The double cross
Mrs. Ramsey knew what she wanted. In a few minutes the bomb would explode. The plan was perfect, except for
Illustrated by Ken Dallison
Alone in her stateroom, thoughfully studying her reflection in the mirror. Nicole dressed leisurely. Through the porthole she could hear the water lapping softly against the side of the yacht; reflections from the water played on the ceiling over her head. It was almost dark, but she hadn't turned on the light; she preferred to dress in the half-darkness, her reflection dim and half shadowed in the mirror before her. She decided on the black faille Balenciaga suit; it was no longer new, but it was classic and simple, and it gave her the self-assurance she needed. As she was putting it on the ironic thought occurred to her that in an hour it would be the only dress she owned.
That reminded her of something: her wrist watch. It was an expensive one. a gift from her father; she got it out and slipped it quickly over her wrist. “As for the clothes,” she told herself wryly, “you can always buy others.”
When she was dressed she slipped out of the stateroom and crossed the passage into the bathroom. First locking the door carefully, she knelt down and pulled up a section of the floor board. 1 he switch was hidden behind a beam, almost undetectable unless you knew where to look tor it. She turned it on, checking to be sure she had done it right, and looked at her watch: it was exactly five after seven.
Harlan and Lascari were still in the study. The air force had announced that morning it was canceling a big Scott-Ramsey order; Harlan had said they stood to drop a couple of hundred thousand if they couldn't find some way to hold them to their contract. Papers were piled all over the table in front of them. Harlan looked worried, but Lascari was calmly smoking a cigarette. Neither of them looked up when Nicole appeared in the doorway.
“Time to go,” she told them, pulling on her gloves. “Aren’t you going to get dressed?” “Already?” said Harlan, looking up in surprise. He checked his watch. “It's only a little after seven.” “What?” she said. “Oh—damnation! 1 must have misread my watch. I thought it was after eight.”
Only minutes to go now» Nicole avoided looking at her watch—someone might remember that later
“Well, go and amuse yourself for a while, will you?” said Harlan. "Fix yourself a drink. We’ll be ready in a little while.”
• "I don’t know,” said Nicole. “Now that I’m dressed i feel restless. I think I’ll take the launch and go on ashore, and have a drink in the club bar. I'll send the dock boy back with the launch. Or else I’ll come back for you myself when you’re ready.”
“Okay, see you about eight,” said Harlan, turning back to his papers.
“Are you sure you can run the launch by yourself?” said Lascari concernedly. He had risen half out of his chair and was watching her uncertainly as she turned to go.
“Of course,” she said. "I’ve done it a hundred times.”
“Come on, Charlie, sit down,” said Harlan. “She can take care of herself. Let’s get going on this thing, or we’re never going to get any dinner.”
Lascari, looking vaguely uneasy, sat down, but he didn’t turn back to the papers. Nicole turned and went out without meeting his glance.
Later, as she drove the launch ashore, she thought ironically of Lascari’s concern over whether she could handle it; men were so convinced that they were the only ones who could do things. Actually it was no harder to handle than a car. She brought it competently alongside the club float and turned it over to the dock boy to tie up for her. Before she went up she noted the time on the big neon clock over the clubhouse. Seven twenty-five. She got out a cigarette and lighted it.
The bar was almost empty; it was a week night, and still early. She ordered a Manhattan and sipped it slowly, looking out at the lights in the harbor. She was not fool enough to look at her watch; the gesture might have been noticed, and it was little things like that that were held against you later. Besides, there was no need to; she had lit the first cigarette at exactly seven twenty-five, and she knew that if she smoked it leisurely, drawing on it at approximately normal intervals and setting it down now and then in the ash tray, it would take her exactly ten minutes to finish it. The first cigarette was half gone now; seven-thirty.
Twenty-five minutes more.
