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A Touch of Death
By Charles Williams
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1982 Alison Williams
All rights reserved.
It was a fourplex out near the beach. I stopped the car, looked at the ad again, and went up the walk. Only two of the mailboxes had names on them, and neither was the one I wanted.
This was the right address, though, so it had to be one of the others. I picked one at random and pressed the buzzer. Nothing happened. I tried again, and could hear it faintly somewhere on the second floor.
I waited a minute or two and tried the other. No one answered. I lit a cigarette and turned to look along the street. It was very quiet in the hot afternoon sun. A few cars went past on the sea wall, and far out in the Gulf a shrimp boat crawled like a fly across a mirror.
I swore under my breath. It had looked like a good lead, and I hated to give up. Maybe one of the other tenants would know where he was. I tried the buzzer marked Sorenson first, and when it came up nothing I leaned on the one that said James.
The whole place was as silent as the grave.
I shrugged and went back down the walk. I was about to get into the car when I saw the patio wall in the rear of the place. A walk ran past the side of the building to a high wooden gate, which was closed. There might be somebody back there. I stepped across the front lawn and went back to the gate and opened it.
"Oh. Excuse me," I said.
The girl was a brunette and she was sunbathing in the bottom part of a two-fragment bathing suit. She was lying face down on a long beach towel with a bottle of suntan lotion beside her and a book open in front of her on the grass. She turned her head casually and looked at me through dark glasses.
"Were you looking for someone?" she asked.
"Man named Winlock," I said. "He gave this address. Do you happen to know if he's around?"
"I'm new here," she said. "But I think the people in the other upstairs apartment are named Winlock or Winchester, or something like that. I suppose you tried the buzzer?"
"Yes. No dice."
She shrugged a satiny shoulder. "They may have gone out on a boat. I think he fishes."
"Oh," I said. "Well. Thanks a lot."
I started to turn away, and noticed she was staring at my face. Or at least I felt she was. The glasses were so dark I couldn't see what her eyes were doing.
"You could leave a note under the door," she said. "I think it's the third one from the left."
"Thanks," I said. "But I'm probably too late. I mean, since he's not home. The ad was in yesterday's paper."
"He wanted to buy a late-model car."
She lay with her face turned toward me, her cheek down against the towel, very relaxed but still watching me. The brassiere part of the bathing suit was under her, but she had untied the strap across the back. Tall, I thought, if she stood up. Not that she was likely to, with that thing untied.
"It sounds like a funny way to buy a car," she said.
"Lots of people do it," I said. "Saves a dealer's commission."
"I see. And you've got one for sale?"
"You're not a dealer?"
"No," I said. I wondered what she was driving at. The cigarette in my hand was burning short. I turned and tossed it through the gate onto the walk.
When I looked back she was working the strap of the halter gizmo up between her arm and side. She clamped it there and started to turn on her side, facing me, until it became obvious to both of us that the thing wasn't big enough to allow any leeway if she didn't have it straight. It was missing the mark. And there was quite a bit of it to miss.
"Would you mind?" she asked calmly. "Just for a moment."
"Oh," I said. "Sure." I turned and stared out the gate, but I could still see her in my mind. I'd called her a girl, but she was probably near thirty.
In a moment she said, "All right," and I turned around. She was sitting up on the towel with the long legs doubled under her. The halter was tied.
"What kind of car is it?" she asked.
"Fifty-three Pontiac. About fourteen thousand miles on it." I wondered again what was on her mind.
"How much do you want for it?"
"Twenty-five hundred," I said. "Why? You know somebody in the market for one?"
"Wel-l-l," she said slowly, "I might be. I've been thinking of buying a car."
"You could go farther and do worse," I said. "It's a two-tone job, white sidewalk, radio, seat covers—"
She was studying my face again with that curious intensity. "Is it worth twenty-five hundred dollars, really?"
"Every nickel of it," I said, ready to go into a sales pitch. Maybe we could make a deal. Then I got the impression that she wasn't even listening to what I said.
She took off the glasses and stared thoughtfully at me. Her eyes were large and self-possessed, and jet black, like her hair. The hair was long, drawn into a roll at the back of her neck. She looked Spanish, except that even with the faint tan her skin was very fair.
"There's something about your face," she said. "I keep thinking I should know who you are."
So that was it. It still happens once in a while. "Not unless you've got a long memory," I said.
She shook her head. "Not too long. Four years? Five?"
"Make it six."
"Yes. That's about it. I was quite a football fan in those days. Scarborough, wasn't it? Lee Scarborough? All-Conference left half."
"You should be a cop," I said.
"No. You were quite famous."
"They get new ones every year." I wished we could get back to the car trade. You can't eat six-year-old football scores.
"Why didn't you join the pros?" She took a puff on the cigarette she was smoking and tossed it into a flower bed without taking her eyes from my face.
