Laila Breen is a strangely naïve girl. Her father Jonas is an adventurer, a robber baron who made his fortune traveling exotic climes. Laila speaks French and knows how to order fine food, but she cannot read a newspaper and can barely write her own name. Jonas settles in California, planning to get this strange eighteen-year-old tutored in the ways of practical life. He dies soon after, leaving his daughter rich, clueless, and alone. Her only friend is Dee Allison, a cousin who tries to help Laila even after the orphan catches the eye of Dee’s fiancé. Standing in Dee’s way is a gang of relatives who care more about Laila’s fortune than her future. When a housekeeper falls victim to poisoning, Dee fears for Laila. For a young girl with money, nothing is more dangerous than family.
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By Charlotte Armstrong
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1980 Jeremy B. Lewi, Peter A. Lewi, and Jacquelin Lewi Bynagta
All rights reserved.
The blue convertible wound upward. To the right and left the city infiltrated the valleys; it crept up the mountains. Behind, it spread and flattened toward the sea, miles to south and west, where the ocean curled and slapped the shore, where the sand would be crisp and hot, and the breeze salt- clean.
"We picked a day to get away," said the dark-haired man.
"A fine day," murmured the red-haired girl. The breeze stroked her bright hair. The September sun was a mantle on her shoulders. She was pretty sure they would not get away.
"We should take Laila with us," she said suddenly.
"We'll take your cousin Laila, if you insist." His voice was cooler than it had been.
"It's mean to run away from her, especially when we're going to the beach."
"Maybe. But if little cousin Laila is going, you and I can't talk, Dee."
"Since the minute your Uncle Jonas showed up, three months ago, there have been complications. I think we're going to have to talk."
Dee Allison's hair had the color and shine of a new penny but her skin was clear and fair with no rust of freckles. Her eyes were cobalt. Andy Talbot said her coloring was a blinding thing. He claimed that her photograph in black and white would reveal a perfectly beautiful stranger. Nothing now altered the spectacular quality of her looks. But she felt chilly in the sun.
"It's high time," Andy said. "You know that as well as I do."
The car missed a familiar turn. "Where are you going?"
"Up the hill."
"Andy, it's nearly one o'clock."
"You can give me twenty minutes. I've got things to say."
"All right," she said.
The car bent into the hills, entering the park. Dee watched the wild brush. For once she did not want to study lovingly the lines of Andrew Talbot's face, the inverted triangles of his brows, the thoughtful creases around the fine gray eyes, or the long inquisitive line of the nose. She had fallen in love with him as if she'd been struck by lightning. She had only just come out of school and into the business world when she ran right into the lightning bolt, the electric crackle that crossed the desks and the paper work between her and this dark-haired engineer, this Andrew Talbot.
It all went by threes, Dee was thinking. Three weeks after she saw him, his ring snugged down upon her finger. Three days later, Jonas Breen came home. With complications. Three months ago.
Jonas was dead, now. Her heart still mourned him, her fabulous uncle, the rover, the trader, who came and went unpredictably in an old-fashioned freedom. Dee had adored him for the splotches of color he had cast into the orderly days of her childhood. She had not seen Jonas for four years. He never wrote a letter but descended on the heels of a cable or telegram.
Now, Dee remembered the windy evening at the airport and herself waiting between Andy's tall silence and the tall volubility of her cousin, Clive Breen. She remembered her own mood, her mind at ease after the scramble of opening Jonas' house, of hiring a chauffeur, a maid, to help old Mrs. Vaughn who had spent the long solitary years there as caretaker. She remembered joining with Clive to tell another tale of Jonas, happy that Andy was going to meet him, looking forward, looking forward to the sight of him, herself.
She had been happy then. Not since. Not quite. Uncle Jonas had not come alone.
The plane put its wheels on the markers. Then Jonas came, a big man in a dark overcoat, with a free-floating stride that denied his sixty-odd years. Dee had seen nothing but his face and the gray tufts of his eyebrows lifted just as she so fondly remembered them until, embracing her, he said in her ear, "Dee, there's a surprise. Here's my little girl. Your cousin. Laila."
