Patrick Quentin, best known for the Peter Duluth puzzle mysteries, also penned outstanding detective novels from the 1930s through the 1960s under other pseudonyms, including Q. Patrick and Jonathan Stagge. Anthony Boucher wrote: “Quentin is particularly noted for the enviable polish and grace which make him one of the leading American fabricants of the murderous comedy of manners; but this surface smoothness conceals intricate and meticulous plot construction as faultless as that of Agatha Christie.”
With his marriage to his wife on the rebound—but still precarious—Peter Duluth knows the last thing he needs now is more trouble. With Iris away making a movie, maybe he can finally get back to writing his next Broadway hit.
Unfortunately, after the sultry Deborah Brand slinks into his car asking for a ride, things are about to get far more complicated—and dangerous. Because when his passenger ends up dead, Peter becomes ensnared in a conspiracy that will take him from the jungles of Mexico to the back alleys of New Orleans.
And if Peter isn’t careful, it may take him straight to the grave . . .
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I saw her hand first. It settled close to my shoulder on the window-frame of the car. It was slender, rather beautiful, unexpectedly white in this country of dark skin and tropical sun. It was a determined hand, too. It clung tenaciously, as if the car and I fulfilled some need and were not to be allowed to slip away.
She said: "Excuse me."
I ducked so that I could see her. She was standing in the full glare of the sidewalk. Behind her, the open entrance of the Hotel Yucatan showed blue- and-white tiles stretching to the patio and a few loitering waiters. She was the sort of blonde that rolls off the assembly lines in Hollywood or Broadway but could start a riot here in Mexico. At least, that was my first impression. She was dressed with the depersonalized perfection of a model in a silver-grey suit. She held a large red pocket-book.
She said: "I heard you telling the hotel boy you were driving out to the ruins at Chichén-Itzá."
Her hand was still firmly on the window-frame. "I've missed the tourist sight-seeing car. I believe there's a bus, but it's full of turkeys and pigs."
"It's all right?"
She walked round the car, threw her suitcase in the back with my own gabardine bag, and got in beside me. She crossed her legs. They were model's legs. Her silver-blonde hair, clean, well-brushed, hanging to her shoulders, was model's hair, too. All the props were so standard that it took me some moments to realize the individuality of her profile. It was quite unusual, angled, with stressed cheekbones and a straight nose. She had that polyglot beauty that only America produces — from a piece of this race and a piece of that. The effect was disconcerting. She couldn't have been much more than twenty. Young to be bumming around the wilds of Yucatan alone — if she were alone.
I asked: "Interested in Mayan ruins?"
She shrugged. "They're something one sees." She turned to face me. Her eyes were silver-grey, too. "How about starting, unless you want us to boil alive?"
Merida, even in the late afternoon, can be swelteringly hot. I rather resented the girl's dictatorial manner, but I nosed the car into the street and started forward past the white, pink-and-blue-washed houses with their blind wooden doors which guarded the tiled privacy of the patios inside.
She slumped back against the hot upholstery, gazing disinterestedly at a rickety horse-carriage that wabbled ahead of us. She found a cigarette in her red pocket-book and lit it with a silver lighter. She was treating me like a chauffeur. I couldn't be sure whether this was due to glamour-girl insolence or a very young person's desire to appear poised.
I didn't particularly care. I wasn't in a phase where an unknown girl made an impression.
After six of the most difficult months of my life I had just come through a crisis in my marriage. In Mexico both my wife and I had thought ourselves in love with someone else. Our reconciliation was still new and precarious as skin over a healed wound. The few weeks we had spent living together again had been dangerously awkward. When Iris received a movie offer, we thought it was safer to stay apart for a while. She went to Hollywood alone.
The experiment seemed to be working. On my own in Mexico City, I had written a play. I am more producer than playwright, but I was quite pleased with the result. Iris was enthusiastic about the script and wanted to act it on Broadway that winter. We had written back and forth excitedly about plans and, through the play, we had begun to be natural with each other again. Now her movie assignment was almost over and we were planning to meet in New York in ten days.
The thought of seeing her again was as exciting and uncomplicated as it had been in the old days.
I had flown to Yucatan a week before because it seemed stupid to miss some of the most spectacular ruins in the world In Merida I had hired a car, explored what little of the State was accessible by road and, incidentally, contracted a painful case of sunburn on the tropical sands of the seaport, Progreso. By now I was used to the friendly company of the small, dark Yucatecan Indians. The fashionable aloofness of this girl at my side was out of my mood.
If anything, I wished she hadn't happened to me.
She had tossed away her cigarette and was watching the passing sisal fields with their geometric lines of henequen plants squatting like giant artichokes on the red earth. Suddenly she said:
"I'm Deborah Brand."
"My name's Peter Duluth."
She didn't react to the name, which was a relief. It meant she wasn't one of those would-be actresses who know the telephone numbers of all the casting offices better than they know their alphabets.
I said: "Down from the States on vacation?"
"I've just flown up from Balboa. I missed my connection to Mexico City. That's why I'm going to the ruins. One has to do something with time."
She was very young to have become that blasé about time. I glanced at her curiously.
