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ECHO OF FEAR
by Wade Wright
Morning sunlight slanted through the open window and touched the side of her face, lending it an almost vestal-like quality. For several more uncomfortable seconds she remained silent, staring in the general direction of the Pacific, trying to make up her mind about what next she wanted to say.
Her name was Carolyn Ballard. Six weeks previously her husband had driven up to Landton. A week later he was shipped home in a coffin.
When finally she turned her arms were folded tightly beneath small breasts. “We still don’t know what he was doing there,” she announced softly.
I waited until she was back in the chair she’d been using when the maid ushered me into the room. She was still in mourning, her slender figure emphasized by the severe tailoring of her dress. Though her lightly tanned face offered little evidence of it, she had to be close to, or recently past forty.
“I understood you to say it was a business trip?”
She looked down at narrow hands held together in her lap. “That was what he told me. But no one at his office has any knowledge of it. Besides,” she added after a momentary pause, “he left on a Friday afternoon.”
“That has some significance?”
Her head moved gently, affirmatively. “Frank was an architect. Recently he’d been made a full partner with Rutland and Walsh. Occasionally his work took him out of town — but seldom over weekends.”
I took another look around the room. Whoever had decorated it had used a combination of money and a taste for the modern. Everything seemed to blend together, as if one item was but an extension of another. And Carolyn Ballard fitted in well with her surroundings, though she’d have looked considerably better in clothes less somber, without her hair pulled back in such a matronly chignon.
“You still haven’t mentioned why you asked me to call,” I said.
“Frank’s car and the things he took with him are still in Landton. I’d like you to collect them for me.”
I frowned. “The police have been sitting on them all this time?”
“No, it’s something I’ve simply neglected — something I didn’t want to think about during . . .” The rest drifted off into the spaciousness of the room. “A Lieutenant Arlen phoned me about it last week. That — that’s why I contacted you.”
“That’s all you want me to do? Bring back his car?”
“No, not entirely.” Her eyes avoided mine; her hands began to fidget. “While there, I’d like you to — to make a few discreet inquiries. I want to know what Frank was really doing . . . whom he was seeing.”
Without intending to, I sighed heavily. “What do you think he was doing, Mrs. Ballard?”
“ . . . I don’t know.”
“But you’ve some idea, otherwise I wouldn’t be here.”
When she didn’t respond, I said, “You believe there may have been another woman?”
“I don’t know; I honestly don’t know.” Unconsciously she was tugging at the rings on the fingers of her left hand.
“He’s dead,” I said gently. “Why bother with such things now?”
She rose from the chair and returned to the window, standing with her back to the room. “We had a good marriage. At least — I always believed so. I’ve never had any reason for doubt or distrust . . . to think he’d ever . . .”
“Then why not leave it at that?”
“I can’t.” She came around to face me again. “Last year, in January, he was up in Landton. This year he made another trip, at almost the same time.”
“Then this was the third he’d made?”
“And on each occasion,” she confirmed with a curt bob of her head, “he left on a Friday afternoon, returning the following Sunday.” She moved over to a spindly legged wall table on top of which perched a slim porcelain vase of daffodils, so brightly yellow they looked like things of plastic. But I didn’t think phony flowers would ever have been granted space in that room.
From one of the two table drawers she removed several envelopes and brought them over to where I sat.
“After Frank’s death I received many cards of sympathy.” She separated an envelope from the stack. “But only one was from Landton.”
I took the envelope she offered. In the upper left corner was a small sticker with the name and address of someone called George Driscoll. The card inside was of a religious nature, and the only handwriting on it was the sender’s scrawled signature.
I looked up at her. “Do you know him?”
“No, and I can’t recall Frank ever mentioning such a name.”
“Perhaps your husband’s business was with him?”
Another quick movement of her dark head rejected the suggestion like a bothersome fly. “I phoned Mr. Driscoll a few days ago. He said he hadn’t even known Frank was in town. Not until reading of what happened.”
She handed over another envelope, the kind used for mailing bills. “This was found at the office when they cleared out his desk.”
It was an invoice from an establishment in Landton called The Flower Pot. During the middle of January, the previous year, Ballard had ordered a bouquet sent to a Mrs. L. Keller.
“This who you think he may have been seeing?”
“All I know,” she answered quietly, “is that he was a different person since going there the first time.”
“In his general behavior, or in his attitude to you?”
“Neither really.” She paused to give it some thought. “It — it’s not easy to explain. He seemed . . . withdrawn, continually on edge . . .”
“Ever question him about it?”
“Several times. But he always passed it off as a business problem.”
I copied Driscoll’s name and address into my notebook, beneath it the information appearing on the invoice, all the while thinking of a polite way to turn her down. I added Arlen’s name to the page and closed the book.
“Mrs. Ballard” — I returned the card and invoice to her — “if your husband had another woman tucked away I somehow doubt it would have been anywhere as distant as Landton. You said he made only three visits during the past fifteen months, each time for little more than a day. Does that sound as if he were stepping out on you?”
“Frank was born and raised in Landton,” she answered. “This — this Keller woman could be someone he knew during that period.” A touch of bitterness had entered her voice.
“She might also be an aunt, a school teacher, or the wife of an old friend.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“But you don’t believe it?”
She didn’t answer.
I wasn’t enjoying having to look up to her so I got to my feet. “Forget it, why don’t you? Stay with your memories. Don’t go looking for things to spoil them.”
“But that’s precisely why I have to know,” she returned quickly, voice strained to a thinner, more fragile pitch. “I have to know Frank was never unfaithful to me. If I don’t — if I never know for certain there will always be doubts.” Quite suddenly a heavy mist began to gather in her eyes. “Don’t you see? One way or another . . . I must know.”
