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Miss Withers Regrets
By Stuart Palmer
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 2007 The Rue Morgue Press
All rights reserved.
Far off there was thunder, in spite of the summer sunshine which blazed down on the solitary young man who walked along the curving highway. Thunder on the left, Pat Montague thought, was supposed in the Greek tragedies to portend significant and marvelous events. Or maybe this was simply more Navy maneuvers, except that they wouldn't be apt to hold forth in Long Island Sound.
Ahead of him in the roadway there danced a little whirlpool, a midget tornado of dead leaves and dust. The pixie thing spun wildly, swooped and lifted and fell again, and finally went pirouetting off across the green slopes towards the trees.
Pat kept on walking; not that he had to walk. There was a fat wad of mustering-out pay in his pocket, and he could have taken a taxi. It was only that he felt more at home afoot, having just unpinned the crossed muskets of the infantry. Walking gave him more time to think, more time to brood about the clipping in his billfold. He had carefully extracted it from the society column of an Oyster Bay newspaper, where he had found it only by the purest accident only a few days ago, and it was already almost worn out.
Too, walking gave him more chance to change his mind. Until he had actually committed himself by ringing the doorbell he could turn around at any moment and head back to town, pretending that he had just been out for a stroll in the fresh air, practicing at being a civilian. He wasn't at all sure that he was going to ring that doorbell, because when he tried to think about Helen his mind went round and round like the dust whirlpool and settled nowhere.
Men without women, men forced into the unnaturally monastic routines of training camps and troop carriers, usually had tried to stop thinking about the opposite sex. The pinup girls with their exaggerated curves of breast and leg were taken down after the first month or two. But Helen's picture had been with him always, because it had been printed on his mind at sunrise one morning in what seemed to be indelible colors.
He had even found himself talking to that picture sometimes. That was the way things got out of proportion, and the line between actual memory and daydreams became indistinct. He could remember long conversations with Helen, but whether they occurred when they were together or during the three long years between, he couldn't have sworn.
Somehow it wasn't as easy being Mr. Montague again as he had thought. The Army had spent a few days cramming him with rehabilitation, teaching him how to be a civilian. The dull and unpleasant overseas camping trip which he had been forced to make, in company with some millions of other healthy, bored young men, was finished and done for. There wasn't a stitch of government-issue clothing on his body, and he had even bought a new billfold, a new penknife. But he sensed that it was going to take more than that.
Anyway, he was free again, and his legs were moving out of cadence. Even the weather was mixed up in his mood. On a fresh, gusty afternoon like this, with warm sunshine pouring down and yet with squalls over the Sound, it wasn't hard for a young man to convince himself that the whole world loves a lover and that things are bound to come right in the end.
Even though the girl was married. The newspaper clipping had forcibly reminded him of that. " Mrs. Cairns, the former Helen Virginia Abbott of New York City and "
But that was quite in the classical tradition too, Pat reminded himself. The other Helen had been married to some meatball named Menelaus. So had Guinevere, and Isolde, and Balkis Queen of Sheba, and Deirdre, and Scarlett O'Hara.
All, all married, to men they didn't love. Each waiting for the lover to come along.
So it was that with a quick-frozen dream in his heart and a large chip on his shoulder Pat Montague marched along an elm-shaded roadway in a very expensive section of Long Island, drawn by the most powerful magnetic force known to mankind. He walked, without realizing it, almost in the center of the road and was very nearly clipped off at the pockets by a small convertible roadster which came roaring around the curve behind him. It was a very close thing for a fraction of a second, and then Pat flung himself towards the edge of the road and safety.
The little car swerved and went rocketing by, its horn blatting furiously. Pat swore with the easy profanity of the soldier, but it was more at himself than at the driver. She had looked like a remarkably pretty girl. Maybe if that little man hadn't been sitting beside her she'd have stopped and offered him a ride. People were apt to do that nowadays, even if you weren't still wearing the uniform.
Pat began to wonder if he was developing a blister on his right heel. The new black shoes—he had sworn never to wear brown again—were lighter in weight than the ones he was used to. Also, it seemed to be farther to the Cairns place than he had imagined it would be, with more uphill to it.
Then he came around a turn and saw the salmon-colored house silhouetted against the Sound, big and new and imposing. Pat knew without a moment's hesitation that this was the right place, because only Huntley Cairns would create a thing like this, half Riviera villa and half Los Angeles Moorish.
Snatches of South American dance music drifted back to him, and Pat began to breathe a little faster. He rehearsed again what he was going to do and what he was going to say. He had it pretty well worked out if it happened to be Cairns himself who came to the door. He would say, "Well, Fatso! Still leading with your right?"
More probably it would be a servant. In that case he would give out with his best smile and say, "I'm Pat Montague, an old friend of the family."