Dee lifted astonished eyes to see standing at Jonas' left a large well-fleshed, middle-aged woman in black clothes, hatless, with a pale countenance that was somehow oversize. This creature said, at once, in a sonorous voice, "Ah, not I. I am Pearl Dean. Are you well, Miss Allison?"
Too shocked even to answer, Dee had turned to see Andy smiling down on a small person at Jonas' right, a girl she'd never seen or heard of in her life before. She was about eighteen years old, tiny and slim, with brown shy eyes under delicate level brows in a face of pure ivory, with an incredible cascade of hair that fell all the way down her back to her neat narrow little waist and hung, soft and dark, looking as if it had never known a pin or a lotion but was as easily perfect as a bird's wing.
Clive found a voice. "Why, say, Uncle Jonas, you don't mean to tell us!" he croaked. "This is your daughter?"
"I do," said Jonas. "I do. She is. Laila, this is your cousin, Dee, my sister Dorothy's child. And this is your other cousin, Clive, my brother Bob's boy. And this?"
Dee told him who Andy was. She knew the strange woman in black was being explained to her, but she had been too stunned to understand. Six of them packed into the big Chrysler, Andy driving. They'd dropped this stranger woman, this Pearl, at a blue house in Inglewood where the light was on over the door. Dee had not then, and scarcely since, the slightest idea who she was.
While they drove on, Jonas told the tale. He had married, he said, a woman, a French woman, in the islands, years ago. Not until the February gone, Uncle Jonas said, had he known he had a daughter. The woman was then dying, and the word passed to him in some mysterious way. He had gone quickly and whisked his child out of that world, some tiny French island far, far in the western ocean and far under ... and he had whisked her into this one. He had been carting her around the globe, for a treat, to get acquainted, Jonas said. It was a tale typical of Jonas. You believed it or not. He didn't care.
"She's seen a lot, you know," said he. "But, funny thing, seen the least of this country. Flew on from New York. I'm tired, Dee. We should have taken a train and stopped over and seen things. But I'm tired. Felt like getting home."
Dee remembered the stab of her premonition. Uncle Jonas had never said such a thing in his life, before.
The big shabby house tucked under the hills above Los Feliz had been blazing for them and Mrs. Vaughn beside herself with welcome. It had never seemed shabby before. Decor never mattered where Jonas was; he shed his own splendor. But the girl, the dainty lovely little female creature was not at home in the heavy mahogany, the rusty brocade.
Dee remembered the three of them driving away, later.
Clive, chewing his lip, had finally said what had been burning in his mind. "I suppose she is his daughter? I suppose he did get married?"
Dee herself had no illusions really. Jonas' goings on had not always—or even often—been within the law, and he had not amassed his wealth by a sober attention to rules and regulations. Dee wondered, indulgently, how many women of how many colors Uncle Jonas might have married in how many islands. But she said staunchly, "Of course. Since he says so."
Andy said, "Your Uncle Jonas is a character, all right. I like him."
Dee, glad of that, pressing her against his shoulder, said, "Ah, yes ... yes, he is. And she's a darling."
"Odd little thing. Exotic, eh?" Clive chewed it over.
Andy said with full enthusiasm, "And very charming."
The convertible was rolling swiftly up the high gear road; it passed the Greek theater, made the curve at the bird sanctuary.
Dee, in her mind's eye, saw the roll of three intervening months, and the charm of her little cousin Laila, as it had been revealed. Saw her at the beach, saw the slim, lithe body sliding and flashing in the water with her long black hair clinging and following, a sight as wondrous as a mermaid. Saw, in her mind's eye, Andy on the beach, watching under half-drawn lids, muting his enthusiasm, becoming wary of showing it, beginning to hide what he felt.
