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Authors: Robert Bruce Sinclair

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BOOK: The Eleventh Hour
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#The squad car paused for a moment at the corner, and then turned south. That could mean they intended to drive through the alley. Conway turned and walked briskly to the parking lot. He was halfway between street and alley when he saw the glare of headlights in the alley; he stepped into the shadow of a car, and saw the squad car drive slowly past. He hurried, then, to the rear of the lot, his heart in his throat, and looked after the retreating car. It proceeded without a pause past the plumbing shop, past his car and Helen, and on to the next street, where the officers, apparently feeling they had done their duty, turned north.

Now that it had come off safely, Conway was glad that the police had inspected — in their fashion — the alley: it would be evidence that the car had been driven off, out of the vicinity. He took a quick look around the parking lot; there were no signs of anyone preparing to drive out. He tossed away the popcorn and set off down the alley, still ostensibly searching for his car and his wife. When he got to the plumber’s shop, he slipped into the open space, crouched beside his car, and waited. But there was no sound, and no headlights appeared to brighten the alley. He crept into the car, smarted the motor, and stole into the alley without lights. He could turn left, in the direction opposite the one the police car had taken, but he risked coming head-on into it if they had circled the block. Instead, he turned right, in the direction they had driven, gambling that they had not stopped just around the corner. When he reached the cross street, he turned south and drove half a block before switching on his lights; there had been no sign of the police car, and if anyone else had seen his car emerge from the alley, they had not been close enough to identify it by make or license number.

It had been three and a half minutes since the police car had driven off; the next streetcar was due to pass the drugstore in ten minutes, which meant that he could go to Fulton Street. He had picked three possible locations, his choice to depend on the amount of time left to him. Of the three, he preferred Fulton Street.

He cut over to Fairfield Avenue, which was a main thoroughfare and carried a considerable amount of traffic, and again turned south. He had not expected the squad car to report his license number, and he was not certain that they had; nevertheless it was a dangerous possibility. But on a moderately crowded street he was sure there was less risk of being spotted, even should he happen to pass a patrol car, than on a less traveled one.

He crossed Beverly Boulevard, which was the southern boundary of the Hollywood precinct; now he would at least be safe from the officers who had interviewed him. He turned east, then, heading in the direction of Hollywood, on to a quiet, residential street with little traffic. He was conscious of the added danger, but what he next had to do could not be attempted on a main thoroughfare.

He was acutely aware, suddenly, of the vast difference between inventing a perfect murder and accomplishing it. The chances of his being detected in this phase of the operation were slight; he had planned it that way. But now that he had embarked on the venture, those chances loomed terrifyingly large: an accident, a traffic violation, anything which might unluckily arouse the suspicion of a cruising police car, could mean disaster. In his story he had refused to take advantage of good luck, but he had arbitrarily ruled out bad. He was sweating as he realized that no mortal could do that with impunity. Then it occurred to him that his apprehension was getting in the way of the things he had to do. He unlocked the glove compartment, took out the towel, and put on the hat and gloves.

As he drove, he folded the towel so that he had a rectangle about an inch thick, and then slipped one arm out of his jacket. When he was stopped by a traffic light, he leaned down, draped the towel over his shoulders, and then, careful not to disturb the smoothness of the towel, put on his coat, pulling the collar high so that none of the towel showed over the edge. He buttoned the jacket; the towel underneath made it too tight, and it pulled in a strange way. He twisted to look at himself in the rear-view mirror in profile: he had the appearance of a man round-shouldered to an extreme. Not quite a hunchback, but verging on a deformity. It would fit in with what he expected would be the police theory.

At the next stop light he took the mustache from his pocket, stuck it on his upper lip, and examined it in the dimness of the mirror.
It’ll get by,
he thought. He glanced at the time: he was on schedule. A few moments later he turned south, circled the block, and turned north into Fulton Street. He drove slowly, peering intently at the houses.

Conway had settled on this particular block the first evening he had started on the story, and had described it in detail. The houses were small, one-family dwellings, most of them with front porches. His further inspection last night had confirmed his first impression: there were a good many young people in the block, and most of the porches had been in use. That was the important thing, because he had to have witnesses.

But now, whether because of the hour or the sudden drop in temperature, the street appeared deserted. For a moment terror struck him: he was not prepared to change his plan, nor could he improvise, and it was too late to go to the alternative locations he had picked. The timing had been planned, the schedule worked out, with this block in mind, and his alibi depended on it. Then his panic subsided as, almost at the end of the block, silhouetted against an open window, he saw a couple seated in a porch swing.

He pulled up and parked in front of the house without having to back up, and noticed that the curb was unusually high. So he backed once, to get very close, and there was a grinding screech as the fender scraped against the concrete.
They’ve got to notice that,
he reasoned.

He cut the lights and switched off the ignition, leaving the keys in the lock. He rolled up the windows and locked the door from the inside. He leaned over into the back and pulled the coat to cover a bit of shoe which was exposed. He bent down in the front seat so that, unobserved, he might press the mustache more firmly to his lip. Then he got out of the car and started off.

He went no more than three or four steps when he stopped, returned to the car, and locked the door. He could hear the radio through the open window of the house. He turned and walked off as rapidly as he could without belying his hunched shoulders. He saw no one, either in the houses or on the street, but there were at least two witnesses who would certainly establish the approximate time the car was parked. That was all he really needed. He turned the corner, consulted his watch, straightened a little, and walked more rapidly.

Had he taken the trolley from the drugstore to the police station, he would have had a thirteen-minute wait, followed by an eleven-minute ride to the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Wilcox. Ten and a half minutes had elapsed since the police car had left him; there remained thirteen and a half minutes to walk the one and four-tenths miles to the corner where he would have gotten off the trolley to go to the police station. It meant walking at the rate of a mile in less than ten minutes, a feat which almost any man would find impossible. Conway was counting on the fact that the police would believe it impossible for him: that was part of the plan.

