How Dead Can You Get? by Charles Beckman, Jr.
Noir

How Dead Can You Get?

by Charles Beckman, Jr.

THE RED FILE | Nov. 5, 2017 | Vol. X No. 23 Casefile No: 55ccf75fb3901011515aef85

All he could remember was the beautiful dead girl. But who was she—and why had he killed her?

Table of Contents

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Chapter 1

Trying To Remember

He sat alone in the darkness of the room. The night sounds of the city drifted up to him faintly. There was a cigarette between his fingers.

He had been sitting there a long time. It hurt him to move, so he was very still, trying to think.

Once he had touched the back of his head where the ache was. He had felt hair matted with drying, caked blood. His fingers had come away sticky. The pain started there and coursed down between his shoulder blades with steady, dull throbs.

He sucked on the cigarette until it was limp, trying not to think of the pain, trying to remember … .

He had stumbled off the bed a half hour ago in a blind fog of pain. His groping fingers had located a light switch. He had looked once around the cheap, dirty hotel room. Then, because the light cut painfully into his burning eyes, he’d snapped it off and sat in darkness.

But before that? Nothing. Nothing except that one clear picture. He closed his eyes and saw it again in detail.

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Chapter 2

All He Remembered

She was beautiful, the girl. Her hair framed her pale, sensuous face in a shimmering black pool. She wore a loose satin negligee, black as her hair, dramatic against the milky white translucence of her smooth skin. Her full, sullen lips were parted slightly, showing a line of fine, even teeth. She was staring up at him without blinking.

He could see himself looking down at her and thinking crazily that he was glad the bullet hole was in her temple so the hair would cover it. So that, even dead, she could go on being beautiful.

He had bent, straightening the gold locket at her throat because he knew she would have wanted everything perfect.

And that was all he remembered. Nothing before. Nothing after. Just the dead girl and this hotel room.

He finished the last cigarette he had found in a crumpled package in his pocket. He forced himself to stand up and to stay there until the waves of dizziness and nausea passed. Then to walk slowly to the light switch and press it on.

He kept his eyes closed for a long moment, letting the light filter through his closed eyelids, then slitting them gradually so his eyes grew accustomed to the light.

He shuffled to the washbasin in a corner of the room, turned the dripping faucet on and sopped cool water on the back of his head. Then he dried his face and hands and stood before the bureau’s cracked mirror.

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Chapter 3

Clayton City National Bank

He saw himself for the first time. A strange face that he could not remember. He brought his fingers up, touching his lips, his cheeks. The reflection was that of a thin man in his late twenties. His complexion was pale as if he were seldom in the sunshine. There were dark smudges under his blue eyes, lines around his mouth. His dark brown hair was clipped in a short, crisp style.

He wore a rumpled sport coat, blue sport shirt and dark slacks. He raised his hands before his eyes, turned them over. They were slender and soft. The hands of an artist, an office worker, a druggist … .

Or a killer?

The vision of the dead woman flashed before his eyes again. He tried to remember if there had been a gun in his hand.

Suddenly, frantically, he searched his pockets. In the left patch pocket of his sport coat, he found it. A small, nickeled .25 automatic. He pawed at it with shaking fingers. In the firing chamber, there was an empty cartridge shell … .

Dully, he sat on the edge of the bed. Then went through the rest of his pockets methodically. He pulled out a wadded handkerchief, a comb, some loose change and a key ring.

In his billfold he found twenty-two dollars in bills. There were no papers. Only a driver’s license and an empty business envelope addressed to “George Noles” in care of the Clayton City National Bank in Clayton City.

The name Noles sounded vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t be sure that it was his own.

He tried to remember Clayton City and working in a bank.

“George Noles.”

He spoke the name aloud and jumped at the sound of his voice. It was an eerie experience, hearing your own voice for the first time.

He stood up then and walked out of the room and down the dimly-lit stairway. An old man was dozing behind the hotel desk and he wanted to ask him how he had gotten into the room. But an instinctive fear held him back. If he had killed a woman, the police would be looking for him. He had to find out first who the dead woman was … and if he had killed her … .

