Authors: Patrick Quentin
Tags: #Crime, #OCR
THE MAN IN THE NET
Copyright © 1956 by Patrick Quentin
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
The Man in the Net
ONLY a few days before it happened and the long nightmare began, the children were running ahead of him through the striped maple saplings and the tall ferns at the edge of the woods. A car was coming down the dirt road. John Hamilton heard it, and Emily Jones must have heard it too, for suddenly she cried:
The children—all five of them—tumbled down, disappearing from view beneath the fern fronds. John Hamilton threw himself down too. He knew the game they were playing. He’d invented it. He’d invented most of their games. (The frustrated father; that was what Linda called him when she wanted to hurt him.) He’d originated this one right here in the woods one day when he’d said to Leroy Phillips, “Think what it would feel like to be an animal. Whenever you heard a human being coming you’d shiver and say—The Enemy.” Emily Jones—it was always Emily who investigated things —had taken it up. “We’re animals! All people are the Enemy!”
That had been early in spring, but still, off and on, at a word from Emily, they’d be animals again and the world of human beings would be the world of the Enemy.
Lying there in the ferns, inhaling their green lushness and the dank, generic fungus smell of the woods, John Hamilton had almost forgotten the letter from Raines and Raines in his pocket and the ordeal with Linda which lay ahead. The children had done that. As so often before, they had performed their small miracle.
The drone of the car grew louder and louder. John Hamilton could see one of Angel Jones’ small sneakered feet thrusting out from the ferns. Timmie Moreland and Leroy Phillips somewhere nearby were completely concealed. From a little to the left he could hear Buck Ritter’s suppressed panting. Buck was fat and always short of breath. The oncoming car was just a car from Stoneville, going probably to Archertown or up the dirt road past his own house. And yet it was no longer quite “just a car”. To John, with his artist’s susceptibility to the mood of others, the tenseness of the invisible children, the strength of their temporary belief, had changed the quality of everything. It was Danger coming; it was the Unknown, the menacing—the Enemy.
Then the car came into view. It was his own old black sedan and his wife was driving it.
For a moment, as the car slid past them, it assumed for John the unnatural significance of an object grotesquely magnified on a movie screen. Linda was alone in the car, and yet she was smiling her public smile which he knew so well—straight, frank, uncomplicated from the eyes to show what a straight, frank, uncomplicated person she was, and then the slight downward droop of the corners of the mouth to indicate that the frankness wasn’t just naiveté, that there were wry, New-Yorkish subtleties too.
She’d been, he knew, into Pittsfield to have her hair done. She’d left just after he’d picked up the mail at the village post-office where Emily and Angel’s mother presided as postmistress, and he’d deliberately let her go without telling her about Charlie Raines’ letter in order to give himself these few hours of respite. Watching her, absurdly hiding from her, he could imagine her under the dryer, charming Madame Whatever-her-name-was all over again with her naturalness and her extra sparkle which, so definitely, put her above the other dowdier customers. She’d left the beauty parlor smiling that way —and waving. But now, when the smile no longer had a purpose, it was still there. She was, of course, smiling for herself. She, too, was part of her own public.
Suddenly, pity for her, which so often came at the worst moments, the pity hardly of love any more but of total understanding, engulfed him, undermining him. Linda! he thought, his throat aching. Poor Linda. The illusion of release which the children and their game had brought was shattered. He had reassumed his burden.
The car disappeared from view up the road toward his house. For a moment there was nothing but the smooth fronds of the ferns, undulating and gleaming in the afternoon sunlight.. Then Emily’s voice sounded, high and wailing in a mystic chant.
“Fellow animals—chipmunks, woodchucks, flying squirrels—O fellow animals of the woods, hearken. The danger is past. The Enemy has departed.”
She sprang up then from the ferns and all the other children were jumping up too—Buck, fat and red-faced; Timmie Moreland, skinny and tense as a fox-terrier; Leroy, his teeth gleaming white against the golden brown of his skin. Angel Jones, who was always prissy about her clothes, started daintily picking scraps of dead frond from her jeans. She turned to Emily, her round, pudgy face marred by her constant need to compete with her elder sister.
“That’s a dopey game. That wasn’t the Enemy. That was only Mrs. Hamilton. Everyone knows that.”
“It wasn’t either, dope.” Emily tossed her long dark pigtail. “It was the Enemy. They’re all the Enemy.” She turned to John. “Aren’t they, John? All people, all of them, are the Enemy. Fathers, mothers, wives, everything.”
“Sure,” said John, feeling awkward now and out of place. “When you’re animals, they’re the Enemy.” What the heck was he doing here anyway? A grown man fooling around with a bunch of kids at this of all times.
“I’m a beaver,” shouted Buck Ritter.
“I’m an old muskrat,” yelled Leroy.
Timmie Moreland, his voice high and reedy, cried, “I’m a big black bear.”
Angel Jones, suddenly infected by it all, danced madly around, waving her arms, pursing up her lips. “And I’m a skunk. Look, everybody. I’m a skunk.”
John said, “Well, kids, I’ve got to be getting home.”
“No,” they cried. “No.”
Emily threw her arms around his waist. “John, dear, dearest John, you said you’d come swimming.”
“Yes,” said Timmie. “You promised.”
“You promised,” said Angel. “Mean, nasty, dopey old dope. You promised to come swimming.”
Leroy Phillips, very shyly, put his hand in John’s. His fingers were warm and dry like an animal’s paw. “Please, Mr. Hamilton.”
