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Authors: Robert Bruce Sinclair

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BOOK: The Eleventh Hour
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“I’d better tell you that you won’t be hearing any music this morning — or maybe even this afternoon.”

“I might have expected that.”

“I have to figure out the finish before I do any more writing. I got hot about this idea and wanted to get what I had down on paper. Now I have to stop and think out the rest.” He saw the sardonic look come into her eyes, but she said nothing. He finished his breakfast as quickly as he could and went to his room.

He read over what he had written, made a few changes, and then settled down to plot out the rest of the story. He had created a murderer who had done that so-called impossible thing: committed the “perfect crime.” His problem now was to create another character who was just a little brighter than the killer: who could smell out the murder and prove that the “perfect crime”
was
impossible. He rejected the easy solutions which came to him; he refused to settle for the chance coincidence, the lucky guess or the unlucky slip which might — and usually does — expose the criminal. Conway had written a murderer who knew himself and his limitations, who had planned a crime he could get away with, and cast himself in a part he could play. He had to be caught, not because he did the wrong things, but because he did the
right
things.

For two solid days and nights Conway wrestled with the challenge he had set himself, and was no nearer a solution than when he started. By evening of the third day he had become convinced that he
had
conceived a perfect murder and that there was no solution.

By means of careful timing and a good deal of listening at the door, he had managed to avoid Helen for two days. Now, with the old, familiar defeat staring at him, he dared not face her. But he had to get out, out of this room, out of the house; he needed a change of scenery, of diet, of air. He listened from behind his door for over an hour; then, having heard no sound, he ventured down.

Helen was sitting in the living room like a cat outside a mousehole.

“Don’t look so surprised — I live here, you know. And don’t forget it. How long did you think you could go on ducking me the way you’ve been these last two days?”

“I haven’t been ducking you, I’ve been working.” Even as he said it he realized the feebleness of the defense, and the opening it provided her.

“Working! At what? Giving yourself a manicure? You certainly haven’t been working at that typewriter.”

He reminded himself that he must keep calm, that he must not let her lash him into a fury. “It’s the finish,” he said. “I’ve had to think it through. It’s been a tough nut to crack.”

“And you haven’t cracked it.”

“Not entirely, but—”

“And you never will.”

It was time for her to start to rage, he thought; for her voice to rise to that screaming frenzy he had come to know so well. But it didn’t. The rage was there, but it was blanketed by an icy hardness as she went on.

“Another masterpiece you couldn’t write. If all the unfinished manuscripts of Arthur Conway were laid end to end, they’d make a good paper chase. And that’s all they are good for.”

“Okay.” With a faint hope that he might be able to make it, he started for the door.

“Wait a minute. I didn’t sit around here all afternoon just to get a glimpse of your lily-white face.”

Conway breathed more easily. This was not to be a tantrum: she had something to say. “Thank you, Mrs. Conway. Somehow I didn’t think you had.”

“And don’t call me by that name — it reminds me of you. I loathe you, I detest you, I despise you, and if you were worth it, I’d hate you.”

“Very nicely put. Sounds like something out of one of those unfinished manuscripts.”

“And you can save those bum jokes.”

“I’m only filling in until you decide to come to the point.”

She hesitated only a moment. “I want a divorce. And unless you’re even stupider than I think you are, you do too. So — what do we do?”

For the first time it had been mentioned. It was out in the open, and it cleared the air to such an extent that he almost liked her.

“After considered thought, my suggestion would be that we
get
a divorce.”

“Very bright,” she said. “Now see what you can do with this one. What about money?”

Conway thought he knew where this was leading, but there seemed no point in hurrying her. “You know what we’ve got in the bank,” he said. “It ought to be enough for the lawyers and the court costs.”

“Yeah. And what about me?”

“What about you?”

“You think you’re going to divorce me and throw me out without a cent to my name?”

