Authors: Leigh Brackett
an eye for an eye
Grace Vitelli stuck her head in through the door and said, “I’m going home now, Mr. Forbes.” Ben Forbes turned around from the window where he was standing. He smiled at Grace, who was a nice woman. “And I wish I could say the same.”
“I was just wondering,” Grace said, “if Mrs. Forbes could have misunderstood the time.”
Ben shook his head. “She asked me this morning if this was going to be one of my late days, and I told her no, to pick me up at the usual time. She wouldn’t mistake that.”
“Oh well,” said Grace, “I expect she’ll be here pretty soon.”
“I expect so. I just hope she hasn’t had any trouble with the car.”
“If you’d like me to try your house again—”
“No, she’s obviously on her way,” Ben said. “Probably ran into some kind of a traffic jam. Thanks anyway. Good night.”
She left the inner door slightly ajar. He heard her cross the outer office and open the door into the hall and close it again behind her. The sound of her high heels went clicking away and was gone. The office was quiet. Ben looked at his watch. It was three minutes past five-thirty on the afternoon of Thursday, the eighth of November. Carolyn was almost thirty-five minutes late. Forty, if you took into account her tendency to get everywhere just a little ahead of time.
Ben turned back to the window. He was a tall, rather lanky young man, with a surprising amount of bulk in the shoulders left over from his football days. He had light brown hair in a crew cut and light brown eyes with a friendly expression. There was nothing particularly distinguished or handsome about him, but nearly everybody liked him. He was a good lawyer, quite a bit better than he gave himself credit for, and everybody said that he would never have got anywhere without Carolyn to supply the push. Ben knew that everybody said this and he knew that it was about ninety per cent true. Carolyn, quite amazingly, did not believe it at all. She took it as a reflection on Ben’s ability and got very hot if such a thing was mentioned.
Ben looked morosely down into the street and tried to see what cars were turning into the alley that led to the parking lot.
His office was on the second floor of an old three-story building occupied almost exclusively by lawyers. Directly across the street was Courthouse Square, where the large dingy imposing bulk of the courthouse loomed in unfamiliar nakedness now that the surrounding trees had lost their leaves.
It was already growing dark. Lights burned in the courthouse windows. People moved back and forth behind them, filing papers, putting on their coats, getting ready to go. A thin band of yellow still showed low in the west, bright against the cold sky. Rush-hour traffic was heavy. The suburbanites of Woodley, Ohio, were closing up shop and hiking for home and dinner.
Cars came out of the alley, but he could not see any turning in. He said a word or two in sharp ill-temper, thinking of the hard day he had had and how much he wanted to get home and relax. Then he caught himself. It was rather childish to feel abused because he had to wait for a few minutes. Something had delayed Carolyn, and it was just one of those things.
He lighted a cigarette. Best way in the world to bring somebody, he thought. Light a cigarette and they always come before you can smoke it.
He smoked it and listened to the last sounds of exodus in the building around him. The yellow color in the sky faded rapidly to gray. When the cigarette had burned down to the filter he went to the desk and put it out in the big brass ash tray. It was nine minutes to six.
He began to fidget.
Could she, after all, have mistaken the time? Human fallibility. His hours did vary wildly according to the demands of his work. She might have thought he said six.
He reviewed the early morning, breakfast, the ride into town. Carolyn in that red plaid robe that made the grayest morning bright, yawning over her coffee and asking, “Will you be late or regular today?” Carolyn in her tweed coat, her brown hair brushed and shining and her blue eyes smiling at him as she kissed him good-by in the parking lot and said, “I’ll pick you up at five, then.” And he had said, “At five.”
No. No, she wouldn’t have mistaken that.
Two minutes to six.
Ugly, inevitable word when someone you expect does not come.
No, it’s too early to panic. Besides, there are all kinds of accidents. Flat tires. Banged fenders. Skids into ditches. Motor failure. Lots of things. Carolyn is a good driver, a careful driver. She’s never had an accident.
But if it’s just some minor thing, why doesn’t she call and let me know?
Five after six, and full dark.
Why doesn’t she call?
The office gathered silence into itself under the too tall and too narrow box of its ceiling papered in white to make it less shadowy, between the tall pale-green surfaces of its walls.
Ten after six.
Why on earth doesn’t she call!
Most of the lights in the courthouse windows had gone out. Traffic had begun to slacken. There was something very lonely and unpleasant about being left behind like this. Ben had been in his office at this hour many times before, but then he had stayed on purpose. He had been working and he had known exactly where Carolyn was. That was normal. This was not.
In the excessive quiet of the building he heard someone come in through the back entrance and he thought, There’s Carolyn now. A great wave of relief went through him. He jumped up and went through the outer office and flung open the hall door.
The footsteps on the main floor, clearly audible now, did not approach the stairs. A door opened down below. There was a noise of buckets and cleaning tools being moved around. It was not Carolyn.
