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Authors: Lawrence Sanders

The 1st Deadly Sin

BOOK: The 1st Deadly Sin
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He lay on his back atop a shaft of stone called Devil’s Needle, and felt he was lost, floating in air. Above him, all about him stretched a thin blue sac. Through it he could see scribbles of clouds, a lemon sun.

He heard nothing but his own strong heart, the slowly quieting of his breath as he recovered from his climb. He could believe he was alone in the universe.

Finally he stood and looked around him. Waves of foliage lapped at the base of his stone; it was a dark green ocean with a froth of autumn’s russet. He could see the highway, the tarred roofs of Chilton, a steel ribbon of river uncoiling southward to the sea.

The air had the bite of Fall; it moved on a breeze that knifed lungs and tingled bare skin. He gulped this stem air like a drink; there was nothing he might not do.

He moved over to the cleft in the edge of the stone and began hauling up the nylon line clipped to his belt. At the end of the rope was his rucksack. In it were sandwiches, a thermos of black coffee, a first aid kit, spiked clamps for his climbing boots, pitons, an extra sweater and, buckled to the outside, his ice ax.

He had made the sandwiches himself, of stone-ground whole wheat said to be organically grown. The filling of one was sliced onions, of the other white radishes and plum tomatoes.

He sat on the smooth granite and ate slowly. The coffee was still warm, the sandwich bread fresh with a crunchy crust. Out of nowhere a blue jay appeared and greeted him with its two-note whistle. It landed on the stone, stared at him fearlessly. He laughed, tossed a crust. The bird took it up, then dropped it immediately and was gone in an azure flash.

Finished, he replaced sandwich wrappings and thermos in his rucksack. He lay back, using it as a pillow. He turned onto his side, bowing his spine, drawing up his knees. He determined to awake in half an hour. He was asleep almost instantly and dreamed of a woman hairless as a man’s palm.

He awoke in half an hour and lighted a cigarette. The day was drawing on; he must be down and out of the park before dark. But there was time to smoke, time for silence, a final coffee, cold now and gritty with dregs.

He had been recently divorced. That was of no concern; it had happened to a stranger. But he was perplexed by what was happening to
since he and Gilda had parted. He was assembling a jigsaw puzzle. But he didn’t have all the pieces, had no conception of what the completed picture might be.

He pulled off his knitted watch cap, exposing his shaven skull to watery sunlight. He pressed fingers to the smooth; soft skin slid on hard bone.

The divorce had just been obtained (in Mexico) but he had been separated from his wife for almost two years. Shortly after they agreed to live apart, he had shaved his head completely and purchased two wigs. One (“Ivy League”) he wore to the office and on formal occasions. The other (“Via Veneto”) was crisp curls and ringlets. He wore it to parties or when entertaining at home. Both wigs were in the dark brown shade of his own hair.

It was true his hair had been thinning since he was 24. At the time of his separation from Gilda, when he was 33, the front hairline had receded into a “widow’s peak” and there was a small tonsure at the back of his head. But he was far from bald. His remaining hair had gloss and weight.

Nevertheless, he had shaved his entire skull when he purchased the wigs, though the coiffeur assured him it was not necessary; the artificial hair could be blended (“Absolutely undetectable, sir”) with his natural hair.

When climbing, or swimming, or simply alone in his apartment, he preferred the shaven pate. He had developed a habit—almost a nervous tic—of caressing it with his fingertips, probing the frail cranium and that perilous stuff that lay beneath.

He pulled on his cap, tugging it down over his ears. He prepared for the descent by donning horsehide gloves, rough side out. He then lowered his rucksack to the boulders below. The end of the line was still clipped to his belt, a wide canvas band similar to that used by professional window washers.

The cleft, by which ascents to and descents from the flat top of Devil’s Needle were made, was a chimney. It was a vertical crack in the granite shaft, four feet across at the base. It narrowed as it rose until, at the top, it was barely wide enough for a climber to scrape through to the summit.

