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Two Paul Cameron Mysteries by Wade Wright
SHADOWS DON'T BLEED and THE SHARP EDGE
THE GIRL HAD been silent for the past twenty miles, staring through the windshield into the bright yellow tunnel the car’s headlights gouged into the night, thinking her own private and probably frightened thoughts.
Her name was Connie March, just seventeen years young, petite, and brunette and with perhaps the biggest problem a girl her age could have. Five days ago she had left home without warning to either parents or friends. Returning from school that afternoon she’d packed a few essentials into a small suitcase, and quietly departed. A note had been left, but one which offered very little explanation of her act.
As I turned south at the State highway intersection to get back onto U.S. 99, I felt her move at my side.
“I wish—I wish I was dead,” she said very softly.
I glanced to my right. “Don’t. Not long from now you’ll be glad you aren’t.”
“That’s easy to say,” she returned without malice, and went back to staring stiffly at the road that rushed rapidly at us.
“How—how am I going to face them?” Her voice was still quiet and distant, and when I didn’t answer, she said: “I feel so ashamed—so—so dirty.”
“They want you back, Connie. Why do you think they went to the expense of hiring me? It’s not going to be so tough.”
She moved again, and not long later I heard the gentle, shuddering sounds of sobbing.
Afraid that anything I might say would be interpreted as pity, I kept quiet, trying to concentrate on the job of driving, hoping that things were going to work out for the youngster. The blow she’d been handed would be a shattering one for a seventeen-year-old. But then others like her had somehow managed to pick up the pieces and weave them together again so that the scars didn’t show too much.
When he’d discovered her note, Connie’s father had made his own inquiries. Then loath to take the matter to the sheriff’s office had instead approached his attorney. Hal Whitman had been the attorney. He had also been at my side during the Korean thing, and he knew the kind of business I operated from my Los Angeles office. At a meeting in Whitman’s office, Ralph March briefed me on his daughter’s background, whispered his fears, and emphasized that he and his wife had given her all they could. I believed him then, and Connie had later confirmed his claims.
Her trouble was far from unique. There were a lot of girls around able to tell the same kind of story. And there’d be lots more.
A boy older than her—an infatuation, and later the frightening and distressing discovery of pregnancy. In Connie’s case the boy had not been tall enough to stay and pick up the tab. Without mentioning his intentions to her, he’d simply packed up and taken a job in San Francisco. Connie had found out where he was, had tried to contact him by telephone, and when that had failed, tried to get to San Francisco herself by means of busses and thumbed rides. Her father’s suspicions had originated only after her quiet departure. Up until then no one had even guessed at her condition. The girl had told me that much about her troubles when I’d found her in Salinas and convinced her she’d be wiser to return home. What she hadn’t told me was what she’d hoped to achieve by going after the boy. On that point she herself was still a little hazy.
At the eastern turn-off from the Central Valley Highway, she straightened up and began to fiddle with her purse. I looked her way; saw her working at her eyes with a wisp of pale cloth.
“All right now?” I asked.
“Yes . . . thank you.”
The night was warm, but the few stars scattered about in the black sky shed little illumination. In the distance, the Sierras hulked darkly against the sky. The road began slanting downhill and then the twinkling of lights became visible as we rounded a bend.
We drove on in further silence.
Sensing the approaching end of the journey the girl made an attempt to tidy her clothes and repair her face.
“Do you—do you think they’re going to be mad?” she asked.
“No,” I told her honestly. “I think they’ll be only too glad to have you home again. I think your father knows, or at least has guessed.”
She made no comment.
A sign loomed up out of the darkness:
City of Contentment.
Population: 4,700. 5 miles.
Reposado, a thin sprawling line of lights looking much like a mammoth glowworm hopelessly trying to crawl away from the encroaching shadow of the mountains. I hoped for the girl’s sake that her parents would help her to forget, to make the most out of what was left. She was going to need help like that.
I felt grateful the responsibilities of parenthood were not mine.
I caught only a vague glimpse of movement over on the left of the road as we drew nearer the city. But apparently the girl had seen more.
She gasped and the sound brought my foot from the accelerator to the brake. Someone had stepped out of the growth lining the road, then had quickly retreated.
“Did—did you see him?” she asked a little breathlessly.
“Only just. Why?”
“There was blood—All over his shirt there was blood!”
The brake received further pressure from my foot until the car slid to a stop at the side of the road. A few yards ahead was another sign, one that announced the city limits.
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know.” And I didn’t. If there was someone bleeding it could mean help was required. It could also mean trouble. And if there was to be any of that I didn’t want to leave the girl alone in the car.
“He looked hurt,” she said anxiously. “He seemed to be bleeding terribly. Don’t you think we should find out?”
I opened the door on my side, rolled up the window, and thumbed down the door lock. “You wait here. I’ll take a look.” I closed the door, making sure it was locked. The one on her side was. I’d seen to that when putting her into the car.
Out in the night everything seemed so very much quieter. A night bird twittered distantly and then went silent when a far-off scraping sound broke out of the tangled thicket lining the road. I started walking carefully back to where we had seen the figure appear, wishing now that I had not locked my gun away in the car’s glove box.
There was no way now of being absolutely sure of where we had seen him. I continued up the road until I was certain that the point of his appearance was somewhere between where I stopped and where the car was parked. Nowhere was there any sign of an accident.
On the way back to the car I heard it again: a crunching noise deep in the brush. I stopped and listened and my ears began to play tricks. After a few seconds the sound echoed again, fainter now, like the noise of someone or something moving away.
I walked back to the car, unlocked the door, and got in behind the wheel.
“What was it?” Connie asked.
I shrugged. “Whoever it was has taken off again.”
“He looked badly hurt,” she said almost to herself. “All that blood . . .”
“I’ll report it to the sheriff’s office after I’ve delivered you,” I promised, twisting the key in the ignition.
When we were moving she spoke again. “Did you see his face, Mr. Cameron?”
“Only very briefly. Why?”
“It—it looked strange, and yet familiar somehow. As if—as if I’d seen him before.” She sighed wearily. “I hope he’ll be all right.”
“You think it might be someone you know?”
“No. I just have the peculiar feeling I’ve seen him before.”
I felt the vibration through the seat when she shivered. Then, watching the approaching city lights, she decided to drop the subject.
“We’re almost there, aren’t we?”
“I’m afraid,” she whispered.
The impulse to reach out and touch her, to tell her not to be, was checked.
A little more than a hall hour later Connie March had been welcomed home warmly, hugged and kissed by grateful parents while I stood and watched and was glad that sometimes there were moments like that in a profession that dealt mostly in dirt. The parents expressed their thanks and I prepared to leave.
Before I went, Connie reminded me of my promise. “Mr. Cameron,” she ventured softly. “You won’t forget, will you? About that man we saw?”
“What man?” her father wanted to know.
“I won’t,” I said, and left her to explain.
Hal Whitman’s office would be closed and his home address was something I didn’t know. It would probably be in the book, but my report, I decided, could wait until morning. I planned to stop over in town for the night anyway. The day had been long enough without adding another long drive to it.