Read an Excerpt
A Mitchell Tobin Mystery
By Donald E. Westlake
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1970 Tucker Coe
All rights reserved.
The conductor came through, calling, "Kendrick! Kendrick!" I glanced at him, then back out at neat white clapboard houses on quiet streets muffled by heavy trees. In the back yards stood small white clapboard garages with doors that opened out instead of lifting. In one back yard not far from the tracks a group of children had tied a child to a tree and were pretending to set fire to him. He was crying, and they were laughing, and over all was the barking of an excited dog—part German shepherd, he looked—prancing and bouncing around them.
The houses grew a little seedier, older, not so well cared for, and gave way to a row of stores, and then the station slid into the foreground and blocked the view. I got to my feet and took down my suitcase and walked through the nearly empty car to the front as the train rolled interminably to a stop. I was two hours from New York and a hundred million miles from home. I stepped down onto the wooden platform, the only passenger from my car getting off here, and went through the old push-door into the station building.
The ticket window was to my left, and on impulse I went over and asked the man when was the next train back to New York. Without checking anything, he said, "Four-ten." It was not yet eleven-thirty.
Would I have gone back if there'd been a train right away? Possibly, I don't know. The house would have been empty, Kate and Bill already gone to Long Island. I would have had a month to myself, Kate wouldn't have had to know I'd stayed home until she herself returned. And of course by then it would have been too late to make me go back to The Midway.
Would that have been better, as things turned out? But that's a meaningless question, really. In a life in which nothing matters nothing can be either better or worse.
On the other side of the station four identical taxis in orange and gray stood at the curb. A girl laden with suitcases, tennis racket, hat box, shopping bag and raincoat—probably coming home from college for summer vacation—was serially entering the first cab, so I took the second. There was no meter and no notice about fares.
The driver, a stocky man with a bushy red moustache, said, "Where to?"
I said, "What are the rates?"
"Depends where you're going."
The address was on a slip of paper in my shirt pocket, but I didn't need to look at it. "Twenty-seven North Laurel Avenue."
He pursed his lips under the moustache, studying me in the rearview mirror, trying to figure out exactly how much the market would bear, and finally said, "Two dollars."
"I think that's too much," I said.
He shrugged elaborately. "That's standard," he said.
"It's too much."
"You could try another cab," he said.
No one else from the train had wanted a taxi, and the other two were still at the curb behind me. "All right," I said, and prepared to struggle myself and my suitcase out onto the sidewalk again.
He barely let me get the door open before saying, peevishly, "Well, what do you think it's worth?"
I had no idea, never having been in Kendrick before in my life, but I couldn't go too far wrong if I halved his price, so I said, "One dollar."
He twisted around in the seat to look at me without benefit of mirror. "I tell you what I'll do," he said. "I'll split the difference with you."
"A dollar and a half," I said.
"That will include tip," I said.
"Tip?" He raised an eyebrow, and grinned under his moustache. "This ain't New York," he said. "Shut the door, I'm yours for a buck and a half."
Our route took us through the narrow congested downtown street, angle parking on both sides, one lane of creeping traffic in each direction. On both sides were the stores, the women's clothing shops trying to look modern in nineteenth-century brick buildings, the appliance stores with their dusty windows full of washing machines, the five-and-tens that could have been switched with those of any other city in the country without anybody noticing a thing.
After downtown, we went through the Negro section, old duplexes with sagging porches and only a dim memory of paint, skinny dusty-looking children running in bunches, even the skinny-trunked trees half stripped of their bark. Among the decayed automobiles rusting in front yards I swear I saw a dark blue Fraser.
This strip was followed by the strip of white-clapboard-white-owner houses I'd already seen another part of from the train, and then we came to a much older and once richer section, large turreted and gabled houses on extremely large plots, tall thin windows facing in all directions. But few of the houses were private homes any longer. A mortician was in this one, seven doctors in that one, a convent in a third.
Twenty-seven North Laurel was one of these mastodons, a huge irregular pile of gray stone, three stories high, full of tall narrow windows and architectural cadenzas, with a wrought iron fence separating the cracked sidewalk from the neat lawn.
There was no sign indicating this building's present status, but the driver obviously knew what it was, because he gave a surprised grunt and said, "Oh. I didn't know you meant that place."
"Would the price have gone up?"
"Could be," he said, looking at me in his mirror again.
I paid him, and he said, "You're gonna work there, huh?"
That was the wrong image. I said, "Why do you say that?"
"A loony wouldn't have argued the price."
"They aren't loonies," I said. Then I corrected myself: "We aren't loonies."
"Maybe you aren't," he said, and faced front, ending the conversation.