The climber braced shoulders and back against one wall of the chimney. He bent his knees, placing the soles of his boots against the opposite wall. He then, literally, walked up the cleft, depending upon the strength of buttocks, thighs and calves to maintain sufficient pressure to keep from falling.

As he took small steps, not relaxing one foot to scrape it upward until the other was firmly planted, he “walked his shoulders” slowly higher—right, left, right, left. He continued tension in his bent legs to keep himself jammed between opposing walls of the chimney.

As the cleft narrowed toward the top of the 65-foot shaft, the climber’s legs became increasingly bent until his knees were almost touching his chin and gains upward were measured in inches. At the top, it was necessary to apply pressure with knees instead of feet. The climber then reached up and grabbed two heavy pitons a previous conqueror of Devil’s Needle had thoughtfully left embedded in the stone. With their aid, the man ascending could pull himself out of the narrow chimney, over the lip, onto the flat top. It was a bedsheet of stone.

The descent, though more difficult, was not excessively dangerous for an experienced climber. Gripping the pitons, he allowed his body to slide down into the cleft. He started by bracing his knees against one granite wall, his back against the other. Releasing the pitons, he then slowly “walked” downward, until the crack widened sufficiently so he could put the rubber-ridged soles of his boots against the opposing wall.

At this time of day, in September, as he began the descent, the top of Devil’s Needle was washed with pale sunshine. But the slit into which he lowered himself was shaded and smelled rankly.

He braced his knees, took a deep breath, released the pitons. He was suspended in gloom, emptiness below. He hung a moment in blemished light, then placed flat hands against the facing wall to take some of the tension off his knees. He started the slow wiggle downward and out.

The cleft spread until it was wide enough to press his feet against the wall. Moving faster now, he twisted, struggled, writhed, his entire body in a steady left-right rhythm, shifting from foot to foot, shoulder to shoulder, until the stretched stone thighs popped him out and he was in murk.

He rested five minutes while his breathing eased. He coiled his nylon line, slung his rucksack. He hiked across boulders, through a meadow, along a dirt road to the ranger’s cabin.

The park guardian was an older man, made surly by this visitor’s refusal to heed his warning about climbing alone. He shoved the register angrily across the wooden counter. The climber signed in the Out column and noted the time.

His name was Daniel Blank.


of the separation agreement, Gilda Blank had retained possession of their car: a four-door Buick sedan. Daniel thereupon purchased for himself a Chevrolet Corvette, a powerful machine of racy design. Since buying the sports car he had twice been arrested for speeding. He paid a fine in each case. One more similar violation would result in suspension of his license.

Now, standing beside his car to strip off canvas jacket, wool sweater and cotton T-shirt, he admired the car’s clean feminine lines. He toweled off bare skull, face, neck, shoulders, arms, upper torso. The evening air was astringent as alcohol. He had a sense of healthy well-being. The hard climb, sculpted day, simple food all had left him with the exhilaration of a new start. He was beginning.

Daniel Blank was a tall man, slightly over six feet, and was now slender. In high school and college he had competed in swimming, track (220 high hurdles), and tennis, individual sports that required no teamwork. These physical activities had given his body a firm sheath of long muscle. His shoulders, pectorals and thighs were well-developed. Hands and feet were narrow fingernails and toenails long. He kept them shaped and buffed.

Shortly after his separation, he had taken a “physical inventory,” inspecting his naked body minutely in the full-length mirror on the inside of his bathroom door. He saw at once that deterioration had begun, the flesh beneath his jaw had started to sag, his shoulders slumped, the lower abdomen protruded, it was soft and without tone.

He had at once begun a strict regimen of diet and exercise. In his methodical way he bought several books on nutrition and systems of physical training. He read them all carefully, making notes and devised for himself a program that appealed to him and that he felt would show almost immediate improvement in his physical appearance.

