Fernold pumped his pistol after the car.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A BRAND-NEW, IMPORTED CONVERTIBLE
Marcia nosed the long convertible up to the huge double gates of the Turner Shipyards and touched the horn lightly, twice, in her special signal. Old Mac, the gateman, peered at her car, then swung open the gates smartly.
“Well, well. Missy!” he said. “How’s my girl?”
“Fine, Mac,” Marcia Bramson said. As one of her father’s oldest employees this man had been a special confidant in her youth. But now, with her father dead and herself a woman grown, she did not feel the closeness of years ago.
“How’s little Miss?”
“Splendid,” she said “Away at school.”
Marcia looked toward the building which housed the Turner Shipyard offices.
“Is Paul — is Mr. Bramson still here?”
“Saw your husband heading out to the Navy contracts, hour or so ago. Some keel-laying there this morning.” The old man nodded at the car. “New one, eh? Foreign?”
“Yes,” she said, “it’s a surprise for — “
Quickly she caught herself. There was no point in going into details about the car with Mac.
She parked and got out and walked toward the office building, annoyed at the look in old Mac’s eyes — the knowing, pitying look — which said that he knew all about Marcia and Paul Bramson.
The way everyone knew, she realized. Once upon a time there was a girl named Marcia Turner whose very wealthy father bought her a nice, handsome Navy officer for a husband. Now, with father dead, the very wealthy girl was trying to buy the nice, handsome husband’s affection still. He strays, you see. Not too openly, but …
So the very wealthy Mrs. Bramson gives him the presidency of the Turner Shipyards. Or a big new house up in the Heights. Or a fine, blooded saddle horse.
And now a brand-new, imported convertible.
At least she had an excuse this time. Their eighth anniversary. Eight years since that afternoon when her father had given her hand over to the slim young Naval officer, and Marcia Turner had thought herself the luckiest girl alive — war or no war. She’d been nineteen, shy and plain and immature, but deliriously happy in an unhappy world.
She had yet to learn of young love growing brittle when it finds no answering love, no true and honest sharing. When it struggles against fawning greed … . But she had tried, giving what she could — first her love; and when that was not enough, a child. But that, too, had not proved the binding agent. And thus, because she had nothing else, her money …
The door at the end of the corridor was lettered chastely, in gold, Paul Bramson, President. Inside, Dorene Chandler, Paul’s secretary — a beautiful pale blonde — sat with the air of a golden queen behind her desk.
“Yes?” she inquired languidly as Marcia entered. “Oh, Mrs. Bramson! How are you?”
“Fine,” Marcia lied again. “Is Mr. Bramson inside?”
The girl nodded.
“I’ll tell him you’re here.”
Marcia let herself into her husband’s sumptuously appointed office, and he looked up from his desk when the door swung inward.
“Well — well, Marcia! A bit off your course, aren’t you?”
He was a tall, dark man, superbly tailored, matching the fine appointments of his office. His face held a look of deep concern — but certainly nothing of the dark rage which he had worn two nights ago, after their last blowup, when she had mentioned divorce and he had gone storming off to his club. The club to which she had bought his membership.
He swept a pile of morning newspapers off his desk into the leather-tooled wastebasket.
“And to what am I indebted for this — visit? Just checking up on me?”
All of her pleading for their tottering marriage was in her voice; all of the love for him which she could not cut out of herself.
“I didn’t mean to disturb you. I just thought — well, our anniversary and all.”
She pointed at the banks of windows which commanded the yards.
“Remember that English convertible we saw, Paul?”
He looked at her sharply, the storm points clearing from his eyes.
“Marcia!” he said; brightly, like the spoiled, petulant child she knew so well. “Why, darling! Don’t tell me — “
They stood at the windows and looked down at the automobile for long, quiet moments. Then they went out together, hand in hand, past the surprised Miss Chandler. For the next hour or so, speeding through the Spring-touched countryside, they were almost as they had been so long ago, companions in a beginning dream that knew no threat of wakefulness.
In the flush of her excitement, Marcia suggested that they drive up to The Oaks — the small hideaway estate which her late father had given them for a honeymoon present. And abruptly Paul sobered, his lips going thin in his face.
He shook his head.
“Something — er — something’s come up, Marcy. I — I don’t want anyone to think I’m running away, right now.”
On the drive back home he told her about the letters threatening his life.
Back at the house, he produced a letter, and Marcia read it with a growing dread.
The note was brief and to the point:
You are going to die, Bramson. Don’t think you can escape.
The words had been cut from newspapers and were pasted on a sheet of plain white paper.
Paul stood frowning in front of the fireplace, a drink tinkling in his hand.