But if Helen herself came to the door
Surprisingly enough, Pat found his long legs carrying him right past the gateway of the new house and on along the crest of the hill. After a little way his stride shortened, and finally he stopped for breath. He climbed upon the tree bank so he could look down on the place. There must have been ten acres of it, maybe more if it ran all the way down to the shore. It was all terraced and landscaped and set with the proper shrubbery, and what ancient trees had been allowed to remain were all neatly pruned and trimmed and daubed around the trunk with white stickum.
Huntley Cairns, after raising that pastry cook's dream of a house, couldn't have waited for anything to grow. It all had the dreadful impermanence of things which are too new and perfect and shining.
Pat could see nothing of Helen's personality anywhere, nothing that could have been her choice. That made it easier, somehow. She didn't belong here; she didn't belong in Fatso Cairns's house, or in his arms.
There was a barrier fence of split logs bright with whitewash, and beyond that the green lawns sloped away, studded with round flower gardens, littered with rustic benches and pebbled walks. From where he was standing he could see the side of the house and one end of a balcony. To the rear of the house the ground sloped down more sharply to the garage and toolshed, beyond them a smaller white building.
Farther still was the glimmer of green-blue water. Pat walked on a few steps so that he could see, between the buildings, a narrow glimpse of an oval swimming pool bordered with bright-colored tiles. The sun disappeared now and there was a spatter of rain, but Pat Montague did not notice it.
Beside the pool, which must have been a good quarter of a mile away from where he stood, there was the flash of white, which disappeared immediately. Pat forgot to breathe as he realized who it must be. He started to climb the fence, the blood pounding in his temples. As long as he had known her, Helen's bathing suits had always been white.
His guardian angel looked the other way, and there was laughter in hell as Pat Montague walked slowly down across the grass, threading his way along the terraces, around the flower gardens and the rustic benches, and at last came around the corner of the little white bathhouse which overlooked the pool. He stopped then, and went on more slowly.
There was nobody here, nobody at all. He wondered if he had been seeing things, if his imagination had been playing him tricks again. The swimming pool was a peaceful turquoise green, troubled only by the sprinkle of rain and by the little chill wind which was rolling up from the sound.
A shadow flitted by him, and Pat looked up to see a brown hawk wheeling overhead, whistling and watching.
Then a disreputable station wagon pulled into the service driveway and stopped, with a rattling gasp and a final rattle of buckets, tools, and patched garden hose. From it, after a moment, emerged a wiry, spare man of about sixty, clad in filthy blue overalls, with a sack of manure on his shoulder.
He looked towards the pool, dropped the sack, and started hurrying. Pat Montague, kneeling beside the pool, heard the sound of feet and looked up, his face gray and pasty. He had been prodding down into the water with a garden rake.
"Lose something, mister?"
Pat did not answer, and the old man came closer, squinting with moist and bloodshot eyes down into the greenish depths at the deep end of the pool, under the diving board. Staring back at him was the round white face of his employer, Huntley Cairns, under two fathoms of carefully warmed and heavily chlorinated water.
Somehow the two men raked and tumbled the body out on to the tiles. It was dressed in some weird and outlandish garment which seemed to be a combination corset and underdrawers, stiff with stays and tight elastic. Pat whispered through stiff lips: "He may not be dead. We could try first aid. Sometimes you can bring them back—"
The old man shook his head brusquely. His cracked, thin voice was commanding. "Never mind that," he ordered. "You get in there and phone for an ambulance, do you hear?" He was pointing to the open door of a dressing room in the white bathhouse behind them.
If there was anything odd about the old man, except for his smell, Pat didn't notice it then. It seemed to him the most natural thing in the world to follow orders. He rose and ran obediently into a long bare room with a shower at the far end, a room which he vaguely noticed was furnished with wooden benches and wall hooks, presumably meant to be used by the masculine guests of the household. A couple of bathing trunks hung on the hooks, a towel and a wet suit lay in a puddle on the concrete floor, and a bathrobe and some men's clothing were spread out neatly on a bench.
The extension telephone hung on the rear wall, near the shower. Pat grabbed the receiver, jiggled the hook feverishly, and then heard the door slam shut behind him. It wasn't the wind, either, because a second later there was the definite, final sound of a key being turned in the lock.
Even then Pat didn't have the slightest idea of what was happening, or of the trap into which he had walked so willingly. He peered out of the one window, which was placed so that it gave only a glimpse of whitish-gray sky. The door was securely locked; he made sure of that. Dazed, he went back to the telephone again, but when he put the instrument to his ear he could hear the cracked, excited voice of the gardener. " yes, Searles! I work days for Mr. Cairns. I said he was murdered—I caught a young fellow in the act, I tell you!"
The voice at the other end of the line was masculine and calm. "Somebody'll be right out there. Can you keep him?"
