History student Sarah Shepherd does not look like a killer. She is shy, but her writing so impresses Professor David Wakeley that he asks her to become his research assistant. Terrified, she begs him to stay away. For Sarah Shepherd is stalked by death, and the professor could be her next victim. For years, people close to her have died: an office colleague, a coworker’s mother, and Sarah’s husband, who dropped dead on their wedding day. David doesn’t believe her until a few days later, when his parked car rolls down a hill, seemingly under its own power, and kills a stranger. Something is tormenting this young girl, and David suspects it may be her family. To Sarah’s relatives, a group of old vaudevillians, deceit and even murder are second nature.
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The Better to Eat You
By Charlotte Armstrong
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1982 Jeremy B. Lewi, Peter A. Lewi, and Jacquelin Lewi Bynagta
All rights reserved.
Professor Wakeley, sliding his tray along in the campus cafeteria, spotted her ahead of him in the line. He took a dish of pudding, keeping her in the corner of his eye. She was the student he called, in his mind, the little blonde owl. Since he had a business proposition to make to her, he watched her take an empty table and he took his tray there.
"Hi, Miss Shepherd. Do you mind?" He didn't wait for her to say but began briskly to move his dishes. She made some polite reply, lost in the clatter, and he realized he had never heard her voice, although he had lectured to her listening face for almost an entire semester.
Miss Sarah Shepherd made an effect almost pathetically young, with that slight body, that crop of pale hair, a complexion of baby-fine delicacy, and then the big glasses on the small nose. But he had known from her sedate clothes, and her demeanor and her isolation, that she was not the run- of-the-mill co-ed. And now from the quality of her final paper, he knew even better, that she was what the rest of the class would call "older." Well-along in her twenties, he guessed. Now, this close to her, he could detect fine marks along the mouth which was, nevertheless, he was surprised to note, a very beautiful mouth, with thin lips, exquisitely cut.
He made play with the flimsy paper napkin. He settled himself. "I wanted to compliment you on the fine intelligent job you made of the term paper," he said in a benign professorial way.
"Thank you, Mr. Wakeley." She was polite. Her manner assumed that this was the total content and end of what they would say to each other.
David Wakeley was only thirty-four and he had long since developed the iron-clad technique for fending off female students necessary to his occupation. Now he dropped the armor. Maybe she was shy. But she was, beyond a doubt, a smart little thing and he had designs, so now David smiled his moderately famous smile, which broke the mask of vague harassment on his nice rugged rather boyish face. An old friend of the family, a Mrs. McGhee, claimed that his smile could charm birds off the trees, fish from the sea. But it didn't seem to charm Miss Sarah Shepherd. It seemed to alarm her. "Type it yourself?" he beamed.
"Oh yes, sir."
"Take shorthand, do you?"
"Summer is comin' in," said David, pursuing his own plan. "Another week and we'll be scattering. Unless you are going to summer school? Are you?"
"Ah ... taking a job maybe?"
"No." She was defending with monosyllables. She wasn't responding at all.
David dumped sugar into his coffee. "Travel?" He beamed foolishly. She was making him sound like an inquisitor. But he continued, just the same.
"No, sir. I don't think so." Her small left hand came trembling up to her bread and butter and he saw with a sensation of shock the wedding ring on it.
But he plunged, just the same. "I'm going to write a book," he announced cheerfully. "A history book."
"I read your book about the Revolution," she said, surprisingly.
"Did you? Good. Well, I've got my notes collected and I'm ready. I'm really popping with this one. But I need a girl. Somebody to do the nasty part. And I want very much to find somebody as intelligent about history as you are. I can pay the prevailing rates and I've plunked myself down here at this table because I want to ask you to take the job."
She said with a gasp, "Oh no, I can't!" And her eyes came for the first time to his and they were frightened. David was thoroughly puzzled. How could it be that this small, grave, quiet, intelligent person was frightened? It was a contradiction.
"I'd have bet," said David with light challenge, "that you'd like this work. I'd have bet big money, if I had any, that you'd be interested. And you'd find it fun."
"I ... I don't say I wouldn't like it." Her eyes were blue-gray and they were tempted to smile. "But I can't," she said, and the mouth was resolute. Her hand was trembling.
"Maybe I've presented the idea too abruptly," Said David a little less blithely. "But will you do this much? Will you think it over?"
"I couldn't possibly do it, Mr. Wakeley," she said, giving him the courtesy of deep and true regret. "I'm sorry. Thank you for asking me."
"I'm sorry, too. I didn't know that you were married ... is it ... Mrs. Shepherd? Perhaps that ..."
"I'm not married," she said in some kind of repressed anguish.
David leaned back and let one arm dangle over the chair back and he said without heat, but stubborn as a rock, "Then you are going to have to tell me why you can't do it. Is it just that you don't want to?"
Miss Shepherd looked at him again with that sad honesty. "I don't want to," she said quietly.
"I wish you did," said David without taking offense and undaunted. "Is it me you don't like? Or don't you want to mingle with the human race at all?"
