Hello there,” Mrs. Cappelli said, “you’re early for dinner. You must be hungry, going for those leftovers.”

She turned to the bureau and picked up a canister. The sparrows fluttered away as she opened the canister and reached out to spread a feast of seeds and crumbs on the ledge feeder.

The sparrows had returned by the time Mrs. Cappelli fetched her tea and settled in the wooden rocking chair near the window. Other birds arrived, more sparrows, a robin, a thrush, a tiny wren. They were a delight of movement, color; they were so naturally happy, so easy to please.

The daily bird feeding and watching was silly, perhaps — the whim of an old woman — but the birds rewarded Mrs. Cappelli with a quiet pleasure in a sometimes endless day. Therefore, she inquired of herself, isn’t it a most important thing?

She wondered if the Prince would come; and then he did. Gorgeous. Regal. The most beautiful cardinal since Audubon. He had been a daily visitor a long time now. He always came to rest on the edge of the feeder, proud head lifted and tilted as he looked in at Mrs. Cappelli.

She leaned forward slightly. “Hello there,” she said softly. “Is the food up to your kingly taste today?”

She couldn’t quite delight in the words or in the sight of Prince and his friends. No, not anymore. She sat back, fingers curled on the arms of the chair. Today, more than yesterday or the day before, she was aware of depleted joy. She’d tried not to admit the awareness, but now, in the ritual of the birds, was a hint of anxiety, even fear in her heart. She couldn’t entirely free her mind of the memory of the youth next door with his pellet gun. Pump, pump, pump... his strong hand working the lever while his eyes roamed the trees for an innocent, unsuspecting and helpless target, and a feathered body twisting and turning as it plunged headlong to the ground.

Perhaps, Mrs. Cappelli thought, she should stop feeding the birds while the air gun is over there threatening them...

As the thought crossed her mind, she saw a sudden puff of red feathers on the cardinal’s breast. The bird was gone. That quickly. That completely. The other birds scattered in sudden flight.

Mrs. Cappelli sat with a hot dryness blinding her eyes, then she snapped from the chair and hurried down through the house. With late sun searing through the cold film on her flesh, she searched along the driveway and through the shrubbery growing against the house. The cardinal’s body was not to be seen, and she was sure that Greg had run over and picked up the evidence before she’d got out of the house.

She thought of him watching the ledge, seeing her birds, hearing the sound of her, perhaps, drifting from her open window as she’d chatted at the cardinal. A dark instinct had risen in him, a hunger, and his devious mind with its unknown depths had schemed. He’d waited, like a beast savoring the anticipation of the kill. Then he’d felt the thrill of pulling the trigger at last and seeing the cardinal fall.

Mrs. Cappelli turned slowly, and he was there, standing near the front walk of the Morrow house, the air gun in the crook of his arm. Tall. Lean. Young. Challenging her. Baiting her. His lips lifting in a smile that sent an icy shard through her.

She turned on stiff legs and went into her house.

The policeman’s name was Longstreet, Sergeant Harley Longstreet. He was tall, strapping, with a pleasantly big-featured face and lank brown hair.

With the drapery pulled aside in the living-room, Mrs. Cappelli watched him come from the Morrow house. He stood a moment, looking over his shoulder, a loose-leaf pocket notebook in his hand. Then he came across to the Cappelli front door.

Mrs. Cappelli opened the door while he was still a few feet away and stood aside for him to enter. With a glance at his face, she suspected that he hadn’t been very successful with Greg Morrow. He was a nice young policeman. He’d responded quickly to her phone call. He’d heard everything she’d had to say. He hadn’t thought a bird’s death unimportant — not when it was coupled with the circumstances. He’d attached considerable meaning and importance to it. He had gone over to the Morrow place almost an hour ago. Now he was back.

Mrs. Cappelli stood with her fingers on the edge of the opened door. “I think I understand, Mr. Longstreet,” she said with no accusation or rancor.

“He simply denies killing the bird, ma’am. Did you actually see him kill it?”

“I didn’t see him pull the trigger.”

Well, you see, Mrs. Cappelli, the law is black print on white paper. Mrs. Morrow isn’t home. No one else is out and about the houses close by. Without a witness or some tangible evidence I’ve done about all I can.”

“I appreciate that, Mr. Longstreet.”

He hesitated, tapping his notebook on his thumb. “He says you are a crotchety old lady who doesn’t want young people in the neighborhood.”

“He’s a liar, Mr. Longstreet. I delight in reasonably normal young people. Do you believe him?”

“Not for a moment, Mrs. Cappelli. Not one word.” He flipped his notebook open. “I checked the records briefly when I got your call, to see if he was in any of the official files. We have computers nowadays, you know. I can push a button and tell whether or not he’d been recorded in any city or county agency.”

She closed the door finally and stood leaning the back of her shoulders against it. “And what did your computer tell you?

His sharp eyes flicked between her and the notebook. “He spent two years, our Greg Morrow, in a correctional institution for maladjusted teen-agers. Committed when he was sixteen. Released on his eighteenth birthday, which was eighteen months ago. Prior to the action that put him away, he had a record of classroom disruption, of vandalism in his schools, of shaking down smaller classmates for their pocket money. He was finally put away after he assaulted a school principal.”

“The principal should have given him a sound thrashing with a strong hickory switch,” Mrs. Cappelli said. “But in that event it would have been the principal who went to jail.”

“It’s possible,” Longstreet agreed. He tucked his notebook in his hip pocket. “We’ve had complaints about Greg almost from the day he was let out, in various neighborhoods where the Morrows have lived. But other than a suspended sentence for trespassing, after a house was vandalized, nothing has stood against him in court.”

Mrs. Cappelli moved slowly to a large chair and sank on its edge, hands clasped on her drawn-together knees. “Mr. Longstreet, Greg Morrow is not merely a mischievous boy. He is the kind of force and fact from which those fantastic and gory newspaper headlines are too often drawn.”

“That’s very possible.”

His tone caused her to glance up, and she caught the bitterness in his eyes. Her sympathy went out to him for the hardness of his job.

“Don’t feel badly, Mr. Longstreet. I thank you for coming out and talking to him. Perhaps it will frighten him for a little while and help that much.”

“We simply can’t lock them up without evidence of the commission of a crime. Sometimes, then, it’s too late.”

“After the commission of a crime, Mr. Longstreet, it is always too late.” She rose to her feet to see him out.

He stood looking down on her, the small sturdiness of her. “I’ll have the police cruiser in this area increase its patrols along your street, Mrs. Cappelli. I’ll do everything I possibly can.”

“I’m sure of that.”

“Good day, Mrs. Cappelli.”

“Good day, Mr. Longstreet.”

She watched him stride down the front walk and get into the unmarked police car parked against the street curbing. He sat there for a brief time after he started the engine, looking at the Morrow house; then he drove away.

As she turned, Mrs. Cappelli saw Greg. He was standing in the Morrow yard, thumbs hooked in his belt, watching the police car move toward the intersection and turn out of sight.

Mrs. Cappelli started to close the door. Then, with a sudden impulse, she went outside and walked across to the driveway that separated the two properties.

“Greg... may I speak to you?”

He moved only his head, turning it to stare at her. “Why should I talk to an old bitch who sics the fuzz on me?”

She whitened, but held back the swift heat of anger. “I thought we might have a civilized talk. After all, Greg, we do have to live as neighbors.”

“Who says? Somebody around here could die. Old biddies are always popping off, you know.”

She drew a difficult breath. “A bit of reasonableness, Greg. That’s all I’m asking. I was happy when you moved into the neighborhood, so young and vigorous. I looked forward to some youthful activity next door.”

“Old creep. You called the fuzz.”

“You know why, Greg. Somehow I must impress on you that there are limits. Why can’t we discuss them? Observe them? Live and let live?”

He looked at her with studied insolence. “You made a bad mistake calling Longstreet, old lady. I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all. I won’t forget it, either.”

Her voice rang with the first hint of anger. “Are you threatening me, Greg?”

“Who says? Can you prove to Longstreet that I am? Just your word against mine. I know how the law works. I know my rights.”

“I don’t think this is getting us anywhere, Greg. I regret having come out and spoken to you.”

He drifted a few steps toward her. The dying sunlight marked his cheekbones sharply. His body was tense, as if coiled inside. “You got a lot more regrets in the future, old lady. You better believe it. Think about it. You won’t know when, how, or where. But I don’t like people trying to throw me to the fuzz.”

“I hope this is just talk, Greg.”

He laughed suddenly. “That school principal — the one who got me sent up. Know what happened? About a year after I got out, a hit-and-run driver marked up the punk principal’s daughter, that’s what. She’ll be a short-legged creep the rest of her life. Sure, the fuzz questioned me — but they couldn’t prove a thing.”

She could bear it no longer. She turned and started toward her front door with quick steps.

“Don’t forget to think about it, old lady,” he called after her. “And remember — nobody ever proves a thing on Greg Morrow.”

Three passing days brought Mrs. Cappelli the faint hope that Greg had thought twice and again. Perhaps his insults and threat had sufficed his ego. Usually, such fellows were mostly talk. Usually.

The fourth night Mrs. Cappelli stirred in her always-light sleep, dreaming that she smelled smoke. She murmured in her half-conscious state; and then she had the sudden, clear, icy knowledge that she was not asleep.

She flung back the sheet, a small cry in her throat, and stumbled upright, a ghostly pale figure in her ankle-length white nightgown.

“Isadora!” she cried out as she hurried into the hallway. “Isadora, lazy-head, wake up! The house is on fire!”

Isadora’s bedroom door flung open and Isadora appeared, gowned like her mistress, her iron gray hair hanging in two limp braids across her shoulders.

“What is it? What’s happening?” Isadora chattered, her eyes bulging. She glimpsed the faint reddish glow in the stairwell and began crossing herself again and again. “Oh, heaven be merciful! Mercy from heaven!”

Together the two women stumbled in haste down the stairway. The fiery reflection was stronger in the dining room.

“Quickly, Isadora! The kitchen!”

They ran across the dining room, wavering to a halt inside the kitchen. Mrs. Cappelli s quick glance divined the situation. The curtains over the glass portion of the outside door had caught fire first. They were now remaining bits of falling ash and embers. The flames had spread easily to the window curtains along the rear of the kitchen, and were now gnawing at the cabinetwork, fouling the air with the stench of burning varnish.

Isadora dashed into the pantry, knocking pots helter-skelter as she grabbed two of the larger ones. Mrs. Cappelli was more direct. She pulled the sink squirter hose out to its full extension, turned the cold water on hard, and fought the flames back until she had drenched out the last flicker.

With wisps of smoke still seeping from the cabinetwork, Mrs. Cappelli groped for a kitchen chair and sank into it weakly. She matched long breaths with the gulps Isadora was taking, and strength began to return.

“How horrible it might have been,” Isadora said through chattering teeth, “if you hadn’t awakened.”

“Yes,” Mrs. Cappelli said.

Isadora gripped the kitchen table to help herself out of her chair. “We must call the fire department to make sure everything is out.”


“And the police.”


Isadora looked at Mrs. Cappelli, wondering at the sharpness of her tone. “Maria... we know who did this. We know he has been planning, waiting, thinking and deciding what to do.”

“Yes, and tonight he made his move.” Mrs. Cappelli’s gaze examined the fire-blackened kitchen door and paused at its base. She got up, crossed to the door, and knelt down. She touched the ashes at the base of the door. “And so simply he did it,” she said. “Not all these ashes are from burned fabric. Some of them feel very much like brittle burned paper. So easily, without breaking in or leaving marks on the kitchen door, he simply slid strips of paper underneath the door until he had a sufficient pile inside. Then it remains for him but to light the tail end of the final strip and watch the tiny flame creep along the paper under the door and ignite the pile inside. Soon the hungry flames reach up to touch the curtains...”

The two women were an immobile tableau — Isadora standing beside the table, Mrs. Cappelli kneeling at the door, looking at each other.

“Yes, I see,” Isadora said. “It’s all very clear. It would be clear to the police. But they cannot make the youth confess. They are not permitted. And he will have an alibi, someone to swear that he was far away from this street tonight.”

A small sob caught in Mrs. Cappelli’s throat. “How much can we endure, Isadora? Call the firemen quickly. Then I want the phone. Late as it is, I want to hear the sound of John’s voice.”

At ten o’clock the following evening an airport taxicab deposited John in front of the Cappelli house.

“It’s he!” Isadora said, watching him pay off the taxi and get out his single piece of luggage.

Beside Isadora, the giddy center of a little vortex of excitement, Mrs. Cappelli nudged hard with her elbow. “Quickly, Isadora! The table... the dinner candles.” Isadora darted from the front door, leaving Mrs. Cappelli there alone to watch the approach of her son.

He wouldn’t have eaten on the plane, she knew. Mama always had one of his favorite meals waiting, whatever his hour of arrival. Tonight Mrs. Cappelli had centered the dinn

er around arosto di agnello , and already she could imagine him filling his mouth with the succulent lamb and blowing her a kiss of approval from his fingertips.

“Ah, John, John!” Her wide-flung arms enfolded his dark, towering, masculine strength and, as always, she wept joyously.

