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THE LADY'S IN DANGER
The scream cut into sleep and jerked me awake.
I lay there for maybe five seconds wondering whether I’d heard it or whether I’d
dreamt it. There was something different about the room. Even in the darkness I
knew there was something different. Then I saw what it was. The transom window
over the door wasn’t showing any more. That meant the corridor light was out.
Somebody had switched it out, or maybe it had just blown.
Then the girl screamed again, and this time I
was out of bed and had knocked over a chair before I was rightly aware I’d
moved. Because I’d heard screams before, plenty, and I was getting so I could
judge them and tell what was in back of them. There were two main varieties in
my experience. There was the long scream where a dame was blowing her top, where
maybe there was real danger but the danger hadn’t caught up with her, maybe
wasn’t for her at all. And there was the short, cut-off one where the danger had
caught up with her, was on her, had got her. And what I’d just heard belonged in
I didn’t bother about any light. I felt for
the door handle, swung open the door and lunged out into the corridor. The
girl’s room was right next mine and that was where the scream had come from. But
it was even darker out there, and I had just time for it to flash through my
mind that somebody had turned out all the corridor lights when I collided
heavily with somebody. It was a man, I knew that from the stiff solid jolt of
it, and the shock of it threw me off-balance. While I was still clutching wildly
for him, a little round pencil of light shone out and straight at my eyes. It
was only a flash and everything was dark again, doubly dark for me. I sensed a
movement in the darkness, and then something hit me flush on the chin.
It was a lucky strike for him. I’d stopped
harder ones and stayed on my feet, but I was still a little off-balance then. I
went down and things went muzzy for a moment. I thought I heard a quick pad, pad
of soft-soled shoes going away, but I couldn’t be sure. Next thing I knew there
was a rustling sound, and somebody else tripped over me and fell flat on top of
I didn’t even have to guess who this was. This
was the girl who had come rushing out of her room in a panic, and by the feel of
her she hadn’t stopped to put on a robe. She started in screaming again the
minute she hit me. I tried to shut her up, I would have helped her to her feet,
but she was fighting like a wildcat and anyway if I’d laid a hand on her the way
she was it would practically have amounted to assault.
Bedroom lights were being switched on now and
doors opening all along the corridor. Somebody with a flashlight came out of one
close by. The flashlight played on the girl and I saw her for the first time.
Boy, she was a dish! Middle twenties, I guessed. Blonde and beautiful and with a
figure the old Arabians and Romans never dreamt up in their mathematics. I
couldn’t help but testify to that.
“Sara!” It was a man’s voice and it sounded
kind of tired, like there were no more surprises in life for this guy. “Sara!
What the devil—?”
“Oh, Ponty!” She flung herself at him and hung
on. It spoilt his aim with the flashlight, which swung round on me.
“What the devil—?” said the guy again.
It must have looked good. The two of us out
there in the corridor of that crummy hotel, outside her room in the dark. She in
her bare feet and a transparent nightgown, me likewise, only my pyjamas weren’t
transparent, with my hair all mussed and holding my jaw like I’d just had my
face slapped. I was holding it to see if it was still working properly, but the
guy wasn’t to know that. It must have looked pretty.
“Ponty!” she cried. Then she calmed down. She
seemed to wake up to it that what she had on was all she had on, and she let go
the guy’s neck and stood back from him a space. But the scare was still on her
and her voice was high and breathless.
“Ponty, there was a man in my room!”
“Was there, by George!”
The flashlight stayed steady on me. I felt it
was time I said something.
“I’d count it a favour, Ponty, if you’d point
that flashlight some place else. There was a man all right, but it wasn’t me.”
It seemed like this Ponty was the kind of guy
once he got an idea didn’t like parting with it till he was good and sure it was
“How do I know that?” he asked.
