Read Phantom lady Online

Authors: Cornell Woolrich

Phantom lady


BY Cornell Woolrich

To Apartment 605, Hotel M

in unmitigated thankfulness (at not being in it any more)

'I answer not and I return no more."


1 The Hundred and Fiftieth Day Before the Execution


The night was young, and so was he. But the night was sweet, and he was sour. You could see it coming from yards away, that sullen look on his face. It was one of those sustained angers, pent-up but smoldering, that last for hours sometimes. It was a shame, too, because it was all out of tune with everything around him. It was the one jarring note in the whole scene.

It was an evening in May, at the get-together hour. The hour when half the town, under thirty, has slicked back its hair and given its billfold a refill and sauntered jauntily forth to keep that date. And the other half of the town, still under thirty, has powdered its nose and put on something special and tripped blithely forth to keep that same date. Everywhere you looked, the two halves of the town were getting together. On every corner, in every restaurant and bar. outside drugstores and inside hotel lobbies and under jewelry store clocks, and darned near every place there was that somebody else hadn't beat them to first. And the same old stuff went around and around, old as the hills but always new. "Here I am. Been waiting long?" "You look swell. Where'll we go?"

That was the kind of an evening it was. The sky was rouge red in the west, as though it was all dolled up for a date itself, and it was using a couple of stars for diamond clips to hold up its evening gown. Neons were beginning to wink out along the street vistas, flirting with the passers-by like everyone else was tonight, and taxi horns were chirping, and everyone was going some place, all at one time. The air wasn't just air, it was aerated champagne, with a whiff of Coty for good measure, and if you didn't watch out it went to your head. Or maybe your heart.

And there he went, pushing that sore face in front of him, spoiling the whole scene. People glancing at him as he strode by wondered what he had to be that ill-tempered about. It wasn't his health. Anyone that could swing along at the gait he was, must be in the pink of condition. It wasn't his circumstances. His clothes had that carelessly expensive hang that can't be faked. It wasn't his age. If he had thirty beat at all, it was by months, not years. He wouldn't have been half bad looking if he'd given his features a chance to unpucker. You could tell that around the edges where the scowl was thin.

He went striding along with that chip-on-the-shoulder look, his mouth a downturned ellipse, a horseshoe stuck under his nose. The topcoat slung across the crook of his arm bobbed up and down with the momentum of his pace. His hat was too far back on his head and it had a dent in the wrong place, as though he'd punched it on without adjusting it afterward. Probably the only reason his shoes didn't strike sparks from the pavement was because they were rubber heeled.

He hadn't intended going in where he finally did. You could tell that by the abrupt way he braked as he came opposite to it. There was no other word for the way he halted; it was as though a brace down his leg had locked, jamming him still. He probably wouldn't have even noticed the place if the intermittent neon over it hadn't glowed on just then, as he was passing. It said Anselmo's in geranium red, and

it dyed the whole sidewalk under it as though somebody had spilled a bottle of ketchup.

He swerved aside, on what was obviously an impulse, and went barging in. He found himself in a long, low-ceil-inged room, three or four steps below street level. It wasn't a large place nor, at the moment, a crowded one. It was restful on the eyes; the lighting was subdued, amber-colored, and directed upward. There was a line of little bracketed nooks with tables set in them running down both walls. He ignored them and went straight back to the bar, which was semicircular, facing toward the entrance from the rear wall. He didn't look to see who was at it, or whether anyone was at it at all. He just dumped his topcoat on top of one of the tall chairs, dropped his hat on top of it, and then sat down on the next one over. His attitude plainly implied he was there for the night.

A blurred white jacket approached just above the line of his downcast vision and a voice said, "Good evening, sir."

"Scotch," he said, "and a little water. I don't give a damn how little."

The water stayed on untouched, after its companion glass was empty.

He must have, subconsciously at the moment of sitting down, glimpsed a bowl of pretzels or some sort of accessory like that over to his right. He reached out that way without looking. His hand came down, not on a twisted baked shape but on a straight smooth one that moved slightly.

