Date with death, p.1

Date with Death, page 1


Date with Death

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Date with Death


  Copyright © 1949, 1976 by Zenith Brown.

  All rights reserved.


  Published by Wildside Press LLC


  The young man lying at the end of the pier, over the moonlit water of the creek, adjusted his lank loose-jointed frame to cooperate with the uneven oak plank under him and shifted his pipe to the other side of his wide mouth. The Llewellyn setter stretched out beside him raised his head and thumped the boards with his feathered tail.

  Jonas Smith M.D. put his hand out. “Not yet, boy. It’s our last night. Look at that moon. Just look at it, boy. Where’s your soul? Don’t you like solitude? You’re as bad as Agatha.”

  The dog put his head down between his paws again. Jonas Smith drew a long satisfying breath, filling his lungs with the cool soft fragrance of pine and swamp magnolia as his soul was filled with all the intangible loveliness of marsh and woods, fields and moonlit water in the Spring. He was happy; he had never been anywhere near so happy when he was in love with Agatha Reed as he was now, out of love with her. What a break, he thought, for both of them, that they hadn’t waited too long to find it out. In less than the month since it had happened she had faded almost completely out of his mind, coming back only when something happened that reminded him of her lacquered unyielding conformity. Agatha was beautiful, but Agatha was a snob. Agatha laughed but Agatha had the sense of humor of a rachitic newt. Crisp and positive, Agatha had been hurt and querulous before they’d quarrelled and broken the engagement for the second time. And Annapolis, Maryland, was the third time, the last time, and for keeps, Jonas Smith was thinking…whether Agatha knew it or not. Agatha wouldn’t come to Annapolis. She wanted to stay in Baltimore, Maryland. It was incomprehensible why anybody who didn’t have to should want to start his practice in a one-horse town. Particularly in Annapolis.

  “A civilian in Annapolis has no prestige, darling. Now if your father had been an admiral, or your grandfather… Or even if you’d been more than just a lieutenant in the Reserve…”

  Jonas Smith propped his head up on his arm and looked over toward the little town, quietly asleep at the mouth of the Severn, eight miles away over the silvered rim of oaks and tulip trees that fringed the south side of Arundel Creek. On the one radio tower at Greenbury Point visible above the woods, the red beacon light went on and off like an aerial Cyclops genially winking his solitary eye.

  “—Maternal and Child Care Clinic!” Agatha’s adrenaline turned on easily, like tap water. “You don’t have to go to Annapolis for Public Health clinics. What you mean is the sailing, and fishing, and crabbing and duck shooting. And if that’s all the ambition you have then it isn’t me you want to marry!”

  Jonas stretched his long legs and winked back at the bibulous red eye over the trees. He took his pipe out of his mouth. Agatha was so right. The question now was whether he wanted to smoke another pipeful before he went to bed, or whether he’d just lie there on the little pier a few minutes longer, watching the moonlight that softened the outlines of the shore and made the broad creek look like an isolated mountain lake, infinitely secluded and remote, no one there at all but himself and his dog, and an occasional muskrat crashing in the silent night across the shimmering surface to the other wooded shore. It was their last night. Tomorrow, Sunday, he and Roddy would leave their borrowed cottage retreat and go in to Annapolis, Monday they’d open shop. It was all set, his office and living quarters in the wing of the Blanton-Darrell House in Darrell Court, his name-plate already on the door. He fished in his pocket for his tobacco pouch and sat up.

  “One more and then to bed, Roddy,” he said.

  He looked back at the cottage, and then across the marsh, farther along the creek. The other cottage there belonged to some people he’d just met. Some day he’d get a spot on a creek like this. There were hundreds of places like it, little arms of the Chesapeake, hidden off the main roads, unbelievably remote and quiet. In the week he and Roddy had been here, the only people they’d seen were the watermen, crabbing from their dingy boats along the shore, poling silently with their slow rhythm by the shallow margins where the soft crabs lived under the shore grass and seaweed. No one else had come at all.

