Authors: Robert Bruce Sinclair
Robert B. Sinclair
The Eleventh Hour
It was damp, it was cold; smog filled the air and rasped at the eyeballs even indoors; it was everything a day in April should not be. Arthur Conway, as he came downstairs to breakfast, ruefully acknowledged that Los Angeles could serve up as dismal weather as could be found anywhere in the world. He had planned to get out: to take a lunch, drive up in the hills, and hike until nightfall. Any day, now, there should be word about the two stories, so he could afford to loaf a bit — get out, get a little fresh air. It seemed absurd, but he had got less exercise out here than in New York; nobody walks in California, and walking was the only form of physical exertion he enjoyed.
But in weather like this, it was out of the question; even the alternative, a day in the house with Helen, was preferable. It meant, of course, that he would at least have to make a pretense of writing.
He saw them the instant he walked into the dining room: the two manila envelopes alongside his place at the table. There was no need to open them; he knew what they were. And from the way they were displayed, it was obvious that Helen knew too. She had finished her breakfast, and he could hear her in the kitchen; he realized he would have to face her, and he knew it would not be pleasant. He had had high hopes for these stories, and it was depressing to have them rejected, but his disappointment was secondary now to his concern at the prospect of the galling scene he knew was coming.
“Two more masterpieces come home to roost, I see.” He had not heard her come in from the kitchen, and now she was standing over the table, her contemptuous glance divided between him and the envelopes.
“These are the ones you were sure of, aren’t they?” she continued. “These would bring in enough so you’d have time to write some
stories. And even the pulps won’t buy your stuff.”
“I’m sorry. I tried.” That was the extent of his defense.
“You tried...” The vitriol dripped from her voice. “You haven’t written a line since you finished these. It took you three months to get this tripe on paper. Oh well, what’s the difference? Most of the time you don’t write at all, and when you do it’s no good.”
“I can’t write this junk any more.” His voice rose; he knew he shouldn’t let her get under his skin, but he seemed powerless to prevent it.
“Any more! When could you? You were going to do this stuff just long enough to get a stake — so you’d have time for that novel and that play and all the rest of the things you talked about — and I believed. Well, at least you’ve stopped talking about them.” Her voice dropped, and now her contempt became lethal. “You’ve stopped talking, and writing, and thinking — and living, as far as I’m concerned.”
She picked up some dishes and went into the kitchen. When she did not return, after a moment, Conway took advantage of his opportunity to escape. He caught up the newspapers and started for his room, but her voice followed him.
“What shall I do with these manuscripts? Put ’em where they belong — in the—” He closed the door to shut out the rest.
He was safe in his room. She wouldn’t follow him there; that was one of the few things — one of the very few — that remained from the first days of their marriage. They had met just after the war and married a month later. Any sort of apartment was almost impossible to find, but Helen had insisted they must have three rooms so that he might have a “study” where he could work without interruption. Somehow or other she had found one, and she lived up to the rule she made herself — never to enter, or even to knock, when the door was closed. She had continued to live up to it for some reason. And that was about all that remained of those gay, desperately hopeful days when they had faith in each other — and in themselves.
They had occasionally quarreled in those days, too, of course, and usually about the same thing: Conway’s failure to sell a story, or what she called his laziness. As she was apt to consider anything less than eight hours a day at the typewriter laziness, some violent disagreements ensued. But in the fervid reconciliation that always followed so quickly, she was full of remorse for her outburst; it was, she explained, because, having no ambitions for herself, she was so terribly ambitious for him.
Conway sat down to finish the papers, but his eyes fixed on the photograph which stood on his desk. She had had it taken, at his request, shortly before they were married, and it was on the desk because it had always been there; now it took up space and was in the way and it disturbed him to have to look at it — but to move it would have been an overt act. She had been blonde then, with a handsome figure and large, intense eyes. She hadn’t changed much, Conway reflected — or, rather, she’d changed in degree but not in kind. She was not only still blonde, she was considerably more so. Her figure remained good, but it was verging on heaviness, although that, perhaps, was a matter of taste, and some might call it voluptuous. Her eyes were even more intense; to Conway, at times, they were frighteningly so.
