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The clipping came to Shepard in the mail one day in early June. The envelope, typewritten and postmarked New York, bore the address of a place he had not lived in for years. The address had been crossed out and another written in ink. This too had been scratched out and the Florida address, his present one, scrawled in pencil.
There was nothing in the envelope but the clipping.
Hotel Man Dies in Crash
Paul Kirby, 34, night manager of the Briteway Hotel near Times Square, was killed instantly late last night when his car overturned on Saw Mill River Parkway. State Police reported that Kirby was apparently intoxicated and driving at high speed. He failed to negotiate a turn, crashed into an island of the parkway, caromed off one tree, struck another, and overturned. Kirby was alone and driving toward New York. The circumstances surrounding the accident mystified authorities when it was learned from Mrs. Corinne Kirby, wife of the victim, that Kirby had been missing since Friday night. Mrs. Kirby, 29, a striking redhead who lives at the Westbridge Manor on Riverside Drive, explained that her husband had quit his hotel duties early on Friday night but had not returned home. She said she had no knowledge of his whereabouts from Friday night until news of the crash reached her just before midnight Saturday. The situation was further shrouded in mystery when police discovered a .45 caliber automatic in a pocket of the dead man's clothing. Mrs. Kirby was at a loss to understand why her husband would be carrying a loaded pistol or where he got the weapon. An investigation is underway.
Neil Shepard read the itemthrough rapidly the first time with increasing astonishment. He read it a second and third time slowly, studying each line until the facts were clear and he was finally able to believe them.
There was nothing in the clipping to indicate when this had happened, and it seemed important to Shepard that he know. The paper showed little sign of age and had taken less than ten days to reach him. Still, this proved nothing. It might have been mailed a long time after, though that seemed unlikely.
He turned the column over to a partial account of the opening investigation of a well-known labor leader for the misappropriation of union funds. The investigation had been given wide publicity and Shepard remembered it well. It had started three weeks ago.
With a sense of satisfaction, Shepard folded the item and carefully tucked it in a compartment of his wallet. The satisfaction came from knowing that Kirby had been dead less than a month. This would mean that Corinne -- whom the reporter's glib understatement had called merely a striking redhead -- would be still too mournful over her loss to have become involved with one of the male vultures who must be, even now, hovering near.
Or would she be mournful at all? Admittedly, Shepard didn't know. It had been nearly six years since he had had any real knowledge of her. And now he was a little surprised, a little shocked, to find that he cared.
How quickly we forget abuses. How easily violent passions are restored. They need only the small opening of a door long closed.
Shepard finished going through the rest of the mail automatically, without interest -- mostly bills. He did something then he hadn't done for years. Though it was only ten minutes after eleven in the morning, he went to the liquor cabinet, took down a bottle of good bourbon, and poured himself a double shot. His hand trembled slightly and a few drops spilled on his shoe before he could get the glass to his lips. He squeezed his eyes shut and swallowed all of it as though it were some necessary medicine. He wiped his shoe with a cloth and went to the expanse of picture window in the living room. The window was round -- shaped like an immense porthole.
He looked down from two stories upon the graying, rain-spattered face of the ocean. It had rained a lot that June along the Gold Coast of Florida, while the few tourists there during the intermission between the winter stampede and the summer flurry wept. And the natives, as they laughingly called themselves, applauded, liking the change from the endless glare of sunny days.
Neil Shepard lit a cigarette and exhaled with a long sigh. The tension was leaving him. It was ridiculous to conceal from himself his relief that Paul Kirby was dead -- or more accurately -- relief that Corinne was free. For he had not known Kirby, a man who had never been more to him than a name in a clipping, the first clipping having come in the same strange way, announcing the marriage. Though now that Corinne was free, he had no idea, what, if anything, he was going to do about it.
Shepard was a tall man and large. At thirty-two he had a look of bigness and robust muscularity. He had a full head of dark blonde hair, and his features were round and boyish, except for the hard thrust of jaw. His wide, pleasant mouth smiled easily, a helpful asset in the tourist trade. Few people noticed that while he was smiling his eyes were sometimes sad, sometimes cold.
