All Alone, Thinking And Waiting
Now they've left me alone. I tell them how it happened, and I laugh. But no one else seems to think it's funny, how I cut up Warren Burron with a hand-ax. I guess some people like their humor on the lighter side. So I'm here all alone, thinking and waiting. It'll be even funnier if my lawyer, Forbes, brings me the right word. But just the way it stands now, with my possible trek to the gas chamber, that's funny enough.
Here's the way it is: I killed Burron all right. But it wasn't really murder. I swung the hand-ax, but no one seems to understand when I explain how I'm not the murderer. It's confusing, and Burron's voice whispering to me in the night doesn't clear things up. It's what he whispers to me that makes the joke complete. But nobody understands.
In trying to explain it, I start at the Union Station where Mrs. Burron picked me up that afternoon. I start there because that was where I should have stopped.
Eva had always been something special to look at. She hadn't changed. I stared, and Eva's eyes clouded and her lips quivered. Her voice was thick, the kind that can make an icicle hot. She was streamlined and moved like a cat. Her skin was like polished copper, and her hair like shiny blue-black ink spilling over that skin. Her eyes always seemed to burn, not bright, but deep and warm like smoldering coals in a fireplace.
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A Sucker For Temptation
I didn't know why yet, but Burron had invited me up to his twenty-room cottage at Big Bear. Just Burron and his wife and I. A cozy threesome. I'd accepted. I was sick. I'd gotten a brain concussion in a football game. I felt all right, except for an occasional ache. I told him that, and that I'd appreciate the opportunity for a nice long rest. I'd decided to drop out of my senior year at the U. I'd forgotten, almost, about Eva whom I'd known quite well at school six years before. That was where she'd met Burron.
I knew my acceptance was a mistake as soon as Eva met me at the station. Alone. Just Eva and that big black convertible of Warren's. My name is Will Gardner. It isn't St. Anthony. I guess Burron knew I was a sucker for temptation. He had it all figured out. How easy it would be to murder me.
Eva drove that big torpedo through the damp night with a kind of fierce determination. Her long body was at ease, her lush legs sprawled easily. But her face was tense. Muscles broke the smooth copper of her throat and made lines run down to the corners of her mouth. She kept the cigarette lighter busy.
So far, we hadn't exchanged over a dozen words. While we made verbal sounds, our eyes and our minds had been speaking another language. More easily understood, but the kind that's better kept off the record. A kind of universal language that's far superior to Esperanto.
Her hand dropped to my knee. I shivered, and it was like I'd blundered into a high tension wire. My voice wasn't very calm.
"Lay off," I think I said, or something equally absurd.
Her laughter wasn't absurd. It was sort of high and desperate and nervous. I could see her lips curl in a crooked red arch in the light from the dash. A sudden sharp warning of pain shot through my head.
She said, "Don't make me laugh any more, Will. I'm not in the laughing mood tonight."
"I'm not trying to be amusing," I said. "I mean it. I'm up here to rest, to relax. And that's all. I'm going to keep it clean."
Her voice was shrill. It had a throaty electric undertone, like a cat's cry. "You didn't have any idea of seeing me at all!"
I said, no. But it didn't ring true. I meant it, but I didn't know. I'm no introspectionist. I've never bothered about what my unconscious was doing to me. Let some big-lettered name do it, for fifty bucks an hour. But not with me. Not now. It's too late now to start, at any price. And I understand it takes a few years to do it right, and I don't have nearly that much time.
Let's just drop it with the remark that a guy doesn't always know what he's thinking, or even what he's saying. Or even what he's intending to do, maybe the very next minute, or hour, or day.
The car went faster, around those hair-pin turns up the mountains to Big Bear. To my right, I saw the sprawling panorama of L. A., way down in a fogged pocket that seemed as endless as the Universe. Warm rain began to splatter on the glass. The windshield wipers started a soft humming pattern.
She said, "I suppose you accepted the invitation, just to talk with Warren? Just to sit in front of the fire and be intellectual! Be intellectual as hell!"
I didn't answer that. I'd never been able to be intellectual, with Warren Burron or anyone else. And she was right. I remembered Burron. You might call Burron a dilettante, whatever that means. He never did anything. He just appreciated things, that's what he always said. And that's how he and I had gotten acquainted. To Burron, athletes, particularly big men, were phenomena worthy of appreciation. We'd gotten to be good friends during my sophomore year. And only because Burron said he was trying to figure out what made the physical type of human being function in a modern, so-called mental age.