Laila was a child of the sea, at home there. But on land she was lost. Never been to school at all. Jonas agreed there must be tutors, soon. Couldn't send her to kindergarten at eighteen. Couldn't throw her in with a group her own age, not the weird mixture of knowledge and ignorance that she was. Been around the world, Egypt, Paris, London and Rome. But unable to drive a car, and scared of a telephone. Laila spoke French as well as she did English. Could just about write her name. Couldn't really read a newspaper. Could order in two languages from a menu card—the most expensive stuff. Didn't know the multiplication table or anything else about arithmetic or indeed any science. Lost in a world like this one.
But fascinating. All Dee's days were taken up in a strange duty to be cousin, friend, guide and counselor to her little cousin, Laila Breen.
And yet, she thought, it wouldn't have been so bad, so totally disrupting, if Jonas hadn't had to die.
Jonas, of course, had known, and said yes to death, just as he always had to life. His oldest friend, Dr. John Stirling, had been hopeful at the beginning. But Jonas grinned. "Don't kid me, John. You don't really know one damn thing about what ails me. All you've got is a name for it. So have I. Call it dying."
Nevertheless, Stirling had set himself to do battle. At the last, he had moved Jonas into his own small hospital. That was when Dee left her job and moved into the house. Had to. Couldn't leave Laila to the mercies of the servants. Or to those of Pearl Dean, who persisted, who came too often, whom Stirling detested, and Andy disliked, and Dee herself could not fathom. Nor leave the little cousin to her cousin Clive, either. Clive was ... too rootless.
Anyhow, Jonas had said so. "Take care of the little one, Dee, and watch Clive, eh?"
"Oh, I will."
"Clive's not what I'd call responsible. Financially, for instance. Never takes a risk. Thinks he does. But that boy goes like an arrow to a certain loss." Jonas chuckled. "Some basic misunderstanding of the whole thing, Dee."
"And Pearl Dean. Well, I'm fond of her, Dee, but she won't do for Laila. Takes a hard head, first. Then, you can enjoy Pearl Dean."
"Yes, Jonas, I know. I'll watch."
"Going to give Stirling the worst of the job. I like your young man, Dee."
"So do I, Jonas."
"He'll take care of you, my dearie. He'll make a good fight of it. Nothing would disappoint him like missing the battle ..." Jonas sighed.
"I suppose not, Jonas."
"Take care of the little one, Dee. I want her to be a whole lot like you."
"Oh, Jonas, darling, don't you leave us."
"Expect I'll get along soon. See what's next, eh? Hold the fort, Dee." Dee's heart ached for him still.
No question, after that. Dee lived in the gloomy old mansion. It was her place. But her own life, just begun, had suffered a kind of cancellation.
The convertible reached the plateau at the observatory and hunted a parking space along the rail. The city was down there like a great living colored map, and they could see the sea shine like a sliver of mirror far away.
Well, thought Dee, not resentfully, but numb before the facts, here on the top of this little mountain, is where I get my heart broken.
There were things that had not been said, as well she knew.
There was the day that Jonas died.
For once, that morning, Dee let Laila go with Pearl Dean, who would soothe her with cloudy sayings. The servants threw themselves into tasks. Lorraine, that capable and conscientious woman, pretended to be scandalized by the dusty books and made Sidney, her husband, lift them down while she scrubbed the shelves. In the kitchen, poor old Berta Vaughn, red-eyed too soon, comforted herself in her own way. She reverted that morning to her old solitary habit, although Jonas had forbidden her vegetable patch, and no more would her slight, energetic figure creep along the ground among the beets and the beans or would she can and store and gloat over the long cellar shelves. Dee understood why Mrs. Vaughn was canning peaches that morning. Why the house smelled of sugar and spice. Why Lorraine attacked the shelves with such fury.
Dee herself would have been glad to pound a typewriter with somebody else's words, but she, uprooted from her own old habits, could only flutter from library to kitchen, pretending to supervise, denying the doom of that miserable day. At noon, Clive called from the hospital.
Jonas was in a coma.
