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I was driving more or less automatically and it was a little time before I realized that I'd crossed the state line into Connecticut. That lush Luce landscape wouldn't be denied recognition for long, though. A thin moon slanted its light through the foliage which partly overhung the parkway, momentarily lighting up a flat, still stream as the Buick sped by. Another quarter-mile and I turned into the cutoff which would take me to the Golden Peacock Inn.
I'd been there once before, with Lucy Marling, who is just about the best sob writer the town had seen in a decade—but tonight I was celebrating my emancipation from newspapers, and I figured that I'd do it alone and unaided. I wanted a quiet evening to sort myself out, not another interminable session of shop talk, too much bourbon and the final problem of sidestepping Lucy's bedroom. Not that I hate women, but… hell, put it down to blue blood on the distaff side or something. Just an old gripy sourpuss, that's me. Anything you say.
I eased a size eleven tan brogue off the accelerator to take the last bend before the inn, my mind pleasantly anticipating the peculiar and particular aromatic savour of the Peacock's admirable cuisine. Maybe a bit of cold consommé, a steak with mushrooms on the side…
I didn't get any farther because it was at this point that I saw her. She was lying in the center of the roadway and, as far as I could judge from behind my headlights, was wearing a raincoat. I had about twenty-five yards in which to stop and it was dead easy because I wasn't clocking a mile above forty. The hydraulics clawed the Buick down to a walk and I was pulling into the grass verge before I got on to it that this might be the old stick-up—with a dummy sprawled on the road as sucker bait. My back hair began to stand on end and in another second I'd have been slamming the accelerator pedal like a pug in a panic—but it was at this precise moment that the lady moved.
That is to say she rolled half over, tried to get on to her hands and knees and then quit. Okay, dummies don't move and even stick-up men don't usually put live ladies in the paths of the oncoming traffic.
Just the same, I slid out of the car with a heavyweight spanner in my right hand, a jumpy look on my face and a collection of butterflies playing peek-a-boo immediately in the back of my belt. Maybe I should always turn up at the scene of the crime with a squad from the homicide bureau and the D.A. to hold my hand.
The girl was now lying on her side. The stylish gabardine slicker was nicely plastered with Connecticut mud and a long tear gave me a free leg show up to and including the area above the right knee where the nylons end and the thigh begins. If Marlene Deitrich can do better she'll have to show me. The recumbent young person was hatless and wore a mane of golden hair flowing just below shoulder-level.
If anybody had been around on the lookout for the season's most inept remark I'd have won it outright there and then.
I said, "Is anything wrong?" Goddamn it, the cub reporter on his first assignment would have sounded like a veteran in comparison.
A heavy blob of rainwater slid off a leaf and fell coldly on my bare head. I came to. Abandoning my fine caution or forgetting cold feet—have it your own way—I dropped to one knee, cradled the girl in my arms and dragged her into a semi-sitting position.
She had a long, oval face which just missed being beautiful because her nose tilted fractionally. The mouth was wide, scarlet; the lips were slightly parted against rather small white even teeth. A nice line in purple bruises etched itself down her left cheek, tailing away just above the side of her mouth. She was wearing a soft linen shirt which rose gracefully before it declined and vanished into the wide belt of a swishy black satin skirt. Altogether, quite a dish. But I wanted steak and mushrooms.
The way things looked I could have stayed there with her in my arms for the next couple of weeks and I hadn't the time. So I slapped her twice on the un-bruised cheek. Ten seconds later I was looking into the kind of jet-black eyes you sometimes see in little girls' dolls—the more expensive ones that say "Mama" and wet themselves.
This one could talk anyway. She said, in one of those husky voices that sound good when put to work out front of a band in the Rainbow Room, "Who are you?"
"Lady," I said, "if it is any comfort to you in this crisis of your life, my name is Dale Bogard. I am thirty-six years old and I am liable to write a book about you sometime in the forseeable future."
The black eyes studied me gravely for a moment. "Why me?"
"I don't know—yet."
"But you will?"
That seemed to be about all on the subject of my literary aspirations. There was one of those silences. The girl broke it.
"If," she said. "we're going to remain here for the night I suppose we could make love on the roadway or devise a new theory of relativity to lighten the silent watches—oh!"
I said, unmoved, "That's all right, I'm not making a pass—I'm merely making sure you don't carry a nice little automatic pistol somewhere in the recesses of your elegant costume."
She giggled. "But I liked it," she said.
I thought, goddammit why did I have to almost run over a nymphomaniac? Why couldn't it have been some nice, unsophisticated farmer's daughter with freckles and a gingham gown? But maybe they don't wear gingham gowns anymore and the girl rides into New York every second Monday to have a beautician take her freckles out.
So I stood Miss Nobody on her size fours. She swayed a little and leaned against my arm. I thought it was probably sixty percent genuine, so I slung her off the ground, walked back to the car and dropped her into the front seat. Then I walked around to the other side, climbed in and started the motor. She sat there looking straight ahead and said, without turning, "Can I have a cigarette?"