AT FIFTY-TWO. Harlan Ramsey was virtually the sole owner of SeottRamsey, Inc., an electronics manufacturing firm he had begun during the war in a converted garage in east Los Angeles and expanded until it occupied a million-dollar plant in Long Beach and had a payroll of fifteen hundred men. Now that the company was firmly established. Ramsey didn’t work as hard as he had during the war; those years had been a strain on him. and he had no intention of ending up with a heart attack at fifty-five like so many successful executives. Shortly after the war he had decided it was time to relax and enjoy some of the good things of life his success had now made possible. In the few years after that he had bought a lot of things, but most of all his interests had centred on the Avatar, his seventy-foot twin-screw motor yacht. Ramsey was proud of the boat; he had had it built of the finest materials in the best yard on the coast, and little by little he had fitted it with the finest electronic equipment money could buy: a two-way radiophone connecting the yacht with the shore telephone lines, a ScottRamsey radar, a sonar depthfinder, loran radio-navigating equipment. Ramsey himself was no engineer and he often had his chief production man. Charlie Lascari, come out and help him install equipment like this in the yacht. It all came out of company costs, and anyhow Charlie got a kick out of playing around with the equipment. Actually. Ramsey knew very little about the technical part of the yacht; he very seldom ventured below into the engine room. “Charlie knows the boat better than I do," he always told people. “I just turn the handles up here in the pilot house, and Charlie sees to it that everything keeps running down below.”
Whether Lascari actually enjoyed working on the boat as much as Ramsey thought, he didn’t seem to mind too much. After all, he was getting paid for it; there was a well-stocked bar on the Avatar, the food was good, and monkeying with Harlan’s radar was just about as pleasant as sweating out production down at the plant. Besides, there was Nicole Ramsey, who was pleasant to look at, even if nothing ever came of it.
/ am still young, Nicole had thought bitterly to herself. Somehow life has slipped out of my fingers.
She was thirty-seven; Harlan was fifteen years older. She could see the rest of her life stretching out before her, monotonous and predictable, each day exactly like the others, until at last she became an old woman. She was lonely, in spite of the crowds of people always around her, but most of all she was bored. Sometimes an impulse came over her to break out of her life, to smash everything around her, to escape at any cost. But she was not an impulsive person; she forced herself to analyze her situation coolly and logically.
First: divorce was out of the question. Harlan would never let her go. Most of all his pride would be involved: he never liked to admit he had been wrong about anything. Then there was his businessman's attitude about money: he would never consent to the financial sacrifice that alimony and a separation would involve. "Nobody can afford a divorce today,” she had heard him say a hundred times. Nicole realized bitterly it was true; she could no more live on half Harlan’s money than he could live on the other half. She had become used to a lot of things in fifteen years-—a twenty-room house in Pasadena, travel, Paris clothes, the country club, the yacht club. You couldn’t go back and start over again, not when you had gone as far as she had; you were not the same person any more.
Then too, Harlan loved her in his way; it was one of the things she found so maddening about him. She might have been able to put up with him if it hadn’t been for this. At fifty-two. when he should have settled into a dignified middle age, he insisted on calling her "Baby” and trying to pet her on the front seat of their Cadillac.
"Baby.” he would complain, halfplayfully, “what’s the matter with me? Remember how we used to get a kick out of each other when we were just a couple of kids? Something’s happened.
I wish 1 could figure out what it was.”
Something’s happened. Nicole agreed bitterly. Flic reference to the time when they were "just a couple of kids” particularly annoyed her; Harlan had met her when he was already a successful busi nessman and she was a senior in college, working part-time in his office. "Where’s the coed I married?” he would ask her playfully, slipping his arm around her waist.
This, and his soft waistline, which hung flabbily over his shorts when he undressed, his heavy jovial manners, the cigar smoke on his breath, the pale moisture that always stood on his face and hands—
But, as she had told herself a thou-’ sand times, a divorce was out of the question. She had thought the thing out carefully to its logical end, and there was only one answer: Harlan must simply be removed from the scene.
