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Authors: John D. MacDonald

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Death Trap

BOOK: Death Trap
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John D. MacDonald

Death Trap

 

 

Chapter One

 

WHEN I READ THE SMALL ITEM in the Chicago paper and the whole world seemed to stop, I remembered that I had thought about Vicky that very morning, thought about her while I was shaving.

That in itself was not too much of a coincidence, because I had thought of her often during the three years since I had seen her. Usually she came into my mind when I was depressed—in the middle of a sleepless night, or during the sour mood of hangover. That was when I thought of Victoria Landy. Any thought of her was merely another way of calling myself a damn fool. You never forget the chances you have missed, the good things you have thrown away.

I felt a touch on my shoulder and looked up from the paper and realized that the waitress had been asking me something and had finally reached across the counter. “Something wrong with you?” she asked. She was blond and heavy and she looked concerned about me.

“No. I’m okay. Sorry.”

“I asked if you want some more coffee.”

“Yes. Thanks.”

It was just a small item on a back page. I had nearly missed it. The name had jumped out at me. Landy.

 

APPEAL DENIED IN LANDY CASE

 

Warrentown [UP]. Sept. 12. Today one of the last chances for Alister Landy, college student convicted of rape murder, flickered out when his attorney’s motion for a new trail was denied. In view of the wide interest shown in the trial and the nature of the crime, informed sources say that commutation of the sentence by the Governor is highly unlikely. It is expected that a new date for the execution will soon be set.

 

That was all. But it was enough. It could not be a case of identical names. I could fill in too many blanks. Alister Landy had been in Sheridan College in the town of Dalton. Warrentown was the county seat, thirty-five miles away. And Alister was Vicky’s kid brother.

I left the hotel coffee shop and went up to my room. I had not unwrapped some of the fishing tackle that had been delivered the day before. I unwrapped it and sat on the edge of the bed and tried to take some satisfaction from the look and feel of the good star drag reel, the fiberglass boat rod. But I couldn’t stop thinking about Vicky and about what this would be doing to her.

I had thought about Vicky that same morning. I had felt depressed, and yet there were no good reasons for feeling depressed. I had just gotten back after spending two and a half years out of the country as assistant superintendent on the construction of two military airfields in Spain. Telboht Brothers, the construction firm I work for, had been the successful bidders. The job was over. I’d had enough of red tough rock and red baked sand and green local labor and broken-down equipment. I flew into Chicago and delivered some inspection reports and certifications to the home office and got straightened away with the payroll people and with the bank where my savings had been adding up.

Sitterson, the Project Superintendent, was in, and I had a talk with him. It didn’t come out the way I thought it would. He seemed reserved, cool. He didn’t give me any information. I finally had to ask for it.

“I’d like to take my full sixty days, Mr. Sitterson. But can you give me any idea of what job I’ll be going on when I report back in?”

“Not right now. But there’ll be a place for you. You know that, MacReedy.”

It wasn’t enough. I had expected to hear him say that they’d make me super on one of the small jobs. God knows I’d worked hard enough as Mooney’s right hand man during the two and a half years in Spain. I knew every phase of the work. Maybe theory was a little shaky, but I knew all the practical angles. But Sitterson wasn’t as cordial as he had been when he had flown over to check the job eight months before. He had called me Hugh then, and he had half promised a better job when the Spanish job was finished.

I couldn’t figure out what had changed. Mooney had flown back to Chicago for a conference about two months ago. Probably they had discussed me. But I couldn’t see Mooney sticking a knife in me. He was too big a man to do it out of jealousy. And I knew he liked me. He was always after me to change my personal life. “Save your money, Hugh. You don’t have to spend every last dime.”

“It’s adding up in the bank, isn’t it?”

“Sure. For a big fling as soon as you get the chance. You’ve got a decent education, kid. You don’t have to live like a construction bum.”

“My father was a construction bum, Al.”

“I know, I know. And you know I was a kid engineer on that Oregon bridge job when the hoist cable let go. I knew Bucky and for a little guy he was all man. And he left you and your mother without dime one.”