He swung his head around, took his hand off the other one that had just preceded his into the bowl. "Sorry." he grunted. "After you."

He swung his head around to his own business once more. Then he turned again, gave her a second look. He kept on looking from then on, didn't quit after that. Still in a gloomy, calculating way. though.

The unusual thing about her was the hat. It resembled

a pumpkin, not only in shape and size but in color. It was a flaming orange, so vivid it almost hurt the eyes. It seemed to light up the whole bar, like a low-hanging garden party lantern. Stemming from the exact center of it was a long thin cockerel feather, sticking straight up like the antenna of an insect. Not one woman in a thousand would have braved that color. She not only did, she got away with it. She looked startling, but good, not funny. The rest of her was toned down, reticent in black, almost invisible against that beacon of a hat. Perhaps the thing was a symbol of some sort of liberation to her. Perhaps the mood that went with it was, "When I have this on, watch out for me! The sky's the limit!"

Meanwhile, she was nibbling a pretzel and trying to seem unaware of his steady scrutiny. When she broke off nibbling, that was the only sign she gave of being aware that he had quitted his own chair, come over, and was standing beside her.

She inclined her head very slightly, in a listening attitude, as if to say, "I'm not going to stop you. if you try to speak. Whether I do after that or not, depends on what you have to say."

What he had to say, with terse directness, was, "Are you doing anything?"

"I am. and I'm not." Her answer was well-mannered, but not encouraging. She didn't smile nor commit herself to receptiveness in any way. She carried herself well; whatever else she was, she wasn't cheap.

There was no trace of the masher in his own manner, either. He went on, briskly impersonal. "If you've got an engagement, just say so. I'm not trying to annoy you."

"You're not annoying me—so far." She got her meaning across perfectly: my decision is still held in the balslnce.

His eyes went to the clock up over the bar. facing both of them. "Look, it's ten after six, right now."

Her own eyes sought it in turn. "So it is." she agreed neutrally.

He had taken out a wallet, meanwhile, extracted a small oblong envelope from one of the compartments. This he opened in turn, and prodded forward two salmon-colored pasteboard strips, forking them apart as he did so. "I have two perfectly good tickets here for the show at the Casino. Row Double-A, aisle seats. Care to take it in with me?"

"You're abrupt about it." Her eyes went from the tickets to his face.

"I have to be abrupt about it." He was scowling as deeply as ever. He wasn't even looking at her at all, he was looking at the tickets with an air of resentment. "If you have a previous engagement say so, and I'll try to find somebody else to share them with me."

A flicker of interest showed in her eyes. 'These tickets must be used up at all costs?"

"It's a matter of principle," he said sullenly.

"This could be mistaken for a very crude attempt at, shall we say, striking up an acquaintanceship," she let him know. *The reason I don't think it is, is it's so blunt, so unvarnished, it couldn't be anything but just what you say it is."

"It isn't." His face was still set in flinty lines.

She had veered slightly toward him on her chair by now. Her way of accepting was to remark, "I've always wanted to do something of this sort. I'd better do it now. The chance mayn't recur—at least not in a genuine form—for a long time."

He armed her down. "Shall we make an agreement before we start? It may make it simpler afterward, when the show is over."

"That depends on what it is."

"We're just companions for an evening. Two people having dinner together, seeing a show together. No names, no addresses, no irrelevant personal references and details. Just—"

She supplied, "Two people seeing a show together, companions for an evening. I think that's a very sensible, in fact necessary, understanding, so let's abide by it. It does

away with a great deal of self-consciousness, and perhaps even an occasional lie." She offered him her hand, and they shook briefly on it. She smiled for the first time. She had a rather likable smile; reserved, not too sugary.

He motioned the barman over, tried to pay for both drinks.

"I'd already paid for mine before you came in." she told him. "I was just coasting along on it."

