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Call After Midnight
By Mignon G. Eberhart
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1964 Mignon G. Eberhart
All rights reserved.
At midnight Jenny Vleedam was awake and haunted by things she hadn't done and now would never have a chance to do, when the telephone rang. She knew that it was Peter calling her for he called at odd hours, any time; she also knew that this, now, was the time to refuse to answer.
On the other hand it might be the time when Peter said, I love you, I was wrong. She couldn't stop herself, she lifted the receiver and Peter said, "Jenny?"
Her common sense said, hang up. She said, "Yes, Peter."
"Jenny, I need you."
She couldn't believe it. Suppose she hadn't answered! Yet this was not like Peter, who never needed anybody. She reined in her galloping imagination.
Peter said rapidly, "We're at the house on the Sound. Cal will bring you. I've just talked to him."
Something was very different; this was not at all as she had imagined it might be sometime. Caution and a sense of disappointment laid their bony hands upon her.
Peter said, "Did you hear me?"
"I knew I could count on you. Cal said he'd stop by to pick you up in twenty minutes."
"Count on me?"
"Fiora," Peter said, "has had an accident."
Good, Jenny thought, disappointment now sharp; I hope it's nothing trivial. Humane instinct prevailed, however. She said, "I'm sorry. What kind of accident?"
"An accident with a gun."
For a second Jenny didn't quite take it in. Then she sat up with a jerk. "What happened?"
"Cal will call for you."
"Peter! Is she badly hurt? What does the doctor say?"
"We haven't had a doctor."
There was something here that was altogether unreasonable.
"Jenny, all I'm asking you to do is come."
"No, I can't," Jenny said, surprising herself.
There was a little pause. Then Peter said slowly, "I didn't expect that from you. You're my wife—"
"I'm not your wife! I was your wife for two years. I'm not your wife now and haven't been for over a year—"
"I thought you'd be willing to help me. I'm sorry I called you."
"But what can I do! Peter, if you'd only tell me what happened!"
There was a moment's silence. Then Peter said, "I don't exactly know."
"But—why haven't you called a doctor?"
Peter's voice became hard and decisive; it was his business voice, barking out orders. "Because a doctor must report it to the police. If Fiora should die they'll say it's murder and I did it."
The everyday, common-sense world gave itself a quake and slid away from her. She couldn't even speak.
"Will you come, Jenny?" Peter said. It was now his private and personal voice, warm and to Jenny almost irresistible.
She made a vast effort and got words out. "Peter, you've got to get a doctor. You can't let her die. Peter—"
"Cal will bring you," Peter said, acutely sensing her surrender and nailing it as a promise then and there. He hung up.
After a moment she reached out and turned on the bedside lamp but instead of reassuring her with its everyday look the room merely put a factual stamp on Peter's words, as if it said, yes, I heard it, too.
She began to reason with herself. It was clear that Peter had made one of his concrete hard decisions to keep the police out of whatever had happened; yet it was also clear that if Fiora had been seriously hurt he would have called a doctor. So Peter's talk of a possibility of Fiora's death and himself being accused of murder must arise from his habit of looking ahead to every contingency and taking steps to avert disaster—in this instance merely scandal and headlines.
There was still something that was puzzling though and not consistent with Peter's character as she knew it. So, obviously there was something he had not told her. There was in fact much that he had not told her.
Suppose, she thought suddenly, it was not an accident. Suppose Fiora had shot herself. She dismissed that at once. Fiora would never have intentionally shot herself. Not Fiora, who held onto her possessions and the things she took, such as a husband she had taken from another woman, herself, Jenny Vleedam. Although to do Fiora, and indeed Peter, justice, Jenny had made the taking too easy. But Peter had told her too little. She wouldn't go to Peter's—and now, for a whole year, Fiora's—house on the Sound. It was a preposterous request of Peter's.
She was still not going to go as she threw things into a dressing case. She was not going to go when she thought of the drafty corridors of the house and tossed a heavy sweater into the dressing case. But she would go. She had yielded and Peter had acutely known that she would yield.
In any event, John Calendar would be there; Cal had a level head. But so had Peter, she thought with a little chill; perhaps for some reason Peter really did need Cal.
Peter had certainly said, "Jenny, I need you." She was perfectly helpless. She dressed with the swift precision her newly adopted profession had given her. She zipped up a simple but very smart beige wool dress which she had bought for almost nothing because it was a model dress and because her employer liked his models to be smartly dressed; there was always the chance that someone might recognize them.
Peter had been indulgent and interested in her job. He would telephone to ask how she was getting on. Sometimes he would telephone for information: what was the name of the vet who gave Skipper his distemper shots? What had she done with the Christmas card list? These were domestic details which Jenny had to steel herself to answer. Sometimes he would telephone merely to talk: he'd had a terrible cold; there was a threatened rail strike. There were times when she felt sure that Peter must miss her.
