They called him Fashion Plate. George Bryan didn’t mind it. They were just ignorant village louts, loafers around the pool hall, stationery store and the little railroad station of Shady Valley; they thought, because Bryan took pride in being always carefully dressed, that he was something to jibe at. Beau Brummel. Young George Bryan secretly was pleased at being likened to the famous English dandy. Beau Brummel’s name, also, had been George Bryan.
The thoughts were roaming in Bryan’s mind tonight, as alone in his car he drove from New York City, out the main highway toward Shady Valley. His nickname of Fashion Plate — surely that would be an advantage this momentous night. Who would ever suspect the immaculate, soft-spoken George Bryan of a deed of violence? He chuckled to himself. The villagers might think of him as a sissy, but never as a murderer …
At the crossroads where the highway went on into the village, Bryan turned off onto the Lake Ontara side road. He watched his chance, so that nu one saw him. The time was quarter of ten — a hot July evening. Queer what a breathless night it was! He was conscious that his heart was pounding; his chest seemed to have a weight or, it. Was he frightened, now that his chance had come? Nonsense! Just excited. Fate was with him. Every circumstance was just right. Peter Rawlings would be coming along this lonely road by the edge of the lake, in five or ten minutes now. The thing would be done, in a few minutes after that.
The idea of killing Peter Rawlings had come to Bryan from Rawlings himself. Rawlings had said:
“You know, George, I’m determined to teach myself how to swim this summer, if it kills me.”
Just a little thing like that. But Grace — Bryan’s sister, who was Raw- lings’ wife — had heard it; and so had others. It was Bryan’s chance. Nothing could seem more obviously accidental than the drowning of a man who had declared he was going to teach himself how to swim, even if it killed him!
And now had come the first breathless, hot night of the summer — just the sort of night that would tempt one to take a dip in the lake. Bryan could see the lake now between the trees that lined the rocky little side road. The water was a big, lead- grey mirror, dark and sullen under the glowering clouds. There might be people and small boats over by the distant opposite shore, far behind the big wooded island, but there was no one here.
At a place where bushes clustered to shroud his car, Bryan turned off the road and hopped out. He was a young fellow, handsome, and as always, immaculately dressed. In the heat, he had taken off his hat and blue serge jacket and laid them on the car seat. His figure was a white blob of white shirt and carefully pressed white linen trousers, as he crouched in- the bushes, waiting for Rawlings to come along. It surely wouldn’t be long now. Rawlings was a methodical fellow, a creature of habit. You could always depend on him doing the same thing at the same time. He had married Bryan’s younger sister, Grace about two years ago. He was rich, or at least comfortably well off — one of those fellows who watched every penny and wouldn’t lend a cent to a relative without bankers’ security. He owned a small but prosperous department store in Thomasville, some twelve miles away. He closed it at nine-thirty; and every night like clockwork he drove home alone, leaving Thomasville at quarter of ten and coming along this lonely little side road past Lake Ontara.
For another ten minutes Bryan silently crouched. He was tense, alert; his mind was clicking with details of just what he would do so that there would be no possibility of error. There would be no footprints here; no tracks which could be identified as the tread of his tires. The road was hard and dry; the ground all around here was rocky, right down to the rocky shore where the water lapped with a sullen murmur in the stillness.
And suddenly now, faintly in the distance he heard the chug of Rawlings’ old, outmoded car. Right on schedule. Bryan’s heart leaped, but he steadied himself. He stood in the shadow of a tree-trunk until he could see positively that it was Rawlings, and then he jumped forward. Rawlings, in white shirt and trousers, was a dim white blob behind the wheel. For just a second Bryan thought that there was someone in the back seat of the car behind him, but when he got closer he saw that no one else was there.
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Two Little White Blobs
“Well, I say, that you, Peter?” he called.
Rawlings saw him and pulled up.
“Hello, George,” he said. He was never very cordial. “What are you doing out here?”
Bryan mastered his breathlessness. “Just coming back from New York. Wretchedly hot, isn’t it? I thought I’d take a swim. Cool off.” He gestured easily with a graceful hand. “My car’s down the road a way — thought I’d take a ten-minute dip. Too bad you can’t join me, old fellow — you’ve no idea how invigorating — “
Queer how difficult it was to keep his soft, suave voice normal! This damnable breathlessness! But Rawlings didn’t notice. And it wasn’t hard to persuade him.
