Read an Excerpt
A Pinch of Poison
A Mr. and Mrs. North Mystery
By Frances Lockridge, Richard Lockridge
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1941 Frances and Richard Lockridge
All rights reserved.
Tuesday, July 28: 4:50 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Max Fineberg sat on the running-board and the late July heat sat on his shoulders. The heat, that afternoon, sat on everything; it was a damp and steaming burden on the city of New York. The air was faintly hazy but the sun beat wickedly through it. Hot light glanced from the shiny top of Max Fineberg's taxicab and beat back from the glass of windows across the street.
Mr. Fineberg, his head sagging against the support of his hands, was worried and afraid. He wished he were somewhere else, doing something else. He wished somebody would tell him how he was going to make the next payment on his shiny cab and that he knew how Rose was feeling in the hospital and that his, until recently, instructor in economics at C.C.N.Y. would explain what a cab driver was to do with a dollar fifteen on the clock after ten hours of hacking and with the day almost done.
Hack the rest of the night was, Max supposed, the answer to that last one, and, to begin with, go somewhere else for customers. The present idea wasn't, clearly, working out, although it had seemed a good one two hours ago. He had wondered why none of the other hackers had thought of parking here, at the last stop of a bus line on which buses ran infrequently and where hot men and women might be expected to pay the difference for a quick ride to the nearest subway. He didn't wonder any longer; the answer was "no men and women," or at least none with cab fare. He had better, he decided, get along back to the subway station where there was, at the least, animation. Max stood up and walked, without enthusiasm, around his cab. There was now a pedestrian coming down the sunny sidewalk and Max felt a faint rising of hope. He stood by his cab and tried to make everything look very inviting.
Max tried to look inviting himself by standing a little straighter than he felt like standing and by smiling like a good salesman. He tried to keep the heat and weariness out of his voice as he said, "Cab, lady?" He put his right hand on the door handle and began to open the door in welcome.
The lady didn't seem to see him and Max's hopes descended. But, jeez, he had to get a fare sometime.
"Taxicab, miss?" he insisted. "It's pretty hot for walking, isn't it?"
That sounded like a young man who had been two years at C.C.N.Y. and might have been a professional man if things had worked out that way. At any rate, Max hoped it did. And, sure enough, the lady hesitated and looked at Max. Max smiled again like a good salesman. Under other circumstances, Max realized quickly, it would be easy to smile at her like — well, like Max Fineberg, whoever that was. Like the Max Fineberg who had been going to be — The girl interrupted Max's fleeting introspection by saying yes, she thought so, to the nearest subway station.
It was better than nothing, Max thought, holding the door open while she got in. He went around to his seat like a salesman giving good service and started the motor. He flipped the flag down and, looking back at her, asked if she wanted the top down.
"No," she said. "Don't bother. It doesn't make any difference."
She sounded almost the way he felt, Max decided, starting up. Not that she had any reason to — not with those clothes and — and everything. Max knew the way women's clothes ought to look. When he could he loitered his cab in front of the big shops on Fifth Avenue, scanning the sidewalks for fares, and the windows you couldn't miss.
This customer's clothes, now, came out of windows like that. You could tell the difference, particularly when you had been married a couple of years and had had somebody to point the difference out to you. You could tell by the way people stood, too, and by their skins and, particularly with women, by their hair. This customer's hair, now, had been done in a good place and done as often as it needed doing. This customer did not belong among those who get too tired and wonder how they're going to make next payments. This customer belonged among those who had got the breaks. If she wanted to, she could let him take her where she was going, even if it were halfway down Riverside, and never know the difference. She would eat just the same. He pulled up at a red light and thought about Rose in the hospital, and a dollar fifteen — make it a dollar fifty-five, with maybe a ten-cent tip — on the clock.
"I think," the lady said, "that I'll change my mind. I think I'll go all the way down, instead." She gave an address, and Max brightened. Make it maybe three dollars on the clock, and a quarter tip.
"Yes indeed, miss," he said. "It's pretty hot for subways." He paused, as if considering. "I tell you, miss," he said, "I could take you down the parkway. It's cooler that way; there's sort of a breeze off the river. Would that be all right, miss?"
"Any way," the customer said. "It doesn't matter. The parkway will do."
Max felt a lot better. Make it three-fifty on the clock, maybe. And he could roll fast enough to stir up some sort of a breeze, going down the parkway. It hadn't been such a bad stand after all, back there by the bus stop.
It was the thought of the subway which had made Lois Winston change her mind — the thought of the slow trip downtown, with the car filling until hot humanity swayed in a mass in front of her and alien knees pressed her own; the thought of the suffocating, packed ride on the shuttle at Forty-second and the stampeding rush at Grand Central; the thought of the ride uptown again and the dutiful walk in the heat across town from Lexington. Her rule about such matters was a good little rule in its place, she thought, smiling faintly to herself, but this was not its place. Not after this afternoon.
