I was putting on a clean shirt to go out when the door buzzer sounded. Idiotically, I felt a shock of excitement.
I pressed the buzzer and called, "Who is it?"
A girl’s voice said, "Me."
I knew it couldn’t possibly be Janis. Still, I was listed in the phone book. If she’d wanted to find me it would have been easy enough.
"Who is it?" I said again.
Then I saw Jean Dahl running up the flight of stairs from the ground floor.
She was still wearing the same black dress and the beaver coat.
She smiled a little. "Hello, baby," she said. "I told you I’d get in touch with you."
"Come on in," I said.
She came into the living room, dropped her coat onto a chair, and walked straight to the couch. She sat down and took a cigarette out of her purse. I closed the door very gently behind me.
"Do you have a match?"
I lit her cigarette.
"Well," she said, "have you thought it over?"
I hadn’t really thought about it at all. Janis Whitney had put everything else out of my mind.
"I’m glad you came up," I said. "I want to know more about this."
I was stalling, trying to get my mind back on the track again.
She smiled. It was just a smile. It didn’t tell me anything.
"What’s there to know? I have the only copy of a book Charles Anstruther wrote before he died. You publish books. I want to sell it. Now, are you going to offer me a drink?"
I looked at her.
She was very cool and very attractive. Suddenly I began to feel angry. "No," I said, "I don’t think I am."
She raised her eyebrows inquiringly.
"Not right this minute, I’m not." I walked over to where she was sitting. "Not till I find out what this is all about. Fifteen minutes after you walked out of the office this morning, I had a note from a man named Max Shriber offering me a book he said Charles Anstruther wrote before he died. As far as anyone knows, Anstruther didn’t leave an unpublished book. What’s going on here? What kind of racket is this?"
"Take it easy, baby," Jean Dahl said.
She stood up and very casually walked over to the bar. Very deliberately she poured about two inches of whisky into a glass. She reached into the ice bucket and filled the glass with ice. She stood by the bar for a moment casually swirling the ice and whisky around in her glass.
"You’re a lousy host, baby," she said. "I don’t think I like you."
She raised the glass. "Cheers," she said and took a long sip.
I walked over and stood very close to her.
"I don’t think I like you either," I said. "But I’m going to find out."
I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do. But I was going to do something.
I slapped the glass out of her hand. It broke against the bar and shards scattered over the floor.
Then I took her by the shoulders and pulled her to me. She slid unresistingly into my arms. She lifted her head with her lips slightly parted. Her eyes were closed.
I couldn’t decide whether to slap her or kiss her. I kissed her.
The kiss must have lasted thirty seconds, and when we separated we were both breathing hard.
She reached into my breast pocket and took out a handkerchief. She wiped my lips with it.
"That’s better," she said.
"O.K.," I said. "Now I’ll fix us both a drink."
I had my hand in the ice bucket when we heard the knock at the door.
"What the hell?" I said.
There had been no buzzer from downstairs. Just a knock at my apartment door.
I looked at Jean Dahl.
She was standing very tensely, listening. The color had drained out of her face.
"I’ll see who it is," I said.
"Don’t," she said. "Please don’t open it."
"What are you talking about?" I said. I started for the door. "It’s probably the janitor or somebody..."
I unlatched the door.
There were two men standing there, blocking the door.
A short one and a tall one. They were both heavyset, dark, nondescript-looking men. They both wore dark suits. And terrible neckties. Their faces were completely expressionless.
"Yes?" I said. "What is it?"
Neither of them spoke.
The tall one put his hand on my chest and pushed very hard. I was off balance and fell backward.
The two men came into the apartment and closed the door behind them.
"What the hell is this?" I said.
Jean Dahl had control of herself again. You would not have known that a moment before her eyes had been wide with panic.
"So there’s going to be rough stuff," she said. Her voice was very cool.
"Where is it?" the short one said. "There doesn’t have to be any rough stuff, you know."
I picked up a whisky bottle from the bar and threw it at the tall one as hard as I could. It hit him on the shoulder, and bounced off onto the carpet. Oddly enough it did not break. He ignored it completely. I didn’t see the short one swing at me. All I knew was that I was on the floor and my mouth felt crushed.
I picked myself up.
The tall one was very casually putting the bottle back on the bar.
"Sit quietly on the couch," Shorty said.
Jean Dahl and I sat quietly on the couch.
The big one picked up her purse and dumped the contents on the coffee table.
There was the usual junk. Lipstick, compact, cigarettes, keys, letters, Kleenex. There was one unusual item. A small automatic pistol.
Very casually the little one poked around in the pile of junk. Without comment he put the gun in his pocket. He didn’t find anything that interested him in the pile. He nodded toward the tall one.
The tall one went into the bathroom. I could hear him opening the medicine chest and dumping things out.
"What’s going on here?" I said. "What do you think you’re doing?"
The little one ignored my question and kept watching us.
"These friends of yours?" I said to Jean. She didn’t answer.
After a while, the tall one came out of the bathroom. He had taken off his coat and had rolled up his shirt sleeves. His arm was wet. He shook his head.
"Nothing doing," he said. "I even checked inside the can."
Then he went into the kitchenette. All three of us—Jean Dahl, the short man and I—watched him. He dumped out cans, ripped up the oilcloth from shelves, emptied the cabinets. He opened the refrigerator and emptied every container and jar. He took his time. He did a very thorough job.
