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Authors: Max Gilbert

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BOOK: RENDEZVOUS IN BLACK
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Again she only got needles of speculation from his eyes.

They went down to the beach in the afternoon. He was in the background again, sitting on a sand hillock. He didn't seem to watch her; he was always looking off the other way. She didn't seem aware of him; she was always looking an opposite way, in all her frivoling in the water and cavorting on the sand. But there was a heightened pitch to her behavior, as when one is performing before an audience. (And it isn't natural for two people never to happen to both look the same way at one time and meet one another's glances.)

Two boys and a girl she knew down there joined her and she invited the three of them back to the house with her for cocktails, and to have dinner, and to spend the evening.

"I'm sort of in quarantine," she laughed. "It'll help me out."

They all went back together in the same station wagon that had brought them down.

They had their cocktails right away, as soon as they'd got back, she still in her beach clogs and robe of white towelling. They even passed him one, but he shook his head and sent it on by. She was strident, she was highpitched, she was raucous; almost as though they'd been made too strong, or she'd had one too many. She even did a little informal dancing about the room, first with one of the boys, then with the other, to the throb of the battery radio. There was a lot of laughter, there was a lot of chatter, there were a lot of wisecracks and horseplay.

It showed signs of going on indefinitely, but suddenly her mother came down the stairs, dressed for dinner, and inquired a trifle sharply, "Madeline, are you going to stay that way all evening? We'll be sitting down in a few minutes."

Madeline stopped short, glanced down at her own person, as if only now recalling what she had on, smote herself ingenuously on the forehead, and exclaimed, "Oops, I clean forgot! I thought I felt kind of draughty." Then, to the accompaniment of her friends' laughter, she fled up the stairs, losing one clog on the way and hurriedly turning back for it.

Presently the spanking water from her shower could be heard plainly, all the way down below in the living room where they were. She must have left both doors, her own room door and the bath door beyond that, wide open.

"That child," her mother murmured, with a little helpless shake of the head.

A maid appeared in the dining-room entrance and looked in interrogatively.

"Yes, we're ready," Mrs. Drew answered.

She rose and went out to the foot of the stairs. "Madeline!" she called up. The torrent of water continued unabated.

"She waits until the last moment," she complained. "She knows how I detest to have dinner kept waiting-- She was in the water all afternoon--"

"But that was salt water," one of the boys chuckled. "First you have to get it in your pores, for your health, then you have to get it out again, for your health."

Mrs. Drew had started up the stairs by now, to overcome the acoustical impediment of the raging shower.

Cameron, who had been sitting where he could command a view of the stairs ever since Madeline had left the rest of them, abruptly got up and went after her.

Mrs. Drew was calling her from the bedroom doorway now. "Madeline!" She still failed to hear her mother because of the thunderous crash of the water, made even more resonant by the tiling around it.

Cameron reached the bedroom entrance in turn, glimpsed the discarded clogs and towelling robe, and that held him back for a moment.

Mrs. Drew was at the very entrance to the bathroom by now, still trying to make herself heard. She finally ventured toward the vibrating curtains, drew one of them gingerly aside.

"Madeline," she shouted exasperatedly. "I've been shouting my head off! Are you going to stay in there all eve--"

The water was gushing down in crystalline emptiness behind the curtains, reflecting nothing pink but only the bluish-white of the tiles backing it. At the same moment the flirt of a breeze-stirred curtain dangling vacuously over one of the wide-open bedroom windows caught Cameron's eye.

In the gasflame-blue smoothness of the vivid sky, a single splash of silver stood out, the evening star that Tannhäuser sang about. Its rays seemed to stream, elongated, down toward the earth, like wet paint, running because it hasn't yet had time to dry. Under it, along the luminescent road that reflected the sky's brightness upside down, like a steel rail, her eager little roadster coursed along, throbbing as though it were in love itself. Little friendly roadster, smuggled out to a nearby garage with connivance of one of the servants, bedded there in hiding throughout the day, tuned up and waiting for the moment of flight. Little roadster that no detective in the world could overtake now any longer, because its mistress was in love, and love has wings, doesn't bother reading speed gauges.

Hurling like a bullet along its concrete trajectory toward the city, toward the bridges leading into it, toward the supreme rendezvous.

Neckscarf streaming out flat behind her like a pennant on the bosom of the wind. Hair trying to do likewise around all its unbound edges. She was like a latterday Valkyrie cresting the curved surface of the earth, into the black fastnesses of night. She looked back once or twice, but in derision, not in any real misgiving. The wind tore her laughter from her teeth.

Once an intersection held her up--there were such things, even love had to pay heed to them or risk the consequences of more successful pursuit from closer at hand--and she stood erect in her car, full length, and shook her fist at the sullen red light that impeded her until it blanked out, as if in astonishment at such defiance.

There were two bridges to choose from, a near one and a far. Shrewdly she chose the far, the one that meant turning out of her way and then retracing it, knowing he might have sent word ahead to the likeliest one, she might be halted and held for him there, at its approaches.

She crouched down low in her seat, averted her head as she trundled by, caught in the interlocking mesh of traffic and slowed to a more sedate pace now. But the bridge traffic policeman, there on his little shallow concrete island, close enough to have touched her doorhandle, never even glanced at her.

That had been the last hazard. Nothing could stop her now; nothing more.

The city's serrated outline crept up into the sky, in gun-metal, smoked pearl, dark-purple and charcoal-black, and she went rushing down the long descending arc of the bridge to entomb herself at its feet.

