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Woolrich can distill more terror, more excitement, more downright nail-biting suspense than nearly all his competitors.”
Every night he walked along the river, going home. Every night, about one. You do that when you're young; walk along beside the river, looking at the water, looking at the stars. Sometimes you do that even when you're a detective, and strictly speaking, have nothing to do with stars.
He could have taken a bus, ridden home as all the others did, when he came off duty. It wasn't even the shortest route to where he lived, this walk beside the river. It took him out of his way a little. He didn't mind that. It sounded better when you whistled, with the water there beside you. It made the stars seem brighter, and it made you want to look at them more, when the water was there below them to catch them upside down. It made you dream better; those dreams you have in your head in your twenties. You can't dream in a bus, with your fellows all around you.
And so—every night he walked along the river, going home. Every night, about one, a little after.
Anything you keep doing like that, if you keep on doing it long enough, suddenly one time something happens. Something that counts, something that matters, something that changes the whole rest of your life. And you forget all the other times that went before it, and just remember that once.
Shawn was his name. The others couldn't figure him out. But then who can ever figure anyone else out? They didn't try very hard; they didn't have the time. They just mentioned it once in a while, going off duty.
"Hey, Shawn, you coming this way?"
"No, I guess I'll walk home along the river."
Then they'd go their way and he'd go his, and somebody would say it. Not hostilely, though.
"I can't figure him out."
"Sort of a dreamer, I guess."
Heads would nod, but only in mild disapproval. As over some minor defect, easily forgiven, certainly not enough to strain their group loyalty. Then they wouldn't refer to it again for another two months. Because it wasn't a very glaring difference. Just a shading of character.
So now the river, and him, and a night like the many others.
His whistle went along a little ahead of him, before there was anyone there, and then he followed in due course, at an easymoving stride. Not a very loud whistle. Cheerful and low and not even very good. Usually the same thing every night, almost always the same thing. Show Me the Way to Go Home. That's a good tune to have for company beside the river when you're twenty-eight.
Peaceful along there. No one else around. Just him and the stars. He'd look up at them every once in a while. There were myriads of them tonight. They must have brought out the reserves. He'd never seen so many of them before. They were almost woven together in places, like a gleaming fish-scale fabric.
It was high along there, good and high, a sort of bluff. And then it made a slow turn around and went into a bridge. His side was the town, the opposite shore was country. You could see the lights of some boulevard strung along the summit over there, much like a string of beads, where there are too few beads on the string and a lot of empty string stretches between. Once in a while a moving light would crawl from one bead to the next, and that was a car going along at good speed, though from where he was it seemed to creep.
On his side there were the brick ramparts of the town, set back at a good distance from where he ambled along, with a punch-hole of orange let into them here and there at irregular intervals and levels. One o'clock and most of them had been plugged up by now, by sleep. Then there were two or three lanes of traffic out before these battlements, like a concrete moat. And then a wide strip with trees in young June leaf, an occasional lamppost set into their midst making an explosion of vivid apple green in the canopy of their otherwise dark foliage. And then the paved walk he was striding along, alternate blue-black and silver with these same lights, for they bordered it. Then a stone coping about waist-high, and then the drop down to the water.
That was the setting for his whistling and his stargazing and his dreaming, if any. And probably there was some; who hasn't at least one dream to light up and smoke, on his homeward way at twenty-eight?
As he followed the zebra-striped walk, now light, now dark, now light again, his glance hit the ground at the onset of one of the light patches, and he had that illusory impression everyone has had at one time or another that there was money lying there at his feet. He didn't give in to it for a moment, let his legs carry him onward a pace or two. Too good to be true, and it never was money when you stopped and made a fool out of yourself by picking it up.
Then his whistle checked itself, and he stooped and turned and went back the pace or two. And he stopped and did pick it up. And this was the one time that it was just what it had looked like. It was money. A five-dollar bill.
He gave another sort of whistle, without tune, just of the breath, and looked the bill over, and started it toward his trouser pocket.
There was a little wind blowing. It was coming toward him, in the direction he'd been going. Before he'd even finished putting the money away, he saw something scuttling toward him erratically. Stopping, then sidling on, stopping, then sneaking on some more. He stopped it with his foot. It was another bill, this one a single dollar.
He craned his neck and looked down the vista of lighted and shadowed strips that were like alternate railroad ties of black and white, until they turned and made for the bridge. There was no one in sight. Nothing.
He went on quickly. He kept the two bills in his hand now. He didn't whistle any more. He stopped, went on. He had three now. He went on quicker than ever. He stopped again. He had three in one hand, one in his other hand now. Sixteen dollars. It was like picking up leaves off the ground.
