Authors: Patrick Quentin
Copyright © 1950 by Patrick Quentin
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
THE New York plane made a ten-minute stop-over in Miami. Mark Liddon, big, blond, burnt almost black by the tropical sun, hurried to the Western Union desk.
In Venezuela it had seemed a wonderful idea to surprise Ellie. He had wanted to pretend that the eight-week separation hadn’t existed and that here he was just casually coming home from the office as usual.
‘Hey, baby. Had a good day?’
But during the long hours of the plane trip from Caracas his common sense had reasserted itself. His wife wasn’t expecting him for two weeks, and Ellie certainly wasn’t the little woman who sits at home by the fireside warming her husband’s slippers. Why wouldn’t she be out — at the Lorton Club, for example? Or, worse still, what if she had the apartment jammed with her bright, chattering friends who thought of a party as a kind of endurance marathon? No; he was going to have Ellie alone tonight. There was to be no nonsense about this homecoming.
A bored blonde sat behind the counter beating out messages on a machine. Mark took a blank form, scribbled the address and wrote:
SEE YOU AT ONE TONIGHT. IT’LL BE A MERRY CHRISTMAS AFTER ALL. LOVE MARK.
As he handed the form to the blonde, a hollow voice over the public address system boomed: ‘All passengers for Flight 312 to New York please board the plane at Gateway Number Twelve.’
As the plane strained off the ground into the air, Mark felt he had the world under his thumb. It had been hell to leave Ellie after only three agonizingly short weeks of marriage. But now his decision had triumphantly justified itself. The oil survey in Venezuela had been a huge success. It had been the one thing he had needed to establish him as a free-lance mining engineer. The long years of arduous night study, makeshift jobs, catchpenny boxing bouts and bitter self-denial had paid off at last.
Now the only wrong thing about his marriage had been righted. No one any more could call him that obscure ex-boxer who had abducted Ellie Ross into matrimony. Nor could Ellie’s parents look down their long, in-bred noses and mutter: Fortune-hunter. He was up in the chips where he had always known he would eventually find himself.
Of course, Ellie laughed at the financial inequalities of their marriage.
‘Darling, we’re mad for each other. Who cares where the dreary little dollar bills come from?’
But Ellie didn’t understand. She was too young and far too wild to know what worked and what didn’t work. That two-month exile in Venezuela was going to be the making of Mr and Mrs Mark Liddon.
The plane was lulling Mark into a pleasant state of drowsiness. Luxuriously, he let his mind roam back to his first meeting with Ellie. It was a game which he had learned to play in the oil-swamps of Venezuela, a game which had brightened his sweltering days and gloomy, mosquito-infested nights. Now, through much use, the memory was as vivid as a moving picture on a screen.
It always began in the same way, with Arlene and himself sitting at the bar of the dancing-gambling Lorton Club. Mark had a hard-working man’s contempt for smart night life and had only consented to go that evening because it was Arlene’s birthday; one of her clients at Maurice’s, where she worked as a hair-stylist, had given her a visitor’s pass.
At the start of the memory movie he was feeling disgruntled and bored, when a girl came suddenly out of the double doors which led to the gambling rooms. Two men in tuxedos were with her. One was a large, stuffy-looking young man of the type that marries débutantes in the social pages. The other was Victor, the owner of the club.
But the girl riveted all Mark’s attention. She was wearing a white, preposterously bustled evening gown, and the deeply tanned skin of her arms, back and face glowed below the cream-colored hair which was only a few shades darker than the white dress. She looked like a crazy little school-kid trying to be glamorous before her time. She was beautiful, sure, but it was that eager childishness that hit him so violently.
‘All a wonder and a wild desire.’ Some poet in some high-school English book had said that.
Arlene, glancing up from her drink, said: That’s Eleanor Ross. I do her hair.’