I couldn’t, but then I’d never been in her position.
“I know it may sound a — a little strange,” she said, “but I’d rather have the truth than eternal doubts. The truth I could live with.”
“Yes.” Almost as soft as silence.
I wanted to tell her it wasn’t the sort of job I cared to handle, though it was no worse than so much of the stuff that had been coming my way the past year; I wanted to thank her and get the hell out of that precise and perfectly appointed room of pinks and whites. But if I did she’d have no trouble finding someone who’d be more than happy to take her money. And there were those eyes on me, pleading and at the same time apologizing, bringing back memories of someone I was trying very hard not to think about.
“Have the Landton police made any progress?” I heard myself ask.
Her hands busied themselves stacking the envelopes, performing the task as if it were important enough to demand most of her attention. “It would seem not.”
“Those sort of cases can be tough,” I offered.
“Yes . . . I imagine so.” Abruptly she turned and retraced her steps to the wall table. I watched as she opened and closed the drawer, careful to keep her face averted. Apparently she had no desire to be seen drying her eyes.
I pocketed the notebook and crossed to the wide whitestone fireplace. On the mantelpiece were two silver-framed photographs.
“That was taken only two years ago.” I hadn’t heard her come up beside me. “It’s one of the few good pictures I have of him.”
The picture I held was of a tall heavily built man in his middle forties, dressed only in tennis shorts. A small roll of blubber lapped over the top of the shorts, otherwise his bulk appeared to be in pretty good shape. His face was darkly tanned and handsome, his hair thick and wavy.
“Is there any chance,” I asked, putting the picture back the way I’d found it, “that his death may have been connected with that trip he made?”
She took her lower lip between her teeth and held it a moment. “ . . . No, it — it was just one of those terrible things that happen to people these days.”
“Do you have any children, Mrs. Ballard?”
The question threw her slightly off balance.
“What makes you ask that?”
I shrugged. “It was just a question.” Which was true. I wasn’t even sure why I’d tossed it at her. Perhaps only because she looked more like an attractive nun than anyone’s mother.
“Frank never wanted a family,” she said “He was nervous around children and young people. He . . . he found it difficult to communicate with them.”
“All right,” I said. “Are you ready to tell me the rest of it?”
“The rest . . .?”
I leaned a shoulder against the fireplace and looked down at her. “What really prompted you to call me?”
“But — but I’ve already explained . . .”
I said nothing.
“Tom thought it best to say nothing about the money,” she sighed, her voice reduced back to a whisper.
“Tom Rutland. He has the controlling interest in the company where Frank worked. He also thinks I should simply try to forget what happened.”
“You’ve discussed all this with him?”
“Tom’s a dear friend,” she said. “Without his help I — I could never have managed. It was he who went to — to identify Frank . . . to arrange for his body to be sent home.”
“Weren’t the police curious to know what your husband had been doing up there?”
“Tom thought it best everyone believe it was a business trip.” Her head lowered slightly. “He told the police Frank had been scouting suitable land for a client contemplating a factory in that area.”
“Okay, now tell me about the money.”
Her hands fluttered in a gesture of helpless confusion, before dropping limply to her sides. “Last year my husband drew thirteen thousand dollars from his personal account. I never knew a thing about it until just recently — after the attorneys went over his papers.” She worried her lip some more. “There isn’t any record of what he did with it.”
“That’s a lot of money,” I said needlessly. “And an odd amount.”
“He was doing very well,” she answered, her gaze turning to the room as if to indicate the house alone was testimony of that fact. “He also had a few very sound investments, and there was the money I received when my parents died.” Her hands performed another futile movement. “At the beginning of January, just before going to Landton the second time, he withdrew another thirteen thousand.”
“What do you think he was doing with it?”
“I haven’t the vaguest idea,” she said heavily. “Both withdrawals were made at almost identical times — during the early part of January. It — it’s as if he had been making — some sort of advance payment on — something.”
Or to somebody. But I didn’t tell her so; she was bright enough to have considered that possibility herself.
“Is there anything else I should know?”
When they found mine her eyes were those of an injured doe. “Are you going to help me?”
“I’ll try, though my original advice still holds. You can’t change the past, and sometimes things back there are best not known.”
“I can’t.” Her hands clasped tightly together under her breasts and when next she spoke it was like someone reaching back for things all but forgotten.
“A few days before making that first trip we’d gone to a party. He — well, he had a little too much to drink, and we came home early. Something was bothering him; I knew it, but I didn’t say anything. At — at times like that he could be — quite irritable.” Her breath expelled itself in a quivering sigh and this time she appeared not to care if I was a witness to the tears sneaking from her eyes. “He was already asleep when I came to bed . . . but he was mumbling . . . trembling . . . repeating a name over and over again.”
“The Keller woman’s?”
She shook her dead. “No. I couldn’t hear very clearly, but I — I believe the name was . . . Rose.”
“You mentioned it to him?”
She brushed quickly at her eyes. “He said he must have been dreaming, that he couldn’t remember anything about it.”
I pushed away from the fireplace. “If I do what you’re asking, I’m going to have to ask questions and people will want to know why I’m asking them.”
Shallow ridges spread across her forehead. “I — I was hoping it could be handled discreetly.”
I dug out my cigarettes. “Discreet questions aren’t likely to get the answers you want. And if the police find I’m snooping around their town they may have some questions of their own.”
“I suppose you’re right,” she said after some deliberation. “I was hoping, I suppose, that no one would have to know Frank was —” She broke off, blinking rapidly.
I said, “We still don’t know that there was another woman, do we?”
She turned to look at her dead husband’s picture. “No, no we don’t.”
“Still want me to check it out?”
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