And now, although it had never been said in words, they were through. It surprised Conway that she had not already left him, although he thought he knew the reason. But he would have to wait for her to make the break; she was not a woman to allow any man to discard her.
He got a cigarette from the dresser and stopped to gaze into the mirror. He saw a man of thirty-two, who looked older, with a well set up body, hair that was thinning slightly at the temples, and a skin which would have seemed pale even in New York. His pallor was typical of the frustrations he had met with since they had come here, and he wondered how much California had had to do with what had happened to Helen and himself. Not much, he decided; they had begun to get on each other’s nerves in New York. That had been one of the reasons Helen had wanted to come out here two years ago; she had said that if he could be out of doors more, he might feel better and work better. But, as it turned out, when he proposed taking a day off, she complained bitterly, so that he neither felt nor worked better, and their relationship had steadily become worse. And as it did, Conway’s writing became more laborious and less frequent — and less salable. It was a vicious circle, and — Conway realized that he was about to wallow in self-pity; he made himself acknowledge that the reason he hadn’t been writing, and wouldn’t write today, was because he hadn’t an idea in his head. He picked up the papers again and began to read, with a forlorn hope that he might come on an idea out of which he could, somehow, make a story.
There’s one thing to be said for the Los Angeles papers,
he thought as he looked through them,
they never let you down.
No matter how low you may be, in body or spirit, a brief contemplation of the gallery of unfortunates presented daily in the press must make your own lot seem sheer bliss.
It appeared to be about an average day. “Couple Robbed in Parked Car,” with hints of darker deeds. “Nude Woman Dancing in Park Eludes Police” — that, he thought, was a new low even for the Los Angeles gendarmerie. “Waitress Slain by Sex Fiend” — a regular weekly occurrence; they must keep a standing headline for that one. Conway wondered if the police would ever capture one of these maniacs, who seemed to make up a sizable portion of the population of Southern California. To the best of his knowledge they never had. “Main St. Bars Raided; Two B-Girls Arrested.” A blind man on Main Street at any given moment after 10 P.M. could find twenty B-Girls with their hands in someone’s pockets, but the police found two, so things must be looking up. “Wife Who Vanished from Parking Lot Found in Motel with 16-Year-Old Boy; Husband to Seek Divorce.” Conway never ceased to be amazed at what precocious juveniles they breed in California.
He blew smoke at the ceiling and again scanned the headlines. The trouble with most of the crime news in Los Angeles, he had long since concluded, was that it was too bizarre for fiction. Or else, by repetition, it had become commonplace. There were no new angles; crime was in a rut.
And then, suddenly, out of the blue, it came to him. He riffled through the paper, found the story, and reread it. What had happened was so simple it was almost ludicrous.
Mr. and Mrs. George J. Yates had gone shopping the preceding Friday night at the neighborhood Supermarket. Mr. Yates had gone in to do the marketing for the week-end — Mrs. Yates not, apparently, being the domestic type — leaving her in the car in the parking lot. When he returned, some twenty minutes later, the car was not there, nor was Mrs. Yates. He had trudged home, only to find that his wife was not there either, and the following morning he had reported her disappearance to the police. As three days passed with no news of her, Mr. Yates’ concern turned to worry, to terror, to dread of the horrible fate which had probably overtaken Mrs. Yates. But he was not prepared to be so humiliated by the preposterous truth.
Mrs. Yates, it now appeared, had been sitting in the car waiting when Alvin Canmer, aged 16 and a junior at West Side High School, happened to pass the car. Alvin was on his way home from his part-time job in the hardware store, where he had waited on Mrs. Yates once or twice. He said “Good evening” to her, and a conversation ensued, the details of which, unfortunately, were not recorded. But Mrs. Yates was beginning to be bored with waiting for Mr. Yates, and also, it seems, she had been bored with Mr. Yates himself for some time. At any rate, the dialogue had apparently got down to the facts of life in near-record time, with the result that Alvin got into the car and drove to the nearest motel. There they paid a night’s rent in advance, parked the car outside their bungalow, and retired — for three days. Alvin had occasionally sallied forth for food.
