Authors: Cornell Woolrich
by Cornell Woolrich (1941)
The bell rang at about eight that night, and it was a couple of King Turner's friends, Bill Evans and Wash Gordon, come to take him out. "To get him away from himself," as they would have put it. They had a girl with them whom they introduced simply as Vinnie.
That he mightn't want to go out, or if he did, that he mightn't want to go out with them, didn't enter into their calculations at all. They couldn't imagine anyone not wanting to go out with them, especially when they went to all that trouble just to brace him up.
Turner opened the door and just looked at them when he saw who it was. He didn't say "Come in" or anything. He didn't have to with them. They parted in the middle, the girl and Evans pushed past on one side of him, Gordon on the other, and all of a sudden his apartment was full of noise. The radio was going at three-quarters tone, the girl named Vinnie was experimenting with a cocktail-shaker that played a tune, and Evans was busily slapping the lids of boxes up and down looking for a cigarette. This came under the general heading of camaraderie. Turner had experienced a lot of it since his wife had left him and he'd been living alone. As long as the fort had already been taken over, he went ahead and closed the door; but with a rueful look, as if he would rather have done it while they were still out there in front of him.
Evans spread his hands astonishedly, said: "Well, come on, get your things, what're you waiting for?"
"Know where we're taking you?" Wash Gordon added. "To a ranch. To a ranch to blaze weed."
"What's a ranch?" Turner asked. "And what's weed?"
The three of them exchanged a pitying look among themselves, as if to say "Isn't he corny? Doesn't know anything, does he?"
"Marihuana. The ranch is the flat where you smoke it. We just found it ourselves."
Turner sliced his hand at them in rejection, turned away.
"No, he'd rather stick around here and brood down his shirt-collar all evening. Brood about Eleanor."
"It's just for you," Evans urged. "It'll make you think you've got her back." He dropped one eyelid toward the other two.
The girl had found a picture, was studying it. "I don't see so much to brood about," she said felinely.
Turner came over and hitched it away from her, turned it face-down.
"Not on that subject," Gordon warned her in an undertone. "Can't take it."
"Well, are we going or aren't we?" she wanted to know sulkily.
"Sure we're going." Evans found Turner's hat, flattened it down on his head, slapped his topcoat lengthwise around his neck like a scarf. "So is he." He caught him by one arm and pulled him, Gordon by the other. "We know what's good for him, don't we, Wash?"
"I don't think it'll be much fun taking him along," the girl commented under her breath to Gordon.
"Sure it will, watch. He's never tried it before; he'll hit the ceiling. You should always have an amateur along on this kind of a party, for comic relief."
After they'd finally hauled him across the threshold, Turner quit trying to dig his heels in.
The girl came out last and closed the door after her, after sticking out her tongue at Eleanor's photograph. "You'll thank us for this," she promised Turner pertly. "It'll put a little life in you, Old Faithful."
"I left my latchkey in there," Turner protested. "I won't be able to get in again when I come home."
"It'll be so long before you come home," Gordon jeered, "the building'll probably be condemned and torn down from old age."
They got into a cab and drove west to Tenth Avenue, then up that into the lower Sixties, the Hell's Kitchen district, without giving any exact address.
"We ought to get a rebate for bringing a new customer," the girl said breezily.
Evans motioned to his lips and jerked a cautioning thumb toward the driver. "Wait'll we get outside again," he warned.
They got out at a blind street corner, apparently chosen at random, stood for a moment in the ghostly pall of a street light until the cab's taillight had winked out ahead. "We'll walk it from here," Evans said. "Driving right up to the door in a cab, in this neighborhood, is a tipoff something's doing inside. The neighborhood grapevine would finally get word to the cops."
They crossed over toward Eleventh, went up a side street on that side on foot. Turner's reluctance to accompany them, even this late in the proceedings, was plainly visible on his face, but they ignored it.
