Excerpt

Beast in View

Margaret Millar

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Beast in View, Margaret Millar’s Edgar-winning novel of suspense, first published in 1955, and now reissued by Syndicate Books through Soho Press. In this scene, a woman receives a phone call from a malevolent force linked to her own dark past, and enlists a low-rent private eye to assist.

The voice was quiet, smiling. “Is that Miss Clarvoe?”

“Yes.”

“You know who this is?”

“No.”

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“A friend.”

“I have a great many friends,” Miss Clarvoe lied. In the mirror above the telephone stand she saw her mouth repeating the lie, enjoying it, and she saw her head nod in quick affirmation—this lie is true, yes, this is a very true lie. Only her eyes refused to be convinced. Embarrassed, they blinked and glanced away.

“We haven’t seen each other for a long time,” the girl’s voice said. “But I’ve kept track of you, this way and that. I have a crystal ball.”

“I—beg your pardon?”

“A crystal ball that you look into the future with. I’ve got one. All my old friends pop up in it once in a while. Tonight it was you.”

“Me.” Helen Clarvoe turned back to the mirror. It was round, like a crystal ball, and her face popped up in it, an old friend, familiar but unloved; the mouth thin and tight as if there was nothing but a ridge of bone under the skin, the light brown hair clipped short like a man’s, revealing ears that always had a tinge of mauve as if they were forever cold, the lashes and brows so pale that the eyes themselves looked naked and afraid. An old friend in a crystal ball.

She said carefully, “Who is this, please?”

“Evelyn. Remember? Evelyn Merrick.”

“Oh, yes.”

“You remember now?”

“Yes.” It was another lie, easier than the first. The name meant nothing to her. It was only a sound, and she could not separate or identify it any more than she could separate the noise of one car from another in the roar of traffic from the Boulevard three floors down. They all sounded alike, Fords and Austins and Cadillacs and Evelyn Merrick.

“You still there, Miss Clarvoe?”

“Yes.”

“I heard your old man died.”

“Yes.”

“I heard he left you a lot of money.”

“That’s my business.”

“Money is a great responsibility. I might be able to help you.”

“Thank you, I don’t require any help.”

“You may soon.”

“Then I shall deal with the problem myself, without the help from any stranger.”

“Stranger?” There was a rasp of annoyance in the repetition. “You said you remembered me.”

“I was merely trying to be polite.”

“Polite. Always the lady, eh, Clarvoe? Or pretending to be. Well, one of these days you’ll remember me with a bang. One of these days I’ll be famous; my body will be in every art museum in the country. Everyone will get a chance to admire me. Does that make you jealous, Clarvoe?”

“I think you’re—mad.”

“Mad? Oh no. I’m not the one who’s mad. It’s you, Clarvoe. You’re the one who can’t remember. And I know why you can’t remember. Because you’re jealous of me, you’re so jealous you’ve blacked me out.”

“That’s not true,” Miss Clarvoe said shrilly. “I don’t know you. I’ve never heard of you. You’re making a mistake.”

“I don’t make mistakes. What you need, Clarvoe, is a crystal ball so you could remember your old friends. Maybe I should send you mine. Then you could see yourself in it, too. Would you like that? Or would you be afraid? You’ve always been such a coward, my crystal ball might scare you out of your poor little wits. I have it right here with me. Shall I tell you what I see?”

“No—stop this. . .”

“I see you, Clarvoe.”

“No. . .”

“Your face is right in front of me, real bright and clear. But there’s something wrong with it. Ah, I see now. You’ve been in an accident. You are mutilated. Your forehead is slashed open, your mouth is bleeding, blood, blood all over, blood all over . . .”

Miss Clarvoe’s arm reached out and swept the telephone off the stand. It lay on its side on the floor, unbroken, purring.

Miss Clarvoe sat, stiff with terror. In the crystal ball of the mirror her face was unchanged, unmutilated. The forehead was smooth, the mouth prim and self-contained, the skin paper-white, as if there was no blood left to bleed. Miss Clarvoe’s bleeding had been done, over the years, in silence, internally.