“The human body really floats in water, you know,” Bryan was presently saying. “It’s lighter than water, when you immerse nearly all of it. But that’s the trouble — the beginner wants to climb out of the water and that’s what makes him sink.” Gruesome words. Somehow they made Bryan shudder inside. He had had no idea it would be so difficult to do this thing.
“Why not master your fear once and for all?” he added persuasively. “Once you do that, I can teach you to swim in two minutes.”
Abruptly Rawlings set his jaw. “All right,” he agreed. “I’ll do it.”
Perfect! Nothing could go wrong now. There was no one to see them as they went down the dark declivity, just two little white blobs down on the sullen shorefront where in a moment tumbled clusters of rocks and the rise of ground hid them wholly from the road. Hastily they undressed. “I’ve only got one towel,” Bryan was saying smoothly. “But it’s a big one; we can both use it.”
He had brought the big bath towel from New York. But Rawlings wouldn’t be the one to use it; he’d be lying floating in the shallow water … There mustn’t be any outcry now. Just a little splashing and gurgling. Rawlings was a man about Bryan’s height and build, but older, not so muscular. It wouldn’t be hard to hold him under — just for a minute and then he’d inevitably gulp in water and start to strangle. There mustn’t be any marks on him; nothing that would show violence …
“I guess — I guess this is deep enough,” Rawlings quavered as his instinctive, abnormal fear of the water made him tremble.
“Just a little further,” Bryan urged. “I say, old man, don’t be such a coward.”
It was pathetic to see Rawlings trying to conquer what he knew was an idiotic terror. That was queer, too; Rawlings with that terror all his life, as though something within him, deep beneath his conscious brain, had always known that he was destined to meet his death like this.
“I’ll do it if it kills me,” Rawlings was muttering. “Damn it, I will.”
Gruesome prophesy … why did he have to say that so much? As though something were making him say it so that Bryan would shudder, with a racing heart and excited, taut nerves to make him fumble this thing? But he wouldn’t fumble it … Get him to lie on his back now; and then shove him down, sit on him … Hold him, just for a moment.
Bryan’s chest seemed bursting with the excitement of it. But he kept his wits. Water a bit less than waist deep. That would be ideal.
“Now, relax,” he heard himself saying softly. “You’re tense as the devil, Peter. Don’t be like that. I won’t even let your face get wet. I promise. Come on now, lie back — stretch out. I’ll put my hand under your neck. Can’t you trust me, old fellow? Think how pleased Grace will be if she can go swimming with you next week.”
So easy. A faint smile of triumph twitched at Bryan’s lips as he stood beside the shivering, naked Rawlings and the taut body of the older man eased backward with his feet coming up.
“Don’t let my head go under, George!”
“No. Of course I won’t.”
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The Dead Fingers Clinging
Now, down with him! Bryan shoved suddenly. There was only a little floundering splash; air bubbles rising, with the water down there choking Rawlings’ first startled scream. And then it was a grim, silent struggle under water, with all the weight of Bryan’s body pressing his victim’s head and shoulders against the bottom. Less than three feet of water; most of the weight of Bryan’s body was out of it as he sprawled, with his knees and hands down. Rawlings was like a great, floundering trapped fish. Weirdly, unexpectedly strong at first as Bryan desperately clung to him. His legs were up now, churning the water, beating it white. God, why wouldn’t he die?
It was a chaos of horror to the panting Bryan. But he kept Rawlings’ head under … A minute. Two minutes. There were no air bubbles now. The air had all come out; water was going in. From his first gasping, under-water scream the inexperienced Rawlings had been strangling. But his struggle was ghastly. Like fighting with a great white thing that ought to be dead, but still lunging. More feebly now. Got him!
Hold him! Never mind his threshing legs; keep his head and shoulders down! Three minutes. Four perhaps. It seemed an eternity to Bryan’s whirling senses while he sprawled there and clung. Like fighting with a dead man. Limp, gruesome white thing that still waved its arms and legs and feebly, aimlessly twitched.