"I did," I said. "But it didn't jell."
"Bum knee." I squatted on my heels. "How about the car? You really want to buy one?"
"I think so. But why do you want to sell it?"
"I need the money."
"Oh," she said.
"It's out front, if you'd like to drive it."
"All right," she said. "But I'd have to change. Would you mind?"
"Not at all. I'll wait in the car."
"Oh, come on up. It's cooler inside."
"O.K.," I said. We stood up. She was tall, all right. I picked up the suntan lotion and the book and towel.
"I'm Diana James," she said.
She saw me glance down at her left hand, and smiled. "You'll only have to make one sales talk. I'm not married."
"I'd have given you odds the other way."
"I was, once. But, as you say, it didn't jell."
We went up the outside stairs at the rear of the building and in through the kitchen. She pulled a bottle of bourbon out of a cupboard and set it on the drain.
"Mix yourself a drink, and go into the living room. Soda and ice cubes in the refrigerator."
"I hate to drink alone this early in the day," I said. "It scares me."
She smiled. "All right. If you insist."
I mixed two and handed her one. We went on through to the living room, looking out over the Gulf. She took a sip of her drink and put it on the coffee table.
"Just make yourself at home," she said. "I think this month's True is in the rack there. I won't be long."
I watched her walk back across the dining room to the short hall that led to the bedroom and bath. It seemed to take her a long time.
The car, I thought. Remember? Don't louse it up.
I sat down and glanced around the room. It had the anonymous look of any furnished apartment, but it wasn't cheap. Hundred or a hundred and fifty a week during the season, I thought. It was odd she didn't already have a car, and that, not having one, she wanted to buy a secondhand one.
Her purse was on the table at the end of the couch. I glanced at it, thinking she must be careless as hell or convinced all ex-football players were honest, and then I shrugged and started to take another sip of my drink. I stopped, and my eyes jerked back to the table.
It wasn't the purse. It was the alligator key case lying beside it. The zipper was open and the keys dangled loose on the glass. And one of them was that square-shouldered shape you recognize anywhere. It was the ignition key to a General Motors car. Just who was kidding whom?
Well, I thought, she didn't say she didn't have one. Maybe she wanted two, or she was selling the other one. It was her business.
When she came out she had on a short-sleeved white summer dress and gilt sandals without stockings. She was tall and cool and very easy on the eye. Taking another sip of the drink she'd left, she gathered up the purse and keys and we went out to the car. She slid in behind the wheel.
I was deliberately slow in handing her the keys to it, and she did just what I thought she'd do. She opened the alligator case and started to stab at the dash with her own. She caught herself, and glanced quickly at me. I didn't say anything, but I was beginning to wonder. She was trying to cover up the fact that she already had a car. Why?
We cruised to the end of the sea wall and out the beach, not saying much at first. The sand was firm, and when we began to get clear of the traffic and the suntan crowd she let it out a little, to around fifty-five.
"It handles nicely," she said.
"You're a good driver." I lit two cigarettes and handed her one.
"What do you do, Mr. Scarborough?" she asked, keeping her eyes on the beach ahead.
"This and that," I said. "I sell things. Or try to. Real estate was the last."
"I don't mean to pry," she said. "But I take it you're not doing anything at the moment?"
"That's right. I'm thinking of going to Arabia with a construction outfit. That's one reason I want to sell the car."
"How soon are you going?"
"Probably sometime next month. Why?"
"Oh, I just wondered." She didn't say anything more for a minute or two; then she asked, "Are you married?"
"No," I said.
"Did you ever think of making a lot of money?"
"But did you ever actually think of doing anything about it?"
"Sure. Someday I'm going to invent the incandescent lamp."
"A little soured, Mr. Scarborough? You surely haven't run out of dreams already? At—twenty-eight?"
"Twenty-nine. Look, with a dream and ten cents you can buy a cup of coffee. The only thing I was ever any good at was moving a football from one place to another place, with ten guys helping me. And you need two knees for it. Does this car look like twenty-five hundred bucks to you?"
"A little tough," she murmured. "That's nice."
"I was just thinking again. And I do like the car."
"Then it's a deal?"
She turned her head then and smiled at me. "Maybe," she said. "We might make a deal." She didn't say any more. We drove on down the beach.
When we came back and parked in front of the apartment house she turned off the ignition and started to drop the keys in her purse. I held out my hand for them, saying nothing. Our eyes met, and she shrugged. We got out.
I looked back along the curb, and ahead. "Which is it?" I asked. "The Olds, or that Caddy up there?"
She smiled. "Neither. It's in the garage back in the alley. You notice things, don't you?"
"What's the gag?"
"What makes you think there is one? Maybe I want two cars."
She looked me right in the face. "No," she said.
I was burning. "What's the idea of wasting my time?"
"Maybe I wasn't."