That was Burron. Not a snob, as I remembered. But something above even the snob. A small gaunt watery-eyed guy with a penchant for studying things. An appreciator, and a kind of bystander. He explored, and examined, and analyzed. I had been one of his objects of investigation. When he became interested in some particular subject, whether it was cubism, or Mayan culture, he threw himself into it right up to the roots of his mousy hair.
After I got to his cottage at Big Bear, I found out the first night what his latest and absorbing interest was, and I wished I had never come.
It was Death. It was Death and Suicide, and Murder. And all in poetry.
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Not The Emotional Kind
But before we got to his cottage, Eva told me a few other things about Burron. Mostly about Burron and herself. How beautifully they didn't get along together. She hated Burron, loathed and despised his very guts. But that wasn't Burron's way. Burron couldn't hate anybody. Burron wasn't the emotional kind. Hate and loathing, love and adoration (Burron said) are things to be studied.
And long before the unpleasant conversation I had with Eva as she drove through the rain got very far, I began to get the idea. Burron had married Eva just so he could study her.
All right. Maybe you know enough about Burron now. Maybe not. It doesn't matter very much. I decided that he was insane. But that doesn't mean anything either. Ask any twenty authorities to define insanity. Compare notes. Burron doesn't fit into the notes at all. The notes don't even fit.
A guy who can go on whispering to me after I chopped his head thoroughly with a hand-ax, that kind of guy can't be shoved into a pigeon-hole. Can he? A guy who dragged me up there to experiment with me and with Death. A guy who worshipped Death, and called it a " … woman who is soft and sweet … and a guy who would push a nasty affair between his wife and another man, just to see if it would affect him, and to study it! A guy who loved Death … .
You figure it out. I'm tired. I'm sick too. I'm tired and sick, and tonight, moonlight is shining through cold steel bars, and the moonlight is colder than steel.
And Burron's whisper comes down through the moonlight.
"Thanks, Gardner! Thanks, very much. You made it a beautiful and complete thing, and I'll be eternally grateful to you."
Eva turned off the motor, doused the lights as the car coasted in and moored to a siding. It was suddenly just darkness with Eva's body and mine all wrapped up together in it, as in a blanket. It didn't seem like a shroud then. She moved over against me. I didn't play hard to get. Her voice was soft and intimate and warm. Her hair floated around my face. Her arms were moist and hot.
And then, hardly knowing how, I rediscovered what her lips were like. Curved and full and cushiony-soft. I'd never found anyone so exciting as Eva Burron. Body, voice, breath, all exciting. Pressure was building up inside me. I felt like a pressure cooker pushed up to the third red ring. My forehead was getting slippery.
She had explained about her and Burron. She said now, hotly against my ear:
"Now you know why I'm glad to see you, Will."
"I know," I said.
"He's like a soft wet grub," she said. "And all he does is look at me, and ask me questions, and make notes in his little books."
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Like A Mouse Trapped In A Maze
It was all very clear to me. No more elaboration was necessary. I was stuck in a helluva situation, that was all. I felt like a mouse trapped in a maze. And like most really effective mazes, I felt so pleasantly trapped that I didn't really know whether I was trying to get out or not, whether I even wanted to get out.
And then a light flashed through the wet glass. Eva grinned thinly. She turned on the car lights. Burron's white wet face gazed in at us. He came around and opened the door. Small and wispy and mousy. A little grey man. I was still leaning over his wife, my arms around her, that's the way he found us.
All he said, in his low precise voice was: "I'll take your suitcase, Will. That is, if you're not too busy." He didn't say it with sarcasm.
It should have been nice. We sat before the fireplace, a big fire made out of big crackling logs. There was the strong smell of red cedar wood, and pine needles, and the smell of fresh wet rain. But it wasn't nice. It wasn't nice because Burron kept talking about Death. About Death, and Murder, and Suicide. All with capitals, like I've written them. Like each was an entity, a philosophy, a basic truth.
