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Authors: Frances Lockridge

Death of a Tall Man

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Death of a Tall Man

A Mr. and Mrs. North Mystery

Frances and Richard Lockridge

MYSTERIOUSPRESS.COM

1

M
ONDAY
, A
PRIL
16, 8:58
A.M. TO
3:03
P.M.

Deborah Brooks watched her step getting out, in accordance with instructions, and the elevator door banged heavily behind her. She turned right, walked half a dozen steps and let herself into the office through what all of them called the “back door.” This door closed behind her soundlessly and she flicked up a tumbler switch without looking. Her fingers slipped off it; then her mind overtook her reflexes and she noticed that the lights in the corridor were already on. She looked at her watch and it said eight fifty-eight. Grace was early then, which was unlike Grace who came as exactly on the hour as if she wound herself each morning. It was more probable, Deborah thought, that her watch was slow. Machinery was fallible.

Deborah went down the short corridor and past the first closet. She opened the second and took off her light coat—and noticed that Grace's coat was not, after all, neatly on its customary hanger. Deborah noticed this with a fraction of her mind. She peered into the mirror on the inside of the closet door. She closed the door, pulling it toward her, and then went the rest of the way down the short corridor and opened the door which led from it into the bathroom. The light was not on there and she flicked it on. She looked at herself carefully in the mirror over the washbasin. She looked a moment and then stuck out a pink tongue, suddenly, and looked at it with care. That was something she had done since she was a little girl; there was something magical and reassuring about it. Even now, when she knew that the magic and the reassurance came, somehow, from a past which she could never regain—and knew that the gesture was meaningless—she still stuck out her tongue at herself when she faced a mirror. Sometimes she did not even look at her tongue after she had stuck it out. But when she stuck it out, even when she did not look at it, she was a child again and her father was saying, “Stick out your tongue, Debbie,” and he was looking at it and nodding gravely in approval. That meant she was well; that she was not confronted by those strange discomforts which meant that she could not play and go to parties. Her father could tell when those discomforts were coming, merely by looking at her tongue. That had been the magic, when she was very little. Even when she understood that her father was a doctor, and so could tell things by looking at you that others could not tell, the magic still, in some not very clear fashion, remained. If you stuck out your tongue and looked at it, you warded off evil.

Deborah withdrew her tongue, which looked much as it always did—pink and rather strange. Tongues were strange when you looked at them, and curiously meaningless. Except the tongues of cats and dogs, particularly cats. Cats and dogs had tongues that could go places. Humans merely had what amounted to carpets in their mouths.

Deborah looked at her face. It should, she thought, reflect anxiety; it should show worry. But it was a very young face, and did not, really, show either. It was smooth and lines had not yet set in it; there were no shadows that should not be around young eyes. It was also, in an impertinent fashion, rather beautiful. Deborah Brooks nodded at herself. She thought: “I do look sort of pretty.” She examined her forehead, which was a little reddened. Even an April sun could get its effects, if you sat in it long enough—or ran in it, playing the first tennis of the new season. There was also a small reddened place on the bridge of her nose.

She powdered forehead and nose and the redness abated. She washed her hands and dried them on a paper towel. She went out through the door on the opposite side of the bathroom, passed through the small, neat storage room beyond without thinking about it and, through a door in the left wall of the storage room, into the long waiting room. The lights were on there, too. But she saw no one, and heard no one, as she walked the length of the room—her dark brown hair swaying with her movement—to her desk at the other end. She sat at it a moment, reaching in for the dustcloth in the lower right-hand drawer. She was crouched over the desk, dusting it, when she heard a sound to her right and turned, the hand which held the dustrag still resting on the desk. She looked across her shoulder and up. Then she smiled at the tall man who was smiling at her.

“Dan!” she said. “How nice.” Then she stopped for a moment and when she spoke again her voice was faintly puzzled. “Only—” she said, and stopped again.

Dan Gordon was tall and slender; perhaps, as Deborah told herself, he was really thin. Certainly he was thinner than he had been before. His face, particularly, was thinner than it had been before, and there were lines in it that had not been there before. The lines went away when he smiled, in that oddly lopsided fashion. He smiled more with the left side of his face than with the right, so that his smile was never on quite straight. It was just, he had told her, that one side of his face was more flexible than the other. It was just the way he was made.

Dan Gordon smiled now, and for that moment his smile was as it had always been; as Deborah remembered it for most of the years about which she remembered anything. He looked almost as he had looked when he was sixteen and she was twelve; as he looked when he was twenty and she was sixteen and, more or less suddenly, she had been no longer merely a female nuisance who lived next door, as next doors went around North Salem, which was an expansive area. She could not remember when he had not been a part of the bright magic of the future. But girls, she supposed, noticed such things earlier than boys did.