He picked her up, almost as if he would tuck her under his arm, and kissed her on both cheeks.

“What is that I smell? Not roast lamb as only mia madre  can make?”

“But yes, John! How was the flight? Isadora, wherever are you? Quickly, Isadora! The most handsome boy on earth is famished!”

Arm linked with her son’s, Mrs. Cappelli strolled into the dining room, questions tumbling about her daughter-in-law, her precious grandchildren.

All was well up north, John assured her. All was going beautifully.

He sat down at the head of the old hand-carved walnut table, an inviting array before him, snowy linens, bone china, crystal and sterling, tall candles in beaten silver holders, fine food in covered dishes.

Isadora and Mrs. Cappelli were content to sit on either side, near the head of the table, watching him eat and anticipating his every wish from the serving dishes.

Then at last he could eat no more, and he rewarded his mother with a loving wink and appreciative little belch.

He laid his napkin on the table, pushed back his chair, and lifted one of the candles to light a thin black cigar.

Mrs. Cappelli was at his side as he walked to the windows in the side of the room and stood there looking at the lights of the Morrow house.

“Now, Mama,” he said quietly, “what’s this trouble?”

She told him every detail from the moment Greg Morrow had moved next door. She acquainted John with Greg’s every habit, the identity of Greg’s closest friends, the make, model and license number of the Morrow car. It took her several minutes; she had accumulated a great deal of information during the time Greg had been a neighbor.

When Mrs. Cappelli finished speaking, John slipped his arm about her shoulders. “Don’t worry, Mama,” he said quietly. “It will be taken care of. The young animal will stop killing his mother. He will kill and maim no more animals. He will hit-run no more children. He will light no more arsonist fires. It will all be taken care of very soon, when the first proper moment arrives.”

Looking up at him, Mrs. Cappelli knew it would be so. In her, regrettably, Greg Morrow had made the biggest mistake of his life.

She thought of John’s grandfather and his father and of Cappelli men from Sicily to San Francisco. In all the Mafia — and it had been so for generations — there were no better soldiers than Cappelli men. They enforced Mafioso law without fear or regard — and none was more stalwart than the loving fullness of her heart, her John.

Till Death Do Not Us Part

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Originally published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , August 1975.

As constable of Grande Isle Parish, Louisiana (Jerem Jenks is the name), I’ll naturally stick to bald facts when I write the official report. I’ve pieced together details of the killing out at the Deveau place without much trouble. It was a simple, direct act of violence. Once it was started, it had to end in blood. In physical terms, we’ve never had a messier killing in the parish; but it was tidy in one respect, leaving none of those wearisome questions about motive and identity that cause a lawman sleepless nights and a case of heartburn.

I’ll write up the details with impersonal attention, the same way I’d give directions to a motorist passing through our back-bayou country, but I’m not sure the bare facts will tell the full truth or its complete meaning. Ten dollars plus ten dollars equals twenty dollars — but that doesn’t explain the latent power in the printed paper, what the twenty dollars will buy. The significance depends on the druthers and desires of whoever owns the twenty. The visible fact of the money is only the beginning of the truth concerning it.

In my own mind, Robert Deveau’s love for his wife had a lot to do with what happened. Yes, I know that Robert died thirty years ago. I know that my notion is fanciful, but I believe it. I don’t think his love died with his flesh. It was a part of her, always. It was there when she needed it most. His devotion, through her undying memory of it, steadied her, directed her; and an earthly portion of him protected her and kept her safe...

The background of it all goes back quite a way, almost forty years. Robert Deveau was a strapping, black-haired, sun-darkened young man descended from those French Acadians who fled British rule in Nova Scotia almost two hundred years ago and trekked all the way into the Louisiana wilderness seeking freedom.

Robert’s was a working plantation, and he was rarely seen lolling on the veranda of his comfortable old colonial house sipping mint juleps. His muscles were hard and his hands were calloused. He was outgoing and generous, honest and compassionate. The way the parish felt about him, he could have had any local political office for the asking.

He met Valerie during a business trip to New Orleans and spent every weekend down there until he married her a few months later.

They went to Europe for about a month, and Grande Isle awaited their return with the usual small-town expectancy and curiosity. They settled into married life on the modest Deveau plantation, and Grande Isle quickly had its answers about her. Robert Deveau couldn’t have made a better choice. Tall, lithe, chestnut-haired, strongly beautiful, Valerie made Grande Isle her home with such a natural ease and unpretended warmth that folks soon dis-remembered she hadn’t been born in the parish. I figure that Robert was the key to that. Robert was her home, just as she was his. The two of them could have been at home in Baltimore or Borneo, just so long as they were together.

About the eighth year of their marriage, they went up to the Great Smoky Mountains near Asheville for a short summer vacation. One night as they were returning to their rented cottage, the brakes faded on their car during the long drop down the steep mountain road. The car hurtled into a tight hairpin curve even as Robert reacted to the emergency. It plunged down the mountainside, rolling over and over with glass shattering, metal rending, and hot oil and water spewing from the engine’s guts.

Robert was knocked out the first time the car turned over. When he groaned back to pain-filled consciousness, he knew he was badly hurt. His stomach, chest, and head felt as if a team of Louisiana mules had walked across him. From the numbness in his left leg, he suspected what his groping fingers confirmed. He had broken the left femur, the big thigh bone, just above the knee. The sharp, jagged end had punctured the flesh, and blood was coursing down his calf.

The first shock of pain began to build in the fractured femur, but it wasn’t as important as the emptiness of the car.


He realized that he was lying awkwardly on his side against the top of the car. It had come to rest upside down. The door near his face had sprung open during the long and violent fall.


Had she been thrown clear, escaped relatively unharmed? With the prayer on his lips, he dragged himself out of the car.

He lay for a moment fighting off faintness, dwarfed by the hugeness of the moon-washed mountains and their desolate silence. He sucked at the clean air and found a little strength.

Raising his head, he saw her face, not a dozen feet from him; just her head and shoulders. The rest of her was pinned between soft, loamy ground and the curve of the topsy-turvy front fender.

He crawled toward her, the sight of the stillness of her features killing his own pain for a moment. His trembling hand touched her lips, her throat, the place where the fender pressed down on her.

He looked up the long, moon-spangled slope, seeing the trail of broken brush and shattered saplings the car had plowed. Against the heights was the dark band, like a black scar on the mountain’s face, made by the road cut. Perhaps he had strength to crawl the distance up to the road. Maybe there’d be the luck of a passing car he could stop for help. He had a chance to save himself before he bled to death from the leg wound. A chance with strength and just the smallest bit of luck... but, he knew, he didn’t have the time. If she was still alive at all, Valerie wasn’t breathing under the weight and pressure of the fender. She couldn’t wait for help. She was suffocating now.

He dug his hands into the earth under her shoulders and started tearing it away. Inch by inch he gave her room, somehow hanging onto consciousness and sanity. Each handful of dirt he grubbed out loosened the clamp against her chest a little bit more.

He heard a faint popping sound, the recoil of cramped muscles within her rib cage, and with a shuddering gasp, the first thread of air streamed past her lips and into her lungs. It was followed by a stronger gasp, and then another, and in a few seconds she moved her head a little and moaned.

She was trying to speak his name, and he said weakly, “I’m here, Valerie.”

“Oh, God, Robert...”

“Can you manage? Wiggle out?”

“I’m hurt, Robert. My arm... my stomach...”

“Try, Valerie. Work your way out. A little at a time. That’s it. Keep trying. You’ll have to do it... I’m plain tuckered. Give me a minute... just a minute... to rest...”

His eyes closed slowly, and the last drops of life oozed through arteries and flesh sliced by the razor-sharp end of the broken femur bone.

When Valerie brought his body back, Grande Isle closed up for the day and joined her mourning. His service was held in the community church, and the long procession of cars wound its way the ten miles out to the Deveau place.

Robert was interred in the family mausoleum, which stood a hundred yards to the rear of the house in a grove of live oaks. The burial place was like a dozen others in the parish, a thousand others in our part of Louisiana where the nature of the swampy soil rules out below-ground burial. It was an almost-crude blockhouse built from stone. Weather had pitted and stained it and ivy smothered the walls. The sheet-iron door that was pulled open to admit Robert Deveau to his own niche in the dark crypt was blackened with rust. His father and mother were in there, his grandparents and their parents — and no doubt in that moment Valerie Deveau thought that in some distant day there’d be room for her. In keeping with custom, if it should be necessary, the bones of a long-dead Deveau would be pushed to the rear of a niche to make room for the new arrival.

Meantime, there were the pieces of her life to pick up, and she did so with the quiet brand of Deveau courage. She ran the business of the plantation on a reduced scale. She kept up old friendships. She drove into Grande Isle once a week for her volunteer day at the parish’s small hospital. If her thoughts or wishes strayed beyond the plantation, she never showed any sign of it.

She might have married again, a dozen times. A lot of the parish bachelors made the try. As far as she was concerned, however, the male gender began and ended with Robert Deveau, before whose tomb she placed a basket of fresh flowers once each week.

The years burnished her hair to smooth gray, added wrinkles to the corners of her green eyes and full-lipped mouth, and tugged faintly at the animal beauty of her body; but she was structured not to grow old with bent back and rheumy eyes, and she remained a striking woman, even after thirty years of widowhood.

My mind was far and away from anything connected with the Deveaus the day Carlin Soulard drifted into Grande Isle. As constable, I didn’t fancy his type. He was a hulking youth with hair like dirty frayed blond ropes hanging to his heavy shoulders. His stubbled face was brutish and habitually sullen. He wore dirty jeans tucked into run-over boots and a filthy green T-shirt with “Make War — To Hell With Love” stenciled across the chest. I figured he’d smoke pot and spit on the floor.

He came from beyond Chad Bayou, where the Soulards were a sizable interbred Cajun clan that existed on its knack for poaching, making moonshine, waylaying the infrequent stranger, and stealing from one another.

Once previously, Carlin had drifted into Grande Isle. His sojourn had stretched to sixty days in the local jail after a drinking bout with a home-grown tough had ended in a fist fight. This time, I hoped, he was just passing through, but on the third straight day that he chalked his cue in the Little Andy Poolroom & Beer I decided to mention that our jail food had improved none at all, inflation being what it was.

He was crouched over the second table, running a rack of balls. He didn’t see me right away, moving around the table, sighting his next shot.

He extended his left arm, bridging his cue stick, and I said, “Just make sure you won’t end up behind the black ball, Carlin, the eight ball.”

He jerked a dark look over his shoulder, then straightened and turned, fingering the heavy end of the stick. “Well, blast me! It’s the old-timer. Old friend Constable Jenks.”

“Have some bad blood trouble over your way, Carlin?”

“Now, whatever would give you an idea like that, Mister Lawman?”

“Just figured you’d had to make tracks to stay out of Chad Bayou for this long.”

Half a dozen loungers in the place had perked up. They drifted over to lounge against the wall and take in the scene with a stirring of interest and curiosity.

“Stayed out once for sixty-days,” Carlin said. “Ain’t forgot that, old-timer.”

“We aired the cell after you were gone, Carlin.”

His eyes went a shade darker in their heavy sockets. Then he winked at one of the bystanders. “Real comic you got for a local fuzz. Real funny, ain’t he?”

One of the loungers laughed, uncertainly. Carlin shot him a look and the laugh broke off in mid-note.

“Only I ain’t letting him set me up.” Carlin swung his gaze back to me. “Just shoot your mouth off all you like, old gray fuzz. You ain’t egging me into giving you an excuse to invite me back into your lousy pokey. I’m a free citizen and I know my rights. That’s a public street out there and this is a public place. Now get yourself a cue stick and stand the hell out of my way.”

“Where you staying, Carlin?”

“The Bide-A-Wee Tourist Cabins on the edge of town. I registered right and paid for my flop. Don’t get any ideas about vagrancy charges, high mucky-muck policeman. I got money. Here. Look.” He fished a small roll of bills from his jeans and jammed them under my nose. “You want to count it, oh mighty chief of the gestapo? You got my permission.”

I raised my hand and pushed his aside with my fingertips. “All right, Carlin. I don’t need to count it, seeing as how there’s nothing visible except a few singles. I wouldn’t be surprised if you lifted it off a cousin or uncle and had to run like hell. In any event, I don’t imagine you’ve got enough there to last you long — and I’d suggest looking for some honest work before you go broke in Grande Isle.”

“I’ll be right over and apply for the job of deputy constable, old-timer.”

He thought that was rich, and I left him standing there laughing and slapping his thigh.

Late the next afternoon, as I pieced it together later during the investigation, Jeff Moseby showed up in the Little Andy. A lanky swamp cypress logger, Jeff had recently lost the first two fingers on his right hand in a sawmilling accident. Today, he’d had outpatient treatment and re-bandaging of the finger stumps at the parish hospital. With a wave of his bandage, he offered to stand a round of beer for the half-dozen loafers in the Little Andy. The group included Carlin Soulard.

Jeff was fond of describing his accident in bloody detail, and today he had a spin-off bit of news.