“I got the first one a week ago,” he told her. “I thought some crank was pulling a gag. Then, day before yesterday, this one came to the office.”
Beyond her fear, Marcia felt the first faint stirring of hope. If this had been on Paul’s mind the last few days, it accounted for his moodiness, his irritability. It wasn’t just herself he found displeasing!
“You’ve called the police, haven’t you, Paul?”
“Now, don’t you go worrying.”
He crumpled the sheet of paper and tossed it into the roaring fireplace. “I can handle this without publicity — without a houseful of big-footed cops. I don’t have that gun collection just to look at!”
Over her protests, he took one of his small automatics with him when he went out to the new car. He said he’d be very careful, of course, on the drive to pick up his things at the club. Despite the nagging worry, Marcia Bramson felt better than she had in days when her husband kissed her good-by.
Paul was back in less than an hour. Marcia heard the front door open, the murmured conversation with the maid, then he came into the sitting room where she waited. All of the eagerness drained out of her when she saw his face.
“Paul — what’s wrong?” She was at his side instantly.
“They — they weren’t fooling,” he said hoarsely. His fingers trembled as he lit a cigarette. “They weren’t kidding at all.”
He took a deep drag of smoke.
“Somebody shot at me, Marcy, just before I turned into our drive.” He laughed nervously. “A miss, thank God. But they put a pretty convincing hole through the windshield.”
In her quiet voice she said, “I’m going to phone the police.”
The expected defiance did not come.
“Yes,” he said, “I guess you’d better.”
Plainclothes Sergeant Fernold was a younger man than Marcia had expected, but he looked hard and competent. He asked his questions economically, nodding as they confirmed a point, or raising his thick eyebrows in a demand for further clarity.
“You destroyed both letters?” he said, tapping his pencil against his notebook. “Too bad. But whoever wrote it was probably careful about prints, anyway. We’ll check the car and see what Ballistics can come up with.”
He put the notebook and pencil in his pocket.
“I won’t pretend we got much to go on. No known enemies — no leads to follow. So we play it close and careful. Check the servants, people at the ship-yards, tradesmen — everybody. I’ll stay here — go back and forth to the office with you.”
They finished the drinks Marcia had fixed, and Fernold suggested Paul show him around. Paul and the sergeant went outside, checking doors and windows on the ground floor, while Marcia and the butler toured inside, locking up.
When she joined the men downstairs, Paul was answering questions about the main gate. Fernold decided it wouldn’t hurt to take a look, and the three of them walked through the chill Spring twilight down to the road, where the sergeant examined the tall stone wall that bordered the estate.
“Nobody’s cracking that,” he said, “without a ladder, or maybe a highvanned truck. We’ll put a guard on the grounds.”
There was some traffic on the road that ran past the gate, and none of them was paying much attention to it. Suddenly, Marcia felt Paul grab her roughly by the arm and shove her toward the stone wall.
“Look out!” Paul screamed. “Look out!”
She caught a glimpse of the car, then — a big, black sedan bearing down on them. It all happened in a flash — the car swinging in off the road, hunting them, the motor roaring like an angry beast. The hood of the sedan growled to within a few feet of them before its driver had to twist away to avoid hitting the wall, then the car was spitting mud and dirt back into their faces as it roared away down the road, rocking, building speed.
She heard shots — Fernold pumping his pistol after the car; then the sedan vanished around a bend in the road.
“You okay, you okay?” Fernold was asking.
Shaken, mud-stained and trembling, Paul said, “Close! That was too damn close!”
“I’m — all right,” Marcia managed.
In the house, Paul made a round of stiff drinks while Fernold called Headquarters. There wasn’t much any of them could give them about the murder car beyond a pretty general description.
Throughout dinner Paul ate very little — and drank more than was usual, even for him. His nervousness was in plain sight for Marcia and Fernold to see.
“Dammit!” Paul exploded finally. “If only we had some idea who it could be — what’s behind it all — something we could work against!”
Fernold nodded. “We’re in the dark, all right. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to be a sitting duck. You can count on us for protection twenty-four hours a day.”
“Sure, sure,” Paul sneered. “Like before, out on the road! I’ll bet the Police Department will even guarantee a motorcycle escort for the funeral!”
He finished his drink in one gulp.
“Maybe it would be best if my wife and I did clear out for a while, Sergeant.”
Of course, she thought. Just get in the new car and drive — anywhere. Put distance between themselves and this unknown terror that was stalking them … .
“We’ll leave tonight,” she said. “I can throw our things in a bag. We’ll slip away in the dark.”
Fernold growled. “You’re safer here — believe me. Sit tight and everything will be okay. You get outside and you’re a real target.”
Paul slammed down his empty glass.
