The Black-Eyed Stranger

The Black-Eyed Stranger

by Charlotte Armstrong

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781453245644
Publisher: Road
Publication date: 02/21/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 216
Sales rank: 795,221
File size: 834 KB

About the Author

Edgar Award–winning Charlotte Armstrong (1905–1969) was one of the finest American authors of classic mystery and suspense. The daughter of an inventor, Armstrong was born in Vulcan, Michigan, and attended Barnard College, in New York City. After college she worked at the New York Times and the magazine Breath of the Avenue, before marrying and turning to literature in 1928. For a decade she wrote plays and poetry, with work produced on Broadway and published in the New Yorker. In the early 1940s, she began writing suspense. Success came quickly. Her first novel, Lay On, MacDuff! (1942) was well received, spawning a three-book series. Over the next two decades, she wrote more than two dozen novels, winning critical acclaim and a dedicated fan base. The Unsuspected (1945) and Mischief (1950) were both made into films, and A Dram of Poison (1956) won the Edgar Award for best novel. She died in California in 1969.

Read an Excerpt

The Black-Eyed Stranger

By Charlotte Armstrong

Copyright © 1983 Jeremy B. Lewi, Peter A. Lewi, and Jacquelin Lewi Bynagta
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-4564-4


IF, among flamingos, you found a dove ... Or, in with the writhing orchids, one small rose....

He was leaning, as he had a habit of doing, on the wall, inside the room where the party was roaring, but outside the party. The black eyes smudged in on his thin tired face missed very little and so he noticed her in the pale-blue frock.

Women at this party wore reds or blacks or, for shock value, pure white. Gowns tended to be naked somewhere, or tight somewhere. Women postured all around the room and their glances, whether bold or veiled, were calculated. But this one, in pale blue, sat quietly on a wooden chair against the wall and looked about her with friendly curiosity. Of all things! In Emanuel's brother- in-law's apartment! One young lady!

He heaved himself away from the wall and walked around until he was beside her. "Hi."

"Oh, hello."

"You need a drink or anything?"

She said, "I have one, thank you."

He leaned on the wall. Now he saw that needlework on the blue frock had been meticulously and daintily done and he knew, as he knew many things without analysis, that it was a very expensive frock, indeed.

"Cinderella, honey," he said, softly, "haven't you got into the wrong ball?"

"I'm only here for a few minutes," she said, "looking on." She agreed to her difference and she agreed to his recognition of it. She was young, all right, not much more than half as old as he. She had a tooth out of line at the edge of her smile. In her very young upturned face it was a touch of the urchin. It exercised, he noted with surprise, a curious tug on his heart.

He was groping for something, maybe a memory, that might account for that funny little feeling, when she said, accusingly, "You're just looking on, too, aren't you? I noticed."

He didn't show surprise. He didn't, often. He said, "I guess that's right, sis." And repeated, "Sister."

"Do you know who all these people are?" She squirmed on the chair like a child at the circus. "You do, don't you? Please tell me."

He let himself lean on the wall. Looking down on her brown head, he told her. He named the so-called actresses, and the so-called models, and he named some of the men and some of the sources of their power. "Over there, talking to that tow-headed boy, that's our host. A so-called gambler. You know him, sister?"

"I met him," she said gleefully, "just now. I think it's very interesting."

He considered the hooded eyes of their host and all the posturing people. He said, sharply, "Somebody's going to see that you get out of here?"

"Any minute," she confided. "I haven't very long. Please tell me some more."

"You find it interesting," he drawled, "to be among thieves and swindlers and one or two professional killers?"

"Really?" She looked up doubtfully as if now she thought he might be kidding. "Is that really what they do in the world?"

He moved his body out from the wall to put it between her and a pair of eyes and was amused at himself, and disturbed, too. "Why, what do you do in the world, sister?" he teased her.

"I guess I just live in it, so far," she answered, lifting her eyes with so forthright a look that he winced. Such a look, to him, was shocking. "I go to school, of course," the girl said. She put her thumb nail to her teeth, and it was the urchin again. But she took it away. "I just wonder," she said, looking very wise, "what happened to them. In what way did society fail?"

He bit his cheek. "You studying ... like, say ... sociology?"