They stopped finally outside one of the moldering Civil War era tenements that, interspersed with billboards and lofts, lined the dismal thoroughfare. Turner tried to extricate himself for the last time, as if assailed by some intangible premonition. "I'm going to call it off. I got a feeling something's going to go wrong if I go up there. I got a feeling something's going to happen."
"Aw, don't be yellow," Gordon snarled. Turner could see by their expressions that they didn't really like him, there was no real friendship there; they wanted him to come along simply to have a good time at his expense, to make him the butt of a joke, laugh at his inexperience.
They looked at him scornfully, and the girl said contemptuously, "Oh, let him go. Don't make him come up if he's afraid."
It was the sort of challenge that usually works, against all reason and logic, with almost anyone. It did this time too. Turner turned toward the tenement entrance without another word, followed them in. If the girl's elbow nudged Evans' ribs in the gloom ahead, he failed to see it.
"Don't make any noise now," Gordon cautioned in the murky depths of the entrance-hallway. "They don't want the other tenants in the building to get wise."
There were stairs ahead, lit — or rather hinted at — by a single bead of gaslight, the size of a yellow pea, hovering over a jet sticking out of the wall. They tiptoed up them Indian-file. They had to go that way, the rickety case was too narrow to take two of them abreast.
"Once you get in it's not so bad," Evans tried to hearten Turner in a stage whisper over his shoulder. "They've got it fixed up pretty nice, out of the profits they make."
"Aren't they taking a chance on the law?" Turner asked, tailing the rest of them around a creaky landing and up another flight.
"If the dicks do bust in, what evidence have they got? How can they prove these people aren't just having a few personal friends in for a sociable evening? How long does it take to get rid of a few dozen reefers down the air shaft?"
They climbed the rest of the way in silence until they had reached the top floor of the sinister place, stood huddled there for a moment getting their breaths back. There was a peculiar, insidious trace of something in the air up here, very hard to identify — a ghostlike pungency that prickled the nostrils. Turner had never met with it before, couldn't tell what it was. But he had his suspicions.
"Well, here goes." Evans took a tug at his necktie, strode forward, knocked at a door fronting the top-floor hall. The others moved after him, stood grouped there as if for mutual protection.
There was a single, muffled footfall somewhere on other side of the door. The backing of a handmade peephole, bored through the woodwork with an awl, was removed, and an orange-lidded eye presented itself. That was because the light was on the eye's side, the hall where they stood held simply a pin-point of gas.
Evans made himself their spokesman. "Charlie and Joe," he offered. "Remember us? We brought a friend back with us this time." Girls evidently didn't count in this little subdivision of the underworld; a miscalculation many a shady character has made.
The eye blacked out and a chain dropped with a clunk. Then the door opened narrowly. So narrowly they couldn't see who was behind it. The invitation to enter, however was implicit. It reminded Turner inescapably of the old-time Prohibition gin-flats, only it purveyed something a good deal worse.
Evans, as ringleader, squeezed himself in first. The girl went next, with a shiver of thrilled anticipation. Gordon went next, and Turner came last. Somebody's hairy, sleeve-rolled arm dropped behind him like an ax, to close the door.
They were standing at the end of a long "railway" hall that seemed to go on indefinitely into the distance. A solitary electric light bulb overhead was made even dimmer with a jacket of crepe-paper. A man was standing there beside them with one hand held at a receptive level, as if waiting for something. He squinted at Turner, the newcomer, said: "This guy all right?"
"Perfect," Evans assured him. He got out money, said to Gordon: "I'm paying for Vinnie, you take care of Turner." There was evidently a flat admission-rate, with as many cigarettes supplied as the customer asked for. The doorkeeper had produced an ordinary white stationery envelope, was doling them out as they passed him.
"I've got money here———" Turner objected, used to the etiquette of the upper world. But vice is never stingy when it comes to roping a neophyte in.