The first clipping had come to him at the end of the Korean hostilities, as he was about to embark for home. At college, he had been a member of the ROTC, and this had brought him the dubious pleasure of being sent to Korea as an infantry lieutenant. What had ever made him think that a walking, magnetic mine of a girl like Corinne would sit bovine and docile, waiting for his return?
The newspaper item announcing her marriage -- marriage, not engagement to that stranger, Paul Kirby, came as a double shock. He had received a warm letter from Corinne only the week before. And further, the Korean mess was over and soon he would be sailing for home, busting with his stupid plans for a hasty wedding and eternal honeymoon.
Nothing from Corinne -- just the clipping -- cold, anonymous, the address typewritten. It must have come from some jealous, frustrated female wanting to knife him for his neglect of her -- some evil dame he had long forgotten. The hell with her. It didn't matter.
He had written Corinne a six-page letter. He knew it was only an outlet for his emotions -- a useless crying in the wind. He tore it up. Then for years after, when she came unbidden to mind, he lied to himself that he didn't even care enough any more to hate her.
That sturdy old ambition for a stodgy but secure job had gone out of him. He had moved around a bit and he had done a number of things, some of them crazy and foreign, for excitement. He had been a dealer in Vegas, a bartender in New Orleans, a longshoreman in San Francisco, a charter-boat captain's helper in Miami.
He had made good money, too. More than he would have made at any routine desk job. And everywhere he went, he lived simply and saved. He didn't know why he saved -- except that he was looking for an easy out -- a way to make money and have time to live.
He found a way out along the Gold Coast of Florida. He bought a lonely, undeveloped piece of coast property below Pompano Beach. Quite a lot of cheap land. Pure speculation.
As he expected, in a couple of years the land in that section began to be bought up for the tourist traps -- hotels, motels; nightclubs, apartments. The value of his property went up. He sold half of it, and with the money built a six-unit beach apartment house on the remaining half. He lived in one apartment and rented the others. He might never be wealthy, but with luck he would never have to do what he called real work.
The subtropical living was lush. While most of the nation huddled in the mean rooms of decaying cities to escape snow, slush and the cold of cracked and littered streets, he swam in the clear, luke-warm green of the Florida ocean and drank rum coolers beneath tall palms leaning in a tropic breeze. He listened to a few gripes, salved the little wounds of the tourists, and collected the rents. Simple. Magnificently easy.
Of course there were drawbacks. Taxes were high; there was upkeep and a fair-sized mortgage to be paid off. Thus his net profit provided only a decent living. What he needed was more capital. If he had fifty -- even forty -- thousand he could add units so that he would have more than just a living. But that kind of money was impossible to save. He would have to find some angle that had so far escaped him -- maybe another piece of property bought low and sold high. Meanwhile, he had a very good thing.
He had, in fact, thought it would be the cure-all of his troubles. In the matter of work and finance, it was -- but somehow intangibly it was not. He had found that you exchanged one kind of boredom for another. Low work was a bore -- and so was no work. Gray skies and bitter cold were a bore -- and so were sunny skies and languid heat. Dark buildings were a bore -- and so were clean white ones, if you saw enough of them. Scrubby streets were a bore -- and in time, so were sandy beaches.
So really, he didn't win after all.
Shepard poured another drink from the bottle. He sat down in a big chair next to the window and sipped slowly. He glanced at the phone on the table at his elbow, downed the drink, and picked up the receiver.
When the operator got the number through New York information, he told her to place the call station-to-station. He clenched the phone against his ear tightly, listening.
He kept listening.
"Hello. Is anyone there?"
Her voice was startlingly familiar. He opened his mouth to speak. He found nothing to say -- not even hello. Quietly he cradled the receiver.
It was enough -- she was there. He smiled. His eyes were at once sad and cold.
After a moment he heaved out of his chair and went into the bedroom.
Indiscriminately, and with frantic haste, he began to toss clothing into a suitcase.
Copyright © 1959 by Robert Colby