I gave her my near-gold case full of Luckies because I hadn't opened it for myself since the day before yesterday. She took the smoke straight down into her lungs and let it out in a thin, continuous spiral, like a man. I think women ought to smoke like beginners, with a delicate cough or two, and waste half the cigarette. You can see I'm an old-fashioned guy, too.
I took my foot off the clutch and let the old Buick glide along in third for a bit. I said casually, "Are we going your way?"
"Wherever you say, big man."
I wriggled my shoulder-blades against the seat back.
"What was the name you so carefully didn't tell me?"
She let out some more thin blue smoke. "You didn't ask, did you?"
"I'm waiting patiently. You've had plenty of time to tell me—or to think up an alias."
She laughed. I hated to say it was softly musical. So I didn't.
"My name is Julia Casson. I shall be twenty-seven years old next February tenth."
"What were you doing in the roadway just now?"
"I mean why?"
"I was pushed out of a car. That's how I got the bruise. I expect I've got a slight concussion, too."
I said, "We are going to have some dinner at the Golden Peacock Inn. Perhaps you will tell me some more of your recent life history over coffee."
"For you to put in a book?"
"I thought I might be able to help," I said stiffly.
The lights of the Golden Peacock swung into view on our right like a battery of fairy lamps twinkling on an arc of unseen Christmas trees. I pulled into the driveway and parked. Three other cars were already lined-up—a Chrysler, a Dodge and a very ritzy-looking Lincoln whose apple-green bodywork had apparently been picked out in solid silver.
We passed through the double doors into the bar, took three steps down to the right and allowed Giuseppe, the inn's venerable head waiter, to steer us to a side table for two.
"Mistaire Bogard—a pleasure to see you again. What shall it be?"
"Large juicy steaks, slightly underdone, French fried potatoes and mushrooms," I said. "Three steaks—one raw," I added.
"Sare?" Giuseppe's pencil wavered, arrested in mid-air.
"For the lady's cheek. She fell over the washing-machine at home. Got a bruise."
"I convey to madame our sorrows, yes." Giuseppe bowed.
"Madame will be charmed. She will be further charmed by a deep apple pie and vanilla ice cream you will bring on later, old friend."
Giuseppe made rapid notes.
"And the bottle of champagne, '27, which you can bring on any time now," I finished.
Julia Casson looked at me. "If you think I'm going to drape a steak on my face in public…"
I sighed. "All right—go and do it in the ladies' room while I get myself some beer at the bar. But for you I wouldn't be drinking champagne," I added bitterly.
"No, just careful. I have to figure out how to get along."
The raw steak arrived and she departed for the ladies' room. Giuseppe led the way, bearing the thing on a silver salver. They made quite a tableau. I noticed that a tall, distinguished-looking guy with iron-gray hair and a beautifully-cut suit, who looked like he might be on his way to pose for a Lord Calvert whiskey ad, let his eyes follow them from the room. His companion, a darkly handsome woman in her middle forties, noticed it, too—without enthusiasm.
I threaded my way through the tables. The place was three-parts empty. The only other early diners were four hearty-looking men in the far corner mopping up celery soup and debating the next World Series, and a youngster drinking cocktails with a heavily-built middle-aged man with thick silvery hair worn over-long so that it swept the tips of his ears. I got the silly idea that he should have had one of those pink-brick complexions that so often go with that kind of head, but his face seemed colorless—though I couldn't see much of it because he was half-turned from my line of vision and his chin was sunk on his chest as though he was figuring something out. A man-of-the-world's advice to the young coming up. Though the young didn't look as though he needed to be shown much. He was dressed as sharp as a tick and wore ash-blond hair and had a long white scar running from eye-level to the part where the mouth twitches. He gave me a long insolent stare as I passed. Just the kind of boy you'd love to have your young daughter bring home—so you could sling him out on the seat of his smarty pants.
I grabbed a tall iced lager at the bar and took half of it down in that long, satisfying drink which is the one you really came for.
Chester MacIlleney, who owned the inn, was prowling about the bar lounge waiting for the customers.
"Quiet tonight, Mac?"
"So far—it'll be busy enough in another hour."
"I guess so."
He leaned backwards against the bar with his elbows hitched on the polished top. "You're a newspaperman, aren't you? Know that guy with the elderly one in there?" He asked it softly without looking any place in particular.
"No. Why—have you got any ideas?"
MacIlleney traced patterns on the lounge pile with his immaculate dress shoe. "This is an elite little joint. I just want to keep it that way. But if you don't know him then maybe I'm getting jumpy in my old age."
He stopped fiddling around with his toe and looked up. "Only thing is I can generally smell a hood at a mile and a half—and I don't like the look of that guy."
"I shouldn't worry. They look like they've only stopped off for a meal and will be on their way in less than an hour."
"Maybe you're right." He changed the subject. "Everything okay with you?"