I didn’t argue with him. I just stepped into
the girl’s room and switched on the light. I knew there’d be nothing to see, but
I thought I’d take a peek while I was there. Ponty, with Sara at his elbow,
moved up and stood in back of me. While we were gawping at the empty room,
somebody spoke up from out in the corridor. It was a woman, and she had one of
those pinched British voices that sounded like it just hated the words it used.
“Seraphina! Seraphina, what is the matter?
Pontius, what are you doing in here? And who is this man?” The tone of the voice
changed suddenly and it ran up the scale, hitting the top C of incredulous
horror. “Seraphina, child! Look at you! For heaven’s sake, put something on.”
The British slay me. Especially this
particular type of autocratic old dame. Seraphina. And Pontius. I ask you! I
suppose Sara and Ponty was about all you could have done for baptismal handicaps
I gave Sara three seconds, then I turned
round. Three seconds was enough, she’d snatched up a robe and had it round her
by then. It was a fluffy, frilly thing and she looked as good in it, in a
different way, as she had out in the corridor with Ponty’s little searchlight on
“There was a man in my room,” she said again.
The old dame bit off the word and looked at
Ponty. I wasn’t to know the meaning of that look till later on. Then she
switched the look back to Sara.
“But, child, didn’t you lock your door?”
The scare was beginning to go from Sara’s
eyes, leaving them wide and wistful. She always looked like that I found out. I
gave it a name afterwards, a word I’d come across in the Bible one time.
Lovingkindness. In her eyes was something you could only describe as
lovingkindness. It was a look that always made you feel good. I kept telling
myself it was only the way her eyes were set in her head or something, but it
got me just the same.
She said, “I didn’t think of it, Aunt Agatha.”
Aunt Agatha. I might have known.
People were beginning to gang up in the
corridor and ask fool questions. Also the lights had come on again, someone the
far end had had a brainstorm and pressed the switch. Aunt Agatha threw them a
contemptuous glance and stepped inside, shutting the door in their faces.
I’d taken her for an old dame, but she wasn’t
so old at that. Pushing sixty, maybe. Grey hair that had been tinted that
unnatural blue colour. Severe expression. Large hands and feet. Erect and rigid
like a Sandhurst cadet on parade. There were no frills or fancies about her and
she hadn’t taken any chances of being caught by a flashlight in a dark corridor.
Her blue hair was tight under a net and her dark blue robe started high up under
her chin and ended at her feet.
She gave me a dirty look.
Sara also looked at me. Thoughtful, but still
in that kind of caressing way that was natural and unconscious to her.
“I don’t know,” she said slow. She put out a
hand and felt the sleeve of my pyjama coat. “No-o, I don’t think so.”
I knew then she’d felt the sleeve of the other
guy’s coat, and I guessed why that scream I’d heard had been so short and
“You don’t know,” Aunt Agatha said. “No, I
suppose you don’t, child.” She frowned at me. “Well, young man? You don’t seem
to have much to say for yourself.”
“I didn’t like to interrupt,” I said. “I heard
“Sara?” she queried, and looked at me like I
smelled bad. “I was not aware my niece had given you permission to call her by
this intimate contraction of her first name. Or by any other name,” she said.
Veddy British. Oh, veddy veddy British.
“Okay,” I said. “Okay. Anyway, I heard the
scream and I came running because I’m allergic to things that make little girls
scream in the night—like that. There was a man all right, I ran smack into the
guy outside. It threw me off my feet, and he hung one on my chin before he
faded. That,” I said to Sara, “was why I was lolloping about on the ground when
you fell over me.”
Ponty said, kind of suspicious, “There was no
sigh of any other man when I came out. And you were on the spot pretty quickly.”
“I was, brother, I was. I knew what that
Sara looked at me with her neat little
eyebrows up high.
“I guessed,” I amended. “Now I’d like to hear
you tell it. Because guys that go prowling nights in little girls’ bedrooms have
a special interest for me.”
I could see the question forming in her eyes,
but before she could ask it Aunt Agatha put an arm round her and they both sat
down on the bed.
“What did happen, child?”