“I’ve got nobody to support, Al.”

“Maybe you should have.”

He kept after me like that. And he didn’t like it when I took ten days off in Spain. He didn’t begrudge me the ten days. I had earned them. But it pained him that I should take off with Felizia and spend the ten days at Fuengirola, swimming, eating, drinking and making love instead of going perhaps to Madrid and making like a tourist.

Mooney certainly would have had to tell Sitterson that I performed on the job. If I could do the job, Telboht Brothers would make money and hit completion dates and keep the bonding companies happy. What I did in my off time was my own business.

I spent two days and nights in Chicago with friends from the home offices. I got respectably drunk, bought a car and equipment for the trip I planned. I picked the car off a lot, a two-year-old Chrysler wagon. I found a garage that would let me use tools. I pulled the head and the wheels and found it worth buying. I installed rings, new front shocks and a new fuel pump.

Then I was ready to go. I had sixty days and it was October and I knew just what I wanted to do. I wanted to drive down to Guaymas on the Golfo de California and fish. And I didn’t want to go alone. So first I would go to New Orleans and look up Scotty. Unless he had married, which was unlikely, his list would be as active as ever. And he would know what I wanted. Not a model, no young girl with delusions of eternal love—rather, a mature and restless woman who would like the idea of going with me to Mexico, who would want some laughs, want to catch some fish, and be willing to part when it was over without remorse or recriminations.

Yet on the morning of the day I planned to leave Chicago I did not feel that special sense of excitement that goes with vacation. I had sixty days and six thousand bucks to spend and a good plan for spending it, but there was no lift. Instead, there was a feeling of depression, of let-down. I tried to attribute it to hangover.

When you are depressed, the face in the mirror does not seem to be your own. My face showed a mixed heritage. My father was Scotch-Irish, a small wiry cat-quick man, tough and pugnacious, his face fist-marked by bigger men he had fought. My mother was tiny, a Pole with pale hair and tilted sea-gray eyes. Her half-dozen brothers were huge slow lumbering men. I had her eyes and her heavy Slavic cheekbones. I had his copper hair, streak-bleached by the savage Spanish sun. I had inherited height and bulk from the male side of her line, along with my father’s quickness. This combination had kept me from being marked as he had been marked. A small scar here under the eye. A slight flatness at the bridge of the nose. Nothing else. The deep tan was occupational and unmistakable, a tan shared by tropical sailors, by Miami beachboys, by Colorado prospectors and by construction workers.

I shaved away stubble that was like fine copper wire. My head pulsed with the dull ache of hangover. And I thought of Vicky. I thought of what-might-have-been.

 

I had been an engineer on nine miles of new state highway on the Warrentown-Dalton road. We were straightening it and four-laning it. There were three big cuts, and a lot of fill. It was rolling, beautiful country. Because the job was closer to Dalton than to Warren-town, we set up just outside of Dalton. I had been there for a few days when we made the estimates for the bid, running soil tests and analyzing cores. I was in the first group to go back when our bid was the one accepted, and I worked with the boys rechecking the survey and the specifications.

Dalton was a college town. Sheridan College, a small all-male liberal arts college of good reputation. The Department of Archeology there had found some Indian relics in one of the hills where we had to make a cut. They had written to the state capital and somebody there got in touch with the home offices in Chicago and we got word in the field to co-operate with the college.

I was elected to go talk to them and find out what they wanted us to do. Sheridan College was on a hill south of the village. It was a beautiful September morning a little more than three years ago. I had rented a room in an old house just off the central square. The central square had a New England look, with big elms, walks, benches, a beat-up bandstand. There were white churches and stores and a big inn. I went back to my room and changed from sweaty khakis to slacks and a sports shirt, and drove one of the company sedans south on College Street and up the hill to the college buildings. I got there at eleven and classes were changing. College kids were criss-crossing the campus. I felt elderly and superior to them. I’d been out four years. I was twenty-six. I’d worked in Peru and in Cuba. I had been bitten by a tropical snake. I had seen a man pulled into the gearing of a stone crusher. I’d seen a gas truck slip off a mountain at dusk and, two hundred feet down the stone slope, strike and bloom like a strange blue and yellow flower. I felt superior to these kids, and slightly appalled that they should look so young.

