After years of rotten luck with men, Marjorie thinks Charles Carter is a miracle. He’s dashing, urbane, and so terribly passionate—until his heart is snatched away by another woman, leaving Marjorie alone and expecting a child. The desertion is unbearable, but then there’s a stroke of luck: The first Mrs. Carter drops dead, and Marjorie steps right into her place. Now she has everything she ever wanted, a perfect apartment, perfect husband, perfect child. But she’s beginning to sense that something is terribly wrong.
A chance phone call awakens Marjorie’s suspicions that the first Mrs. Carter’s death was more than a tragic fluke. Isolated in her luxurious New York high rise, she becomes obsessed with the idea that her seemingly perfect life is founded on a murder—and that the killer will strike again.
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By Evelyn Piper
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1949 Evelyn Piper
All rights reserved.
The Winants were visiting the Carters. Eve Winant and Marjorie Carter were old friends; otherwise it was a first meeting all around. They talked about the Carters' infant. They talked about the Carters' lovely apartment. But when Eve asked Marjorie some perfectly routine questions about the lease, the agents, about redecorating, she couldn't answer them. Marjorie hadn't looked into this, she hadn't investigated that; it didn't sound natural. Just before the telephone rang, Beckwith Winant asked Marjorie why she wasn't more curious.
Marjorie blushed and made one of her fluttering gestures with her small hands and said in her soft, rather hesitant voice, "Gracious! Curiosity killed a cat, didn't it?"
"I wonder." Beck pulled his nose, always a preliminary to delivering an opinion. "Sometimes I think a woman's curiosity was given her for a damn good reason, a kind of sixth sense for her own protection because she is the weaker vessel."
Eve said, "Bluebeard's wife, Beck? Like that?"
"Sure. If Bluebeard's wife hadn't been curious, she never would have found out what was in that locked room, and then little Fatima would have been victim number whatever it was."
"Then you think lack of curiosity killed a cat?" Marjorie tried for a light tone and missed it.
Eve said quickly, "You're not a cat, Margie. You're the least cat of any woman I know."
"Well, I'm the least curious," Marjorie said faintly.
Sweet little face, Beckwith thought. Big brown eyes. Her hair falls in such a tender way. There was something so wistful and appealing to her body and in the way she moved, the way her lips formed words. Eve had certainly never described her as pretty. If Marjorie had lived a hundred years ago, Eve would have raved about her. People were funny; they discarded obsolete aesthetics just as they threw out unfashionable clothes. Marjorie's appearance was curiously old-fashioned. She looked like the old-style heroine whose combination of softness and stubborn innocence led her straight into the villain's clutches; that must be why he had this undeniable impulse to protect her. Nuts. Carter certainly could protect her, couldn't he? Carter definitely looked like the composite hero of all times. Tall, blond, handsome. Strong, silent. Nuts to Carter, Beckwith thought.
Then the telephone rang and Marjorie went to the foyer to answer it.
"This is Mrs. Carter. Who is this, please?"
"I'm Grace, Miz Carter. I'm calling for Edna, my sister, Miz Edna Smith. It's about Edna's uniforms, Miz Carter."
"About uniforms, did you say?" Was that Charles' voice she heard from the living room? Then he really was warming up to Eve and Beckwith, getting over his shyness. Nobody knew how shy Charles was. They thought snooty, haughty. Be kind to him, Eve, she prayed, don't be too bright and brittle for him. It would be so good for both of them to see people. Perhaps it was because they were alone evening after evening that the atmosphere had become strange and melodramatic. "Did you say uniforms?"
"Yes, ma'am. Edna left four uniforms and they're hers."
"Who is Edna, please? I'm afraid I don't —"
The girl repeated this to someone evidently standing by her. "Eddie say you know who she is, Miz Carter. Eddie say the uniforms in the closet in the kitchen. They're Eddie's own, and she got to have them now, Miz Carter. She needs them bad. She got to have them, Miz Carter, because she isn't worked in all this time and she got to get another job."
