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Authors: Anita Blackmon

There is No Return

BOOK: There is No Return
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1

It was not, as my foster son Stephen Lansing likes to intimate, that I had developed a taste for wild adventure which drew me into that macabre and sinister tangle at Mount Lebeau. Nor is it true, as Ella Trotter insists, that I rushed in where even angels feared to tread because I could not bear for her to steal my thunder. As I pointed out, to no avail, when the body of the third disembowelled cat was discovered in my bed, had I foreseen the train of horrible events which settled over that isolated mountain inn like a miasma of death upon the afternoon of my arrival, I should have left Ella to lay her own ghosts.

As a matter of fact, but for Ella Trotter’s fantastic letter I should never have gone near the place at all. Ella has been my close friend for years, although we long ago agreed to disagree on practically everything. We are both, to put it mildly, what is commonly alluded to as strong-minded women. That is why the moment I had Ella’s letter I knew something was up, in spite of the pains which she took to put me off the scent.

Ella likes to be in the centre of any excitement and she has never forgiven me for having, as she said, deliberately shoved her off the stage at every opportunity during that sequence of tragedies which the police referred to as the Hotel Richelieu Murders. Heaven knows why she should have envied me my role in the affair, seeing that I was all but throttled in my bed upon one occasion and next door to murdered in a couple of other unseemly places. Nevertheless Ella did resent what she described as the persistent manner in which I had hogged the spotlight at that time.

She was distinctly cool to me for the next three months and for the first time in years she did not suggest that we take our summer trip together. Instead she barged off without a word, to me at least.

July and August are torrid months in our little Southern city and well-nigh unbearable cooped up in the small residential hotel where I live. Moreover, with my adopted children, Stephen and Kathleen, indulging in a belated honeymoon to the West Indies, I was left stranded and decidedly lonely, as Ella knew perfectly well.

Nevertheless, although we had been in the habit of picking a convenient resort every summer, not, I admit, without considerable wrangling, and escaping to it till cooler weather, upon the last day of June Ella put her nose in the air and departed. Under the circumstances I did not expect to hear from her, except the customary “Wish you were here” postcard which, as Ella is aware, always infuriates me. However, after exactly two weeks I had the letter which was responsible for everything.

There was nothing extraordinary about the body of the letter, and that alone excited my suspicions. It is unlike Ella Trotter to be noncommittal, but she had taken a great deal of trouble to give me a completely colourless account of herself and Mount Lebeau Inn, where she was staying. There were no crossed out words, such as usually clutter up her communications, Ella being the kind to blurt out whatever pops into her head and think it over afterward. The letter was painstakingly neat, if not prim, and more legible than anything which I had ever seen her write. I was positive she had recopied it, perhaps several times, and that in itself was enough to put me on my guard. Why should Ella Trotter, of all people, have gone to so much pains to give me an expurgated account of her activities, I asked myself with, I am afraid, a snort.

I did not at once notice the postscript. It was on the reverse side of the inner page. Ella had made an effort to treat it as an afterthought, but as soon as I read it I knew it was the motive for the entire letter. I have not played bridge with Ella for years for nothing, and she should have realized that I am not the sort of person who can be utilized to pull other people’s chestnuts out of the fire without my knowledge. If she had surrounded the postscript with huge exclamation points in red ink I could not have been more certain that Ella was up to something and determined to keep me out of it.

“By the way, Adelaide,” she wrote, “I wish you would send me that book on spiritualism or séances or swamis or whatever it is that you have on your book shelf. I want to prove to a woman that it is all tommyrot, just as you always said, about the dead coming back to consort with the living, and the like of that.”

Now Ella will argue with the Angel Gabriel when her turn comes, so there was nothing unusual in her wishing to prove somebody wrong. Nor was there anything particularly startling about the book for which she asked. I had bought it some years before immediately after the war, I think - when a wave of pseudo-spiritualism swept the country. I do not believe in tampering with matters which do not concern this world, granting it is possible to do so, which I had never granted until I stubbed my toe and literally nearly broke my neck over those weird and incredible manifestations at Mount Lebeau Inn.

The book in question was an obscure but clever exposé of the tricks and wiles of the gentry who prey on a gullible public with fake messages from the dead. It went into detail about the manner in which such hoaxes are staged, including everything from automatic writing to spirit voices and ectoplasms. I was surprised that Ella even recalled the book. I had been quite worked up over the subject at one time, but Ella had pooh-poohed the whole business, her argument being that only a fool would bother to expose what only a fool would be taken in by. Nevertheless she wanted the book enough to forget her pique and write for it and she spoiled her elaborate pretence of its being of no special importance by adding a sentence to the postscript.

“Send it by air mail, special delivery, Adelaide,” she wrote and here for the first time she crossed out a line. In fact she blacked it out with conspicuous thoroughness, but I was able after some time to make out the words “before it is too late.”

Like many well-to-do women, Ella Trotter has a phobia about being unduly careless with money. Nevertheless, although the time saved could not be great, she had enclosed more than enough postage to send the book by air mail and special delivery, and where she had blacked out the last line there was a large blot, as if her hand had trembled. I cannot explain how I knew that Ella was terribly excited when she wrote that postscript, but I did know it, just as I knew she would rather have died than have me suspect it.

I anticipated her reaction when I wired her that I was bringing the book by hand, arriving late the following day. I was prepared for her telegram in reply which insisted that there was no need for my doing any such thing. I simply paid no attention to the telegram.

