Darker Than You Think (5 page)

BOOK: Darker Than You Think
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"Nora,
this is Miss April Bell. She's learning to be a sob sister on the
Call.
Anything
you tell her may be quoted against you."

"Really,
Barbee!"

April
made that protest with a charming little laugh. When the eyes of the
two women met, however, Barbee sensed fire—something like the
sudden shower of sparks when hard metal meets the grinding wheel.
Smiling with angelic sweetness, they shook hands.

"Darling!
I'm so happy to meet you."

They
hated each other, Barbee knew, savagely.

"Mother!"
little Pat cried eagerly. "May I touch the dear little kitten?"

"No,
honey—please!"

Nora
caught hastily at the child, but her small pink hand was already
reaching eagerly. The black kitten blinked and spat and scratched.
With a sob of pain, that she stubbornly tried to stifle, Pat drew
back to her mother.

"Oh,
Mrs. Quain," purred April Bell. "I'm so sorry."

"I
don't like you," Pat declared defiantly.

"Look!"
Old Ben Chittum limped past them, pointing with his pipe into the
gloomy dusk, shrill with excitement. "There's the plane, rolling
down the taxi-strip."

The
Spivaks ran after him.

"It's
our Nick, Mama! Our Nick—safe at home from that cruel desert
across the sea."

"Come
on, Mother." Pat tugged impatiently at Nora's hand. "Daddy's
back—and I will too know him."

Rowena
Mondrick followed that breathless group, proud and straight and
silent. She seemed entirely alone, even though little Miss Ulford
held her arm to guide her and the huge tawny dog stalked stiffly at
her side. Barbee glimpsed her face under the opaque black lenses, and
its white agony of hope and terror made him look hastily aside.

He
was left with April Bell.

"Fifi,
you were very naughty!" She patted the kitten reprovingly. "You
spoiled our interview."

Barbee
felt an impulse to follow Nora and explain that April Bell was a
stranger. He still had a tender spot for Nora—sometimes he
wondered, wistfully, how different life might have been if he and not
Sam Quain had drawn her to be his partner at that freshman mixer. But
April's long eyes smiled again, and her voice chimed contritely: "I'm
sorry, Barbee—truly I am."

"That's
all right," Barbee told her. "But how come the kitten?"

Her
eyes turned greenish black again, strangely intense, as if some
secret fear had dilated the pupils. For an instant he glimpsed a wary
alertness, as if she were playing an obscurely difficult and
dangerous game. He didn't understand that. A cub reporter, of course,
might be jittery about her first big assignment. But April Bell
seemed too briskly competent to suffer any such misgivings, and the
thing he glimpsed was something more than mere timidity. It was
desperate, deadly.

Barbee
recoiled a little from that look of fearful searching. After the
briefest instant, however, the girl's white, frozen face came alive
again. She straightened the kitten's red ribbon, and smiled at him
warmly.

"Fifi
belongs to my Aunt Agatha," she cooed brightly. "I live
with her, you know, and she came out with me today. Auntie went
shopping with the car and left Fifi with me. She's to meet me in the
waiting room. Excuse me, and I'll see if she's come—and get rid
of the little beast before it makes another scene."

She
hurried away from him, into the bright-lit building. Barbee looked
after her, through the glass doors, with a puzzled and uneasy
interest. Even the lithe free grace of her walk fascinated him. She
seemed untamed.

Barbee
tried to shrug off that vague conflict of attraction and formless
apprehension, and followed Nora Quain to the little group watching
the chartered transport roaring toward them on the taxi-strip, huge
and ungainly in the gloom. He was tired, and probably he had been
drinking more than was good for him. His nerves seemed on edge. It
was only natural for him to feel a strong response to such a girl as
April Bell. What man wouldn't? But he resolved to control that
reaction.

Nora
Quain turned her attention from the incoming plane long enough to ask
him: "Is that girl important?"

"Just
met her." Barbee hesitated, wondering. "She's ... unusual."

"Don't
let her be important," Nora urged quickly. "She is—"

She
paused as if to find a word for April Bell. The warm smile left her
face, and her hand moved unconsciously to draw little Pat to her
side. She didn't find the word.

"Don't,
Will!" she whispered. "Please!" The engines of the
taxiing transport drowned her voice.

CHAPTER
TWO

The
Kitten Killing

Two
white-uniformed attendants were waiting with a wheeled gangway to
land the incoming passengers. The big transport, however, looming
dark and monstrous in the floodlights on the field, stopped a full
hundred yards from the terminal building. The great motors died in a
silence that seemed breathless.

"Marck!"
In that sudden stillness the voice of Mondrick's blind wife was a
thin, frantic cry. "Can anybody see Marck?"

Old
Ben Chittum led the eager rush toward the transport, waving his pipe
wildly and shouting unanswered greetings to his son. Papa and Mama
Spivak ran behind him, calling for Nick, and burst into tears when
their son didn't appear. Nora Quain picked up the toddling child and
held her apprehensively tight.