"Oh," Marjorie said. "The uniforms in the kitchen closet. I see." Because now that she was paying attention, of course she saw. It was hard to talk now that she did see. It was necessary to clear her throat.
"Eddie got to have the uniforms for a new job, Miz Carter."
"Yes, yes, but I'm not Mrs. Carter. I — please let me talk to your sister."
"She say she want to talk to you, Eddie." There was an indistinct murmur. "Miz Carter, Eddie say she don't want to talk to you. She don't want nothing else but her uniforms, she say. She don't want no part of you."
"She doesn't want any part of — Oh, oh well, will you please tell your sister that this isn't the Mrs. Carter she must have worked for. I mean, I am not the Mrs. Carter she worked for here. That Mrs. Carter died about eight months ago." Marjorie closed her eyes when she said it. She always closed her eyes, telling anyone Claire was dead.
"Yes, ma'am. Eddie, she say Miz Carter died eight months ago. Who is this?"
"I'm the second Mrs. Carter — er — Grace." Talk like the lady of the house. Don't sound as if you couldn't believe it. You are now the lady of Claire's house. "That is why I didn't understand about your sister's uniforms at first. If the uniforms in the closet are hers, of course she may have them. Suppose she comes up for them in the morning."
"Eddie! Eddie, don't! Wait! Yes, ma'am, in the morning. I got to go now, Miz Carter. Eddie just run off out of the drugstore. She not right, Miz Carter, she been in a bad way. Excuse me." Grace hung up.
Eve came into the foyer. "Who was that, Margie? Why do you look like that? Was it bad news?"
"No, no." She tried to be a hostess and hide her distress from Eve, but Eve had been her friend too long to act the guest.
"Was it bad news, Margie?"
"No. It was just a maid who says she worked for Claire and wanted some uniforms she left behind. She didn't even know about Claire and seemed terribly upset when she heard Claire was dead. Apparently ran out of the drugstore into" — she tried to laugh — "into the night!"
"You seem terribly upset yourself, dearie. Is it that bad, being reminded of Claire?"
"Wouldn't you try to forget her if you were I? Wouldn't you, Eve? Is it wrong of me?"
"Of course I would, Margie. For goodness' sake, what's the matter?"
"Nothing, nothing, really. I'll have to ask Charles about this girl. I mean, I have to find out if the uniforms are hers."
Eve said, "Oh, I wouldn't ask Charles."
"Why bring it up for some uniforms? If there are any around, I'd let her take them. Let sleeping dogs lie."
Marjorie clasped her hands. Quite unconsciously she made the picturesque, rather démodé gestures that went with her type. "You do think so, don't you, Eve? That's what I want to do, let sleeping dogs lie. Do you think it's cowardly of me?"
"Why cowardly?" Eve was a big girl who would look wonderful up on a stage behind footlights, but who was rather overpowering, face to face.
"It sounds as if I were jealous, afraid even to mention Claire because Charles would start regretting her, but it isn't that. I just don't want to talk about —" She shook her clasped hands. "Charles really loves me, Eve. Really he does."
"Of course he does. You should hear your voice when you say 'Charles,' Margie."
"Do you blame me, Eve? Now you've met him?"
"Now I've forced you to let me meet him?"
"You just came back from the Coast."
"True, true, but I gather none of our friends have seen you at all. This apartment has been an oubliette."
Marjorie blushed. "Well, you see —" Of course. Eve nodded. She knew. Marjorie didn't want any of the old gang checking the baby's birth certificate against the date on her marriage license. "Mmm —"
"I've been very busy," Marjorie said.
"Admiring Charles? He's really unbelievably good-looking. None of the pretty boys on the Coast come up to him. Has he ever tried acting, Margie?"
"He's too self-conscious. People look at him and think he's self-satisfied, but he isn't. He's afraid of people, Eve, honestly. People think he's like he looks and they get nasty. Everyone. My poor darling, he's tried just about every way to make a living."
"I suspect that you feel he should just sit around and let people look at him and pull down a good salary for that."