“Mrs. Deveau was doing her day at the hospital. She wrapped the fingers when the doctor was through. Made me a real interesting proposition, too.”

Buster Toutain smacked the lips in his big, greasy-looking face. “She’s still quite a piece, I bet. Play your cards right, Jeff-boy, and she might open the wall safe in her house for you. I hear it’s loaded with a million dollars and a quart jar of diamonds. Just give her what she—”

Jeff’s good hand shot across the pine plank table and grabbed the wrinkled collar of Buster’s poplin shirt. “You hear a lot of crud, because that’s all you listen for, Buster. You could wash your mind in a sewer and it would come out twice as clean. You don’t talk like that about Mrs. Deveau when I’m around, understand?”

Buster sensed that most of the men at the table were in solid agreement with Jeff. Valerie Deveau was that little part of itself that Grande Isle didn’t care to have dirtied.

“I didn’t mean nothing,” Buster muttered, straightening his collar as Jeff slowly released him.

“The hell you didn’t — and one of these days cruddy talk is going to land you in trouble.” Jeff’s eyes swept the group about the table. “Fact is, Mrs. Deveau and me got talking about how hard it is to get help these days and how tough and dangerous swamp logging is. Nobody out there nowadays but her and the caretaker. Plenty of good land lying fallow, she says. Told me if I wanted to put in a cane crop I’d keep the long end of the shares, her not needing money in particular.”

Jeff paused to eye his bandaged hand. “I might just do it. Get me a small crew and quit making cypress stumps before I lose more than a pair of fingers.”

Carlin Soulard took it all in. During the evening, when Buster was oiled with beer, Carlin drew him out about Valerie Deveau’s life style and the wall safe in her house. Then Carlin returned to his grubby room in the ramshackle Bide-A-Wee Tourist Cabins and did some long thinking. About daybreak, he slipped unseen out of Grande Isle on his battered motorbike. He hid the cycle in the weeds behind an old billboard on the county road and hiked across Deveau land until he had a wide, clear view of the house from the concealment of a thicket.

Carlin lay sweating as the sun climbed higher in the cloudless summer sky. At first he brushed off the swarms of insects that came to feed on him, then simply endured them while a growing thirst began to burn his throat. In a state of mild torment, he fueled a personal hatred for Valerie Deveau. It would make the robbery easier, and if he had to kill her, he could do so.

He watched the caretaker ride a power mower over the vast side yard. A stalwart, work-hardened, middle-aged figure, he broke the chore twice to walk to an outside faucet located against the north wing of the house and take long slow swallows of cool water. Cursing the man under his breath, Carlin held his impatience in check. He buoyed himself with the thought of the right moment, when she would be alone, when the safe would be open. Allowing for the exaggerations of gossip, Carlin was convinced that the wall safe would at the least contain the plantation’s cash on hand, several thousand dollars. Even several hundred was more than he had any prospects of seeing in a lump during the rest of his life.

At last he saw her come out on the veranda with its tall, slender white columns. She called to the caretaker, who was finishing up the side yard. He got off the riding mower and walked across to stand in the shadow of the veranda. They talked for a moment, and the man returned to the mower and rode it out of sight around the rear corner of the house. She turned and went back inside.

With a ripple of tension passing through his muscles, Carlin crawled through the thicket, shaving the distance between himself and the grounds. He heard a car’s engine surge to life and a few moments later a big blue station wagon nosed along the driveway, the caretaker at the wheel, alone in the car.

Carlin watched the station wagon follow the long curve of the driveway past the sheltering rows of tall Australian pines. Swiveling his head, he watched a distant humpback in the county road that was visible from his hiding place. In three or four minutes, the station wagon moved over the low rise and then was out of sight. Clearly, Mrs. Deveau had sent the caretaker to Grande Isle on an errand.

Crouching, Carlin snaked his way out of the thicket, ran across the side yard, and pressed his back against the side of the house. Breath was shallowing out now, eyes and ears straining.

He heard the soft, rattling slam of the back screen door. Running to the rear corner, he saw her walking toward the grove of live oaks a hundred yards away. She was carrying a basket of flowers, and he guessed she had been in the kitchen cutting and arranging them.

He turned and padded quickly along the side of the house, sprang upon the end of the veranda, and entered the house through the front door.

After the heat and insects, the foyer was a pleasantly cool invitation. He didn’t pause, darting into the long, sunken living-room. One by one he looked behind pictures on the wall, tested bookcases. At last he stood with fists clenched, teeth grinding. Was it just a made-up thing, this wall safe of hers?

He looked once more about the living-room, his gaze stopping at the archway opening into the dining room. He hurried in, looking at the long table and arranged chairs, the tall bay with its soft draperies at the farther end of the room, the buffet closer at hand. Over the buffet hung an oil painting of a bowl of fruit. He crossed to it, touched the picture. It was hinged at the top, and when he swung it open a soft laugh caught in his throat. An almost frenzied joy built in his eyes as he studied the dial of the compact and very secure-looking wall safe. He lowered the picture silently.

Slipping into the hallway, he hurried to the kitchen. He gave it a quick survey: cabinets, counter-tops, stove, refrigerator, walk-in cooler, large worktable, the huge old copper sink with its sideboards cluttered with flower cuttings and a couple of gardening tools where she’d arranged the basket.

He looked out the rear window and drew in a thin breath. She was returning, only a few yards from the house, no longer carrying the basket.

He pressed himself against the wall beside the screen door and counted the approaching footsteps. He clenched and raised his fist, and when she stepped inside he slammed his knuckles against her cheek.

A small note of pain jarred from her. She reeled, twisted, tripped over her feet, and fell in an awkward heap near the sink. She was numbed for a moment. Then she pulled herself up, holding to the edge of the sink and looking over her shoulder at him. Her eyes were slightly glazed, more from shock and sudden terror than from the force of his blow.

“What do you want?” she managed in a hoarse whisper.

“Just open the safe, lady, that’s all.” He’d moved out from the wall and stood now near the center of the room, hands cocked op hips, staring at her defiantly.

She was perfectly still for a moment. Clearly, she was thinking, this could well be the last day of her life. She would live until she had opened the safe; but looking at his brutishness and the temporary loss of sanity in his eyes, she was certain that he wouldn’t leave a living witness to his crime.

He mistook her silence. “Don’t get crazy ideas,” he warned. “You’ll open the safe, one way or another. Easy or hard.”

“I believe you,” she said.

“And don’t try to stall or con me. Won’t do you any good to claim there’s only some papers or something like that in the safe. I know what safes are for.”

“No, I wouldn’t try to lie to you about the safe.”

“That’s on the track, lady. Now let’s get moving.”

He stepped back and slightly to one side to make way for her to go ahead of him. She moved her hands, both of them, more quickly than he could blink. She grabbed flower cuttings, shears, heavy knife all in a motion from the sideboard and flung the lot of it at his face.

The wet stems, leaves, and petals showered against his cheeks; the knife sailed past his ear; the heavy shears crashed against the bridge of his nose.

With a yelp of pain, he grabbed his face and stumbled backward a step. He heard the snap of the screen door. “Damn you! I’ll really fix you now!”

He stumbled to the door, feeling the warm coursing of blood from his nose. He squinted his eyes back into focus and saw her running hard across the back yard toward the ivy-grown mausoleum and live oaks a hundred yards away.

Snorting out a spray of blood, he ran out to catch her, taking long strides, his mouth a confident and determined gash...

She was wearing workaday clothing, blouse, slacks, sandals, and she was much faster than he’d expected — a tough, hardy plantation woman.

He narrowed the gap between them steadily. Nearing the mausoleum, she cast a look over her shoulder, her mouth a wide hole laboring for breath.

He forced a little more speed. A few seconds now and he would trap her against the old family tomb. He could see the bright splash of color of the flower basket where she’d set it against the rusty sheet-iron door.

With a quick shift she darted around the mausoleum. OK, he thought, but it wouldn’t do her any good. Beyond the crypt he’d glimpsed only open fields of palmetto, sage, stunted brush that offered her no ready place to hide.

He burst around the rear of the mausoleum and stumbled to a halt. The fields yawned emptily. She’d disappeared, just like that.

He stood briefly, catching breath through his mouth and blood-encrusted nose. Then a cold smile crimped his lips and he turned slowly. Simple, he decided. Since she didn’t head across the field, she had to duck around the tomb, hoping to beat it back to the house.

He ran to the front of the mausoleum, looking toward the house and seeing no sign of her in that direction either. Again he halted, more indecisively.

He scanned in all directions carefully, even among the lower branches of the spreading oaks. A tremor of anger and frustration ticked the corner of his mouth. He tilted his head, straining his ears for the cracking of a twig, the rustle of a sage clump, sounds that would tell him that she was now in back of the mausoleum. Round and round, he mused, while she keeps the vault between us... but it wouldn’t work, of course. He’d charge, overtake her, or reverse directions suddenly and have her come charging around a corner straight into his grip.

Then a slow frown began to creep between his eyes. He had the feeling that he was seeing something he shouldn’t. A wrong detail. Something out of place.

The basket of flowers! His breath caught. The basket was tilted over on its side now — and the door of the mausoleum was slightly ajar.

“Well, I’ll be diddle-damned!” he breathed to himself. His gaze inched over the weather-blackened sheet-iron door. Her only hiding place... She’d slipped around, ducked inside, hoping that he’d search the fields and give her a chance to get back to the house, a telephone, a gun.

He let out a laugh. Bending, he picked up a small pebble, threw it, and listened to it ring against the sheet-iron door.

“You hear that, lady, that little old rock?” he called out. “It means you’re not so smart after all. You’ve blown the deal. It means I’m coming in and drag you out. This time I won’t fool around. I’ll whip so much hell out of you, you’ll be begging to open that safe.”

He grasped the ragged edge of the door and swung it back hard, and lunged at the indistinct form of her there inside the dense gloom of the mausoleum.

His fist was raised to start giving her the message without any more question marks. As his hand came smashing down, he glimpsed a countermovement that she made. His eyes were still focusing from the brilliant sunlight outside, but he saw that she was holding something. A weapon.

As his weight crashed against her, the weapon in her hand was driven home, straight through the wall of his stomach, biting deep into his entrails.

His scream shattered against the stone walls. He fell back, grabbing at the sudden fire in his guts. He collapsed outside the mausoleum and lay thrashing in the sunlight.

Her half-incoherent phone call brought me to the Deveau place in record time. When I arrived, she was sitting on the front steps, her body bent far over, her arms wrapped around her shins, her cheek pressing against her knees.

She heard the police car skid to a stop on the driveway gravel and struggled to her feet as I got out of the car and ran over to her.

A sob racked her body. She reached toward me for support. “Constable Jenks...”

“It’s all right now, Mrs. Deveau.” I put my arm about her shoulders. “It’s all over. Everything’s under control, and Dr. Simmers is on his way.”

Physically she was unhurt, but she needed Doc’s help to get through the aftermath of shock.

As if on cue, Doc’s dusty car rolled up, and when he took over with Valerie Deveau, I hurried around the house, crossed the back yard, and came to a halt a few yards from the Deveau mausoleum.

Although I expected it, the sight of Carlin S

oulards corpse stopped the breath in my throat. His death anguish had twisted his body out of shape, jutted his eyes, peeled his lips far apart.

My unwilling gaze was held by the pattern the blood had made on his shirt and pants as it had spurted from his abdomen. His dead hands still clutched the weapon protruding from his belly.

I forced a movement of my eyes and ventured a look inside the crypt. The scene of violence took shape in my mind, the way it must have happened. She slipped inside the crypt, hoping Carlin Soulard would search for her out across the fields... But if he didn’t, if he cornered her, she was desperate for a way to defend herself... She lifted the lid of Robert Deveau’s coffin a few inches... Her fingers closed on the left femur bone with its lower end broken to jagged razor sharpness on a mountainside thirty years ago... And when Carlin hurled himself on her, she used the bone as a strong and desperate woman would have used a sharp dagger...

I stood for a hushed moment, just thinking about it. Why’d she hide in the crypt? For the logical reason that it was the only hiding place? Or because the memory of Robert was strongest there, to strengthen and steady her? And the weapon — had she thought of it for the logical reason that it was the only available weapon? Or because the suggestion came from an unseen source?

I shook the questions out of my head and started toward the house. My mind was made up on at least one thing: Doc Simmers — not the faithful constable of Grande Isle — was going to have the job of removing the weapon from Carlin Soulard s body.

Hope Chest

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Originally published in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine , August 1976.

The little old lady was a faint flickering in empty spaces where all the stars had gone out, a pinprick of awareness in a timeless nothingness. She was a single spark struggling against the darkness, a wavering candle glow, reaching, searching, writhing higher, bursting at last in a shower of purple, green and gold sparks. The display winked out, spark by spark, leaving the old lady with the vague and troubled notion that she existed.

She didn’t know, in those first moments, who she was, where she had come from, how she had got here. But it didn’t seem to matter. She wasn’t hot or cold. She was comfortable, and comfort was a state to cherish.