He was watching that mouth. He saw little tremors in the muscles around it. The play under the smooth skin was fascinating. It took him a second or two to realize that this little blonde girl was pushed to the very verge of tears, that one more breath could blow her into a fit of weeping. She said, "Will you please excuse me?" in a voice near to breaking.
"That was a mean thing to say," said David contritely. "Please ... charge it up to my disappointment. When I read your paper I was excited. I thought you were exactly right, the whole way you think, your kind of mind is exactly what I need. Are you sure you can't work for me, Miss Shepherd? It would be a great favor."
"No, it wouldn't," she said in that breaking voice. But she didn't burst into tears. She controlled herself, instead.
"That doesn't convince me," he said gently.
Her eyes were frightened. Then her face grew cold. "Have you ever heard of a Jonah? Someone who brings trouble, bad luck, wherever she goes?" Because David folded his lips and did not speak she was forced to look at him. "That's why I can't work for you," she continued, almost angrily. "And why I shouldn't even be talking to you now. It isn't that I don't want to mingle with the human race. It's that I mustn't."
David's arm still dangled and he let it swing lazily. The little blonde began nervously to pick up her purse and her book. Then he said in his warm interested voice the one thing that could have kept her there. "Now, on the surface that sounds like what is called a 'crazy obsession.'" He saw the girl's lips part. "That's what you expect me to think? I'm afraid I have too much respect for your intelligence. I'd swear, right now, that you have a very good reason to make such a statement and I'd like to know what the reason is."
The tension went out of her body. She seemed to slump. She put both hands on the table. She said, "Thank you very much," in that voice on the edge of weeping. But she snatched back her control once more. "If I talk to you much longer," she said quietly, "something may happen."
"To me?" asked David brightly. "Do you really believe that?"
And she nodded.
"What sort of thing?" asked David with real curiosity. Then he leaned over the table. "Now see here. You may as well tell me all about it, right now, because I warn you, I am a stubborn type and I will not give up trying to persuade you to take this job until I have a complete and convincing reason why not. It looks to me as if you've been having a rough time. Tell me. Don't you want to tell me?"
She closed her eyes. Then she said, "I'd like to tell you. I'd like to know what you think. But ... maybe if I resign from your class. If ..." she seemed nervous, "you promise never to speak to me again. Will you promise?"
"No," said David calmly. "I will not."
The girl bit her lovely lower lip. Then she smiled. All term she had been the little blonde owl, with the big glasses turned solemnly, the mouth grave. But now for the first time David saw her smile and she was suddenly as pretty and as merry and as charming a girl as he had ever seen in his life. "You are stubborn," she said.
"I really am. So begin at the beginning," said he with a wonderful feeling of pleasure. This poor kid, he was thinking, alone with an idea like that! It shouldn't happen to a human being. She hesitated and then she clasped her hands and began.
"About two and a half years ago," Sarah said in her low sweet voice, "in December, I was working with some Americans in Japan. I am a secretary. I had been there ever since the occupation started." He noticed the good mind forcing organization into her story. "I had a date one night and the man came into my quarters for a last drink. It was quite late, into the morning. I gave him one for the road, and he roared off and he crashed and was killed. There was an inquiry into his accident and I was questioned because I was the last person who saw him alive. It ... it upset me very much. You see, although he wasn't drunk, not in the least, yet I had given him one for the road. And people kept saying to me, 'You were the last to see him alive.'"
"Bad shock," said David sympathetically. "But you were not guilty."
"No. I threw that off," she said straightening up, "I made myself feel not guilty. I threw it off so successfully that I fell in love and got married." She put her left hand to her lips. "That was the summer of 1951. We were married in a little chapel. All our colleagues came. It was a rough sort of wedding, nothing glamorous, and yet it looked like the beginning of everything. So we walked out into the air and he ... fell down dead at my feet."
"Good Lord!" said David, his hair rising. "You poor kid!"
"So," the girl swallowed, "I really had a breakdown after that. I gave up the job. They clonked me into a hospital for a while and finally they shipped me back to the States." Her hand clenched and released. "I was in pretty bad shape. My parents are gone. There wasn't any place, any person who would have any interest in caring for me but my grandfather, here in Southern California. So, although I hadn't seen him in years, I came to him. He took care of me until I pulled myself together."
"He lives in Los Angeles?"
"No. Near Corona del Mar. My grandfather is Bertrand Fox."
David realized she expected him to recognize the name. But he did not. So he just nodded.
"Early last year," the girl went on in a rather dreary voice, "I got a job in an architect's office. It looked like a wonderful job. The second day I was there, a man took me to lunch. The next morning he got word that his mother had died suddenly in the night and he had to leave, go back East. I ... left, too."
"A pretty unfortunate coincidence," said David, watching her closely. "On top of the rest. I see what you've been up against."
"I'm afraid I really blew my top," said Sarah. "I guess I had quite a relapse. But Grandfather finally talked me out of it again. And so I got another job. This time it was with a lawyer. I didn't ... I was afraid to let anyone take me to lunch. But one night the boss and I worked late and he'd missed his dinner, and so had I ... so we ate dinner together. Too nights afterwards his house burned down. Nobody was h-hurt, but ... I left. I couldn't ..."