DURING THE summer months the Ramseys lived on the yacht, which they kept at the club anchorage in Ncwport Harbor; it was only forty minutes’ drive from the plant in Long Beach, and it was actually more convenient for Harlan than the house in Pasadena. After a time Harlan found he could get a lot of work done right aboard the yacht; he had a spare stateroom fixed up as a study, and with the radiophone aboard he could make business calls as easily as he could from his office. Some days he didn’t go in to the plant at all; if any of the office staff wanted to see him about anything they drove down to Newport. Wendover, the auditor, came out once in a while with his books, and Stuart North, of the legal department, came by infrequently. Probably the most frequent visitor was Charlie Lascari, the production engineer, who came down almost every day when Harlan didn’t go in to the plant. After a while Lascari got to be virtually a member of the household; he slept aboard half the time, and he was almost always around at lunch and dinner. He was a good engineer and a pleasant enough conversationalist, bul for some reason Nicole took an instinctive dislike to him; something about his posture, his manner, his physical appearance. She had learned long ago, however, never to reveal her personal feelings toward Harlan’s business associates; she treated him like the rest.
Of the top Scott-Ramsey executives, probably the one who spent the least time on the yacht was Stuart North, the young head of the legal department. He was friendly enough, but he was not much of a mixer; he lived by himself in a little beach shack at Corona Del Mar, only a couple of miles from Newport Harbor. He came out lo the yacht once in a while during the week on business, and sometimes stayed for a swim, but he almost never came to dinner or to the week-end parties on the yacht. He preferred to live his own social life apart from Harlan and the others. “An independent cuss, but a damn good lawyer,” said Harlan.
Nicole had never paid much attention to him until one afternoon when he had been working with Lascari and Harlan aboard the yacht and they all decided to go for a swim. He borrowed a pair of swimming trunks out of the collection they kept for guests, and an old beach robe of Harlan's; when he came out on deck it was the first time Nicole had seen him in anything but a business suit. They had cocktails, sitting around the curved leather lounge on the afterdeck, and then Stuart stood up and stripped off the beach robe. “The rest of you can go on getting drunk if you want,” he said. “I’m going swimming.”
He climbed up onto the rail and posed there for an instant, glancing back to see if anybody else was coming. He was younger than the others, firm and clean in an adolescent way that most men have lost by that age; in spite of his sedentary job he was lean, evenly tanned, and firmly muscled under his brown skin. As they watched he pushed out effortlessly into the air and fell in a long curve until his outstretched hands broke the water before him. He left a barely perceptible mark, a few ripples and a patch of foam, on the water behind him. “Nice dive,” said Harlan.
Nicole crushed out her cigarette and stood up. watching the water expectantly until his head finally reappeared a good fifty feet from the yacht. Now she knew the goal, the purpose, of the vague plans she had already begun to form in her mind. Stuart North: from then on the name was engraved into her consciousness, deeply and permanently, as though it had been cut with a sharp knife.
STUART still came out to the yacht occasionally, went swimming once in a while, but only infrequently stayed to dinner. Nicole gave no sign, to him or anyone else, that she considered him any different from the others. Meanwhile, deliberately and systematically, she set about trying in every way to attract Charles Lascari to herself.
Mow Lascari would do whatever she wanted. The next thing was to make their affair common knowledge
Unfortunately she couldn’t get over her instinctive dislike for him. He was less than average height, dark, reserved, a clever conversationalist, something of a cynic. Perhaps, she thought, she hated him because he was cleverer than she was. There was something about his posture—round shoulders, a slight stoop —that suggested a hunchback, although he was not exactly deformed. With his dark complexion he was more than normally hairy; it was a thing she had always detested in men. Even when he was freshly shaven there was a blueblack shadow under the skin of his cheeks; the hair sprouted in the angle of his shirt like a thick mat. When he took off his shirt to go swimming she could see that hair grew thickly even on his shoulders and back, a dark network like the evil black fuzz on a tarantula. The thought of touching that hair, of feeling it under her hand, made her almost physically ill.
But there were two things about Charles Lascari that made him essential to her plans: he was conveniently at hand, and he was an electrical engineer.
She began discreetly, almost imperceptibly, to bring herself to his attention. She managed to convey to him in a thousand subtle ways—a glance held an instant too long, the slight significant pressure of a hand when they parted—that there was something special between them, something the others did not share. There were ways of lighting a man’s cigarette that were more expressive than any possible words, and yet intangible, elusive; he could never be sure whether she meant anything by it. She gave him a month.