She glanced at the watch on her wrist and reassured herself that it was now too late to do anything more today. The puzzle she had carried down the hot street and into the cab — the cab, vague interest prompted her to discover from the license card displayed, of Max Fineberg — that puzzle would have to go over until tomorrow. She would put it out of her mind, she told herself firmly, and she would think of something else. She would not think about Buddy and his Madge, either, nor about — not, at any rate, for an hour or so about — Dave McIntosh, who looked so little like his name, and yet could at times act so — so McIntoshy. She would, she thought, not think about anything but getting home, and the coolness of a shower and lying for a while with the slatted blinds closed and the air-conditioner conditioning like mad. The trouble with the world today, she thought, is that there isn't enough air in it.
"Perhaps," she said, "you might open the top after all, driver."
"Sure thing, lady," Max said, and pushed a button. The rear half of the roof folded obediently back. Quite a cab, Max thought — if you could pay for it.
"It's quite a day, isn't it, lady?" Max said. "Ninety-six at four o'clock, the radio says. Would you like the radio on, miss?" Max almost forgot, as they stopped for the parkway and then turned on it, and as the meter clicked comfortingly, how much he disliked calling customers "lady" and "miss," and how irritatingly he resented the fact that he always did.
"No," the lady said. "It would probably be baseball."
"That's right, miss," Max said. "Baseball or war news. You can't get away from them. If it was good music, now, like you hear at the stadium."
"Yes," the lady said. She said it as if she were forgetting Max. But Max hadn't said anything to anybody for hours.
"Do you know, miss, you're the first fare I've had since eleven o'clock this morning?" he said. "That's a fact. What do they expect?"
What did they expect? Max wondered. What did they expect a guy to do, with a dollar fifteen on the clock and a wife in the hospital?
"I don't know, Mr. Fineberg," the lady said. I don't know, either, Lois Winston thought. What is Mr. Fineberg going to do?
Max was warmed by being called Mr. Fineberg. He was tired of being called "driver." It was seldom, now, that anybody called him Mr. Fineberg.
"It's pretty hard going, miss," Max said, over his shoulder. It was time he told somebody what hard going it was — somebody who didn't know about such things. "I'm a married man, miss, and what do they figure I'm going to do about it?"
Lois Winston looked at the narrow shoulders, slight with youth, and maybe with more than youth. There was a thin neck above the dirty collar of the blue shirt. Max's thin face, as he half turned it, speaking, was thin and clear, with delicate bones leaving shadows on the planes of the cheeks. He was very young, she saw, and very worried.
"I know," she said. She didn't know, perhaps. Things hadn't happened to her. But if you could get to know from what you saw, she could say that she knew. She saw enough of thin, worried young faces, male and female. "Heaven knows I do," she thought, tiredly.
Max paid no attention to what she said. Her words were merely an encouraging murmur.
"In the hospital," he said, "with a baby coming. That's where my wife is, miss." He stopped, and she could see his neck redden slightly. "I'm sorry, miss," Max said. "It's nothing to bother you with." You're a fool, Max told himself. What are you whining to her for? What the hell does she care; what's it to her?
"Oh," she said. "A baby. Another baby!"
"Listen, miss," Max said. "Forget it, see? I'm just a guy who hasn't talked to anybody all day, and I got talking. But it's not another baby. It's our first baby." She saw his shoulders stiffen defiantly. "Any reason why we shouldn't have a baby, miss?"
I could think of a thousand, she told herself. If you'd come down to our office some day, Mr. Fineberg, I could show you —
"No, Mr. Fineberg," she said. "There isn't any reason why you shouldn't have a baby. I was — I was thinking of something else."
"Sure, lady," Max said. "You'll have to excuse me, lady. I'm sorry I got started that way."
It was odd, Lois thought, as the pause after that lengthened until it was, to all appearances, permanent, how circumstances kept pushing the puzzle back into her mind. Now it was worrying her again — that odd thing she had discovered this afternoon, an hour or so before she encountered the discursive and self-centered, and oddly touching, Mr. Fineberg. If it meant anything, it meant something extremely unlikely; something darkly peculiar and out of the ordinary run. She was uncertain what to do, or whether to do anything. Already, perhaps, she had done too much; certainly, if there was anything to do she had done too much. There could be no doubt that, when the quite outlandish suspicion had crossed her mind, she had given herself away as completely as she well could. Perhaps that was because she was, for all her experience, an amateur; what they politely called a "volunteer." Professional workers, perhaps, came against queer things so often that they learned to hide any evidence of surprise. Maybe, in other words, Dave was right, and she would leave the work to those trained for it, and living by it. A professional had, it might be — and as Dave insisted — an attitude which no amateur could ever attain. Perhaps there was something about knowing you could, at any time and without inconvenience, merely walk out which kept you from ever, in the real sense, quite going in.
