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The noises were ugly and a little unreal, like sound effects left over from a nightmare. Only Ina knew she hadn't been sleeping. She had been too highly charged with the wonder of it all to close an eye, because tomorrow—if it ever dawned—would be her first day in the city, the beginning of a new life all in glorious Technicolor.
She had been lying awake hour after hour, listening to the night symphony of Manhattan and from each chord weaving dreams in which a certain little girl with fire-blonde hair played the starring role. Every foghorn on the Hudson or the East River was from a luxury liner taking her to Capri or the Bahamas; every siren was clearing the way for a squad car full of personable young policemen coming to rescue her from some vague but deliciously shuddery doom; the planes that roared overhead to and from La Guardia were bearing her to Casablanca or Carcassonne. Even the rattle of the milkman's cart and the tinkle of his bottles lent themselves to the game, for Ina saw herself and a Gregory Peckish young man in white tie and tails sitting on the rear step of that homely vehicle, singing "Shall I Wasting?" and "Mavourneen" and the rest, and splitting a quart of homogenized Grade A as an antidote against hangovers. So had passed the night, the happiest of her life.
Left behind forever was Bourdon, Pennsylvania (1950 pop. 3,495) where nothing ever happened except the biweekly change of program at the Bijou. Ina had come to the greatest, noisiest, cruelest, dirtiest, most generous city on earth to seek her fortune, equipped with a reasonably nice face and figure and quite exceptional hair and skin, some sixty dollars in cash, and no training or experience of any sort; but still filled with the firm conviction that she was a very unusual girl destined for a wonderful and exciting future, starting now.
The hand of her watch had crawled past six, though there was still no sign of dawn at the east windows. She had been lying there in the strange bed in the borrowed one-room apartment, loving the night and loving the city as she never could again. At the moment all Manhattan, down to the last sooty snowflake, belonged to her by a sort of divine right. Above her the heavy future hung like a rain cloud over the desert, like ripe purple fruit ready to be plucked.
"Just let things happen to me!" Ina prayed to her own special deity. "Anything at all as long as it's different and exciting and soon!"
At the same time something warned her that if she intended making the proper impression on the men who interviewed models and showgirls and mannequins and perhaps (heaven forbid) even secretaries and receptionists, she really ought to be getting some sleep. Only maybe dark shadows around her eyes would be intriguing. Girls weren't supposed to look too innocent these days, even if they were. Oh, she thought, to be like the wise, dreamy minxes in the Marie Laurencin paintings she had seen reproduced in the art magazines back in the Bourdon Carnegie Free Library; those girls so faintly but definitely dissolute!
They looked as if they wouldn't be surprised at anything. They wouldn't have popped up in bed like a jack-in-the-box at hearing strange muffled noises in the night. The sounds must be coming, Ina decided suddenly, from the next apartment, where a late party had been going on until a couple of hours ago. She had eavesdropped shamelessly, straining her ears in an attempt to catch the words of the tantalizing songs they were singing, the point of the long involved jokes they told. All she had been sure of was that they sang, and laughed. Finally they had broken it up and gone home, with much slamming of doors and many loud farewells. But that party couldn't be reviving itself, not now.
Then she realized what she was hearing. It was almost too simple. Men were fighting there, on the other side of the wall—at a quarter past six of a winter morning!
Perhaps Ina was the only one in the entire apartment house to hear the battle, though it is fairly certain that any seasoned New Yorker, wakened in the night by noises up to and perhaps including the Last Trump, would only have turned over and gone back to sleep. Not Ina. Wild horses could not have kept her a moment longer in bed.
She smiled in the darkness, wondering just how wild horses could possibly keep anybody anywhere. Slipping out of the warm covers, a slim white naked virginal ghost, she found her old wool bathrobe. Then she pattered barefoot across the room, holding out her arms so she wouldn't stub a toe on the television set or on Crystal's little spinet piano, and finally made the hall door without mishap. With an ear pressed to the panel she could hear that the fight was still going on.
Dry smack of hard fists on soft flesh . Feet stamping like the hoofs of rutting stags . Wordless exclamations, smothered gaspings for breath. Once a male voice blurted out a name coupled to a black obscenity. Whoever they were, they weren't fooling.
Ina was trembling now, and not with cold. But she softly turned the knob. Just as the latch clicked there was a muffled crash, louder than anything before, and then silence as thick as cold molasses.
With one eye against the tiny crack in the door she waited, filled with an unreasoning impatience. She shivered there for what seemed an hour, and was never able later to swear whether it was really only a few minutes, or ten, or thirty. But she never took her eyes from the door at the end of the hallway, and at long, long last it opened and a man came out.
