Read an Excerpt
The house next door slept placidly in the moonlight. That is, there were no lights and the curtains were neatly drawn and all was silence. Above, the first full moon of summer hung in the sky, making it almost as bright as day, though with a softness that added clarity to the scene.
The house was small and neat and white, framed by a freshly painted white picket fence behind which grew neat flower beds and carefully trimmed shrubbery. In fact, the house stood out in that rather down-at-heels neighborhood, especially in comparison to the two on either side of it, neither of which boasted a fence, fresh paint or flower beds.
In the dwelling on the left, a girl who was only a dim, shadowy figure, invisible to anyone outside, hunched beside the window, watching the neat little white house with a gleam in her eyes.
Down the street, in the thick shadows cast by an old sycamore tree, stood a handsome, expensive coupe. With the lights off, the car was invisible more than a few feet away—except to the carefully hidden watcher who had seen it being parked there shortly before eleven o'clock, long after the shabby little side street had turned out its lights and gone to bed.
Behind the watcher at the window, a clock chimed twelve. She grinned to herself, decided it was safe to risk a cigarette if she stepped back into the shadows of the room before she struck the match. With the cigarette glowing between her fingers, she settled herself a little more comfortably in the battered old wing chair, and once more took up her vigil.
One o'clock struck, and she yawned and made a little impatient gesture. But she did not give up her vigil until the hands of the clock were approaching three. For then there was the shadow of a movement against the house next door. A door opened somewhere in the darkness, without a sound, and closed as silently. A dim, shadowy shape melted across the brief patch of moonlight and into the shadow of the carefully trimmed hedge. The man had to bend low to take advantage of the shadows. And a moment later, the girl at the window heard the sound of the car: a soft purr of the expensive motor, the careful meshing of gears. But the lights were not switched on until the car was turning the corner into one of the less shabby streets.
The girl at the window scrubbed out the tip of her cigarette and deliberately reached behind her and switched on the light. The room sprang into being: a small shabby room, shabbily furnished. A room at which the girl looked in frank disgust and contempt.
Making no effort at concealment, she stood up full in front of the window, yawned and stretched elaborately, and looked at a half-packed suitcase that lay on a chair. She grinned and flipped her fingers toward it with an almost caressing gesture.
She was slim and young and very blond; she had thick, curly hair the color of cornsilk, and eyes that were blue and ordinarily wide and limpid with innocence, though at the moment they were narrowed with malicious enjoyment. As she stretched she slid her hands caressingly over her lovely body, revealed enticingly by the very sheer nightgown and negligee she wore.
Meanwhile, in the house next door, still dark and silent, another woman stood in the shadows behind her curtained windows, and looked at the lighted windows and the figure that moved carelessly across them, and her hands clenched until the nails bit small moons into her pink palms.
"Damn her! Damn the spying little witch! Damn her straight to hell," said the woman hidden behind the curtains in the neat white house next door….
Barton Stokes was a busy man.
Barton Stokes was the small town's leading citizen.
He was president of the one bank; he was chairman of the board of the big textile mills in the valley; he was holder of mortgages on half the better farms in the county, and he was known to have more than a finger in various pies, political and otherwise, all over the valley. What's more, he was happily married to a rather haughty woman who never for a moment forgot that she had brought her husband fifty thousand dollars in cash and real estate and properties, following the death of her father. She was a proud, almost an arrogant woman, and her two children, a boy and a girl, were the pride and joy of her life. Barton Stokes knew very well just where he stood with his wife; one step out of line and she would blast him, without a second's compunction. So Barton walked very warily, and Barton kept his night life very secret from his wife and the world she called hers.
Or thought he had until that bright early summer morning when his middle-aged, almost terrifyingly efficient secretary came in, puzzled, to say hesitantly, "I know you are terribly busy, Mr. Stokes, but there's a young woman here who insists that she must see you and that her business is very urgent—and very private."
Barton looked slightly startled.
"Who is she, Miss Evans?" he wanted to know.