He was making the turn and there was the bridge entrance ahead of him. The paved walk he was on went on, but over water. The coping beside it went on, but with no earth at its base, only empty space that curved around underneath it. The trees stopped. There were more lights here, ornamental candelabra lampposts, standing one on each side of the way at the approach to the bridge. Then the bridge itself was dark again, like a tunnel running under interlaced girders.
The bridge wasn't his way. He usually skirted it and went on again, still on the town side of the promontory it jutted from. But he usually didn't pick up money with his two hands.
Something winked, as though one of the stars had become embedded in the pavement. He pinched at the little spark, and came up holding a diamond ring in his hand. It bore a single stone, and large, and of good water.
He looked around him carefully. Still no one, nothing. Then he saw that something was breaking the evenness, the flatness of line of the parapet top. Some inanimate something, some black lump. He headed for it. It was close up under one of the ornamental lampposts.
When he reached it he saw that he had the source, the carrier it had all come out of, the ownerless money and the ring alike. It was a woman's black handbag, of some soft substance, probably suede. He didn't know much about those things, but it looked expensive. It had on it an ornamental monogram, of a glittering material that he was to know later, but didn't as yet, as marcasite.
It hadn't been dropped there unintentionally or lost there, for then it would have been down below, at foot level, on the ground itself. It wasn't. It was atop the parapet. It was upside down, and open, balancing crumpled on its own mouth. It was as though it had been held aloft, reversed, by its owner. Up at shoulder height or face height. Then deliberately opened in that position, reversed, so that everything fell out of it, scattered all around. Then, when it was emptied, crushed down atop its own recent contents, still open, still reversed, and left that way in token of renunciation.
Immediately under and around it lay many of the things that, according to his lights, a woman should have held dear to her heart. A wafer of metal that held powder; a crystal rod, the vial of perfume that had sheathed it fractured into bits and still tincturing the air with an elusive sweetness even in its shattered state. He was no expert in women's ways, God knows, but it seemed to him they never threw such things away. This must be meant as some final parting. Close beside, but fallen clear in the overturn, lay the wadded nucleus of paper currency that the erosive breeze had only just begun to disintegrate as he came along. He trapped it under his hand, and thrust it back within the purse.
At a greater distance lay another small object. But this could not have fallen out, it lay too far from the rest. It was a small black silk cord, or two of them rather, and between them a thumbnail's span of diamonds circling a microscopic dial, complete with hands and numerals. A wrist watch. Its position told its story, to anyone who could read such things. It clung to the inside lip of the parapet; one cord, and the watch itself, were topside on it, the second cord hung vertically down the edge. Moreover, when he picked it up, its crystal remained behind on the stone in powdery residue. Its owner, then, had detached it from her wrist, swung it sharply downward by the loose end of one cord, to shatter and to halt it. Then she had left it dangling there. He held it close and squinted at it in the pale reflected light. It marked 1:08. It wasn't going any more. He looked at his own, and that said 1:12. Four minutes ago. Time had stopped for someone.
Then he saw her.
She was not on the pedestrian walk of the bridge, for that stretched vacant to his eye as far as he could see from where he stood. She was up on the parapet, full height, and yet even so she was concealed from him. She was sheltered behind one of the massive stone plinths or abutments that rose far overhead at regularly spaced intervals, to support the steel girders that formed so large a part of the superstructure.
The wind caught at the edge of her skirt and flirted it a little, and the bit of motion caught his eye just as it wandered down the vacant vista. She did not see him at all, for she was on the opposite side, looking downriver, and her back was to him.
She seemed to be doing something with her foot. He received the impression that one leg was bent upon itself, and caught in her own grasp. There was the smothered clap of a shoe to pavement, and the leg had straightened. Then its opposite bent, and a second shoe dropped. They made scarcely a tick, but it was so silent that they had the breathless hush all to themselves to imprint themselves on.
A red spark suddenly struck out behind her, in a sharp downward diagonal, hit the walk and expired, as a cigarette was thrown away, curtly backhand. And this was to be her last disinheritance, her last bequest. There was nothing left now, after this, to abandon.
But he was already running, bent low and with urgent stealth. He had been for the past several seconds already, ever since that revelatory flirt of her skirt. He kept his heels up, to avoid giving her warning; raced with a hissing swiftness on the toes alone. He was frightened. He hadn't been so frightened in the last ten years. Frightened in a peculiar, choking sort of way that had nothing to do with self or self-danger, that was worse than the other kind. His instinct told him that to cry out in advance would be to speed her up, to send her over even faster; to get there too late and find the parapet already empty.