The nerves in Ben’s middle tightened with a sharp pain. He went slowly back to his office. A sudden fury possessed him, a fury against Carolyn that she would frighten him like this. He made himself stand still and light a cigarette with slow deliberate motions. There was a coppery taste in his mouth that made the smoke unpleasant. I am angry, he thought, because I’m worried, and I’m worried because it’s Carolyn. If it was somebody else I would only be annoyed at being held up. After all, an hour and fifteen or twenty minutes isn’t so long. It only seems so when you’re waiting and don’t know why. It’s foolish to go into a big sweat about it. Let’s be objective. Carolyn carries identification. If anything really serious, really bad had happened to her, I would have been notified.
So, he told himself, there is nothing to worry about.
Nevertheless, he did not stop worrying.
At twenty minutes past six he called his house. It was a futile gesture, and he had known it would be. The futility of it made him somehow more uneasy. It brought to his mind how long ago Carolyn must have left—around four thirty-five probably, and certainly before five-ten, when Grace had first tried to get her and received no answer. Even if you dragged your feet, the drive in could not take much more than twenty minutes. That was a lot of time to account for.
And what did you do in a situation like this? How soon was it proper to succumb to panic and start calling the police?
He thought, I’ll call the neighbors first.
Dr. Torrence and his wife were out. This was not unusual. They had married children and many friends. But it was maddening to get the empty buzz-buzz of an unanswered phone here too. He called the Pettits.
Louise answered. “Why, yes, Ben,” she said, sounding surprised. “What is it?”
“Carolyn was supposed to pick me up at five, and she hasn’t come yet. I wondered if you—”
“Well, no, I don’t, Ben. I haven’t seen her since this morning. Are you sure she understood the time?”
“Yes, I’m sure. Did you happen to hear when she went out? The car, I mean.”
“No, I didn’t. I was busy getting dinner started and the kids had the television on, you know how it is. But I think she must have gone all right. I was out feeding the dog a little while ago and I noticed there weren’t any lights in your place. I thought at the time you people were late getting home.”
Suddenly it seemed to dawn on her that he was alarmed, and with reason.
“Gee, Ben,” she said, “is there anything I can do? Would you like me to send Johnny over to look around?”
He hesitated. Then he said, “If you would. I’d appreciate it—”
“Sure, Ben. Sure. Call you back.”
He hung up and sat for a minute staring at the phone. Then he called the police station.
He knew some of the men there. He had gone through high school with three or four of them, detectives and uniformed cops both. But he did not try to get hold of anyone in particular. He identified himself to the desk sergeant and explained the situation. He gave a description of his wife. Then he waited while they checked. It was now well past six-thirty. He should have been ravenously hungry. Instead he had the familiar sickness that comes with nerves. His hands were very cold and sweat kept forming on the inner surfaces of them so that he constantly had to wipe them. His heart beat in a great hollow space inside his ribs like someone pounding a hammer in a cave.
The sergeant’s voice spoke with agonizing loudness in his ear. “No, we don’t have any report on a woman of that name or description. Have you tried your wife’s family, all her friends, places she goes to? Sometimes—”
“Yes,” said Ben. “Thank you. I’ll try around.” He hung up. He closed his eyes and thought, No report, thank God for that.
And now what?
Think of all the places Carolyn might be. Her parents in Pittsburgh? Hardly. Places she goes to? The sergeant had obviously been thinking of taverns, but Carolyn wasn’t that kind and she didn’t have any hard-drinking girl friends, either. There simply were not any places in which she could logically or illogically be, no people she would be with. Not under these circumstances. Not Carolyn.
But she’s got to be somewhere.
The phone rang, shrill and strident as a scream.
It was Johnny Pettit.
“I just took a fast look through the house, Ben. The back door was open and I thought you wouldn’t mind. I thought, well, perhaps she’d had a fall or something. But she isn’t there.”
And thank God for that, too, thought Ben. I was afraid—
“Listen, Ben, I’ll tell you what. I’ll run in and get you. Be there in about fifteen minutes. Okay?”
“I don’t know. I think maybe I ought to wait here a little longer—”
“Well, I don’t think you have to worry about that, Ben. About Carolyn picking you up, I mean.”
“No?” said Ben. “Why not?” And there was thunder in his ears.
“Well,” said Johnny, “Wherever she is, she’s not driving. Your car is still in the garage.”
He left a note. He stuck it carefully in the crack of the office door when he locked it, so that if Carolyn did come she would know where he had gone. He had called Grace Vitelli, too. Grace had not heard from Carolyn, and she had seemed quite concerned in spite of her efforts to be reassuring. She had asked him if there was anything she could do and he had told her that there was not.