She tried to swaddle herself in the darkness, but returning awareness hung on, gathering strength, spreading like the coming a dreary gray dawn. Her brittle old bones, marrowed with creaks and stiffness, took shape bit by bit. Wan light filtered weakly through her open, filmed eyes, a gray seepage, dirty fog.

She realized that she had a body. She was a physical being, a person. She didn’t know yet who the person was. What is a person? She wasn’t quite sure of that, either. Person. Individual. A body. A mind.

Her mind... Little needles of light dashed in and out of the darkness, stabbing at her with impressions that were disjointed and long buried. The glimpse of a lake off beyond green trees from the dizzying heights of her father’s strong shoulders. The hint of lavender in her grandmother’s bedroom. The rustle of silk in her first party dress. The quiet of a cemetery. A headstone with rain washing over the letters of a carven name. Familiar name. Yes. Her husband’s name. And the old lady’s comprehension of self-identity began to slip together like the fitting of bits and pieces of a smashed china vase.

Like a pupa struggling out of its cocoon, the old lady’s senses sagged with exhaustion. She rested, disembodied, formless, cushioned by the blackness. Then the invisible cord began to draw the parts together once more, and a little of the fog washed away from the mirror of memory. A hazy image formed in the gray mists. It was the young girl, the stranger.

She was turning to look at the old lady with startled eyes in her suddenly white face. A soundless conversation took place, very briefly, and the strange girl was fighting to brush the old lady aside, grabbing from the bedside table the ceramic lamp with the heavy bronze base, lifting the lamp and striking. And the old lady heard the echo of her own skull breaking, driving splinters into the brain...

The little old lady was an awkwardly arranged collection of fine bones and sinewy flesh, clothed in cool white dress and sandals, on the thick carpeting of a large bedroom, her  bedroom. In years past she’d been one of those petite, glowing women who could flash about a tennis court or manage a small sailboat through a sudden squall. Despite her years, there was still a ghost of the old loveliness in the firmly cut little face — but not about the head with its finely textured silver hair.

Her face was turned slightly toward the nearby wall, and slanting light from the windows in the furthest part of the room touched the sunken spot above the little old woman’s left ear, the pulpy softness where the touch of fingertips would have detected the grating of broken bone. There was no blood. Had it not been for the scooped-out look of the head, the wide, unseeing eyes and the mouth frozen in a twist of agony, the little old lady might have been sleeping.

It was an incongruous room, a spacious air-conditioned chamber in a modern condominium near Naples, Florida. Its designer had envisioned furnishings moderne, with perhaps a touch of cubist art to relieve the expanse of the east wall. But the old lady had filled it with furnishings precious to her. Big four poster she and her husband had shared in long-ago New England. Heavy walnut bedside tables, chest on chest and bureau to match the bed. Portraits of a pair of forebears in large oval frames on the wall.

About eight feet from where the little old lady lay, the huge cedar hope chest sat, its lid ornately carved in a design of leaves and flowers. It had been her grandmother’s, her mother’s and, in due time, hers. A young girl of each generation had patiently and painstakingly filled the hope chest with laces, linens, fine needlework toward the proud day of her marriage.

A shadow fell across the old lady, a fuzzy-edged silhouette of a girl. She was young, in her late twenties, a carelessly sensual figure in knit-top, raveled-edge denim shorts, and scuffed strap sandals. Dark blonde hair was tied with a ribbon away from her face, falling to a ragged ending almost in the small of her back. Her features were small, sharp, but pretty so long as the bloom of youth held.

As she looked at the old woman, she lifted her hand and wiped fine beads of perspiration from under her eyes.

“How can you stand there and look at her?” the man said. He was sitting, humped on the edge of the bed, hands hanging like leaden weights between his knees, a lo

ok of sick shock on his narrow, almost effeminate face. His voice was thick with helpless fright and remorse, as if he’d been kicked in the gut, hard, and choked on every word that came out.

The girl walked backward away from the old lady and came around to face the man. He was dressed in a conservative blue suit, white shirt, black tie, the way the old lady had requested him to dress. His name was Hert Everly and he’d worked for the old woman for five years as chauffeur and general man-servant. It was an excellent job, paying well, with quarters here in the apartment and a lot of time off. The old lady had liked to do things for herself, even to most of the cooking when guests weren’t scheduled.

He lifted his face and looked at the girl, the left corner of his mouth twitching, oozing a thin smear of spit. He put his fingers against the tic as if he would mash it out of the flesh. His features twisted a little out of shape, and for a moment he was on the verge of rocking sobs.

“Get hold of yourself, Hertie!” the girl said.

“How could you do it, Carol?” He looked her up and down. His face filled with loathing for her and himself. What had he ever seen in her? She was sleazy, common, coarse. Even the animal magnetism wouldn’t last long. The signs were already there, the broad splayed toes in the crummy sandals, the faint thickness of bone in the ankles, the slight bow in the tapering young legs, the hint of bovine broadness in the hips. One day, before many years had passed, she’d have the allure of a bowling pin capped with brassy hair and a face hardened like cement.

His face mirrored his depth of feeling, and her lips thinned. “You got something on your mind besides the thoughts of a dirty old man chasing a young girl?”

He looked away, a faint murmur, moan-like on his trembling lips. He was fortyish. Old? Right now he felt too old to die. He heard her suck in a breath. He knew the signs. She had a temper like an undisciplined infant. “Carol, please...”

“You thought I was real cool the night you picked me up in the bar,” she said, gathering words, venom. “Afterwards, how about afterwards... lovesick old creep. Always knocking at my door. Making with the flowers and candy. Smooth talker, you! Going to do great things for me. Now look at the mess you’ve got me into!”

“I?” he said. A soft, mild laugh came from him. “I?  You were supposed to stay in my quarters, out of sight, any time I brought you here. But today, when I come back to the apartment, what do I hear? What do I see? I hear you in here, in her bedroom. I hear words between you. And a blow. And the sound of her striking the floor. And I rush in — and she is lying there” — a shiver crossed his shoulders — “just as she is now. A hole knocked in her skull. You standing over her with the lamp in your hand.”

He began to giggle. “What brought you in here, Carol? Brattish curiosity? Or were you looking for something to pilfer that she might not miss?”

His words were a dash of cold water on her temper. They rebuilt the bugged-out scene in Carol’s mind. She’d got bored in Hertie’s bed-sitting room, nothing on TV that was interesting, nothing to do while she waited for him. She knew the old lady was out and that the cleaning maid wouldn’t come in until later. Being alone in the apartment, she’d felt the prod of temptation.

Twice before she’d sneaked out things that wouldn’t be noticed right away, that could be accounted as lost. A diamond-studded watch the old lady hadn’t worn in a long time, lying carelessly in a drawer. A pair of silver candleholders gathering dust on the back of a shelf in the storage closet.

Never enough to arouse suspicion. Trinkets — junk, the way the rich old lady would look at it. Like, it wasn’t really stealing, just taking crumbs the old woman would never miss in a thousand years.

Today, Carol had seen a pearl brooch in a velvet tray on the bureau. She’d picked it up, stood looking at it and turning it in her hands, judging the risks of taking it.

“How dare  you!” the old lady’s voice had sounded almost in Carol’s ear. Caught up in the thought of the brooch, Carol hadn’t heard her come in. “Who are  you? What are you doing  in here?”

Furious, outraged, the old woman had been swept past fear. Her hand had moved to seize the brooch. “The nerve ! The very intolerable idea of coming in here like this!”

“Let me go !”

“I’ll have the police to you. I...” The angry voice broke. The old lady had glimpsed the irrational panic in the young, coarsely pretty face. And then the old head had exploded...

Carol slowly and carefully forced the scene from her mind.

She hardened herself against remorse.

“Hertie,” she said in a sudden change of tone, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean what I did to her or what I just said to you. I’m half out of my mind, that’s all.” Her eyes filled with convincing tears.

He lifted a hollow gaze. “Are you sure she’s dead?”

“Nobody could live with a hole in the head like that. If she isn’t dead already, she’d be dead before we could do anything. What’s done is done, Hertie. We can’t turn it back.”

“We must call someone,” he said. “An ambulance — the police.” But he didn’t make any move to get up. His words were rote, vacant, words that he felt should be said. And she knew that he had no more wish to face the police than she did. She wasn’t the only one with sticky fingers. She knew that he’d been helping himself on a petty scale for a long time, padding bills the old lady had gradually come to depend on him to pay, juggling accounts as he’d blandly wormed his way further into her service.

She slipped down beside him, holding her temper even though he flinched away.

“I won’t want this to be the end of the line for us,” she said. “I do love you, Hertie. I got this crazy temper and I know I’m not good enough for you, but love happens that way sometimes.”

She sensed the conflicts straining within him. He was sick with fright for himself but had no capacity to grieve for others. He could care less for the old lady as a person, caring only that her death was a promise of disaster. He knew what he should do in the situation, but he lacked the nerve to do so.

“Hertie,” she said. “It’s done and over, like I said. If we went to prison and suffered, it wouldn’t bring her back. The only thing we can do now is make what we can for ourselves out of this awful happening.”

“It’s too late, Carol. Everything is ruined!” He reminded her of a trapped rabbit quivering for a way out.

“We have to keep our nerve, Hertie. That’s the main thing. No one knows but us what has happened. We can do a lot before anybody finds out — and by that time we’ll be long ago and far away, under different names, living the beautiful life.”

“You must be crazy!”

“Crazy for life — crazy for what we can get out of this. You don’t know opportunity when it hits you in the face.”

Opportunity ,” the echo of the word gagged him slightly.

She made a small movement, gripping his bicep. “Just listen to me, Hertie. There’s a small fortune in silver, jewels, expensive bits of art right here in the apartment. A Cadillac and Mercedes outside. I know places where we can sell off the stuff fast, no questions asked.”

She paused, but he didn’t break the short silence, and she knew his mind was sniffing, nibbling, pawing at the prospect she’d raised.

“Her goods on hand is for starters, Hertie. Every fancy store in town knows her boy Friday, which is you, does a lot of shopping for her. We’ll hit them all, loading every one of her charge accounts with more goods, mountains of goods.”

He was still fooling around with the bait, but his panic was losing its first slashing edge. He was breathing almost evenly.

“There’s her bank account for whipped cream on the pie,” Carol said. “Can’t do her any good now. Might as well benefit somebody — like us.”

“You’re talking about a forged check?”

“Why not? Must be plenty of papers around the apartment you could trace her signature from. Little old forgery charge ain’t much, compared to the charges already hanging over our heads. You cash checks for her all the time. Everybody at the bank knows you.”

“Not checks big enough to dent her account.”

“And we sure want to make a nice big dent, Hertie. So we play it cool. You don’t go floating into the bank with a check that’s got a long string of zeros after the first number on it. Instead, you make a phone call. You instruct the bank that she wants the boodle delivered here by bank messenger and that her check will be waiting. Nothing about that to raise questions. When the messenger gets here with the sackful of beautiful bread, you trade him the check for it.”

“He’ll want a receipt,” Everly said.

“‘Natch. I’m not so dense I don’t know he’ll want a receipt. You invite him into the living room, excuse yourself, carry the receipt into another room — where we’ll trace her signature on it just like we’ll do on the check. When you start back to the living room, I say something after you, so the messenger will hear a woman’s voice in the apartment. Not loud. Just enough so he’ll know you’re not alone. I’ll say...” Carol’s brow crimped in thought over the line. “I’ll say, ‘Thank that sweet boy for me, Hertie’.”

“That’s not what she would... would have... say at all. She didn’t talk like that. She’d have said, “Tell the gentleman from the bank to have a nice day’. And she didn’t call me Hertie. Everly — that’s what she called me.”

“Okay, Everly. How do you like the idea of being rich? And free. Living the good life.”

His eyes shone for an instant with the way he liked the idea. Then his shoulders twitched. “It won’t work.”

“And why not? It’ll be days before the unpaid charge accounts and forged check start drawing attention.”

“You’re assuming that we have time, Carol. And we haven’t. We still have...” He tried to look at the spindly old body occupying the room with them, a few short paces away. His eyes failed. He took a breath. “We still have her. She’s real — visible. People come and go. In fact—” he looked at his watch, and his mouth became a red gash. “—I’d forgotten. So much happening I didn’t remember.” He jumped up, looking toward the bedroom doorway. “Remember what, Hertie?”

“The maid — due, Overdue. She has her key. She’ll be walking in any minute.”

She sprang up beside him, grabbed his arms in both her hands. “Stop  it, Hertie! Only chickens get their heads cut off in this world. So the maid is coming. All we got to do is hide the body. Hide it good. Hide it so we’ll have two, three, four days. More time than we need.”

“Hide it where — under the bed? Sorry.” He croaked a laugh, “But the maid vacuums under the bed.”

“Hide it...” Carol’s eyes swept the room, passed over the ornate cedar hope chest, stopped, darted back.

A tremor of relief shook Carol. “It’s made to order, Hertie. That old chest.”

“Her hope chest,” Everly said. “Somehow it seems wrong.”

“It’s all the way right — plain perfect, if you ask me. She’ll fit in perfectly with a little folding here and there. Even day maids don’t go around opening every chest. The little dead bird will nest in there for days without anybody knowing.”