“In the first place, I’m not going to divorce you — you’re going to divorce me. In the second place, you can have every penny I’ve got. That’s my best offer.”

“That’s fine. That’d be just dandy. You give me every penny you’ve got after paying for the divorce, and I wouldn’t have bus fare. That’s a nice out for you. But what am I supposed to do?”

“You might go back to Topeka. You could make up with your sister, and live in that house your mother left her.”

“I wouldn’t be caught dead in Topeka, I wouldn’t speak to Betty if she was the last person on earth, and the cold little fish is my half-sister, not my sister.”

“Okay. Well, what did you do before we were married?”

Her eyes narrowed. “What’s that got to do with it?”

“As I recall, you had a job for which you were paid $37.50 a week. You lived on that, if not sumptuously, at least adequately. Since we’ve been married you’ve dwelt somewhat more comfortably, been nourished at least as well, and dressed considerably better than when you provided for yourself. To my great regret I can’t guarantee to continue this — this ‘standard of living to which you’ve become accustomed,’ I believe the phrase is. But I see no reason why you shouldn’t go to work. I’ll agree to pay you a percentage of what I earn until you remarry, as alimony, and you’ll wind up much better off than you’ve ever been. Just don’t marry another writer.”

“I can see myself ever getting a plugged nickel from you once we were divorced.”

“You’d have the devoted assistance of every police force and court of law in the United States to aid you in getting it; one of their chief functions is to guarantee the unearned increment of divorcees.”

“Let’s stop kidding. If you didn’t have it, I couldn’t get it out of you, even with the police, the army, navy and air force on my side. And you’ll never have it.”

Conway wondered how much of this constant tearing down, this repeated belittling, a man could take.

“Not that I wouldn’t get a lot of pleasure out of seeing you in jail, but it wouldn’t pay my rent. No — I want cash. Not very much, but I want it now.”

“What’s your idea of not very much?”

“Five thousand dollars.”

Her calmness had puzzled him from the beginning, and now he was bewildered. She had something in mind, he knew, but what it was he could not imagine.

“I can’t think of anything I’d rather have than five thousand dollars to give you. Have you any ideas as to how I might obtain that paltry sum?”

She looked at him judicially. “One of the most repulsive things about you is that cheap sarcasm you’ve become addicted to. I suppose it makes you think you’re a wit.”

Conway had no illusions about being a wit, but he did wish that occasionally he might be able to produce a comeback to some of her more devastating remarks. But his retorts had been getting more and more feeble, less and less frequent.

“Naturally I know how you can get five thousand. I wouldn’t expect you to.” Conway looked at her blankly. “I’ve made up a list of a few friends of yours back East,” she said as she took a slip of paper from her bag. “They’re all doing very nicely. And they’re all very fond of you — respect you because you’re a writer, and they’re only businessmen. They all thought you were going to write that great American novel, too. And they haven’t seen you for a couple of years, so they haven’t found out what a phoney and a flop you are. It’ll be a cinch to get five thousand out of them.”

“You’re out of your mind!”

“Oh no I’m not. This is the best idea I’ve had since I said ‘No’ the first time you proposed to me. I make you a present of the idea and you have a chance to do a little creative writing — and you’ll get paid for it for a change. Tell ’em that you’re sick, I’m sick, you’re writing that novel, I’m going to have a baby — anything you like. There are five names here,” and she handed him the list. “Allen and Tyler should be good for two thousand, maybe twenty-five hundred. Strike them for twenty-five hundred anyway. Try the others for a thousand; a couple of them might only come across with five hundred, but even so — And if you get more than the five thousand, you can keep the profit — or some of it, anyway.”

Conway’s mind must have been running in terms of fiction: he had half-expected her to name a bank to be robbed, or suggest a dope-smuggling scheme. Her plan was safer. It was also simpler, surer, and more repugnant to him.