He walked down the hall. It was dimly lighted and somehow ominous. He felt a curious detachment, as though a cloud had come between him and the familiar details of his surroundings, obscuring and twisting them, closing him off from any clear contact. He supposed this was because he had never walked this way under such queer and uncertain circumstances before. The pattern was broken. You did not yet know how deeply.
He descended the stairs, making a hollow clattering that brought the startled janitress out into the hall below. She was a stout, pleasant woman. He had seen her before but he didn’t know what her name was. She made a flapping motion with her hand and said,
“Goodness! I didn’t know there was anybody in the building.”
“I’m just going,” said Ben, and walked past her and forgot her.
Suppose Johnny Pettit looked too fast and simply didn’t see her, lying in some corner or behind a half-open door. Or suppose she’s in the yard somewhere. Oh God, lying in the dark, in the old stream bed at the bottom of the slope, under the trees.
He went out the front entrance, into the biting air and forlorn emptiness of the November streets. He stood by the curb and waited. A few cars passed by, and a few people on foot. There was a smell of coal smoke. The stars overhead, dimmed by city lights and the glow of the mills, were very remote and cold.
He thought, Carolyn’s young and strong. She’s healthy. Things like that don’t happen. At least—
They don’t happen very often.
It was the car still being there that worried him the most. There wasn’t any place you could walk to from the house, except the neighbors’. That was why Carolyn had to have the car. She could hardly have gone away without it.
He formed a strong mental image of Carolyn lying on the ground. He could not make it go away.
Johnny Pettit pulled up to the curb, and Ben got in.
“Are you sure you looked all over the house?” he said.
“Everywhere,” said Johnny. “I turned on all the lights. I even went down-cellar. I looked in the bathroom and everywhere.”
“Did you look in the yard?”
“Well,” said Johnny, “not too carefully, but I flashed the light around all right, and I couldn’t see any sign of anything wrong.”
He turned left around the square and headed east on Market Street. He hit every red light. Ben held his hands tight between his knees and said:
“For God’s sake, can’t you hurry a little?”
“I’m doing the best I can,” said Johnny mildly. He was two or three years older than Ben and doing well in the steel firm where he was a minor executive. He was thin and serious, able if not brilliant, and already getting bald and faintly, just faintly, pompous. He and Ben were friends by chance rather than choice, so that their relationship was pleasant but did not run too deep.
“What do you think has happened to her?” Ben said desperately. “Where could she have gone? Without the car—” He shook his head. “I just don’t understand it.”
“She might have had bad news from home,” Johnny said. They crossed the railroad tracks onto Market Street Extension and began to make better time. There were fewer lights here, and very little traffic.
Ben said, “She’d have let me know.”
“Uh—Ben—” said Johnny.
“You and Carolyn haven’t been having any—well, any trouble, have you? Misunderstandings, you know, that sort of thing.”
Ben looked at him. “Why?”
“Well,” said Johnny, “I just thought if she was angry with you she might—”
“No,” said Ben slowly. “She wasn’t angry with me.”
“She couldn’t have—” Johnny paused to clear his throat nervously and then went on in the tone of one who has a duty to say something and is determined to do it. “You have to face these things head on, Ben. Look at all the possibilities. Could she have gone away with someone?”
Very slowly Ben said, “It’s odd, but that’s the one possibility that never entered my head.”
“Now don’t get sore at me, Ben. I didn’t say she had. I was only asking. I’m trying to help, that’s all.”
“Thanks,” said Ben.
He sat stiffly in his corner and Johnny drove in aggrieved silence. They did not speak again until they stopped in front of the Forbes house on Lister Road.
“I left the lights on,” Johnny said. “Just like that.”
Ben got out of the car. “There’s a flashlight in the kitchen. I want to search the grounds. Can you stick around for a few minutes?”
“Of course,” said Johnny. “I’ve got a flashlight in the car. Always carry one.”
“I’ll be back in a minute.”
Ben went up the walk and into the house. His legs were shaky. He stood inside the door and called, “Carolyn? Carolyn!” His voice fell into the flat silence. The house was empty. It had that certain feel and sound.
He went through it just the same, methodically, and it was as Johnny had said. Carolyn was not there. He thought perhaps she had left a message of some sort. But the phone pad was blank and there was no note propped up on the mantel or on any of the tables. The lunch dishes were washed and racked on the kitchen drainboard, but apparently nothing had been done about starting dinner. Ben picked up the flashlight and went back to Johnny in the yard.
Lister Road had once been open country, before a booming Woodley pushed its suburbs far out into the fields. Some of the houses on it were authentic Western Reserve antiques built when Andrew Jackson was President. The others were everything from Cape Cod cottages to split-level ranch houses, dotted along the road in acreage that varied from flat and treeless meadow to old orchard and woods and rolling pasture, according to the way the original farmland had been broken up.