The cheap hotel was on a quiet, narrow street in a deserted part of the city. A few cars were parked at the curb in front. He took the key ring out of his pocket. Attached to it was a tag bearing the license number of a car and the name, “George Noles. Clayton City.” He didn’t recall having come in a car.

He found a black 1940 model coupe with a license number that corresponded with the number on his key tag. One of the keys unlocked the door and he slid behind the wheel.

That was when his foot struck the small leather satchel on the floorboards. In the dim glow from the dash-light, he opened it. He stared numbly at the bundles of currency that filled it.

With shaking fingers he took out one of the bundles. The paper band around it bore the name, “Clayton City National Bank.” There was in the neighborhood of ten thousand dollars in small denominations in the bag … .

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Chapter 4

Good Evening, George

The highway marker on the city limits of Clayton City said, “Population, 7,000.”

It was a small, clean town nestling in the hills. A town where life was not hurried and a man could be contented or bored, according to his temperament.

It had taken George Noles—if that was his name—an hour of fast driving to reach Clayton City after asking directions from a filling station attendant.

Now he drove slowly down Main Street, not knowing what to do next. He told himself he was a fool for coming back here. And yet, suppose he were innocent of any crime. Suppose he had a family here … waiting for him … .

A man lounging in the doorway of a drug store waved as his car passed. “Evening, George,” he called. Noles forced himself to wave back. Now he was at least sure that his name was George Noles and he was from this town.

He passed the City Library at the end of Main Street. Something, an unconscious reflex, caused him to slow the car. He glanced up at the clock in the courthouse steeple, as if from force of habit. It was ten p.m.

“She’ll be getting off from work, now,” he said suddenly. He stopped the car.

Why had he said that?

The words had slipped from his lips automatically, formed somewhere back in the dark, locked chambers of his mind.

He parked the car. Got out and walked slowly up the wide concrete steps into the modern brick building.

Somehow, even before he pushed through the glass doors, he knew what the librarian would be like. He knew that she would be blonde. That she would be a bit on the thin side. She wouldn’t be exactly pretty, but she would have serious brown eyes and a soft mouth and she would be nice to look at. She would be wearing a freshly starched dress and she would be sorting through her index cards with steady fingers until she glanced up and saw him and then her fingers would freeze.

It was like that. The color left her face. Her lips moved wordlessly. Then she looked down at her cards, but she wasn’t seeing them now.

“Good—good evening, George,” she whispered with forced evenness.

He didn’t know how to begin. What did you say? Look Miss, who am I? Have I just killed someone and stolen a large sum of money? Was I running away? Am I a thief and a murderer? Please tell me, Miss. You seem to be someone who might be a friend … who might help … .

No, you said none of those things. You stood there, groping for words that would not come.

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Chapter 5

You Might Be A Friend

She looked up again, at his strange silence. She glanced at his eyes, at his rumpled clothes, the blood on his coat collar.

She paled and her fingers pressed whitely against the card box she was holding. Then quickly, efficiently, she went about the business of closing the library for the night. She locked her desk drawers, snapped the lights off, picked up her handbag. She took his arm, led him swiftly out of the building, down to where his car was parked.

She seemed to know the car. She got behind the wheel. He leaned against the cushion next to her, weak and spent, letting the night air wash over his sick face and cool the fever in his temples as she drove.

She didn’t speak, waiting for him to begin it. He found it hard saying anything at all at first.

He began slowly, searching for the words.

“A little over an hour ago, I woke up in a hotel room in Sanderton. I didn’t know who I was or how I got there. I couldn’t remember my name—nothing. A blow I had gotten on the back of my head seemed to have left me with a kind of amnesia.

“I found a letter in my pocket with my name and this town on it. I drove back here and when I passed the library something seemed to make me stop … to tell me that you might be a friend … .”

In the darkness, her eyes were filled with many things. Incredulity, shock, pity … and something else.

