It was not until Saturday, when he strolled down to the gate at the trill of the postman's whistle and collected four days' mail, that Conrad realized he had overlooked one detail. Exactly what were the proprieties of handling correspondence addressed to one's late wife?
[quoteright]It seemed unnecessarily abrupt simply to mark it "deceased" and return it to the sender. There were legal prohibitions, he knew, against opening someone else's letters. Probably they were meant to protect the privacy of the writer as well, even if the recipient were past caring. Conrad had great respect for the law; for all its shortcomings, it worked, and justice was usually served in the long run. He had, in any event, no desire to eavesdrop on the sordid little secrets Jocelyn had exchanged with her old college chums.
Conrad smiled grimly at the thought of consulting Ann Landers on the matter. If a few adroit lines from an advice columnist had been equal to his problems, Jocelyn might still have been there to receive her own letters.
The gravel crunched pleasantly beneath his feet. He enjoyed the walk down the long, shaded drive for its own sake. Through the firs and spruces and the towering oaks and poplars, Sapphire Lake gleamed like a brilliant faceted gem. On its far shore nestled the cozy rooftops of Hadley. About the grounds, Conrad felt himself the lord of the manor, with his kennels, his rifle range, his orchards, and his favorite trails for solitary walks. Within the lofty walls beyond the pillared facade, he was but the serf whose toil kept milady in satins and silks. But not any more! The thought put a spring in his heavy step. There would be nothing for him, as usual--nothing, of course, but the bills. He dropped the aluminum flap and leafed through the small stack. A bill from Bonwit's, another from Saks. An appeal from the alumni fund. A small envelope with a local postmark, addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Conrad Kilbride: a party invitation, most likely, and one he was sure Jocelyn would have accepted whether she wanted to go or not, for the sheer pleasure of seeing him squirm through another social ordeal. And probably would have ordered a new dress to boot. Ah, yes, a dozen or so sympathy cards, but from Jocelyn's friends, not his. Wait. His own personal copy of a flyer with a tasteful black border, advertising the dignified, caring ministrations of the Lake View Memorial Chapel in Hadley. "Pre-need arrangements," it offered in discreet blue print. "Pre-need" indeed! A morbid cackle escaped Conrad's throat. Just how eager might they have been to assist with his pre-need arrangements?
Entering the spacious front hall, he tossed the mail onto the mahogany table. None of it required immediate attention. As he did so, a picture postcard slid from between the folds of the flyer and sailed to the powder-blue carpet. One of Jocelyn's gallivanting pals, no doubt, forever traipsing off to Europe or the Caribbean. Conrad's life was always hell for weeks after she got one of those things. He could almost hear her, that high-pitched whine of hers shearing through his concentration: "You never take me anywhere! You never do anything but go to work and come home and fool with that stupid collection of yours and stare at those dumb gun magazines."
No use trying to explain to her that if he hadn't been fully occupied with his own interests he couldn't have endured living with her at all.
He picked up the postcard, flipped it over, glanced at it idly-
Jolted with the blinding impact of walking into a clear glass door. Jocelyn's handwriting. No mistaking that bold script, the affected backhand, the coy little circles over the i's. The few lines, scrawled at an oblique angle, crowded the message space and overflowed into the address area: "Darling, Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here. --J."
By force of will he steadied himself. The funeral had been only the day before. The accident had occurred Tuesday night. With the mail service these days, the card could have been mailed any time before that.
Conrad plodded into the living room, his sturdy shoes dragging crusty tracks behind him, and lowered his bulk to the sofa. Three thousand dollars' worth of modular furniture that Jocelyn positively could not do without, and he had hardly ever sat on it before, though the elegant upholstery had come straight out of his hide. He leaned toward the light from the oversized plate glass window and scrutinized the blurred postmark. The date was indecipherable, but the town was obviously Hadley. The HA was clear enough. Yes, the merchants of Hadley would have been among Jocelyn's chiefest mourners. Why, only the Saturday before, she had driven her flame-red Jaguar into Hadley on a major shopping expedition, and God only knew what that one would take out of him once the final tally was in.
Come to think of it, she had been gone an exceptionally long while that day. It hadn't actually registered with him at the time. He had been absorbed in mounting and testing the scope on the Remington 742 Fieldmaster he had just added to his collection. But now it occurred to him that she must have found something to do in Hadley--or elsewhere--long after the stores had closed.
Conrad's eyes clenched in a painful grimace as the truth shot home. Eddie Brennan. She had to have been with Eddie. Then--and how many other times. Occasions flooded his memory: unexplained absences, whispered telephone calls, unaccountable swings of mood. And he had always been too preoccupied to notice.
