Fiction

black 6 on red 7

VERA D. JOHNSON January 15 1951
Fiction

black 6 on red 7

VERA D. JOHNSON January 15 1951

black 6 on red 7

VERA D. JOHNSON

MACLEAN’S FICTION CONTEST, HONORABLE MENTION

WE EDGED down slowly toward the strip of beach. As we sank, the mountains seemed to grow higher until they loomed on all sides, dwarfing us. Pete cut the motor and the propeller on the helicopter and the big vanes overhead revolved more and more slowly and finally stopped. We just sat for a moment, listening to the silence. Then Pete said, “Home sweet home. How do you like it?”

I liked it. This was no makeshift cabin, in ■the middle of evergreen wilderness. It was long and spacious. The outside was faced with split logs standing upright; it stood on the shore of the lake with its big view windows overlooking the water. The roof, which slanted shallowly, was covered with cedar shakes. Even in the bright sunshine the place looked lonesome.

We jumped down to the beach and began unloading our stuff. There wasn’t mucha few boxes of groceries and our personal belongings. When it was all piled beside the steps Pete opened the door.

It was quite a place. There was an enormous living room with a massive stone fireplace and three partitioned bedrooms on a balcony at one end. A hall led to three more bedrooms, a den and a kitchen. The walls throughout were paneled in knotty pine and the floors were hardwood. “Great place,” said Pete, our pilot.

“Only trouble is—nothing works. Tiled bathroom with all the fixtures hut you can’t use it because there’s no water.”

Norman was plainly baffled. “But why—” he began, “what’s the use ?”

“Except that.” Pete pointed to the white enameled garbage burner that stood beside the electric range. “That’s what you’ll use for cooking and heating. There’s enough wood in the shed outside to last you all winter. You can lug in pails of water from t he creek 1 don’t think it will freeze up. If it does, you can melt down snow.” He turned away and opened the door, saying casually, “Next year the boss is putting in a power plant. You’ll get by.”

“What made him pick ' on a Godforsaken place like this?” I asked.

“The boss is like that,” Pete said. “Gets whims. Just spotted the lake when we were flying over and decided he’d like a hunting lodge here. Two weeks later we started Hying materials in. That’s the boss for you.”

Vera D. Johnson, who was born in Birmingham, England, in 1920, came to Canada at the age of six, grew up in Regina as one of a family of five. Now living in Vancouver, she is the mother of three children, is currently busy with being a public stenographer, writing a second novel (the first one was almost published), a musical comedy, radio plays, short stories, articles. She has her own weekly program of folk songs on CKMO.

The boss. He was our boss too now, Norman’s and mine this fabulous American who pla' a hunting lodge in the wilderness just to grau a whim.

“Well, I’ll leave you to it,” Pete was saying.

He shook hands with both of us. He was smiling and joking hut 1 thought the expression in his eyes was curiously speculative, as if he rather doubted our ability to get along without him.

We stood on the beach and watched the take-off. The motor thundered into life and a miniature sandstorm raged beneath the machined Then the helicopter, like some ungainly Ijg] yard fowl that has forgotten how to fly, into the air and out over the lake.

I looked at my watch. It was one o’cl I turned to Norman, who was still watching helicopter. “Well,” I said, “we might as ¡ get lunch.”

“Yeah—sure,” he said, still staring out ac the lake. Then he dragged his eyes away ana] followed me into the kitchen. He stood in the middle of the floor while I stuffed old newspape ,s in the garbage burner and added kindling and? some fair-sized sticks. I opeti^dL^ the draught and tossed in a lighted match. I vvàrce#-— the fire was crackling healthily and then closeV the draught. Norman was still standing thergí

“How about getting a pail of water whilem¡ rustle up some grub?” I asked. bo

“I—don’t

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think I better,” he said, stammering slightly. “I’m not supposed to lift anything heavy. But anything else —-you tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”

I just, looked at him for a minute. His pimply young face was full of eagerness and anxiety. “All right,” I said. “You can set the table.”