He glanced at the list, knowing the names he would find there. His closest friends. His only friends. The men he had gone through the war with. B Company of the 165th Field Artillery had plodded across Africa, climbed through Sicily, slogged the length of the Italian boot, and these six had been together, miraculously, through it all. And they had learned the dependence of each one on all the others.

They would come through, all right. Conway knew them. Although they were scattered now and he had not seen any of them for two years, they kept in frequent touch by mail, and, if anything, the bond between them seemed stronger than ever. They’d come across. Even though all were married and most had children, and they were just beginning to get on their feet, with mortgaged houses, payments on cars, hospital and obstetricians’ and pediatricians’ bills, they wouldn’t let him down. He knew them. And they were scattered around the country; they wouldn’t check with each other, at least until afterward.

Oh, the letters would get results. They’d deprive their wives and children to help a pal out of a jam.
All I have to do, Conway reflected, is to steal the money from those women and kids, hand it over to Helen, and be free... free to shoot myself.

Some of his shocked incredulity showed in his face, and Helen was amused.

“Don’t like the idea, h’m? Well, unless you’ve got a better one, that’s what you’re going to do. Or else.”

Her confidence, her good humor, bothered him more than anything else. She was so awfully sure of herself.

“Or else what?”

There was no humor now, but the confidence was even more blatant.

“Or else this. If you haven’t written those letters by noon tomorrow, I’m going to go to work on you. And I mean really go to work. I’m going to drive you out of this house or drive you crazy, or both. There’ll be such rows that the neighbors will be calling the police — or I will. But I won’t let them arrest you. I’ll be your ever-loving wife and ask them to put you in the psychiatric ward. And I’ll tell them why.”

Bull’s-eye. A direct hit.

“And then, when I’ve really given you a working over, whether you’re in a padded cell or have decided to run for it, I’ll write your pals, and what a sob story they’ll get from me. I might be able to get even more out of ’em than you could. And don’t try to write them and beat me to the punch, because anything you say now will only make it more convincing when I write — if I have to.”

Conway sat down. He had no breath and the blood was pounding in his head. She was crucifying him, he realized, in the one way she could. And she knew she could.

“All this I’m telling you is just the persuader,” she went on. “I don’t want to have to do it that way. It’ll take time and be a lot of trouble, and I might not get as much out of them as you can. But don’t think I won’t do it if I have to.”

The pounding in his head was lessening. He could think, after a fashion, and he hoped he could speak. But he dared not get up from the chair.

“Don’t try to bluff me, and don’t try to scare me.” His voice sounded steadier than he had expected. “I’ve been all right for over four years. I’ve been perfectly well.” He realized that his voice was rising, and went on more calmly. “You know it as well as I do, so don’t think you’re going to scare me with that line of talk. I don’t scare that easily.”

“No?” She leaned toward him, and he could hardly focus on the finger she pointed. “Look at yourself. You’re sweating like a horse. Your voice is croaking. And you’re so weak in the knees you can’t even stand up.”

She moved away and he no longer had to concentrate on that finger that so frightened and fascinated him, reminding him of some dread, forgotten thing in the past.

She lit a cigarette and looked at him through the lazily curling smoke. “Why do you think I’ve started all these rows the last couple of months?” she said. “Because I wanted to see how sure you were of yourself. And I found out. No matter what I said or did, you kept calm and controlled. All you wanted to do was to get away, to avoid a row — because you were scared. You’ve taken things from me no man in the world would take — no man, that is, who was in his right mind — and sure of it.”

Somehow he got to his feet and moved toward the door.

“Let me out of here,” he said, and realized that only a whisper came out. “I think I’m going to be sick.”

She moved to the door and opened it.

“Just one thing more.” She stopped him with her hand. “You said a little while ago that I knew how much we had in the bank. Well, I do, but I don’t think you do, so I’ll tell you. There’s exactly one dollar; I drew out the rest this afternoon. So don’t get any ideas about taking a powder and not coming back. You wouldn’t get very far.” She dropped her hand and he started out woodenly. “Remember, noon tomorrow.”