The Forbes house stood on two acres, mostly level in front, sloping to a stream at the back and comprising a corner of a now largely vanished apple orchard, seven trees that still bore a quantity of gnarly fruit and were so beautiful in the spring that Ben and Carolyn had never had the heart to cut them down. The house itself was ranch-style in fieldstone and white wood, and Carolyn was a demon gardener. She had done the landscaping herself, keeping the front simple but quite formal and letting the back stay rough and natural.
Standing miserably in the dark and the cold wind, Ben looked at the black clumps of evergreens and the twisted branches of the apple trees against the stars. The little trickle of water in the stream bed gurgled among its stones, and the very sound of it was freezing.
He shivered and said, “Well, let’s get started.”
They began to walk, staying several feet apart and flashing their lights back and forth. They looked in and around and behind the garage. They searched the barbecue pit. They cut up the areas of black shadow under the trees and the shrubs with their flashlights and saw nothing but the frost-burned grass and drifts of late-fallen leaves. They passed back and forth across the open spaces, and finally they came down to the gully with the stream at the bottom of it and walked a long way in either direction.
And there was nothing. No fallen body. No footprint. No smallest sign that anyone named Carolyn had ever passed that way.
They went back to the house.
“Come on,” said Johnny. “Have some coffee and something to eat. Then you can think what you want to do next.”
Ben stood a moment on the step, frowning. “No, thanks a lot. But I—there’re some things I—I want to stay by the phone in case she calls. Somebody might call. Don’t worry, I’ll make some coffee. Thanks, Johnny. Thanks a lot.”
“Don’t mention it. Maybe I’ll check back after a while.”
“Yes. All right.”
Johnny got into his car and drove away, looking worried. Ben went into the house and on into the bedroom.
There were twin beds, not because they disliked intimacy but because they were both active sleepers. It was not a fluffy room. Carolyn was not a fluffy person, and her household decor included a minimum of ruffles.
The beds had been made, the room straightened up. He looked into the closet, trying to make his mind focus on her clothes. He could not see that anything was missing. She had been wearing tan frontier pants and a sweater under her coat when she drove him into town. The coat was there. He could not see the slacks and the sweater. Presumably, then, she was still wearing them.
Where would she go in slacks and sweater, without a coat, on a cold November day?
He began to look through her bureau. Her red leather wallet and her key ring were in the top drawer. He shut the drawer again and went back into the hall to the telephone. He felt very old and very tired, hollow inside. His hands shook. He leafed through the phone book until he found the number he wanted. Then he dialed it and waited.
A woman’s voice said, “Hello?”
Ben said, “Hello, Ivy, is Ernie there? This is Ben Forbes.”
“Why, yes, he is—what’s the matter, Ben? Your voice sounds so funny.”
“Please, Ivy. Let me talk to him.”
He heard her calling, “—for you, Ernie. It’s Ben and he sounds like something’s wrong.”
“Hello,” he said. “Hello, Ernie?”
“Yeah. What is it, Ben?”
His voice sounded strange even in his own ears. “It’s Carolyn,” he said. “My wife. I don’t know what’s happened to her and I want you to tell me what I ought to do.”
Ernie MacGrath came within a quarter of an hour of Ben’s call. He was a stocky, capable-looking man with dark hair and very strong hands. He and Ben had played high school football together and they still saw each other fairly often. Ernie was a City Detective on the Woodley force.
He listened patiently while Ben talked, stopped him now and then to clarify some point. When he was through Ernie asked:
“Has Carolyn ever blacked out mentally?”
Ben was startled. “Good Lord, no! You’re thinking of amnesia, aren’t you?”
“Has she had any head injury lately? Even an apparently trivial bump will sometimes do it.”
“Not that I know of,” Ben said. “Of course—”
“Of course what?”
“She’s alone all day. She could have hit her head, I suppose, and never bothered to tell me about it.” He was appalled by this new thought. “She might be wandering somewhere in the woods, not knowing—” He jumped up. “She doesn’t even have a coat, Ernie. Can you get some men to help look for her?”
Ernie nodded. “It isn’t too satisfactory at night, but we can try. We can make a thorough check of the neighbors, too.” He went to the phone. Before he picked it up he looked at Ben with a hard professional look and said, “I’m going to ask you something, Ben, and I want a straight and honest answer. Did Carolyn have any reason to leave you?”
Ben took his head. “Johnny Pettit asked me the same thing. The answer is no. We were happy. There was nobody else for either of us.”
Ernie continued to look at him for a moment, as though weighing the truth of what Ben said. Then he said, “Okay,” and made his call, asking for all available men to be sent. “Better send the lab boys, too. I’m not sure yet what this is going to be.” There was a pause while he listened to a voice on the other end. “Apparently not,” he said, “But I’m going to make a closer check now.”