I took a pail down to the creek for water. When I got back to the cabin, Norman was staring stupidly at his finger while blood dripped on to the floor. In his other hand he still held a vicious-looking butcher knife. His face was white. He gestured with the knife at a side of bacon on the counter.

“I was just slicing it—” he began, his lips trembling.

I didn’t say what I was thinking. I just wrapped my handkerchief around his finger and raised it above his head. “Hold it there for a minute,” I told him. I started for the door hut turned back to take the knife away from him.

I didn’t want another accident while I was gone.

The medicine chest was in the bathroom—a large green box that looked more like a tool chest. When 1 lifted the lid I found enough equipment to doctor an army. There was even a bottle of brandy. I rummaged until I found some iodine and a package of Band-Aids and went back to the kitchen.

After we had eaten I put more wood on the fire and heated enough water for the dishes. Obviously Norman couldn’t wash with his bandaged finger, so I let him dry—until he broke a cup. Then I set him to sweeping the floor. When the kitchen was all tidied we brought in our stuff and unpacked.

BY THREE O’CLOCK there was nothing more to do. I lay on my bed with a book, but in the middle of the second page I found I was listening, not reading. Listening to the unnatural silence. No streetcars, no buses, no blaring horns, no footsteps —I put down the book and got up.

I found Norman sitting on the front porch, gazing into the distance.

“Do you play chess?” I asked.

“No, but I’d like to learn,” he said.

I got the board, set it on the floor of the porch and began explaining. He caught on to the movements of the various pieces very quickly, but as far as the general strategy was concerned vie was hopeless. He could look ahead or one move, but no farther.

\ At four o’clock I said, “That’s enough for today.” The sun had slipped down behind the mountain ridge and the lake was a deep bluegreen, almost black. I walked over to its edge and dipped my hand in the water. It was icy. I stood there a moment, looking at the mountains. Their rims were etched clearly against the twilight sky and they seemed to be drawing in closer with the approach of the night. I went inside and lit the coal oil lamps.

We ate supper—it was tinned beef stew—in the breakfast nook, with the flickering lamps creating strange shadows on the ceiling. At half-past five I started teaching Norman how to play cribbage. He couldn’t count the points in his hand without making a mistake, not even once. At seven o’clock we switched to gin rummy, which he had played before. I won seven games before I became bored. Then I remembered that there was a living room. We took the lamps with us, and found the record albums and looked them over. The boss had assembled a good collection. There was everything from harpsichord music to Dixieland jazz.

Norman wanted to start with Tchaikowsky’s Fifth, but I put my foot down. I picked out a Bach selection I was particularly fond of and put it on the turntable. I gently lowered the needle into the groove and waited. The record kept turning but all we could hear was a faint scratching. We tried turning various knobs, but nothing happened. Obviously a battery radio wasn’t going to work in a place hemmed in by mountains.

T LAY on my back, staring at the A blackness, and thought about Margaret. It was easy to picture her face. After all, we’d been married for ten years. It was easy to picture her looking happy and saying the things I wanted to hear.

I began to feel sleepy and turned on my side. I tried not to see her face —but it was still there, and now it was different. The eyes were hurt and bewildered. I buried my face in the pillow, but I could still see it. It wore different expressionssometimes pain and anguish, sometimes hatred, sometimes contempt, sometimes desolation.

I heard her voice too. She said she couldn’t go on any longer, that she couldn’t take it. She told me I was destroying myself and her too and she begged me to quit before it was too late. There was a quiet desperation in the way she said these things. But then 1 heard her saying, quite calmly and coldly, “I’m sorry, I just don’t love you any more. It’s finished. I’m moving out and we’ll arrange a divorce later.”

I sat up in bed and fumbled for my cigarettes. I was shivering. The night air was cool, but not that cool. I lit a cigarette and took a deep drag. All right, I told myself, don’t get panicky. That part’s all over and done with. You’ve got one more chance to prove you can lick it and this time you’re going to make good. When you go back in the spring you’ll be starting out together all over again.

I lay back and planned what I would do with the money I got from the boss. It would be the first time we’d ever had a bank account.