Too preoccupied, that is, until last Tuesday, when he had made a run into Hadley on his lunch hour to check out the new stock at Dale's Sportsmen's Shop and seen them coming out of a bar on First Street. Hanging together, laughing. Eddie with his tennis physique and his crinkly grin and his risque jokes that kept the girls in hysterics at parties, while his wife Sandi eyed him balefully from the fringes of the circle. Jocelyn fresh from her weekly coiffure and manicure, sporting one of her custom-made outfits, no rags off the rack for her, thanks, and always alarmingly ready to take them off. Giddy drunk or sober. How long had it really been going on? He thought he had caught them at the start. Was he the last to know? Bad enough that she had long since stifled his manhood with her steamy, insatiable appetites. That, at least, was private. She owed him something, after all, and not the ultimate mortification of parading her infidelities down the main street of town.
He visualized the two of them in some gaudy motel room, sheets kicked back, sharing an intimate smoke and telling each other how good it had been. Giggling over old Conrad, the dull old hound who still hadn't wised up. A couple of scotches in her and Jocelyn just might have gone rummaging in the stationery drawer, come up with the postcard and written on it, and then followed the impulse through. It wouldn't surprise him any. The irony was just her style. Maybe she'd even have had the nerve to put the room tab on her MasterCharge. He never bothered to read the bills any more; he just wrote the checks.
Conrad braced his elbows on spraddled knees and studied the photograph. Nondescript motel scene: patio, pool, string of numbered rooms with little lanterns beside each door. Could have been anywhere almost, Hadley or Atlanta or Boise or anyplace in between. Well, so much for Jocelyn's last joke. It about evened the score. Conrad shredded the postcard into the pink marble ash tray.
He bent forward to untie his shoes, wheezing as he compressed his girth, then changed his mind and stretched out on the white brocade without removing them. Satisfaction unfurrowed his face as he thought of the shriek his audacity would have provoked: "Get those filthy clodhoppers of yours off my clean carpet this instant! My white sofa--how dare you?" Conrad drank in the soul-cleansing peace of the silent house.
That glass-fronted china closet in the dining room, he thought--now, there's a place to start. He nominated it as the first casualty of the new order. All that fragile dinnerware, too nervewracking to deal with when a man just wanted to enjoy a simple meal. Those idiotic teacups with their tiny little handles, made for old ladies to sip with their pinkies poised, could rot in the cellar for all he cared. In his opinion the ideal use of the china closet was the display of his firearms collection. And his was the only opinion that counted around here any more.
On Monday, Conrad returned to the office for the first time since the accident. Bud and Sherm and the other managers extended their condolences, and Violet asked him respectfully if she should screen his calls. His subordinates kept an awkward distance. He endured their collective sympathy with the best grace possible, hoping it wouldn't last long.
He'd settled all the particulars of his account of the accident well before the Hadley police had responded to his call: "It seems one of the shells was worn, Sergeant Fitch, and didn't eject when I took out the clip, so the bolt slid forward. The gun must have chambered another round. These semiautomatics will do that. She was arguing, hollering at me while I was trying to clean it, and when she went to grab it out of my hands to get my attention it just went off. I could have sworn the safety was on--I always put it on the minute I'm through with target practice--but I must have forgotten. It was a terrible accident sergeant. I just can't get over it." He'd been cool; appropriately grief-stricken, but cool. It was his proudest moment: conspicuous bravery under fire. He'd added a few salient details since then--the substance of the argument, the distractions during his normal precautionary routine--but no one asked.
More than once during the day, Conrad had to suppress the urge to whistle as he shuffled his reports and initialed his memos. He had made up his mind to award himself the vintage Winchester lever-action model he had coveted for years, a choice item that would run him some four or five thousand dollars, and his entertainment for the evening would consist in poring over the catalogs in search of the right ad. Nothing less than mint condition would do. From now on, the money he earned was his own.
He braked his brown Porsche at the gate and opened the mailbox, recalling that his subscription copy of Gun Digest was about due. The magazine was not in the box, so he scooped up the mail without glancing at it and proceeded to the house. The mail lay half-forgotten on the hall table while he dined on Swanson's and lingered over his coffee. A little brandy might go nicely, and why not? There was no one to scold him for his trifling indulgences, no one to accuse him of living in his own cocoon. He helped himself generously.
On his way to the den he passed through the hall and the mail caught his eye. He paused to thumb through it. Unwary, relaxed, unsuspecting. A little high. Another batch of cards, a bill from Mathilde's Elite Apparel, a bill from--
A postcard. A postcard with the same picture. Conrad felt his spine turn to cold jelly. He did not hear himself whimper. With trembling fingers he turned the card over. The sprawling script assaulted his vision: "Darling, You'd be right at home here. See you soon. --J."
Damn the post office and its sloppy machines! It must have been Hadley. He knew it was Hadley. The HAD was distinct. And the date--
Oh, God. The card was mailed last Friday.
Don't think about it. Don't think. Find something else to do. Anything. Keep busy. There were lots of explanations. A delayed pickup. A misplaced sack.
Don't think. Do something.
The china closet.