He was not a fanatic, he did not swear off drinking and smoking. But he cut his alcohol intake by half and switched to non-nicotine cigarettes made of dried lettuce leaves. He tried to avoid starches, carbohydrates, dairy products, eggs, blood meats. He ate fresh fruits, vegetables, broiled fish, salads with a dressing of fresh lemon juice. Within three months he had lost 20 pounds, his ribs and hip bones showed.

Meanwhile he had started a program of daily exercise, 30 minutes in the morning upon rising, 30 minutes in the evening before retiring.

The exercises Daniel Blank selected for himself came from a manual based on the training of Finnish gymnasts. All the movements were illustrated with photographs of young blonde women in white leotards. But Blank felt this was of no import; only the exercises counted, and these promised increased agility, pliancy, and grace.

The exercises had proved efficacious. His waist was now down to almost 32 inches. Since his hips were wide (though his buttocks were flat) and his chest enlarged from his youthful interest in running and swimming, he had developed a feminine “hourglass” figure. All his muscles regained their youthful firmness. His skin was smooth and blood-flushed. Age seemed stayed.

But the diet and exercise had also resulted in several curious side effects. His nipples had become permanently engorged and, since he ordinarily wore no undershirt, were obvious beneath the stuff of thin dress shirts or lisle pullovers. He did not find this displeasing. A heavier garment, such as a wool turtleneck sweater worn next to the skin, sometimes resulted in a not unpleasant irritation.

Another unexpected development was the change in appearance of his genitals. The testicles had become somewhat flaccid and hung lower than previously. The penis, while not growing in size (which he knew to be impossible at his age), had altered in color and elasticity. It now seemed to be slightly empurpled in a constant state of mild excitation. This also was not disagreeable. It might be caused by agitation against the cloth of the tighter trousers he had purchased.

Finally he found himself free of the diarrhea that had frequently plagued him during his marriage. He ascribed this to his new diet, exercise, or both. Whatever the reason, his bowel movements were now regular, without pain, and satisfying. His stool was firm.

He drove toward Manhattan. He had pulled on a fresh velour shirt. The radio was no more than a lulling hum. He followed an unlighted two-laner that led into the Thruway.

The speedometer climbed slowly: 50, 60, 70, 80. The car roared to catch the headlight glare. Trees flung backward; billboards and ghost houses grew out of darkness, blazed, flicked back into dark.

He loved speed, not so much for the sensual satisfaction of power as for the sense of lonely dislocation.

It was Saturday night; the Thruway was heavy with traffic pouring into the city. Now he drove with brutal hostility, switching lanes, cutting in and out. He hunched over the wheel, searching for openings to plunge through, for sudden breaks in the pattern enabling him to skin by more cautious drivers.

He came over the bridge; there were the hard edges, sharp corners, cheap lights of Manhattan. Slowed by signals, by trucks and buses, he was forced to move southward at moderate speed. He turned eastward on 96th Street; his city closed in.

It was a city sprung and lurching. It throbbed to a crippled rhythm, celebrated death with insensate glee. Filth pimpled its nightmare streets. The air smelled of ashes. In the schools young children craftily slid heroin into their veins.

A luncheonette owner was shot dead when he could not supply apple pie to a demanding customer. A French tourist was robbed in daylight, then shot and paralyzed. A pregnant woman was raped by three men in a subway station at 10:30 in the morning. Bombs were set. Acid was thrown. Explosions destroyed embassies, banks, and churches. Infants were beaten to death. Glass was shattered, leather slashed, plants uprooted, obscene slogans sprayed on marble monuments. Zoos were invaded and small animals torn apart.

His poisoned city staggered in a mad plague dance. A tarnished sun glared down on an unmeaning world. Each man, at night, locked himself within bars, hoping for survival in his iron cage. He huddled in upon himself, hoarding his sanity, and moved through crowded streets glancing over his shoulder, alert to parry the first blow with his own oiled blade.

BOOK: The 1st Deadly Sin
6.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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