I was going to be a husband she would be proud of—steady, reliable, responsible. I would work at my writing this winter, finish the novel I started eight years ago. Maybe when spring rolled around I’d even find a publisher. I fell asleep thinking of what my name would look like on a book jacket.

OFFICIALLY Norman and I were caretakers. At first he followed me all around the place, wistfully enquiring what he should do next. I

finally typed out a daily chore list for him, simple tasks which would keep him out from under my feet.

Once our routine was organized we were able to get through it in less than three hours a day. That left us about 16 hours to fill in as best we could. I got out the notes for my novel and studied them. I even put a sheet of paper in the typewriter and stared at it, searching for the right words for the opening, but they didn’t come. After an hour I typed “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” and took the paper out of the machine. The next day I did produce one paragraph, but that night I tore it up. I read. I went for walks. I played solitaire. I chopped wood. But still the days seemed endless

At the end of a week I said to Norman, “Only 23 days to go.”

“Till what?” he asked.

“Till Pete arrives. He said it would be around the first of October.”

“Why is that so important?” I looked at his face to see if he was kidding, but his expression was completely serious. The isolation didn’t seem to bother him at all.

“Pete will be bringing our mail,” I reminded him.

“Oh.” He picked up the deck of cards and began idly shuffling them. Then, with elaborate unconcern, he said, “There won’t be any for me.” “Sure there will,” I said.

“A lot you know about it!” His voice was high-pitched and trembling. “I got no family! There isn’t a single person who even knows where I am.” “What about the people you worked with?” I asked. “Didn’t you tell them?”

“Them!” he sneered. “Do you think they cared? They used to talk in front of me about what they were going to do on a Saturday night, planning to go out together, the whole gang of them. But they never asked me to go with them.”

I could understand that. I couldn’t picture him in a Saturday night crowd, with his pimply face, his gauche manner, his clumsiness. He would have been a blight on the party.

“Oh well,” I said, “don’t brood about it. You deal out the cards and we’ll have another game of crib.”

“I don’t feel like it now,” he said. “I think I’ll read.”

He did a lot of reading, mostly tripe. He liked stories about two-fisted, hardbitten men who grappled with life in the raw. There was a substantial library on the book shelves in the living room and he found there the authors he was most fond of—James Oliver Curwood, Zane Grey, Jack London. He liked Hemingway too —but not because he had any literary

discrimination. It was just that Hemingway’s heroes were the men of action he wanted to identify himself with.

IT WAS about the middle of the month that the first snow fell. It fell in big wet flakes drifting down in slow motion and melting as they touched the ground. It fell all day long, quietly, steadily, creating a new world outside the window.

“If it stays like this,” I said, “Pete will never get through.”

“Don’t worry,” Norman said bitterly. “He’ll get through—with stacks of letters for you; and you can take them in your room and spend a whole day by yourself just reading them.” That was what I intended to do, but hearing it put into words made me feel like a heel. “Look,” I said, “You can read them all when I’ve finished.”

“It wouldn’t be the same.”

I thought of all the letters that would be arriving. There were bound to be some from people I was only casually interested in.

“Would you like to have one of them for your very own?” I asked.

“You mean you’d give it to me?” “Sure.”

He thought that over for a minute. Then he said, “I’ll buy one from you.” He was watching me, waiting for my reaction. I was going to argue—but there was something about his expression that stopped me.

“All right,” I said, “we’ll make it a straight business transaction.”

“Will five dollars be enough?”

‘More than enough.”

“I’ll draw up an agreement and we’ll both sign it.”

“If you want it that way.”

He produced the agreement after supper that night. It was a ridiculous document, full of quasi-legal phraseology and meandering sentences, but he was inordinately proud of it. He read it aloud, wrapping his tongue with relish around such phrases as, “ . . . hereby relinquish, waive and utterly renounce any and all rights, claims and interest in the said epistle . . .” The only clause I objected to was the one which gave him the right to choose his own letter, but I didn’t mention it. As far as I was concerned the whole business was childish and I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of treating it seriously.

