Well, she was dead, and there was no use crying over spilt milk. I released her wrist—no pulse—and looked around the room, while fragments of imaginary conversations unreeled in my mind:
"And you say you hit her?"
"Well, not that hard. She slipped on the floor, that’s all, and smacked her head on the coffee table."
"As a result of you hitting her."
"As a result of her polishing the goddam floor all the goddam time."
Laura’s clean jagged style had, as a matter of fact, killed her more than anything else. What kind of bachelor girl apartment was this, with its hulking glass coffee table and chrome lamps and white vinyl chairs and bare black floor? Where were the pillows, the furs, the drapes and hangings, the softnesses? Sterile cold hardness everywhere; it might as well be an art gallery.
"But you did hit her, is that right?"
"But it was an accident!"
If it were an accident, it might just as well have happened when I was somewhere else. I wasn’t here at all, officer, I was, uhh... Screening a film. Yes, at home by myself. Yes, I do that all the time, it’s part of my job.
I got to my feet, studying the room. If I weren’t here, what would be different?
Well, that glass, for one. It wouldn’t be standing on the murderous coffee table with Jack Daniels in it and my fingerprints all over it.
Fingerprints. Well, there’d be fingerprints everywhere in this highly polished apartment, wouldn’t there?
"Do you know a Miss Laura Penney?"
"Yes, I do, casually." Casually: "Is something wrong?"
"Have you been to her apartment?"
"A few times, I suppose, picking her up for a screening."
Fine. I took the glass to the small kitchen, washed it, put it away, and headed for the bathroom to study the medicine chest. Razor, shaving cream, toothbrush; nothing that would lead anybody to—
Wait a minute. That little medicine bottle with the drugstore label, isn’t that—?
It is. My Valium, with my name typed on the prescription label: "Carey Thorpe, 1 as required for stress." So I took one—if this wasn’t a situation of stress there is no such thing—and pocketed the bottle.
Nothing else in here, so onward quickly to the bedroom. Clothing, yes. A couple of shirts, a tie, my Emperor Nero cufflinks, some shorts, my other blue sweater—
Socks? Black, one size fits all, they could belong on anybody’s feet, so leave them. This is becoming a pretty hefty package as it is.
Anything else? Bed-table drawers, with their anonymous drugstore items. Nothing under the bed, not even dust. Fin.
Back to the living room, with my armload of dry cleaning, and Laura spread lifelike on the glossy floor, a scene from almost any John Carroll–Vera Hruba Ralston flick. This side of her looked perfectly fine.
Into my coat. Into my topcoat, distributing shirts and shorts and ties into various pockets, wrapping the sweater around my waist under all the coats. Thank God it was February, and perfectly normal to look lumpy and bulky.
Gloves on, and one final look around. Oh, God, the letter from Warner Brothers, announcing the re-release of some hoary chestnut. My name was on it, and a date making it clear the thing couldn’t have arrived earlier than today. I snatched it up and headed for the apartment door.
And what was the movie again, the one they were reissuing? I gave the letter a quick scan: A Slight Case of Murder.
Oh, really. Stopping, I gazed heavenward; or at least ceilingward. "Come on, God," I said. "That’s beneath you." And I got out of there.
Until the night Laura Penney did herself in most of the violence I’d known had been secondhand. Carey Thorpe is the name, and if that rings no bells you aren’t a truly serious student of the cinema. I’ll admit it’s easy to miss my general film reviewing, in publications such as Third World Cinema and The Kips Bay Voice, but my first book, Author and Auteur: Dynamism And Domination In Film, was an alternate selection of Book Find Club in the summer of 1972, and last year my second book, The Mob at the Movies: Down from Rico to Puzo, got universal raves.
Born in Boston in 1942, I came to consciousness concurrently with television. Being a spindly youth, I spent most of my childhood in front of the box, watching whatever the program directors thought fit to show me. Old movies were the mainstay of local programming then, so by 1960 when I went off to college (Penn State; anything to get away from home and family) I knew more about movies than Sam Goldwyn and less than him about anything else.
College, of course, was full of other spindly youths just like me. Perhaps our predecessors in the dorms had discussed sex and beer and goldfish-swallowing, but we discussed Hitchcock and Fuller and Greta Garbo (why did she agree to make Two-Faced Woman?). In my sophomore year my film reviews were appearing in the college paper, in my junior year my first general piece—"Billy Wilder: The Smile In The Skull"—was accepted by Montage Quarterly (twenty-five dollars and two contributors’ copies, both ripped by the mailman), and when I got my degree in American Lit I moved directly to New York City, typewriter in hand, where I’ve been ever since.
