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Authors: Jennifer; Wilde

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BOOK: Betrayal at Blackcrest
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“Good thinking,” he said.

He brought me the coat promptly. I wrapped it around me and got out of the car. The shoes were ruined immediately, for I stepped into three inches of mud on the side of the road and almost lost my balance. My hair was drenched and hung in wet auburn clusters about my head. I huddled in the coat and shouted appropriate comments as the man in the yellow mackintosh jacked up the rear end of the car and removed the flat tire. He had pulled a flashlight out of his pocket and given it to me, directing me to hold it over the rear fender.

The light danced unsteadily over the area where he was working. The rain was falling so furiously that I could not hold it level. I dwelt on the ruined shoes, cursing myself for not leaving London in a sweater and a pair of slacks. Only an idiot would start off for a long drive in her best finery. It was just such thoughtlessness that made life so hazardous for a woman on her own.

The rain did not seem to bother the man. He rolled the spare into place and hoisted it up to fit on the metal rim. I marveled audibly at his agility and strength. He yelled back for me to keep the light away from the treetops and direct it on the car.

In a matter of minutes the job was done. He put the flat tire into the trunk and tossed the jack and wrench in after it. He slammed the lid down and stepped back. At that moment, ironically, the rain stopped. It ceased abruptly and completely. The sudden silence after the monotonous pounding was slightly unnerving. I stared at my savior.

“How's that for timing?” I remarked.

“Perfect,” he replied.

He grinned. I was happy to see that he could take it all with some humor. It would have been maddening otherwise.

“Here are your keys,” he said, handing them to me.

I returned his flashlight and smiled sincerely.

“I owe you quite a lot of thanks,” I said soberly. “I really don't know what I would have done if you hadn't come along.”

“Ruined the dress, probably,” he replied.

“Not on your life,” I promised.

“Is everything all right now?” he asked. “Sure this thing will run properly?” He cast a disparaging glance at my battered old car.

“It may not look like much,” I told him, “but it's a gem. I've depended on it for five years, and it's never let me down. Of course, the tires are another story.…”

“You'd better get in,” he said. “It's quite cold, and you're wet. I would hate for you to catch cold.”

I climbed back into the car and turned on the interior light in order to see better. The stranger in the mackintosh came over to the window and leaned his arms on the edge of it, his head level with mine. He smiled, quite amiable, and for the first time I realized what a vulnerable position I was in. This was an isolated spot, and there was no one else around. The man was a complete stranger.…

I relaxed. His dark brown eyes were very friendly, and I found it unthinkable that he could have ulterior motives. If he had been contemplating rape, I reasoned, he would never have changed my tire.

“Tell me,” I said, “is there really a place called Hawkestown?”

“Without a doubt,” he replied. “It's about two miles on down this road. You couldn't possibly miss it.”

“I'm relieved,” I said, wiping a damp lock from my temple. “I was beginning to think it was legendary—one of those places that appear only once every hundred years or so.”

“It's real, all right,” he said, “though few people have ever heard of it.”

“I must admit I hadn't, until a relative of mine moved there. I am on my way to visit her now.”

He was staring at me intently. His eyes were not merely looking at me, they were studying my features. I drew myself up, not at all sure that I liked this intense examination. The man noticed my concern, and he grinned.

“I don't suppose …” he began. “No, it couldn't be.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You're not by any chance Deborah Lane?”

“How on earth did you know?” I asked, startled.

“I've seen you on the screen.”

His voice was low and hesitant, and I shook my head in disbelief. I could not believe that it was actually happening. After all this time, someone had actually recognized me. I felt like the celebrity I most assuredly was not. The stranger looked as though he were about to ask for my autograph. That would have been entirely too much for one night.

“I didn't know anyone actually saw that movie,” I said.


The Sergeant's Secretary
? I saw it in Hawkestown. I never miss a J. Arthur Rank film. I don't know what to say. This is the first time I have ever met a movie star.”

“Hardly that,” I retorted. “It was my first and last film, and I had a very small part.”