When the rigidity of shock began to recede, she leaned down and picked up the telephone and placed it back on the stand.

She could hear the switchboard operator saying, “Number please. This is the operator. Number please. Did you wish to call a number, pullease?”

She wanted to say, Give me the police, the way people did in plays, very casually, as if they were in the habit of calling the police two or three times a week. Miss Clarvoe had never called the police in her life, had never, in all her thirty years, even talked to a policeman. She was not afraid of them; it was simply a fact that she had nothing in common with them. She did not commit crimes, or have anything to do with people who did, or have any crimes committed against her.

“Your number, please.”

“Is that—is that you, June?”

“Why, yes, Miss Clarvoe. Gee, when you didn’t answer, I thought maybe you’d fainted or something.”

“I never faint.” Another lie. It was becoming a habit, a hobby, like stringing beads. A necklace of lies. “What time is it, June?”

“About nine-thirty.”

“Are you very busy?”

“Well, I’m practically alone at the switchboard. Dora’s got flu. I’m warding off an attack of it myself.”

Miss Clarvoe suspected from the note of self-pity in her voice and the slight slurring of her words that June had been warding off the flu in a manner not approved by the management or by Miss Clarvoe herself. She said, “Will you be going off duty soon?”

“In about half an hour.”

“Would you—that is, I’d appreciate it very much if you’d come up to my suite before you go home.”

“Why, is there anything wrong, Miss Clarvoe?”

“Yes.”

“Well, gee whizz, I didn’t do any. . .”

“I shall expect you here shortly after ten, June.”

“Well, all right, but I still don’t see what I. . .”

Miss Clarvoe hung up. She knew how to deal with June and others like her. One hung up. One severed connections.

What Miss Clarvoe did not realize was that she had severed too many connections in her life, she had hung up too often, too easily, on too many people. Now, at thirty, she was alone. The telephone no longer rang, and when someone knocked on her door, it was the waiter bringing up her dinner, or the woman from the beauty parlour to cut her hair, or the bellboy, with the morning paper. There was no longer anyone to hang up on except a switchboard operator who used to work in her father’s office, and a lunatic stranger with a crystal ball.

She had hung up on the stranger, yes, but not quickly enough. It was as if her loneliness had compelled her to listen; even words of evil were better than no words at all.

She crossed the sitting-room and opened the French door that led on to the little balcony. There was room on the balcony for just one chair, and here Miss Clarvoe sat and watched the boulevard three flights down. It was jammed with cars and alive with lights. The sidewalks swarmed with people, the night was full of the noises of living. They struck Miss Clarvoe’s ears strangely, like sounds from another planet.

A star appeared in the sky, a first star, to wish on. But Miss Clarvoe made no wish. The three flights of steps that separated her from the people on the boulevard were as infinite as the distance to the star.

***

June arrived late after a detour through the bar and up the back staircase which led to the door of Miss Clarvoe’s kitchenette. Sometimes Miss Clarvoe herself used this back staircase. June had often seen her slipping in or out like a thin, frightened ghost trying to avoid real people.

The door of the kitchenette was locked. Miss Clarvoe locked everything. It was rumored around the hotel that she kept a great deal of money hidden in her suite because she didn’t trust banks. But this was a common rumor, usually started by the bellboys, who enjoyed planning various larcenies when they were too broke to play the horses.

June didn’t believe the rumor. Miss Clarvoe locked things up because she was the kind of person who always locked things up whether they were valuable or not.

June knocked on the door and waited, swaying a little, partly because the martini had been double, and partly because a radio down the hall was playing a waltz and waltzes always made her sway. Back and forth her scrawny little body moved under the cheap plaid coat.

Miss Clarvoe’s voice cut across the music like a knife through butter. “Who’s there?”

June put her hand on the door jambs to steady herself.

“It’s me. June.”

The door was unchained and unbolted. “You’re late.”

“I had an errand to do first.”

“Yes, I see.” Miss Clarvoe knew what the errand was; the kitchenette already reeked of it. “Come into the other room.”

“I can stay only a minute. My aunt will. . .”

