Read Black Curtain Online

Authors: Cornell Woolrich

Black Curtain (21 page)


"I think I must have gotten some myself. I dozed off across the hall there, in the little side room where I usually wheeled the old man.


"Ruth and the cook were finishing up the lunch dishes, fast and noisy, in the kitchen at the back. Both of them had a half day off. They had planned to catch the two o'clock bus into the village. And the murderers knew it. So they weren't taking any chances in leaving first; they were making things look more plausible. Harry was a grouch and tyrant; none of the help would have dared come near this place to disturb him once he'd closed himself in for his afternoon nap. And naturally his brother, and his wife knew that, too.


"So they came down the stairs, ready to leave. She got the car out and brought it around to the door, and he--here's what he did."


He reached toward one of the motionless figures standing around him. "Give me the shotgun. Has it been loaded?"


"I reloaded it before we came out."


Townsend took it over to the door with him, turned the knob, opened and closed the door without moving from it, then came forward again shotgun in hand.


"By that, I mean he stepped quickly aside to the storage closet behind the stairs, when he followed her down, and got this out. It was always kept there. It was all readied and primed from the night before, he'd seen to that. He stepped quickly in here with it. Only one pair of eyes saw him, and he didn't give a hang about them, because they were set in a head that couldn't talk.


"He came in here with the gun, and he cocked it open so that the charge was exposed, and he laid it down across the stand like this."


He lowered it carefully, so that its foreshortened muzzle pointed straight at the lamp propped in the corner of the settee.


"There were marks on this table to guide him. Not the kind you might have found when you looked around later. But marks just the same. These crevices between the tiles, to act as parallels of latitude and longitude. To make them workable all he had to do was adjust the feet of the stand itself on the floor, shift it slightly forward or back, so that this diamond of light would be sure to fall on and follow the lengthwise seam between the tiles for a considerable distance over, before it finally curved off it. And the crosswise seams, they were like the hands of a clock. He'd carefully timed it ahead of time, found out just how long it would take the light mote to travel along from one to the next. What it amounted to, I don't know. Say it was ten minutes. One and a half tile widths then would give him a quarter of an hour. Much the same basic principle as a sundial.


"So all right. He didn't put the gun immediately under the light mote. That wouldn't have given him any headway. He set what amounted to a time bomb. He set the gun down a certain distance to the right, still far off side from the combustive diamond, but in a straight line along which it was bound to pass in a given number of minutes. Say I foreshorten it for our purposes, make it a half square."


He did so. Stepped around and away from it, and motioned his gallery likewise. "All this didn't take him as long as it has taken me to tell it. He stepped out again, closed the doors behind him. Alma, at his prearranged signal, called in to him at the top of her lungs, 'Hurry up, Bill. We'll miss that train!' For the benefit of the two in the kitchen. He got into the car with her and they drove away.


"That was all he did. Brought the gun out of the closet, stepped in here with it, laid it down on a ready-made plotted square on this table, centered at his sleeping brother. He certainly didn't fire it. But that, gentlemen, was the murder of Harry Diedrich, of which I was accused.


"You can take out your watches and time it, if you care to. Or just stand quietly a few minutes and wait for it to happen."


One of them did the former; Ames watched.


It was crawling slowly along the transverse, but too slowly for the eye to detect motion in it.


Once Ames said, perhaps to break the tension of waiting, "How could they be sure of picking up this Struthers, from the next estate down the road, so they'd have an outside, corroboratory witness?"


Townsend shrugged. "Hard to know. But I'd take a guess at it. Maybe she did a little quiet checking up in the morning to find out what neighbor was planning to go to town."


It had hit the exposed powder magazine of the gun now. It lay across it, like a vivid yellow leaf, luminous where all else was cool blue shade.


Minutes slowly went by. You couldn't see it move, but it was moving all the time. You could tell that only in relation to the things around it.


It was starting to slip off the magazine again, on the opposite side.


They watched in silent intensity. Once or twice a face would turn to Townsend, questioningly, then back again without saying anything.


A querulous thread of black unraveled from the open magazine; then freed itself, broke off short, went up into nothingness. No more followed.


Three of the diamond's points were past it now, on the other side of the tiling surface. The fourth still lingered across it, but was retreating fast.


"I get what you were trying to show us," Ames said at last, "but it looks like this time it's not going to pay aw--"


There was a malignant little flash, that made them all jump. Then a jet of red orange shot out the opposite end of the barrel, an angry roar rattled the tiled stand and the panes around on three sides of the enclosure, and a great broil of acrid, sickening smoke huffed out.


Only the base of the lamp remained, nestled in the lower inside corner of the settee. The dome, the bulbs, the supporting stem, had been shorn off clean.


"That," Townsend said, "was Harry Diedrich's head."