He hung up and turned to Ben. “You’d better call your wife’s folks. They might just have heard something, and any way, they ought to know what’s going on. I don’t suppose your mother—”
“She’s halfway to Hawaii now. She and Gladys took off last week.” He was rather glad his mother was gone. Her only contribution to this situation would be a species of weak hysteria, leading to a departure for somewhere else to preserve her health. She had avoided most of the crises of life that way, just as she avoided winter. Ben bore her no rancor on that account and was simply grateful that his father had left enough money to allow her to do it. But Carolyn’s folks were going to be enough to deal with.
He got the long-distance operator, put the call in, and waited. Ernie had gone off. Ben could hear him moving around in the other rooms. The wait seemed interminable. He lighted a cigarette and leaned his head against his hand, distantly aware of how awful he felt but not thinking much about it.
The Pittsburgh number rang and Carolyn’s father answered.
Ben had thought, I will be calm and not alarm them. But his voice burst out uncontrollably with a raw edge of fear, asking:
“Have you heard from Carolyn?”
They had not.
It was a bad few minutes, possibly the worst of the evening so far.
Carolyn’s mother got the phone and said shrilly, “Gone? What do you mean, Carolyn’s gone?” Ben tried to soothe her. He explained that he had a good friend on the police force and that the friend thought it was a temporary amnesia and they would soon find her. But Carolyn’s mother said in a queer gasping voice heavy with horror and reproach, “Somebody’s got her. I’ve been afraid of this ever since you moved to that lonely house in the country. Somebody’s taken her, Ben.”
He tried to say that that was silly, that the house wasn’t lonely, and that women lived safely all along the road. But she wasn’t listening. She kept saying, “—sex fiend, some sex fiend has her, just like that poor girl on the North Side.” Her husband said, “Now, Martha, it isn’t like that at all. We had a terrible case down here just recently, Ben, and that’s why—”
Ben turned white and looked at Ernie, who had come back into the hall. “She thinks a sex fiend has Carolyn,” he said.
Ernie motioned him aside and took the phone. Ben went blindly into the living room and sat down. A coldness came over him and the lights dimmed and the room got dark. With abnormal clarity he heard Ernie’s voice saying, “—no signs of violence at all. She would certainly have put up some kind of a fight. No sign of illegal entry, nothing touched in the house. We’ll find her all right, don’t worry. Most missing persons turn up okay.”
There was some more in the same vein, and then silence, and then a hand came out of the dark with a little glass in it and Ernie said, “Come on, boy, drink this.”
He drank it and the darkness went away. He looked at Ernie and said, “It couldn’t be a sex fiend, could it?”
Ernie said, “Let’s put it this way. I don’t think so, but as of right now I just don’t know.”
He hauled Ben up out of the chair.
“For Chrissake, make yourself some coffee and a sandwich. You’re dying on your feet. I’m going next door and talk to your friends. Mrs. Pettit may have noticed something.”
Ben stumbled into the kitchen. Ernie went out the front door and disappeared. Moving in a fog, Ben managed to get hot water and instant coffee together in a cup and scrabble up some odds and ends of food. He did not want to eat. But he knew Ernie was right and he choked it down anyway and made more coffee. He forced his mind to be an almost perfect blank. He did this because he knew he had to.
Ernie came back, shaking his head. Johnny Pettit was with him.
“Mrs. Pettit was gone from about midmorning to about three-thirty in the afternoon. She saw Carolyn when she came back from driving you in, but she didn’t see her again and she didn’t notice anything unusual after three-thirty. No strange cars, no people hanging around, nothing like that. The kids were out playing, but they didn’t see anything either. So that doesn’t help much except maybe to narrow down the time. Let’s work on that angle for a while. You can help there, Ben. What about these dishes?”
“They were there when I came in,”Johnny said. “Just like that.”
Ben nodded dully. “Lunch dishes. She hates dishes in the sink. She does the breakfast things right after she gets back from town.”
Ernie counted them. “One cup and saucer, one plate, odd dishes that probably held leftovers. All right, we can say she didn’t leave the house until after lunch. Say twelve-thirty. Now what about the other end of it? We know she wasn’t here at five-ten when your office called.”
“It must have been earlier than that. Much earlier. She always has everything ready for dinner before she leaves at four-thirty, so it won’t take forever when we get home.” He tried to think. “Meat loaf. She was going to have that tonight. It would have been in the oven.”
Ernie opened the oven door. It was empty and cold. He looked in the refrigerator. The package of meat was there, unopened.
“Then,” he said, “we can figure that Carolyn hadn’t even begun to think about dinner. Perhaps we’d be safe in saying that she left the house somewhere between twelve-thirty and three-thirty. Now, Mr. Pettit, you said you found this back door open. Do you mean standing ajar or do you mean in the sense of being unlocked?”
“It was shut,” Johnny said. “I tried the front door, but it was locked. I tried this one and it opened. It wasn’t locked.”