“Why did you use the back stairs?”

“Well, I didn’t know exactly what you wanted me for, and I thought if it was something I’d done wrong I didn’t want the others to see me coming up here and getting  nosy.”

“You haven’t done anything wrong, June. I only wanted to ask you a few questions.” Miss Clarvoe smiled, in a kindly way. She knew how to deal with June and people like her. One smiled. Even in an agony of fear and uncertainty, one smiled. “Have you ever seen my suite before, June?”

“No.”

“Never?”

“How could I? You never asked me up before, and I didn’t get my job here until after you moved in.”

“Perhaps you’d like to look around a bit?”

“No. No thanks, Miss Clarvoe. I’m in kind of a hurry.”

“A drink, then. Perhaps you’d like a drink?” One smiled. One coaxed. One offered drinks. One did anything to avoid being alone, waiting for the telephone to ring again. “I have some nice sherry. I’ve been keeping it for—well, in case of callers.”

“I guess a nip of sherry wouldn’t hurt me,” June said virtuously. “Especially as I’m coming down with flu.”

Miss Clarvoe led the way down the hall into the sitting-room and June followed, looking around curiously now that Miss Clarvoe’s back was turned.

But there was very little to see. All the doors in the hall were closed, it was impossible to tell what was behind any of them, a closet or a bedroom or a bathroom.

Behind the last door was the sitting-room. Here Miss Clarvoe spent her days and nights, reading in the easy chair by the window, lying on the divan, writing letters at the walnut desk: Dear Mother: I am well . . . glorious weather . . . Christmas is coming . . . my best to Douglas.  .  .  Dear Mr. Blackshear: Regarding those hundred shares of Atlas . . .

Her mother lived six miles west, in Beverly Hills, and Mr. Blackshear’s office was no more than a dozen blocks down the boulevard, but Miss Clarvoe hadn’t seen either of them for a long time.

She poured the sherry from the decanter on the coffee table. “Here you are, June.”

“Gee, thanks, Miss Clarvoe.”

“Sit down, won’t you?”

“All right. Sure.”

June sat down in the easy chair by the window and Miss Clarvoe watched her, thinking how much she resembled a bird, with her quick, hopping movements and her bright, greedy eyes and her bony little hands. A sparrow, in spite of the blonde hair and the gaudy plaid coat, a drunken sparrow feeding on sherry instead of crumbs.

And, watching June, Miss Clarvoe wondered for the first time what Evelyn Merrick looked like.

She said carefully, “I had a telephone call an hour ago, June, about nine-thirty. I’d be very—grateful for any information you can give me about the call.”

“You mean, where it came from?”

“Yes.”

“I wouldn’t know that, Miss Clarvoe, unless it was long distance. I took three, four long distance calls tonight, but none of them was for you.”

“You recall ringing my room, though, don’t you?”

“I don’t know.”

“Think hard.”

“Well, sure, Miss Clarvoe. I am thinking hard, real hard.” The girl screwed up her face to maintain the illusion. “Only it’s like this, see. If someone calls and asks for Miss Clarvoe, then I’d remember it for sure, but if someone just asks for room 425, well, that’s different, see.”

“Whoever called me, then, knew the number of this suite.”

“I guess.”

“Why do you guess, June?”

The girl fidgeted on the edge of the chair, and her eyes kept shifting towards the door and then to Miss Clarvoe and back to the door. “I don’t know.”

“You said you guessed, June.”

“I only meant I—I can’t remember ringing 425 tonight.”

“Are you calling me a liar, June?”

“Oh no, Miss Clarvoe, I should say not, Miss Clarvoe. Only. . .”

“Well?”

“I don’t remember, is all.”

They were the final words of the interview. There were no thank-you’s or farewells or see-you-soon’s. Miss Clarvoe rose and unlocked the door. June darted out into the corridor. And Miss Clarvoe was alone again.

Laughter from the next room vibrated against the wall and voices floated in through the open French door of the balcony:

“Honestly, George, you’re a kick, a real kick.”

“Listen to the girl, how cute she talks.”

