Authors: Brett Halliday
The Kissed Corpse
Who has given so much
and received so little
By noon on Saturday, those reflected flashes of light in my eyes from across the canyon were getting my goat to the point where I was ready to do something about them.
I could have moved my typewriter in from the glassed porch of the mountain cabin, of course, but that would have removed the irritation and left me no good reason for not getting on with the story I didn't want to write.
So I stayed out there stubbornly and cursed whoever it was, over at the Dwight estate, that persisted in playing with a mirror in the sunlight.
I thought of a lot of reasons for the flashes, but none of them made good sense. Heliograph signals, maybe, from the stone-turreted mansion of the oil magnate to watchers across the Rio Grande in Mexico, but they were too uneven to spell out any code.
Reflections from the glass of binoculars or telescope being swung in short arcs to cover the city of El Paso spread out below McKelligon's Canyon â¦ but what the hell was there to keep a watcher so continuously interested?
The estate of Raymond Dwight was across the canyon and up a short distance from my friend's cabinâa place I was occupying for the week-end. On the same slope but down the canyon a little was my only other neighbor, a cottage occupied by Leslie Young and his wife.
I hadn't met Young, but Jerry Burke had told me about him, asked me to get acquainted while I was located so close. Burke had met him somewhere in the Tropics on one of his soldier-of-fortuning escapades, and they'd renewed their friendship here in El Paso.
I remembered Burke had mentioned that Leslie Young and Raymond Dwight were a queer pair to be neighbors out in the lonely canyon â¦ with Young violently Leftist and Dwight a multimillionaire, and while I sat there fidgeting over being unable to get to work I caught myself wondering whether Young had located in that cabin so close to Dwight by accident â¦ or for a purpose.
Even that sort of wondering didn't take my mind off the worrisome flashes of light. I got up and hunted through my friend's rooms for a pair of field glasses while my Scottie pups frisked about hopefully; and when I didn't find any I went to the party line telephone and called Leslie Young.
Explaining who I was, I asked him if he wouldn't like to come over and get acquainted. He sounded pleased, and before he could hang up I asked him if he owned a pair of field glasses.
He said: “Yes, I have a pair,” puzzled, waiting for me to explain myself. By this time I was beginning to feel sort of idiotic about the whole thing, but I said: “I wish you'd bring them with you. There's a â¦ well, damn it, there's something I want to look at through them.”
He said sure he'd bring them along, and hung up.
I went back to the porch and while I was waiting for another flash I saw a rider coming down into the canyon from his place. I lost sight of him in the thick foliage growing along the bottom, but figured it was Young on his way over, so I went around to the front and met him as he came loping up the steep road.
He rode his horse with a devil-may-care assurance. Physically, he was tall and lean, burned as dark as a Mexican by tropical suns, with a stern sort of hardness clinging to him that just missed arrogance by a shade. A man, I thought, who would be feared and hated by his enemies; trusted and admired by friends and followers.
I had an idea Jerry had told him a lot about me, and it seemed to me he looked me over with a flicker of disappointment in his keen dark eyes. I was probably not his idea of the man who trailed Jerry Burke around hunting murderers.
Young had the kind of grip you expected when he shook hands. He unslung the leather-cased binoculars from his shoulders and said, “Here you are,” in a soft, drawling voice.
I thanked him and apologized for not getting in touch with him before. We went inside and I explained that I had come to the cabin to work, but that all I had done was to watch some guy playing with a mirror over Dwight's way.
His eyes appeared to leap out at me for the barest instant, but there wasn't the slightest rancor in his tone when he said: “Quite a place that millionaire bastard has, isn't it?” He spoke as though that was a natural word to use in describing Dwight.
I realized immediately that it was a natural expression for him to employ about any millionaire. He was the sort of man one meets nowadays who allows a personal bitterness to warp his judgment; who damns the entire capitalistic system and every moderately wealthy man as personally responsible for social injustices.
I knew there wasn't any use arguing with him, although I know that lots of millionaires are decent people â¦ even if our present set-up isn't perfect.
We sat down in comfortable chairs when we reached the porch and I encouraged him to talk, but I couldn't keep my eyes away from the window through which the flashes came.
“What is this about someone playing with mirrors?” he asked after a few moments.
I pointed across the canyon toward the Dwight mansion and explained that the flashes had bothered me all the afternoon before and that they had started again today.
A flame of intense hatred showed in his black eyes as he gazed across where I indicated. “What that dump needs most is a few well-placed bombs,” he muttered. “Preferably with Dwight inside when they're touched off.”
While I was trying to think of a light remark to toss off, one of those flashes came across the way.
“There it is,” I said. “Heliograph signals to Mexico, maybe.”