“Does Carolyn habitually leave the door unlocked?”
“She isn’t the scary type,” said Ben. “And to tell you the truth, we don’t worry too much about prowlers out here. I think it’s left unlocked as a matter of convenience. You know. You go outside and the thing slams shut on you—you know.”
“Uh-huh,” said Ernie. “Well, get your coat, Ben. You can ride with me.”
Cars had begun to pull into the drive. Suddenly the place was full of uniforms. Ernie talked to the men and to the two others who came in the Mobile Crime Laboratory, a compact little truck that looked like a milk wagon only it was painted dark. Johnny Pettit said he would go along too. Ben put on his coat and went out. The policemen sorted themselves into two groups, with three men left over. One group went down to the stream bed and spread out, their flashlight beams dancing and slashing through the dark. The second group crossed the road and dispersed into the section of picturesque but brushy and partly wooded land directly across from the Forbes place. Ben got into Ernie’s car and sat shivering, hearing very little of what Johnny was saying. The three policemen got back into the cars in which they had come and drove off.
“They’ll make a house-to-house check,” Ernie said. “We’ll take this side of the road from here to the highway.”
He started the car, and they went from house to house asking for Carolyn.
It was a strangely disjointed trip. There were many starts, many stops, many stumblings up different kinds of walks. Dogs ran out and challenged them. Doors opened and faces appeared in them and voices spoke. Some of them Ben knew. Some of them he wasn’t sure whether he knew or not. Most of them were strangers. The houses all looked different, not at all the familiar houses he drove past every day. The stretches of land in between looked darker and wider. He began to think they were not on Lister Road at all. When, years or hours later, they reached the highway and turned back, it seemed impossible that so many people could live on the same street in the same neighborhood and never notice when one of their number vanished from among them.
There was another thing, too.
“Look at them,” he said bitterly, pointing to the erratic lights that danced in the back yards all along the road.
Some of the men and boys and even a few of the more active and curious women had joined the search. Most of them seemed merely excited, like people watching a fire which does not concern them. He could hear loud juvenile voices shouting and laughing among the dark hedgerows. Dogs barked and bayed.
“My God,” said Ben, “you’d think it was a coon hunt.”
“What do you care,” Ernie said, “as long as they find her.”
And how will they find her? Ben thought. Alive or dying or already dead?
He grasped the handle of the door. “Let me out. I’m going to look for her.”
He flung the door open. Instantly Johnny leaned over from the back seat and caught his shoulders. Ernie slammed on the brake. He was going slow to begin with and the car stopped almost at once. He too caught Ben and held him.
“I need you at the house,” he said. “You couldn’t do anything out there that isn’t already being done.”
He and Johnny got the door closed and locked, and they drove on. Ben stared out the window. He did not say anything more. When they got back to the house one of the lab men said that a woman named Grace Vitelli had called and that was all.
They did not find Carolyn, alive or dead.
The house-to-house check turned up nothing. The search was called off until daylight and the policemen left. Ernie stayed. He gave Ben, who was not a drinking man, three stiff ones in quick succession and sent him to bed. Just before he went to sleep Ben heard Ernie talking quietly on the phone. Then he passed into a dark place where fear and loneliness tormented him and Carolyn was somewhere just out of sight.
He woke and the dream was still with him, more dreadful than ever in the light of day.
By noon they had completed the search of the neighborhood and given up. There was no sign. No word had come from anyone. The lab men had found no fingerprints on or around the back door but Carolyn’s, Ben’s, and Johnny Pettit’s. There were no suspicious prints inside. There were no bloodstains. There were no evidences of any prowler. Apparently, without provocation or violence, Carolyn Forbes had simply ceased to exist.
Ben went down to the police station with Ernie McGrath. In a room of the grimy three-story brick building from which he could see the courthouse two blocks away he made out a report for Missing Persons. He gave a full physical description of Carolyn, including the fact that she had no history of amnesia or mental blackouts. Ernie had already verified this with Carolyn’s doctor. Ben supplied pictures of Carolyn to both Missing Persons and later a reporter from the Woodley paper, for whom he also answered a number of questions. Ernie said that a five-state alarm would be sent out immediately and that all other customary steps would be taken by the interested department. Ernie himself had to get back to his regular job.
“There isn’t much more I could do anyway,” he said. “But I’ll keep in touch. If anything comes up, let me know right away.”
Ben thanked him. Then, holding his sanity doggedly in both hands, he settled down to wait.
By day, at home or at the office, he was never out of earshot of the phone. By night he slept or dozed beside it on the couch. He grasped avidly at every mail and listened for the steps of delivery boys from Western Union. His work suffered badly. He was unable to keep his mind on it for more than a few minutes at a time, but he went through the motions because he did not know what else to do with himself. He did not eat much. He looked at people without really seeing them and talked to them without really knowing what he or they were saying. He had a curious feeling of suspension, as though he had been hung like a test object in a vacuum and was waiting for the shock that would either save or destroy him.