But it was easier than she thought. It was only a couple of weeks later, as they were standing in the darkness by the rail, looking out at the lights and smoking a final cigarette before going to bed. He had been silent for a long time. Finally he stirred, and she could feel his hand sliding over her arm on the rail. She almost imagined she could feel the stiff black hairs of his forearm through his sleeve: she struggled to get a grip on herself.
“Nicole,” he said softly, his voice a little too husky.
She turned, her back to the rail, and almost by accident, it seemed, his lips brushed against hers in the darkness. She broke away violently and ran to her stateroom; when the door was shut she threw herself on the bed and began wiping her lips frantically with her hand. She lay there a long time in the darkness, shuddering faintly, a crawling sensation like thousands of insects creeping methodically over her limbs until she fell asleep.
AFTER that, she knew, Lascari would do whatever she wanted if she handled him right. The next thing was to make sure their affair was a matter of common knowledge among their friends, among the crowd around the club.
She began deliberately forcing him to meet her in public; she made dates with him at the club bar, she got into his car in the club parking lot, she met him in town for lunch. She could tell he was getting more and more uneasy.
“Something happened today 1 don’t like,” he told her once. “I happened to mention your name in the bar and a queer expression came over the face of the fellow I was talking to—a kind of a knowing smirk. I’m sure he’d heard something about us. We’ve got to stop meeting in public.”
Nicole could barely repress a faint smile of triumph. “What do you care?” she asked him.
“I’m worried about Harlan.”
“Don’t worry about Harlan,” she said. “I’ve got a plan for him.”
SOMETIMES, when she was trying to go to sleep at night, the horrible complexity and danger of her position struck her. Stuart, she was sure, suspected nothing. She wondered how much Lascari knew. Sometimes when he brushed against her she could not repress an instinctive shudder; she didn’t think he noticed, but she wondered how long she could go on concealing her feelings from him. Once, when they had been swimming and were lying around on deck in the sun, Lascari had caught her staring at Stuart. The sun was hot: Harlan and Stuart had gone to sleep. She thought Lascari had closed his eyes too. Stuart was stretched out only a few feet away from her: for a few minutes she permitted herself the rare luxury of watching him, lazily and frankly, through halfclosed lashes. Then something made her turn her head: Lascari, wide awake, was watching her carefully. She turned over on her back and pretended to go to sleep.
Later that day he asked her casually, "Stuart is a kind of nice guy, don't you think?”
"Stuart North. You like him, don’t you?”
"He’s all right—A little immature, perhaps, but pleasant enough to have around. Why?”
"He’s not much of a talker, is he?”
The trap was too obvious. "He may be. for all I know. 1 don’t know that I’ve ever talked to him. Not alone, at least.”
“No, I don’t suppose you'd have any reason to,” said Lascari.
FINALLY, Lascari told her pointblank that things could not go on much longer as they were. She agreed; she only asked him to be patient for a few days longer. He grew more restive, more moody, more demanding. She decided he was almost at the breaking point; if she waited much longer it would be too late.
That night she told him what she wanted him to do.
To her surprise he took it calmly, and agreed almost immediately. "You’re right,” he told her after a moment. "It’s the only way.”
"I’ll leave the details to you,” she told him. "You're the engineer.”
He turned to her. his lace suddenly taut. “And afterwards?” he demanded. "Will you love me then?”
She smiled, turning away. “I'll have to,” she told him half-mockingly. “You’ll have something to hold over me then, and I’ll be in your power.”
Later, when she remembered what she had said, her own words terrified her. There was only one thing that seemed worse to her than the prospect of going on married to Harlan, and that was to be in a position where Lascari had some kind of power over her.
After he had finished the mechanism, working hastily and furtively during the infrequent periods when Harlan was ashore, Lascari explained it to her. A fifty-pound dynamite charge was hidden in the bilge approximately amidships, where it would blast upwards into the staterooms and the study. Under the fuel tanks in the engine room was a thermite charge timed to ignite simultaneously with the dynamite; the blast would burst the fuel tanks, and the thermite would immediately set the gasoline on fire. The two charges were wired to a timer unit and then to a control switch in the master bathroom, hidden away under the floor boards. Death would be instantaneous; the whole yacht would be virtually demolished. With the gasoline ignited the wreckage would burn on the surface for a minute or two before it sank, enough to destroy the evidence of the wiring. Lascari had taken the precaution of pouring a little gasoline into the bilges a few days before; Harlan had noticed the smell, and had mentioned it to several friends. 1 here would be plenty of witnesses to testify that the yacht had been in a dangerous condition through fuel leaking into the bilges.