But when, after three days, they had attempted to slip out without paying the balance of the bill, they had been apprehended by the motel proprietor. Finding both of them insolvent, he had called the police, who, on checking the registration of the car, learned somewhat to their surprise that they had recovered the missing Mrs. Yates, who was duly returned, temporarily, to her outraged and reluctant husband.
Along with a million other readers that morning, Conway chuckled inwardly at the story. But it was not the story itself which interested him: it was the timing of the disappearance — the suddenness, the rapidity, the unpredictability of the whole thing.
He turned to the account of the murder of the waitress.
He could sympathize with the bafflement of the police on this one. Gladys Ford, 89, divorced, had left the restaurant where she was employed at ten o’clock Saturday night. She had not, so far as could be ascertained, been seen alive again. Her parents, with whom she lived, had reported her disappearance. As in the case of Mrs. Yates, nothing had come of that, either.
Monday afternoon the patrolmen in a radio car cruising on a quiet residential street had noticed a parked car with a license number which seemed vaguely familiar. Checking, they discovered it to be on their stolen car list. Checking further, they found on the floor, covered by a blanket, the body of Gladys Ford. A resident of the neighborhood was sure the car was there before eleven o’clock Saturday night — which was no more than an hour after the unfortunate victim had left the restaurant. She had been strangled with her own belt.
The headline, “Slain by Sex Fiend,” Conway decided, might have been due to the fact that the pattern of the case somewhat resembled other sex murders of the past few months. Or it might have been that editors know that the addition of the word “Sex” lends a piquancy which is lacking in a murder performed by a run-of-the-mill maniac.
But the important thing was that tragedy, as well as romance, could strike with such complete unpredictability. And merely because of its fantastic suddenness — and senselessness — leave no trace. In that was the idea for a story, and Conway believed that he could write it.
He worked straight through until almost six o’clock, and when he stopped, weary and hungry, he felt better than he had in months. He wanted to get out of the house; he was sure Helen had no intention of getting dinner, and he hoped that he might avoid a meeting with her. He listened at the door and could hear nothing; he assumed she had followed her usual practice after one of these quarrels of going out to a movie, having dinner somewhere, and going to another movie in the evening.
He went downstairs cautiously, but all was clear, and the car was still in the garage. He was grateful that Helen was too uneasy about her driving to want to cope with Los Angeles traffic if she could avoid it.
He had a quick dinner in a neighborhood restaurant and decided to find out how practical was the scheme he had worked out for his story. What he had in mind was a “perfect murder” plot, with the police themselves providing the killer’s alibi. That, in turn, was dependent on the unexpectedness of the crime, and on exact timing.
For two hours he drove about, checking times and distances, even selecting streets and routes, to prove to himself that his scheme was valid. It was more than that, it seemed perfect; he could find no flaws in it at all. He drove home in a cheerful frame of mind.
For the next two days Conway worked steadily and contentedly. He saw Helen only at lunch, and open hostilities were avoided by the fact that neither spoke a word. He became more and more optimistic over the possibilities of the story; it might even make a picture, and a movie sale would solve all his problems. By midnight of the second day he estimated he was about halfway through.
Helen came downstairs while he was having breakfast the next morning. “You’ve been giving that typewriter quite a beating,” she said.
“It’s coming along pretty well.” He realized, suddenly, that these were the first words he had spoken to anyone in three days. The added realization came that he had not missed the sound of his own voice nor of anyone else’s — especially Helen’s.
“Just let me know if you need any paper, carbons, pencils, or erasers. The noise of that typewriter is music to me, and I’d hate to have it interrupted — it might be a long time before the inspiration returned.”
The knowledge that he was working had always mollified her; apparently it still did.