He turned another corner and quickened his pace. The mustache bothered him and it had served its purpose; he ripped it off and folded it in his pocket. He had wanted to be noticed when he got out of the car; now his aim was to be as inconspicuous as he could: as little like the figure who had parked the car as possible. The gloves were unusual on a spring evening; he slipped them off and into his pocket.

He turned another corner and, when he approached the middle of the block and was sure no one was near, reached up under his coat and removed the towel. He tore it into four parts and at the next corner dropped a piece into the gutter on each side of the street. He got rid of the other two pieces at the next corner. The hat followed. Ripped into three fragments, it was unrecognizable as anything but three dirty bits of felt, and it was disposed of at the next two intersections.

He was now walking as rapidly as he could; he was beginning to perspire, and the muscles in his calves were aching. But he was falling behind schedule: he was doing better than he had last night when he had timed himself, but it was not good enough, not what he had thought he could do, not what he
had
to do. He dared not run: nothing would be more suspicious than a man running down a quiet street late in the evening.

He still had to rid himself of the mustache, and he tore it into small pieces, dropping a tiny bit every fifty feet or so. His face streamed perspiration and his clothing clung to him, but he tried to force himself even more; he knew that it was useless and feared that even the pace he was going would attract attention, but he dared not slacken.

He had intended to zigzag, turning at every corner, so that he would come on to Santa Monica Boulevard one block west of Wilcox, but now he was forced to abandon that part of the plan. He headed straight for Santa Monica; he had, at least, to
see
the streetcar. He strained every nerve in the last block; he made it just as the car went past him.

But he saw what he needed to. The car was comfortably filled; enough so that one passenger, more or less, would not be noticed. He could slow his pace somewhat, now, so that he would not be conspicuous, and he could see that the car had a green light and did not stop at Wilcox. A block farther on, at Cahuenga, it did stop; he was able to see people standing at the exit door. Conway relaxed; he could take it easy now. The timing would be right: he would reach the police station exactly when he would have had he been on the trolley.

He mopped the perspiration from his face and hands. He’d have to cool off a bit in these three blocks. It would be natural to be perspiring somewhat, to be a little out of breath, when he arrived, but his present condition could hardly be excused by a three-block walk. He went over the details of what he would say. Everything had gone as scheduled, so far, exactly according to plan.

His legs still ached and his clothing was moist, but he had regained his breath and the perspiration did not show when he arrived at the station. The sergeant at the desk looked up over his paper with some annoyance as Conway came up to him. The after-dinner rush of stolen car reports was over, and it would be a little while before the drunks started being hauled in; this was his rest period, and he disliked having it broken in on.

“Sergeant, my wife’s disappeared, and so has my car.” Conway found that he did not have to simulate his breathlessness.

“Yeah? What happened?”

Conway related the story, much as he had before. “And after the police car drove off, I looked around some more,” he concluded. “Then a streetcar came along, and I decided I wanted to report it, so I jumped on the car and came down here.”

“Why don’t you call up and see if she’s home now?” the sergeant suggested.

“I did once, but — what time is it?” They both looked at the clock above the desk. “Ten twenty-four. I’ll try it again.”

“There’s a phone booth in the hall,” the sergeant said, and returned to his newspaper.

Conway dialed the number and, because the time had now been established and there was no longer need for haste, let it ring half a dozen times before he returned to the desk. “No answer,” he said.

The sergeant reluctantly put aside his paper and reached for a form. “Sure you want to do this now?” he asked. “Why don’t you wait till morning? She probably just drove off with somebody to have a drink.”

“She wouldn’t do that.” Conway wondered if he was playing the part of the fatuous, doting husband too convincingly. He had done everything he could to seem a ludicrous figure to the squad-car men. He did not want this pile of suet behind the desk to take him too seriously, either; on the other hand neither did he want to have to insist too much, in order to get the report on the police blotter. And it had to be there, in writing that even an assistant district attorney could read.

“She’d never do anything like that,” he repeated. “She didn’t like to drive, and she wouldn’t go off in my car with anyone else — she wouldn’t be that inconsiderate.”
Careful now, don’t overdo it,
he cautioned himself. “Besides we know hardly anyone out here. Who would she meet to go anywhere with?”

The sergeant rubbed his face with his hand, and Conway saw the smile he was trying to conceal — the same smile which had been on the faces of the radio-car men. The memory of the disappearance of Mrs. Yates was still green. But this grin was too obvious to be concealed — or to be ignored.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Conway said. “You’re remembering that woman who left her husband in the market and went off to a motel with that boy.” Indignation came into his voice. “Well, my wife’s not like that, and don’t go thinking she is.”

The grin disappeared. “No, no — I wasn’t thinking of that at all. Nothing like it.” He was having difficulty keeping the smile off his face; he picked up a pen and bent over the desk. “Now, where’d you say this happened?”

Conway went over the details again; there were two forms to fill out and he had to sign both of them. He started to leave as two policemen came in.

“Just be sure to let us know if she turns up,” the sergeant called after him. Conway turned and nodded his assent. The sergeant’s grin was coming back; he could hardly wait to tell his story to an audience.

Conway did not delay. He only hoped the sergeant would make it good.

Conway was careful to stay in character on the bus, and when he reached home he did not even stop for the drink he had been longing for. He went directly to work.

He put Helen’s soiled glove, which he had retrieved from the theatre, in one of the drawers of his dresser, and placed his own gloves in another drawer. The wallet he put in a metal box in his desk in which he kept his insurance policies. He turned the pocket of his coat, in which he had carried the mustache, inside out and vacuumed it.

BOOK: The Eleventh Hour
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