"That's up to you. I said we might make a deal. Remember?"
She went up the stairs and I followed her, remembering the long, relaxed smoothness of her on that towel. She put her purse on the table and tilted the Venetian blinds a little against the light. It was cooler in the apartment and almost dim after the glare in the street. When she turned back I was standing in front of her. I pulled her to me and kissed her, hard, with my hands digging into her back. But she wasn't wasting my time then. I was.
It was all nothing. She rolled with it like a passed-out drunk and didn't even close her eyes. They just watched me coolly. She broke it up with her elbows without seeming to move them, the way they can, and said, "That wasn't quite the deal I had in mind."
"What's wrong with it?" I said.
"Nothing, I suppose, under the right circumstances. But I asked you up here to talk business. Why don't you sit down? You'd probably be more comfortable."
I was still angry, but there was no percentage in knocking myself out. I sat down. She went into the kitchen and came back in a minute with two drinks.
She sat down in a big chair on the other side of the coffee table and crossed her legs. She put a cigarette in her mouth and waited for me to leap up and hold the lighter for her.
The hell with her.
She shrugged and reached for the lighter on the coffee table.
"What is it?" I asked.
She stared thoughtfully at me. "I've been trying to size you up."
"I'm coming to that. I think I can see you now. A little tough—and, what's more to the point, a little cynical, as anybody would be who was a hero at eighteen and a has-been at twenty-five. You sold things for a while, but you sold less and less as time went by and the customers had a little trouble remembering who Lee Scarborough was. You can stop me any time you don't agree with this."
"Go on," I said.
"There was another thing I kept trying to remember. I've got it now. You got in trouble your last year in college and were almost kicked out and nearly went to jail."
"So I smashed up a car," I said.
"It was somebody else's car. And the woman who was smashed up along with it was somebody else's wife. She was in the hospital a long time."
"She got over it," I said. "Without any scars."
"Yes. I guess you would know that."
"All right. Look. There's a type of babe who chases football players. What're we supposed to do? Scream for help? Or wear chastity girdles?"
She smiled. "You don't have to defend yourself. I'm not accusing you of anything. I'm just trying to see how you fit in the picture. And I think you'll do, on all counts. I want to make you a proposition."
"I hope you have better luck than I did."
"You take women pretty casually, don't you?" she said.
"There's another way?"
"Never mind. But do you want to hear what I asked you up here for?"
"Remember, I asked you how you'd like to make a lot of money? Well, I think I know where there is a lot of it, for anybody with nerve enough to pick it up."
"Wait a minute," I said. "How do you mean, pick it up? Steal it?"
She shook her head. "No. It's already been stolen. Maybe twice."
I put down my cigarette. She was watching me closely.
"Just how much money?" I asked.
"A hundred and twenty thousand dollars," she said.CHAPTER 2
It was very quiet in the room. I whistled softly.
She was still watching me. "How does it sound?"
"I don't know," I said. "I haven't heard anything about it yet."
"All right," she said. "I have to take a chance on somebody if I'm ever going to do anything about it, because I can't do it alone—and I think you're the one. It'll take nerve and intelligence, and it has to be somebody without a criminal record, so the police won't have their eyes on him afterward."
"O.K., O.K.," I said. I knew what she meant. Somebody who wasn't a criminal but who might let a little rub off on him if the price was right. It was a lot of money, but I wanted to hear about it first.
She studied me with speculation in her eyes. "There's a reward for the return of it."
She was sharp. I could see the beauty of that. She was showing me how to do it. You thought about the reward, first; when you got used to that you could let your ideas grow a little. You didn't have to jump in cold. You waded in.
"Whose money is it?" I asked. "And where is it?"
"It's just a long guess," she said. "I didn't say I knew where it was. I said I think I know. You add up a lot of things to get to it."
She took a sip of the drink and looked at me across the top of the glass. "Did you ever hear of a man named J. N. Butler?"
"I don't think so. Who is he?"
"Just a minute."
She got up and went into the bedroom. When she came back she handed me two newspaper clippings. I looked at the first one. It was datelined here in Sanport, June eighth. That was two months ago.
SEARCH WIDENS FOR MISSING BANK OFFICIAL
J. N. Butler, vice-president of the First National Bank of Mount Temple, was the object of a rapidly expanding manhunt today as announcement was made of discovery of a shortage in the bank's funds estimated at $ 120,000.
I looked up at her. She smiled. I read on.
Butler, prominent in social and civic activities of the town for over twenty years, has been missing since Saturday, at which time, according to Mrs. Butler, he announced his intention of going to Louisiana for a weekend fishing trip. He did not return Sunday night, as scheduled, but it was not until the bank opened for business this morning that the shortage was discovered.
Excerpted from A Touch of Death by Charles Williams. Copyright © 1982 Alison Williams. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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