He trembled, and reached for the bedpost for support. “I can’t touch a dead body, Carol. Can’t drag it over. Can’t stuff it in the hope chest.”

She grabbed his shoulders, turned him, propelled him toward the doorway.

“Then get out there and be ready for the maid. Stall  her. Three or four minutes is all I’ll need. I’ll do it myself, Hertie, and see you in your rooms. Then, when the maid is gone, we’ll get started on the rest of it.”


“Don’t talk, Hertie. Not now. There isn’t any choice left. Just do as I say.”

In the old lady’s consciousness, their voices came and went like the rustle of weak surf on a dark, sandy shore. She struggled to break through the veiling paralysis. Her arms and legs were useless dangling appendages. The wan, gray fog remained smeared through her eyes.

The murmurings slipped in and out like the hissings and raspings of vibrations through a faulty telephone. The girl’s voice was the clearer of the two. The other, lower in pitch, perhaps belonged to a man. Everly? She wasn’t sure where the name came from. Who was Everly? Someone she knew. Someone who knew the girl. Everly lived here. Everly was her employee. He had a girl friend in his quarters. Everly was breaking the rules. Everly’s voice rose and broke, saying something about her hope chest.

Her tenuous awareness sagged, fatigued with the effort of identifying and placing Everly. She struggled to stay afloat in the dragging cross currents of a syrupy twilight. She was being borne slowly by the swirling tide. Being moved. Dragged along the carpet. Dropped for a moment.

A little mouse came and squeaked. No, it wasn’t a mouse. It was the sound of hinges on a warped door. An old warped lid. Everly had talked about her hope chest. Now it was being opened.

For what reason? It contained nothing.

Like quicksand, the thin whey was sucking her along once more. It was suddenly rougher on the surface with corrugated waves. She was rising above the soupy mass, and it was dropping from her in thick globs.

Her mind gathered the fragments of sensation and translated them into an experience. And she knew the truth. When the lid fell with a thud, she realized she was in her hope chest. Shut away — hidden. The final tenacious hope of being found before it was too late vanished in the rushing darkness. She was falling, falling, reaching with hands that had no touch, screaming as she tumbled end over end with a voice that had no sound.

She fell nightmarishly until she faded to nothingness. The darkness grew calm. A faint rosy glow spilled across the further horizon. The darkness receded. The golden light grew stronger. All the bonds loosened about her. She rose up, and the years had vanished. It was her nineteenth birthday, and she had never felt so vital and alive. She was the loveliest of images with the golden glow all about her.

She heard music, the gay strains of a Straus waltz. A scene spread before her. She was on a lovely terrace in a night warmed by the delicious breath of summer. The golden light came from Japanese lanterns hung over the fragrant lawns and flower gardens.

Voice were all about her, laughter mingled with the music. Girls in party dresses and handsome young men, so straight, tall and vigorous in white jackets. They crowded about her on this, the occasion of her birthday. She was enfolded in friendships, gay chatter, hugs, quick little kisses, happy jokes.

“Nineteen? And just yesterday I was pulling your pigtails”... “Darling, you are growing older”... “Better live it up, next year you’ll be an old twenty”... “The teens are gone but not forgotten”... “Now! Look at what nineteen years have done to that knobby-kneed kid...”

There was a buffet set up on the end of the terrace with snowy linen and mountains of food. Through a rift in the crowd of people about her, she saw him over there, talking with her father. He glanced in her direction. Their eyes met, held, and he excused himself from her father’s presence. He came toward her, brushing by people as if only she existed.

He was standing before her, dark-haired, craggy-faced, broad in the shoulders. He took her hand and took her away. His arm encircled her and he led her into the waltz. On and on they danced while the music poured forth, and she closed her eyes, wondering if she could bear the joy of it all...

With her busy beehive mind buzzing about problems of her own, Mrs. Daugherty, the maid, entered the apartment and drew up with a gasp. Mr. Everly was standing in the middle of the room, looking very strange. His every muscle seemed pulled tight — his face was absolutely bloodless, oozing a clammy kind of sweat even though the air-conditioning was going full blast.

Mrs. Daugherty had never cared very much for him. He was too smooth, too haughty. She was proud of her ability to take note of little things and arrive at conclusions. She was certain that most other people weren’t quite as sharp. She could look at ashtrays and dirty dishes and tell what kind of gathering had been here the night before. A grocery order would suggest who was coming to dinner tonight. Mrs. Daugherty’s employer was a real lady, who made a point of serving a favored food to a guest.

This Everly, Mrs. Daughterty suspected, had two faces.

“My goodness, Mr. Everly, you gave me a start! Aren’t you feeling well?”

“Certainly, I’m well! We have a tight schedule today. So do what you have to and get through your chores quickly.”

With raised brows, Mrs. Daughterty watched him wheel and leave the room. She heard small noises of his passage and a heavy silence as he retreated to the privacy of his quarters.

Lips thinned, Mrs. Daugherty set her handbag beside the nearest living room chair. She was a spare sallow figure with a sharply featured face and thin graying hair bunned at the nape.

She murmured an opinion of Everly under her breath. Clearly, he didn’t want her around today, whatever the reason. And nuts to him, too. Mrs. Daugherty had no intention of skimping her work. “I always say,” she remarked to no one, “that a thing is worth doing right, if it’s worth doing at all.”

Might as well start with the master bedroom. Mrs. Daugherty marched down the hallway, opened the linen closet and took out sheets, pillow cases, bedspread, towels and wash cloths.

Carrying the linens in a neat stack on her right forearm, she entered the bedroom. She placed the linens carefully on the bureau and went around the room, checking for dust with fingertips, picking up a pair of stockings, inserting a book marker and closing a book on the bedside table.

The brisk efficiency of her movements faltered, came to a halt. She stood at the foot of the bed, her hand idly resting against a post. Something not entirely ordinary had caught her eye and she couldn’t decide what it was.

Her quick, gimlet eyes probed all about the room with their insatiable curiosity. Everything seemed the same, no tilted pictures that needed straightening, no spills from a late-night glass of warm milk.

Aha! ” Mrs. Daughterty said. She moved from the bed a short distance and examined the way the light was striking the thick carpet. Two parallel lines had been impressed in the plush surface. They were about fifteen inches apart. They were exactly the kind of marking that would have been left if someone had tilted a heavy chair and dragged it across the room.

The maid’s portion of her mind decided that she’d have to brush up the nap. Couldn’t leave it like that. But that other portion of her thinking processes wanted an explanation. Nothing had been dragged from the room. Instead, the markings in the carpet pile ran away from the door. Around the bed. They ran right to that old hope chest.

“Now what in the world...” Mrs. Daugherty murmured. She stopped beside the hope chest, her eyes once more searching out the markings. They were almost invisible, the way the light was striking them now.

She knew the chest was empty, an old relic, a cherished part of her employer’s youth. Therefore, something large and rather heavy had been dragged to the chest and put inside. Mrs. Daugherty couldn’t imagine for the life of her what it could be.

So she lifted the lid.

She chocked back her scream, thinking suddenly of Everly’s strangeness today. Now she knew the meaning of the impressions in the carpet pile... the little old lady’s heel marks, imprinted when her body was hoisted by the shoulders and dragged to the hope chest.

Commanding herself not to faint, Mrs. Daugherty tiptoed to the phone.

Four hours later. Dr. William Wilford and his assistant, Dr. Elizabeth Crown, came out of emergency surgery together, stripping off surgical gloves and dropping white masks to dangle at their necks.

Neither spoke for a moment, feeling the first pull of exhaustion from what they had just been through.

Dr. Crown lifted a hand to peel off her cap, revealing a lustrous feathery cut of rich brown hair touched with skeins of gray.

“Nice job, Bill. Beautiful job! I think she’ll make it.”

“I know she will,” Dr. Wilford said. “I’ve got that certain feeling. She’s one of those spindly old sparrows with the constitution of a mule. And after all, we’ve patched up heads in worse condition than that one.”

“A few. Not many. She certainly looked dead when she was brought in. If the maid hadn’t found her when she did, we couldn’t have saved her.”

“But the maid did, Lizzy. And we did.”

The old lady remained in intensive care for eight days. Then she was moved to a private room and there were four weeks of returning strength, of solid food, of therapy in whirlpool baths, of rising from a wheelchair, of longer walks and exercises.

She learned that Everly and the girl had escaped from Florida. She read of their capture in New Orleans where, desperate for money, Carol had egged Everly into an abortive liquor store stickup.

An excellent agency, jealous of its prime reputation, at last sent over three applicants for the old lady to interview. She chose Mrs. Hardesty to take Everly’s place. She was middle aged, with a strong frame of central European heritage somewhere in her genes. She was quietly pleasant company, dependable, the kind the old lady decided she could get on well with. She had been in domestic service for fifteen years, since the death of her husband. Her previous employers had moved to the cold of Canada, offering Mrs. Hardesty the chance to continue with them.

“I’m glad you preferred the warmth of Florida,” the little old lady said the day she and Mrs. Hardesty returned to the condominium.

She showed Mrs. Hardesty through the apartment, and within the hour they were smoothly settled in, Mrs. Hardesty back in her own quarters, the old lady sitting stiffly on the edge of a chair in the living room, as if aware of-the silence and sudden emptiness of this place where it had all happened.

She got up slowly and slipped without a whisper of a sound into her own bedroom. She stood very still, holding the edge of the door. Then she closed and moved with gossamer

lightness across the room.

She sank to her knees beside the hope chest. A breath trembled on her lips. She moved her hand to stroke the ornate carving of the lid lovingly. Once it had fitted snugly. Now, like herself, it was warped and old, a relic of the past. Lucky that the warpage in the lid let a little air in. Otherwise, she might have smothered.

She lifted the lid and looked at the cedar-lined depths of the chest. A smile stole across her lips. A thrill of anticipation raced through her.

In a series of graceful movements, the little old lady rose, stepped inside the chest, sank down, arranged herself like an infant wriggling to comfort in its crib. Then she slowly lowered the lid on herself with her extended arm, watching while the light disappeared. The darkness inside the chest touched her nostrils with the faint fragrance of old cedar.

She closed her eyes and waited, eager hope pulsing through her. Would it work? Could the lovely miracle happen a second time? Did she have to have a break in the head for it to happen?

Then it began happening. A rosy light spilled from the further horizon. The light grew in strength until it was all about her. She was nineteen, the center of attention at a gay party. An orchestra was playing a Straus Waltz, and there  he was, hurrying toward, her as if none of the other vital and happy people existed. He was standing beside her, dark-haired, craggy-faced, broad in the shoulders. His eyes were worshipping her, and her whole being felt like a flower. Life was flawless, just beginning, without end.

He was taking her hand. The strength of his arm encircled her waist. He led her into the Waltz, and she closed her eyes, surrendering to the joy of it all.

On and on they danced, in a waltz that would never cease...

The Holdup

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Originally published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , May 1979.

Percy Kittridge, finance director of Memorial to Mercy Hospital, frowned in sharp distaste as the old woman appeared in his office. Percy was a neat, precise man of little finicky gestures, and the woman was a horrible old wretch. In a seedy greatcoat that hung almost to her ankles, she was like a mass of pillows lumpishly piled together. Her face was a study in wrinkles and tiny wens. Beneath an old straw hat decorated with imitation flowers, her hair dripped like Spanish moss on an ancient tree.

One moment Percy was rocked back behind his desk, looking out the window and comfortably chatting on the phone, the next he was swinging his chair around to hang up the telephone and there stood the old lady.

“How did you get in here unannounced?” Percy demanded in his rather high, impatient voice.

The old woman pointed to the tattered scarf wrapped about her throat. She was wearing cheap cotton gloves — probably, Percy thought, to hide leprous hands.

“Just walked in,” she said in a raspy whisper, “when no one in the outer office was paying attention. No trick to it.”

“Well, I’m a busy man. What do you want?”

The old woman’s right hand was in the side pocket of her bedraggled outer coat. She lifted the hand. It was gripping a deadly looking automatic.

“I want all the money out of the hospital safe,” she crackled.

Percy gasped, on the edge of a sudden faint. His thin lips quivered in a fruitless effort to speak. His bright eyes were parallaxed on the gun.

“Be a nice, sensible li’l fella,” the crone instructed, “and you can tell your wife about this at dinner tonight Otherwise, you’re on a DOA all full of bullet holes when they cart you over to the emergency room a few seconds from now.”

“I — uh — this doesn’t make sense,” Percy managed. “People steal drugs from hospitals, not money.”

“There’s a first time for everything,” the nightmare image said. “You have just one more tick of the clock to move it.”

Percy flinched back from his desk, tottering to his feet. “Hospitals do most of their business in paper,” he said, struggling for courage. “Medicare and Medicaid checks, checks from insurance companies and patients. Wouldn’t it be better to rob some other—”

“Can’t rob but one place at a time,” the old woman croaked. “And I’m here now. You do plenty of cash business. Everybody don’t pay by check. And there’s the cash flow from your cafeteria, snack bar, gift shop, parking lot, florist concession. I’m sure the safe is stuffed with more than enough for the likes of me.” The muzzle of the gun inched up. “Your time has run out, fella.”

