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Authors: Patricia Highsmith

The Black House

BOOK: The Black House
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ADDITIONAL BOOKS BY PATRICIA HIGHSMITH
PUBLISHED BY W. W. NORTON

Strangers on a Train

The Price of Salt
(as Claire Morgan)

The Blunderer

The Talented Mr. Ripley

Deep Water

This Sweet Sickness

The Glass Cell

A Suspension of Mercy

Ripley Under Ground

A Dog's Ransom

Ripley's Game

Little Tales of Misogyny

The Animal-Lover's Book of Beastly Murder

Slowly, Slowly in the Wind

The Boy Who Followed Ripley

People Who Knock on the Door

Mermaids on the Golf Course

Ripley Under Water

Small g: A Summer Idyll

Nothing That Meets the Eye: The Uncollected Stories of Patricia Highsmith

ADDITIONAL TITLES FROM OTHER PUBLISHERS

Miranda the Panda Is on the Veranda (with Doris Sanders)

A Game for the Living

The Cry of the Owl

The Two Faces of January

Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction

Those Who Walk Away

The Tremor of Forgery

The Snail-Watcher and Other Stories

Edith's Diary

Found in the Street

Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes

The Black House

Patricia Highsmith

W. W. Norton & Company
New York London

To Charles Latimer

Something the Cat Dragged In

A
few seconds of pondering silence in the Scrabble game was interrupted by a rustle of plastic at the cat door: Portland Bill was coming in again. Nobody paid any attention. Michael and Gladys Herbert were ahead, Gladys doing a bit better than her husband. The Herberts played Scrabble often and were quite sharp at it. Colonel Edward Phelps—a neighbor and a good friend—was limping along, and his American niece Phyllis, aged nineteen, had been doing well but had lost interest in the last ten minutes. It would soon be teatime. The Colonel was sleepy and looked it.

“Quack,” said the Colonel thoughtfully, pushing a forefinger against his Kipling-style mustache. “Pity—I was thinking of earthquake.”

“If you've got
quack
, Uncle Eddie,” said Phyllis, “how could you get quake out of it?”

The cat made another more sustained noise at his door, and now with black tail and brindle hindquarters in the house, he moved backwards and pulled something through the plastic oval. What he had dragged in looked whitish and about six inches long.

“Caught another bird,” said Michael, impatient for Eddie to make his move so he could make a brilliant move before somebody grabbed it.

“Looks like another goose foot,” said Gladys, glancing. “Ugh.”

The Colonel at last moved, adding a P to SUM. Michael moved, raising a gasp of admiration from Phyllis for his INI stuck onto GEM, the N of which gave him DAWN.

Portland Bill flipped his trophy into the air, and it fell on the carpet with a thud.

“Really
dead
pigeon that,” remarked the Colonel who was nearest the cat, but whose eyesight was not the best. “Turnip,” he said for Phyllis's benefit. “Swede. Or an oddly shaped carrot,” he added, peering, then chuckled. “I've seen carrots take the most fantastic shapes. Saw one once . . .”

“This is white,” said Phyllis, and got up to investigate, since Gladys had to play before her. Phyllis, in slacks and sweater, bent over with hands on her knees. “Good
Chr
—Oh! Uncle Eddie!” She stood up and clapped her hand over her mouth as if she had said something dreadful.

Michael Herbert had half risen from his chair. “What's the matter?”

“They're human
fingers
!” Phyllis said. “Look!”

They all looked, coming slowly, unbelievingly, from the card table. The cat looked, proudly, up at the faces of the four humans gazing down. Gladys drew in her breath.

The two fingers were dead white and puffy, there was not a sign of blood even at the base of the fingers, which included a couple of inches of what had been the hand. What made the object undeniably the third and fourth fingers of a human hand were the two nails, yellowish and short and looking small because of the swollen flesh.

“What should we do, Michael?” Gladys was practical, but liked to let her husband make decisions.

“That's been dead for two weeks at least,” murmured the Colonel, who had had some war experiences.

“Could it have come from a hospital near here?” asked Phyllis.

“Hospital amputating like that?” replied her uncle with a chuckle.

“The nearest hospital is twenty miles from here,” said Gladys.

“Mustn't let Edna see it.” Michael glanced at his watch. “Of course I think we—”

“Maybe call the police?” asked Gladys.