"Now wait," said David. "This is really piling up. Men, eh? I wonder if that's significant at all."
"I thought of that, too," she said and their eyes met and there was that companionship of mind between them. "So when I went to work again I took care that it was a place full of women. It was a store, a fashion shop. I was secretary to the owner, a woman, and there wasn't a man for miles around. So things went along fairly well for a few weeks. Then one of the girls asked me to move into her apartment and share it, you know? Four days after I moved in she had to be taken to the hospital with a rare and pretty horrible disease. She ... got well. But I ... moved. And I quit."
"You didn't get the disease?"
"No, I didn't get it," said Sarah bitterly. "Nothing happens to me."
"It happens to people around you," said David thoughtfully. "Is that the sum?"
"Oh, no," she said. "It isn't. After that—" now her story came tumbling out, glad of release, "I didn't dare take another job. Now you can see why. Grandfather is so sweet. I could have stayed with him for the rest of my ... well, his life, anyhow. But he is a very old man and he's not very well and he lives ... While it's a gorgeous place, he has to be pretty much of a recluse and there is just nothing to do there. Especially if I can't make friends. Another girl, my ... my adopted cousin, runs the house and I'm not really needed. Finally it seemed that the only solution for me was to go to school. So here I am. But I have to be very careful, even so. I live by myself. I don't have a roommate. I shouldn't be talking to you."
"Tell me," said David, feeling very sorry for her, "are you sure this jinx or whatever it is still holds? You should experiment from time to time ..."
"Oh, it holds," she said sadly. "There was a boy in the drugstore, a nice kid—about seventeen, I suppose he was. I used to go in there a lot and he'd chat over the counter. It was just casual but I suppose I got too friendly. He was about the only person I ever did talk to."
"Something happened?" David felt he was hearing a terrible story.
"After about two weeks, his dog died. The apple of his eye. So you see, male, female, even the young ... I never went into that drugstore again." Her head shook.
"Any more?" David felt his jaw setting in anger.
"Yes, more. My landlady. She was quite elderly and she saw me alone so much ... She begged me to come with her to a family thing. It was just three old ladies. All we did was have tea and fruitcake. I ... I enjoyed it." The voice was ready to break again. "So she asked me again and I did go. We had tea and cheese biscuits and it was gossip about people I never heard of but it was people...."
"Just out of a clear sky they foreclosed her morgage. For no reason, she was dispossessed. She was just bewildered. But I knew. So now I live in a one-room apartment of my own."
"There must have been a reason for that foreclosure," said David.
"I couldn't find one out." She shook her head. "Now do you see why I can't take your job?"
"I see why you think you can't." David was frowning.
"It isn't unintelligent, is it, to notice a correlation, even if I don't know the cause?" She was watching him anxiously.
"No. You're right. That's too much to be chance."
"I think so, too," she said.
"I'm glad you told me, although it's the strangest thing I've ever heard. Nothing happens to your grandfather?" he asked shrewdly.
"No. I'm safe there."
"I can't help wondering if there is anyone who wants you to be alone and friendless. Or there, at your grandfather's."
"No. Nobody really wants me there. Even Grandfather wants me out in the world, for my own sake. He thinks I ought to go back to Japan. He's a little bit superstitious. Lots of stage people are. He says I picked up my ghosts there. I think I will have to go."
"There is nobody who is in any way your enemy?" asked David uneasily.
"I can't imagine who," she said forlornly. "Or why or even what it is. It's hard to do any searching for a reason because, of course, I have to do it alone. I just hope ... I just guess I must wait it out." Her eyes watched him for help.
"Will you work with me this summer?" said David sharply. "Because I very much want you to."
"No," she said, just as sharply.
"Will you go to the movies with me tonight?"
"No. Oh no ..."
"Will you meet me for ..."
"No. Please. Not you," she said and his eyebrows went up and he grinned.
"Well, now, I kinda fancy myself as just the type to make a good jinx-breaker and besides, as I keep saying ..."
A man's voice broke in. "Ah there, Sarah."
David looked up. Over them stood a tall man, a big man, and on his heavy shoulders rode a head that was ridiculously too small. He was in his thirties, not very old. There was something about him that seemed watchful.
"Oh, Edgar," said the girl with a sigh. "Professor Wakeley, this is Dr. Perrott. A kind of cousin of mine."
"How do?" said Dr. Perrott, shifting a book to shake hands.
"A student here, Doctor?"
"I come up a couple of times a week, sit in on some lectures, keep an eye on Sarah."
The small blonde had risen, too. "Edgar stays with Grandfather and keeps him well," she said. "Goodbye, Mr. Wakeley."
Excerpted from The Better to Eat You by Charlotte Armstrong. Copyright © 1982 Jeremy B. Lewi, Peter A. Lewi, and Jacquelin Lewi Bynagta. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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