Time others were waiting for him at time bridge approaches, where he'd signalled ahead for them to join him, when he came lumbering in in the unwieldy Drew town car, too big and heavy to be risked at the rate of speed her roadster had attained.

He jumped out of it, changed into the faster police car they had there. The siren wailed out and the bridge traffic ahead shored over to the side, in a long, curleycued, frontal breaker, to give them clearance.

"Nothing doing?" Cameron asked. The answer was obvious, or she would have been there in their custody when he arrived.

"Not a sign of her. We've checked every car going through for time past twenty minutes. She may have got through just ahead of us."

"She couldn't have made it that fast. She took one of the other bridges, then, and beat the dragnet through."

"What's she being stopped from?" one of them asked him.

"Stopped from being killed," he answered tersely.

Her demented, love-smitten little roadster came sluicing around the corner of his street on a kiting turn that almost swept it up onto the sidewalk, straightened out for the final heat and bore down toward the opposite curb on a long diagonal that finally closed in directly opposite his door.

It shuddered and jarred her, with the wrench she gave its brakes.

Sudden silence. She'd arrived. She was there.

She sat there for a moment, as though she were as spent as the car from the long race. Turned her head and looked at the doorway, waiting there for her, so shadowed, so inscrutable, yet somehow so batedly expectant. As if it were holding its breath to see whether or not she intended to come into it.

It needn't have taken pause; no power on earth could have kept her outside of it.

I'm here, my love, her heart murmured. Did I keep you waiting? Am I late?

She flung open the door, and letting it swing idle behind her, skimmed across the sidewalk and inside. A diagonal edge of shade, like a knife blade, sheared down her back and took its brightness off.

The stairs were nothing to her winged feet. She stopped outside his door and quirked her head a moment, listening. There was no sound, no sound at all. But she smiled in a surety, a confidence, that could not be gainsayed.

She touched at her hair, at her scarf, at her coat, to make what he saw look better, to make him love her more.

Then she raised her hand and knocked.

There was no answer.

But she only smiled that smile again.

She thrust her face closer to the door, the better to be heard.

"Open," she coaxed in a throbbing, low-toned voice. "It's me. Don't you remember me? I have a date with you."

The door swung slowly open, without there being anyone visible behind it, not even time hand that turned and held its knob.

She spread her arms wide for the embrace that was to come. She went in that way, arms outstretched at their widest.

The door swung slowly shut.

The whole stair structure from top to bottom throbbed and pounded, like the rolling drumbeat accompanying an execution, and one by one they came hurtling off it, Cameron in the lead, and slammed to a stop in front of the door.

Sudden silence, then, for a moment only.

A streak of flame spit from Cameron's hand, a shot raged out thunderously, and the decrepit lock splashed into particles.

Cameron moved the toe of his shoe, and the door was wide open.

Again silence; but this time not for just a moment. Long, long silence. Nobody moved. There was no more need to. Nobody said anything. There was no good saying anything.

A couple of them drew their breaths in lingeringly; like you do when something hurts you pretty badly. It did hurt them; it would have hurt anybody.

She was alone in there. Half propped and half lying on a sort of settee there was in the room. Almost like in life, when you feel too indolent to straighten up as the door opens and someone comes in. Except that one leg was out a little too far, as if it had delivered a spasmodic death kick and then never quite dropped all the way back to rest again.

She seemed to be looking out at them, from in there, just as they were looking in at her, from where they stood huddled. Almost as if to say, "Come on in and close the door, don't just stand there."

But her face was what was worst about her. He'd kept the blood from going down, and now it never would any more, and it had turned .

The face that they'd all looked at under the Carlton clock (" I wouldn't treat you this way; won't you try me? "), they would have gagged at, and backed away, and run from now. No one would have wanted it now, nor even recognized it.

Cameron walked quietly in and turned his head the other way as he went past her. A detective, but he turned his head the other way; that was his parting homage to what she'd once looked like.

There was a calendar on the mantel, the numerals "31" in jumbo black digits on its topmost leaf.

Cameron tore the leaf off, let it flutter to the floor.

Then his head went down limply, in abject defeat.

It was the yellowed, faded, almost blanked-out snapshot of a young girl, that must have been taken years ago. Of a young girl, standing on a porch step, one foot raised to the step behind her, smiling into the sun.

Cameron found it on the floor in back of the dresser when he shoved that bodily out of the way. Not even on the floor, but partially in it, imbedded upright in a crack, so that only the top rim of it peered forth.

It might have been originally inserted into the frame of the dresser mirror and been shaken loose at some violent dislodgement the entire piece of furniture received. Such as one man hitting another a blow to the jaw and sending him sprawling back against it. Or it might have been berthed inside one of the drawers themselves and fallen through a gap in the back of it, down to the floor, at some swift movement of opening or closing. Such as an unexpected knock at the room-door could have brought about.

Anyway there it was. And it belonged to no predecessor of the last tenant, they established that. The floor had been scraped and the room painted just prior to his occupancy, the landlady told them.

"Find this girl," said Cameron grimly, "and we find him."

He broke that down still further. Everything in police work must be broken down; there are no generalizations.

"And to find her, we have to find out two things. When it was taken and where it was taken."

He had six enormous enlargements of it made, about the size of a window pane. Every shadow, every detail stood out. And where the lines weren't firm enough, they were retouched. But nothing was added. Then he took one to each of the head buyers of women's apparel in the six largest department stores in the city.

BOOK: RENDEZVOUS IN BLACK
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