"What are you looking for?" I said. Neither of them paid the slightest attention to me.
I jumped up and dove for the telephone. The short one knocked the phone out of my hand and hit me again. And, very casually, he picked up the phone and replaced it on the table.
When the big one had finished in the kitchen he went into the bedroom. He dumped out all the bureau drawers. Went through all my clothes. He ripped up the mattress with a long, ugly razorblade in a holder. He rolled back the rug and searched under it.
He shredded the curtains, and took down the pictures. He broke open the picture frames and examined the backs. He cut up my three suitcases into ribbons.
He was in no hurry at all.
I could feel the pulse pounding in my head. I watched the whole thing as if it were a dream or a movie or something that I was in no way involved in. I felt like a spectator. And my mouth hurt.
At one point the telephone rang. Nobody said anything. The tall one did not even stop his methodical searching. I made no move to answer it. It rang seven times. Finally it stopped.
When the tall one had finished with the bedroom, they both went to work on the living room. They took down every book on the shelves, dumping each one on the floor when they had finished with it. They went through every cupboard. They tore up the upholstery, and ripped the back off the TV set, and tore the radio-phonograph apart. They held the whisky bottles up to the light but they didn’t break them.
They were suspicious of one table. They broke the legs off it and examined them for secret hiding places.
The blinds were drawn, but they examined them without actually opening them or tearing them down. They broke the big mirror that had hung above the fireplace and examined the wall behind it. They smashed three pottery lamps.
They did it all with no unnecessary noise.
Completely impersonally and without emotion.
They went through all the papers on my desk. They examined every paper in my file. They went back to the kitchenette and ripped the electric clock off the wall.
When they had finished, everything breakable in the apartment was broken, every movable object was piled on the floor, and every piece of fabric had been ripped open. Cushions on the couch and the two easy chairs were foam rubber, so they did not pull them apart.
The search took them over two hours.
And they still had not found what they wanted.
There was no conversation between the two men. They seemed to know exactly what they were doing. The tall one picked Jean Dahl’s beaver coat up from the chair, went through the two pockets and then, very carefully, starting with the lining, cut it to shreds with his razor. Then the short one sighed and motioned to Jean Dahl.
"Shoes," he said.
She did not speak, but she made no move to give him her shoes.
He reached down and slapped her face very hard. He did not do it as if he enjoyed doing it. He did it in the same way that he had wrecked the apartment.
Then he said, "Shoes."
"Go to hell," Jean Dahl said.
He slapped her face again, even harder. He slapped her so hard her head snapped back. His hand left a bright red welt on her face. She did not make a sound.
"Shoes," he said.
Jean Dahl leaned down and took off her shoes.
They were black pumps with high heels. He broke off the heels, examined them, ripped out the lining with his razor. He cut the shoes to pieces. Then he threw them on the floor.
"Get up," he said.
There was no expression at all on Jean Dahl’s face. Her eyes told you nothing. Slowly, she stood up.
"Dress," he said.
For a moment I thought she was going to resist and he was going to slap her again.
I tried to speak but no words came out. My hands were icy cold and my shirt was soaked with sweat.
Very slowly Jean Dahl took off her dress and handed it to him.
Under it she was wearing a brassiere and half slip.
He examined the black dress with his usual care. There was no hiding place where anything could possibly be hidden. Except the shields. He tore them out and ripped them open.
"The rest of it," he snapped.
She took off her half slip. She reached back and unfastened the brassiere. Then she stepped out of her pants.
She let them fall to the floor. He reached down and picked them up. He examined them briefly and dropped them.
She had a beautiful body, with full high breasts and slim hips. Neither of them seemed to notice.
The big one ran his hands quickly through her hair. They opened her mouth and the little one ran his finger around her teeth and gums. Their hands went over every inch of her body. Very impersonally. Very coolly.
They bent her over and the little one finished the examination using a small flashlight.
They did not find what they were looking for.
She bent down and put on her dress. She didn’t bother with the underwear.
As methodical as they had been, she picked up the junk on the table and put everything back in her purse. She picked up her underwear and rolled it into a small ball and put it in her purse too.
The little one sighed and then he turned to me.
"Shoes," he said.
I don’t know quite what happened. I hadn’t known I was going to do it when I bent down to untie my shoes. It all seemed to be happening to someone else.
I bent down and came up again like a spring uncoiling, with my knee hitting the little one squarely in the groin. He screamed in agony and lay rolling on the floor. I picked up the coffee table and threw it at the big one.
I was screaming hysterically myself. I felt like I’d suddenly gone insane.
I saw Jean racing for the door. She was standing fumbling with the lock when the big one caught her. I hit him four or five times with a chair. I kicked him and threw myself at him when the chair finally broke. Jean darted out the door. I slammed the door hard as Jean started running down the corridor. I stood with my back to it kicking and swinging while he tried to drag me away. When he finally got the door open Jean had disappeared. Now, suddenly, I was over my insanity. I watched him come back into the room and very quietly lock the door. I was sick with terror.
The little one had picked himself up off the floor. His face was still contorted with pain. The two of them moved in on me. I started to scream, but the fist stopped the sound in my throat.
It happened very fast and I’m not sure exactly what they did. They kept me conscious for a good part of it. I remember lying on the floor being kicked. That’s the last I remembered. Being kicked.
Copyright © 1952 by George Axelrod.