Authors: Edward D. Hoch
So I thought no more of it, and concentrated on the winding ribbon of road ahead, chasing the lines of red tail lights headed south toward New York and home …
But the letter came.
Just two days later it was sitting on my desk, waiting to be opened because the
on the envelope had scared my secretary away. I delayed the act till well in the afternoon, because the press of business was squeezing me into a corner throughout most of the morning.
But finally I got to it, ripping open the envelope to disclose a fairly brief note typed on Baine University stationery.
“It was good to see you yesterday
and I’m only sorry we didn’t have time to talk alone. The thing that concerns me—concerns several of us here—has to do with a series of experiments being carried out by Professor Kane Wilber here. The experiments, in the fields of heredity and evolution, are of a type that I’m convinced are harmful to present-day society. I can only hope that someone like your friend Simon Ark can get to the bottom of the thing before it’s too late. Hope to hear from you by return mail.”
Well, it meant nothing much to me and I tossed it down on my desk. What in hell was he getting at, anyway? A mad scientist at one of the country’s largest universities? More likely it was something Mahon feared might damage his forthcoming fund-raising campaign. Perhaps a professor who drank too much, or was kidnapping neighborhood dogs to carry out his experiments. Nothing certainly that would interest Simon Ark.
I buzzed my secretary to dictate a reply but then dismissed her with a wave of my hand. Hell, what was there to say? I didn’t want to hurt the guy’s feelings by telling him he was just a rich spoiled kid with a ton of money who saw madmen behind every test tube. He belonged back at the ski resort, in bed with Jean, without a care in the world. He had Jean Mahon now, but he still needed Jean Clark.
I tossed the letter into a desk drawer and promptly forgot about it. …
Another week passed and we were into the summer sunshine of June. Simon Ark returned to New York on June first, as usual vaguely silent about his latest trip, and I had dinner with him in one of the little foreign restaurants off Sixth Avenue.
It was that night, on my homeward journey to Westchester, that the girl accosted me in Grand Central. “You don’t know me,” she said, making a firm statement of it.
“You’re right there. I don’t,” I agreed, even though there was something not completely strange about her face. She was very blonde, with long hair caught back in a knot, and very young—probably not over twenty-two at best. Her mouth was a bit too wide, but—
Of course! She was Jean Mahon’s sister. “My name is Cathy Clark,” she was saying. “I think you met my sister a couple of weeks back.”
“Oh! Up in Baine City.”
“That’s right. I must talk with you.”
“Well …” I shifted my weight on anxious feet, thinking of Shelly waiting for me at home. “How did you happen to find me here?”
“I … I followed you from your office, if you must know.”
“What? All evening?”
She hung her head guiltily, managing to make it cute. “I’m afraid so. I was going to speak to you as you left your building, but you were with that strange looking man.”
I mentally chuckled at her description of Simon. “How did you recognize me?”
“The elevator starter pointed you out. I told him I was a writer and wanted to meet you.”
“Well, come on—I’ll buy you a cup of coffee and listen to your sad story. That’s the least I can do, I suppose.”
“Thanks,” she said, shaking her blonde head in gratitude.
We found stools at one of the countless Grand Central lunch counters and settled down over cigarettes and coffee. “It’s about Henry and Jean,” she opened.
“I expected it would be.”
“He says he wrote you.”
My first reaction was surprise that she even knew about it. Certainly Mahon had gone to some pains to keep this problem from his wife’s ears, so why tell his sister-in-law all about it? “That’s right,” I admitted. “He wrote me about a week ago. But the letter was pretty vague—just general rumblings, you know.”
“He needs help badly!”
“Well … what can I say? He’s a friend, but there’s really nothing I can do, you know. First of all, I don’t think I even fully understand the direct cause of all this anxiety. He vaguely mentioned a Professor Wilber at the University …”
She ground out her cigarette and immediately lit another with nervous gestures. “It’s not the kind of thing you can put into words.”
“The nameless horror?” I asked with a chuckle.
But there was no responding laughter in her eyes. “Exactly.”