IN THE DAYS that followed I made a point of being kind and considerate. I gave up playing solitaire and concentrated on activities we could share. I taught him new card games, patiently explaining every detail and being tolerant of his stupidities. I read aloud, trying to instill in him an appreciation of good writing. I led him into discussions on philosophy, politics, women, marriage, education —and even though his opinions were naive and adolescent, I encouraged him to express them. But always— while he was listening to me and while he was talking—I sensed that he was holding back, that he was not quite willing to believe in my friendliness.

I didn’t quite believe in it myself. The old, familiar doubts that had devilled me for 35 years plagued me during the long nights. Lying sleepless in my lonely bed, I heard the old familiar voices—you’re a hell of a fine fellow, aren’t you? Brainy, dynamic, charming, witty—a real personality! You’re one in a million, aren’t you? Insidious voices, trying to break down my self-esteem, trying to convince me that I was as much a worm as the rest of humanity.

I could have exorcised them with alcohol. I thought of the brandy in the medicine chest and dug my finger-

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nails into my palms. I wouldn’t give in.

You don’t care about that punk kid, the voices accused. All you want is to impress him with your own superiority. You’re painting a self-portrait that he will accept as a true picture, and you hope that when he accepts it you’ll be able to believe in it yourself. Besides, spending so much time with him gives you an alibi for neglecting, the novel. You’re afraid to work on it. You’re afraid that you’ll never write anything worth while. It’s easier to think of yourself as an unrecognized genius when you’re not writing anything to disprove it.

I stood it, until the first day of October. That was when Pete was supposed to arrivebut he didn’t. Norman and 1 watched all day, hoping that the clouds would lift. The first snow had disappeared long before and a cold, bleak rain was falling. We stared out at it morosely.

That night I drank the brandy. I was only going to have one shot, but it gave me such a wonderful feeling of warmth and comfort that I took a second. Hell, every man has his little weaknesses. The fact that I liked the odd drink didn’t mean I was an alcoholic.

When 1 woke in the morning the bottle was empty and my head throbbed painfully. I got out of bed, moving slowly and carefully and found some aspirins in my grip. I had to go all the way to the kitchen for a glass of water. Norman was sitting in the breakfast nook, reading.

He said, “Good morning,” and T mumbled something. The water bucket was empty.

“No water,” I said.

“We used the last for coffee last night,” Norman reminded me.

I stood there with the four aspirins clutched in my hand and thought of stumbling down the path to the creek. I couldn’t face it.

“I don’t feel very well,” I said. “How about you getting it this time?”

“All right,” Norman said. “But I can’t bring a full pail,” he explained apologetically. “I had rheumatic fever when I was a kid; I have to watch I don’t strain my heart.”

He brought back a third of a pail and I drank almost half of it right away. Then 1 went back to bed.

At two, when I got up again, the mist was thick around the cabin. Norman was still reading, wrapped in a blanket.

“Why didn’t you put the fire on?” I asked.

“I didn’t know how,” he said. He didn’t seem ashamed of his ignorance.

“You better learn,” I said. “Right now.”

rpHE NEXT DAY about nine o’clock l the mist began to lift. It rolled back gradually until we could see the far end of the lake and then it grew thinner and thinner and finally dissipated. We sat on the front porch— with the sun warming our flesh and the lake in front of us reflecting the blue of the sky and a soft breeze rustling through the evergreens. It was wonderful. 1 felt at peace with myself and the world.

At one o’clock I heard it—the faint, far-off throbbing of the helicopter. Norman heard it too. We grinned at each other like a pair of idiots and watched, and waited. It came over the crest of the hill and we followed its flight wordlessly. Then it was on the beach and we sauntered over.

“Hi,” Pete said. “Howya doin’?”

“Fine,” I said. “What’s new?”

“Nothing much.” He began dragging boxes out of the egg-beater. “You’ll find it all in here,” he said.

“All the newspapers for the past month. Brought you some steak too

figured you’d enjoy a little fresh meat.” He brought out a large brown manila envelope. “There’s the mail,” he said. “Now if you’ll take this stuff out of my way I’ll beat it.”