Kittridge jumped. “Be careful with that thing! I’m hurrying. I’m hurrying!”

The horrid old woman used her free hand to pull a shopping bag from under her coat. “Put the money in this. I want it all, including the silver. The checks you can keep.”

A few minutes later, she was shuffling across one of the broad parking lots adjacent to the huge medical complex and Mr. Kittridge was on the floor of the anteroom next to his office, slumped beside the empty vault, a lump on his crown from a tap of the gun barrel.

The old woman paused beside a pickup truck with a camper cover. There were acres of cars but few people on the parking lot. Satisfied that she was unnoticed, the old woman disappeared.

Under the camper cover the crone worked quickly. And, stripping off the thickly padded coat, gloves, hat, wig, and rubberoid face mask, she was transformed into a nice-looking young man, dark-haired and clean-cut, in jeans and a knitted shirt He stuffed the accoutrements of his disguise into a foot locker. He would burn the items a little later, in a place even more private than the camper.

Snapping open the stuffed shopping bag, he dipped his hands into the money. He’d estimated it as the finance director had taken it from the safe — twenty thousand at least. Not an earth-shaking haul, but a nice return on the execution of a carefully structured plan.

Slightly short of breath, the young man fashioned a stack of bills from the bag — twenties, fifties, and hundreds. He stuffed the roll into the pocket of his jeans, then he added the bulky shopping bag to the contents of the foot locker and closed and locked it. Slipping into the driver’s seat, he drove the camper carefully from the parking lot to the drive-in window of a nearby branch bank, where he deposited the money from his jeans pocket. Tucking the deposit slip into his wallet, he smiled a good afternoon to the teller and drove back to the hospital. The automatic barricade at the parking lot swung up, admitting the camper as the young man dropped quarters into the parking-fee slot. The camper wended about and finally slipped into a vacant space reasonably close to the main hospital building.

When the young man walked into the business office, he felt the residue of excitement. Employees had vacated desks and frosted-glass cubicles, clustering at the water cooler to exchange strained murmurs. A middle-aged woman spotted him and came over to the counter.

“It’s been quite an afternoon,” she said. “We had a robbery.”


“Yes. An old woman, would you believe it? She walked into Mr. Kittridge’s office and forced him to open the vault at gunpoint, then cracked him on the head and disappeared. Mr. Kittridge sounded the alarm when he regained consciousness. He gave the police a full description, but I don’t know — you know how it is these days. So many unsolved crimes. But an old woman — would you believe it?” The young man commiserated with a shake of his head.

The cashier drew a steadying breath. “But that’s our problem, isn’t it? What can I do for you?”

“I came to take my wife home,” the young man said. “The doctor said she could leave as soon as I settle the bill. So I guess we can say goodbye and thanks for everything. It’s been a long five weeks.”

“And after five weeks,” the cashier said in sympathy, “quite a bill.”

“No sweat,” the young man said. “My private hospitalization plan should be adequate. But I’ll need to borrow a pen to write the check.”

A Way with a Will

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Originally published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine , April 1981.

I was very fond of my Uncle Dudley Gillam. Not for any singular reason. He was my only blood relation, but that didn’t account entirely for my feeling. I’ve heard other people speak of their relatives with shuddering distaste, but my recollections of Uncle Dudley were pleasurable. He found joy in living; he was agreeable, kind, and thoughtful. He was an all-around likeable individual, and I liked him. That’s all there was to it And the regard was mutual. He never put it into words, but he left no doubt in my mind that I was at the top of his list of favorite people.

After he retired from the railroad we saw little of each other. He was an engineer until age forced him out of the big diesels. Not a strapping Casey Jones, but a wiry, tough little guy who ramrodded the long trains through the nights like a runty cowboy forking a dinosaur.

His years of motion had conditioned him to be restless. He was always on the go. He would wander down to Florida, up to big-game country in Wyoming, out to California. He would hit Vegas now and then for a splurge and, broke and hungover, amble down to Corpus Christi to dry out.

We always kept in touch. He pecked out letters on a portable typewriter with broken type and an always-grey ribbon, signing them with his bold flourish. The grammar was questionable but the details were colorful. When he wrote about the rupture of a radiator hose while he was driving across the Painted Desert you could hear the water sizzle.

He enjoyed sending picture postcards and wild greeting cards from various locales. On my birthday a zany card would enclose a twenty-dollar bill for the purpose of “oiling up a sweet patootie in a cozy bar, courtesy your Unc Dud.”

I always responded, jazzing up the details of my dreary bachelor existence as much as possible. Each Christmas I would try to send him something special — not expensive, necessarily, but something I had shopped carefully for. The kind of Wellington pipe he smoked or one of the baggy sweaters he favored.

Since he was a gregarious extrovert, it didn’t surprise me he was a soft touch. He always had a dollar for the panhandling wino with the seared eyes and burning throat. He never passed up a Salvation Army kettle or the poor box on his infrequent trips to church. And now and then some down-and-outer would hang onto his shirttails for a while. A busted madam, a kid just out of jail, or an itinerant worker stranded in Salinas. Or someone like Odus Calhoun, dubbed “Hardtimes” by Uncle Dudley.

“A born loser,” Uncle Dudley wrote. “One of those birds who gets all the frowns of fate — that’s Odus Calhoun. Worked hard all his life, paid his taxes, and never broke a law. And what did it get Hardtimes? Rat busted in Dallas where I met him, for one thing. Wife dead, and three kids grown up and scattered who’d rather forget him.

“If Hardtimes crosses a street, the drivers nearly run him down. A stray dog follows him home and the first time Hardtimes lets the mutt out the dog catcher is cruising by. The last jalopy he managed to buy turned out to be stolen. He cashed a welfare check and was robbed in sight of a police station. I reckon if Hardtimes inherited a gold mine an earthquake would dump the vein to the boiling center of the earth.”

From later letters I gathered that Hardtimes had settled into the role of handyman, cook, valet, friend, and confidant. “He more than earns his keep,” Uncle Dudley wrote, “and it’s nice to have a fellow critter around. He can’t play checkers worth a damn, so I finally know the joy of winning.”

It seemed to be a good arrangement. Uncle Dudley buffered Hardtimes Calhoun from the jaundiced eye of fate and at the same time escaped the loneliness of his wandering life.

But the fortunate circumstance was relatively short-lived. Three years ago Uncle Dudley wrote me the woeful news.

“Lost my pal. We was on the way to L.A. in my pickup with the camper cover. We stopped for the night at a campground near Yuma, and I couldn’t wake up Hardtimes the next morning. The county coroner said he died peaceful in his sleep from a worn-out heart. I gave him a decent funeral and searched his duffel without finding the addresses of any of his kids. They may never know how their poor old pappy met his end.”

He never referred to Hardtimes again and I respected his wish to leave a painful subject reverently closed.

A new wrinkle in our correspondence was added a couple of years ago. Instead of a twenty, a hundred-dollar bill dropped from one of his offbeat greeting cards. “I put some money where the profit is,” he explained. “So simmer yourself a real high-class patootie this time.”

And my last birthday turned up a blank check signed by Uncle Dudley. “Don’t go wilder than a hog, nephew, but if you hanker to tootle around in a little sports car, do your shopping. Happy birthday, village cut-up.”

His rapidly expanding affluence naturally tickled my curiosity, but he volunteered no details of his financial dealings, and I courteously cramped the urge to pry. I satisfied myself with a guess that he’d hit a run of beginner’s luck in the stock market. His business hadn’t pinned him down. He was still here and there on the map like a flea on a short-haired pup.

The most recent letter from him said: “Writing from the mugginess of a New Orleans August. Going up to Asheville, North Carolina, for a breath of summer-resort air. Drop me a note at the Great Smokies Chilton, Suite Charnot.”

His plans offered me the chance to visit. I had vacation time coming, and the owner of the construction company where I worked had a Porsche he wanted delivered to his daughter, who was in an Atlanta college. With tin hat in hand I appeared in the boss’s office and explained my proposition. He went for the idea, handed me the keys to the car, slapped my shoulder, and counted out more than enough cash to cover the expenses of delivering the car.

From Atlanta to Asheville by air is a matter of minutes, and I arrived on a deliciously cool Smoky Mountain day after I’d delivered the Porsche. I rented a car and drove a modest four-lane expressway ten miles north, took an exit ramp, moved westerly in a snarl of city traffic, and at last was wending up a coolly shaded macadam road. Valleys, rolling mountains, and the scanty skyline of Asheville spread in the distance. A final turn and the Great Smokies Chilton swam into view.

It was a Swiss architect’s dream, worth a pursed-lip whistle. The huge main inn extended a warm invitation. Webbed from it were driveways winding to private chalets tucked into rolling, landscaped mountain greenery. People were sunning, swimming, and loafing at a crystalline lake scooped into the mountainside. At a long sweep of tennis courts, lazier players had knocked off to watch a smashing drive match between two lean, bronzed young giants. Beyond the courts I glimpsed a pair of horses and riders dipping into a steep mountain trail. I slowed for the passage of a golf cart as it chugged across the parking area with two elderly occupants, headed toward the green-velvet golf course that wandered across the plateau near the crest of the mountain.

A Mercedes SEL was gliding from a parking place near the canopied entrance to the inn and I slipped my rented car into the vacated slot.

I got out, giving the surroundings an appreciative survey. A small plaque over the brass-studded door of the nearest private chalet caught my eye. AIN. I lifted my eyes to Ain’s next-door neighbor. The sedate plaque there announced: BRAUN.

I figured out that the third chalet was Charnot, Uncle Dudley’s domicile of the moment.

I was itching to know something about the late-in-life financial wizardry that afforded Uncle Dudley spots like this in which to take the mountain air. But even that was secondary to the thought of seeing him. I was a little giddy as I hurried along the driveway and the feeling wasn’t entirely due to the altitude.

I checked the plaque to make sure my guess was correct, and it was. I turned into the flower-bordered fieldstone walk bisecting the narrow lawn just as the door opened. It framed a blonde wearing a sleeveless white dress. She was young and tanned and so mistily lovely that I wavered to a halt, staring for a moment.

“Hi there,” I said. That was certainly original.

She said nothing, looking at me with eyes of cool green. I was sure she’d spotted me during my brief walk to Charnot and was about to tell me to get lost.

“I’m Jeremy Fisher,” I said. “I was looking for my uncle.”

“Jake-o!” she said with a sudden flash of a smile, using Uncle Dudley’s nickname for me. Her green eyes warmed. “I should have recognized you from the pictures Dudley has of you.” She reached out a hand. “Come in, Jeremy!”

I entered the cool of Charnot, where I got the impression of a well-heeled sportsman’s lodge. A large living room paneled in wormy chestnut was furnished with huge tweedy couches and club chairs, tables and a bar of natural oak, and a fireplace fit for five-foot logs. The ceiling was vaulted and beamed. A heavy oaken stairway led to a gallery overlooking the living room, where bedrooms were tucked under the rear portion of the expansive roof. “Nice, isn’t it?” she said.


“Would you like a drink?”

“I wouldn’t mind a wee Scotch.”

The flash of her legs and movement of her hips was something to watch as she went around behind the bar. Leave it to Uncle Dudley to winnow out the best.

“I’m Amanda,” she said.

“Well, hello, Amanda. Have you known Uncle Dudley long?”

She tipped a glance at me, probing, balancing my words and anything that might lurk behind them. “Almost a year. And the situation is something like you’ve guessed. I’m fond of Dudley and he’s fond of me; we travel about and have fun.”

“Lucky people.”

“Also, I’m a very good secretary and manager. So it isn’t altogether a case of a wealthy older man buying himself a dumb blonde toy.”

“I can believe that — and I like your frankness.”

“Just to get us off on the right foot, Jake-o.”

I took the drink she held out to me and watched her make herself a small one. A social gesture, not the drink of a real drinker.

“I wish you’d warned us you were coming. Dudley will be so disappointed.”

“Isn’t he here?”

She shook her head. “He went off to Miami earlier today. He’s seeing some people down there on business. He left me here to take care of some details and correspondence before I join him.”

I felt a pang of disappointment.

She touched my hand and said softly, “I’m sorry, Jeremy.”

“Well—” I lifted and dropped my shoulders “—I guess it was a childish notion when you get right down to it — the urge to surprise him.” I tossed off the Scotch.

She took my glass and set it on the bar. “A very nice notion, I’d call it.”

We drifted across the room to the door. She offered her hand in a farewell gesture. “I wish I had more time, Jake-o. But Dudley does have the habit of leaving me to pick up the last-minute bits and pieces. My schedule is tighter than strangulation.”

“Tell him I came by, Amanda.”

“Of course. He’ll write you immediately, I know.”

I plodded disconsolately to the car, got in, and was about to turn the ignition key when I realized I’d been ushered out so fast I hadn’t found out where Uncle Dudley was staying in Miami. After all, I was on vacation — why not join him there?

I got out of the car and walked back to Charnot. I was about to press the bell when I heard Amanda’s voice, sharply raised.