"You're our guest," Gordon overrode him, pushing his hand down. "Just one for him, he's green," he said patronizingly to the man in shirt sleeves. The latter handed Turner a cigarette that looked like an ordinary cigarette, only the fill was a little darker and coarser. Turner didn't know what to do with it, stuck it upright in his breast pocket.
"Use it right here, don't carry it out with you," the man warned. "We got a house rule against that."
"He'll blaze it right away," Gordon promised.
They went down the long hall single file, the way they'd come in. The man who had admitted them followed at Turner's heels only as far as the first open doorway they passed. Then he turned aside and went in there. It was a barren sort of a kitchen. Turner glimpsed a bare wooden table and chair as he went by, placed lengthwise so that they could command a view of the hallway and anyone who went by outside. A deck of greasy cards was spread out in solitaire formation on the table.
The "paying guests" had continued on down the hall by themselves, so Turner went after them. The operators of the place evidently left their callers to entertain themselves as best they could. Turner followed the hall past several more doors until it had emerged into a depressing sort of front parlor, provided with a radio, a divan and several easy chairs. Two windows on one side that overlooked the street had dark shades tightly nailed down all around their frames. A third that looked out on an air shaft was wide open top and bottom, and in addition there was an electric fan facing it from floor level across the room, to help dissipate the tell-tale fumes.
The way they made themselves at home they might have been, as Evans had suggested, just company dropping in for a friendly visit. Except that they kept their hats and coats on, as if finding it advisable to be ready to leave in a hurry if they had to.
They were the only customers at the moment. There was a man in there already, but he seemed to belong to the place. He was in shirt sleeves, with a vest dangling open over some kind of a strap, a little too slantwise to be a suspender-loop. He was reading a newspaper when they came in; just looked up briefly, then dipped into it again without paying them any further attention.
They made themselves comfortable. Vinnie pre-empted the sofa and patted it for Gordon to sit down next to her. Evans strolled across the room to change the wave length on the radio. Turner, after a momentary indecision, sat down in an easy chair in the corner, a little withdrawn from everyone else.
Gordon had struck a match for Vinnie and himself. He blew it out, dropped it tidily in an ashtray beside them. If it hadn't been for what they had said at his own place. Turner wouldn't have been able to tell what they were doing. The whole procedure, so far, was perfectly casual, innocent-looking.
"Here we go again, gang," Vinnie giggled.
They all turned to look at Turner expectantly, watching to see what he'd do. He didn't do anything. Evans came over to him finally. A thread of smoke was looping around his wrist now too. "I'll steer you how to do it," he said affably.
Turner said in a low, discontented voice: "I don't want to do this. I gotta feeling this night's going to end up bad."
Evans took it out of his breast pocket for him, aimed it at his lips. "Aw, don't be a wet blanket. If it was a drink you wouldn't refuse. So what? It's just an aerial drink." He'd clicked a pocket-lighter before Turner could swerve his head away. A sharp pain like a knife slashed down Turner's windpipe into his lungs. "Hold it," Evans coached. He pressed the flat of his hand across Turner's mouth for a minute, preventing him from exhaling. Then he picked up the fallen reefer, handed it back to him.
Then he stood a minute watching. "Take another drag," he said finally. Slowly Turner's hand rose to his mouth. Almost against his will, but it rose. The pain wasn't nearly as sharp this time.
Evans turned away, did something with his left eyelid for the benefit of the other two. "It's got him," he smirked. "He's tuned-in from now on."
Time started to slow up and act crazy. Minutes took much longer to pass than they had before. It was hard for him to adjust himself to the new ratio, he got all balled-up. When it seemed like half an hour had gone by, the radio would still be playing only the first chorus of the same selection that had begun a good thirty minutes before. Vinnie was doing a good deal of muffled giggling over there on the divan. The stranger who had been reading the paper got up, yawned, and strolled out into the hall, with a muttered "Happy landing!" He didn't come back again any more.