  Then, as he put his pipe in his mouth and reached in his pocket for matches, he was suddenly aware it wasn’t true. A car was coming up the road of the other cottage along the creek, the place across the marsh. He could hear it before he could see the lights through the trees.

  The dog raised his head and growled.

  “It’s all right, Roddy. We couldn’t have it this way for forever.”

  The yellow glow of the headlights came out of the wooded lane into the clearing and stopped a little way from the Milnors’ cottage there on the point. Jonas looked at his watch. Even without the illuminated hands he could have read it easily in the high white brilliance of the waxing moon. It was just after twelve-thirty, and it was an odd time for a car to be coming in. It wasn’t the Milnors. They were with the Fergusons, whose house he was using for the week, in the Fergusons’ car and not leaving Cambridge until after lunch Monday, according to the phone call he had had around five o’clock. Because they had asked him to keep a casual eye on the place, he waited, mildly interested.

  The headlights went off. He heard the car door slam. Then, in the utter silence of the night he heard a girl’s voice, as clearly as if she were on the screened porch of his own cottage on the shore fifty feet behind him.

  “You said they were expecting us. Look—they’ve gone to bed.”

  “They’re on their way out. They said to go in and have a drink and wait for them.”

  The man’s voice answering her was cultivated and easy.

  “—Oh, baby, what a night! Isn’t that a honey of a moon? Come on down and look.”

  Jonas saw them, first through the gap in the hickory and gum and holly trees fringing the Milnors’ shore, and again when they ran hand in hand down the steps on the bank and out to the end of the Milnors’ pier. Except for the sound of feet on the oak planks in the still night, he could have thought the girl was a disembodied spirit. She was slim and ethereal in a long filmy white dancing dress that floated out behind her as she ran. The man was very tall, in dinner clothes, his shirt front gleaming.

  It was all right. They were obviously friends of the Milnors. Jonas relaxed, still wondering a little about the phone call at five o’clock from Cambridge.

  “Let’s go for a row.”

  “Oh, we can’t, Gordon! We’ve got to get back.”

  The girl moved toward the shore. “Come on, Gordon, please. I shouldn’t be here unless the Milnors are. Sis would hit the ceiling.”

  “Oh, don’t be like that.” The man’s voice was abruptly impatient. “Let’s have a drink. A snort’ll do you good.”

  The moonlight gleamed on the silver flask. The girl moved farther toward the shore.

  “You know I don’t drink. And you’ve had enough, Gordon. Please don’t drink any more…and please come on.”

  The flask raised to the man’s lips, his head tilted back. It was a long snort.

  “Gordon!” The girl’s voice rose abruptly. “We’ve got to get back! Please! If you don’t take me I’ll go by myself!”

  “Okay, baby, okay.”

  The man put his flask back in his pocket, his voice suddenly amiable again. Jonas reached for his matches again. He had even wondered, for a moment, if there would be any point in making himself known. It was no real business of his. The two people over there, on the pier across the marsh, seemed to be friends of the M
ilnors. If gals would wander at night, they ought to be able to take care of themselves.

  “Okay,” Gordon said again. “Give me one kiss and we’ll go.”

  The girl hesitated, and stepped quickly forward into his arms. Jonas waited. When the man spoke again his voice was smooth and highly content. “I guess I’ve changed my mind, honey child. I guess I don’t want to go home right now.”

  The girl broke away, stumbled, caught herself and ran, back along the pier toward the bank. Gordon stood where he was. The moonlight shone again on the flask. Then he was standing there brilliantly visible in the yellow glare from the headlights of the car, his shirt front and blond hair shining. The car door slammed violently shut again, the white figure of the girl appeared between the trees and on the pier again.

  “Give me the keys, Gordon—please! You stay and wait for the Milnors if you want to. I’ve got to get back. They can take you in. Please give me the keys!”

  “Okay. Here they are.” Gordon’s hand reached in his pocket, reached out toward her.

  “Toss them here. I don’t trust you.”