And then even the twitching was stilled. The dead fingers clinging to Bryan’s arms relaxed, slipped away, the legs floated up, weaving a little from the movement of the water, as though the ghastly limp white thing were still alive.
For another moment the cold, shaking Bryan clung; and then he staggered to his feet. And the dead thing floated up beside him, with water lapping over its goggling face.
Horrible. He had no idea it would be like that. He stood ankle deep in the water, shivering, numbed, with a sudden panic sweeping him. What a chance he had taken! Suppose someone had come along and seen him? Could you see down here from any part of the nearby road? Suppose someone came along now?
The wild panic swept Bryan as he Stood shivering there in the dark; a panic of haste and terror. But he fought with it; conquered it. The thing was done, and triumph swept him. He dried himself carefully with the towel and dressed. His hair wasn’t wet; that was lucky. It wasn’t even mussed. There wasn’t a mark on him from the struggle with the drowning Rawlings whose gripping hands had only clutched so futilely at his arms.
But this panic was horrible. Despite the heat of the night, Bryan’s teeth were chattering, but as he dried and dressed he felt warmer. It was the cold water, but mostly it was the excitement. He mustn’t get rattled now and forget the towel. The towel with which he had dried himself was a little white blob at his feet. He snatched it up; ran for the road and his car … Yes, from farther along here you could faintly see that weird white thing, half-immersed there in the shallow water of the shore. Somebody would pass here and see it, tonight perhaps, or certainly in the morning.
With the panic still on him, mingling with his chuckling triumph, Bryan climbed back into his dark little car and swiftly drove away. He did not head for Shady Valley; he was too clever for that. Instead, driving as swiftly as he dared, he circled back around Thomasville, then cut across and hit the New York Highway at a point far below Shady Valley and the Lake Ontara side road. He passed two gas stands where he was known; drove slowly enough so that the attendants would see him and respond to his wave of greeting. Exactly as though he were on his way home from the city; no possible connection with Lake Ontara …
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Mr. Rawlings — Guess He’s Dead
He had stopped at the bridge over Sunapee Creek, tied a big stone in the towel and sunk it. The panic was gone now; there was nothing but triumph. Nothing ahead of him now but Rawlings’ money. Grace, a shocked, grieved young widow, wouldn’t be niggardly with her sympathetic brother, of course. She had already done her best, pawning her jewels to help Bryan out with his gambling debts. Bryan was senior teller at the little Shady Valley bank. Grace didn’t know about his six thou- sand-dollar shortage there, of course. That would have been discovered next week, when the bank examiners arrived; but it would be made good by Grace now, of course. He shivered at the closeness of his escape.
It was nearly eleven o’clock when presently he was entering the somnolent little tree-lined street of Shady Valley. He had adjusted his collar and tie in the little rear-view mirror. His hair was sleek and in perfect array, as always. Everything was perfect. Nothing ahead of him now but gentle sympathy with Grace; and then the spending of Grace’s money on Vivian. The thought of Vivian, her dark eyes, her beauty, thrilled him. Vivian was worth spending money on.
As he reached Center Avenue, Bryan’s heart jumped. Down the broad shaded street, where the cluster of lamps over a stoop marked the brick building, which was the Shady Valley Police Station, a little commotion was evident. A group of people was on the sidewalk; a big sedan was there at the curb; and inside the building there was evidently unusual activity.
Bryan hopped out and joined the crowd. “I say, what’s happened?” he demanded of a pimply-faced youth.
“Oh, you, Fashion Plate.” But the village boy wasn’t jibing. He was awed; excited. “Your brother-in- law,” he said. “Mr. Rawlings — guess he’s dead — he was found down in the lake near the Thomasville cut-off.”
Then the milling little crowd saw Bryan. Everyone always stared at him, stared with a secret envy, Bryan thought. They stared at him now as he stood, immaculate in white linen trousers, with a carnation in the lapel of his blue serge jacket. And they crowded around him; gave him swift, incoherent details … a night-driving tourist, through Thomasville, heading for Albany, had seen the white thing in the lake, momentarily disclosed by his headlights as he rounded a bend in the road. He’d brought it in a rush here to the police station. The> policemen inside now were trying artificial respiration.