He kept my glass filled without my ever noticing that he had kept it filled. It didn't give me that comfortable relaxed feeling, the excellent bourbon didn't. It made me more and more afraid. It made me afraid, then self-conscious because I, a two-hundred-and-thirty-pound fullback, all muscle and not fat, that could run, and had been on wrestling teams, that I should be afraid of a little pipsqueak in an orange smoking jacket who peered at me and measured me, and sometimes smiled softly at what he found in me.
And being self-conscious of my fear, that made me mad. He knew it. He analyzed the whole process, then added gently.
"And now you're getting mad, aren't you, Will?" That made me even madder.
Eva, wearing a housecoat never designed for the mountains, laughed a little wildly. She was drunk, and she was nasty about it.
"Go on, Will," she sprawled out, arms thrown back, hands splashing through the spilled ink of her hair. Her lips were set in a kind of snarl. "Go on and bare your soul. You don't think you were brought up here to enjoy yourself, do you? You damned guinea pig … vivisection, that's what it is. Just a lotta damned vivisection … ."
Burron smiled. It was a weary smile as though her part of the experiment was about over. I noticed the blue veins delicately lining his skin.
"We have our little tiffs," he said. He stood with his back to the fire. "A matter of incompatability of a most thorough kind. She's primitive. Completely emotional, which is to say, thalamic. While I'm non-emotional, almost completely cortical. Eva reacts emotionally to any kind of stimuli, Will. A simple pleasure-pain behavior. Her world is just a series of barriers against which she must always strive in order to satisfy very basic and simple physical desires."
I wasn't impressed. That analysis sounded like everybody.
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So Different, Yet So Similar
I was looking around the room. It didn't look like a cabin in the mountain. It looked more like a retreat in Greenwich Village. Mad art on the walls, meaningless and distorted statues made out of pieces of wire and jagged glass. And a series of glass cases along the opposite wall were assorted guns, knives, garroting cords, and other instruments of murder.
He'd mentioned them. He'd mentioned his library. Books on murder and death. Ranging from journalistic reports of actual cases to poetic passages on the beauty of death. Eva stared into her glass. Burron was watching my roving eyes.
"But you're so different from Eva, yet so similar, Will," Burron said. "You're one of the most interesting examples of atavism, or regression, I've ever met. You have a fine mind, but it's helpless because of your uncontrollable primitive desires." His pale expressionless eyes looked at me. His statement hit me like a bucket of ice-water.
"You've committed murder, Will. At least twice that I know of."
I started to get up. I was very mad. Eva laughed, hysterically.
"What do you mean by that?" I asked. "What the hell're you talking about? What's all this blabbing about murder and death? I don't go for it, Burron. I didn't come up here to plays games like that. Furthermore, I'm not interested in that high-class tramp there."
Eva threw her glass at me. Burron smiled as the shards of glass tinkled on the floor. "Damn you, both of you," she yelled.
She ran up the stairs in a flurry of flashing legs. Burron sat down opposite me. The glass twisted slowly in his white fingers. A dull throbbing was growing in my head. I rubbed my eyes.
"At least twice," he said again. "But so ugly and sordid and so physical. The man — I don't remember exactly — you were in a wrestling match. Remember that, Will?"
I felt cold. My throat was dry.
"An accident," I said. "When I threw him, he landed on his head. His neck broke. It was an accident. In sports like that it — "
" — is murder, Will. Let's face it." He leaned toward me. "And knowing you might kill others, by accident, you kept on wrestling. And then there was the unfortunate chap in that football game. You tackled him. He went down. They carried him off the field. Your tackling him was the last thing he ever remembered. An accident, Will. But you kept on playing football."
The crackling fire sounded loud. I settled back. The hell with him, I thought. He wanted to see me blow up. I settled back. "Look here, Warren. What's this all about? What's the real reason I'm up here?"
Burron smiled in a gentle way. "The real reason, your reason, Will? You're here because of Eva. You want her. You've always resented my taking her away from you."
I managed a laugh. "You! Your dough, you mean. Why she doesn't — "
Burron nodded with a weary sigh. "I know. You don't have to explain what she thinks about me. She married me for my money, and now she has to live up here, isolated, with only me to give her companionship."