  “Don’t trust me…or don’t trust yourself, honey?”

  Jonas Smith moved slightly. The voice was unpleasant then. Something new, or something very old, had been added.

  “I certainly trust myself.”

  The girl’s voice was sharp with anger. She went forward and held her hand out. Jonas heard the splash.

  “For the love of God!” the man said. “Look what you’ve—Now neither of us can get in. You couldn’t take them without knocking them in the water, could you?”

  Jonas took his cold pipe out of his mouth and looked at it thoughtfully.

  “This,” he said, “is time for us to sound off, Roddy.”

  He got to his feet and stood there hesitating. The girl could have knocked the keys out of his hand. It could have been an accident.

  Gordon’s voice was angry. “Stop blubbering, for Heaven’s sake. I’ll get you home. I always have, haven’t I? Just shut up and come on in. I’ll call up a taxi, and you can call your blasted sister and tell her we’ve had a flat and you’re out at the Milnors’.”

  They went back along the pier in the full glare of the headlights, and up the steps to the top of the bank.

  “Wait till I turn off the light, I don’t want the battery to run down.—Or go on in, the key’s over the screen door. Phone for a taxi while you’re at it.”

  Jonas put his pipe in his pocket and bent down to roll up the mat. When he started up the pier to the house, the yellow path of light from the car was gone. He stopped a moment until he saw another light spring up in the window of the cottage.

  The dog followed slowly at his heels.

  “Come on, Roddy. It’s Life, boy—in Annapolis same like any place. People ought to keep their kids at home.”

  As he reached the screen door he stopped to look back over the silver shimmer of the water. In the hushed silence of the wooded slope across the creek something of the enchanted loveliness of the night had died.

  “Let’s turn in, Roddy.”

  He dropped the mat on the bench by the living room door, went inside and switched on the table lamp. He stood looking down at his own telephone. Something stirred vaguely in his mind. It was something connected with a telephone. It escaped him…escaped but stayed with him, troublesome in spite of all his effort to put it out of his mind and quit worrying about it. It was still there when he turned off the light and went out with the dog into the end wing to go to bed.

  It kept pricking at his mind after he turned out his light there and closed his eyes. Someone he was supposed to have called and had forgotten about? Something about the phone at his new office in the wing of the Blanton-Darrell House in Annapolis… He lay looking up at the ceiling, listening to the setter peacefully snoring on the floor at the foot of his bed. He gave it up and closed his eyes again.

  When he woke abruptly the setter was over by the door, growling, the moonlight full on his spotted coat. Jonas sat up in bed.

  “Quiet, Roddy.”

  He pushed back the blanket over him and felt around with his feet for his sandals on the floor.

  “—There is no telephone in the Milnors’ cottage…”

  It was in his mind as clearly as if he were actually saying it aloud in so many words. That was it. It was how he’d met the Milnors. They had come over to use the phone out in the living room because they hadn’t put a line in.

  But the awareness of that was not what had waked him, and certainly not what had waked Roddy.


  He looked at the clock on the table by his bed. It was eighteen minutes past one. He must have barely dropped off to sleep. He went over to the door and motioned the setter to his pad at the foot of the bed, left the door closed, stepped through the long open window out onto the screened porch and went quietly along it, keeping in the shadow of the sloping roof. He listened intently, stopped and drew back against the wall. The sound he heard was the creak of leather, oars dipping in the water. Then he saw the boat through the branches of the willow on his own bank and the white figure of the girl rowing. She turned her head to look, gave one long pull and raised the oars. As the boat slid noiselessly up the shallow beach she caught her filmy skirts in both hands and jumped. She came running up the bank. Jonas could hear her breathing, a strangled sobbing, as she ran up to the screen door.

  He took a step forward, and stopped abruptly. The girl thought she was alone. Everything about the way she moved, silently, the passionate intensity of her breathing, showed it, even to the swift concentrated dash she made to the old lantern on the right hand side of the door where the Fergusons kept the key to the house. She thrust her hand in for it, drew it out and ran to the door. He heard it strike the metal in frantic fumbling haste before she got it in the lock, not knowing the door was already unlocked.

