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The Sixth Commandment
By Lawrence Sanders
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1979 Lawrence Sanders
All rights reserved.
The First Day
WHEN THE ALARM CHATTERED at 7:00 A.M. on Monday, I poked an arm out from my warm cocoon of blankets and let my hand fall limply on the shut-off button. When I awoke the second time, I looked blearily at the bedside clock. Almost eleven. So much for my early start.
Thirty-two is hardly a ripe old age, but I had recently noticed it was taking me longer and longer to put it together and get going in the morning. Ten years previously, even five years, I could splurge a rough night on the town, maybe including a bit of rub-the-bacon, get home in the wee hours, catch some fast sleep, bounce out of bed at seven, take a cold shower and quick shave, and go whistling off to face the day's challenges.
That morning I moved slowly, balancing my head carefully atop my neck. I climbed shakily out of my warm bed with a grumbled curse. I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror, shuddering. I took a long, hot shower, but the cobwebs were made of stainless steel. Brushing my teeth didn't eliminate the stale taste of all those cigarettes the night before. I didn't even try to shave; I can't stand the sight of blood.
In the kitchen, I closed my eyes and gulped down a glass of tomato juice. It didn't soothe the bubbling in my stomach from all that whiskey I had consumed while reviewing the Thorndecker file. Two cups of black coffee didn't help much either.
Finally, while I was dressing, I said aloud, "Screw it," went back into the kitchen and mixed an enormous Bloody Mary, with salt, pepper, Tabasco, Worcestershire, and horse radish. I got that down, gasping. In about ten minutes I felt like I might live—but still wasn't certain I wanted to.
I looked out the window. It was gray out there, sky lowery, a hard wind blowing debris and pedestrians along West 71st Street. This was in Manhattan, in case you haven't guessed.
A sickeningly cheerful radio voice reported a storm front moving in from the west, with a dropping barometer and plunging thermometer. Snow flurries or a freezing rain predicted; driving conditions hazardous by late afternoon. It all sounded so good.
I pulled on whipcord slacks, black turtleneck sweater, tweed jacket, ankle-high boots. I owned a leather trenchcoat. It was a cheapie, and the last rainstorm had left it stiff as a board. But I struggled into it, pulled on a floppy Irish hat, and carried my packed bags down to my Pontiac Grand Prix.
Someone had written in the dust on the hood: "I am dirty. Please wash me." I scrawled underneath, "Why the hell should I?" I got started a little after twelve o'clock. I wouldn't say my mood was depressed. Just sadly thoughtful. I resolved to stop smoking, stop drinking, stop mistreating my holy body. I resolved to—ahh, what was the use? It was my holy body, envelope of my immortal soul, and if I wanted to kick hell out of it, who was there to care?
I stopped somewhere near Newburgh for a lunch of steak and eggs, with a couple of ales. There was a liquor store next to the diner, and I bought a pint of Courvoisier cognac. I didn't open it, but it was a comforting feeling knowing it was there in the glove compartment. My security blanket.
Driving up the Hudson Valley was like going into a tunnel. Greasy fog swirled; a heavy sky pressed down between the hills. There was a spatter of hail against the windshield. It turned to rain, then to sleet. I started the wipers, slowed, and got a local radio station that was warning of worse to come.
There wasn't much traffic. The few cars and trucks were moving steadily but cautiously, lights on in the gloom. No one even thought of trying to pass on that slick highway, at least until the sand spreaders got to work. I drove hunched forward, peering into the blackness. I wasn't thinking about the storm. I wasn't even brooding about Dr. Telford Thorndecker. I was remembering Joan Powell.