“Hey, for Pete’s sake, who took the opener?”

“What do you think the good Lord gave you teeth for?”

“What the Lord gaveth, the Lord tooketh away.”

“Dolly, where in hell did you put the opener?”

“I don’t remember.”

I don’t remember, is all.

Miss Clarvoe sat down at the walnut desk and picked up the gold fountain pen her father had given her for her birthday years ago.

She wrote: Dear Mother: It has been a long time since I’ve heard from you. I hope that all is hell with you and Douglas.

She stared at what she had written, subconsciously aware that a mistake had been made but not seeing it at first. It looked so right, somehow: I hope that all is hell with you and Douglas.

I meant to say well, Miss Clarvoe thought. It was a slip of the pen. I hold no resentment against her. It’s all this noise—I can’t concentrate—those awful people next door. . .

“Sometimes you behave like an ape, Harry.”

“Send down for some bananas, somebody. Harry’s hungry.”

“So what’s so funny?”

“Take a joke, can’t you. Can’t you take a joke?”

Miss Clarvoe closed and locked the French doors.

Perhaps that’s what the telephone call was, she thought. Just a joke. Just someone, probably someone who worked in the hotel, trying to frighten her a little because she was wealthy and because she was considered somewhat odd. Miss Clarvoe realized that these qualities made her a natural victim for jokers; she had become adjusted to that fact years ago, and behind-the-hand snickers no longer disturbed her the way they had in school.

It was settled then. The girl with the crystal ball was a joke. Evelyn Merrick didn’t exist. And yet the very name was beginning to sound so familiar that Miss Clarvoe was no longer absolutely certain she hadn’t heard it before.

She pulled the curtains closed across the windows and returned to her letter.

I hope that all is hell with you and Douglas.

She crossed out hell and inserted well.

I hope that all is well with you and Douglas. I don’t though. I don’t hope anything. I don’t care.

She tore the sheet of paper across the middle and placed it carefully in the wastebasket beside her desk. She had nothing really to say to her mother, never had, never would have. The idea of asking her for advice or comfort or help was absurd. Mrs. Clarvoe had none of these things to give, even if Helen had dared to ask.

The party in the next room had reached the stage of song. “Down by the Old Mill Stream.” “Harvest Moon.” “Daisy, Daisy.” Sometimes in close harmony, sometimes far.

A hot gust of anger and resentment swept through Miss Clarvoe’s body. They had no right to make so much noise at this time of night. She would have to rap on the wall to warn them, and if that didn’t work she would call the manager.

She started to rise but her heel caught in the rung of the chair and she fell forward, her face grazing the sharp edge of the desk. She lay still, tasting the metallic saltiness of blood, listening to the throbbing of the pulse in her temples and the panic beat of her heart.

After a time she pulled herself to her feet and moved slowly and stiffly across the room towards the mirror above the telephone stand. There was a slight scratch on her forehead and one corner of her mouth was bleeding where the underlip had been bit by a tooth.

“. . . I have a crystal ball. I see you now. Real bright and clear. You’ve been in an accident. Your forehead is gashed, your mouth is bleeding. . . .”

A cry for help rose inside Miss Clarvoe’s throat. Help  me, someone! Help me, Mother—Douglas—Mr. Blackshear. . .

But the cry was never uttered. It stuck in her throat, and presently Miss Clarvoe swallowed it as she had swallowed a great many cries.

I am not really hurt. I must be sensible. Father always boasted to people how sensible I am. Therefore I must not become hysterical. I must think of something very sensible to do.

She went back to her desk and picked up her pen and took out a fresh sheet of notepaper.

Dear Mr. Blackshear:

You may recall that, at my father’s funeral, you offered to give me advice and help if the occasion should ever arise. I do not know whether you said this because it is the kind of thing  one  says  at  funerals, or whether you sincerely  meant it. I hope it was the latter, because the occasion, you may have already inferred, has arisen. I believe that I have become the victim of a lunatic. . . .

__________________________________

Excerpted from Beast in View, copyright © 2018 by Soho Syndicate. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Soho Syndicate. All rights reserved.




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