"Anice Mayhew," answered Miss Evans. "I've checked the files. We have no correspondence with her, nor does the bank hold any of her paper—and she refuses point-blank to give me the slightest hint as to the nature of her business."
Barton said, sharply annoyed, "You've been with me long enough to know, Miss Evans, that I never see such people. Send her away."
"I tried, Mr. Stokes."
Behind her a gentle voice said shyly, "I'm terribly sorry to be a nuisance, Mr. Stokes—I'm just terribly sorry. But you are the only one who can possibly help me—and I do need help terribly. It's about my house… at seven twenty-one Maple Road."
Barton froze for an instant. He took in the girl who stood at the annoyed and protesting Miss Evans' elbow. He missed nothing of the silken hair that hung to her shoulders in thick, lustrous curls, the heart-shaped face, the big dark blue eyes, the exquisite complexion, the deliciously molded body in its thin summer frock.
Seven twenty-one Maple Road!
And at seven nineteen Maple Road…!
For just an instant he was still, and then he said with formal courtesy, "I can give you a few moments, I suppose, Miss—Miss—"
"Mayhew," she supplied, and slipped past Miss Evans. "Anice Mayhew. You don't remember me, but your wife teaches my Sunday School class, and as soon as I realized what a—what a dreadful predicament I was in, I thought right away of you, because you are always so kind and helpful."
Miss Evans, sniffing slightly, had departed and the door had closed and Anice was seated in the mahogany and leather chair beside Barton's desk, resting those blue, limpid eyes on Barton's handsome face. At forty-seven, Barton was what used to be called "a fine figure of a man." Barton said politely, "And this dreadful predicament? Suppose you tell me about it."
Anice crossed her ankles, smoothed her brief skirts above dimpled knees in the sheerest of nylons, and put her hands together like a good little girl on her very best behavior.
"Well, it's terribly embarrassing, Mr. Stokes," she began gently. "You see, this little house used to belong to my grandmother, and when she died, I was just ever so surprised that she had left it to me. I came to live in it several months ago; and almost right away, I found out that—well, that something awful was going on right next door!"
An echo of the shock this had given her was still in her blue eyes, but it was nothing to the shock that sped along Barton's veins.
"Oh?" he said cautiously, and found it somehow impossible to meet that candid blue gaze.
"Yes. You see, there's a woman living in that house. I—well, I thought she was nice when I first went there," the gentle voice went on sorrowfully. "I even liked her! We went to the movies together occasionally, and we ran in and out of each other's houses, and it was fun! And then one night when Julia had refused to go to the movies because she had a headache, and I had gone to bed too early and couldn't sleep, I got up to get a breath of fresh air—and, Mr. Stokes, I saw a man sneaking into Julia's house!"
Wide-eyed, shocked, she paused to let the full horror of that sink in. Barton had been prepared for it, and to her carefully hidden disappointment, he only raised his eyebrows and said a noncommittal, "Yes?"
"Yes!" said Anice, in a tone of horror. "I was frightened to death because I thought it was a burglar, and so I waited, thinking that Julia would scream. But she didn't— and I waited and waited. I was terribly frightened!"
"I can imagine," said Barton dryly, and now there was fury in his eyes.
"Oh, but I was, honestly, Mr. Stokes!" she protested, hurt that he should doubt her. "I was too terrified to go over. And I haven't a telephone, and Julia has, and I knew she had a gun and that she wasn't afraid to live alone." She leaned across his desk and said in a tone packed with drama, "Mr. Stokes, it was after three o'clock when the man left! And then I saw him get into a car hidden behind the shadows of the sycamore, and drive away!"
She sat back and waited for his reaction, everything about her the picture of a gently reared girl, shocked to the core, and quite sure that he, too, would be equally shocked.
After a moment Barton said—and there was a grim edge to his tone—"My dear Miss Mayhew, I'm sure that all this is most interesting, but I can't possibly see what this has to do with me!"
Anice permitted herself the very tiniest edge of a grin. But her eyes widened a little and her voice was honey. "Can't you, Mr. Stokes?"