Dee saw herself at the hospital, struggling with sorrow, trying, in Stirling's office across the hall from where Jonas lay, to get a message to Andy. Vivid as yesterday, she saw herself giving up, and putting her foot into the hall, and seeing with a surge of thanks his tall figure against the light of the entrance lounge. Vivid as yesterday, she saw her little cousin come creeping out of Jonas' room, turn on her toe, fly toward the lounge, run bodily into Clive who was restlessly walking in the corridor. Clive said some sharp thing to her which seemed to send her ricocheting away from him into Andy's arms.
Vivid as yesterday, Dee saw him enfold her, saw his head bending, saw the exquisite tenderness with which her lover accepted the dark head of her cousin Laila against his breast.
Even now, the sight stabbed her.
She'd seen Laila pass on like a little cork, bobbing on down the corridor into the harbor of Pearl Dean's black crepe bosom, and then Dee turned to face Dr. John in Jonas' door and the fact that Jonas was dead.
Andy had come up quietly behind her and stood by.
Nothing had ever been said.
But now he had something to say.
The convertible nosed the rail. Dee shifted the package beside her feet. "Why do you have to run errands?" Andy growled. "All those servants. All that money." He took out cigarettes and gave her one.
Andy was touchy about money. Dee remembered the evening after Jonas was dead, and Laila had been put to bed with what comfort Dee could give her. Downstairs, in Jonas' library, among the new-scrubbed shelves, Clive, who was spending the night at the house, had been mixing himself a drink. He said in his rather pleasant light tenor, "Look, do us grownups want to face facts? I can tell you what's in the will, if you want to know."
"I'd like to know," Andy admitted. He looked grim and uneasy. "How do you know? Did Jonas tell you?"
"I happen to know," evaded Clive. "I think you should hear this, Dee. Jonas left you five thousand, and me the same." He grimaced. "So, Talbot, if you had any dream that Dee was an heiress, forget it. Laila gets half a million in trust. Stirling's her guardian."
"That's wise," Dee said.
"Is it?" Clive gulped his drink.
"Of course. She needs it. We don't."
"What do you mean we don't?" Clive bristled.
"She means," said Andy, his tension gone, "that we are equipped to earn our way. I, for one, would rather. Whereas, Laila...."
"Eyewash," said Clive with a startled look. "Nobody would rather not have, say, a hundred grand. I think Jonas could have made a better division."
"Speak for yourself," Andy said coldly.
Clive had watched him over the glass. "You got a prejudice against marrying money?"
"Maybe," said Andy shortly. "My father married my stepmother for money. I saw what it did to him. Anyhow, I intend to get paid darned well for the work I do, and get a kick out of it."
Clive had smiled in a patronizing sort of way. "Well then, you are in love with your work, eh? Well, then, you've got no problems."
Andy said, too angrily, "You think there's only one. How to get money for nothing."
Dee remembered the disproportionate anger, then Andy's struggle to control it. Andy had gone home rather abruptly after that.
"He's got problems, Dee," Clive had said when Andy was gone.
"I'm going up, Clive. I'm tired."
"Me too, soon. Listen, Dee ... I was close enough to them, down there today, to hear. Do you want to know what was said?"
"No, thank you."
Clive paid no attention. "Laila says, 'Oh Andrew, take me away! Take me away from here!' And your boy, Talbot, he says, 'I can't. There's Dee.'" Then Clive had stood watching her with his light eyes, poised and urbane in his well-cut suit, the glass easy in his hand. "So don't kid yourself, Dee. He's got problems."
Dee had held herself quite steady. "Good night, Clive. Don't drink the whole bottle."
"I don't drink, Dee. I'm no lush. You're just annoyed. But it's a tip, that's all. Better get back to that office, hadn't you? I'll keep an eye on Laila. Be glad to. I mean, you're in love with this guy, Talbot, aren't you? You better watch it."
She'd walked away and up the stairs and seen his sleek head turn carelessly away.
Excerpted from Catch-As-Catch-Can by Charlotte Armstrong. Copyright © 1980 Jeremy B. Lewi, Peter A. Lewi, and Jacquelin Lewi Bynagta. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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