"Not this term. I'm going to take it next term, though." Her level gaze ripped past the amusement on his face. "You think I ought to be home with a nursemaid." She challenged. "Don't you? Why?"

"Only because it's so," he answered, rather sadly.

"So silly," she said loftily. "What can be the harm? In just looking on? What if I sit here for about fifteen minutes and just watch them? How will that make any difference in my life or anybody's?" It was a practiced argument. She had said this to someone before. Now, she looked up and he felt again shock and he shivered. "What's the matter?" she asked at once.

"Hm?" He drank from his glass. "Cat walked over my grave, I guess. Ever have that?" He did not smile. "No difference," he went on, "so long as you don't tangle with any of these characters. Including me."

She smiled. "What do you do in the world? Are you a criminal?"

His dark eyes despaired of her. "That's not etiquette. You do not ask." The girl giggled. "You see?" he said. "You don't believe it for a minute. But for all you know, I might be."

"But you're not?" She made it a solemn question.

"No," he said. "No, it so happens. I guess you'd say I was a writer, if you had to say." He watched her.

"Would I know your work?" She accepted this gravely, quite ready to be respectful.

He laughed and shook his head. "Nothing fancy. I do a kind of reporting."

"Oh." She looked a little pinker, a little flustered. "Oh, but you wouldn't ... You don't write a column or anything? Because the family would be horrified."

"I'm glad," he said dryly.

"No, no. You see, they'd blame Alan and they shouldn't because I made him bring me. I just wouldn't wait in the restaurant."

"Maybe you should have waited in the restaurant," he drawled. Then he stiffened. "Who?"

"Alan Dulain. Oh, do you know Alan? He's over there, talking to our host. It's a thing he had to do for the office ..."

"What's your influence on this Dulain boy, sister?" The black eyes were curious.

She smiled. "Well, we're engaged to be married," she said demurely, "for one thing. But you wouldn't, would you? Use my name or anything? Please don't tell who I am? I mean ..."

"I don't know who you are," he reminded her gently.

Then she took stock of him, searching his face with that level gray gaze that somehow touched him with fright, as it had before. "I'm Kay Salisbury," she said. "Kay for Katherine."

The skin around his eyes, as he closed them, was papery thin and stained brown as if with permanent fatigue. "I'm Sam Lynch," he said, "Sam for Samuel. Sister, go home, will you? Just go home."

"I guess I'm going," she said placidly, "because here comes Alan." She stood. She came as high as his chin. She turned gracefully, as if she stood in her own drawing room. (Oh, a young lady!) "Alan, I want you to meet ..."

The tow-headed young man who came to her side had a crisp kind of face, a sharp nose, a coolly chiseled chin. "Lynch," he said.

"Dulain," said the black-eyed man, mocking the crisp tone exactly.

"Oh, then you've met before?" The girl looked from one to the other but the men had no more to say, and she was the one who broke the stiff moment in which they stood as if the two of them had collided. She said, graciously, "Thank you for talking to me, Mr. Lynch. You were very kind and interesting. Good night."

The black-eyed man didn't touch her hand. He let himself lean on the wall. "So long, sister," he drawled, lifting his own thin hand halfway to a salute. "See you around sometime."

Red came up under Dulain's fair skin as he wheeled the girl toward an exit. "Who is he, Alan?" she whispered.

"He's no good, Kay. Come on, now, please. Time for you to get out of here."

"What do you mean," she gasped, "no good? Alan, he was very nice and he knows all about every ..."

"He knows too much and he tells too little," Alan said. "Too wise. That kind of fringe character." He wrapped her in her coat. He hugged her arm to his side. They were out of the apartment door. "Well?" he inquired.

The girl's head tilted. She said, judiciously, "It was very interesting."

He laughed. "Go on," he teased. "Lynch is no international jewel thief. He's a tired old phony."

"But I mean interesting ..."

"Told you there wasn't any glamour ..."

She said, seriously, "Alan, if I'm going to be any kind of wife to you ..."

He laughed. He kissed her. "Now that you are disillusioned," he said, "and my chore is done, shall we dance or what?"


ABOUT two months later, on a day toward the end of April, a big man and a little man entered a restaurant on Third Avenue. The time was nearly noon, but Nick's Bar and Grill was more bar than grill, and the row of battered wooden booths was empty.