"Sort of. You?"
She was fumbling in her red pocket-book for another cigarette. Her complete disinterest in me was beginning to pique me. I said: "I'm in the theatre. I produce plays."
She looked up, the unlit cigarette drooping.
"Oh," she said again.
She lit the cigarette. A black Mexican vulture lumbered reluctantly up from the carcass of a dog on the road ahead.
"Living in Central America?" I asked.
"No. Peru. At the moment. We're always changing. Father digs things up."
"That's what they call themselves. He did a lot of digging around here."
"Then you know the place?"
"In those days I was with mother chewing on a rubber comforter in Kansas City."
"Been around for someone so young, haven't you?"
"I'm not young."
"How old are you?"
"Is that funny?"
"Not particularly, I suppose. It makes me, at thirty-six, seem rather decrepit. That's all."
"Are you that old?" She scrutinized me with humourless appraisal. "You're well preserved."
The combination of naïveté and poise was quite authentic. I began to find Deborah Brand new and refreshing. I would have liked to ask why a kid of twenty should be flying alone from Balboa to Mexico City, but it seemed too leading a question. Instead I asked:
"You were born in the States?"
"Yes. My mother was American. She's dead."
"And your father?"
"A Finn. It's a funny nationality to have, but I can't help it."
"You speak Finnish?"
"That's what I speak mostly now."
"You're very talented, aren't you?"
She flicked cigarette ash on to the car floor. "You're very curious, aren't you?"
"I'm sorry. I was just taking a polite interest."
She watched a cloud of yellow butterflies bob across the road in front of us. "Oh," she said.
She ignored me for a while, and then slid a sidewise glance at the collar of my open shirt. "Quite a sunburn you've got."
"You should put something on it."
"I forgot to buy anything."
Unexpectedly maternal, she said: "I've got something. I'll give it to you when we get there."
She lapsed into silence again.
We were out in the country now. There are no rivers in Yucatan. The water runs deep underground, occasionally showing itself in strange crater-like pools where the limestone above has collapsed. The landscape is dotted with windmills. Their revolving, flanged wheels glittered around us in the evening sunlight. A little boy trudged along the bare road, carrying on his back a load of wood twice his own size. A car horn sounded behind us. With a suddenness which startled me, Deborah Brand wheeled round, glanced through the back window, and then settled down again into her seat. A moment later, a bus, bursting with passengers, roared recklessly past.
"The bus," I said. "Glad you're not in it?"
"Yes." And then in a polite voice: "Thank you."
After a while we approached a village. Pretty Mayan cottages, like oblong shoe-boxes with thatched tea-cosies perched on top, drowsed in their quiet yards, where tropical shade trees dropped yellow and mauve blossoms among foraging chickens and turkeys. Near the centre of town I saw a gas pump outside a store.
"Might as well get gas. I'm pretty low."
I stopped the car. I got out. So did she. Across the street in front of the school, Indian boys, their naked torsoes gold as brown sugar, were playing a well-behaved game of basket-ball. To me it was as unlikely a sight as a bunch of American high-school kids fighting a bull.
I nodded to the store. "They probably have iced cokes or something there. Want a drink?"
She shook her head. She was ignoring her surroundings as i. a Mayan village was not worth the effort of focusing her eyes.
With my negligible Spanish I explained my needs to the store owner. While he played with the gas pump, I was dimly conscious of a car approaching from Merida. I glanced up. The car had stopped across the street. At the wheel was a big, good-looking Mexican in shirt-sleeves, presumably a hired chauffeur. From the back seat emerged a woman with a movie camera.
She was obviously American, small, around fifty, with a certain indomitable quality about the way she planted her feet on the ground. Her shrill green travelling suit was creased at the back, and there was a tired look to the unsuitably lavish cascade of purple orchids at her lapel. She made me think of bridge parties in New Jersey, luncheons at Schraffts and packages from B. Altman's bumped against your knee in crowded buses.
"A compatriot." I turned to Deborah Brand, but she had disappeared. I supposed she had changed her mind about the coke.
It was clear that the little woman knew what she wanted out of life. What she wanted at the moment was the basketball game. She aimed her camera at the now self-conscious teams and let film whir. Then she tucked the camera under her arm and started back to the car. The driver was pointing out a huge, bleak church.
"I've got enough churches already to choke a goat." The woman's New York twang brought me a warm nostalgia.
As she spoke, she saw me and marched across to join me. She hardly came up to my shoulder. The orchids had little sad sprays of baby's breath mixed in with them.
"Hello," she said. "Are you going to Chichén, too?"
I said I was. She was sweating slightly. The round black eyes in her chihuahua face were like little boy's eyes, eager not to miss anything. I rather liked her, the way you like the most unlikely people at the most unlikely times.
She said: "You staying at the inn?"
"I plan to."
"How much are they rooking you? They're sticking me seventy-five pesos for one night. It's not the money, I hate being gypped."
She watched me suspiciously, as if I were in on a bargain that had escaped her.
I said: "I'm afraid I don't know about prices. I'm going out cold."
"Oh." She glanced at the car. "Travelling alone?"