At eight thirty-seven on the evening of the third day, which happened to be the eleventh of November, it came.
The telephone rang.
His name was Albert William Guthrie. Everybody called him Al, and sometimes, in certain moods, the Bull. He was busy taking potatoes out of grocery sacks and putting them into two peck baskets. He did it slowly, as though he were enjoying it, and every little while he would reach over to the dirty drainboard of the sink and pick up the bottle that stood there and drink out of it. He was drunk. He had been drunk for days, and after numerous climbings and fallings he had reached a plateau where he could keep going indefinitely as long as he didn’t quit. He felt good. He liked what he was doing. He liked what he was going to do. He smiled and talked to himself about it. The sun shone in on him through the unwashed window. It was a nice day for the eighth of November.
When he had finished with his potatoes, Al got up and dusted his hands together and wiped them on a towel, leaving brown smears of earth. He went into the front room and got his jacket. He was not quite thirty, better than six feet tall, with an inelegant but very powerful build. His neck was long and his head was long and narrow so that his heavy features seemed too large for his face. His hair was light, almost blond, thick and wavy. He was proud of it. His eyes were blue, peering with a shallow brightness from under lids that looked perpetually swollen.
He picked up his two baskets of potatoes and went out.
He walked across the hard bare ground in the yard, a distance of perhaps twenty-five feet, to the ramshackle garage. Here he had to put his baskets down to open a door, a clumsy batten construction that had to be propped open with a brick. Otherwise it was liable to blow shut with a bang, jarring the little wooden bar into place and locking you in the garage. Al had paid close attention to details like this since he had moved in six days ago. He propped the door carefully, kicking the brick to make sure it wouldn’t shift. Then he turned and took a brief last look at the layout.
He didn’t see how it could be better.
The house stood by itself between a vacant double lot and the shallow channel of Chance’s Run. It was the traditional four-room house, two rooms up and two down, and what little plumbing there was, was in the cellar. Al had grown up in one exactly like it in Butler, Pennsylvania. It had some broken-down pieces of furniture in it, pretty sad but enough to get by on. Al had rented it from the owner, an old Italian man who lived a couple of blocks away. He had told the old man his name was Harper, and when the old man asked him suspiciously what a single fellow wanted with a furnished house he had told him his wife was coming back from West Virginia, where she had gone to visit her sick mother. He had paid a month’s rent in advance.
It was the last house on the long winding street. An old Polish couple lived in the next one beyond the double lot. They didn’t speak hardly any English. The old man worked night trick in the mill and slept all day. The old woman practically never came out of the house. The blinds were kept drawn all the time except in the kitchen, so the wallpaper wouldn’t get faded. Al knew the Polish pretty well. The old woman would scrub and scrub all day until the floors glittered and every last thing in the house was so clean you were afraid to look hard at it for fear you’d smudge it. Between that and cooking up big pots of stew and baking bread she wouldn’t have any time to wonder what the neighbors were doing.
In summer it would have been tougher. People lived on their porches and in their bitty garden patches, and there were always kids roaming around. But all that was over for this year. He wished the straggling shrubs along the fence still had their leaves on for a better screen, but you couldn’t have everything.
On the other side of the run there was nothing but a hillside with some blight-killed elms and some scrub maple and a lot of brush. A single track ran in a cut high up on it. The only regular traffic was the junction train that took the yard men to work. There wasn’t anything in front of the house but the street and the curving stream and more of the hillside. In back of it the streets angled off so there was nothing too close there, either. Al had spent many hours finding the right place. It looked as though this one was made to order.
It was going to have to be good enough. Because now he was on his way.
A surge of intense excitement came over him, knotting his belly, stringing tight the muscles of his arms and thighs. He picked up the two baskets and put them into the back part of his middle-aged sedan, on the floor. He was shaking and his loins were hot. It was a good feeling, a proud feeling. His eyes shone with it. Maybe I’ll go back in and get the gun, he thought. Maybe I’ll decide to kill somebody right now. He swung his big fists in the air and enjoyed the idea. But he didn’t go back for the gun. He had made his plans. Maybe I’ll kill them, he thought, but I’ll say when. And they’ll jump, by God, they’ll jump when I tell ’em.
He pulled an open pint bottle out of his jacket pocket and drank from it. The whiskey burned in his mouth and down his throat. He caught a deep breath and wiped his mouth and put the bottle out of sight under the front seat. Then he opened the double doors and hooked them back and went jolting away down the rutted alley. It was nineteen minutes after twelve.