The little man was dressed in a well-cut, well-kept dark suit that hung loosely from his shoulders as if from a hanger. He had been in the sun, and with sunglasses on, for, while his face and neck were evenly tanned, the flesh was pale around the soft and rolling red-brown eyes. Blue pale.

His companion was enormous, with thick-palmed, thick-fingered hands hanging out of his shabby brown coat. His face was round and red, as if he had been burned in the sun, somewhere, and when he forgot to hold his straggling brows in a scowl, it was a petulant, pouting, hurt-baby kind of face, with an underlip that seemed about to tremble.

These two sat down.

Fred, the waiter, scurried to the back regions. He pointed behind him with a jerk of the head. "Hey, Nick. Ambielli. Just came in."

Nick let resignation settle on his face. "Take care of him, Fred. If he wants to see me ..." He shrugged. Fate was fate. "So I'm back here, tell him."

The waiter approached them gingerly. He wished to lay a fresh cloth but the big man's forearms were planted heavily on the table. "Excuse me," the waiter said timidly, "the cloth ..."

The big man wound his face into a belligerent frown. "And what about it?"

"Nothing. Nothing. I gotta put it on here, please."

Slowly and suspiciously, like a wrestler breaking a hold the big man raised his arms.

"What'll it be, Mr. Ambielli?" Fred said obsequiously. "Drink, first?"

"Just bring me a steak, Fred," said the smaller man, in a pleasant cultivated voice.

"Rare or well done, Mr. Ambielli?"

"Well done."

"And that," said the big one ferociously, "means well done, see?"

"Yes, sir. Yes, sure. And yours, Mr. Hohenbaum?" Fred, the waiter, was a name-and-face connector.

"Gimme a chicken salad," the big man pouted, "and some potata chips."

"Yes, sir. Any vegetables? Fresh peas? String beans?"

"Tell Nick to slice a couple of tomatoes, thin." Ambielli moved a thin, tanned hand fastidiously, shifted and leaned back. The blue-white increased in his face as the eyelids fell.

"Nice to see you around, Mr. Ambielli," the waiter babbled, moving pepper and salt. "You're looking good," he lied. "Been back long?"

"Not long," said Ambielli melodiously.

The big man scowled, and the hulk of his torso lifted as if he would rise. "Sit down, Baby," said Ambielli quietly. Fred scurried away.

"Don't like so many questions," Baby growled.

"You got any money with you?"

"A couple of fives."

"Give them to me."

Baby Hohenbaum reached and got the money out, and Ambielli's hand took it with a smooth quick secrecy. The red-brown eyes were a little bitter. "I've changed my mind," he said. "I'm not looking for anyone, We'll manage alone."

"What d'you mean?" said Baby. "Who's going to drive the car?"

"I am."

"Who's going to pick it up?"

"I'll pick it up myself."

"What about your alibi?"

"I'll arrange for that. Nick, here, owes me something."

"I don't like it, boss."

"No?" Ambielli wasn't terribly impressed.

"No. You was always so particular. It don't seem—"

"Forget it."

"But in the old days—"

"New days are coming." Something blazed in the face, the brown unhealthy face.

"Whatever way you want it, boss," Baby said.

Ambielli's thin fingers walked up and down the stem of a fork. "The one thing I need to decide about is the collection."

Baby scowled, indicating that he pondered. "Take old money," he suggested. "Tell him, and wrap it like a package. Check it in one of them parcel places."

"Go on," said Ambielli. "How do we get the key? How do we go there and unlock the lock? And who will be waiting for us when we do?" All this was calm, fluent.

Baby looked hurt. His lip trembled. "They're not going to the cops," he scoffed.

Ambielli smiled. His shoulders moved in a delicate comment. He took from his wallet a piece of paper, a clipping from a newspaper's Sunday rotogravure.

"That's her, boss?"

"Do you know the man?"

The paper was frail in the sausage fingers as Baby began to read the caption. "Miss Katherine Salisbury," he read aloud, clumsily.

Ambielli made a noise through his teeth, like a swift whisper, which seemed to pass like a knife between the paper and the hand. The paper fell. The big man quaked. "Boss, I thought you wanted me to read it?"