“Yes, you do owe me an explanation, Dudley! You’ve told me a dozen and one times that if Jeremy ever shows up in person to tell him you’re away, get rid of him. You’ve literally ground it into my brain. Why? Those letters you write are so filled with warmth, I should think you’d want to—”

A male voice grunted something I didn’t quite catch, but it was enough to break her off.

“Under the circumstances, it is too my business!” Amanda said.

The male voice inched up a grim level. “Amanda, I don’t owe you an explanation or a damned thing else. You’re beautiful, but that’s a plentiful commodity. If you like the good life we lead together, get off my back!”

Her voice dropped to acquiescence while I stood dumb. What was going on? What did Uncle Dudley have to hide from me?

I grasped the doorknob, turned it, and after the barest hesitation, opened the door.

Amanda spun to face me so quickly her gossamer-blonde hair brushed about her cheeks and she almost tripped on the expensive luggage, old airline stubs dangling from their handles, that she — or Uncle Dudley — had taken from a nearby closet in the few minutes since I’d left.

“I should ask you—” I began.

I glimpsed a frightened flicker in her eyes as her gaze speared past my shoulder, then heard the rustle of his movement. He used a heavy brass lamp, scooped from the table beside the doorway. The blow almost jarred my eyes from their sockets.

I came out of it with a gremlin soldering my ears together and the taste of burned Scotch in my throat. I crawled, groaning, across the thick russet carpet, grappled with the edge of a chair, and pulled myself up.

I turned my head and studied the scene groggily. They’d closed the door on the way out. The baggage was gone. The brass lamp lay where it had fallen. I squinted at my watch — I’d been out for about an hour.

I thought of the old baggage checks on the suitcases and garment bags and it gave me a hunch.

The small but modern Asheville airport was briskly busy. People queued at the ticket counter, moved around the spacious waiting room, sat reading.

Through a rift in the crowd I caught the glint of sunlight on bright blonde hair. I moved aside, people off an incoming flight brushing past on their way to the baggage room.

Amanda and a strange man were standing on the further side of the waiting room near the tall windows that gave a view of the landing field and the jumble of mountains beyond.

Somewhat aloofly, Amanda was gazing at the scenery outside. The man kept glancing at the bank of time-zone clocks on the northern wall. He was clearly fidgeting for a flight due to be announced shortly.

He was tall, thin, and slightly stooped, with the look of a mournful hound dog. His hair was grey and thin on his narrow skull. He was wearing expensive blue slacks and a mottled sports jacket, but he looked a little like the boondocks despite the cut of the clothing.

He said something. Amanda nodded without looking at him. He moved across the lobby and I eased over to let the flow of people shield me from his sight. When he reached the open archway leading to the ticket booths, he turned right, out of sight.

I followed quickly. Around the ell, a door was swinging shut. It carried a simple message: men.

I pushed inside. He was alone, standing at one of the washbasins lifting a pellet from a pillbox and chasing it down with water from a paper cup.

As he lifted his head, my image spread across the mirror behind him. His movement stopped as if his chin had hit an abutment. He clutched the edge of the washbasin, his already grey face a shade more ashen.

“Hi,” I said. “It’s me — Jeremy. And since Amanda knows you as Dudley Gillam, you must be my uncle.”

His head dropped.

“Who are you, actually?” I asked. “Could it be—” I caught my breath. “Who was buried in Yuma those years ago? Hardtimes Calhoun? Or Dudley Gillam, with a death certificate made out in the name of Calhoun?”

He turned to face me, his mouth twitching. “I swear to you, he died of natural causes, Jeremy. I wouldn’t have harmed a hair on your uncle’s head. He was the best friend I ever had.”

There was a stretch of silence, broken only by the hiss of a leaky latrine.

“I guess it took some thinking about, that morning you found Dudley Gillam dead in the camper.” I said. “First the idea, then wrestling with it, then giving in. You knew he had only one relative, a nephew named Jeremy Fisher. You knew all about Jeremy from Uncle Dudley. Dudley was a no-ties wanderer, and there didn’t seem to be a single obstacle in your way. All you had to do was bury him as Hardtimes Calhoun in a town where no one knew either of you and take his place. Once you mastered his simple signature, his pension checks, his bank account, all his earthly possessions were yours. You could keep on writing the never-seen nephew the kind of letters Dudley had always written. Keep one jump ahead of the nephew and you were safe for life. Am I getting it fairly close?”

He raised bloodshot eyes. “Almost dead on the nail head, Jeremy.”

“What then, Hardtimes? Where did the money start coming from — the big money?”

“Piece of life, part of living,” Hardtimes said. “I guess I buried the hard times right there in Yuma. I’d had nothing but hard times from my cradle until I dug that

grave, but when I wheeled out of Yuma in that camper pickup I left it all behind. I felt like a new man — like a cocksure Dudley Gillam — and I acted like a new man.”

He turned. It wasn’t a suspicious movement. The single thing he dreaded, the only thing he had had to fear, had happened. He ran water, pulled down a paper towel, and wiped his grey face.

“In the old existence everything turned to mud,” he said. “But once I had buried myself, I began encountering all the luck I’d missed in a lifetime.”

He tossed the damp towel into a container. “Dudley had three thousand dollars in a savings account, his sole estate except for his pension checks and that camper. I ran the three to twenty thousand in a run at a craps table in Las Vegas. Drifted to Phoenix and won a hundred and fifty acres of land from a fellow in a stud game. It turned out to be worthless desert — but three months later a fellow from the government turned up. He had traced me, as Dudley Gillam, through my forwarding addresses. It scared the pants off me at first. But he was a purchasing agent, and Uncle Sam bought the desert land as a solar-energy pilot site.”

“How much?”

“A thousand dollars an acre. He was tickled to get it so cheap.”

“But even a hundred and fifty thousand doesn’t guarantee a lifetime at playgrounds like the Great Smokies Chilton and Miami.”

“You’re right about that. But I ran into a guy in Fort Worth, a wildcat oil man rigged up in Venezuela. Some minor civil troubles, guerrillas from the mountains, busted him up and he had run short of cash. He’d hopped up to the States to raise some. He needed a partner with a quick hundred thousand to see the drilling to completion.”

“And,” I said mind-boggled, “you brought in the wells.”

“Like water out of this faucet,” Hardtimes Calhoun said.

“How much are you worth now?”

“I’m not sure. I guess I could sell out my interest for five or six million.”

I drew in my breath.

“Now that you know—” His lank body began to pull itself together. He was mastering the hangdog guilt in his eyes. His lips were thinning, hardening. “What next? I owe you three thousand plus the interest on it and some pension checks and the interest on them. The only law I broke was to bury the wrong man — who had died of natural causes, as the Yuma coroner attested. Against my kind of money, you’d never make it in court if you tried to claim more than your just due.”

The idea of trying to fight his amassed wealth inspired some hard thinking.

Only he and I knew the truth. He was Dudley Gillam, even to Amanda. He was Dudley Gillam — and I was his sole heir.

I had a deep-down certainty that he hadn’t drawn a will cutting me out. His subconscious guilt would have forestalled that. And even if there should be a will, it could be destroyed, set aside. When there is enough money there is a way with a will.

I let a ruefully pleasant smile work to life on my lips. “It’s a different reunion than I’d planned. Uncle Dudley.”

“You mean — you’re going to accept it?”

I nodded. “Why not? What good would it do to fight you? I take my hat off to you. In many ways, you’re very much like the man you buried in Yuma.”

And the man, I thought, I’ll bury in Miami. A neat little accident Maybe an overdose of some of his medication. Or a cramp when he went swimming in the ocean. Or an unfortunate fall down a stairway. Accidents are always happening to geezers his age.

“You don’t have to duck me any longer. Uncle Dudley.”

As we strolled out together, I dropped my arm across his shoulders. My touch was light, but he’d soon learn it was the returning touch of hard times — the hardest of all times.

The Beacon

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Originally published i

n Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine , April 1981.

The candle was the clue, the beacon, the wan glow of a single candle behind an old lace curtain in the decayed ghostliness of a once-splendid home.

Marley passed the place each evening as he drove in from his disgusting and demeaning job washing dishes in the kitchen of the country club. He didn’t notice the candle right away. The dragging misery of his situation choked off errant impressions, such as the color of a sunset, the notes of a singing bird, or idle speculation about a candle burning behind a window.

He was in the clutches of a particularly tough parole officer who had set the tenor of their relationship at their very first meeting: “Marley, you are one of my pet dislikes, a lifelong criminal despite everything society has tried to do to rehabilitate you. During your misspent life you have done it all. Passed counterfeit money. Fenced stolen goods. Gone door to door selling bogus termite exterminations to little old widows. Cold-decked suckers in illegal card games. Written rubber checks. Now at the age of... fifty-five, isn’t it?... you’ve drawn a parole after doing time for embezzlement. You’re a neat, trim, spry fellow, hardly gray and with all your original teeth. Take my advice. Don’t even think of once more using that blank, innocent appearance to worm your way into a sucker’s confidence. Or is it asking too much for a change in personality? In any event, if as human beings we are brothers, you’re going to find, until the final hour of your parole, that I’m one hell of a keeper.”

The loathsome tyrant had taken Marley out to the country club and introduced him to the head chef, an enormous Italian who’d never relaxed the chains of Marley’s parole-slavery from the very first moment.

The parole officer had made a single allowance, giving permission for Marley to buy and drive, within the county limits, a battered old car. But that was only because city bus-transit routes precluded the country club.

So each day was a hellish repetition: awaken in a squalid furnished room in the inner city; get through hours in which taverns and the kind of company Marley preferred were prohibited; drive out to the country club through Vanderling Estates, where the aura of so much old wealth and well being rubbed Marley absolutely raw; do the dishes the lordly dudes and their ladies befouled during lunch, dinner and sometimes a private party of an evening. Marley would burn, hearing the echoes of refined pleasure drifting back from the dining room. Occasionally, when the chef and second cook and salad girl and pastry chef had their backs turned, Marley would spit in the stock pot.

Each night he passed the candle in the window, never seeing it until the abysmal cruelty of his parole had only one more week to go. Even then, it was not the candle that caught his attention, but a white, ectoplasmic figure moving on the lawn in the moonlit darkness.

Marley held no truck with spooks, goblins or anything spiritual. But the glimpse of the ghostly figure caught and froze his gaze. He braked his wheezing car, an instinctive thought flashing through his mind. If someone was in trouble, perhaps he could play the Good Samaritan — and receive a suitable reward.

The apparition was a woman, rather tallish, thin and bony, clad in ankle-length gown, its white blending with her long fall of silvery hair. Her shoulders were slightly stooped, and Marley, unable to distinguish the features from this distance, received an impression of an old and wrinkled face.

Out of the shadows alongside the house came a heavyset man in the gray uniform of a chauffeur. He intercepted the woman in the middle of the lawn, spoke to her, and she compliantly nodded and walked toward the house. The servant watched until the front entrance had received her; then he returned along the driveway in the direction of lighted quarters over a large double garage.

Marley saw the window candle at last, and it sparked his always-sharp curiosity. His gaze drifted about the portion of the estate visible to him. Although centered in Vanderling Estates, the place didn’t quite belong, although it once must have been the hallmark of swank for neighbors to try and rival. The house was huge Normandy; the grounds were far flung; but the present-day details added up to a note of desertion and decay. The driveway was potholed; the hedges were raggedly untrimmed; the sweeping lawn was freckled with spots of brown; and the house itself was flecking paint and supporting guttering that was rotting away and hanging loose in spots.

An old recluse, Marley thought.

His eyes held on the brass marker beside the delivery entrance. The metal was slightly green with mold, but he could still make out the number: 341 Vanderling Boulevard. And the name: Vanderling.

No less. Same name as the rigidly restricted, old-family subdivision itself.

He saw a light flare in an upstairs window. It burned briefly, while the old woman returned to bed. Then the house was once more in stygian gloom — except for the single candle burning behind the tall, arched window downstairs.

The next evening, in a brief lull between periods of greasy-water-to-the-elbows, Marley mentioned to the chef, “Who’s the old biddy in 341, right down the boulevard?”

“Wassa mat?”

“Curious, that’s all. Wondered if she ever comes to the club for dinner. Bet she once did — sweeping like a princess royal.”

The chef had no imagination or curiosity whatever. “You gotta time to yap-yap-yap, the mop, she’sa waiting.”

As Marley drove home that night, he slowed the car to a crawl at 341 Vanderling Boulevard. No ghostly figures tonight. Nothing, except the still-life of a gloomy old mansion, the firefly of a candle glowing behind a front window. He wondered how many nights a candle had burned there, and why.

The next day he arrived at the country club half an hour early. He sauntered over to the ivy-grown pro shop, fifty yards from the old-English motif of the main clubhouse. The gnarled, leathery old man — Lemuel, he was called — was coming from the barn where groundskeeping equipment was housed. In luck, Marley thought. Lemuel had spaded, clipped, mowed, pruned, planted for more years on the golf course than anyone could remember. His and Marley’s paths had crossed occasionally when Lemuel, taking old-employee privileges, would come through the rear door of the kitchen and fill a plate and retire to a stool in the far corner to chomp his meal. Marley rather liked the old cuss because nothing or nobody, including the chef, fazed Lemuel.