“It played in Hawkestown just a month ago. I saw it twice.”

“They've released it in the provinces? I thought they were saving it to drop over enemy territory during the next war. The critics called it a ‘Rank insult,' and that's the kindest thing they said about it.”

“I enjoyed it,” he protested.

“So did six other people,” I replied blithely.

“How long will you be in Hawkestown?” he asked, changing the subject abruptly.

“Why—I have no idea,” I stammered. “Why?”

“Well, I did go to a lot of trouble to change your tire. I feel I should have some kind of reward, don't you? How about having dinner with me tomorrow night?”

“I don't even know your name,” I said.

“Alex Tanner,” he replied, “short for Alexander.”

The name was vaguely familiar. I felt I should recognize it, but my memory drew a total blank. Mr. Tanner was strongly attractive with his crooked nose and large mouth and those magnetic brown eyes, although he could by no means be called handsome. The prospect of having dinner with him was thoroughly pleasant.

“Aren't you rushing things a bit, Mr. Tanner?” I asked.

“Not at all. I merely want to tell all my friends I've had dinner with a film star. It'll give me ever so much status in Hawkestown. You can't refuse, you know. I
did
fix your flat.…”

“I'm not at all sure I can make it,” I said.

“Sure you can. There's not that much to do in Hawkestown.”

“My cousin may have plans.…”

Alex Tanner shrugged his shoulders. He twisted his large mouth into a most fascinating grin, and I knew it was hopeless. I had never been able to resist boyish charm combined with rugged masculinity, and Alex Tanner possessed both characteristics in abundance.

“Look,” he said, “you can't disappoint a fan.”

“Well—” I deliberated.

“I'll be at the Sable tomorrow night at eight. It's the only restaurant in Hawkestown. I'll be sitting at a table for two, waiting, and I'll expect you to be there on the dot.”

“You take a lot for granted,” I said.

He nodded in agreement and flashed that grin again. I turned the key in the ignition and gunned the motor. He told me that he would follow me to Hawkestown to see that I had no more trouble, and then he got into his own car and pulled up so that I could pass. He raised his arm in a little salute as I pulled around him.

The road ahead was like a dark black ribbon, gleaming with wet. I drove faster now, and in my rear-view mirror I could see his headlights close behind. I felt safe and secure, and there was a warm glow that I had not felt in too long a time. I drove into the outskirts of Hawkestown and slowed. Alex Tanner zoomed past me, the jazzy red sports coupé speeding on down the road at a frightful speed. I smiled to myself. I had almost forgotten about Delia and her mysterious new husband.

2

Hawkestown was a tiny place, what businesses there were centered around a little square in the center of town. Behind these were some impressive-looking homes and, farther away, several neat cottages sheltered by huge oak trees. The oak trees grew everywhere, and in summer Hawkestown would be shady and cool. A capricious river wound through the town, and the road passed over several stone bridges. Although it was not yet nine, the town seemed shut down and asleep, with only a few squares of yellow light showing through the windows. I had an impression of a place lost to time, untouched by the frantic modern pace of today. It was the kind of town one would love to visit for two weeks of rest. During the third week claustrophobia would set in.

I was sure it had enormous charm by day, with its gardens and rustic buildings, but now it was all black and gray, gilded with moonlight. I could see the dark shapes of trees and the glittering silver ribbon of river that twisted and turned through the town. I drove past the square and saw the tarnished bronze statue of a man on horseback that stood directly in the middle of it, several farm wagons pulled up around it. I saw the post office and bank, a drugstore, and the cinema where Alex Tanner had witnessed the Rank disaster. I passed a few large private homes set behind picket fences, and then the road wound through a wooded area. My gas tank showed empty, while my stomach growled in protest of its recent lack of sustenance. I was beginning to despair of filling either.

Hawkestown certainly had little to offer the weary traveler. It was completely off the beaten track, far away from any of the modern highway arteries, and quite obviously, no tourist attraction. I wondered if any place was open. I had to get directions to Blackcrest, and if possible, phone to announce my arrival. The motor began to jerk and sputter, and the gasgauge needle danced maddeningly about the
E
. I visualized myself stranded again, with no handsome Alex around to help. I gnawed my lower lip nervously. Then I saw the lights ahead.