He’d heard of her, of course. Anyone who ever glanced at a column had heard about Ellie Ross, the only daughter of the President of Ross Steel Products. She’d been a sensation ever since she’d cut off her braids three years ago and galloped into the headlines with a run-away near-marriage to a fading ex-cowboy movie star.
As he watched her, fascinated, she and her escort left Victor and strolled towards the bar. Suddenly she saw Arlene and her face lit up like a kid’s face again, a kid seeing something that was fun.
‘Why, Arlene! Thank God there’s someone amusing here at last. It’s such a lugubrious bunch to-night. Meet, for example, Corey Lathrop.’
As she gestured at her escort, her blue eyes, restless as butterflies, settled on Mark. ‘I don’t know who you are,’ she said but I’m going to dance with you. This is utterly and absolutely essential.’
At this point there was a blur in the memory movie. Then they were on the dance floor. She was light as a pop-over, but she clung close and warm with casual intimacy. That was a quality she had. In five seconds you felt you had known her all your life.
‘I’m furious with Victor.’ The remembered dialogue was almost as real to him now as if her voice was talking in his ear. They won’t let me gamble.’
‘Because I’m high. When I’m high I have the most majestic hunches, but I always lose my shirt. That’s what Victor says. He doesn’t want me to lose — because if I lost I wouldn’t pay and he’d have to kill me.’ She looked up at him solemnly, a child bored with the dull tyrannies of adults. ‘That’s true, you know. He has to kill people who don’t pay their debts. That’s the only way he can keep in business.’
Mark had no technique for this sort of aimless chatter. It belonged, with the girl, in a world he had hardly glimpsed, the frivolous world of Arlene’s clients and the occasional parties to which he had eccentrically been invited in his boxing days. But she smiled again and suddenly he knew that he wanted her more than anything in the world.
‘No one introduced us,’ she said. ‘I’m Ellie. Ellie Ross.’
‘I’ve heard of you.’
‘Oh dear; if you’ve heard of me, you’re forewarned. Who are you?’
‘My parents know some dreary Liddons in Newport. In the chemical line.’
‘I’m Liddon by court-order — born Liczdonski. My father was in the shoe-repairing line.’
She laughed. ‘How fascinating.’
‘Of course it is. It’s a dark family secret, but the Ross fortune is founded on shoe-repairers. My nasty old grandfather churned out cobbler’s needles in a sweat shop. They were lousy too. Thousands of shoe-makers complained. Bitterly.’
‘Thousands ? ‘
‘Hundreds of thousands.’
The air hostess, coming down the aisle, jogged his elbow and the memory screen went blank. She smiled her professional smile at him. He smiled back, not seeing her, and, closing his eyes, let the dialogue roll on. Where had he got to?
‘Hundreds of thousands. You’re the blondest man I ever saw. What is that? Swedish?’
‘I am a little high. You’re swaying gently from side to side like a mast. What do you do, mast? Repair shoes too ?’
‘I’m an engineer.’
‘Everyone’s an engineer or something respectable.’
‘I’m not. I suddenly, terribly want to ask you an unrespectable question.’
‘Are you Arlene’s boy-friend?’
‘Not particularly. We grew up together in Providence. I’ve known her since way back when.’ Excitement shivered up his spine. ‘Is Lathrop your boy-friend?’
‘Corey? Oh, he’s supposed to be. He’s a junior vice-something or other in Father’s company. He’s got twelve promising careers ahead of him. Twelve — count them. And he’s terribly, terribly virtuous too. Crammed with good works. He’s Father’s new secret weapon to blast me out of my life of sin.’
‘How sinful is it?’
‘Just as sinful as you think it is — and then some. Far too sinful for any of Corey’s redemption.’ Her fingers pressed against his shoulder. ‘Here he comes to cut in. Knock him down, engineer; shoot him; tell him I’ve gone away for the week-end.’
Sleep had almost overtaken Mark now. The movie was becoming a montage, jamming together the crazily wonderful week when he had hardly left Ellie night or day, the inevitable clash with Corey Lathrop, the spontaneous marriage in Maryland, the subsequent unsatisfactory scene with Mr and Mrs Ross — all the improbable elements which should have spelt disaster and had, in fact, brought him an even more improbable happiness.