Chapter two

Conway was not even sure that he would be able to drive, but somehow he started the car, got it out of the garage, and headed down the street. He stopped at the first bar he saw, went in, and sat in the far corner of the last booth.

By the time he finished his second drink he had stopped shaking and was able to think with some degree of clarity. And the more clearly he saw things, the worse they became. Not that he doubted his sanity — now. But he was afraid of what might happen.

Conway had gone through the war until two days before it ended. Then something gave way. The men called it shell shock, and the doctors called it combat fatigue, but in any language it was a crack-up. It got him back to a hospital in the States in a hurry, and before he was discharged, six months later, the doctor had given him the final word.

“You’re okay,” he had said. “You’re okay now, and you’ll continue to be. Just don’t worry. Don’t worry, don’t let things get you down. Don’t let yourself get too excited, or fly off the handle, or get in a rage. That’s good advice for anybody — reduces the danger of ulcers, among other things. But it’s especially good for you, after what you’ve been through.”

His outfit had been kept in Germany, and he was released from the hospital just two days before they were processed out through Fort Dix. They knew what had happened to him, but it was not mentioned in the course of the three-day reunion and celebration they staged in New York. They had been through too much together for anyone to be blamed for cracking; they had all been on the verge of it at one time or another.

But — they knew.

He had told Helen about it before they were married, and she had dismissed it as of no importance; it had never been brought up since. He had almost forgotten it himself until recently — until, he realized, a couple of months ago, when he had begun to fear the increasingly frequent battles with Helen. The psychiatrist’s words had come back to him, and he had made a conscious effort to restrain himself, as he became aware of his growing tension and insecurity. But he had not known that Helen knew that, nor that she was doing it for just that reason.

He tried to look at the thing from every angle. He would not write those letters: that he couldn’t do, no matter what happened. But if he didn’t, he dared not stay on with her: he knew she would carry out her threat, and he was honestly afraid to face it. He could think of no work he could get; he had no references, had had no job since the army. And he felt sure that Helen would find him in a very short time. He was afraid of what the feeling of being a fugitive might do to him: the chance of being hauled up on charges of desertion, non-support; the threat of being committed to a psychiatric ward. He had a car, but it was registered in both their names; he couldn’t sell it, and if he went off in it, she’d have a warrant out before morning.

And no matter what he did, she’d write for the money — and get it. If he tried to warn them, tell them not to send her anything, it would be only added support for the pitiful story she’d give them. She’d figured that out, too: he could see that letter she would write. “Arthur hasn’t been well... won’t admit it... can’t even make myself write down what it is...” — the soul of delicacy, the devoted wife — “... but you know... result of that horrible war... hasn’t been able to work... need money... private sanitarium... psychiatrists...” It would be too easy.

He reached in his pocket and withdrew his total assets — seven dollars and thirty cents. Minus, he remembered, the cost of the three drinks. This was no time to be squandering money on liquor. He paid the check and left.

There was no one in California he could turn to. The only real friends they had had, the Gordons, had gone back East three months ago. They had come to know only a few other people; they were all friends of Helen’s, and he neither knew nor liked any of them very well. He started to drive aimlessly.

An hour ago, before this cataclysm had struck, he had emerged from his room with the idea of driving to the locale of his story in the hope of getting a notion which would give him a finish. Now his interest in the story was nil, but he needed something to put his mind to; later, perhaps, he could come back to the problem of Helen with some degree of reason.

So he tried to concentrate on the actions of his murderer, looking for the flaw in his plan that would trip him up. But the more he examined it, the more perfect the murder appeared. He could find no loophole anywhere. There wasn’t one.

He drove over to Santa Monica Boulevard and out toward the theatre which he had used as the prototype for the one in his story. As he passed it, he noticed the title on the marquee: “Song of Manhattan.” Irrelevantly, he remembered that Helen had mentioned that she had tried to see it at one of the big Hollywood theatres, but there had been a line, and she hadn’t wanted to wait.

