Darker Than You Think (9 page)

BOOK: Darker Than You Think
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Quain's
eyes turned dark, as if with agony.

"We'll
see them when we can, Will." He paused to find a worn leather
coat in the pile of battered luggage and stout wooden crates unloaded
from the transport. "My God, Will!" he whispered hoarsely.
"Don't you think we're human? It's two years since I've seen my
wife and baby—but we must take care of Dr. Mondrick's box."

Nervously
impatient, he started to turn.

"Hold
on, Sam." Barbee caught his arm again. "Just one more
question." He dropped his voice, too low for the group about the
ambulance to hear, or the men unloading the plane. "What has a
cat to do with Mondrick's death?"

"Huh?"
He felt Quain's arm jerk. "What cat?"

"That's
what I want to know."

Quain's
sick face turned very pale.

"I
heard him whisper—when he was dying—but I saw no cat.

"But
why, Sam?" Barbee insisted. "What would a cat matter?"

Quain's
eyes searched him, narrowed and strange.

"Dr.
Mondrick's asthma was due to an allergy," Quain muttered
huskily. "An allergy to cat fur—he took sensitivity tests
which proved that. He couldn't go in a room where a cat had been kept
without getting an attack."

The
frightened man caught his breath.

"Will,
have you seen a cat here?"

"Yes."
Barbee nodded. "A black kitten—"

He
felt Sam Quain stiffen and saw April Bell coming back from the
terminal building. The lights caught her red hair, and she looked
strong and quick and graceful as some prowling jungle cat—he
wondered why that comparison struck his mind. Her dark warm eyes
found Barbee, and she smiled gaily.

"Where?"
Sam Quain was whispering urgently. "Where was any kitten?"

Barbee
looked at April Bell's long eyes, and something decided him not to
tell Sam Quain that she had brought the kitten. Something about her
stirred and changed him, in ways he didn't want to define. In a
lowered, hasty voice, he finished lamely: "Somewhere about the
building yonder, just before the planes came in. I didn't notice
where it went."

Quain's
narrowed eyes seemed hard with suspicion. He opened his mouth as if
to ask some other question, and closed it with a gulp when he saw
April Bell beside them. It seemed to Barbee that he crouched a
little, like a fighting man ready for a dreaded opponent.

"So
you're Mr. Quain!" the girl cooed softly. "I want to ask
you just one thing, if you please—for the
Clarendon
Call.
What
have you got in that green box?" Her long eyes glanced eagerly
at the iron-strapped chest and the two wary men on guard beside it.
"A bushel of diamonds? Blueprints for an atom bomb?"

Poised
like a boxer on the balls of his feet, Sam Quain said softly:
"Nothing so exciting, I'm afraid. Nothing that would interest
newspaper readers, I'm sure. Nothing you'd bother picking up on the
street. Just a few old bones. A few odds and ends of rubbish, broken
and thrown away before man's history dawned."

She
laughed at him gently.

"Please,
Mr. Quain," she protested. "If your box has no value, then
why—"

"Excuse
me," Sam Quain rapped abruptly. The girl caught his arm, but he
shrugged himself free and strode away, without looking back, to join
the two men beside the wooden strongbox.

Quain
murmured something to one of the officers, gesturing at the anxious
people still waiting by the terminal building. Barbee stood aside
with April Bell, watching as old Ben Chittum and the Spivaks and Nora
Quain came back to the transport. The spry old man shook his handsome
grandson's hand. Stout Mama Spivak sobbed in the arms of her thin,
spectacled Nick, and Papa Spivak hugged them both.

Sam
Quain waited for Nora by the wooden chest. He kissed her hungrily and
lifted little Pat in his arms. The child was laughing now. She called
for her father's handkerchief and scrubbed furiously at the
tearstains under her eyes. Nora tried to draw her husband away, but
he sat down firmly on the green box and took the child on his knee.

Mama
Spivak, with both arms around her son, abruptly began wailing
piercingly.

"Maybe
there's nothing in that box, except what he said," April Bell
purred in Barbee's ear. "But they would all of them give their
own lives, along with old Mondrick's, just to protect it." Her
long eyes peered off into the gloom above the field lights. "Wouldn't
it be funny," she whispered faintly, "if they did?"

"But
not very amusing," Barbee muttered.

Something
made him shiver again. Perhaps he had got chilled, while Quain had
his coat. He drew a little away from the girl because suddenly he
didn't want to touch that sleek white fur. He couldn't help wondering
about the kitten. There was a slight, uncomfortable possibility that
this red-haired girl was an extremely adroit murderess.

Barbee
didn't like that word. He had seen female criminals enough, on the
police court beat, and none had ever looked quite so fresh and bright
as April Bell. But now a man was dead, killed by the airborne protein
molecules from a kitten's fur as efficiently as if a strangler's cord
had done it; and this tall, alluring redhead was responsible for the
presence of the kitten.

Barbee
was startled, when he looked automatically for the snakeskin bag in
which she had carried the kitten, to see that it was gone. The girl
seemed to follow his eyes. Her own turned dark again, and her face
seemed pale as the fur she wore.