“Hello, Debbie,” he said now. He spoke in a quick, hurried way, as if there were insufficient time for speech. He smiled again, but this time his smile, too, was quick and hurried—as if there were not enough time for smiles. “I told you I was going to talk to him.”

Still without moving from her domestic crouch over the desk, she shook her head. The soft brown hair swayed excitedly.

“No Dan,” she said. “Not here. Not now. There couldn't be a worse time. Please, darling.”

He was ten feet from her, standing in the doorway which led to the inner corridor—to the office and the examining rooms. But she could see, even at that distance, that his forehead was damp with sweat. She could see, as he reached for his cigarette case, took a cigarette from it, that his hand trembled. Neither of these things was obvious. The tremor, particularly, was hardly perceptible. Even in two months it had lessened markedly. But she had always seen everything about Dan with unusual clearness, ever since she could remember.

“Don't watch me, Debbie,” he said, suddenly, harshly. “Damn it all, don't watch me!” His voice was angry. Then, almost at once, the anger left him and he smiled again. He looked, in an odd fashion, hurt and rather baffled. “Darling,” he said. “Debbie, I'm sorry.”

“You don't have to be sorry,” she told him. But she sat down rather quickly in the chair behind the desk and for a moment made a business of putting the dustrag back in the bottom drawer on the right. Only when she had tucked it in, with more care than was needed, did she look up at him again. Then she smiled. “You know you don't have to be sorry,” she said.

“Listen,” he said. “You don't have to be sorry for me, either.” Again his voice had a harsh surface.

She did not look away this time. She kept on smiling at him.

“I'm not sorry for you,” she said, “you give me a pain in—”

He crossed the ten feet quickly and leaned over her. His lips pressed hard on hers, and he did not hurry the kiss. There was sufficient time for kisses, apparently. When he did end it, he still bent near her; his fingers were warm against the nape of her neck, under the brown hair.

“The hell I do,” he said.

“The hell you do,” Debbie Brooks agreed. “The hell you do, darling.” Her right hand went up and her fingers touched his wrist for a moment. “And,” she said, “I'll watch you when I want to. Who else would I watch?”

“That's right,” he said. “You watch me.”

He stood up and moved around the desk. He sat on it for a moment and looked down at her and then he moved again. It seemed difficult for him to remain in one place. She watched him. He moved behind her and stood in front of the window behind her desk. She could feel him there, even when he was motionless. She spoke without turning around.

“You can't talk to him this morning,” she said. “It isn't the time. And he'll only have a moment. He's operating.”

He was always operating, Dan told her. He came from behind her and sat on the edge of her desk.

“I'm going to talk to him,” he said. “I know damned well it isn't your plan.”

“It isn't what I want,” the girl said. “But—”

“But you listen to God,” Dan said, and now his voice was angry again. “You're a trusting baby, and you listen to God Almighty. Only he isn't.”

The girl merely shook her head.

“What does he know about it?” he asked. “What does anybody know about it?”

The girl smiled faintly. She said it was his business, after all.

“Being God?” the man wanted to know. He was very irascible. He stood up and walked almost the length of the long room and then came back and stood in front of her desk. He looked down at her, and again he smiled, the smile running lopsidedly across his face. “I'm sorry,” he said. “I'm always sorry, Debbie. Only—”

“I know,” Deborah Brooks said. She paused for a moment. “I'm not sure he's right,” she said. “Maybe he's not right. But he doesn't ask a great deal, Dan.” He started to speak, but she shook her head. “He doesn't ask a great deal. And—he's done a great deal, Danny. You know that. You know why I—why I listen.”

“To hell with gratitude,” Dan said. “What makes you think we've got so much time, anyway?”

She smiled suddenly.

“Because I'm twenty,” she said. “There seems like a lot of time.” She watched his face. His forehead was damp again. “I don't mean there could ever be enough,” she said. “You know I don't mean that, Dan. That I don't—” She broke off. “I'm telling you things you know,” she said. “Things we've been all over. And you know it isn't gratitude. That that isn't the word. It's a little word.”

He looked at her unhappily. Then, nervously, he shrugged his shoulders.

“All right,” he said. “So it isn't gratitude.” He looked at her. “Of course,” he said, “it could be a fixation.”

Her half-smile went away.

“Sometimes,” she said, “you're impossible, Dan. Sometimes I feel as if you're a different person. You know perfectly well you can't talk to him this morning. Or any morning. You know how—how concentrated he has to be.”

He looked down at her, his eyes enquiring. She stretched out her left hand to him. There was a diamond on the third finger of her left hand. It had been there for three years, and as she held out her hand she looked at it. He looked at it, too. Then he took her hand and leaned across the desk and kissed the finger on which the ring was. Then, with a quick movement, he sat down in the chair by her desk. He put his elbows on the desk and took his chin in his two hands and looked at her. Suddenly she laughed.

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