“I was thinking of that. I—” Michael's hesitation was interrupted by Edna—their housekeeper-cook—bumping just then against a door in a remote corner of the big living room. The tea tray had arrived. The others discreetly moved toward the low table in front of the fireplace, while Michael Herbert stood with an air of casualness. The fingers were just behind his shoes. Michael pulled an unlit pipe from his jacket pocket, and fiddled with it, blowing into its stem. His hands shook a little. He shooed Portland Bill away with one foot.

Edna finally dispensed napkins and plates, and said, “Have a nice tea!” She was a local woman in her mid-fifties, a reliable soul, but with most of her mind on her own children and grandchildren—thank goodness under these circumstances, Michael thought. Edna arrived at half past seven in the morning on her bicycle and departed when she pleased, as long as there was something in the house for supper. The Herberts were not fussy.

Gladys was looking anxiously toward Michael. “Get a-
way
, Bill!”

“Got to do something with this meanwhile,” Michael murmured. With determination he went to the basket of newspapers beside the fireplace, shook out a page of the
Times
, and returned to the fingers which Portland Bill was about to pick up. Michael beat the cat by grabbing the fingers through the newspaper. The others had not sat down. Michael made a gesture for them to do so, and closed the newspaper around the fingers, rolling and folding. “The thing to do, I should think,” said Michael, “
is
to notify the police, because there might have been—foul play somewhere.”

“Or might it have fallen,” the Colonel began, shaking out his napkin, “out of an ambulance or some disposal unit—you know? Might've been an accident somewhere.”

“Or should we just let well enough alone—and get rid of it,” said Gladys. “I need some tea.” She had poured, and proceeded to sip her cup.

No one had an answer to her suggestion. It was as if the three others were stunned, or hypnotized by one another's presence, vaguely expecting a response from another which did not come.

“Rid of it where? In the garbage?” asked Phyllis. “
Bury
it,” she added, as if answering her own question.

“I don't think that would be right,” said Michael.

“Michael, do have some tea,” said his wife.

“Got to put this somewhere—overnight.” Michael still held the little bundle. “Unless we ring the police now. It's already five and it's Sunday.”

“In England do the police care whether it's Sunday or not?” asked Phyllis.

Michael started for the armoire near the front door, with an idea of putting the thing on top beside a couple of hat boxes, but he was followed by the cat, and Michael knew that the cat with enough inspiration could leap to the top.

“I've got just the thing, I think,” said the Colonel, pleased by his own idea, but with an air of calm in case Edna made a second appearance. “Bought some house slippers just yesterday in the High Street and I've still got the box. I'll go and fetch it, if I may.” He went off toward the stairs, then turned and said softly, “We'll tie a string around it. Keep it away from the cat.” The Colonel climbed the stairs.

“Keep it in whose room?” asked Phyllis with a nervous giggle.

The Herberts did not answer. Michael, still on his feet, held the object in his right hand. Portland Bill sat with white forepaws neatly together, regarding Michael, waiting to see what Michael would do with it.

Colonel Phelps came down with his white cardboard shoe box. The little bundle went in easily, and Michael let the Colonel hold the box while he went to rinse his hands in the lavatory near the front door. When Michael returned, Portland Bill still hovered, and gave out a hopeful “Meow?”

“Let's put it in the sideboard cupboard for the moment,” said Michael, and took the box from Eddie's hands. He felt that the box at least was comparatively clean, and he put it beside a stack of large and seldom-used dinner plates, then closed the cabinet door which had a key in it.

Phyllis bit into a Bath Oliver and said, “I noticed a crease in one finger. If there's a ring there, it might give us a clue.”

Michael exchanged a glance with Eddie, who nodded slightly. They had all noticed the crease. Tacitly the men agreed to take care of this later.

“More tea, dear,” said Gladys. She refilled Phyllis's cup.

“M'wow,” said the cat in a disappointed tone. He was now seated facing the sideboard, looking over one shoulder.

Michael changed the subject: the progress of the Colonel's redecorating. The painting of the first-floor bedrooms was the main reason the Colonel and his niece were visiting the Herberts just now. But this was of no interest compared to Phyllis's question to Michael:

“Shouldn't you ask if anyone's missing in the neighborhood? Those fingers might be part of a
murder
.”

Gladys shook her head slightly and said nothing. Why did Americans always think in such violent terms? However, what could have severed a hand in such a manner? An explosion? An ax?

A lively scratching sound got Michael to his feet.

“Bill, do
stop
that!” Michael advanced on the cat and shooed him away. Bill had been trying to open the cabinet door.

Tea was over more quickly than usual. Michael stood by the sideboard while Edna cleared away.