He was a stocky, youngish man in rumpled dinner clothes—what Ina called a tuck— hatless, and carrying a dark overcoat. His face was paper-white, his dark hair plastered across his damp forehead, and his bow tie was loose. He looked utterly spent, breathing heavily through swollen lips, his eyes blank and unseeing. Indeed, he almost threw his exit into low comedy by stumbling over the milk bottles outside the door.
As he came forward Ina saw that his right fist was jammed into his coat pocket; his left held a gold lighter, its flame inches from the cigarette dangling from his mouth. He went past and on down the hall, walking like a zombie, limping a little. Like Lord Byron, Ina thought. His face was something like the engravings of Byron, too—handsome, arrogant, demon-haunted. It was only as he reached the elevator at the other end of the hall that he succeeded in setting fire to his cigarette, and then he absently tossed the lighter into an urn filled with sand, as if the golden toy had been only a burnt match. Then the door of the automatic elevator slammed shut behind him. Curtain.
Excited and disappointed at the same time, Ina closed the door. But this couldn't be all. Maybe he would come back. Maybe
Pausing before the bathroom mirror, she decided that the tiny red spot on her nose wasn't going to be a pimple after all. And a good thing the fascinating young man hadn't turned and seen her peeking around the door, with her hair this way. She came back into the room again, surprised to find that she was listening so hard that her ears ached, listening for something she'd heard or almost heard. Were there sounds outside, sounds anywhere? Even the city seemed suddenly muted.
And especially was everything quiet in the next apartment. The other man in the fight should have been up and around, ministering to his cuts and bruises, pouring a comforting drink or straightening up the wreckage.
Then she suddenly remembered. The man she had seen leaving hadn't shut the door behind him, or she would have heard the click. It must be—it was!—ajar. Ina started impulsively out into the hall just as she was, and then almost too late remembered to stop and release the lock so that she wouldn't be trapped out in the open with no retreat. A few steps and she was just outside that other door. No light showed inside. "Hello?" Ina said softly.
There was the ghost of a sound somewhere inside. It could have been a groan or a snore, the rustle of a Venetian blind in the morning breeze or an inner door softly closing. She touched the panel, which swung easily inward, and a fan of yellow light from behind her began to widen across a formal foyer, across a scuffed and rumpled rug. She saw the slipper first, and then a man's leg.
"Excuse me, but is anything wrong?" Ina waited a moment and then pushed the door hard, and then the hall light blazed in on the body of a man wearing cerise pajama pants. The upturned face was not recognizable, even though she had seen it a hundred times in her own stepfather's living room back home. Blood and bruises had altered it, smeared it inhumanly.
Ina didn't move. She knew she had to do something, but what? She was missing her cue. Here she was forced into the role of heroine, standing before the footlights in front of a waiting, if yet invisible audience, not knowing what the tragedy was about or what lines she ought to be improvising. She was caught like a fly in amber, stiff with stage fright, unable to take her eyes from the thing smashed against the wall. It was a bloody atrocity, crying mutely to have its limbs decently composed, to be covered up .
Any minute now there would be policemen swarming all over; the cold white light of publicity would expose her. In this bathrobe, and her hair
Ina sighed. As she slowly went forward to bend over the crumpled man in the corner she had a clear preview of herself on the witness stand, wearing a demure black suit and her sheerest nylons. The prosecutor was roaring, "Miss Kell, you have testified that you knew the man was dead! How did you know that?"
"Because I forced myself to touch him—this artery right here on the throat—and there was no sign of a pulse!"
There was a little ripple of applause from the spectators in the courtroom, among whom were talent scouts from MGM, Fox, and NBC-TV.
"Why should I strive to set the crooked straight?"
—WILLIAM MORRISCHAPTER 2
It had been a deceptively quiet afternoon, as afternoons at Centre Street go. Only ten minutes more and Inspector Oscar Piper would have closed up his office and taken off for greener pastures. Then to his unbelieving ears there came the sound of scrabbling paws in the outer room, and through his doorway there descended an avalanche of dog.
"Judas priest almighty! Get down, you damn silly beast!" But the inspector, even as he fended off the big poodle's attempts to lick his face, was flattered at being remembered after all these months. As might have been expected, the dog's mistress was not far behind—a weather-beaten spinster armed with a black umbrella, who had the general appearance of having dressed hastily in an upper berth.
"Oscar!" she cried. "As I live and breathe!"
Speaking of breathing, he thought, the poor old girl still wheezed a bit. And for all its sun tan, her face seemed thin and tired. "Well, Hildegarde," he said heartily. "So California's finally lost its charms, eh? About time."
"Not at all," Miss Withers told him, as she settled into a chair like a nesting Buff-Orpington. "California is a good place to vegetate. The climate is mild, and my asthma is much improved. Probably it was only caused in the first place by an allergy to those awful stogies you chain-smoke from dawn until midnight."