That made Bryan’s heart leap into his throat. Suppose they succeeded … Surely that wasn’t possible now …
“Not a damn pulmotor in this burg,” somebody was saying. “There’s one coming from Thomasville, but what the hell — “
“Why — why, good heavens, that’s terrible — my brother-in-law, you say?” He knew that he should force his way into the police station. That was the normal thing to do — a shocked relative … He’d phone poor Grace from inside …
The tourist appeared on the stoop. “Not a chance,” he said to the crowd. “He’s a goner.”
A vast relief flooded Bryan as he shoved his way to the steps. But why was everybody looking at him so strangely? All these young loafers in the crowd who knew him so well, all staring at him, murmuring to each other.
“Lookit Fashion Plate!”
“Oh my goodness, how disgraceful!”
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White Linen Trousers
What the devil! Bryan’s heart was racing. The accursed village louts were jibing at him. But they seemed puzzled, too, standing away from him, staring at him. He realized that he was in the light of the police station now.
“My Gawd,” somebody gasped, “Why does he look so frightened?” Fashion Plate! Accursed nickname. Accursed reputation. Without them, no one would have noticed him …
“Why — why — “ he was stammering. “I say, don’t push me like this. What’s the matter with you fellows?”
He was in the police station now, with two or three uniformed men clustering around him. It was all a blur to his terrified sight. A ring of staring eyes; voices … “Lookit him! Fashion Plate never looked like this before.”
“Why is he so frightened?”
“Damn queer — something queer about this, fellers — “
Hands were plucking at him. What in heaven’s name could this mean? Then suddenly he realized that the policemen were searching him; taking things from his pockets. His familiar things from his jacket pocket …
Then abruptly one of the big policemen’ was saying:
“You, Bryan — when did you last see your brother-in-law?”
“Me? See Peter? Why — why, I haven’t seen him for a week.”
What was this? What was the matter with everybody here? These things they were taking from Bryan’s pockets —
“Didn’t see him tonight — not at all today?” the policeman persisted.
“No. No, of course, I didn’t.” “Didn’t happen to go swimming with him tonight by any chance, did you?”
What in the devil? The scene was swaying before Bryan’s terrified gaze. He fought for calmness, mustered his courage to grin.
“Say, what’s the matter with all you people? Is this some kind of joke? Of course, I didn’t go swimming. Haven’t seen Peter in a week, I told you.”
“But you’re a good swimmer?” “Yes. Sure I am. What in hell has that — “
“You wouldn’t let your brother-in-law drown waist deep in water, would you now?” the police sergeant said ironically. “Funny thing, Bryan — the lake there where he drowned — only waist deep. Not over your head anywhere near there — and no current, no tide in the lake to wash the body from somewhere else. Especially since he was found when he had been dead only a few minutes. It was murder, Bryan — “
“Murder?” Bryan stammered. “Why — why, how awful — “
“Yes, isn’t it? And if you didn’t go swimming with Rawlings — “
The big sergeant gestured with grim irony to the things he was taking from Bryan’s trousers’ pockets … A memorandum dated today, on a billhead of Rawlings’ store … A telegram to Rawlings …
“He got that telegram at nine o’clock tonight,” the sergeant said. “Stuffed it here into his trousers’ pocket — “
Sickened with horror, Bryan stared down at his white linen trousers, and his whirling mind swept back … that dark cluster of rocks on the- shorefront where he and Rawlings had undressed … Their clothes had been in separate piles. Except the white trousers. He realized it now — the white trousers, both so similar, laying partly on top of each other, with the white towel on them — just dim pallid blobs down there in the darkness of the ground. And as he dressed after the murder Bryan had been in such a panic of haste and excitement he had had no time to think o himself at all, nor in his dark car until he had come here … The first time in his life that Beau Brummel had neglected his appearance!
“We’ve got you, Bryan — “
“Yes, you — you’ve got me — “
He hardly realized he was saying it. He was still blankly staring down at his white linen trousers. But they were Rawlings’ white linen trousers rumpled and dirty, very far from being neatly pressed because Rawlings was no Fashion Plate!
~ The End ~