The place was low and flat, standing in the middle of an expanse of crushed-white-shell pavement, and garishly colored lights spilled out of every window. A bright ruby-red neon sign flashed on and off, promising
FOOD
, and three pale blue petrol pumps stood before the wooden canopy in front of the main entrance. Several cars were parked at the side of the building. Even as I pulled up in front of one of the pumps I could hear pop music blaring loudly.

It was a heavenly sight, however incongruous with the rest of the neighborhood. Even Hawkestown, I surmised, couldn't completely escape the twentieth century. A boy came out of the building to assist me, and he suited the mood of the place ideally. He wore too-tight black pants, a black leather jacket that was too shiny, and a sullen scowl that went with the outfit. His dark blond hair was worn too long, in the fashion of current London youth, and he had all the earmarks of the rude, rowdy young men who seemed to delight in making nuisances of themselves before going up to Oxford and, ultimately, becoming the backbone of the nation. I smiled tolerantly as he swaggered over to the car and twisted his lips into a sneer that many would have considered threatening.

“Yeah?” he muttered.

“Do you sell petrol?” I asked.

“These pumps ain't for ornament,” he growled.

I blinked at the grammar and looked up at him with eyes that I hoped were very blue and innocent. The boy stood beside the car with his hands jammed in his pockets, his head cocked a little to one side. His eyes were dark brown, glowing, surrounded by long curling lashes that somewhat lessened their animal ferocity. The eyes were a startling contrast to the thick blond hair, and ferocious expression notwithstanding, the boy was unusually attractive. He was tall, with a muscular build, and he had that redblooded glow of the very young that no amount of posturing could disguise.

“You want petrol, lady?” he said, impatient.

“If you could see your way clear—” I began.

“Shall I fill 'er up?”

“Please do,” I replied, very gracious. “Is there a place where I could freshen up a bit?”

He jerked his head, indicating a walk that wound around behind the building. I assumed it led to the rest rooms. I got out of the car and took a small overnight case out of the trunk. The boy was pulling a hose over to the gas tank, and he ignored me completely as I walked past him and around the pale blue pumps.

The rest room was small but well lighted, all done in green tiles. There was a large mirror hanging over the sink, and I blanched when I finally got around to looking in it. No cinema star ever looked so pale and frightening. I was frankly surprised that Alex Tanner hadn't turned and run. My makeup had worn off and my hair hung in limp, damp ringlets about a face I liked to think classical in shape. I took my hairbrush out of the case and attacked the hair. After a while it began to take on some of the shape and texture I was ordinarily so proud of. I wore it long and it fell in natural waves of russet shade with deep copper highlights. I put the brush aside and tossed my head, satisfied with the way the locks fell.

It took me a little longer to apply the makeup. I wanted to look my best when I confronted Delia and her husband. I worked diligently, finally stepping back to survey the results. They were pleasing. The face that had impressed Alex Tanner so much when he saw it on the screen would never be beautiful in the traditional sense, but I liked to tell myself that character and bone structure were more important. I had high cheekbones, a straight nose, and full lips that were a little too wide. My eyes were large, set wide apart, deep blue with a hint of green. The lashes were long and curling and the brows made perfect cinnamon-colored arches over lids that were shadowed ever so slightly with jade.

The face would never launch a thousand ships, but in its time it had graced several dozen beer advertisements with profitable and unexpected results. The movie director had seen my face on a billboard, and finding that I was tall and slender as well as photogenic, had hired me for the small part in his film. History was not made, but my bank account was fattened considerably.

I had brought a pair of shabby pink low-heeled shoes in the case. I removed the ruined white heels, unceremoniously and regretfully dumped them in the garbage bin, and put on the clean ones. I felt much better, ready now to face anything.

BOOK: Betrayal at Blackcrest
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