"So that's how it was," Ames said.


"That's how it was," Townsend concurred.


"Could be," Ames said. "But don't forget that one honest witness saw you running out of that room with the gun in your hand."


"Lucky for me the old man saw that too," Townsend said. "I was asleep in the room next door. The shot woke me up and I ran in to see what had happened. Evidently I picked up the gun and ran out of the house holding it in my hand. I must have seen the car driving up. I was shouting with excitement." Townsend shrugged. "Naturally they played that for all it was worth. It was a cinch for them to convince Mr. Struthers, who'd been brought back just to be convinced, that I was running out with the gun in my hand to kill them too. Alma probably let out a couple of good loud screams so that Struthers couldn't hear what I was shouting."


"Nice set up," Ames said. There was a sort of grudging respect in his voice.


They filed out of the house and got into the car. The cop on sentinel duty shifted over closer beside the chair out front, put his hand tentatively on the back of it. You could tell he was going to relapse into it as soon as they'd cleared out.


The Diedrich house irised out behind them like something that had never been. Trees got in the way, and it was gone. Somebody looked back. It wasn't Townsend.


"Where do I stand now?" he asked presently.


Ames fingered the edges of the brief case holding an official transcription of Emil Diedrich's optical telegrams. "I'm turning this account of his in to the public prosecutor's office, and of course I'm making out my own report, which'll include what you just showed us. Technically, it won't be in my hands any more from that point on. But--" He gave Townsend an encouraging look. "I don't think you've got much to worry about. They'll put you through the formality of having the murder charges against you dismissed; and then you'll probably be remanded into my custody as a material witness against Harry Diedrich's widow. It won't be much different from being on probation, having to stick around for a certain length of time until the trial's over with. I'll do what I can to make it easy on you."


He began forthwith, as soon as they had reached the constabulary, which formed part of the same building as the jail. "The prisoner's having his meal with me, out here in my office," he informed the guard. "I'll send him back to you later."


He had their dinners sent in from the restaurant across the square, ordered a couple of bottles of beer to be sent with it.


"Gee this must feel funny to you," Townsend said, "sitting here having a quiet meal with me of all people, the guy you were trying so long to get."


"Yeah," Ames admitted. He finished the beer in his glass. "Let's let it go at this. I was after a guy named Dan Nearing. I lost him someplace along the way, between here and Tillary Street. I don't think he'll ever show up again--there or anywhere else." He grinned.


Townsend saw that the gray eyes were friendly.




The train was coming in. The train back to the present. Back to Virginia. You could hear its hiss and rumble up the yards. It took a slight turn outward, then straightened out again and fanned by, only stopping after you had given up hope and thought it was going to miss New Jericho entirely.


Ames, and the man who was now merely a material witness in the forthcoming case against Alma Diedrich, and the deputy who was to accompany the material witness, had to chase up the platform to keep abreast of it.


The deputy swung aboard first. Townsend put his foot on the bottommost step, swung around to say good-by to Ames.


The latter poked a finger of reminder into his arm, in the same place where he'd once been vaccinated as a kid. "No later than Wednesday now, that was all I could get you. Did you let her know you were coming?"


"No, I'm going to walk in on her from nowhere--like I did once before. Only this time it's for keeps. I'd like to bring her back with me, only I hate to get her mixed up in all the publicity there'll be once the trial opens up."


"I'll take care of that," Ames promised. "I'll get her a room in my boarding house."


The train started to move 'again. Townsend preceded the deputy into the car, sat down by the window. He slung his hat up on the rack and leaned back. New Jericho was starting to slip backwards. Suddenly he caught sight of something out of the corner of his eye that made him shy away, as in memory of past danger.


Ames was running along opposite the window, on the platform outside, laughing at him with something that flashed metallically.


Townsend threw up the window and Ames thrust in at him the same cigarette case that he had once tried to pawn down on Tillary Street. "You left this in the office last night and I forgot to give it back to you-- What're you laughing at?"


"I dunno, life is like a circle, isn't it? We end up like we began. The first time I ever saw you, you were pacing me like that outside a moving window, trying to get in at me."


Ames fell behind, was suddenly whisked up and snatched from sight as the train began to gain its stride. It was not yet at full speed as it shrieked past the sprawling, moss-grown cemetery just outside the village.


Townsend caught a fleeting glimpse of a familiar mound. He saw the small headstone that had been his only gift to Ruth Dillon. Ruth who had given him so much, the past and the future. He raised two fingers to his temple, brought them out again in salute. Salute and farewell.


The locomotive up ahead gave a long, wailing whistle of unutterable sadness. It died away, but it hummed in Townsend's eardrums a second or two longer, like a playback. Then that went too. And with it, he knew, was gone more than the echo of a lonely train whistle over the countryside.


With it, the past was gone.




The End

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