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Authors: John D. MacDonald

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The Only Girl in the Game (9 page)

BOOK: The Only Girl in the Game
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She squared her shoulders and marched directly to him. He turned to face her and she put her hands on his shoulders and looked up into his face, her head tilted, her expression odd.

“Should we say, like the man on the train from Minsk to Pinsk, enough of this luff-making?” she asked.

“I don’t want anything you don’t want, Betty. I want anything you want.”

“I am, and remain, in the best sense of the words, very truly yours, your friend, Betty Dawson.”

He had placed his hands gently on the nimble, narrow waist. “Very sincerely yours. Hugh Darren. His mark.”

“Let me draw a picture first, darling. I like you much. So I give me to this liking of you, and so let’s just have it for joy. We’ll indulge ourselves with a pleasure thing, Hugh. Without angles or tensions. We take what’s here, with gladness and respect, and we stay proud of what we are, and nobody has to own or dominate anybody, ever, because we’re grown up and we don’t need that.”

“Can it be done that way, Betty? Is it possible?”

“I don’t know. But if it isn’t, I think we can come as close as anybody. And if it starts to turn into anything else, into the kind of thing neither of us are looking for, then we knock it right in its pretty head and bury it under stones.”

“Agreed, sure, but isn’t that kind of a thing much more advantageous for the man?”

“The man? The woman? We start, buddy, by not typecasting ourselves. We’re Hugh and Betty, and there isn’t any rule says we can’t make up our own rules. And this room is warm now, and this is a mouth to be kissed, and these little round things are an interesting invention called buttons, which will yield to a clever man. And there are a zipper and snaps and things which should cause no terrible problems, and that thing over there is a rustic bunk. And my darn knees feel as if they could bend either way, and my heart would give Gene Krupa a feeling of awe, and if you wanted any coy, shy little thing, brother, you came to the wrong store, and I have the feeling we’ve waited just about long enough.”

It began then, in crescendo, and it kept right on from that explicit starting point, becoming better for them in the same ratio that they were apt students of each other, each so much more intent on the giving than on the taking of their pleasure that it became different from anything they had ever experienced.

He sat at her side as she slept so soundly in his bed, thinking of this little-more-than-a-month of their love-making. They conspired, in shameless ingenuity, but with no overtones of coarseness, to find every opportunity to be together. If it could be hours, they took them gladly, and if there were only minutes, they could make do with minutes. It was, he knew, obsessional and compulsive with them, but with none of the dark overtones he had always thought went with intensively physical affairs. There were sly laughter, and rude ridiculous jokes, and only the very slightest easily ignored suspicion of guilt. Nor did this sweet excess drain his vitality or hamper his work. It gave him, instead, a vibrant, bounding feeling of fitness and capacity. The work was easier for him. And, whenever he could watch her act, he knew that it was doing the same for her.

It would, he thought, be a nice thing if she was always here, if I had her for always. Wherever I might go. Watch it, boy! It isn’t what she wants. She said so. We defined the limits of this thing, and if you try to own her she will suddenly
be long gone, and it will become a damned drab world around here.

He stood and lifted the corner of the covers, and slid in beside her, leaving the small light on, finding her sleeping lips with his. As he felt her lips wake up and her drowsy arms move to encircle him, he made the little adjusting moves that brought her long against him. He relaxed against the fragrant, sleep-warm, silken length of Betty Dawson, with her little murmur of contentment that went with the kiss, and her little languorous flexings to the slow stimuli of his hands, and the quickening pace of her breath as her arms grew more strong.…

She had nuzzled into his throat and she could tell from the slow rise and fall of his chest that he was now asleep. His heart, so very fast not long ago, was now a slow, heavy, comforting sound to her.

“Darling, darling, darling,” she said in the smallest whisper, and felt the tears welling, sliding out of her eyes.