And then, suddenly, it hit him. Hit him so hard that he almost lost control of the car. Trembling, he pulled over to the curb and stopped.

If this fictional murder was so perfect, he had his solution. Not of the story — but for Helen and himself.

It was so obvious, now, that the wife in the story was Helen — and the murderer himself. He wondered how long it had been in his subconscious. More important, he wondered if he dared, if he had the courage, to do it. But he had to make the attempt: there was no other way out. It wasn’t even murder, really — it was self-defense.

He dismissed the moral aspects quickly: killing Helen was as necessary and justifiable as killing Germans had been. They had represented an evil thing — Helen was evil in herself. His real concern was whether he could get away with it.

He had gone over the story so often in the past three days that he knew it by heart. But now he reviewed the facts he had actually checked — distances, timing, and locations — acutely aware of the difference between an action stated on a printed page and that same action actually accomplished. To be safe, he would have to verify the timing of the entire plan.

But first he got a newspaper and turned to the amusement section. “Song of Manhattan” was playing in a half-dozen of the second-run theatres; he selected one in Culver City, where it was extremely unlikely that he would be seen by anyone who knew him, telephoned, and learned that the picture would go on in an hour and a half.

He rehearsed, then, the plan he had devised for his fictional murderer; the plan he now proposed to make a reality. The timing had to be exact, and he referred frequently to his wrist watch with its luminous hands and dial. It had been Helen’s gift to him on their first anniversary; he was faintly pleased at the irony of the fact that it was now invaluable in planning her murder.

He completed his practice runs, satisfied that he was prepared for every contingency. Then, on his way to Culver City, he found a quiet residential street, set his speedometer, and drove exactly five-tenths of a mile. He looked at his watch and then walked as rapidly as he thought he could without attracting attention, back to his starting point.

He smiled as he realized that he had endowed his murderer with his own solitary athletic accomplishment: the speed with which he could walk. His normal pace was considerably faster than average, and he could, when he tried, keep up with another man at a jog trot. But he had done little walking of late; it was essential to clock himself so that he might schedule the timing of the entire operation. When he got back to the car he was not quite satisfied with his performance; he would have to do a little better, but he was confident that he could.

He wondered if he could contain himself to sit through the picture. But it had to be done, and when it was over, he left the theatre elated. The ending was practically perfect for his purpose. Tommy Miller and Mary Hart were the stars, and Helen adored Miller and couldn’t stand Mary Hart. The last six minutes — he had timed it to the second — consisted of a big musical number which was all Mary Hart, with Miller coming on only for a quick clinch before the fade-out. He was certain that Helen could be persuaded to walk out on that.

The house was dark when he got home, and he went directly to his room and locked the door. If he was to go through with his plan, there was one completely damning piece of evidence which must be destroyed. He took the unfinished manuscript from his desk and looked at it regretfully. But the regret was only for the hopes he had had for the story, not for what he was about to do. He was troubled by no indecision; he realized that he had made up his mind to kill Helen at the instant the thought first struck him and ever since had only been reassuring himself of the details of the plan. The details were in order, the murder was practical, the risk of detection slight. Two problems remained: in the morning the letters had to be written, but he had an idea of how that might be handled. The one important question was whether he could persuade her to go to the movie with him.

He tore up the manuscript page by page, burned the pieces, a few at a time, in a large metal ashtray, and took the charred ashes which remained and put them in the incinerator in the back yard. He went to bed then, expecting to sleep little, if at all. But the excitement of the early evening had been replaced by a kind of confident serenity, for the future promised peace. He was asleep before he really had time to savor the prospect.

Helen came down to breakfast as he got up from the table. Their eyes met, and she uttered one word.

“Noon.”

“You win,” he said.