I had met her three years ago, and there was a storm then much like this one. I wish I could tell you that we met like that couple in the TV commercial, on a hazy, sunlit terrace. We are sipping wine at separate tables, me red, her white. I raise my glass to her. She smiles faintly. The next thing you know, we're sharing the same table, our wine bottles nestling side by side. Don't like that? How about this one, from an old Irene Dunne-Cary Grant movie. We both run for the same cab, get in opposite sides. Big argument. Then the bent-nosed driver (Allen Jenkins) persuades us to share the cab, and we discover we're both going to the same party. You know how that turns out.
It wasn't like that at all. On a blowy, rancorous day, I had a late-afternoon appointment with my dentist, Dr. Hockheimer, in a medical building on West 57th Street. It was only for a checkup and cleaning, but I'm terrified of dentists. The fact that Dr. Hockheimer gave all his patients a lollipop after treatment didn't help much.
Hockheimer shared a suite with two other dentists. The waiting room was crowded. I hung up my wet trenchcoat, put my dripping umbrella in the corner rack. I sat down next to a nice looking woman. Early forties, I guessed. She was holding a two-year-old copy of the National Geographic in shaking hands. The magazine was upside down. I knew exactly how she felt.
I sat there for almost five minutes, embarrassed to discover I had a lighted cigarette in each hand. I was tapping one out when a god-awful scream of pain came from one of the dentists' offices.
That was all I needed. I jerked to my feet, grabbed up trenchcoat and umbrella, headed for the door. The nice looking lady beat me out by two steps. At the elevator, we smiled wanly at each other.
"I'm a coward," she said.
"Welcome to the club," I said. "Need a drink?"
"Do I ever!" she said.
We dashed across Sixth Avenue, both of us huddling under my umbrella, buffeted by the driving rain. We ran into a dim hotel bar, laughing and feeling better already. We sat at a front table, about as big as a diaper, and ordered martinis.
"Was that a man or a woman who screamed?" I asked.
"Don't talk about it. Joan Powell," she said, offering a firm hand.
"Samuel Todd," I said, shaking it. "You a patient of Hockheimer's?"
"We won't get our lollipops today."
"These are better," she said, sipping her drink.
She stared out the front window. Cold rain was driving in gusts. There was a flash of lightning, a crack of thunder.
She was a severely dressed, no-nonsense, executive-type lady. Sensible shoes. Tailored suit. High-collared blouse. Those crazy half-glasses. Good complexion. Marvelous complexion. Crisp features. A small, graceful, cool lady.
"You're a literary agent," I said. "An executive assistant to a big-shot lawyer. Editor of a women's magazine. Bank officer."
"No," she said. "A department store buyer. Housewares. You're a newspaper reporter. A computer programmer. An undercover cop. A shoe salesman."
"A shoe salesman?" I said. "Jesus! No, I'm with the Bingham Foundation. Field investigator."
"I knew it," she said, and I laughed.
The storm showed no signs of letting up, but I didn't care. It was pleasant in there with her, just talking, having another round. I never made a pass at her, nor she at me. It was all very civilized.
I figured her about ten years older than I. What I liked most about her was that she was obviously content with her age, made no effort to appear younger by dress, makeup, or manner. As I said, a very cool lady. Self- possessed.
After the second martini, she stared at me and said, "You're not the handsomest man I've ever met."
"Oh, I don't know," I said. "Last year I was runner-up in the Miss King of Prussia contest."
She looked down at her drink, expressionless.
"King of Prussia," I said. "A town in Pennsylvania."
"I know where it is," she said. "It wasn't a bad joke, but I very rarely laugh aloud. I chuckle inwardly."
"How will I know when you're chuckling inwardly?"
"Put your hand on my stomach. It flutters. Listen," she went on before I had a chance to react to that, "I didn't mean to insult you. About not being the handsomest man I've ever met. I don't particularly like handsome men. They're always looking in mirrors and combing their hair. You have a nice, plain, rugged face. Very masculine."
"And you're polite. I like that."
"Good," I said. "Tell me more."
"Your eyes are good," she said. "Greenish-brown, aren't they?"
"Was your nose broken?"