It was always best, every time. And it was a good thing that had to end badly because there was no other way it could end, so you wept for that. She had thought, this time, that she would see that it was all for him, with the greatest perfection she could manage, thinking only of him, being for him the sweet enveloping vessel for this strong and tender voyage, creating for her man a completion unlike any other which had gone before. And just when she thought she had managed it, deadening, with an effort of will, the eager claims of her own body, and, seeking to please him with false testimony to a final objective timed to match his own, the faking turned without warning to a tumultuous, roaring, blinding reality that was an unbearably long time in spending itself. When it finally released its harsh hold upon her, she floated back to shore on a midnight tide, buttery, boneless, helpless, and obscurely indignant with herself for having been so vulnerable that she had been unable to do as she had planned.

“My darling, my beloved,” she whispered against his throat, and she let the tears come slowly and endlessly. When one would touch her lips she would find it with the tip of her tongue, tasting the salt of it.

Daddy used to say to save them in a bottle, and he would get me one of those little medicine bottles and I would hold it so tears would roll into it, but they would always stop then.

Don’t ever love me, Hugh. Just let me love you. I’m ready for hurt. I’m braced for it. You are worth too much ever to fall in love with what I have become. Sleep deep, my darling. Dream of me, but not too much, please. Just a little unimportant dream or two. The same kind of dream I want you to have a long time from now, far from here, in that pink hotel on Peppercorn Cay. You’ll be married then, and she won’t have to know about the little unimportant dreams that come to you sometimes, in the Bahama night. Dream of a girl you once knew. God give me the continuing strength, my darling, never to damn you and hate you because you came along too late—because by the time you came along this was all that was left for us to have.

The tears followed her down into sleep.

• • •  four

Temp and Vicky Shannard of Nassau, New Providence, Bahamas, arrived at the Hotel Cameroon by taxi from the airport on Friday, the fifteenth of April, at four o’clock in the afternoon. Checkins were heavy at the time they arrived. There were bellhops loading luggage onto the rubber-wheeled service carts, and people pressing close to the long desk for their turn to sign registration cards, and a confusion of goings and comings and people being paged and people demanding service and attention.

Vicky Shannard stood quietly by their luggage, well out of the confusion, over by a low dividing wall which was also a planter luxuriant with some sort of evil broad-leafed growth. The small lobby was about five feet higher than the casino floor, and as she waited for Temp to take care of things she looked out across the ballroom length of the shadowy casino, bordered by gaudy thickets of slot machines to the right and left. There was a curious continual clattering metallic roar which she identified as the combined sounds of all the slot machines in play. Forty feet away, she saw an old woman engaged in a strange ritual. The woman was oddly dressed—in a bright red sweater, a powder-blue skirt far too short for her, a conical coolie hat in venomous green. She teetered on reedy old legs as she fed the dime slot machine, using both hands to give the handle a savage yank,
then turned her back to the machine each time in a tension of waiting for the payoff. She kept her dimes in a paper cup.

How odd, Vicky thought. What a strange thing for an old lady to be doing! And could she be staying here? And why should there be something alarming about her? Perhaps all ritualistic frenzy is alarming. But I think I shall like this place not at all.

Vicky Shannard was in her thirtieth year, a cuddly dumpling, a pwetty wittle pigeon, a blonde, pink and white, cushiony little cupcake, with a brain as lean, functional, indestructible and survival-oriented as a pneumatic hammer.

She stood there, five foot one, solemn as a child dressed for a party, with a hat of maximum frivolity atilt on an expensive contrived tangle of Greek curls, in her little tailored beige suit from Bay Street, and her little seal cape from Montreal, and her little lizard pumps from Rome, holding her purse from Paris. She had a round pretty-pretty face, unmarked by turmoil, a suggestion of a double chin, china-blue eyes that protruded slightly and always had a bland, please-like-me, innocent appeal. Tailored suits were never quite right for her, though she adored them. Her breasts, impossible to minimize, did odd things to jackets and lapels and the placement of buttons. And her little rump thrust heartily at the skirts in a way that dismayed her tailors.

Few people have ever been able to make a journey as long as the one made by Victoria Purcell, child of the slums of York in the north of England, fatherless daughter of a part-time whore, cuddled by an illogically numerous succession of “uncles”. By the time she was thirteen she had experienced more of the filthy underside of life than most women ever hear about, much less endure. She had experienced rape, a term in a house of correction, malnutrition, savage beatings. She had seen murder done.