"Read in your head. Keep your mouth shut." Am bielli's quick hand adjusted the paper on the table. "That's her fiancé."

"Oh? Oh, her boy friend?" Baby's brows were conciliating and humble.

The fingernail tapping the pictured face was well manicured. "And he is money, too."

"Yeah, boss?"

"A great deal of money."

"Can I read it, boss?"

Ambielli began to laugh. When he did so, the tan, too thin, but not unhandsome face changed its soft quiet character and was wolfish. "Can't you read without moving your lips? Do it while I'm here, then. Keep it down." His laughter was contempt.

Baby rolled his eyes over the forbidden name, and, moving his lips, muttered, "'In the Easter Parade is wearing a dove-gray soft woolen suit by Mary Kane, tricked out ...' Tricked?"

"That's right."

"'In mulberry.' Huh?"

"Go on."

"'Garnished at the throat by a pure silk scarf in mulberry and white, an exclusive Jonadab print from Jonadab, Madison Ave. Pumps, mulberry swede ...'"

"Suede." Ambielli was entertained.

"'by Martine'" read Baby. "'Bare-face bonnet by Bellamy.' What!"

"Fashion. That's fashion."

"'Her escort—'" Baby clamped his mouth over the name.

"Alan Dulain," said Ambielli softly.

"'is wearing—' Oh, no, boss! It's going to tell what he's got on!" Baby was going to laugh.

Ambielli made the hissing sound through his teeth again. Quick. Commanding. Baby brought his hands down at the sides of his body. Fred brought their food.

"Cup of coffee," the small man said languidly.

"Yes, Mr. Ambielli."

Now, a man came in, came by, skirting the waiter's rump. This customer was in the act of taking his hat off his dark head, and he did not seem to see the pair at the table but passed by and settled himself in the booth next in line.

"How long ago's this chicken cooked?" asked Baby belligerently, his fork poised.

"Since yesterday, only yesterday, Mr. Hohenbaum." Fred, the waiter, backed off.

He flourished his napkin, turned to the newcomer. "Yes, sir, Mr. Lynch?"

"Bring me two lamb chops, French fries, cup of coffee, and," the black-eyed man pinched the rolls in the basket, "a couple of fresh rolls while you're at it."

"Yes, sir. Drink, sir?"


Ambielli took salt. Baby picked up the ketchup bottle and slopped it on his salad. "Say, boss, I've been thinking ..."


Sam Lynch's ears pricked at that one soft syllable. His black eyes moved.

"You know ..." Baby slurped food, "if you want to live you got to eat."


"Well, that means groceries, don't it? I mean for the—"

"For the week end?" said Ambielli smoothly. But some move of the hand or eye had set Baby Hohenbaum to trembling again. The silence grew a little odd. "Go on," said the boss. "What's on your mind?"

"Well, it'd be cheaper, you know, if ... uh ... it was just you and me had to eat, for one thing."

"You want to be alone?" said Ambielli mockingly.

"I don't mean that." Baby looked hurt. "It's just, you take a dame, you got to go to all kinds of trouble. You can't ..."

"Wait a minute," Ambielli said. He pushed out of the booth. He took a step or two. "I thought so," he said genially. "Hello, Sam. How's the boy?"

"Live and breathe," said Sam. They shook hands.

"How are things with you? Still on the paper, Sam?"

"Free-lancing these days."

"I saw your piece about Emanuel." The thin lips curved in the tan face.

"That so? Like it?"

Ambielli shrugged. "Did Emanuel like it, Sam?"

"He should have. It was a pack of lies."

Ambielli showed his teeth. "Come, eat with us, boy?"

"Sure. Glad to. Hello, Baby. You back, too, eh?"

The big one was on his feet, his body bent over the table. His head turned on the thick neck, so that the short hair bristled on the fat creases. "Oh, it's you," he growled.

"It's only me." Sam started to shove into the booth, but Baby said, "Wait, get away. I got to sit on the outside."

Amiably, Sam let him out, and then slid into the corner. "What's the matter, Baby? Nervous?"


Excerpted from The Black-Eyed Stranger by Charlotte Armstrong. Copyright © 1983 Jeremy B. Lewi, Peter A. Lewi, and Jacquelin Lewi Bynagta. Excerpted by permission of
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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