"This happens to be a clear-Havana puro-puro out of the box you sent me for Christmas," the inspector protested mildly. But he put it out. "Anyway, it's good to have you back. I'll confess that in a way I've sort of missed—"
"Why, Oscar!" she bridled.
"—missed that hat," he concluded wickedly.
"But I'll have you know it's a brand-new one, from Bullock's-Westwood!"
"No! I'd have sworn you borrowed it from the Smithsonian. It looks like all the others you used to wear, only more so." He grinned. "Okay, okay. Why didn't you let me know you were coming? I'd have met you."
"More probably you'd have mislaid my wire and left me stood up in Grand Central. But thanks anyway for the gallant thought." She surveyed him critically. "You need a haircut, Oscar. And you look a bit peaked. Overworking?"
"Nothing special. The homicide index is up a few points, as it usually is when temperature and humidity get in the eighties. But most of the stuff is routine, and can be taken care of at precinct level. Today's been dull—I was just about to shut up shop." The inspector stole a quick glance at his watch.
"But I am keeping you from an appointment or something?" Then Miss Withers snapped her fingers. "Of course, I'd forgotten. This is Thursday, and you're planning an evening of bowling and a few hands of stuss with your raffish cronies; now, don't try to deny it."
"The Third Avenue Schooner and Pastrami Club," he told her, "has a rather distinguished membership—aldermen, attorneys, doctors and civic leaders." "I can imagine. But you just run along and be distinguished, then. Don't mind me. I'll be here a week or more, and there'll be other times for us to meet."
"Yes, but I can just as well—" Suddenly Piper's jaw dropped, and he did a broad doubletake. "A week or more? You're not actually going back out West?"
She nodded. "I just returned to close up my apartment and sell my furniture, all but the walnut table and some books and things I'm having shipped."
"But—" he said incredulously. "But—but—"
"Stop making noises like an outboard motor, Oscar, and listen. As Emerson once said, 'It is time to be old, to take in sail.'"
"Why can't you furl your sails right here in civilization?"
Miss Withers sniffed eloquently. "Like most New Yorkers, Oscar, you make the mistake of thinking that everything west of the Hudson is a howling wilderness."
"That description," he told her firmly, "fits Los Angeles like a glove! And you could never be happy away from the bright lights of the big town."
"No, Oscar, New York is for the young. It's for people who are still fighting. It's a beehive, with no place for a retired old drone like me."
With admirable restraint the inspector refrained from telling her some of the facts of life about drones and beehives. For many years his secret fondness for this courageous, preposterous old biddy had grown and deepened, and it cut him to the quick to hear this new note of defeat in her voice. Of course, retirement often did that to people. He fiddled absently with some reports on his desk and then said very casually, "By the way, there's a couple of interesting new cases in the open file."
"'Two blockheads to kill and be killed,'" quoted Miss Withers. "Murders aren't what they used to be, and neither is anything else. Come, Talley." She caught the end of the leash and dragged the big apricot-colored poodle away from the office wastebasket, where he had been foraging for scraps of the inspectorial lunch. Then, almost in the doorway, she paused. "By the way, Oscar, do you know what tomorrow is?"
"Friday," he said blankly. "All day."
"Friday, and the sixteenth of August." She waited expectantly.
"Let me see. Can't be your birthday, because you stopped having those years ago. Say, is it the anniversary of the day we didn't get married?"
"It is not. I jilted you in the autumn, as you well remember. Tomorrow happens to be the day set for the opening of a certain murder trial, I believe in the Court of General Sessions. Can you fix me up with a ticket of admission?"
"Trial? What trial?"
"A young man named Winston H. Gault, for the murder of Tony Fagan, so-called radio and television comic. Your memory, Oscar "
"Sure, sure! Junior Gault, the radio sponsor who got tired of being ribbed on his own program and did something about it with a blunt instrument." Piper sat up straight. "How come you're so interested?"
"It's a very mild interest, Oscar. You wrote me about the case at the time, and even sent me some laudatory press clippings. I gathered you handled the investigation personally, and that it was one of your major triumphs?"
The inspector nodded, almost complacently. "I knew from the first moment that Gault was guilty. His alibi didn't stand up for ten minutes, and almost as soon as we arrested him he made a confession. No rubber-hose stuff either, so don't go getting any ideas."
"Relax, Oscar. I have no intention of trying to upset any applecarts; my days of sleuthing are over. And if it's too much trouble getting me admitted to the courtroom, no matter. I can while away my lonely hours here in town by going up to the American Museum of Natural History and studying their sea shells. Since I've been out in California I've become something of an amateur conchologist, you know." She reached into her handbag and produced visual evidence. "Here is a Hairy Triton I found at Malibu, unusually well-marked. This is a Ravenal's Scallop, and the spotted one is a Junonia."
Excerpted from Nipped in the Bud by Stuart Palmer. Copyright © 2006 The Rue Morgue Press. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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