"My
bag!" She spread her empty, graceful hands. "Must have
mislaid it, in all the excitement of filing my story. It's one that
Aunt Agatha gave me, and I simply must find it. There's a family
heirloom in it—a white jade pin. Will you help me look,
Barbee?"

Barbee
went with her to look where the departing ambulance had stood, and
then about the telephone booths in the waiting room. He wasn't very
much surprised, somehow, when they found no trace of the lost bag.
April Bell was simply too efficient and intensely awake to mislay
anything. At last she glanced at a diamond-crusted watch.

"Let's
give it up, Barbee," she cooed, without visible regret. "Thanks
awfully, but perhaps I didn't have it anyhow—Aunt Agatha
probably picked it up without thinking when I gave little Fifi back
to her."

Barbee
tried not to lift his eyebrows, but he still suspected Aunt Agatha to
be entirely imaginary. He remembered seeing the bag, savagely twisted
in the girl's long fingers as old Mondrick lay struggling on the
ground, but he didn't say so. He didn't understand April Bell.

"Thanks,
Barbee," she said. "Now I've got to phone the desk again.
Forgive me if I scoop you."

"'For
the whole truth, read the
Star.'"
Barbee
quoted his paper's slogan, grinning. "I still have till midnight
to find out what they brought back in that green box, and why old
Mondrick died when he did." His grin sobered, and something made
him gulp. "Shall I—may I see you again?"

He
waited painfully for her to answer, staring at her sleek white coat.
He wanted desperately to see her again—was it because he was a
little afraid she had murdered Mondrick, he wondered, or because he
hoped very much that she hadn't? For a moment, a little frown of
puzzlement creased her smooth forehead. He breathed again when she
smiled.

"If
you like, Barbee." Her voice was all velvet and moonbeams.
"When?"

"For
dinner—tonight?" Barbee tried not to seem too breathless.
"Would nine be too late? Right now I want to find out what Sam
Quain and Company are going to do with that mysterious box, and then
I must write my story."

"Nine
isn't late," she cooed. "I love the night. And I too must
watch that box."

Dark
again, her long greenish eyes stared at the three weary men,
carefully loading the heavy wooden chest into Dr. Bennett's car. The
little group of relatives stood back to watch, puzzled and
distressed. Barbee touched April Bell's white fur, and shivered in
the icy wind.

"At
nine?" he said huskily. "Where shall I meet you?"

April
Bell smiled abruptly, with a quizzical lift of her penciled brows.

"Tonight,
Barbee?" she purred. "Nora will think you've lost your
head."

"Perhaps
I have." He touched the snowy fur, and tried not to shiver
again. "All this is quite a jolt to me —Rowena Mondrick is
still a friend of mine, even since her husband fell out with me. I do
feel upset, but Sam Quain will take care of everything. I hope you'll
decide to dine with me, April."

I
hope you'll tell me, he added silently, why you brought that black
kitten here, and why you felt it necessary to invent Aunt Agatha, and
whether you had any reason to desire Dr. Mondrick's death. Something
made him gulp again, and he waited hopefully.

"If
I can manage." Her white teeth smiled. "Now I must run—I
have to call the city desk, and then I'll ask Aunt Agatha."

She
did run—as gracefully, he thought, as some creature never
tamed. He watched her to the phone booth, aware of a vague surprise
that any woman could stir him so. The caress of her liquid voice
lingered in his mind. He filled his lungs and drew down his chin and
flexed his fingers. Suddenly he wished he had drunk less whisky and
kept himself more fit. He could see the gleam of her white fur inside
the lighted booth. He shivered again; perhaps he was taking cold.
Resolutely, he turned away. How would it make him feel, he wondered,
if he should discover that April Bell really were a murderess?

Quain
and his companions had taken the wooden box away in Dr. Bennett's
car. Nora and the others, left behind, were trailing despondently
back through the terminal building. Mama Spivak was still wailing
thinly, with Papa trying clumsily to console her.

"It's
all right, Mama." The little tailor patted the quivering bulges
of her shoulder. "Nickie should come back to Brooklyn with us,
when he has such great things to do for the Foundation? He surely
knows how you cleaned and cooked for him till the whole flat is
shining and rich with good smells. He knows his round-trip fare is
paid already, but the love is what matters. Don't cry, Mama."

"I
should mind the food?" she sobbed. "The cleaning? Even the
fare to Brooklyn? No, Papa. It's that awful thing that was buried in
that desert. That old, bad thing they brought back in that green
box—the thing my Nickie won't whisper its name, even!"

Her
shuddering arms clung to the tiny tailor.

"I'm
afraid yet, Papa!" she wailed. "That thing they took to
Sam's house in the box, it killed poor Dr. Mondrick. I'm afraid it
will get Sam and Nora yet. I'm afraid it will take our own little
Nickie, too!"

"Please,
Mama." Papa Spivak tried to laugh at her. "Nickie says
you're just an old silly."

His
laugh wasn't successful.

Nora
Quain carried little Pat, holding the child against her with a
frightened-seeming tightness. Nora's face looked empty with distress,
and she didn't see Barbee. Blinking, Pat was trying to smooth Nora's
yellow hair. Barbee heard the child urge softly: "Now,
Mother—don't
you
cry!"

BOOK: Darker Than You Think
10.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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