"Don't make fun of me, Eve."
Eve pulled Marjorie's soft hair affectionately. "I'm not making fun of you, kid. You know how fond of you I've always been, and it does this old heart good to see you getting a break at last, to see you happy. You are happy, aren't you?" She pivoted Marjorie's chin so she could look into her eyes. "You don't look too well, you know." Eve touched the circles under Marjorie's large brown eyes.
"Oh, I'm tired out, I guess." When you were tired out, run down, you were apt to make mountains out of molehills, to see things that weren't there. That was another sensible reason to explain her state of tension.
"Between waiting hand and foot on Charles and hand and foot on the infant, I should think you would be tired."
"I like to do everything for them. I like to. I'm not complaining, and it isn't the work, Eve."
"What is it, then?"
"Oh, Evie, I don't know." She touched the wood top of the telephone table superstitiously. "Maybe it all seems too good to be true." Her voice was very low now, hardly audible, as if she dreaded hearing her own words. "When things seem too good to be true — Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown —"
"Being Mrs. Charles Carter, you mean? You mean everything turning out this way when it seemed so hopeless less than a year ago?"
"It was so awful giving Charles up. I thought I'd die without him, and if not for little Pete being on the way, I might have. I guess it's too much of a reversal. You'd get scared too, wouldn't you? Maybe it takes time to learn to accept good luck. Oh!" she said, pressing her hand against her lips to press back the words.
Eve stared, "Now what? I get it. You called Claire's dying like that 'good luck.' Honey, you're only human and, after all, you didn't kill her. What was it she died of, again?"
Marjorie's eyes glazed. For a moment it seemed that the magic words, the long Latin name was lost. She fished frantically for it, her throat working. It was always this way; this always happened. Every time anyone asked her what Claire had died of, she went blank. Each time there was the moment when she couldn't remember the name of the disease and would have to explain that whatever the name was, it meant sudden, unexplained death in a hitherto healthy person, from sudden stimuli, which meant shock, excitement, something. The words came to her lips. "Status thymicolymphaticus, Eve."
"Status what? I never heard of it, did you?" She shrugged. "I guess it isn't necessary to be formally introduced to a disease to have it kill you."
"No." Marjorie said. "No, Eve."
"Status — well, it has nothing to do with us, has it?"
"I didn't even want her to die," Marjorie said. "I didn't wish it, I mean. Eve, honestly, I've searched my heart, but even when I went away and was never going to see Charles again, I just accepted it. I wasn't bitter when Claire took Charles away from me in the first place. I guess I sort of expected it. She had taken so many things before that."
"Claire rather enjoyed taking things from you, Margie."
"No, things came to her naturally."
"I know it doesn't do to talk evil of the dead, but our friend Claire was rather a bitch."
"Oh, don't, Eve!"
"Well, I'll say this, even if she had known about you and Charles —"
"She didn't know. She died without knowing. I'm glad of that."
"Well, even if she had found out about the baby coming, she never would have given Charles up to you, divorced him or anything."
"I guess not." It was good to talk about it. She and Charles never talked about it. Things came up often; it was natural that things should come up about Claire often, but there was always this immediate impulse to batten them down. Was that natural or unnatural? Eve's husband said she should be more curious, but he didn't know. He didn't know what? Nothing. Nothing.
"Claire would have held on. She'd have dogged in the manger until she was eighty."
"She was only twenty-seven. That's so tragic, Eve!"
"Fod goodness' sake, Margie, calm down. You'll be in hysterics in a minute."
"That's how I am. That's what I mean. I can't enjoy myself." She hid her face in her handkerchief.
"I know something you enjoy." Eve pulled the handkerchief aside and laid her hand on Marjorie's hot cheek. "You positively swooned in there when his hand touched yours passing a cup of coffee."
"But that's natural isn't it, Eve?" No. It isn't natural; not healthy, animal passion. Not like it used to be before. I use passion to hide from myself. I make myself drunk and blind and deaf with it. Unnatural. Unhealthy. She had to bite her lip hard. "What with little Pete and Charles, I keep feeling I'm having my cake and eating it, too. It's unnerving."