"A long time ago," I said. "I didn't think it showed."
"It does," she said. "Do people call you Sam?"
"They do. I don't like it."
"All right," she said equably. "Todd, may we have another drink? I'm going to split the check with you. Are you married?"
"No, Powell," I said. "Are you?"
"Not now. I was. Years ago. It was a mistake. Have you ever been married?"
"No," I said. "I was madly in love with my childhood sweetheart, but she ran off with a lion tamer."
"My childhood sweetheart was a lion tamer," she said. "Isn't that odd? You don't suppose ...?"
The rain had turned to sleet; the streets and sidewalks were layered with slush. There didn't seem much point in trying to get anywhere. So we had dinner right there in the hotel dining room. The food wasn't the greatest, but it was edible. Barely.
We talked lazily of this and that. She was from Virginia. I was from Ohio. She had come directly to New York after graduation from some girls' school. I had come to New York after a two-year detour in Vietnam.
"Army?" she asked.
"Not infantry," I said hastily. "No frontline action or anything like that. Criminal investigation. And there was plenty to investigate."
"I can imagine," she said. She stared down at her plate. "Tom, my younger brother, was killed over there. Marine Corps. I hate violence. Hate it."
I didn't say anything.
We had wine during the meal and vodka stingers afterward. I guess we were both more than a little zonked. We started chivying each other, neither of us laughing or even smiling. Very solemn. I don't know if she was chuckling inwardly—I didn't feel her stomach—but I was. What a nice, nice lady.
"Do you have a pet?" she asked. "Dog? Cat?"
"I have this very affectionate oryx," I said. "Name of Cynthia. I've trained her to sit up and beg. You have a pet?"
"A lemur named Pete," she said. "He can roll over and play dead. He's been doing it for a week now."
"Did you ever smoke any pot?"
"All the time. Takes me hours to scrub it clean with Brillo. You're not gay, are you?"
"Usually I'm morose."
And so on, and so on. I suppose it sounds silly. Maybe it was. But it was a pleasant evening. In today's world, "pleasant" is good enough.
After awhile we settled our bill—she insisted on paying half—and staggered out of there. We stood on the wind-whipped sidewalk for half an hour trying to get a taxi. But when a storm like that hits New York, empty cabs drive down into the subways and disappear.
We were both shivering under the hotel marquee, feet cold and wet. We watched the umpteenth occupied cab splash by. Then Joan Powell turned, looked into my eyes.
"The hell with this, Todd," she said firmly. "Let's get a room here for the night."
I stared at her, wondering again if she was chuckling inwardly.
"We've got no luggage," I pointed out.
"So?" she said. "We're a couple in from the suburbs. We've been to the theatre. Now we can't get home because the trains aren't running. Try it. It'll go like a dream."
I looked at her admiringly in the elevator. The bellhop, key in hand, was examining the ceiling.
"Call the babysitter the moment we get in the room, dear," I said. "Ask her to stay over with the children. I'm sure she'll oblige."
"Oh, she's obliging," Joan Powell said bitterly. "I'm sure you find that out when you drive her home."
The bellhop had a coughing fit.
The room was like our dinner: endurable, but just. A high-ceilinged, drafty barn of a place. A fake gas fireplace that wasn't burning. But a big radiator in the corner hissed steadily. Crackled enamel fixtures in the old-fashioned bathroom. One huge bed that sloped down to the center.
I gave the bellhop a five, and he was so grateful he didn't wink. He closed the door behind him, and I locked it. I turned to Joan Powell.
"Well, here we are, dear," I said. "Just married."
We could hear the world outside. Lash of hard rain against glass. Wail of wind. Thunderclap. Window panes rattled; the air seemed to flutter. But we were sealed off, protected. Warm and dry. Just the two of us in our secret, tawdry place. I didn't want to be anywhere else.