"Have you got it all straight?” he asked her when he had finished.
"What do I do?”
He explained that the timing mechanism was set for fifty minutes; after she closed the switch in the bathroom she had a little less than an hour to invent some excuse and go ashore in the launch, making it impossible for Harlan to leave the yacht.
“The res. ris up to you,” he told her. “You know his habits better than 1 do.” “How's your nerve?”
“1 wish it were over,” he told her. “What are you afraid of?”
“Nothing, only—1 wish 1 knew you better. I’ve done my part. 1 don't know whether you can do yours or not.” “Wait and see.” she told him.
It was to be Thursday night, Nicole explained to Lascari. They would go ashore about eight to have dinner at the club, and then they would drive to a play at the Laguna summer theatre. They would take La scar i's car: ifarlan ob-
jected Nicole would explain'at the radio wasn’t "working in iheir car—Lascari would see to it that a fuse was blown the day before—and she wanted to listen to a special program on the way. They would get back from the play about midnight and have a nightcap in the bar, and then they would take the launch out to the yacht as usual. As soon as they were aboard Nicole would go straight to the bathroom and close the switch, then she would come out and tell Harlan she had left her wrap in Lascari’s car. She and Lascari would have ashore and get it, since Lascari leaving early in the morning.
“Suppose he asks why you car get it yourself?” objected Lascari.
“Your car has a sticky doorlatch hard to unlock.”
“And why couldn’t I go ashore get the wrap for you?”
“I'll say I feel restless—l don’t > like going to bed yet. 1 want to tak ride in the launch.”
"Aren’t you afraid Harlan’ll get elg after a while when we don’t come back, phone the club or something?”
If we seem to be gone a little too g,” she countered, “he’ll simply think 've stopped in the bar for another ink. That should hold him for fifty linutes. After that he won’t think anydng at all.”
Lascari was silent for a moment, iometimes you frighten me,” he said iter a w'hile.
Ian and Lascari entered thc**oom. In that i ,,«stant Nicole realized she was looking at a ghost
THERE was a single crushed-out stub in the ash tray in front of her and she was halfway through the second cigarette: seven forty-five. She sipped her Manhattan slowly, trying to make it last; it would be a little too much of a coincidence to finish it at exactly the last moment. Besides, she didn’t want to drink too much; even with the one cocktail a warm, almost reckless, elation had come over her. She could not help feeling a glow of satisfaction at the ingenuity of the plan she had carried out; it was all fitting together like clockwork.
When a woman is known to have a lover and her husband dies violently and under ambiguous circumstances, sooner or later she is going to find herself on trial for murder—but not if the lover is killed in the same accident. Lascan’s death would not only free her from any shadow of suspicion, but it would also remove from the scene the only other person who could incriminate her—the one who had constructed the intricate mechanism no one would believe she could have made by herself. A few months of simulated grief—which the more cynical of her friends, of course, would interpret as grief for Lascari rather than grief for Harlan—and she would be free to begin her new life with Stuart. Naturally, Stuart knew nothing about all this yet. (Poor Stuart! She thought of his surprise if he could know what she was thinking now.) But she would have plenty of time and leisure to bring her attractions to his attention. Since he was the chief legal counsel for Scott-Ramsey and she was the sole heir to the company’s assets, it would be natural for them to be together a lot during the first few months; no one could find anything to reproach in it. It had taken her two weeks with Lascari, she thought with a faint smile; to be on the safe side she gave herself three months for Stuart.
Her drink was almost gone.
“Again?” said the bartender.
“This is fine,” she told him.
For the tenth time she resisted an impulse to look at her watch. She could imagine this bartender testifying at the inquest: "Did Mrs. Ramsey seem nervous?’’ "Yes—she looked at her watch severed times while she was wealing.”
Not me, Nicole thought contemptuously.