“Well,” I tossed down a quarter for the coffees, “if you want any help from me you’ll have to name it.” I amazed myself with the words. Now, suddenly, I was giving her a sort of backhanded agreement of aid. “And in a hurry, too,” I added, to retreat a bit toward my former unyielding position. “I’ve got a train to catch.”
She sighed. “It’s not the kind of thing you can put into words. But believe me, it could rock Baine City to its foundations. If you’re not interested in helping, or in telling this Simon Ark about it …”
“I see Hank told you everything. Well, Miss Clark, it might interest you to know that the strange man you saw me with this evening was Simon Ark—in the flesh.”
“It was! Where is he now? Where can I reach him?”
“He’s not the kind of man you look up in the phone book,” I told her. “And I’m afraid he’d be no more interested in your problems than I am.”
“Then you won’t help me?” Was the throb in the voice a little too intense?
“Look,” I tried to explain, “I’m not a detective. I’m not even a lonely hearts advisor or a friend to the needy. Neither is Simon Ark. I happen to be the vice president of a publishing company, and it’s a full-time occupation. If I ever have any free time—maybe in ten or twenty years—I’ll be happy to take a run up to Baine City and see this Professor Wilber, but until then I can’t help you. Sorry.”
Cathy Clark gave her blonde head a defiant toss. “All right,” she said. “We’ll do something without you.” She finished her coffee and slid off the stool in sudden haste.
“Sorry,” I repeated, and I really was. But what could I do? There were times when you had to say no.
“Thanks for the coffee, anyway,” she said, and was gone—out into the evening crowds headed this way and that in the eternal maze of Grand Central.
I watched her receding rear for a moment before it was swallowed up, then turned back to the dregs of a good cup of coffee. As I finished it and started to rise I found myself suddenly looking once more into the deep bright eyes of Simon Ark.
“Simon! What in the heck are you doing here?”
“Who was the girl?” he asked me with just a hint of a smile.
“You saw her?”
“She was following us all evening. I wondered why.”
“You mean you saw her and didn’t tell me?”
The smile broadened a bit. “She may have been a discarded love, or a current one.”
“You decided she wasn’t?”
He nodded. “But why was she following you?”
“Believe it or not, she wanted to see you—only she didn’t know it at the time. She’s Henry Mahon’s sister-in-law. That’s the fellow up in Baine City that I mentioned once or twice. Both of them have got some crazy idea that something pretty horrible’s happening up at Baine U. It turns out Hank is running a fund raising drive for the University in a couple of weeks, and I guess he’s worried about the bad publicity.”
“What kind of a thing?”
“Huh? I don’t know. Some guy named Professor Wilber is experimenting—probably got a drug to pep up the football team or something crazy like that.”
“Do you think I should look into it?”
“What could it be to interest you, Simon? It’s research being carried out on a grant from Baine Brass. They’re surely not making hidden atomic bombs or anything like that.”
“But if he’s a friend of yours …”
“Well, I’ll tell you—maybe next week we can run up there. I may have to go to Buffalo again, and we can drive up.”
Simon Ark frowned. “Evil often does not choose to wait, but perhaps as you say there is nothing in this but the overworked imaginations of a few people.”
“I’m afraid Henry Mahon is not the most realistic person in the world,” I said. “Let’s wait and see what develops …”
So we didn’t make the trip to Baine City the following week. Summer was upon us suddenly, and the New York heat made the beaches of Long Island the only fit goals for a drive. Simon drifted away without my even being conscious of his going, off to some other city or some other country half a world away. The days lengthened out into the glorious warmth of life that seemed suddenly so important to a man of forty, and I had the happy feeling that life was far from being over for men. There was Shelly, seemingly as young and lovely as when I’d first married her, and there was my job—more challenging but more rewarding with each passing year.
And so Henry Mahon and his wife and Cathy Clark were forgotten. They were people of a borderland at best, people who helped fill up your life without ever really being a part of it. And summer—a fortieth summer—was especially a time for being oneself. Shelly and I discovered the secluded little beaches that dotted Long Island’s north shore, and there was only the sun to see us and approve as we basked in its warmth.