"That's not a nice way to treat a healthy girl," I said. "And as for resentment — listen, Warren — you have the resentment of the little weak man against a strong man. You can't deny that. You can cover it up with all kinds of fancy talk. You can be as arty and intellectual as you like — but it all boils down to a damned inferiority complex, Warren. So why can't we forget it? You're really jealous of Eva because she wants me, and you know it. That's the whole thing. You've gotten me up here to satisfy some screwy twisted desire. God knows what. So now we face it and forget it. I can still enjoy myself up here. Or even better, drive me back to L. A. tonight, and — "
Burron wasn't listening. His eyes had a funny shine over them.
"Will — Death is different with me, its fascination I mean, different than it is with you. You love to kill, you enjoy destruction and violence. With me, it's a different kind of attraction. I worship Death. To end life is the greatest single victory a man can administer to another, and to himself. It's the method that annoys me."
"Those cases. Look at that conglomeration of grisly instruments. Can you imagine anything more horrible and sordid and ugly than to end life with one of those? With blood everywhere, and muscles straining, sweating? I worship Death, too, Will. And I've figured out a way to kill. The perfect and the most artistic way. A complete death cycle. Death wrapped up and tied in a perfect gift package to myself. For Death is a woman with dark hair." Then I got it. The room seemed so very still then. The rain seemed far away. Cold slid along my back. Something was inside my skull with hammers.
He was going to murder me. Underneath it all, he was just a jealous little guy who was tired of hearing Eva's griping, and who was tired of hearing her talk about the kind of guys she went for. And he was going to show her, and himself and me. But murder wasn't all of it.
He had got me up here to murder me, but I didn't know how he was going to do it, or when. Except that he would do it like Burron did everything. He was a perfectionist. He would make it beautiful, he said. Clean, complete.
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Later I was between cool starched sheets, listening to the rain. Lying, in the dark. I wasn't sleeping. I was thinking, or trying to. I was scared, and again, I wasn't scared. It was a challenge, a fight. I liked that.
But this was a little out of my element. If Burron had been a big man, physically, it would be simple. Burron was right. A big man's world is simple. It's physical, and as long as he keeps it on that level, he either wins or loses and that's that.
But this was over my head. He was going to get me, but there wouldn't be any meeting in an arena with swords, guns or fists. Nothing like that. Nothing like that at all.
I couldn't run out on it now. I couldn't because I'd been trained too long to fight. So I stayed. But I knew it was wrong. Because of my head.
I kept trying to figure out how Burron was operating. I stayed for one day, then two, then a week, and then two weeks. By then I found out but it was too late. By then I was living in a kind of feverish blinding hell, and I had chopped his head all to pieces with a hand-ax.
Eva Burron kept after me. She never let up. Burron deliberately made it inevitable that he would find us together in one situation or another. And Eva wasn't the kind I could resist. That's it, simply. I couldn't. I could hate her guts. I could hate my own. But it didn't make any difference.
We were all walking on a bridge. The bridge was made out of spring steel, and it was stretched tighter and tighter. And one night it broke. That's the way I guess it was.
After the third day, I got the hand-ax out of the glass case. It had killed someone before, Burron said. I didn't think he knew I had it. None of the guns had ammunition. And I couldn't find any on the place. So I carried the hand-ax under my belt most of the time to protect myself. I didn't know when or how Burron would strike at me. But I was ready to defend myself.
I'd always believed in defense as a winning method, rather than offense. I'd always been able to turn aggressive tactics into self-defeat. The momentum of a lunging wrestler can be used to put him on his back. The swing of a boxer can carry him right into a knockout punch. I've seen an aggressive eleven frustrated and licked time and again by stopping their every play until they lost heart and died. Burron was no wrestler, or boxer or football player. He had his own peculiar approach. Offense, defense? I don't know. But Burron had his way.
I slept with the ax under my pillow. I carried it under my belt. It was one of those small scouting axes, with a little metal guard that folds out of the handle and sheathes the blade.
He had to have known I had the ax, but he never let on. Eva noticed it. We were out on the back porch. The moon was shining through the pine branches. She noticed it because she had her arms around me.
A little gasping scream came out against my face as her lips jerked away from mine. She backed away. She blinked and ran her tongue over her lips until they shone wet and red. Her fingers slipped along her cheeks. Her throat moved as she swallowed. "Will … you're going to … to kill him!"
I grabbed her wrist. I jerked her around, and she mewed with pain like a kitten.
"Okay," I said. "You married hjm. You got a lot of money, security. That's success for a woman and you got it. But that wasn't what you wanted. You want amusement. You've got that now. You should be happy. You want amusement more than success. Don't pretend you don't like this, … "
The screen door slammed. Burron's voice was low and emotionless.