She undressed like an actress changing costumes. Off came the steel-rimmed spectacles, tailored suit, Gucci brogues, opaque pantyhose. A bra so small it looked like two miniature half-moons.
"What size?" I asked hoarsely, staring at her elegant breasts.
"T-cup," she said.
She kept making sounds of deep satisfaction, "Mmm, mmm," when I put my lips and teeth to her. She was so complete and full. Not a dimple. All of her taut. Bulging hard. Trig, definitely trig. With strength and energy to challenge. I thought this was the real her. The other was role-playing. She was waiting to be free of the pretend.
What did we do? What did we not do? Our howls muffled the wind; our cries silenced the hissing radiator. She didn't give a damn, and after awhile I didn't either.
I topped her by a head, at least, but that can be interesting, too. I could look down with wonder at this cool, intent woman. She was very serious. It wasn't a your-place-or-mine thing. It had meaning for her. It was significant, I knew. And responded.
Sinuous legs came around my waist. Ankles locked. She pulled me deeper, fingernails digging. Her eyes were open, but glazed.
"Samuel," she said. "Samuel Todd."
"That's me," I said, and gave it my best shot.
I think it was enough. I hope it was enough. But it was difficult to tell. For a woman who hated violence, she was something.
The best part was when, sated, we lay slackly in each other's arms. Half-asleep. Murmuring and moaning nothing. That was nice, being warm and close, kissing now and then, rubbing. The storm was outside, growling, howling, but we were totally gone. Everything was quiet and smelled good.
Three years later I remembered that first night with Joan Powell. The storm was still howling and growling outside, but now I was alone. Well, that's the way I wanted it. Wasn't it?
My headlights picked up a sign through the snow's swirl: COBURN—1 MILE. I leaned forward to the windshield, peering into the darkness, searching for the turnoff. I found it, came down a long, winding ramp. There was a steel sign that had several holes blown through it, like someone had blasted away with a shotgun at close range. The sign said: WELCOME TO COBURN.
I was in the village before I knew it. An hour previously, I later learned, there had been a power failure; Coburn was completely without electricity; all street lamps and traffic signals were out. I glimpsed a few flickering candles and kerosene lanterns inside stores and houses, but this deserted place was mostly black. I drove slowly, and when I saw a muffled pedestrian lumping along with a flashlight for company, I pulled up alongside him and cranked down the window.
"The Coburn Inn?" I yelled.
He motioned forward, in the direction I was heading. I nodded my thanks, sealed myself in, and started up again. For a few moments I thought I was stuck; my wheels spun. But I rocked the Grand Prix back and forth, and after awhile I got traction again and plowed ahead. I found the Coburn Inn dimly lighted with propane lamps. There were a lot of cars parked every which way in the courtyard: tourists who had decided to postpone their trips, to spend this broken night in the nearest warm, dry haven.
In the lobby it looked like most of the stranded travelers had decided to wait out the storm in the restaurant- bar. The flickering lamps gave enough light so I could see crowded tables and stand-up drinkers keeping two bartenders hustling.
There was a kerosene lantern on the front desk.
"Sorry," the bald clerk grinned cheerfully, "we're full up for tonight. The storm, y'know. But you can sit up in the lobby if you like. Plenty to eat and drink. Make a party of it."
"My name's Samuel Todd," I explained patiently. "My office called for a reservation."
"Sorry," he grinned. "No reservations for tonight. We're taking them first-come, first-served."
"I'm here at Dr. Thorndecker's request," I said desperately. "Dr. Telford Thorndecker of Crittenden Hall. He recommended this place. I'm meeting with him tomorrow."
Something happened to the grin. It remained painted on his face, mouth spread, teeth showing, but all the cheer went out of it. The eyes changed focus. I had the feeling that he wasn't seeing me anymore, that he was looking through me to something else. A thousand-yard stare.
Excerpted from The Sixth Commandment by Lawrence Sanders. Copyright © 1979 Lawrence Sanders. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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