I located the administration building and went in and found an open door. I walked in and saw a dark head bent over a list of names, saw that dark head lift and found myself looking into the blue blue eyes of Victoria Landy. Psychologists deride the concept of love at first sight as being a delusion and a rationalization of the immature. All I know is that we looked at each other for what seemed a very long time. Afterward she told me that she felt oddly breathless and slightly dizzy. That was exactly the way I felt.

I remember that I found out who I was supposed to see and she told me how to find him. I went and talked to him and he marked on my map the area he was interested in and I promised to inform him in advance of when we would start moving earth so he could put some people in his department on the scene.

Then I went back and found the dark-haired girl, and that night we had dinner together at the MacClelland Inn, on a screened side porch where the night wind ruffled the candle flames and stirred her hair.

I learned about her. She was twenty-three. She had been born and raised in Philadelphia. Her father had been an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Her mother had been Italian. Her brother, the only other child, was six years younger and had just entered Sheridan College on a full scholarship. Vicky had gone to the University of Pennsylvania and, in order to help her father with the textbooks he wrote, had learned typing and shorthand. Right after her twenty-first birthday her father became eligible for a sabbatical year. Since Vicky would graduate soon and had a job promised her, and Alister was in an experimental school in Philadelphia with enrollment limited to children with an exceptionally high I.Q., she stayed to maintain the house and take care of Alister while their parents went to Italy.

They received a letter a week from them. And then Vicky received a phone call from Washington, from the State Department, informing her that Dr. and Mrs. Christopher Landy had died in a hospital in Bergamo of food poisoning. She found out later that it had been a botulism acquired from spoiled sausage, resulting in the traditional blindness, destruction of the nervous system and death. The day after notification their last letter was received, stating that they planned to visit the village where her mother’s parents had been born and look up any relatives that might remain there.

She explained to me that Alister was not the sort of boy you could send off to college on his own. I could not understand that until I met him. In the experimental school he had done a paper on a proposed mathematical approach to sociology. It was that paper which had won him the Sheridan scholarship.

The people at Sheridan, after interviewing Alister, understood why her presence would be desirable for at least a year or two, and arranged to give her a job in the administrative office. She had been at work a week when I met her. Alister was living in a dormitory. She was living in a rented room in one of the faculty houses.

I do not know how to describe her. She was not at all like the women who had previously attracted me. I had preferred laughing women whose diction did not make me uncomfortable, big extroverted girls with simple hungers—easily gratified—like the singer at Varadero Beach, and the Russian in Quito, and the coeds of Southern Cal where I had paid for my groceries by being a fast wing-back and a long ball outfielder.

She was not tall. There was a quietness about her. She had many silences, and some of them were most solemn. Her face was so lean and controlled as to be almost ascetical, but the primness was denied by the ripe-blooming flower of her mouth. Her hair was so very dark and her eyes were so very blue. She walked and moved lithely; and somehow, in the controlled sway of her small hips, there was more earthy promise than in the strut of any stripper. She looked fragile, yet on the Sunday I took her out and we walked miles on the road job, I could not tire her. In her dark conservative dresses, in the sheaths she liked to wear, you could imagine that naked she might look like a plucked bird, with lattice of ribs, immature breasts, hollow belly, concave thighs. Yet on one of the last warm days of the year I took her to a lake where we swam. Her suit was powder blue. Her arms and legs were long and round, creamy and flawless. Her breasts were deep and her hips had a rounded ripeness, almost an abundance. She swam with the easy tireless grace of an otter, and on that rare day she laughed aloud often, the laughter astonishingly deep in her throat, white teeth gleaming, black hair pasted flat on the contour of the fragile skull.

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