As Stephen says — and I am in no position to deny it — I had no one except myself to blame for walking into that dreadful business, myself and my hunch that Ella was trying to put something over on me.

My only defence is that my hunch did not go far enough. But I have never pretended to be clairvoyant and I still maintain that there was no way on earth in which I could have foreseen that malignant spirit which had apparently returned from the grave to take up its abode in another’s body; nor do I yet understand how I could have been expected to know anything about Dora Canby’s horror of can openers or the chipped place in Judy Oliver’s ear.

Lebeau Inn is in the extreme northwest and most inaccessible corner of our state, located on Mount Lebeau, the highest spot between the Cumberlands and the Rockies, or so the prospectus reads. About twenty years ago the place had considerable reputation as a summer resort. I myself went there once with my father, who was an invalid. The cool mountain air was highly recommended for elderly people and teething babies. The inn was new then, a huge rambling place with enormous porches and large, high-ceilinged rooms. As I remember, the place was filled that year, although it never made any pretence at being fashionable.

From what I had heard, it had gone steadily to seed of recent years. For one thing it was inconvenient to get to. For another a newer and more modern hotel had been put up, closer to the railroad and blessed with the same salubrious air. I had been surprised when I heard that Ella had gone to Lebeau for July and August.

Then I learned from somebody or other that the bank in which she is a major stockholder had been forced to take over the place and was making a mordant effort to turn the old white elephant into something resembling a paying proposition.

It was exactly like Ella to further her pocketbook, even at the cost of some inconvenience to herself. I did not doubt that she had demanded and received a special rate because of her bank stock, any more than I doubted that she was doing everything in her power to drum up business for the inn. But I did not delude myself into believing that she would receive me with any enthusiasm. To tell the truth, the nearer I came to my destination the more I regretted the impulse which had taken me there.

It was an unseasonably hot day, one of those days which people call weather breeders. It did not matter so much until I was compelled to leave the air-cooled parlour car at Egger’s Junction in favour of a small, dirty, local train which stopped at every wide place in the road as it worked its tortuous way up into the mountains. I have said that Mount Lebeau is in the most inaccessible corner of the state. It not only is not on the main line of the railroad; it is off the principal paved highways.

“And in this machine age one might as well be dead,” I remember thinking crossly, perspiring and covered with cinders, as I stared morosely out the window at the rutted dirt road beside the tracks.

Carrolton, where one leaves the train for Lebeau, is a sleepy country town located at the foot of the mountain and separated from it by a short tricky river. The town, so far as I could judge, had changed for the worse in the twenty years since I last saw it. It did not improve my temper to observe the vehicle by which I was to make the last lap of my journey. It was a disreputable-looking bus with a homemade body composed of four long narrow seats mounted upon what had once been the chassis of a Ford sedan. The driver was a snub-nosed, gangling mountaineer in blue jeans, distinguished by a huge cud of chewing tobacco in one leathery cheek.

“Is one expected to risk one’s bones in this outlandish contraption in order to reach Lebeau Inn?” I asked him indignantly.

He shifted the cud to the other cheek before he condescended to answer. “Well, lady,” he drawled, “it’d be quite a climb for your build.”

Somebody chuckled, and for the first time I realized that I was not the only passenger bound for Mount Lebeau. Standing just behind me was a rangy, broad-shouldered young man with extraordinarily blue eyes. It was the impudence in Chet Keith’s eyes which prejudiced me against him in the beginning, that and the too natty cut of his light grey suit. He was wearing a lavender tie which exactly matched his equally expensive shirt, and his dark hair looked as if it had been applied to his jaunty head with a brush. The glance I gave him should have withered him, only, as I was to learn, he was not the withering kind.

“My build,” I remarked tartly, ostensibly addressing the driver but making certain that my voice carried, “may be a source of cheap levity to others, but it is my own concern, or rather it has ceased to be any concern to me for a number of years.”

The young man with the lacquered hair grinned. “Don’t look daggers at me,” he said. “I can’t help it if we’re headed for the jumping-off place in the lineal descendant of the famous one-hoss shay.”

I made no reply. It is not my habit to scrape acquaintance with strangers, especially slangy young upstarts who act as well pleased with themselves as this one did. My manner was intended to put him in his place once for all as I turned away with no inconsiderable hauteur to enter the bus. Unfortunately the desired effect was marred by the fact that, the space between the seats being extremely narrow, I had to insinuate myself inside by degrees and, becoming slightly flustered in the process, succeeded in hanging the placket of my skirt upon the handle of the ramshackle door. As a result I found myself in the embarrassing position of being able to go neither forward nor backward without an ominous ripping sound.

“Hold everything!” exclaimed the young man behind me.

As it happened there was nothing else I could do until he had unhoisted me by the simple process of prodding me from the rear while he lifted up on the door. To do him justice he accomplished this feat with the minimum of effort, even with a certain éclat, for which I might have been grateful if he had not spoiled it by another chuckle in which the bus driver joined. I gave him a look that wiped the grin off his face in a hurry.

“Have we taken root here?” I demanded.

The bus promptly started up with a jerk that knocked my hat down over one eye. By the time I had restored it to its position, along with the row of false curls which it is my custom to wear across my forehead, we were leaving the town behind. The driver was carrying on a desultory conversation with the other passenger, but I was in no humour for talk. It was still extremely sultry and I have never seen a more lurid sunset. Toward the west an ominous bank of clouds was sluggishly gathering. I remember thinking to myself that I should hate to be caught on that lonely road in a storm.

BOOK: There is No Return
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