From South Flat, where the house was, he had to drive clear across town to reach Lister Road. The mood of exhilaration he was in stayed with him, but it changed, becoming darker and harder as the sense of forward movement gripped him. He had wasted too much time. Now he wasn’t going to waste any more. Now things were going to be settled once and for all.
All the way over he could see Lorene in the back of his mind. It was funny, how that was. In front of him he could see the street and the traffic lights, the people crossing at the intersections. And at the same time he could see Lorene so clear and plain that even the little soft reddy-gold hairs on her forearms showed. It made him crazy to see her like that. It made him stamp his feet and twist his head, unable to sit still while he waited for the damned red lights. It made him not want to wait for them. He hated anybody telling him what to do, making him stop when he wanted to go and go fast. Slobs, he thought, looking at the people blocking the street while he sat. Goddamn slobs, what have they got to do that’s so important?
Nothing. Nothing like what I’ve got to do.
He passed Courthouse Square on the south side, so that the building was interposed between him and the office of Ben Forbes. But he looked that way and smiled, a smile of incalculable malice.
You’re the smart boy, he thought. All right, let’s see if your stinking little lawbooks have the answer to this one.
And you, Lorene. You wait around. I’ll hold you by your pretty red hair and make you wish you’d never been born.
You’ve got it coming.
And so has he. I’ll make him sweat. By
I’ll make him sweat.
Lister Road was quiet. It was a snotty-looking road. There were thirty-five-mile speed-limit signs all the way along to keep the peasants from going through too fast. That was the kind of a thing that always made him want to do seventy just to show them. But he held it down. This was one time he didn’t want anybody to notice him.
He had been up and down the road before at different odd times. It had pleased him to drive past the houses he was interested in, spying on them, learning all he wanted to know, and the people inside never guessing it. He passed the house that had Pettit on the mailbox and looked into the garage as he went by. You could see it easy from the road. They had two cars and both of them were gone. Rich bitches. So that was all right.
The next house was
house. Ben Forbes’ house.
Something happened that Al hadn’t been looking for. He got such a rush of blood to the head that he was almost blind. God damn it, he thought. God damn it, I ain’t going to fool around, I’m going to kill ’em. Kill every damn one of ’em. That’s what they need, after what they’ve done to me. Blow their goddamn guts out.
The car slewed onto the berm, throwing gravel.
The noise startled him. For a minute it sounded like shots hitting the fenders. He set his teeth and wrenched the wheel. The car straightened out. He could see the road again. He could see Lorene, too, the way she had looked that time when she told him he couldn’t ever come near her again. “Never again,” she said, “you hear that? Never.” Screaming at him. Snotty as hell. Swelled up like a toad with her own importance.
taught her, that bastard Forbes.
Al’s head was pounding. He needed a drink. He had needed one bad before but never like this. He thought he would die if he didn’t get one. He drove along the road, and when he came to a place where there were no houses on either side he slowed down and fished the bottle from under the seat and gulped at it the way a drowning man gulps air. The liquor hit him like a big fist. It dazed him for a minute and then it took hold and steadied him.
I got it figured, he thought, looking at the brown fields and the bare trees with the sun on them. This is the way. There’s always time for the other if they push me into it. Always time.
Slowly and sedately he turned the car around and drove back, feeling as though he were made of iron.
The doctor’s house on this side of Forbes’ was set lower in a dip of the ground and there were trees between. The way the two houses were built you couldn’t see what was going on at Forbes’ back door from the doctor’s place at all. Pettits could, but there was nobody home. Al approached the Forbes driveway. And now he was cool and strong, not excited at all. Everything was right, everything was his way. There was not even a car in sight on the road when he turned in.
He pulled all the way to the back, letting the car roll easy. Then he set the brake and got out. The motor was still running. He tilted the seat forward and lifted the baskets of potatoes from the floor in the back, making sure that the hinge of the wide door caught right so it would stay open. Carrying a basket in each hand, he went to the kitchen door, which was set in the back wall of the house so as not to show from the road.
He set the baskets down and knocked.
She opened the door.
She looked at the baskets by his feet and then she smiled and shook her head and said, “No, I don’t need—”
He hit her on the jaw. He could knock a big man out with one punch if the man was set up for it. He caught her as she sagged down. There was still no one in sight on the road. He hauled her fast to the car and hustled her onto the floor in the back, and now his head was hot and pounding again and his hands shook because he knew he had to hurry. Hurry. The tape was all ready on the seat. Tear it. Over the mouth. Around the wrists. Around the ankles. Christ, she’s squirming around, didn’t I hit her hard enough? Hit her again. Hit—Good. That’s good. Now the blanket.
He was halfway into the car before he remembered the potatoes. He ran back to the door. It was standing open, and he struck the flat edge of his hand behind the knob and yanked it shut. Then he picked up the baskets, shoved them onto the floor in the front, and backed out of the drive, onto the quiet peaceful empty road.
And it was as easy as that.