“What’s the rush?” I said. “Come on and have a cup of coffee. It won’t take a minute.”

He was already climbing into the helicopter. “No time,” he said. “There’s some dirty weather heading this way and I don’t want to meet it.” With his hand on the ignition key he asked, “Everything okay? No troubles?”

“No troubles,” I told him.

“Okay. See you in two months.”

We picked up the boxes and carried them over to the porch. Again we stood on the beach and watched the take-off—but this time there seemed to be something final about it. I watched the helicopter until it was a tiny speck in the distance.

In the cabin I went ahead unpacking the things and stacking them in the cupboard, paying no attention to the manila envelope which was lying on the table. I moved deliberately, taking my time, and when everything was put away and the boxes taken out to the woodshed I swept the kitchen floor. Norman still hadn’t said anything about the mail. Maybe he thought.

1 wasn’t going to keep our bargain.

I lit a cigarette and then I walked over to the table. “Here,” I said casually, “you might as well pick your letter now.” I handed the manila envelope to him and walked away.

“Just a minute,” he said.

“What?” Maybe he had changed his mind.

“I want you to watch so you’ll know I only take one.” I watched while he ripped the end of the large envelope and looked over the letters inside. At last he selected one and held it up for me to see, but with the address turned toward him. He put it in his pocket. Then he handed the manila envelope with the rest of the letters in it to me and walked down the hall to his room.

In my own bedroom I dumped the letters onto my desk, arranged them in a neat stack and began to go through them. There were 25 of them —including several circulars from publishing houses. I examined each envelope carefully and put it in the proper pile

one for circulars, one for family letters, one for letters from friends. J was afraid to reach the end. Then there were just two' letters left. One was from my brother John. I put it in the family pile. The last one was from—my mother.

I sat there with my stomach tightening in a knot for a long time. When I finally began opening the family’s mail it was too dark to see and I had to go to the kitchen and get a lamp.

I opened my mother’s letter first.

I skimmed through mother’s letter, looking for the one name that meant anything to me— Margaret. It wasn’t

there. My brother John said, “Passed by the store and dropped in to see Margaret last week. She is looking very well.” My friend Peter Mitchell wrote, “Bumped into Margaret at lunch time the other day so we ate together. She was feeling temporarily lousy, she said—the effects of a big party the night before—but seemed very cheerful. We had a pleasant half-hour of chit-chat.” That was all.

I tossed the letters into a drawer and shut it. The bedroom was cold. I went into the kitchen. Norman had the fire going and was sitting by the stove reading a newspaper.

AFTER dinner, I said. “I hope you Jt\. enjoyed your letter.”

“Oh yes,” he said.

“By the way, who was it from?”

He stopped with a piece of pie halfway to his mouth. “It’s my letter,” he said.

“Yes, I know I just wondered where it came from.”

“1 don’t have to tell you.”

“Oh well, if you feel that way—let’s forget it.”

He was afraid of me—I could see the fear lurking in his eyes—but lu* was stubborn. For a week I worked on that stubbornness. I didn’t merv tion the letter again, but I was so pleasant" and friendly and considerate that he should have been falling on my neck with gratitude and remorse. Instead, he was wary. He watched me as if he suspected a trap.

The days were unpleasant, but. the nights were worse. She was well. She was cheerful. She had been on a big party, Pete had said. That was all I knew. It didn’t sound as if she missed me very much. I wondered who had thrown the party and how much drinking she’d done. She wasn’t much of a party girl. Three drinks knocked her higher than a »kite. Supposing she’d met a man there some jerk with a good-looking face. I’d been on enough parties in my time to know what happened. It was all part of the game. A few drinks put you on a friendly basis; then you danced, holding her a little closer than was necessary; then you sat on the arm of her chair. You didn’t have to say much. It was the way you looked at her, the way you squeezed her hand, that counted. At the right time you suggested a walk or a breath of fresh air or a hit to eat or a ride in the car, if you had one. That was the way it went. Had she been out on that kind of a party?