"You're quite right, Will. But guilty of over-simplification. Won't you come in and have a drink?"
Eva cried. She turned and ran past Burron and disappeared inside. I walked past Burron slowly, turning as I did so. He held a knife in his hand. One of those knives from one of the glass exhibit cases.
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Death Is A Woman
I waited until he got past me, then followed him in where I sat down in front of the fire. Eva had run upstairs to cry. Burron stood before the fire, playing with the knife. The fire caught it, threw hard flashes of light over my face. I dropped my hand over the handle of the ax under my shirt. Sweat itched on my face and back.
My voice had gravel in it. "You want to commit a nice beautiful murder, Warren, or were you only kidding? Anyway, a knife would be so crude."
Burron looked insulted, but resigned.
"You're lacking an appreciation for subtlety, but I expected that. Only an artist could appreciate Death as a beautiful thing, for example, a beautiful woman. Sensitive artists like Poe, Keats, Shelley, Byron — it was Death that inspired them. But they were really wooing, you see. Death, to them, was always a lover … ."
His eyes seemed to grow dark and still. "I love Death too, Will. I want to perform it, like an artist painting, or composing, in a perfect and beautiful way. I want to kill, and I want to be killed. That way, Death would be complete. But the method must be untainted. And it must be perfection. What could be more expressive than these lines by Felix Kowalewski."
And then he quoted poetry to me. Quoted poetry!
"Death is a Woman; Death is soft and sweet; Death is the fairest mistress of our hearts. To our last dreams a magic she imparts And ends them there. Ah, Death is most discreet!. Death is a Woman; and her hair is dark …
There was more. I don't remember the rest.
What it seemed to mean was this. That Burron wanted to murder me. Beautifully, and perfectly. But that he also wanted to commit suicide.
I got up. He was still quoting poetry. He was spinning the knife around and around, keeping time to the rhythm of his chanting.
"I never did appreciate poetry very much," I said. My voice was hoarse. My throat was filled up and I felt a little sick at the stomach. "So you go on and quote poetry and drink that very fine liquor. I'm going up and hit the sack. I'm going to get a good night's sleep, and I'm going back down to L. A. in the morning. Frankly, Burron, I think you're crazy as hell. I think you've lost your mind. And I don't want any more of it."
His laughter followed me up the rustic stairs. And in that laugh was a crazy, climbing note of something. I didn't figure out. exactly what until I was opening the cedar-paneled door of my bedroom. And then I knew.
It was triumph.
Eva was in my room waiting for me.
I grabbed her arm and twisted. I shoved her back toward the door.
"Get out," I said. My voice sounded more savage than I'd intended. "Get out. Maybe I can't convince you any other way that I don't like playing with wives, not even lunatics' wives. Maybe I can't resist too much temptation. But I don't like it, see. Maybe this will show you how I really feel."
I slapped her. Her head bobbed like a golden cork on a black pond.
She squirmed through my fists, into my arms. Her body was hot and it twisted against me. She was heavy against me. I gave way, and my knees caught the edge of the bed. We both fell backward.
And Burron opened the bedroom door. His face looked like a splatter of white enamel against the wall. His eyes seemed lifeless. They swam with dark dead lights.
"Just passing," he said. "I was going to ask Eva if she wanted a — drink, or something. But I see she's being entertained. Good night."
Eva slammed the door after him. All pretense was gone. Her hair was tumbling, and her eyes were wild. Her face shone white and pinched in the moonlight. Death is a Woman, and her hair is dark.
Her voice broke. "I can't stand it. I can't stand it any more."
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Thanks For The Cooperation
I pulled her away from the door. I held her close against me, and I kissed her, I smashed my mouth over hers. She sighed, and then I opened the door with one hand and pushed her out into the hall.
"I'm going back to L. A. in the morning," I said. I couldn't seem to see very well, not because of the dark, but because of that pounding pain in my head, and the blur that kept coming across my eyes. "You can come along for the ride. It'll be a little cleaner that way."
I could see only her eyes moving away from me. Her whisper reached me before I closed the door. "All right. Will. That'll be fine. That'll be all right with me. I'll come along for the ride."