“Dammit, at least I’ll feel I’m doing something — not just sitting waiting for some nut to kill me!”
His lips thinned as he looked at Marcia.
“I — I can do this alone, Marcy. I mean, you don’t — “
She shook her head.
“If you go, I go.”
“Let me send a man with you,” Fernold suggested. “At least — “
“You keep working this end.”
Paul smiled grimly.
“If you fellows don’t know where we are, stands to reason no one else will know, Sergeant.”
END OF THE RIDE
They went north on the back roads until they were well clear of town, then Paul took the long convertible over to the main highway and sped them through the night. They drove in silence for over an hour, with Marcia twisted around in the seat, peering anxiously behind, reading danger into each new set of headlights her eyes picked up. She wanted to be somewhere far away, safe and secure in Paul’s arms, finished with this dreadful night … .
She heard Paul say, “So far, so good. I think I may be in the clear, Marcy.”
He stretched at the wheel, easing the tension in his shoulders.
“Light me a cigarette, will you?”
She got one from her purse and fumbled for the matches. Her hand touched the cool, reassuring bulk of the gun that she had taken, unknown to Paul, from his collection. In their last-minute packing, it had seemed a good idea — a positive action on her part. It was foolishly feminine, probably, but the gun gave her a feeling of satisfaction, of courage, almost. If there were trouble, she could be of some help to Paul.
“Well?” he asked crossly.
“I’m sorry,” she said, handing over the cigarette.
She could tell from the way he shoved it to his mouth that he was still shaken. He took long, lung-filling puffs of the cigarette, and the faint red glow gave his face an almost Satanic cast. She found her heart pounding uncontrollably again.
And when he pulled the convertible into the side of the road and jammed on the brakes, naked fear clutched her at the throat.
“What is it? Why are we stopping, Paul?”
Without speaking, he got out of the car and came around to her side. In his hand she saw a gun, in his eyes a terrible hatred.
“Paul! Paul, what is it?”
But she did not have to ask the question, nor hear his answer to understand.
“End of the ride, Marcy. The finish of this little game I’ve been playing … .”
Like a suddenly remembered nightmare, she saw the complete shape of this day out of their lives — this day of anguish and uncertainty and pain. The letter … Paul’s claiming he’d been shot at … the automobile that didn’t kill him …
“Yes, Marcy,” he said. “Me. Your husband. Your widower. It was clever, don’t you think? Sending myself those threatening letters, shooting a hole in the windshield. Having that fool Fernold right there when the car attacked us.”
“You’re mad, Paul!”
She was conscious of the irony of the term; he had not called her darling in weeks.
“Just fed up, with you, with us. But I had to devise a — separation that would permit me to retain your fortune. Now when I report your death to the police, and tell them how I battled against these unknown fiends who have been threatening to kill me, and how they killed you before I drove them off — “ he laughed — “even Fernold won’t suspect, darling!”
“Paul — you can’t — “
“But I can, darling.” He brought up the gun.
She could not tell from what depth of her fear she summoned the will, the strength, to throw herself to the side and grab the gun in her purse. She could not remember the sequence of her movements, or of Paul’s, in that wild, blast-shattered sequence that was both instantaneous and eternal at once — a time of terror and surprise and unconscious reaction … .
And death … .
She could tell Sergeant Fernold only that part of it which she could understand herself, when she fully realized that Fernold was real and there beside her.
“You were never too far out in front of me,” he explained. “But I couldn’t catch up to you — in time.”
“I didn’t want to kill him,” she said. “I didn’t mean to. But he was mad. It’s all mad!”
In his police car, the sergeant carefully started the words for her, asking without demand, helping her get it out into the open. She told him what she knew, what Paul had told her, about this horrible pattern of murder which Paul had so carefully created.
“I got one lead on the radio from Headquarters,” Fernold said. “The car that tried to run us down this evening is pretty much like one Dorene Chandler — that secretary of his — has been driving lately.”
Marcia put her face in her hands.
Fiercely, she said, “It’s not just for myself, Sergeant. My daughter, Missy — All this. … “
She began to cry, the sobs wracking her.
“Missy,” she moaned.
Fernold put in a call for the Medical Examiner’s crew, and someone to drive back the convertible. He gave Marcia a cigarette and lit one for himself.
After a moment he said:
“Look, this thing can work more than one way, you know. It doesn’t have to go any further than you and me. Officially, well, the Department can pretend it’s still looking for these ‘unknown killers’ that were after your husband. The ones who got him,” he added carefully. “You don’t have to figure in it all.”
He put the car in gear and turned it toward the city.
“Leave it to me,” he said simply.
Marcia raised her eyes and faced the road ahead.
“Yes,” she said. “Oh, yes.”
She did not look back.
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