“When're you going to look at the ring, Uncle Eddie?” Phyllis asked. She wore round-rimmed glasses and was rather myopic.

“I don't think Michael and I have quite decided what we should do, my dear,” said her uncle.

“Let's go into the library, Phyllis,” said Gladys. “You said you wanted to look at some photographs.”

Phyllis had said that. There were photographs of Phyllis's mother and of the house where her mother had been born, in which Uncle Eddie now lived. Eddie was older than her mother by fifteen years. Now Phyllis wished she hadn't asked to see the photographs, because the men were going to do something with the
fingers
, and Phyllis would have liked to watch. After all, she was dissecting frogs and dogfish in zoology lab. But her mother had warned her before she left New York to mind her manners and not be “crude and insensitive,” her mother's usual adjectives about Americans. Phyllis dutifully sat looking at photographs fifteen and twenty years old, at least.

“Let's take it out to the garage,” Michael said to Eddie. “I've got a workbench there, you know.”

The two men walked along a graveled path to the two-car garage at the back of which Michael had a workshop with saws and hammers, chisels and electric drills, plus a supply of wood and planks in case the house needed any repairs or he felt in the mood to make something. Michael was a freelance journalist and book critic, but he enjoyed manual labor. Here Michael felt better with the awful box, somehow. He could set it on his sturdy workbench as if he were a surgeon laying out a body, or a corpse.

“What the hell do you make of this?” asked Michael as he flipped the fingers out by holding one side of the newspaper. The fingers flopped onto the well-used wooden surface, this time palm side upward. The white flesh was jagged where it had been cut, and in the strong beam of the spotlight which shone from over the bench, they could see two bits of metacarpals, also jagged, projecting from the flesh. Michael turned the fingers over with the tip of a screwdriver. He twisted the screwdriver tip, and parted the flesh enough to see the glint of gold.

“Gold ring,” said Eddie. “But he was a workman of some kind, don't you think? Look at those nails. Short and thick. Still some soil under them—dirty, anyway.”

“I was thinking—if we report it to the police, shouldn't we leave it the way it is? Not try to look at the ring?”

“Are you going to report it to the police?” asked Eddie with a smile as he lit a cigar. “What'll you be in for then?”

“In for? I'll say the cat dragged it in. Why should I be in for anything? I'm curious about the ring. Might give us a clue.”

Colonel Phelps glanced at the garage door, which Michael had closed but not locked. He too was curious about the ring. Eddie was thinking, if it had been a gentleman's hand, they might have turned it in to the police by now. “Many farmworkers around here still?” mused the Colonel. “I suppose so.”

Michael shrugged, nervous. “What do you say about the ring?”

“Let's have a look.” The Colonel puffed serenely, and looked at Michael's racks of tools.

“I know what we need.” Michael reached for a Stanley knife which he ordinarily used for cutting cardboard, pushed the blade out with his thumb, and placed his fingers on the pudgy remainder of the palm. He made a cut above where the ring was, then below.

Eddie Phelps bent to watch. “No blood at all. Drained out. Just like the war days.”

Nothing but a goose foot, Michael was telling himself in order not to faint. Michael repeated his cuts on the top surface of the finger. He felt like asking Eddie if he wanted to finish the job, but Michael thought that might be cowardly.

“Dear me,” Eddie murmured unhelpfully.

Michael had to cut off some strips of flesh, then take a firm grip with both hands to get the wedding ring off. It most certainly was a wedding ring of plain gold, not very thick or broad, but suitable for a man to wear. Michael rinsed it at the cold water tap of the sink on his left. When he held it near the spotlight, initials were legible:
W.R.—M.T.

Eddie peered. “Now
that's
a clue!”

Michael heard the cat scratching at the garage door, then a meow. Next Michael put the three pieces of flesh he had cut off into an old rag, wadded it up, and told Eddie he would be back in a minute. He opened the garage door, discouraged Bill with a “
Whisht!
” and stuck the rag into a dustbin which had a fastening that a cat could not open. Michael had thought he had a plan to propose to Eddie, but when he returned—Eddie was again examining the ring—Michael was too shaken to speak. He had meant to say something about making “discreet inquiries.” Instead he said in a voice gone hollow:

“Let's call it a day—unless we think of something brilliant tonight. Let's leave the box here. The cat can't get in.”

Michael didn't want the box even on his workbench. He put the ring in with the fingers, and set the box on top of some plastic jerricans which stood against a wall. His workshop was even ratproof, so far. Nothing was going to come in to chew at the box.

BOOK: The Black House
9.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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