I didn't see the point of explaining Deborah. "Sort of."
"Yes. I hired it."
She sighed. "You're smart. That big handsome hunk of male" — she indicated her driver — "another fifty pesos. They all gyp you." An infectious grin came. "But why blame them? We're just a bunch of morons to them."
She held out her hand. "Well, glad to have met you. My name's Lena Snood. Newark. Crazy name, but I was Hagenhofer before I married, so I guess I can't complain. See you at the inn."
"I'll buy you a drink."
"I'll buy you one. You don't have to spend your money on an old hag like me."
A small girl in a scrap of a white dress had silently joined us and was yearning at us over a tightly clenched posy of wild flowers. Mrs. Snood noticed her.
"No," she barked. "No flores. Got flores. Orchids." Then, with a grunt of resignation, she opened her pocket-book and tucked a peso bill into the girl's hand. "There. Now run along and play, or milk a cow, or do whatever you little Mexican girls do." She shrugged at me. "See what I mean? Loot the Americans."
She stumped back to the car. As it moved off, she waved. I caught a glimpse of the purple orchids bobbing clumsily at her shoulder.
The man had filled up my car. I paid him and went into the store for Deborah. She was standing in the deepest shadow at the rear of the dark little room. The red pocket-book was tucked under her arm. She had a bottle of coca-cola in her hand, but she was doing nothing about it. Fear is one of the simplest human emotions to detect. Although there was no visible change in her surface calm, I knew from the first moment I saw her that she was afraid.
The realization came as a surprise to me. The little shop, redolent of harmless country things, goat-cheese, bananas, beer, was a haven of quiet. It seemed impossible that there could be anything in an obscure Yucatecan village to frighten her. Then I remembered how she had glanced back at the sound of the bus' horn and how she had disappeared at the approach of Mrs. Snood's car.
So she was afraid of someone who was or might be following her. That was it. Mrs. Snood? Could there conceivably be anything frightening about Mrs. Snood, with her wrong-colour suit and her weary corsage?
My interest in Deborah, which had already been stirred, grew deeper and more complex. I went towards her. As I approached, I could feel the fear going out of her. She was fighting it down for my benefit. Beneath the silver hair her chin was resolutely up. I hadn't the faintest idea what sort of trouble she was in, but it touched me that anyone so young should be afraid and so determined not to show it.
I would have liked to have asked what was the matter. A fight with her father? Or a too-persistent lover? But she wasn't the type of girl of whom one asked intimate questions.
I said: "Ready to go?"
"Yes." With a languid gesture she put the unopened coca-cola bottle down on the counter. She watched me from beneath half-closed lids, a standard movie-siren mannerism, world-weary, faintly seductive. "Didn't I hear you talking English out there with some woman?"
"Yes. A tourist on her way to the ruins, too."
"Yes. With a chauffeur. She's gone now."
She had spoken with the utmost indifference, but she didn't fool me. She skirted a sleeping dog and headed for the door. She threw over her shoulder:
"What sort of a woman?"
"Just a funny little woman with orchids."
Deborah was out in the full sunlight now. Her face was blank, almost stupid. It reminded me of faces I had seen in the war, faces of prisoners who knew their lives might depend on their facial expressions and who had withdrawn behind their deepest line of defence.
She got into the car indolently. As I joined her, I noticed that she shot a glance behind her at her silver airplane-fabric suitcase.
It is quite normal for anyone to check up on their baggage. But Deborah Brand's backward glance had been a shade too anxious.
She was afraid of being followed. She was afraid that her suitcase might be stolen. What did that make her?
Certainly not just a tourist on a pleasure trip to the ruins.CHAPTER 2
We drove on as the light gradually faded. The villages dropped away, and as the road grew worse and worse we moved deeper into the featureless jungle. My mood had completely changed, influenced as it was by the unidentified fear in the girl at my side. For anyone who has grown up with street lights and corner drug-stores, Yucatan at night has a horror quality. Nothing belongs to anyone. Trees grow, vines clutch, large blossoms gleam faintly, and there are no side paths. An occasional mound, looming above the flatness, isn't just a mound: it's a buried temple, long forgotten, never probably to be excavated by a country not wealthy enough to indulge the luxury of probing all its ancient secrets.
Darkness came. Deborah hardly spoke, but I was conscious of her. Disturbingly so. I thought of reasons why she might be afraid and, as I weaved far-fetched patterns of danger around her, she took on a glamour for me which I would never have felt in less exotic surroundings. Her light hair gleamed like the great pale flowers outside in the nothingness. Her perfume, which would have seemed merely fasionable in a New York night club or at the Reforma in Mexico City, was part of the setting. It might just as well have been coming through the open car window. I stopped speculating as to why she might be afraid and began to wonder how it would feel to kiss her. It wasn't the right feeling for a man in the throes of a reconciliation with his wife. I discouraged it.
Ahead, on the dusty road, a pair of small red eyes caught the car-lights and glared balefully. A vague bird which had been sitting there flapped its wings and flew off through the darkness.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Run to Death"
Copyright © 1948 Patrick Quentin.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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