Fortunately, my maternal grandmother passed away just before I passed out of college, leaving me a trust fund with an income of about fifteen thousand a year. Unfortunately, the old bitch mistrusted me as much as she liked me, and tied up the fund so thoroughly with banks and lawyers that I can’t ever get at the principal. (Believe me, I’ve tried.) Nevertheless, the fifteen G a year has been a reasonably comfortable base, and over the last several years my writing has brought in about as much again, so I’ve lived moderately well.
On the other hand, I’d prefer to live very well, and I’d been hoping to make a killing (excuse that) with From Italy With Love. It had seemed to me America was ready for a big glossy photo-filled coffee-table book on Italian Neo-Realism of the postwar era, but so far I haven’t been able to get together with a publisher. I’ll admit seven hundred stills from Shoe Shine, Bicycle Thief, Open City and Paisan might get a little depressing, but what about all those sexy women in their tattered dresses? Sometimes I don’t understand the publishing industry.
I met my wife-to-be, nee Shirley Francesconi, about a year after I moved to New York, at a press screening. She was two years older than I and living with a drugs-politics-8mm freak, so we knew each other only socially for a year or so, and if I’d had any sense I’d have left it that way. But then her freak got busted on possession and went away for an extended rest, so we dated a while and then we lived together and then we got married and then we found out we hated each other.
The only reason we stuck it seven years instead of seven days is because my family thought Shirley was terrific. In fact, when the split finally did come last year it wasn’t to her own folks over in Queens that Shirley went home, it was to mine up in Boston. She’s been there ever since, moving slowly in the direction of divorce and annoying me about money.
The money problem is unfortunately complicated by the fact that she left while I was still high on From Italy With Love. I’d raved a lot about the vast sums that book would bring in, and Shirley wants some of it. My family is well off—my father’s an insurance company executive, he’s had his five square meals every day of his life—and they’re encouraging her to squeeze me. How’s that for a super family?
Then there’s the kids. It’s perfectly true I’m no good as a father, but I never claimed I’d be any good. If Shirley’d just gone ahead and taken the goddam pill like she was supposed to there wouldn’t be any kids, but oh, no, the pill gave her migraine. Migraine! The pill maybe gave her migraine, but the diaphragm gave her a daughter named Rita and the foam gave her a son called John, and whose fault is that? Let my parents go on supporting them if they want, who I want to support is me.
So that’s where we stand; or where we stood until Laura took that header. I’m no monk, I like female companionship, but for all I know Shirley has private detectives on me—she’ll do anything to strengthen her position for that inevitable day in court—so I impressed on both my girls the necessity for maintaining tight security. We didn’t live together, we didn’t obviously date a lot, and of course I’d explained to each of them that I’d occasionally have to take other women to screenings or press parties. (The two girls also didn’t know about one another. Laura and Kit were nodding acquaintances, with no reason ever to confide in each other, so I was about as safe as anybody ever is in this vale of tears. It was even possible to take one of my girls to a premiere attended by the other, with no suspicions raised.)
Well, all that had now come to an end. Laura, who’d at first come on as the most rabidly independent of Women’s Lib types, had been complaining more and more about our secret life, comparing herself to Back Street and other absurdities, wanting to know why I didn’t just get the divorce over and done with (why hurry a finish that could only be costly and difficult for me?) and even threatening once or twice to blow the whistle herself with Shirley. Of course she didn’t really mean it, but it was upsetting to hear her talk that way, and in fact it was a repetition of the same threat that had caused me to lose my temper tonight and pop her one, etc.
"You say Miss Penney threatened to tell your wife about this affair?"
Mm. I was right to get clear of this, as quickly and quietly as I could. So out of the apartment I went, smearing the doorknobs with my gloved hand, checking the street before leaving the building, and walking all the way over to Sheridan Square before hailing a cab to take me home.
Where I found several messages waiting on my telephone answering machine. After divesting myself of my coats and excess wardrobe I made a drink and sat at the desk to listen.The first was a nice female voice with a British accent: "Mr. Gautier’s office calling Mr. Thorpe, in re screening on the twentieth. Could you possibly make it at four instead of two?"
I’d rather. And since I was unexpectedly dateless for that screening, perhaps the owner of the nice British accent would like to join me. Reaching for pencil and paper, I made a note to call back, while listening to the second message, from Sogeza "Tim" Kinywa, editor of Third World Cinema: "Sogeza here, Carey. Have you got a title yet on the Eisenstein piece?"
No, I didn’t. I was about to make another note when the third message started: "Oh, you’ve left already. I wanted to remind you to bring the Molly Haskell book, but never mind."
Well. A strange sensation that, hearing a voice from beyond the grave. I erased the tape, finished my drink, and went to bed.
Copyright © 1977 by Donald E. Westlake.