Shoot him; tell him I’ve gone away for the week-end.
What was the next line? The question became confused in his mind and then faded. He dreamed he was already with Ellie, and smiled in his sleep.
When he awoke, they were landing at La Guardia field. He felt refreshed and keyed up to the highest pitch of exhilaration. He sailed through Customs, the fuss of arrival and the hearse-like trip in the airline limousine to 42nd Street. It was snowing. As his taxi swung into Park Avenue snowflakes twirled secretly downward past darkened apartment houses. Along the center of the almost deserted street, Christmas trees, festooned with lights, dwindled away in sparkling perspective.
‘Corner of Seventy-fifth ,was it?’ asked the driver.
The taxi made a U-turn and stopped in front of a long canvas portico. Mark got out, pulling his suitcase after him. The doorman was off duty at this hour. He paid the taxi and it disappeared into the weird silent world of snow. He walked into the apartment house vestibule. The old night elevator man was snoozing in a Louis Quinze chair beside a mirrored wall. He jumped up, blinking, and surprisingly recognized Mark, although Mark himself still felt an interloper in the luxurious territory which was so essentially Ellie’s.
‘Why, Mr Liddon. Welcome home. Back for Christmas, eh?’
The two of them moved to an elevator. The old man, wheezing sleepily, took him to the top floor.
‘Want me to carry your suitcase, Mr Liddon?’
‘That’s okay. I’ll take it myself.’
‘Okay, Mr. Liddon. Merry Christmas, Mr Liddon.’
Mark crossed the little foyer to the front door of his apartment. His heart beating quickly, he took out his keys. The door opened into darkness.
He knew at once that Ellie wasn’t there. Light was an obsession with her. Wherever she was all the lights blazed. His exhilaration collapsed. He put down his suitcase and snapped the light switch. As the long foyer sprang into illumination, he saw a yellow Western Union envelope lying on the thick carpet at his feet. He picked it up and read it.
SEE YOU AT ONE TONIGHT. IT’LL BE A MERRY CHRISTMAS AFTER ALL. LOVE MARK.
He felt a sick sensation of disappointment. Ellie had gone out before the telegram arrived. He had left it too late. He cursed his infantile decision to surprise her.
He moved into the living-room, flipping the switch, which brought all the lamps jumping alive. The huge, fantastically decorated room, with its navy-blue walls, its swirling drapes, its abstract paintings, was not very welcoming. There had not yet been enough time in his marriage for him to identify this extravagance with home. But Ellie would be back eventually. He would take a shower, change, mix himself a drink at the bar and wait for her. It wasn’t the way he had imagined his homecoming, but it would have to do.
He went into the dark bedroom. As he crossed the threshold the scent of Ellie’s perfume — light and spring-like — trailed out to him. Its impact on him was so violent that he felt she must be there. But he turned on the lights, and the room where their four-poster bed stood, sybaritic and canopied on its dais, was empty and in a state of high disorder. A long grey evening gown was tossed over a pink chaise-longue; golden slippers had been strewn on the floor by the vanity. The bed itself was not made and a brassiere dangled from the tumbled pink sheets.
Poverty and the severe discipline of foreign-born parents had bred in Mark a fastidious neatness, but he had grown accustomed to the chaos in which Ellie seemed to live by choice. Almost for the first time since his marriage he found himself wondering what Ellie and his patient, uncomplicated Czech mother would have thought of each other. The combination was so unlikely that he grinned.
‘Mom would probably have taken a baseball bat to her,’ he thought. ‘Maybe it would be a good idea at that.’
Enjoying the confusion as if it were another of the many emancipations which had come with Ellie, he pulled off his own clothes and tossed them around with equal abandon. Stripped, he walked into the black-tiled bathroom and took a shower.