"Why? Having my cake and eating it is my idea of heaven."
"No, Eve, because you know you can't have your cake and eat it, too. Any sensible person knows that." She poked at her eyes and tried to smile. "Maybe for all my bold talk, I can't believe it's true. That Charles loves me, I mean."
"Sweetiepie, why shouldn't he love you?"
Marjorie pulled Eve closer to the telephone table and pointed to the mirror and then to herself. "Is this the face that launched a thousand ships and burned the topless towers of Ilium?"
Eve appeared rather embarrassed.
"You see, you've been wondering, you can't understand Charles picking me."
"I have not." This was a lie. Marjorie had never attracted beaux. Marjorie was the girl girls got for their difficult brothers. Marjorie was the girl girls used their influence for, to get her dates.
"Well, I don't understand it, either, but I just accept it. As I told your husband, I'm not curious." Let well enough alone. Let sleeping dogs lie. Marjorie attempted a light laugh. "You can try to figure out why Charles loves me, Eve, and tell me."
The conversation was broken off then because they heard steps approaching. Marjorie made a warning face at her friend and then turned to Charles, tucking her damp handkerchief into her cuff.
"Margie, what goes on out here? You've been out for — —"
"Was Beck boring you with one of his dissertations, Charles? Couldn't you take it?" Eve laughed.
"It was very interesting," Charles said. "Very interesting, no kidding." Then he grinned and his dimples showed; he shrugged and the two women were conscious of the sweep of his shoulders. He said to Eve, "That guy knows much too much for me."
"For me, too," Eve said.
"Good. Then come on, back me up, help me out!"
He made Eve take him under her wing. She tucked her hand through one of Charles' arms and Marjorie tucked hers through the other.
Beckwith frowned when he saw the three of them that way; he was most uncharacteristically silent for the remainder of the visit.
Beckwith was still too reserved during the drive back to their hotel. Eve believed she knew why. "What's keeping you so quiet, Beck? Struck dumb by Adonis?"
"By Carter? No. Hell, no!"
"You are jealous. You should be. I couldn't take my eyes off him. Of course," she said thoughtfully, "I never can take my eyes off things of beauty." She tapped her cheek with her index finger. "How shall I put it, Becky? To me a thing of beauty is a joy forever."
"I'm not jealous of Carter. He gripes me. He rubs me the wrong way."
"He rubs every man the wrong way. They can't take having women see what nature really can do when she wants to turn out something special in a male animal. No wonder Charles has such trouble with men when even a clever little chimpanzee like you becomes jealous of his effect on women." She reached out and squeezed Beckwith's thigh affectionately.
"That isn't why Carter has trouble with men."
"Of course it is. He's a woman's man, not a man's man."
"He's nobody's man. He isn't a man."
"You needn't be jealous, Beck. I liked looking at him but I wouldn't be married to him. Married life wouldn't be worth a hill of beans. I'd have to spend my time worrying about every female in sight with sight. No, I wouldn't have Charles Carter on a bet."
Beck shifted gears clumsily, making a sound like a Bronx cheer. He was scowling.
"You mean I'm talking sour grapes? You mean he wouldn't have me anyway?"
"He wouldn't have you on a bet. He wouldn't go for your type for a cent."
"Really!" She turned to stare at Beckwith. He was sniffing peculiarly, then he swallowed several times. "You're very rude. What's the matter with you, Beck?"
"Nothing serious," he said, sounding very sorry for himself, "only I'm pretty sure I'm getting a cold."
"But you haven't sneezed once."
"My throat is sore. I feel hot and cold and there's a kind of tickling premonition in the back of my nose."
"That sounds like it." Eve groaned. "Oh, poor Becky! Here we are. Let them park the car and you go upstairs to bed."
Excerpted from The Innocent by Evelyn Piper. Copyright © 1949 Evelyn Piper. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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