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A LONG time ago her murderer had left her for dead. But a little pulse was still beating in her and she had even recovered some glimmering of consciousness.

The darkness was unstirring and unbreathing. Somewhere in it, though, a man’s voice murmured tenderly.

“Just look at the matter sensibly, my dear. No one knows that I am here with you. The devoted fool you’re married to now doesn’t know. None of your friends or nearest neighbors possibly can know. There are only you and I, so why be afraid? All I want is to see you happy, darling . . .”

The whisper went on. Only some soap-opera actor on her bookcase radio across the room.

There was no breathing which was not her own. She was alone in the darkness of the whole house. The cold-hearted murderous fiend had even killed her poor little dog, after leaving her for dead.

There was something she had meant to do. Had tried so hard to do. A little while ago. Or maybe hours ago.

Lock all the doors against his return—that was it. Then telephone for help.

She had reached the desk in the living room some time ago, she thought, and had caught hold of the runner on it. But she hadn’t had the strength to pull it off, with the phone.

Or if she had, there was no energy in her to grope around and find it, and turn the dial. And it didn’t seem so important any more. Nor anything.

She lay there, too hurt for any more pain. All the agony of those savage merciless blows was behind her, and her senses floated on soft distant streams.

Memories of glamorous days, of fame and joy and golden hours. She had always been a beautiful woman, and she had been loved by many men. She had known great wealth, the cheering crowds, the magnificence of titles, adventure in far exotic countries, war and flight, the splendor of near-imperial power, all that a woman can know of passion and desire. Hours and days and years were mingled all together in a dream, not less real than the dream that now here in the darkness she lay dying, all alone.

Somewhere in the dark drifting distances around her she heard a small quick tinkling sound—pertink! Like the striking of a sharp thumbnail on a crystal goblet rim.

The sound shattered her floating dreams with bubbles of nightmare terror. Brittle and sharp as glass. Oh, God, he had come back to make sure of her, before she had quite got away from him! He had broken a windowpane! He was coming toward her now, with silent panther step across the rug!

With a spasmodic effort, beyond awareness, beyond any actual strength left in her, beyond pain, she lifted herself on knees and palms. She began to creep, numbly, blindly, in a half-circle like a trodden worm, her right hand above her head to fend him off, with an incoherent whimpering in her throat.

No! Oh, no!

Her upraised hand swept across a surface of smooth curved glass in front of her. Her fingertips touched a knob. She clutched it, turning it. Light! But there was none.

. . . Pertink! pertink! pertink! pertink! . . . The little sound was keeping on.

Only the silvery voice of her electric chime clock on the mantel. Striking the hour of eleven, or midnight, or some remote toward-morning hour—she could not count, she could not be sure.

Above her prone head an inch-wide square of light darted into life.

It trembled an instant, like the square blinking eye of some disembodied Cyclopean robot.

With a rush it spread outward into a rectangular grayness two hundred times as large, the size of a cellar window. A dark line swept down the middle of it like a knife; split, and rushed toward both edges. The grayness was filled with amorphous moving shapes, like the stirring of unborn fetuses in a fluoroscope, like cloud wisps across a rectangular wan moon.

She had turned on the switch of her swivel-based 24-inch TV in that last incoherent clutching for light, though not enough for sound. With a jerk, the cloudy shapes on it took form and pictured substance, had a background. Were laughing singers, dancers. They moved and mouthed, gesturing in silence.

The wan window-shape of moving shadows was duplicated across the room in a wide smoke-gray mirror reaching ceilingward above a low black glass mantel, on which stood the gilt-and-crystal softly sweeping clock whose last small chime had struck.

In the wan refulgence cast by the screen and its reflection the formless darkness disassembled itself, taking boundaries and dimensions. Furnishings loomed into obscure shape, like rocks and weed patches beneath a murky water.

Deep-cushioned chairs, hassocks, wide couch. Glass-topped coffee table holding liquor bottles and ice tub, soda bottles, three or four highball glasses and a pair of fragile wineglasses. Flat-topped kneehole desk of bleached modern mahogany a few feet from the TV screen, with a painted silk runner three-quarters pulled from it.

On the desk top a heavy onyx-and-silver lamp lay over on its side, anchoring the runner’s end. A black metal letter rack containing two opened envelopes, addressed respectively to “Mrs. Nina W. Sloke, 4 Dog-wood Lane, Potomac Vista Gardens, Maryland,” and to “Mrs. Claude M. Sloke,” the same address; and a stack of movie magazines and news weeklies, topped by a section of newspaper mastheaded, “Washington Evening Sun, Section 2, Local News, Saturday, April 27,” from which the upper left quarter page had been cut out. A large silver-framed photograph stood half over the desk edge, intangibly teetering, balanced precariously to a fall.

Scattered on the figured Sarouk rug below were a spilled pack of cards; an overturned crystal ash tray in a litter of ashes, crumpled paper matchcovers and varied butts; an Imperial Russian gold-and-cloissonné Easter egg, the size of a swan’s egg, bright with jewels, and containing a large oval stone, deeper and fierier than crystal, on its top; an ivory-handled Japanese ceremonial hara-kiri knife in a carved teakwood sheath; a lump of black jade carved crudely in the universal primitive symbol of a lingam. A quarter page of cut-out newspaper print, matching in size that missing from the paper on the desk above, had drifted down.

Amidst the fallen litter a gold telephone lay, with its handpiece a foot from its cradle.

There was something she had tried so hard to do. But she had forgotten now.


THE SILVER-FRAMED photograph on the desk edge faced the screen’s moving shadows. Portrait of a beautiful man, columned neck in open shirt, mane of light rippled hair, long-lashed melting eyes, straight classic nose, soft fun-lipped mouth and short curved upper Up. Across a corner of it, in sprawling lines, was an inscription, “To my love forever—Toby.”

In the flickering light, andirons and hearthside tools shone brassily. Above, on the black glass mantel ends, the pair of massive candlesticks, ten inches square at their footed bases and thirty inches high, gleamed with a duller but richer yellow glow, heavy with carved designs of dryads, satyrs, helmeted knights, praying priests, recumbent nudes, all interwoven with vine leaves and flowering tree branches in intricate relief. The three crystal-framed photographs between them, arranged unevenly two and one on each side of the clock, stood in the dancing shadows.

All three, like the photograph on the desk, were autographed. One, the picture of a man with blunt nose, wide mouth, dark shaven jaws, sinister scowling brows above flat eyes, was inscribed, “To my million-dollar baby— Cliff.” Another, the picture of a man with slender mocking face, big beaked nose, dark ironic crinkled old-young eyes, was inscribed, “To Cytherea, out of the white sea foam—from her Prince, Mike.” On the other side of the clock the third, picturing a gray-haired man with a hard powerful face, deep-set eyes, spreading mustaches jutting like a tiger’s whiskers, upstanding hussar-type collar covered with lacy filigree about his neck, sunbursts of decorations on his chest, was inscribed, “To my darling Child Queen, from George.”

Photographs live on after men’s hours of love, and they themselves, may be dead. There was no meaning to her now, it might be, in any of the four intimate inscriptions, if she could think of them. Perhaps there never had been, too completely.




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