In a frenzy of activity, Conrad assembled empty cartons, packed the dishes helterskelter, heedless of breakage, and hauled them down to the cellar. Three trips, four. Out of shape for this sort of thing. Breathless, he dared not rest. He headed straight for the den and began removing his firearms from the closet. To the dining room with an armload, back to the den, back to the dining room. Time later to arrange them all, install a rifle rack on the upper shelf, fit locks to the glass doors. For now, keep moving. Don't think. Don't--
The doorbell chimed. Conrad lurched and collided with a chair midway across the living room. The stack of pistol cases in his arms toppled and fell, scattering the contents of several.
He stopped to wipe his brow and recover himself. He had discouraged sympathy callers, was not expecting anyone. The bell sounded again, two, three times in rapid succession, and a fist started pounding. With a backward glance at the pistols strewn about the carpet and the twisted hinge of one velvet-lined rosewood box Conrad fortified himself to greet his impatient visitor. Eddie Brennan blasted through the door like an erupting volcano.
"You bastard, you did it to her! You didn't want her but you couldn't let her go!"
He seized Conrad by the shirt front and shook him until Conrad's eyes rattled in their sockets. Then he shoved him away, and Conrad sank limply against the door frame, hugging himself and struggling for breath. Eddie strode about the hall, scraping his hair back with powerful fingers and cursing. He marched into the living room and halted when he saw the guns.
Conrad followed him, babbling, pleading.
"It was an accident, Eddie, I swear! She was raving and carrying on about this shindig she wanted us to go to, and knocking my things around and interfering. She couldn't stand my hobby, couldn't stand anything that didn't have to do with her. If she hadn't tried to grab the rifle away from me before I'd finished checking it over--"
"Bull!" bellowed Eddie. "We saw you on Tuesday. We knew you saw us and we didn't care. She was going to leave you anyway, did she tell you that?"
So Eddie knew that much. Conrad gasped in shallow breaths, his mind racing wildly for another plea.
Eddie's voice hissed with suppressed fury, then rose out of control. "The minute I got back in town tonight someone told me what happened and I knew just what a crud like you would have done. What an ass I was! Jocelyn hated you, she hated your guts, and I was the one that felt sorry for you. You know what she said?" Eddie turned and advanced on Conrad, who scrabbled backwards, slack-jawed with terror. "She said you played with these goddamn macho toys because they made you feel like a big man. Did you feel like a big man when you blew a hole in that gorgeous woman? Big man! Was she too alive for you, big man? You lousy scum, I ought to wring your stinking neck."
Eddie gripped Conrad by the shoulders and bore down. Conrad yelped in pain and Eddie squeezed harder, his thumbs slowly converging on the hollow of the throat. Conrad sucked air and began to cough in tight, wrenching spasms. Eddie's face, scant inches from his own, was contorted with rage, his broad lips peeled back from long teeth so savagely white that Conrad envisioned them rending his flesh.
Once more mastering himself, Eddie released his prey with a violent push that sent Conrad reeling back. He struck the arm of the sofa and his knees buckled, collapsing him onto its cushioned seat with an ignominious bounce. Eddie stamped around the room, snatching up one pistol and then another and brandishing it.
"Which one did you plug her with, you soft-bellied bastard? Was it this? Was it this? Was it that shiny little number over there? Tell me, you creep, did you get your rocks off?"
He flung the pistol at Conrad. Its barrel gouged his cheek. All the humiliation of his years crowded Conrad's quivering breast. This man, his wife's lover, the wife who had plagued him and browbeaten him and cost him his manhood, this madman dared to abuse him for the single assertive act of his life. This cocky stud, this vain fool, so confident of his prowess, so sure of himself among women. Conrad thought of the lie that would score him a bull's eye, and he fired his final volley. "You think she loved you? You think you were her only lover? Why, she had one for every day of the week and six on Sundays. If I'd have wanted to kill her for that, she'd be dead a thousand times over. You were just another body to her. She laughed at you all, she came home and told me all about it and made fun of you, how proud you were of your precious little--"
Eddie roared and fell on him, his hands strong and ready, sure of their grip. Conrad sank into darkness.
* * * * *
He opened his eyes. He was in a small room, indifferently furnished in shades of beige. Massaging his aching neck, he staggered from the bed and peered through the dusty blinds. Outside the sun glared on a small patio set about with white wrought-iron tables and chairs and bordering a modest swimming pool. A few early bathers splashed in the water. He knew he had never been there before, yet the place was disturbingly familiar.
While Conrad was fumbling with the sliding door of the closet in search of his clothes, the telephone buzzed.
"Welcome, darling!" the voice shrilled. "Won't you be tickled to know that I've got you the room right next door to mine? That was no snap, you know. Business is booming."
"Jocelyn?" he stammered. "Where are you? Where are we? What is this place?"
She giggled. "Why, you're in Hades, darling. Anyone you'd care to send a postcard to?"
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