"I'm afraid I can't!" he tried to awe her with his assurance.
"But you see, Mr. Stokes," she said very, very gently, her tone soft as silk, mild as new butter, "I saw the man come back again and again and—I know who he is."
That was letting him have both barrels, and now she waited serenely, watching the storm of emotions that, despite his efforts at control, played across his handsome face. He would have enjoyed wringing her soft white neck; but of course he had to bluff it out.
"Then, in that case, Miss Mayhew, I'm afraid I still can't understand why you came to me with this—this story," he said harshly.
"Oh, but that's simple, Mr. Stokes," she explained with pretty eagerness. "You see, it's unbearable to go on living next door to that sort of house. And so I thought it would be best for me to sell mine and go away."
Barton tried not to let her guess the sharp relief he felt at that. His tone was hearty, business-like as he said briskly, "Well, now, that seems quite a sensible thing for you to do. I have a friend in the real estate business who'd be glad to handle the deal."
"But you don't understand, Mr. Stokes," she interrupted him sweetly. "I had hoped to sell my house to you."
"To me?" Barton was by now a little groggy but still game. "And why, in heaven's name, should I want it?"
She all but laughed in his face.
"It's such a nice little house, Mr. Stokes," she told him sweetly.
Barton glared at her furiously.
"I'm only asking five thousand for it," she told him. "And that's very cheap."
"Five thousand dollars for a dilapidated little old shack of a house that is worth about fifteen hundred, even with the present housing shortage?" he barked at her furiously.
Anice was still limpid-eyed and gentle—but there was a tone in her voice that he very much disliked when she said smoothly, "I'm sure you would find it an excellent investment, Mr. Stokes—with all that vacant property beyond it. I've heard that Mrs. Stokes is interested in buying property like that for development, but I thought I'd make you the offer first."
A cold chill began in Barton's stomach and spread all over him, until he said through his teeth, "In other words, unless I give you five thousand dollars you will go to Mrs. Stokes with this—this ridiculous story?"
Her blue eyes flickered coldly for a moment and she did not look quite so young or so gentle.
"It is the truth, Mr. Stokes, as you and I both know," she stated flatly. "I feel it my duty—my solemn duty— to dispose of my house at a fair price, either to you or to Mrs. Stokes. And I'm not quite sure that I shouldn't have gone to Mrs. Stokes first. After all, she has been shamefully treated. As a woman, I owe it to her."
"It's sheer blackmail," protested Stokes.
"I'm not quite sure that my house isn't worth more than five thousand dollars," said Anice, and there was an inflexible quality in her voice that made the sweat break out on Barton's forehead. "After all, if I am to be driven from my own home by the wickedness of a fallen woman and a man who is one of the town's most prominent citizens, a married man, a father, a churchman—" She shivered delicately, and added, wide-eyed, "It just makes me want to sell my house and go away somewhere where I'll never be reminded of what I've seen all these nights."
"If I buy your house, you will leave town?" demanded Barton savagely.
"There's nothing in the town to interest me, once I've disposed of my property," she assured him smoothly.
It didn't take him long, of course, to make up his mind. It was blackmail, nothing else; but she had been neat about it. If he gave her the money she would leave town. She kept her composure, her air of girlish innocence with difficulty as he drew out a checkbook and opened it. "Here are the papers to make the sale all legal and everything." She smiled at him winningly as she brought the envelope out of her large flat white bag and laid the papers on the desk before him.
In the soft, velvety darkness the man drew the girl closer in arms that were jealously close, and with his cheek against her soft white throat, he said huskily, "Tell me that you love me, darling."
She smiled in the darkness and her fingers touched his cheek lightly. "I love you," she said gently.
He thrust her from him almost violently and slid out of bed, fumbling on the nightstand for a package of cigarettes. He found two and lit them in the darkness, the match a tiny pinpoint of flame in the darkened room.
As he gave her one of the cigarettes, he said grimly, "You're lying, and we both know it. Why do I go on kidding myself?"