He'd sent her flowers on their wedding anniversary. She hadn't cried over them but she hadn't thrown them out, either. He'd sent her small gifts from time to time and she'd kept them. The only thing she had stood firm about was seeing him; he'd asked her to lunch, he'd asked her to meet him for cocktails, once in a while when he was caught by business in New York, he'd asked her to dinner. She'd had the strength of mind to refuse those invitations and it had been now some months since he had offered one. In fact, it struck her, there had been longer intervals lately between his telephone calls. But she still had almost an obsession about the telephone. She would leave a movie, hurry home, sure that the telephone was ringing. It never was; yet again, unexpectedly, at any time Peter would telephone to her, his familiar voice making her heart turn over.
She hadn't seen him though since the stunned days before their divorce and now she was going to see him. The cold fact was that she'd walk through fire for Peter and Peter knew it. Suppose, now, she tried to get Peter back! She had never once tried to do that. Instead she had taken herself instantly out of his house and, she had determined, out of his life. She had herself demanded a divorce, which now seemed incredible. A hurt lasted but pride was a cold companion. She knew when it was too late that it might have been wiser to wait, pretend not to see, and hope that his infatuation for Fiora was only that. But suppose now she fought Fiora as she had never done!
She sat with a brush in her hand, staring at nothing while her mind leaped ahead as if it had long ago formed a course of action. Why not discard scruples and conscience? Why not conquer her own betraying pride? First, though, no matter what might happen later, she must see just what was the situation of which Peter had told her so little. She brushed her dark hair and as she put on lipstick the buzzer sounded from the vestibule below. She ran to the tiny wall telephone and shouted into it. "Yes, Cal, I'll be right down."
She clicked up the little earpiece. She pulled out her very smart, very elegant red tweed coat—which was a little thin for the raw spring night but oh, very smart and gay. She felt as if she were putting on armor for a duel. She snatched her handbag and dressing case and let herself out of her apartment.
It was later than she had thought for the apartment house was silent as the dead and the drone of the automatic elevator sounded loud. When she reached the small foyer, bare except for its rank of mailboxes, John Calendar was standing there, facing the elevator door as it opened.
For reasons of economy the light in the foyer was always dim and Cal looked somehow extra tall, his features sharpened by the shadows. He also looked, curiously, angry. "So this is where you've been hiding," he said.
"I haven't been hiding."
"It's clean and inexpensive. It's perfectly respectable."
He eyed her. "You're very thin."
"I'm all right. I have a job and—"
"What kind of job?"
"I'm a fashion model. I started as a saleswoman. I work for Henri et Cie."
"Don't be a snob! It's a good and hard-working job. Oh, I don't photograph well enough to earn a big salary. But it's a steady salary."
"But Peter told me—" He stopped, thought for a moment and said, "Does Peter know that?"
"Oh, yes. Shall we get started?"
He had politely pulled off his hat although he made no move to shake hands with her. The hat had made a rim upon his stubborn brown hair. He had the slender but strongly featured face of a New Englander, determined nose, reserved mouth, good, high forehead. It was a reticent face although a smile lit it like the warmth of a fire on a winter day. He was not smiling now. "Of course you know you're not going up to the house. I just came to tell you."
"What—oh, but I am, Cal."
"I'll go. You stay here."
"Peter wants us."
His mouth tightened. Then he said with chilling truth, "You're a fool if you go up there. It's preposterous, Peter's asking you to come. I'll go and see what the hell kind of mess it is, but you're going to stay out of it."
She pulled her scarlet coat tighter around her and started for the door. Cal caught her arm and whirled her back to face him. "Jenny," he said honestly, "look at the facts, brutal if you like, but facts. Peter left you for another woman."
"He didn't. I left him."
"Because you found out about Fiora. You're divorced—"
"I asked for the divorce."
"And you've wished a thousand times you hadn't! Now some damn thing has happened. All Peter would say was something about a gun and that if Fiora dies he'll be accused of murder. Now—" His face softened. "Now you mustn't take all that to heart, Jenny. Peter's only looking at all the angles, including the worst one. He's not going to be accused of murder! I doubt if Fiora is really hurt. But asking you, his former wife, to come and help him out of some jam he and his second wife have got into—no."
She said after a moment, "All right, if you won't take me I'll hire a car and drive myself up there."
His grip on her arm tightened. There was a long pause while she met his eyes defiantly. Finally he said, "What can you do to help Peter?"
It was a valid question. "I don't know. Nothing perhaps. But he asked me to come."
"What exactly did Peter tell you?"
"Only that Fiora—something had happened about a gun and—and he said something about murder. Of course he didn't mean that. But he said he needed me."