“I don’t quite know. There isn’t much to tell.
I suddenly woke up with the feeling that there was someone in the room. Then I
saw a light like a tiny little flashlight moving about—the man seemed to be
looking for some thing. I must have made some sound because he suddenly shone
the light on me. Then he—I suppose it was a man—”
“It was a man,” I told her. “I know. I was
kind of bumped into out there by both a guy and a dame. There’s a difference.”
She dropped her eyes at that and wrapped the
robe a little tighter round her legs. Not that those legs couldn’t stand the
light of day.
“Well, he—he pounced on me and I screamed. He
put his hand over my mouth then. I struggled like mad and managed to get my
mouth free and I screamed again. Then he caught hold of my throat, and just when
I thought he was meaning to choke me he turned and ran out of the room. And
I nodded at her. I remembered how I’d knocked
that chair over when I’d sprung out of bed. He’d heard that.
“I thought it was something like that.”
“You did know!”
“No, but that was the scream I heard, the
second one. I’ve heard screams like that before.”
Aunt Agatha was staring at me like I was some
“Young man, who are you?”
I’d known it was coming, of course. I’d
anticipated it and I’d decided, as things were, that a little advertising
wouldn’t do any harm.
“Well,” I said, kind of hesitating, “I could
tell you anything, and you might believe it and you might not. Either way it
might leave you a mite uncertain, maybe a mite scared still.” I guess it was
Sara’s eyes were making me talk that way. “Let Ponty give it you—”
“Ponty, indeed!” Aunt Agatha chewed off a
couple more icicles. I let it go by.
“Ponty, my own room is next door. There’s a
robe on the bed would look better on me right now, and there’s a wallet in the
pocket of my coat in the closet you could take a peek in while you’re fetching
Ponty looked at me kind of slow.
I remembered where I was. What we called a
John back home they called a closet over here, and what we called a closet they
called a wardrobe.
“Wardrobe,” I said.
Ponty still hovered. I could see the guy
hadn’t quite used up his first idea about me. Aunt Agatha changed his mind for
“Go, Pontius!” she said, and she sounded like
an ancient Roman dame giving old man Pilate the brush-off.
“Oh, right-o,” Ponty said in his tired way,
While he was away the two of them sat on the
bed and watched me. I stood it for a minute, then I told them it was okay, I
didn’t bite. Sara smiled at that. It was a slow smile, but when it came it made
her eyes dance.
“You’re big, aren’t you?” she said, performing
the old British trick of telling you what you are and then asking you to agree
Well, maybe I am big. And maybe that was why I
kept thinking of her as a little girl. She wasn’t really. I grinned back at her
and waited for Ponty to come back.
He was back inside the minute with the robe
and also a pair of slippers I was glad to have. He came in the same way he’d
gone out, slow, quiet, kind of bored-looking, only now he had one eyebrow raised
like he was a mite surprised. He looked past me and spoke to Aunt Agatha.
“Mother, I have an idea we owe this gentleman
an apology. He is a special investigator from New York, and his name is Mr.
Mother. That placed him and the old dame. And
the “gentleman” seemed to have placed me with him. I guessed he’d finally
ditched the idea that I might have been a wolf ravening for his tender little
cousin, and decided I was just an ordinary guy.
“Indeed!” Aunt Agatha said thoughtfully. “And
what exactly is a special investigator?”
So far as I was concerned that was just
another name for a private eye. But eyes being three a dime where I’d come from
I’d made it fancy. Over here I’d hoped it might make people think of Washington
and the F.B.I., and H-bomb spies, but I wasn’t so sure about Aunt Agatha. Seemed
like it was making her think of income tax. I didn’t say anything. I thought if
anybody was going to answer that question it might as well be Ponty.
But Ponty wasn’t interested in that any more.
He was looking at me now, still with that eyebrow raised.
“I say, old boy, didn’t you say you’d bumped
into this chap just outside here?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah. Why?”
“Well, what’s the body on the floor in your