I stood it as long as I could—then I got up and prowled through the cabin. In the storeroom were six large bottles of flavorings two vanilla, two lemon and two almond—-and three tins of canned heat. I took them all back to the room and put them in the bureau drawer. In the bathroom there was after-shave lotion and rubbing alcohol. I was dubious about the rubbing alcohol and finally let it go.

I started out with the lemon extract.

I knew from experience that it was the easiest to take. I sat up in bed with the bottle in my hand, reading aloud to myself. When I woke the empty bottle was still clutched in my hand and the magazine was crushed beneath me. Inside my head ten thousand riveters were having a field day. I tried to light a cigarette and my fingers trembled so that the flame bobbed up and down. I used up three matches before 1 got it lit.

Somehow 1 got through the week —but when it came to an end and Norman hadn’t cracked I decided to change my strategy.

I took the five dollar bill he’d given me and tucked it in my shirt pocket. I waited till we had finished the lunch

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dishes and then J brought it out and put it on the table.

“Here,” I said, “I’ve decided I want my letter back.”

“It’s my letter.” He backed up a few feet and I followed him. “You sold it to me.”

“All right. I sold it to you. Now I’m going to buy it back. I’ll give you the full price even if it is secondhand.”

He kept on backing up, through the kitchen door and into the hall. His lace was white and his eyes panicky. “No,” he said, and his voice quavered, “I won’t let you have it. It’s mine.”

I reached out and grabbed him by the shirt front. I said, “Go and get it!” He staled up at me wild-eyed, saying nothing. When he was thoroughly cowed I let go of the shirt and pushed him toward his room. He stumbled and fell. Then he got up, darted into the room, slammed the door and turned the key in the lock.

I stood outside the door. “I’m waiting,” I said.

For a moment all I could hear was heavy gasps. Then he shouted shrilly. “You can’t have it. It’s mine and I’m going to keep it forever.”

“Don’t be asinine,” I said. “You’re a snivelling, stupid, cowardly delayed adolescent and you’re acting like a two-year-old.”

He thought that over for a minute. Then he decided to be brave since there was a door between us.

“You’re the one that’s childish,” he said. “You think just because you’re big and strong you can trample all over everybody. You think you can order people around and bully them and just take whatever you want. Well, you can’t scare me.” His piping voice quivered.

I laughed at him—laughed at his empty defiance. “What are you shaking for?” I taunted. “Why are you hiding behind a locked door? Why don’t you come out here and tell me how brave you are?”

There was a long silence. Then he said quietly, “All right, I am afraid of you. I’m not stupid. I know you could break my neck with one hand. But it won’t do you any good, because the letter’s hidden where you’ll never find it.”

“Listen, stupid,” I said with quiet deliberation, “you’re getting a little confused. I never threatened you. That’s all in your own moronic imagination!”

1 walked away and settled in the kitchen. After a while I heard his door open. He went through the hall into the living room and out the front door and came back the same way. I smiled as I heard him locking himself in his room again.

At five o’clock I prepared my own supper, ate it and washed up the dishes. Then I sat in the breakfast nook with all the September papers and began to go through them.

IT WAS nine o’clock before hunger drove him out of the bedroom. He came into the kitchen tentatively, ready to fice at the slightest gesture.

I ignored him, but out of the corner of my eye I watched. He peeled potatoes—taking off a half-inch layer —and put them on the stove in a pot of cold water. Then he went to the storeroom and came back with a tin of roast beef. There was a good modern can-opener in the drawer, but he chose the old-fashioned one with a sharp point. He managed to get the tin open but jabbed his thumb in the process. After he bandaged that and set the meat over the fire he filled the coffee pot and threw in a handful of coffee.

I kept on reading the papers. After a while he sat down across from me and began to eat. The potatoes were

raw on the inside, the meat had stuck to the pan and burned and the coffee had been boiled until it was jet black and bitter. He ate it all though —he wasn’t ready to admit his incompetency yet. Then he went doggedly ahead and washed up all the dishes he d used. It took him fifteen minutes to clean the pot he’d heated the meat in.