The barman took a small tablet out of the pocket of his jacket, penciled / Scotch — 60 on the top leaf, tore it off and presented it to him.

They were numbered, he noticed, and he saw that he'd drawn a large, beetling, black 75 in the upper corner. He gave a wry grin, handed it back with the requisite amount, turned and went after her.

She had preceded him toward the entrance. A girl ensconced with a companion in one of the wall booths leaned slightly outward to stare after the glowing hat as it went by. He, coming up in the rear, was just in time to catch that.

Outside she turned to him, questioningly. "I'm in your hands."

He forefingered a taxi waiting a few car lengths away. One cruising past at the moment, for whom the signal had not been intended, tried to chisel in on the hail. The first one frustrated it by rolling up into position ahead of it, but not without a slight scraping of fenders and snatches of belligerent repartee. By the time the competition had sidled off again and the first driver had cooled sufficiently to turn his attention to his fares-to-be, she was already ensconced inside.

Her host had waited a moment by the driver's seat to give him the destination. "Maison Blanche," he said, and then followed her in.

The light was on, and they let it stay that way. Perhaps because to have turned it out would have been a suggestion

of intimacy, neither one felt a dim-out was appropriate to the occasion.

Presently he heard her give a little gratified chuckle, and following the direction of her eyes, grinned sparingly in accompaniment. Cabmen's license photos are seldom examples of great portrait beauty, but this one was a caricature, with its pitcher ears, receding chin, and pop eyes. The name identifying it was memorably curt and aliterative: AI Alp.

His mind took note of it, then let it go again.

The Maison Blanche was an intimate type dining room, renowned for the excellence of its food. It was one of those places over which a hush of appreciation seems to hang, even at their busiest hours. No music nor distraction of any other sort was allowed to interfere with its devotees' singleness of purpose.

In the foyer she separated from him. "Will you excuse me a moment while I go in and repair the ravages of time? Go in and sit down awhile, don't wait, I'll find you."

As the powder room door opened to admit her, he saw her hands start upward toward her hat, as if she intended to remove it. The door closed after her before she completed the gesture. It occurred to him that a temporary lapse of courage was probably the real reason behind this whole maneuver; that she had separated from him and was about to remove the hat in order to be able to enter the dining room singly after he did, and thereby attract a degree less attention.

A headwaiter greeted him at the dining room entrance. "One, sir?"

"No, I have a reservation for two." And then he gave the name. "Scott Henderson."

He found it on his list. "Ah, yes." He glanced over the guest's shoulder. "Are you alone, Mr. Henderson?"

"No," Henderson answered noncommittally.

It was the only vacant table in sight. It was in a secluded position, set back into an indentation in the wall, so that

its occupants could only be seen frontally, were screened from the rest of the diners on three sides.

When she appeared at the dining room entrance presently, she was hatless, and he was surprised at how much the hat had been able to do for her. There was something flat about her. The light had gone out; the impact of her personality was soggy, limp. She was just some woman in black, with dark brown hair; something that blocked the background, that was all. Not homely, not pretty, not tall, not small, not chic, not dowdy; not anything at all, just plain, just colorless, just a common denominator of all feminine figures everywhere. A cipher. A composite. A Gallup poll.

Not a head that turned remained turned a second longer than necessary, or carried back any continuing memory of what it had seen.

The headwaiter, momentarily engaged in tossing a salad, was not on hand to guide her. Henderson stood up to show her where he was, and she did not strike directly through the room, he noticed, but made her way unobtrusively around two sides of it, which was the longer but the far less conspicuous way.

The hat, which she had been carrying at arm's length beside her, she placed on the third chair of their table, and partly covered it with the edge of the cloth, possibly to protect it from stains.

"Do you come here often?" she asked.

He pointedly failed to hear her.

"Sorry," she relented, "that comes under the heading of personal background."

Their table waiter had a mole on his chin. He couldn't help noticing that.

He ordered for them without consulting her. She listened attentively, gave him an appreciative glance when he had finished.

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