"Sure, sure. I got him all right! But make it snappy."
Pat stood there, a foolish, frozen grin on his face. He watched a daddy-long-legs doing acrobatics up the side of the wall. And then the impact struck him, a delayed-action bomb going off in his head.
It was he—Pat Montague—they were talking about!
He turned and threw himself breathlessly at the locked door. In spite of the fact that his technique was exactly the same as he had always seen in the movies, nothing happened. His shoulder began to throb numbly. He backed up, took a deep breath, and prepared to try again.
Then he suddenly froze in what must have been an exceptionally ridiculous position as the lock clicked. Light struck him in the face, and he saw that a girl stood there, silhouetted against the stormy sky. It was a girl whom Pat had not seen for years and would have been very happy never to have seen again.
Lawn, Lawn Abbott. Helen's changeling kid sister, the queer coltish girl who always used to go around in a cowboy shirt, with blue jeans turned up almost to her bony knees and moccasins on her feet. Now she wore riding clothes, jodhpurs, which flattered her straight, almost feral young body. They were soiled and wet, and she held a light thin riding crop with a silver knob on the top.
The face which looked so blankly into Pat's was cool and aloof as always, the scornful lower lip glistening red. She bit a fingernail thoughtfully.
Of all people to find him here, Pat thought bitterly, it would have to be Lawn, who had always hated him and done her level best to spoil his romance with her sister! He swallowed. This was all the bad luck in the world rolled up into a lump.
What made it more fubar than anything was the fact that he had never been able to reach her, to talk to her at all. She had always slipped away like quicksilver, a strange, medieval girl who looked right through him. But he had to talk to her now. He had to make her see what it would mean to Helen if he were caught here like this, with Cairns lying dead on the tiles.
Pat started making explanations, which really didn't explain at all. But the girl just stared at him, the dark eyes—so like Helen's but without her dream-weighted innocence—making a time exposure. Her eyebrows, the V-shaped, satanic eyebrows, were barely lifted. In some odd feline way she seemed to be enjoying this moment, savoring it to its last essence. Finally he ran down, not that he hadn't more to say, but only because no sign of warmth or understanding lighted that bloodless Medici mask of a face.
Then she suddenly caught his hands in her hard, small brown ones, pulled him through the door, and thrust him down the hill, away from the house. Her voice was throaty, a deep contralto, and she spoke as though to a not-very-bright child.
"That way! Keep where you can't be seen from the house. There's the path I take to the stables, only you cut left just before you get to the shore. You'll come out on the third tee of the golf course, and then keep right. The village is about a mile and a half."
Pat tried to mutter something, but she caught him short, almost shoving him along as if possessed by some deep inner rage.
He started running, not pausing until he reached the shadow of the trees far below. Then he looked back and saw that Lawn Abbott was gingerly lifting the coat which the gardener had flung over the body of her brother-in-law. She didn't look up or turn, but her hand gestured him impatiently on. The music from the big house continued, very softly, where someone was playing that most mournful of tangos: "Adios muchachos, compañeros, de ma vida "
Pat turned and went on. Then, above the music and the hushing sound of the rain in the elms, he heard for the first time the faraway wolf call of the police sirens. It was a hunting call, and they were hunting him.CHAPTER 2
"I suppose that was my fault!" the thin pretty girl at the wheel of the convertible exploded, turning towards her husband. Midge Beale shrugged his hard, narrow shoulders. He was always nervous about Adele's driving, mostly because he felt a deep though mute kinship with motors. She was always handling machinery as if she were angry at it, and a little contemptuous too, like a girl from the wrong side of the tracks suddenly made mistress of a big house and too many servants.
"You'd better stop," he told her.
"Why should I stop, for heaven's sake? I didn't actually hit him, did I? And if you think I'm going to pick up every hitchhiker on the road " Adele's wide, thin-lipped mouth tightened under its generous layer of geranium lipstick, and she tossed her fluffy brown hair like an annoyed horse. "Probably just another discharged veteran thinking he's entitled to free transportation."
They swung around another corner and came out on the crest of the hill, leaving the elm trees and their shade behind. Spread out before them was a vast panorama of water and sky, with white fleecy clouds scudding along and a great thunderhead moving north towards Connecticut. Two sailboats, under light canvas, were beating their way around the point.
"I only suggested stopping back there because I thought I recognized that fellow you almost hit," Midge said slowly.
His wife stared at him. "You mean somebody from the field?"
"No, my love. I thought he looked a lot like old Pat Montague."
Adele's mouth opened wide. "Pat? But he's overseas in Germany or Austria or somewhere."
"It may come as a great surprise to you," Midge told her, "but they are even letting lieutenants out of the Army now."
Excerpted from Miss Withers Regrets by Stuart Palmer. Copyright © 2007 The Rue Morgue Press. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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