I sat up till nearly one a.m., long after he was in bed, and then I went along to my own private little hell.

The next day Norman walked about boldly and the day after that he adopted a cocky attitude, as if he was sure I wouldn’t dare to touch him. He managed to feed himself, though he made a mess of everything. Once or twice he looked my way as if he was about to say something, but I kept my head turned away.

I don’t know how many days went by—maybe four, maybe six. The dirty weather that Pete predicted had moved in. All day and all night millions of small, hard pellets of snow swirled down and battered at the windows.

1 stretched a rope between the back door and the outhouse, to make sure I didn’t wander off' into the blizzard, and rigged another rope to the pump at the creek. When I had to go out I held on to the rope and felt my way through the drifts, shielding my eyes from the blinding snow.

We were really housebound now.

I waited till Norman had gone oui one afternoon and then I tried the door of his room. It was locked. I had expected that and I had the skeleton key from my own room ready. It took me a while to get it into the keyhole but when it was in it turned readily.

I began searching—in his drawers, under the pillow, under the carpet, under the mattress, behind the pictures, I took the books off his bedside table and leafed through them. Then I tried the cupboard and went through the pockets of his clothes. He’d hidden it well all right. I was still standing in the room, wondering where to look next, when he walked in.

He had a nasty, superior smile on his face. “Well, well,” he said, “so you’ve turned into a common thief, have you?” His eyes shone with his own daring. “How do you feel now, Mr. God Almighty? You didn’t find the letter, did you?” He came closer, stood in front of me, his pasty, pimply face upturned. “How does it feel to be beaten by a worm like me?”

I took his scrawny neck between my hands and squeezed it. “Look,” I said, “this is just a sample of what you’re going to get if you don’t give up that letter.” For a moment his eyes were stark with terror, then they rolled up until only the whites showed and he went limp. He’d passed out. from fright. I laid him gently on the floor.

Then I began to wonder why he was so sure I hadn’t found the letter. What if it hadn’t been in the room at all?

I felt in his trouser pockets. Not there.

I put my hand in the pocket of his mackinaw—and I had it.

I didn’t even look at the envelope. I left him lying on the floor and went along to my own room.

The handwriting was wrong. In the left-hand corner there was a return address. It was our apartment, but the wrong suite. Above it was the name “Mrs. Matheson.” I remembered her—the old biddy on the second floor. Maybe she’s hurt her hand, I thought. Maybe she dictated it to Mrs. Matheson.

I pulled out the single sheet of paper and unfolded it.

“This is the Luck of London chain letter,” it said. There was more—about the wonderful things that happened to the people who kept the letter going and the tragic misfortunes that harried those who broke the chain. I didn’t read much of it.

At, first, all I could think of was Margaret. Maybe her letter had got lost in the mail. Maybe she’d been just too busy. Maybe she hadn’t known the helicopter was coming. There were several possibilities. I thought of them all—but I didn’t believe them. What if she’d changed her mind about waiting, decided it wasn’t worth it?

WHEN I went back to the other bedroom Norman was lying as I’d left him. His mouth was hanging open a little and the imprints of my thumbs were blue shadows over his windpipe. I think I knew then, but I grabbed his shoulders and shook him and shouted his name. His head rolled idiotically and the white, staring eyeballs glared fiercely at the ceiling. I crouched beside him tor a moment. Then I went into the kitchen and sat down in the breakfast nook. The five dollar bill was still lying there, where I’d placed it nearly two weeks before. Neither of us had touched it.

I picked up the deck of cards and dealt out the seven piles for solitaire. A black jack on a red queen and a

red three on a black four, and if you turned up an ace you could start building on it. There was a corpse in the bedroom, with my thumbprints on its neck; there was a sheaf of copy paper on a table, for a novel that would never be written, there was an empty bed waiting for me, and the devils perched at its head. I looked out the window at the blizzard and thought of the peace I could find out there. But maybe the letter had got lost in the mails. Maybe she’d been too busy. Maybe she hadn’t known the helicopter was coming. I put some sticks of wood on the fire and then I sat down again and laid the black six on the red seven.