"So, after a year Peter whistles and you—"
"You're going because he needs you."
"It's not different. You are Peter's friend. I'm his—his friend."
"Peter has also been my employer and still is," Cal said. "And I'm not a silly woman still in love with him after he's kicked me around. I thought you had better sense."
"Aren't you more than a little insulting!"
"I'm not saying half enough." But his voice changed, became warm and almost coaxing. "Now please listen to reason, Jenny. I'll go. I'll help Peter out any way I can. Then I'll let you know exactly what's happened and what the situation is. How's that?"
"It's sensible and very kind of you but I'm going."
"I've got a good notion to carry you up to your apartment and lock you in."
He looked capable of it. She said, "If you do, I'll scream the house down and you'll be had for—for assault and battery, and none of it will help Peter."
"And Peter is all that matters."
She thought for a moment, looking up at him, hoping for convincing words. At last she put her hand on his shoulder. "Cal, I am still in love with him. For the same reasons you have always been his friend. Because he's Peter. Please, Cal, let's hurry."
His face didn't change—it still had its rocky, New England look—but she thought that a look of something like compassion came into his eyes. Without speaking he took up her dressing case and opened the door.
The cold spring night fell upon them. It was a cloudy night so the street lights were haloed in mist. It had been raining and the pavements glistened. His car stood at the entrance, its lights shooting ahead into the fog.
He didn't say anything at all until he had seated himself beside her. Then he paused for a moment, looking into the lane of lights and said slowly, "All right. I'll take you. But it looks to me like—a dangerous crossing."
Cal, being a railroad man, would say that. She smiled inwardly. Her common sense, which Peter had threatened, had returned. She tucked her coat around her. "If anything had been very wrong, Peter would have called the doctor."CHAPTER 2
The streets at that hour were almost clear with only an occasional wandering taxi. Cars were parked along the curb looking asleep yet watchful, too. They crossed Madison and Jenny had a glimpse of strings of lights from the windows of the great midtown buildings where cleaning crews worked. The red and green street lights, changing and changing upon almost deserted streets, looked queerly out of place as if the world had died around them, leaving only the memories of its living.
They crossed Lexington in the shadow of an enormous crane hovering over some kind of construction. A few coffee shops seemed to be open on Third Avenue and Second.
The East Side Drive was wet and shining in the lights from the car. Off in the blackness of the river a belated tugboat uttered a hoarse long wail.
There were lights in Doctor's Hospital, scattered lights along the elevator shafts of apartment houses, a light over the sentry box at Gracie Mansion.
Cal was deep in thought, driving with a kind of absent-minded ease. The car had wound its way up and onto the Turnpike where the fog lights flared like ghost fires, showing the wide spaces of roadway, before Cal took out a cigarette, pushed in the little dashboard lighter and said, "There's no use speculating about anything until we find out what really happened."
Jenny, too, had had time to assemble the possibilities. "At the worst Fiora thought of suicide or pretended to think of it and actually got a gun and turned it on herself and hurt herself more than she intended. At the best—"
"Fiora wouldn't even threaten suicide. She's too content with her position as Peter's wife."
"Well—you've seen her of course, often. I haven't."
"Not often. Only when I have to go to Peter's house. Usually we meet at the office or lunch at the club."
She longed to say, Is Peter happy? It was a question she had constantly debated within herself after Peter's telephone calls: did he sound happy, did he sound unhappy?
The lighter popped out and Cal lighted his cigarette, then remembered her, murmured an apology, gave her a cigarette and she took the lighter from his hand. He had followed her thoughts, however, for he said, "You want to know if Peter has been happy with Fiora. You'll have to see that for yourself."
"Yes," Jenny said after a moment. "Yes—"
Cal shot her a swift glance which seemed to see too much.
She said quickly, "And at best, Fiora simply had some sort of minor accident, handling a gun. Probably Peter's gun and Peter was alone in the house with her and that's why he leaped to the notion that if she—if she dies as she won't—he would be accused of murder."
"And was so scared that he sent for us to hold his hand? Peter doesn't scare that easily."
"You know him in a business way," Jenny said slowly.
"You mean, not as you know him. Well, it's true he's a good businessman, respected, fair; hard-hitting when it's necessary. Wily, when it's necessary, too."
"I thought you were Peter's friend."
"Yes, I am," Cal said slowly. "We get along. But I think the most sensible thing you ever did in your life was to divorce Peter."
"It was the most foolish thing."
"Have it your own way." He seemed to drop the whole thing and then unexpectedly came back to it. "It's none of my business. But I always wondered just what happened to make you divorce him."
Excerpted from Call After Midnight by Mignon G. Eberhart. Copyright © 1964 Mignon G. Eberhart. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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