  As she went inside he moved back so the light when she turned it on would not let her see him. Then he realized she was not turning on the light, and remembered the phosphorescent dial number card he had put there himself. She spun the dial around. When she first spoke her voice was shaking and inaudible. Then it was raised, compelling with some desperate urgency.

  “—Tom! It’s Jenny, Tom. Listen to me. I’m…I’m in a mess, Tom. I can’t tell you what it is, but you’ve got to come. I’m out at St. Margaret’s, at Natalie’s. Only I’m really next door. No—I can’t call her! I don’t dare! Tom, I’m afraid…I’ve got to have help! I know, Tom, but you’ve got to help me! No—they’re away, they’re all away—both the Milnors and the Fergusons. I’m all alone. You’ve got to come out, Tom—and please, don’t tell anybody! Please, Tom!”

  Jonas heard the convulsive sob as she put the phone down, missed the cradle and got it into place. Then she was moving inside, coming into the bedroom wing. He flattened himself against the wall, wondering how he could come out and offer to help her without frightening her still more. She was in the room next to him, Natalie Ferguson’s bedroom. As the shaded light on the dressing table there turned on, he took a step to the window. She was going quickly to the closet door, in her stocking feet, a pair of mud-blackened evening slippers in her hand. The filmy white net skirt hung in torn and bedraggled rags around her legs, the bodice was ripped. It was not the moment, Jonas saw, to let her know the house was not empty. She was pulling with her free hand at the fastener under her left arm, and as she reached the closet door the dress fell to the floor. She stepped quickly out of it.

  As she pulled the closet door open, he stared at her with a feeling of pity, and anger.

  “Good God,” he thought, “she’s a baby. She’s nothing but a kid.”

  The small pointed face, drained white, the flesh sticking paper-tight to the high cheekbones, the frightened trembling mouth, the dark terror-ridden eyes so deeply circled they were almost lost under the white forehe
ad with its cloud of smoky black hair…no single feature, but all of them added up, made her pitifully and tragically young. Seventeen, he thought; maybe less than seventeen.

  She was struggling with a black dress she’d taken out of the closet, trying with trembling fingers to find the fastener. Then she was in it, took shoes out of the closet, slipped them on, bent down again and brought out a striped canvas beach bag. She scooped up her evening dress and slippers and jammed them in it, ripped the fastener closed, thrust the bag back in the closet and closed the door. She turned the light off and was gone. Jonas went quietly along the wall in the shadow of the roof, in time to see her run down the bank to the boat. She stepped in and pushed off. Then she was rowing with quick strokes back along the shore to the Milnors’ pier.

  Jonas took a deep breath. “I’ll be damned,” he said. He went back to his room. His clothes were on the chair by the bathroom door. Without turning on the light he felt his way across the room, took off his bathrobe and pajamas and dressed. He reached down and patted the setter.

  “Good boy,” he said. “Stay here, boy, I’ll be back.”

  Roddy, hating it, would be there until the crack of doom.

  “You didn’t know it, Roddy, but old Jonas Smith is going to be the White Knight of Arundel Creek.”

  Outside at the back of the cottage he stopped, thinking. He could get to the Milnors’ quickest by swimming or rowing. Either seemed out of the question, being a frontal approach in plain sight. That left the long way, around the marsh, or the middle way, across the marsh—risky, but possible if he kept his footing on the slippery bulkhead the Milnors and Fergusons had put up with the hopeful idea of making a fortune out of terrapin if and when they ever got around to it. He had crossed once in daylight. He hesitated, guessed he could make it at night, and guessed right, with only one narrow margin halfway across when an owl hunting for frogs rose on ghostly silent wings with a malignant hoot barely ten feet in front of him. Unstrung but undaunted, he kept his balance, made the shore, remembered the vicious thickets of poison ivy along the bank and climbed up.

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