Rowena
Mondrick was left behind, with her huge dog and the
bewildered-looking little nurse. The dog had ceased to bristle, with
April Bell's departure. It glanced at Barbee with friendly golden
eyes, and then ignored him.

"The
plane stopped pretty far out," he told Rowena. "I don't
know why. But Dr. Mondrick and the others should be out to meet us in
a moment."

"Thank
you, Will." She smiled toward him gratefully, her face turning
smooth and youthful again for an instant under the blank lenses,
before her bleak unease came back. "I'm so afraid for Marck!"

"I
can understand that," Barbee murmured. "Sam Quain told me
about the Ala-shan—a desert that makes Death Valley look like a
green oasis, so I gather. And I know Dr. Mondrick's health isn't
good—"

"No,
Will, it's nothing like that." Her thin, straight shoulders
shrugged uneasily. "Marck does have that trick heart, and his
asthma seems worse every year. But he's still vigorous, and he knows
his deserts. It isn't that at all."

Her
small hands tightened on the shepherd's leash, and Barbee thought
they shuddered. She drew the huge dog to her again. Her light fingers
moved quickly over its fine tawny head, and then dwelt upon the
polished silver studs that knobbed its collar, as if she found a
sensuous pleasure in feeling the cold white metal.

"I
used to work with Marck, you know," she whispered slowly.
"Before I saw too much." Her thin left hand came quickly
up, as if moved with an unforgotten horror, to cover for an instant
her dark lenses and the empty scars behind them. "I know what
his theory is, and what Sam Quain found for him under that old burial
mound in the Ala-shan on the last expedition before the war. That's
why I tried to persuade him not to go back."

She
turned abruptly, listening.

"Now
where are they, Will?" Apprehension breathed in her low voice.
"Why don't they come?"

"I
don't know," Barbee told her, himself uneasy. "I don't
understand it. The plane's just standing, waiting. They've put the
gangway against it, and now they're opening the door, but nobody
comes out. There's Dr. Bennett, the Foundation man, going aboard."

"He'll
find out." Holding fast to the dog, Rowena turned back toward
the terminal building, listening again. "Where's that girl?"
Alarm edged her whisper. "The one Turk chased away."

"Inside,"
Barbee said. "I'm sorry anything unpleasant happened. April's
charming, and I hoped you'd like her. Really, Rowena, I couldn't see
any reason—"

"But
there is a reason." The blind woman stiffened, her face taut and
pale. "Turk didn't like her." She was patting the huge
dog's head; Barbee saw its intelligent yellow eyes look warily toward
the building, as if alert against April Bell's return. "And Turk
knows."

"Now,
Rowena," Barbee protested. "Aren't you carrying your trust
in Turk a little too far?"

Her
blind lenses stared at him, somehow ominous.

"Marck
trained Turk to guard me," she insisted solemnly. "He
attacked that woman because he knows she's ... bad." Her taut
fingers quivered on the silver-knobbed collar. "Remember that,
Will!" she begged huskily. "I'm sure that girl would be
charming —very. But Turk can tell."

Barbee
stepped back uncomfortably. He wondered if the black leopard's claws,
ripping out her sight, had left unhealed mental scars as well.
Rowena's apprehensions seemed somewhat beyond the rational. He was
glad to see the gangling figure of the Foundation manager coming back
down the steps from the silent plane.

"There's
Bennett," he said. "I suppose the others will come off with
him."

Rowena
caught her breath, and they waited silently. Barbee watched to see
Sam Quain's bronzed head, his blue-eyed face. He looked for Nick
Spivak, dark and slight, frowning wistfully through his glasses and
moving always with a nervous haste, as if knowledge had almost eluded
his zealous pursuit; and he pictured Rex Chittum, who for all his
scholarship still appeared as robustly ignorant as another Li'l
Abner. His mind saw old Mondrick himself, ruddy and stout and bald,
chin massively aggressive and mild eyes distant with rapt
preoccupations.

But
they didn't come.

"Where's
Marck?" Rowena whispered sharply. "And the others?"

"I
don't see them." Barbee tried not to sound uneasy. "And
Bennett seems to be shooing everybody away from the plane. Now he's
coming this way."

"Dr.
Bennett?" Her piercing call startled Barbee. "What's
keeping Marck?"

Striding
back toward the terminal building, the gaunt scientist paused. Barbee
could see the lines of worry bitten into his frowning face, but his
voice was reassuring.

"They're
all safe, Mrs. Mondrick," he told her. "They're getting
ready to come off the plane, but I'm afraid there'll be a little
delay."

"Delay?"
gasped Rowena. "Why?"

"Dr.
Mondrick has this announcement, on the results of the expedition,"
Bennett said patiently. "I gather that his finds were extremely
important, and he wishes to make them public before he leaves the
field."

"Oh—no!"
Rowena's pale left hand flashed fearfully to her throat, the light
glowing cold on her paler silver rings and bracelets. "He
mustn't!" she sobbed. "They won't let him."

BOOK: Darker Than You Think
12.1Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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