But to her this had all been but a series of tiresome annoyances, little irritating obstacles to clamber over on her inevitable way to a future of gold and grace. She could not particularize that future. She just knew it was there, and if she kept moving she would be moving toward it. At fifteen she was Vicki Vale, doing an Alice-in-Wonderland strip in a London cellar. She would come out with blonde hair combed long, wearing childish frills and bows and pastel satins, first to sing obscenities in her thin tinkling little voice, and then to dance her way slowly to nudity. Between her acts she sold cigarettes and hustled drinks.

At seventeen she was Vicky Morgan in a Tangiers club, singing seldom, as befitted the mistress of the owner, a fat and gentle man, half Turk, half Egyptian, who used her also for profitable courier duty for the Tangiers gold combine. At twenty she was Vicki Lambeth, working in a club at Atlantida Beach, thirty-five miles up the South American coast from Montevideo. She was working that summer season after being stranded when the man who took her there died in his sleep in the Nogaro Hotel, in one of their finest suites. At the end of that season she left Uruguay on the oceangoing yacht of a wealthy Brazilian. It was the beginning of her three years in the international set, learning the special attractions of the Riviera, Acapulco, California. Havana, the Bahamas, moving with whim and season, learning to be so agreeable that she could move from one relationship to another without causing the tensions of jealousy or anger.

A little over six years ago she had been a guest on a yacht out of Galveston tied up at Bimini for the Tuna Tournament. She had been, in a sense, an unofficial hostess for the large party of guests aboard. But a handsome woman who was a special friend of the owner had flown put from New Orleans. Vicky was deposed and the situation became slightly awkward. She was trying to decide whether or not to send some carefully worded cables which would result in the expected invitations, when Temple Shannard came into her life. She was twenty-four and he was forty-four. He knew one of the guests, and came aboard. He had sailed over from Nassau alone in his Abaco-built ketch, a tidy dancing vessel. She learned about him quickly, with the ease of long practice.

An unfortunate accident had made him a widower two years ago. He had two teen-age children in college in the States. He was an American who had moved to the Islands right after the war, with a very few thousand dollars to invest, and with a fine optimism tempered by shrewdness. He had done very well. According to the standards of the alley that ran by the house where she was born, he was a rich man. The owner of the Texas yacht could have bought him forty times over without critically impairing his economic position. But Vicky had become aware of the relativity of values as you move through time and space.

Temple was a lonely man, and she liked his manner, and liked his appearance. He was brown and weathered, with strong blunt features that came alive with his frequent smile. He was not tall; he had a broad hard body which he moved with a youthful lightness and economy. He was that
special sort of man who needs someone to cherish and protect, and is not emotionally fulfilled unless he has such a love-object at hand.

Soon they could walk hand in hand along the narrow roads in the Bimini night. She knew this situation was one she had been waiting for, and it had been a long time of waiting. She did like him, and found it pleasant to be with him, and she felt no guilt at all over the necessity to fake the attitudes of the opening scenes of love. She had her own sense of equity, and knew she would not strike any bargain wherein he would be cheated of what he needed. She had known for some time that it was only her youngness and carefully achieved freshness and manufactured enthusiasms that had kept her welcome green at the estates and ranches and villas and on the yachts of the big restless rich, and it could all end with a dismaying quickness. Being a professional guest is the most precarious of all careers. It was time to leave the game with a profit.

Temp Shannard was a little too awed by her, and so she found it necessary to force his hand. This was readily accomplished by forcing a quarrel with her New Orleans replacement, so that she was no longer welcome on the yacht Then she was ready, with the appropriate air of helplessness, a plausible story, and her ten pieces of expensive luggage, for Temp to help her.

Inevitably he sailed her back to Nassau, back to the big waterfront house which had been too empty for him, with terrace and tropical gardens and small staff of servants. Her papers were in a frightful mess, but he had friends at Government House who straightened them out quickly, so that she and Temple could be married three days after they arrived. It was a big festive wedding, and everyone seemed marvelously friendly, and just as skeptical of her as she had expected them to be.

BOOK: The Only Girl in the Game
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