I struggled out of the cab, and it drove away. There was a break in the wrought iron fence at the driveway. I walked up the new-looking blacktop, seeing that it continued on past the side of the house, under the nineteenth-century equivalent of a carport, and on to the rear, where I caught a glimpse of a dark wood multi-car garage of more recent vintage than the house. Past the carport two muscular young men in khakis and T-shirts were washing a green Ford station wagon. They glanced at me, and back at their work. They would be Robert O'Hara and William Merrivale, though I had no way of telling which was which. The dossiers hadn't included photographs.
The entrance was under the carport. I went up three steps to an elaborate wooden door, and rang the bell. I stood there for a minute, and then one of the young men called over from the station wagon, "Go on in. Office to your right."
"Thank you," I said, and pushed open the door, and went in.
The house echoed. That was my first impression, and it never subsequently went away. Everywhere in that building, there was the sense of an echo reverberating just around the next corner, down some nearby corridor, up in the angle of some other ceiling. However muffled one's own movements might be, whether by carpet or design, an echo existed, independently and without reference to any cause.
The office was to my right, as the young man had said. I went in and found a girl there, making entries with a ballpoint pen on three-by-five cards. She had long straight brown hair, folk singer style, and wore a white shift and white sandals. I knew her name, too, and many of the details of the breakdown which had made her first suicidal and later catatonic and ultimately had led her here to this building, halfway back to a home that no longer really existed. It was embarrassing somehow to know so much about her without her being aware of my knowledge, as though unknown to her her clothing were gaping open in some disgraceful way. I found it difficult to meet her eye.
She had no trouble meeting mine. She looked at me, her eyes still full of whatever she was entering on the three-by-five cards, and said, "Yes? May I help you?"
"Mitchell Tobin," I said. We'd decided it would be easier and just as safe to use my own name. "I'm the new resident," I said.
"Oh, yes," she said. "I have your forms here someplace." Her desk was very messy, and she ruffled through it with the expertise of someone who always keeps her desk very messy, quickly coming up with a large manila folder. She opened this, withdrew a sheaf of papers held together with a paper clip, and passed three of the papers over to me. "Would you fill these out, please? You can sit at that desk there. You'll find a pen in the drawer."
I filled out the forms, putting down the lies and half-truths Doctor Cameron and I had agreed upon, and gave them back to the girl, who glanced at them briefly, had me sign two other pieces of paper, and then got to her feet, saying, "Let's find somebody to show you to your room."
"Couldn't I find it for myself?"
"I doubt it," she said. "It takes a few days to get your bearings around here. We've talked about making a map and giving everybody a copy, but nobody knows the place well enough to make the map."
She led the way out of the office and down the hall, which turned and forked with no apparent logic. Ahead of us I could hear a ping-pong ball tap-tapping. The girl stopped at a closed door, opened it, and the tapping suddenly increased in volume. She stuck her head in and called, "Jerry, you doing anything?"
A muffled response.
"Would you show a new man to his room, please?"
Another muffled response, and the girl turned toward me, smiling, leaving the door ajar. A few seconds later, out came a man I thought at first to be young, but then saw to be quite old. He was short and wiry, dressed in khakis and T-shirt like the boys outside, plus scuffed white sneakers, and his gray hair was cropped so close to his head it would almost pass for blond. He had a pinched face, a sharp nose, and a wide mouth open now in a broad smile, showing teeth so clean and so studiedly natural that they had to be artificial.
The girl said, "Jerry, this is Mitchell Tobin. Mr. Tobin, Jerry Kanter."
I acknowledged the greeting, telling Jerry Kanter to call me by my first name, and at the same time thinking how very different he was from the mental image I'd picked up from his dossier. Somehow, multiple murderers should be large and somber men, not short narrow-headed men with cheery smiles.
The girl said to me, "And I'm Debby Lattimore."
I was distracted by Jerry Kanter, and nearly said I know, which would have been disastrous. I caught myself, and said, "How do you do?"
Jerry said, "Where's Mitch go?"
"In Marty's room," she said. She told me, "Marty left a few weeks ago."
"Nice place," Jerry commented, about the room. "You ready for a hike?"
"I suppose so," I said.
"If you need anything," Debby said, "I'm usually in the office. Or Doctor Cameron will be there."
"I suppose I should see him," I said. It would be a relief to be with someone in whose presence I wouldn't have to lie.
"Oh, he'll be around," Debby said. "See you later." She nodded and smiled, and walked away down the hall.
Jerry said, "This way," and I switched my suitcase to the other hand and walked with him. "You're on the second floor," he said. "We'll do the back stairway."
The back stairway was enclosed, but broad enough for us to go up side by side. Jerry said, "Where were you?"
My first real test. "Revo Hill," I said.
He frowned. "I don't think I know it."
"Oh. I don't think we have anybody from there."
I knew they didn't. That was why Doctor Cameron had picked it.