“It might be at that.” Young spoke calmly enough, but his tone was edgy. “He's raising hell about the Mexicans having the gall to take back what's left of their petroleum resources after he and others like him have raped the country for years.”
Burke had told me about Young's Mexican sympathies, so I wasn't surprised. As I lifted the field glasses from the case I asked idly: “You're in favor of the expropriation measures?”
He countered by saying: “Have you ever been in Mexico? Even seen how a peon exists on the munificent salary of fifty or sixty
a day paid by men like Dwight?”
I had to admit I hadn't.
“They live in floorless thatched hovels, starving on a diet of
â¦ to build up fortunes for absentee owners and contribute to a nightmare like
pile of stone.” He gestured savagely toward the Dwight estate.
I had the glasses to my eyes and was adjusting the focus. “Well, they've taken back their own, now,” I commented.
“And Dwight squeals like a stuck pig â¦ shouts for the Marines to protect his interests â¦ when he's got millions salted away. Right now he's cooking up some scheme with the State Department. He's got Rufus Hardiman over there as his guest, supposedly on a vacation, but I'll bet my bottom dollar he's got a plan to get back his property.â¦”
I let out a grunt of amazement that interrupted him. I had the powerful glasses focused and they lapped up that half mile between the cabin and the Dwight place to bring it right next door. Through the screening branches I was looking directly at a second story balcony and a man sitting back comfortably behind a telescope mounted on a squatty tripod. His right eye was pressed against the eyepiece, and the expression on his face brought another grunt from me.
In the first place, it was a shock to bring suddenly into close focus the man whom we had been discussing. I recognized Raymond Dwight from newspaper photographs. A short dark man with bushy hair, heavy features, black eyebrows which were at the moment lifted in a high arch as though whatever he looked upon through the instrument was giving him great pleasure. His thick lips were drawn back in a greedy smile, and below them his chin was blunt and square.
“What is it?” Leslie Young asked from behind my shoulder. “What do you see over there?”
“It's the old boy himself,” I told him. “He's got a telescope mounted on a second-story balcony. I can't imagine what he's looking at to put that sort of an expression on his face.”
I studied the direction and tilt of Dwight's telescope for a moment, trying to determine where his gaze was directed so that I could turn my glasses in that direction. It was down the canyon and a little to the left, and the tilt was slightly downward.
I swung my glasses off the motionless figure of Raymond Dwight with a feeling of revulsion, turned to the right in the approximate direction of his telescope and moved the focus screw back and forth, explaining to Young: “I'm trying to line up with him and see what the â¦”
That was as far as I got. At that instant my elongated vision picked up what I was looking for â¦ and I wished I had left well enough alone, for I was looking at the upper porch of Young's cabin â¦ and at a woman whom I knew instinctively to be Young's wife â¦ clad in a scrap of a sun suit and lying on her back with the hot rays of sun shining upon her.
I could see her rouged lips, black hair that was bobbed and tousled, dark eyelashes lying against smooth cheeks. One arm lay outstretched, with fingertips touching the pages of an open book.
I jerked the glasses down feeling like a cheap Peeping-Tom, and I guess it must have shown on my face along with the blood I'd felt rushing up to it. I made a desperate effort at nonchalance, but Young's hard face was thrust forward close to mine and there was no mistaking the demand in his eyes and voice when he said:
“What was it? Did you see what Dwight was looking at?”
I shook my head. I am convinced that it is a mistake for a writer to indulge in the habit of rewriting and readjusting ideas. It robs him of quick, concise decision, and I needed to act quickly now. After all, you can't just come out and tell a perfect stranger that you've caught a man staring at his scantily clad wife. Or can you?
I lied the best I could but I guess it sounded pretty lame. “I couldn't see anything,” I said. “I guess he's just taking a look-see around about.” My fingers shook when I tried, too hastily, to fit the glasses back in the case.
Young's hard brown fingers closed over mine with deliberate force. His words were, “I'll take the glasses if you don't mind,” but his tone implied so much more that I let him have them and moved back a step and mopped sweat from my face.
Time plodded by on heavy tragic heels as I stood there watching him focus the glasses on Dwight. I opened my lips a dozen times to say something â¦ but what was there to say? I'd already said too much when I asked for the loan of the instrument. Even now, after witnessing the aftermath of that moment, I don't know what I could have said to ward off what was coming.
All I could do was stand there and watch it happen. Watch the muscles in Leslie Young's face work spasmodically, then harden into caustic bitterness as he focused the magic lenses on Dwight; and listen to his heavy breathing as he swung the glasses in a forty-degree arc and levelled them on the lounging figure of his wife.