But the fact was, Lois thought as they turned down the ramp at Seventy-ninth Street, worked south and cut east through Seventy-second — the fact was that she was doing good work. Or had been, until today. Now she might be making a mountain of a molehill, or of the shadow of a molehill. The chances were, say, a hundred to one that she was ascribing importance to the patently coincidental.
"After all," she said to herself, "why? It wouldn't make sense. I must be imagining things, and that's all there is to it."
And if she were, she had certainly been silly enough before the interview ended. That sudden change from accustomed friendliness, which reached even to the exchange of inconsequential confidences, to stiff professionalism. That suggestion of further steps to be taken, so flatly in contradiction to everything which had gone before. The implication, so clear in everything she had said in those last five minutes, that something had gone wrong and new problems been raised. And if nothing had, if it turned out to be all fantasy in the mind of a tired young woman on a hot afternoon —
"Well," Lois thought, "I'll take some sort of a prize, certainly. But still, I'll have to tell Mary Crane."
It was consoling to think of telling Mary Crane, who would understand and make so little of it, and who would advise so gently that you would feel, afterward, as if you had thought the whole thing out for yourself. Tomorrow, since it was too late tonight, she would tell Mary Crane. Tomorrow would, in any case, do as well as today.
The cab turned down Park and then east through Sixty-fourth to circle the block and come west again in Sixty-third, while Max looked for numbers. All very swank, Max commented to himself, when he found the number and drew in. The doorman in summer uniform opened the cab door and stood, politely attentive, as Lois Winston paid the bill. She took the change, as Max's expressive face revealed bitterness. But when she dropped it into the coin purse in her bag, her slender fingers brought something out again and the doorman looked surprised.
"Listen, miss —" Max started. "I don't know —"
"You can buy something for the baby," Lois told him. "Or for the baby's mother. Goodbye, Mr. Fineberg." She smiled at him. "It was much cooler on the parkway," she said.
Max sat blinking at her, and then he blinked at the five-dollar bill in his hand. He regarded the doorman darkly, and the doorman regarded him with some suspicion. Then Max shrugged, and put the cab in gear. It was something to happen, all right. But she must be rolling in it, so probably it didn't mean a thing to her. He looked back at the apartment house, and at the back of the withdrawing doorman, solicitously conducting Miss — what was it he called her? Winstead? — through the dangers between curb and foyer. She was all right, but some people had all the luck. You couldn't get past that, Max told himself, as he turned up Park and trundled north again, with quick glances at the possible customers on the sidewalk. Some people had all the luck.
Next morning he remembered having thought that and remembered it with the awe of one who has been brushed, in passing, by the portentous. He remembered it while, sitting by a bed in the ward, he described the ride over and over to Rose, wringing it dry of drama. And Rose, who looked so pale and ill but was, the doctors said, going to be all right, looked up at him from the pillow and looked with admiration, as at one returned from adventure. Looking down at her Max fell silent after a moment, and then he took one of her hands. It was warm and sentient in his. He turned it over and let his thumb move gently along her wrist. He could feel her pulse there, going steadily. Thump, thump. It made him feel as if he had something very important to say.
"Rose," he said. "I tell you, Rose. It makes you think." He said it with a kind of wonder, as if it were really something very important to say.CHAPTER 2
Tuesday 5:30 p.m. to 9:45 p.m.
It was a surprise to find Buddy at home. It was a surprise to find him even in town. He called from the living-room as she stepped into the foyer of the apartment on the roof.
"Lois?" he called, and when, as she nodded to Mary, who stood smiling attentively at the foot of the stairs to the second floor, she admitted her identity: "Come here a minute, will you, Sis?"
"I'll want Anna in a few minutes, Mary," Lois said. "After I speak to Mr. Ashley. Coming, Buddy."
Buddy could stand up at the entrance of a lady with all the nonchalance of one who was still sitting down. He did so now.
"We thought you might like a drink," he said. "After your services in the cause."
Buddy was, she had to agree as she looked at him, handsome enough, for a man who drank as much as he did at twenty-three. He was wiry and thin, although you would never confuse his sort of thinness with that of, say, her little taxi-driver. He also looked discontented, and his voice was heavily ironic on "services in the cause."
"Hello, Buddy," Lois said. "Madge." She paused, with a tentative smile for the third person in the room, a relaxed and olive-skinned young woman in the very enticingly cut print, who reclined in a deep chair.
"Carol Halliday." Buddy was casual. "This is my sister Lois, Carol. My half-sister, to be exact. Lois Winston."
"Oh, yes," Carol said. Her voice was attractively husky. "How do you do, Miss Winston?"
"You all look very comfortable," Lois said. "And cool."
"Buddy has simply saved our lives, Lois. Literally." That was Madge.
Lois said she was so glad. Buddy said, "What'll it be, Sis?" He said it a little as if he expected a refusal. But she took a cocktail and, still standing near the door, sipped it slowly.
Excerpted from A Pinch of Poison by Frances Lockridge, Richard Lockridge. Copyright © 1941 Frances and Richard Lockridge. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.