Back in his room, he sat down at the typewriter. There was no time to waste. He wrote to Allen first. It was in the same tone as all the other letters he had written him, full of trivia, anecdotes, passing on gossip, imparting news of himself and Helen. This last was difficult, for it was almost entirely fictional: any hint of trouble between them was carefully omitted. And there was no mention at all of any need for money.

He wrote similar letters to the others, varying them as much as was possible without taking too much time; he was doubtful that Helen would continue to respect the privacy of his room. When he had finished the fifth, he addressed the envelopes, inserted the letters, and put them, unsealed, in the inside pocket of his jacket, together with five airmail stamps. There would be nothing strange in the fact that he had written all five of them the same day; it was what he usually did, after putting off answering their letters for somewhat more than a decent interval.

He started, then, on the letters Helen wanted him to write. He knew she would insist on reading them, so he wrote them as she had directed. And even though he knew they would never be seen by any other eyes, he was appalled to read what he was putting on paper.

He was on the final letter when Helen walked in without knocking. “It’s taken you long enough,” she said as she picked up the four which were completed.

“They’re not easy to write. I made a couple of false starts.”

“As usual,” she said without lifting her eyes from the letters.

By the time she had got through the four, he had finished the last one, and she read that, too. He looked at her as she stood by the window and felt no compunction at all for what he planned to do: the fact that, having read the letters, she could still insist on sending them, was added justification. He was thankful he had found a way to take care of her as she deserved.

“I guess they’re all right. That ought to get ’em,” she said. “Where are the envelopes?”

“I’ll type them now and mail them after lunch.”

“Will you really?” He hadn’t actually expected to get away with it that easily. “You just type the envelopes and I’ll take care of the rest.”

He typed the envelopes carefully, exactly duplicating the format of the others he had put in his pocket. And it was time, he thought, to start placating her if he hoped to get her to accompany him to the theatre.

“Look, Helen—” He inserted an envelope in the machine. “I’m not going to double-cross you. I don’t like doing this thing, but I have no choice. Now that I’ve written the letters, I’m as anxious to get it over with as you are. But it’ll be at least a week before we hear from them all, so we’re stuck here in this house together for at least that long. How about a truce?”

She looked at him with an amused smile.

“Really scared, aren’t you?”

He hung on to himself with an effort and hoped the hatred didn’t show in his eyes.

“It isn’t that,” he said. “It’s just that we can both give each other a very unpleasant week. But what do we gain by it — either of us?”

“All right, Artie,” — she knew how the nickname annoyed him — “if that’s the way you want it. As you say, I’ve got nothing to gain.” She started for the door. “Finish up those envelopes. I’m going to get my bag.”

“Anything in the house for lunch?” He had reconnoitered the kitchen before breakfast and knew there was not.

“A truce doesn’t mean I’m going to start cooking for you.”

“I didn’t expect it. But as long as I have to go out to eat, I’ll drop you wherever you want to go.”

“Well, that’s mighty white of you.” The sarcasm in her voice did not entirely disguise her surprise. But she was herself very quickly. “Finish those envelopes.”

He started on the second one, as her voice came from her room. “And don’t seal them up. I’ll take care of that.”

Obviously her suspicions were not entirely allayed. This might be more difficult than he had expected. But these letters could not be mailed. If they were, it would be impossible to go ahead with his plan.

He had finished addressing the envelopes when she came back into the room, and while he put on a necktie and got into his jacket, she glanced at each letter, inserted it in its envelope, sealed it, and affixed the airmail stamps she had brought with her. When she had done all five, she put them in her bag and went downstairs.

He took the other set of letters from his pocket, quickly sealed and stamped them, and followed her. She was standing before the mirror in the hall, giving her lips a final going-over, which would take at least a couple of minutes; her bag stood on the table beside her. Conway wandered into the kitchen, poured a glass of water from the bottle that was kept in the refrigerator, and slammed the glass to the floor. It broke into a hundred pieces, the water splashed all over, and the crash brought her to the door of the kitchen.

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