And then from still further down the hall, her whisper drifted to me. "Except that I don't think Warren intends for you to get back … ."
I knew I wouldn't be able to sleep. I tried to think about something, anything at all to make the hours go faster. And it was dark, and very quiet around the cabin. A night wind rustled through the pine branches, but that was the only sound. But Burron knew I was leaving in the morning. His laugh had been one of victory over me. Whatever he was intending to do, he would do it tonight.
Then things started happening to me. All the time it had been building in me, and all at once it broke loose. I began to sweat. I threw back the cover, and sat in a chair. I started to smoke. I got a bottle out of the bureau and started drinking. Nothing did any good. Aspirins didn't stop the pressure in my head either. I tried to loosen tense muscles. The whiskey was sickening. The cigarette turned stale in my throat. That pressure in my head tightened.
That was the state I was in, when Burron suddenly opened the door.
His little white face was flushed and wet. His eyes were bright. His mouth was partly open. He lunged. He leaped at me, like an eager mouse. I saw only the bright gleam of silver in his upraised hand. I yelled at him. I'd never been afraid before.
"You're not going to get me, Burron. Not me … ."
I slipped out of the chair as he lunged. I felt my body, heavy and thickly muscled, moving instinctively. But not the way it used to move for me. Maybe he knew I was in bad shape physically, or he'd never have tried to tackle me with a knife. That's what I thought then. Later I knew the facts. Which aren't always as they seem, are they?
I wasn't thinking clearly. I guess he'd planned it this way. My nerves were shot by then. I couldn't make my mind work right. It was thick and grey. Ordinarily, I would have laughed at a little man like that jumping me. Instead, I was afraid. I had that ax out. I grabbed him with my left hand and brought the ax down. He screamed. Blood ran down over his face. His mouth opened at me.
I didn't recognize what he said, then. Later, I remembered it..
"Thanks, Will. For the cooperation … perfect … neat … ."
I hit him again. He stumbled back and fell in the dark hall. He whispered:
" … and happy he who, dying, knows that bliss … the far lost music of her … timeless … kiss … ."
I finished it there.
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It Really Wasn't Murder At All
All my defense attorney had to offer was an insanity plea. Eva testified that I'd been carrying the ax for days, waiting for my chance. Eva was free, and with money now. And I guess she didn't want to be stuck with past memories. Wanted to start off fresh and clean.
I'd argued self-defense until my lawyer, Forbes, convinced me that I didn't have any argument at all. I was a big man, and Burron was a little man. I'd used an ax. And Burron hadn't had any weapon at all. He'd wiped the fingerprints off the knife he'd been playing with before the murder. And when he came into my room that night, he hadn't been carrying any weapon at all.
I ran out of the house and bummed a ride into L. A. where the cops soon picked me up. When they found Burron, he didn't have any weapon in his hand. That silver gleam in his hand I'd thought was the knife … it was one of those expressionistic things made out of wire and pieces of glass. Very shiny and maybe deadly looking in the dark. But something no one could ever be convinced was lethal. It was all Burron's plan.
He had it figured out, perfectly. He would murder me that way. He knew Eva, knew she'd testify against me. And I would go to the gas chamber … . He would murder me without laying a hand on me, let the state do it.
So it really wasn't murder at all. It was suicide and murder combined.
He even left a suicide note, addressed to me. But it was no good as evidence. It was poetry, written in the form of a sonnet. I don't remember it. It doesn't matter now. All that matters is, that he whispers to me. He whispers and tells me how beautiful it all was. And he keeps thanking me for my cooperation … .
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Your Perfect Murder Didn't Come Off
Forbes just left. He told me it was okay. No gas chamber. The insanity plea got across. So I'm laughing now, and I'm laughing at you, Burron! Your perfect murder didn't come off, did it, Burron? Huh? Crawl and squirm in your grave. You didn't think about the brain concussion did you, Burron? Huh? I had doctors, psychiatrists, on my side. You didn't think about that did you? And there's not a damned thing you can do about it now, is there, Burron?
Burron! Is there … in the moonlight! …
~ The End ~
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By Thrya Samter Winslow
(56 min read)
The Black Mask | Aug. 1922 | Vol. 5 No. 5
The story about the execution of Stuart Dennison shook Irma as she recalled her old life back in New York. Before she was Irma Martin. When she was Mrs. Stuart Dennison.
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