She had finished the second cigarette: seven-fifty. She crushed it out and lit a third one, holding the match with the end of her fingers and absently admiring the enamelled perfection of her nails in the tiny yellow circle of light. “Welldressed Mrs. Ramsey, poised, selfassured. testified at the inquest that her relations with her husband had been good and that their marriage had been a happy one—’’
SHE HAD just set the match down when she saw Harlan come through the door of the bar with Lascari.
It took her an instant to comprehend what she was seeing, and then she felt a sudden constriction in her chest, as though she had been absently staring at something and suddenly realized she was looking at a ghost.
“Hi,” said Harlan cheerfully. “Forget to come back for us?”
“How did you get ashore?” she managed to say.
“Stu brought the launch out.”
“Stuart North. We called him up to come out and look at this contract, and he stayed aboard to work on it.”
“Stuart is aboard now?” she repeated numbly.
“What’s the matter, Baby?” said Harlan. “Had too many of those Manhattans. Little hard to get things through your head. Come on. let’s go eat.” Nicole allowed herself to be led through the bar and out onto the terrace. They took a table. The terrace had a view out over the anchorage, but they couldn't see the Avatar; it was hidden behind a wing of the clubhouse.
Harlan handed her a menu. “Lobster’s good here,” he told her.
She put the menu down again. “But I don’t understand,” she said. "When I left, you and Charlie were working together in the study, and now you say Stuart is aboard.”
“Well, Baby, I’ll tell you how it was. Charlie and I had been kicking this thing around all afternoon, trying to figure out whether the air force could cancel this contract on us. Finally we decided there was no point in our beating our brains out on it; it needed a lawyer. Then Charlie had the bright idea of calling up Stu on the radiophone.”
''It was an idea that came to me in the bathroom,” Lascari explained modestly. "1 get some of my best ideas in there.”
“Stu’s place isn’t five minutes from here.” Harlan went on. "He drove right down and found the launch at the end of the dock. He’s going to work on it until we come back, trying to figure if we haven’t got enough of a case to bring suit.”
"Me for the club steak.-’ said Lascari, studying the menu.
Nicole wondered whether she were going to be sick; something flickered and shuddered blackly in front of her eyes. She lowered her forehead dizzily onto her hands.
"What’s the matter, Baby?” said Harlan in concern.
“Harlan,” she said faintly, “I’ve simply got to go back to the launch. Don’t get up. I’ll take the launch, and—”
“But why?” said Harlan.
“Something I forgot,” she said. I—”
There was a ripping boom, like an explosion somewhere deep in the earth; a moment later they felt the concussion of it through the ground, a red glare sprang up on the white hulls of the boats in the harbor and after an instant died down, leaving a faint afterglow flickering across the water.
“What the hell?” said Harlan, half rising out of his chair. "Somebody’s boat blew up.”
He looked questioningly at Lascari, and then turned back to Nicole; she had slumped into her chair, her face the color of soiled newspaper, her fingers clenched over her eyes.
Harlan got out of his chair and pulled her hands away from her face. She saw him through a curtain of dancing spots; everything about her shimmered and wavered. Across the table she saw Lascari watching her intently, with a curiosity in which she imagined she saw mingled a faint mockery.
Harlan had turned away from her and slipped down the terrace to a point where he had a view out over the whole anchorage. Now he hurried back, his face contorted with disbelief. “It’s the Avatar,” he burst out excitedly. “Stu—”
"Look,” said Lascari quickly, "you better go out in the launch and see what’s happened to Stu. I'll stay here and take care of Nicole."
“No—-” Nicole protested weakly.
But Harlan had not heard her; he turned and ran down toward the dock.
When he was gone Lascari came slowly around the table to her. "Come on,” he told her quietly. “It’s going to he all right.” He put his hand gently under her shoulders and tried to pull her up.
“No,” Nicole gasped. She pulled hysterically away from him. He tried to hold her. There was a struggle, and finally she lost her balance and fell clumsily onto the ground, her hands over her face, sobbing uncontrolledly. People were standing up at the tables around them to watch. Lascari tried to quiet her.
“No. no,” she sobbed. "No. no; call the police. No, no. Take your hands off me. Leave me alone. Call the police; I’m going to tell them everything. No, no—” ★