John dropped down through the ferns on to the road and waved.
“See you, kids. Tomorrow, maybe.”
“Tomorrow!” they yelled. “We’ll see you tomorrow. You promised. Tomorrow.”
“Look, Buck.” He heard Angel’s shrill, excited voice. “I’m a woodpecker. I’m a great big woodpecker with a great big woodpecking nose.”
John Hamilton started to walk home.
It wasn’t far. The woods, huge, silent, almost as primitive as when the Algonquins had hunted in them, stretched on either side of the road. He had to go away from the village of Stoneville about a quarter of a mile up the hill and turn over the little bridge across the creek. Then he would be at the house.
The pity for Linda had not left him. She would be mad keen to go back to New York. Of course she would. Linda could always forget what she wanted to forget. New York would now be the Eldorado. As he walked through the bland summer sunshine, bracing himself for the inevitable battle, he was already partially defeated because he hadn’t even yet learned to harden his heart against his wife. It wasn’t just because he still so often remembered her as she was or had seemed to be when he had first fallen in love with her, it wasn’t even resignation to the fact that he was indispensable to her because she had nothing to buttress her but him—no family and no real friends, either, for all her play-acting at friendship. It was more than that. It was the knowledge that she couldn’t help herself. When she lied and boasted and deceived herself and even, in her worst moments with the drinking, when she so implacably tried to destroy him, he knew that she was suffering the torments of the damned. She didn’t want to be what she was; she wanted to be what she had, with his help, managed to make most people believe her to be—gay, warm, affectionate and good.
Now, long after his love had changed into something far more complicated, it was the awareness of that loneliness and terror which shackled John to her. He realized all the dangers, but there it was. Linda was Linda and she was his wife. John Hamilton was not equipped to take his human relationships lightly.
He reached the turn in the dirt road. In front of him, over the little wooden bridge, the house which ten months ago had seemed the symbol of “the new life” perched in its orchard of venerable apple trees. As he saw it, the temptation came: Why tell Linda about the letter at all? Why not just write to Charlie Raines without letting her know anything about it? Things were bad enough as it was. But he instantly recognized the temptation as a temptation. Sooner or later she’d be bound to find out. Mrs. Raines or someone would write to her. Besides shirking this issue would be just another step downward. He knew what had to be done about the Raines and Raines offer. He had never been surer of anything. If he was going to keep any self-respect or any real relationship with his wife, he would have to put his cards on the table, whatever Linda might choose to do about it.
He started to visualize the scene ahead and felt the beginnings of panic. To steady himself, he thought of the quintet of children—Emily, Timmie, Leroy, Buck, Angel —those improbable allies who had drifted by chance into his life and done so much to make the last year endurable. Once again the children’s charm worked.
He had walked up to the house and around it toward the back door before he saw the second car parked by his own in front of the old hay barn he had made over into a studio. He recognized it as Steve Ritter’s. Buck Ritter’s father was the owner of the local gas-station-ice cream parlor and had, that year, been elected Stoneville cop. Like most of the village people, Steve was one of Linda’s conquests. She was always complaining about his habit of stopping by for a beer. (
Why should I be stuck with these dreadful bores?
) But it had been her own doing, of course. When they first arrived in Stoneville, before she had got to know the wealthy residents, old Mr. Carey, the young Careys, the Morelands and the Fishers, her constant need for admiration had made her play the folksy line to the hilt with the natives. (
Drop in any time. We’re not snooty summer people; we’re just a poor struggling artist and his wife.
Because he’d steeled himself to have it out with Linda now and because, too, he was always cripplingly shy with the people whom she had charmed on false pretenses, John cursed under his breath. He went into the kitchen and through it into the living-room.
Steve Ritter, tall and swaggeringly the local Don Juan, in blue jeans and an old work shirt, was alone, eyeing the cabinet full of phonograph records and boxes of tape recordings.
“Hi, John. You must have a couple of hundred of them things. Don’t it ever drive you nuts? All that music?”
His shrewd New England gaze flicked around the walls on which John’s pictures, just back unsold from the show in New York, were hanging. He was careful to make no comment, but the comment was made anyway. John knew exactly what the village thought of his paintings. To Stoneville they were a queer but harmless enough joke just as he himself was a joke—“that crazy guy who threw up a big-money job in New York to sit on his fanny in the country, painting pictures nobody wants to buy.”
“I was delivering a battery up to the Careys. Thought I’d drop in for a visit with your beautiful wife. She’s upstairs making herself more beautiful. She called down to wait.” Steve’s dark, handsome face was watching him with that quizzical, amusedly tolerant expression which wasn’t quite contempt and was Stoneville’s standard way of looking at John. “Well, how’s the art world? Hear you had a big show in New York the other day. Didn’t do so well, they say.”
“Not too well,” said John. So Linda had already let it out around the village that his second show in the Denham Galleries had been a spectacular failure.
Steve sprawled into a chair, stretching his legs voluptuously. “Well, boy, money isn’t everything. That’s what I always say. You’ve got your health; you’ve got enough to buy the little woman a couple of pretty dresses once in a while. Can’t expect too much, can we, John, boy? How’s about offering a guy a beer?”
John brought two cans of beer from the ice-box to the little bar-table in the living-room. As he poured them, he noticed the bottle of gin and the bottle of bourbon on the lower shelf. Should he hide the liquor? No. It would be awkward to do it in front of Steve, and Linda would notice they were gone. She would instantly guess why he had hidden them and that would only increase the danger of starting her off.