Today, in the shadows of the pro shop, Marley said his most pleasant hello, and Lemuel paused, wiping his creased, weathered face with a huge red bandanna. “How goes the pearl-diving?”

“Greasy,” Marley said, “like always. How about a Coke?”

Lemuel flicked surprise through sun-bleached brows. He and Marley had often spoken pleasantly enough, and they shared the unspoken bonds of menial jobs, but this was the first time Marley had extended such an invitation.

“Why not?” Lemuel said.

They went in, bought their drinks, and retired to the outside bench behind the pro shop, rules forbidding their presence on the veranda that overlooked the front nine.

Marley wasted a brief minute chatting about an inconsequential, the weather. Then he said, stretching the truth a bit: “Had a hairy experience night before last. Old lady in a white nightgown walked right out in front of my car. Happened on the boulevard, at 341.”

“Must have been Atha Vanderling,” Lemuel said, killing half his Coke at a swallow.

“Vanderling? You mean, one of the original Estate tribes?”

“Last Vanderling left. Not a living creature to leave all them millions to.”

Marley shifted on the hardness of the wooden bench. “I guess you know plenty about the Estates and the people.”

“Been here since the day they redid the back nine and put in the long practice tee.” Lemuel winked knowingly. “I could write a book. Sure as hell could.” He sighed. “’Course nobody wants to hear about folks in the Estates the way they used to be.”

“Sounds interesting to me. Say... why don’t we meet here at the pro shop tomorrow a little earlier? We’ll chew over some old times.”

The prospect brought a nod of pleasure. “If the greenskeeper don’t have me chinch-bugging on the front nine,” Lemuel said. “Can’t think of nothing I’d like better. I’m around from sunup to sundown six days a week.”

Cultivating Lemuel as a brain to pick, Marley in the next few days pieced Atha Vanderling into a composite from the old man’s gossip. Awkward and painfully shy when she was young. A very sensitive girl who’d known she was dense and not at all pretty. But the Vanderling money had provided specialists, to tutor her, correct the bucked teeth, design clothing that enhanced the bony figure. She was sent to ballet, riding, diction lessons. She was travelled in Europe. She was provided a debut. Money had worked a small miracle; even so, Atha had emerged into young womanhood as a plain-jane wallflower.

When she was in her barrenly lonely mid-twenties, she met Guthrie Linyard, a social hanger-on who was summer guesting with a neighbor of the Vanderlings. He set about wooing her, and the love-starved young woman’s response had been blindly overwhelming. No one could get through to her. Her belief and faith in Guthrie were fanatical. He truly loved her, not her money, and she loved him.

The couple announced their engagement and were given the usual round of parties. The rapturous young simpleton flew to Paris to buy part of her trousseau.

Came the day of the wedding, and Guthrie vanished, leaving her in white satin, a bridal bouquet in her hands, a spectacle before the eyes of people she’d known all her life in the crowded church.

“Atha’s pappy, as you may have guessed,” Lemuel said, “finally turned the trick with Guthrie Linyard the morning of the wedding. Folks talked about it a long time. Old man Vanderling went into the church ante-room where Guthrie was all set to go in cutaway coat and striped trousers, and made his final offer. If Guthrie showed up at the altar, the old man was drawing a new will, cutting Atha out. Otherwise, there was a side door so’s a man could slip out quietly and here was a package containing fifty thousand dollars cold cash, travelling money.”

“And Atha never married?”

“Atha,” Lemuel said, “was never far from the brink, first place. Atha went stark, staring crazy. Started right there at the altar, her beginning to sob and finally running out in her wedding gown and veil, up and down the streets, looking to see if Guthrie had been hurt in an accident, screaming his name. When she learned what had really happened, she closed in on herself, like an oyster locking its shell. They spent plenty on her, in fancy asylums, and her pappy was never the same afterward. Finally, Vanderling money had done all it could. They were able to bring home what was left of Atha. She never went out, had no friends, although she could talk and act like she had good sense. But she was convinced that some day Guthrie would come back. The best doctors in New York and Vienna couldn’t get that idea out of her head. And while her years melted away, she stayed on in the old home place, after her parents died, lighting a candle in a window every night and waiting for Guthrie to return.”

Marley didn’t as yet know how he would use the information; but his experience and instincts clearly told him that he was on the brink of something big, perhaps the biggest con of his life, the one that would set him up for all his years to come. The toughest part of any con was to locate a mark. The best of con men (the category in which Marley automatically included himself) sometimes went for months without using their talents because the right situation wouldn’t show itself.

The expiration of his parole came and went, its impact shunted aside by the thoughts that suffused Marley of an old crazy woman worth millions.

“I guess,” the bohunk of a parole officer said grudgingly, “you’ll swim out of the greasy dishwater and head for parts unknown.”

“I rather like the Estates,” Marley said.

He continued his digging — through Lemuel, through old newspaper files, the local library, through a mole-like research into names associated with the Vanderlings. His keen imagination popped open kernels he ferreted from old gossip columns, notes on society and business pages. Immersed in his subject, he almost felt that he had once been part of the scene.

Exchanging greasy kitchen steam for the stink of his cheap room each night, he considered the angles.

He would face himself in the scaly mirror over the dresser, knock on an imaginary door, and when the door was opened he would look into Atha Vanderling’s non-present eyes and rehearse.

Role of private investigator: “Miss Vanderling? I’m James C. Lyerly. Here is my card. I have some information about a man named Guthrie Linyard...”

No. It could get too involved, foisting himself into her hire as a private detective. The ideal con was simple, direct.

A long-lost friend: “Atha, you remember me, of course. Jeremy Dekalb... My dear, the years haven’t hurt you a bit...”

Nope. The link must be stronger than one of ancient friendship.

A distant relative: “Atha, I’m Peter Conway, all the way from Switzerland. Aunt Helen told me to be sure to look you up...” More than twenty years ago the local paper had Sunday-featured the removal of the Conway branch of the family to an executive position in a Swiss firm. But the distant relative was too risky. She might have despised Peter.

Marley would brood from his window at the scabby alleyway below. A pigeon isolated in her roost with no one to protect her... no father left to come between her and a Guthrie Linyard, who had once come close to getting it all...

Catching a glimpse of his reflection in the dirty window, Marley felt the sudden creeping of a rather delicious numbness. As if hardly daring to trust his muscles, he turned toward the mirror. His mind unveiled the Guthrie Linyard shown in the society pages a generation ago when the Linyard-Vanderling engagement had promised the most expensive wedding of the season.

Marley lifted his hand, touching his chin. Same size... same coloration... Thirty years ago he’d resembled those old pictures of Guthrie Linyard in a general way. Who could say that Linyard wouldn’t have aged into Marley’s present image?

Suddenly too excited to breathe, Marley paced his room, beating his fists together.

The scenario... It had to be the best Marley had ever dreamed up.

Parts of it posed no problems. His assiduous research had yielded many threads for the weaving of a mask that would identify him as Guthrie Linyard, for whom the candle burned nightly. He knew that Guthrie had enjoyed sailing. A long-forgotten society page editor had noted the color of the gown worn by Atha Vanderling the night she and Linyard had topped the list of society names at a big benefit. The same editor had covered bridal showers given for Atha by Clarice Snowden and Margaret Fogg. The Leyer orchestra had played at the engagement party.

Names of long-ago friends, schools she’d attended, a minor auto accident involving her father, a charity drive headed by her mother... so many details concerning Atha and her family from the time of her childhood... Marley had them etched carefully in his mind. And once he was over the first hurdle — effecting entry — he would pump the old woman with the cunning and shrewd indirection of a gypsy fortune teller.

Intervention from outside? No sweat. She was a recluse, and he would dissolve into her life style. Fire the current chauffeur-handyman, hire a stranger. As Guthrie, he and Atha would share reunion, their great secret passion of togetherness, with no one. The prospect would please her right down to her toenails.

It was less attractive to Marley, the thought of togetherness with a crazy old harridan. But it had its redeeming facets. He could hire a maid, a cute, sexy, greedy young thing. And a cook — and dine on surf and turf any evening he desired. And once he was inside, he was quite certain, he would be wholly capable of reaping his harvest. There would surely be a situation involving her with lawyers, trustees and other such deadbeats. But never mind. He didn’t aspire to all of the Vanderling millions. Amounts that he could arrange to take over, and hence put him in a position of control, would be quite adequate.

The big problem was getting into 341 Vanderling. How does a fellow explain away a jilting at the altar that occurred thirty years ago? Throw himself on her compassion and mercy? Work on the obsessions and superstitions she held in her pixilated state? Tell her he’d seen the candle in his dreams?

No, no, no... Compassion, mercy, hallucination... Tools to use. But would they get him in the door?

He flung himself to a sitting position on the edge of his lumpy bed, hands clenched between his knees, his wiry body rocking under the intensity of his thoughts.

Why had he, as Guthrie Linyard, deserted her at the altar thirty years ago?

Cool it now. Get the ducks all in a row. In the first place, everything told to her thirty years ago was a lie. He had not cut out because her father had threatened to disinherit her while offering him fifty thousand dollars.

He had stranded her at the altar because...

Hmmmm. A simple explanation, that’s all that was needed. A simple, sympathetic explanation.

Getting rid of the onus of a fifty thou bribe shouldn’t be too difficult. Just say that her father had made the threat and the offer, and he’d laughed in her father’s face. She could have been a pauper like the little match girl, for all he cared about her money.

So it’s thirty years ago and she’s standing in her white satin, a bridal bouquet in her trembling hands while a church full of people begins rustling, looking for the groom.

Trouble is, her father has resorted to a last desperate measure — and two big yeggs have walked into the ante-room, nicked the groom-to-be with a medical syringe full of drugs, and are carrying the hapless unconscious Guthrie out the side door.

The groom regains consciousness in a motel in a distant state. Yeggs still present. Then, at that point, father’s fifty thou is stuffed into his pocket and the groom warned never to return.

Nuts, thinks the groom. Fifty million wouldn’t be enough. When the yeggs at last depart, the groom tries to phone the love of his life. He cannot get a call through to her. He comes back, to the palatial home on Vanderling Boulevard. He learns a tragic truth. Atha, his darling Atha, is sealed away in a private mental hospital. Lost to him forever.

He never wants to see the house on Vanderling Boulevard again.

The groom has gone to the west coast to try and find a life for himself. He has married, never had children, and not once has he held his wife in his arms without aching with the thought of Atha. His wife has died. Couple years ago? Or a year? Why not a few months back? Yes, a few months would be better. Growing emptily old, he has at last returned, goaded by the need to find out what happened to the only woman he ever really loved.

Marley leaped to his feet. It was a bit soapy. But it could have happened. It offered the images he wanted to transmit to her, and don’t forget... believing in Guthrie’s return she’s burned a candle nightly for thirty years...

She answered the muted front door chimes herself. And Marley felt a slight chill. The old face was a dead white collection of sharp angular bones and wrinkles. And the garment she wore... it was not a nightgown after all. It was a white satin wedding dress.

She was limned in a pale lighting of the enormous, vaulted entry foyer. Marley felt the darkness over the lawn behind him like a weight against his back.

“Yes?” she asked.

Marley’s gaze flicked toward the right, toward the window where the candle glowed. He took heart from the wealth exuded by the house.

“Atha,” he murmured, “don’t you remember? Don’t you recognize me?”

She leaned, peering at him closely.

“Atha, surely you remember... the breeze in our faces when I took you sailing... that lovely emerald green gown you wore to the hospital benefit... the way we danced the night the Leyer orchestra kept playing Sunrise Serenade for us?”

A small flicker showed in her sunken eyes. “Guthrie?”

“Yes, Atha, oh, yes!” Marley said fervently.

“Guthrie?” she repeated, like a child whispering in an empty room. “Can it really be Guthrie?”

“Of course, Atha.” He reached and took her bony hands in his. “And I can explain everything, my darling. Let me in. Let me fill my eyes with the sight of you. Let me tell you what really happened.”

A small seizure went through her. Her hands locked tightly on his. “Guthrie... Guthrie... Guthrie...” she whispered.

She drew him inside, not taking her eyes from his face. Across the entry foyer, down two steps into a vast sunken living room where the candle burned on a table set close to the front windows.

“Atha, it’s so...”

“Please,” she said. “Not now.” She stepped back, looking him up and down.

“Atha...” A strange feeling of alarm began pouring through Marley.

“No,” she said, turning away. “You mustn’t say a word.” She braced herself against a small, drop leaf desk. “Not another lying word.”

Her hand dipped into the desk drawer and drew out a gun. She pointed it steadily at Marley.

“I always knew the lure of the money would bring you back someday,” she said.

“Atha, no! Wait... You’ve got it all wrong!”

“And this,” she said, “is the only thing that’s kept me alive for thirty years.”

She squeezed the trigger, and Marley died painlessly, a bullet between his eyes at such short range. He crumpled and fell.

Her whole body seeming to lift in a long-lost self respect and pride, Atha Vanderling quietly, a rustling of white satin, stepped across the prone form, reached out her hand, and pinched the flame from the candle.

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