The corridor we emerged to on the second floor was long and wide and lined with doors. Dark portraits of bygone admirals hung on the walls between the doors. Jerry led me along labyrinthine corridors, with me walking more slowly than necessary in order to try to memorize the way, and at last he opened a door on our right. "If you can't find the place the first few times you leave it," he said, "just ask somebody. Don't leave a trail of bread crumbs, we've got a mouse problem."
"I'll remember that," I said.
"Well, I'll see you," he said.
"Thank you for being my guide."
"Any time. You play touch football?"
"A little. Not for a long while."
"Well, naturally," he said. I didn't understand for a second, and then I saw I'd been on the implied edge of a disastrous slip. If I'd just been released from Revo Hill Sanitarium, naturally I hadn't played touch football for a while. It shouldn't even have been necessary to say it.
I was beginning to see that living a lie isn't quite as easy as it is made out to be in movies and books. The direct questions can be handled readily enough, but how does one edit his unconscious assumptions?
Jerry didn't notice anything particularly wrong, however. He merely assured me I would have a place on the touch football field whenever I wanted it, and went away, and I went into my new room.
It was quite large, really, and made to seem even larger by being underfurnished. The single bed on the right was far too small for the room, and so was the brown metal bureau on the opposite wall. The imitation Persian carpet was of good size, but the two chairs, writing desk and floor lamp were not by any means enough furniture to place on it.
I put my suitcase down, shut the door, and went over to look out one of my three windows. I saw lawn and trees, and through the leaves and branches I could make out the orange brick of the house next door. This was the opposite side of the building from the carport and Robert O'Hara and William Merrivale, the two young men washing the station wagon. I unpacked, putting my things away in the closet and bureau, finding no trace of the former resident. The room had been anonymous when I'd walked into it, and when I was done unpacking it was still anonymous, an empty large underfurnished room waiting for somebody other than me.
I didn't want to stay in here any more than necessary, and in any case I should be out and around, getting a look at the place. And I hadn't met any of the injured ones yet. So I left the room, uncomfortable that there was no way to lock the door, and made my way with some difficulty and one wrong turn back to the staircase Jerry and I had come up. I opened the door and stepped through, shut the door behind me, started down the stairs, and felt something catch my ankle.
I tried to stop myself, but there was no banister and my flailing hands bounced off the side walls. My balance was gone. I felt myself toppling, saw the staircase stretching down ahead of me with all those sharp stair edges like the serrations of a steak-knife, and far far away was the bottom.
I should have gone limp, of course, I should have relaxed and fallen like a rag doll, that's the way to minimize the danger of injury, but I wasn't thinking at all. I'd panicked, and I went down with my arms stretched out rigid in front of me, my hands wide open, my fingers splayed out, and when I hit I heard the dry quick snap in my right forearm. And nothing more.CHAPTER 2
I dreamed I was working on my wall, and for some reason my arm got caught in it. I looked at it in irritation and dismay and bewilderment, my arm stuck into the wall halfway up to the elbow, cement packed hard all around it, the bricks pressing against it on all sides. I couldn't understand how I'd done it, how I'd trapped my arm in there without noticing. I tried to move it, but the pressure was too great all around, and my straining made a sickening clammy ache travel up my arm and down my side and into my stomach, so I thought I would faint. Instead, I woke up.
My wall was still in my mind, so I didn't make sense for a moment out of what was actually in front of my eyes. In my confusion, all I had to cling to was the thought of my wall.
It's a good wall. I'm building it myself, slowly, carefully, a very little bit at a time. I'm in no hurry to finish it, the construction is its own purpose, and the wall is emerging from the ground straight and solid and permanent. When done it will be two feet thick and ten feet high, enclosing the back yard of my house on three sides, with no openings. The house itself is the fourth side, and when the wall is finished the only way into the back yard will be through the house. I have been working on the wall now for over a year, except during the coldest part of the winter, and it has attained so far a height of just over two feet all the way around. This may seem like slow progress, but to me at times it seems far too fast, because I can see that a day will come when the wall will be finished, and what will I think about then?
I turned my head, my mind full of thoughts about the wall, and gradually I began to recognize elements of the room I was in, and then memory fell into place and I remembered where I was and why I'd come here. And what had happened, the falling, the stairs speeding toward me, the dry snapping sound inside my arm.
My arm. I tried to lift it, and it seemed to be held down with heavy weights. I lifted my head instead, and looked along the length of my arm, and saw a fresh white plaster cast covering it from just below the elbow to the middle of my fingers. And my head—which ached, a dull foggy ache that made me fuzzy-minded—was wrapped in bandages.
So he'd gotten me. On arrival, a greeting from my prey. And I had come here warned against him.
Excerpted from Wax Apple by Donald E. Westlake. Copyright © 1970 Tucker Coe. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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