There was always the radio, filling the sand and the air with gentle music for a quiet mood, with occasional well-timed interruptions for the news of the world—just to remind one that men still plotted and schemed and lived and died, even on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
This day, the Saturday that marked the beginning of a long July Fourth weekend, we were alone together on a little strip of sand not far from the Eaton’s Neck lighthouse. Shelly was reading a recent novel by Graham Greene and I was puttering around with the charcoal grill, trying to get a fire going for supper.
“Germany, China, Egypt.” Shelly moaned. “We might as well be fighting a war already the way those newscasters talk.” And then she fell silent as the droning voice of the announcer shifted to local matters.
“The upstate New York community of Baine City has a real murder mystery on its hands today with the discovery of the bullet-riddled body of a young girl.” I sat up at the name of Baine City and dropped what I was doing. “The girl, twenty-two-year-old Cathy Clark, had graduated only last month from Baine University. Her body was found some miles out of the city on a side road where she apparently was shot to death while seated in her car.”
That was all. Then he was off again to an oil explosion in Texas. “Baine City,” Shelly said. “Isn’t that the place …”
“That’s the place. And that’s the girl who followed me the night I was late getting home. God, what could have happened?”
“She was the one who wanted Simon to help her?”
I nodded, running sand nervously through my fingers. “And I didn’t listen to her.”
“But what could you have done?”
“I don’t know. Something. Apparently anything would have been better than nothing. Come on, let’s pack up and get back to town. I want to get the details of this.”
It took us the better part of two hours to reach the Triborough Bridge, battling the traffic of a hot holiday weekend every mile of the way. I bought all three Saturday afternoon papers on the way, but only one had the story. That was enough.
It was on page three, under a flash photograph showing a late model sports car with its door open on the driver’s side. She was hanging there, half in and half out of the car, with her long blonde hair reaching down to the pavement. There was a stain below her head which might have been blood or perhaps only a random oil stain. The printed account carried little I hadn’t already heard on the radio. A highway repair crew had found her in the early hours of Saturday morning while answering an emergency call. She’d apparently been seated in the front seat when someone had fired six pistol shots through the windshield and side window. There were no signs that she’d been attacked, the report concluded, meaning she hadn’t been raped. I was mildly surprised to see no mention of her parents. Only Jean Mahon was mentioned as a survivor.
“I’d better try to locate Simon,” I said when we reached home. “He’ll want to know about this.”
“I thought he was out of town.”
“Maybe he’s back for the weekend. There’s always a chance.”
I had a long list of telephone numbers Simon Ark had given me once, and I started through them. The Institute for Egyptian Studies was closed for the weekend and there was no one but the janitor to answer the phone. The little hotel on 84th Street hadn’t seen him in weeks, and Father Toole at Fordham thought he was out of town. I tried a Long Island number and one in Jersey, but the answer was the same.
“Well, I’d better fly up to Baine City tonight,” I told Shelly.
“Alone? Why in heaven’s name? Why go up there? You hardly knew the girl.”
“Well, for one thing, Hank Mahon might be in trouble too. If she was killed because of this Professor Wilber’s experiments, maybe Mahon is next. They asked me to help—to have Simon Ark help—and now I’ve got to do something.”
She didn’t like it, I know, but I had to go. I caught an evening plane and was checking into the Baine City Hotel at midnight …
Sunday morning in a city, any city, is a day set apart. It is a day of rest, and for those few who have to work it is a day tilled with quiet activity. It is not a day for judging a city, because all cities have a certain charm in the peaceful quiet of a Sunday morning.
Baine City, on the third of July, was a city deserted by many of its residents. The three-day weekend had lured them away, to the nearby beach where many had cottages, or further a bit, to the mountains that could just be seen on a clear day from the tops of the taller buildings. The city could have been mine that morning as I stood at my hotel window seeing the sweep and flow of it. The streets shot out like empty arrows before me, and I realized after a time that the hotel was located at the point of a wide V. Far at the end of one set of streets was a great factory that I took to be Baine Brass. In the other direction, down the left arm of the V, I could see a typical college bell tower rising behind the buildings.