She couldn't have heard him; the tempo of her self-appointed act remained unchanged.
As he swept past the obstructive masonry that had walled her in on the shoreward side, the side he was coming from, her figure came into full-dimensional view. Her head was tilted slightly upward, not downward. She was covering her eyes, as if the stars blinded her. It was against them that her hand was backed in shelter, and not against the water below. For the screen it made was left slightly open at the bottom; it was at the top, along her brow, that it was pressed defensively tight.
He struck the stone bulwark, and at the same time his arms laced around her, in a spiral, one higher than the other; as if the blow against him was what had locked them, automatically.
One held her at the rearward hollow of the knees, fusing her legs together into sudden immobility. The other, higher, soldered itself across her waist, restricting her ability to bend, to fling herself forward, to just her head and shoulders and her upper body.
She swayed drunkenly, like something set into a socket, held constricted below, volatile only above. More with the momentum of his own impetus, transferred to her, than through any active effort of her own. Or so it seemed, by the limp defeated way she danced lightly against the stars. Arms dropping futilely down her sides, head going still farther back, until her throat was arched taut against them, as if they were twinkling knife points and it was their collective target.
This tableau, of arrest, of submission, held for an instant, no more. There were no thoughts in his brain; there were probably none in hers.
Then he had her down beside him, in two or three awkward motions that blended too quickly into one another to be detected separately. First drawing her back, so that she seemed to sit poised on his shoulder for an instant, though she wasn't; she was just held aloft against him. Then allowing her unresistant body to slide down his own, until the ground had stopped it. Then loosing his lower arm, and holding her at full height, against him and supported by him, by the arm that had never left her waist.
It was over, it was done. He had kept her in life.
His breath was coming fast from the run across the bridge apron. Hers only less fast, from the shock of a suddenly dissolved climax, never allowed to reach fulfillment. He could hear it close beside his ear; waited, let it slacken, taper off.
It had ebbed to normality, finally, and his own along with it.
Her hand had gone back to her brow again, but no longer screening her eyes. It was loosely curled at her temple now, in a sort of half fist, pointed outward as if warding off something.
There was a strange absence of speech between them. She didn't rail, berate him, go into the usual dramatics, he noticed. For his part he didn't know what to say. He didn't know what you said to people right after you stopped them from doing such a thing.
Someone had to begin. They couldn't stand there all night like that, in sodden posed conjunction.
He thought: I could offer her a cigarette. But he didn't. If they didn't want the whole world, they didn't want a cigarette either. That was one of the smallest parts of the world.
She still kept holding her head so that her eyes were turned away from the stars, with that loosely adhering hand giving them shade.
It had been going on for only a second or two, most likely, but it felt as if it had been going on forever, this muteness on both their parts.
He spoke finally; anticlimactically, as he might have known he would. As matter-of-factly as if she had just stubbed her toe, or something like that. "What's the matter?" he asked, on a descending inflection.
"Let me get away from them."
She turned her face still farther inward toward his own, away from those points of brilliance lavished all over the sky, thus giving him the answer.
"You should have let me get away from them. I wanted to go down deep, where I can't see them shining, and they can't see me."
There was something the matter with her, of course; there must be. No one felt that way about them. They were beautiful things. They were—You wanted to look at them. They were the most beautiful things there were.
"Come over here in the light, where I can see you. Let me get a look at you."
Some poor little drab, he supposed. Crossed up in love. Or something even worse: a night-lady, sick of her lot.
He stooped for something. "Here, don't you want these?" Held her shoes toward her, dangling from their straps.
There was the gentlest of rebukes in her answer. "You make me walk again. I guess I'll have to have them."
She set them back upon the ground, felt for them with her feet, bent within the curve of his arm to fasten the quick strap that was all they seemed to require. He kept his precautionary half embrace about her waist as she did so.
They walked forward a little, to where the nearest of the lights was waiting, scalping a circular bald spot in the gloom of the pavement.
They walked slowly, and not side by side, though linked by his persuading arm. She lagged a step behind him, and moved with reluctance.
It seemed as though, having once begun, she couldn't stop dwelling on it. "You mean to be kind, but you're not. Don't. Ah, don't. Oh, let me get away from them. Let me shut them out. Must they always shine? Won't they ever stop?"
Excerpted from Night has a Thousand Eyes by Cornell Woolrich. Copyright © 1945 Cornell Woolrich. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
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