“Let’s — let’s say we were once friends, George,” she whispered. “I—yes, I’ll help you if I can.”

He felt a growing dread of the truth he was trying to uncover. He felt that when he broke the dam that locked his past, a flood of evilness would wash his soul straight to hell.

“I—I don’t know your name.”

Her voice was half a sob. “Mary. It’s Mary, George. You can’t—remember anything?”

“It’s like dim shadows on a wall. There—there was a girl. Very dark. Beautiful… .”

“Her name is Liss, George. Liss Denham.” Her face was like chalk in the darkness.

“Yes. Yes, now I seem to know that.” He glanced at her, hating what he was doing to her and afraid of the knowledge that was slowly coming to him. But unable to stop now. He was walking straight into hell and he couldn’t stop.

“Do—do you think I might have had an argument with her? Do you think I—I might have murdered her?”

“Murder… .” She looked at him, her eyes wide and stricken. “George … I—why do you say….”

“I must see her, Mary. Can you drive me to where she lives?”

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Chapter 6

Nightmare Became Reality

She nodded wordlessly. She swung the coupe around, into a side street. They drove silently along shadowy lanes and then parked before an apartment building. It was in a quiet, residential part of town.

The apartment building, an old-fashioned three-story frame affair painted a faded yellow, stood in the middle of the block. He left the blonde girl in the car.

His sick mind groped vainly for some shred of remembrance as he walked into the dimly-lit vestibule. A typewritten tab on one of the mailboxes told him that Liss Denham occupied apartment 3-A.

He walked up the carpeted stairway. She did not answer the buzzer. He kept his finger on her doorbell as minutes ticked by. His hands grew sweaty and his stomach cramped with nausea.

He wished she would answer the door. That she would come out alive and unharmed and he would know the vision of her death was just the delirious dreaming of his sick mind.

But she did not answer the buzzer.

He went downstairs and around to the side of the building. There, he found a rusty fire escape. It went up to the third floor, past one of her windows.

He broke the teeth out of his comb, used the end of it to pry the screen hook loose. The window was not locked. He eased it up noiselessly, swung his legs into the room. Then he groped for the light switch.

He found her in the living room … .

It was exactly as his mind had pictured it. The small, cramped room with old-fashioned furnishings. The green and yellow flowered wallpaper that clashed with the red drapes. The parchment shade floor lamp spilling its light on the girl sprawled beneath it.

Only, she wasn’t so pretty any more. Her face was waxen and pinched and her mouth was twisted in a grimace….

The nightmare had become a reality. The gates of hell had swung wide now and he was walking right into them.

Get away from here, George Notes, a thousand voices screamed in his mind. Take the ten thousand dollars and the car and don’t stop driving until you’re in South America.

Don’t pry any more. Leave the past alone. It’s better that you don’t know who George Noles is or where the money came from or who Mary is or why this girl is dead … .

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Chapter 7

My Sister

Unconsciously, his hand had taken the .25 automatic from his pocket. He was staring at it and at the girl … his mind sick and reeling. So absorbed that he did not hear the key turn in the hall door or the padded footsteps behind him.

He jumped when the voice said, “Drop the gun, Noles.”

Slowly he turned, lifting his hands.

The man standing there was short and stocky. He wore a wrinkled seersucker suit, tan-and-white shoes, a blue tie. His face was bland, expressionless.

Everything about him was neat, precise: his short, clipped mustache, his thinning strands of brown hair carefully slicked over his shiny scalp … the way his soft, fat white hand held a revolver pointed steadily at Noles’ stomach. He might have been a professional man, a doctor, lawyer, or a bank president.

“So you killed her,” he said, his voice shaking. “I warned Liss. Don’t trust that hick Noles too much. He isn’t as dumb as he looks, I told her.”

Noles licked his lips. “Listen … .”

“I can see how it was,” the man went on, trembling now. “You decided it would be nicer to have the whole fifty thousand … better than having Liss. She planned it all for you. You wouldn’t have had brains enough to open a tin piggy bank. But once you had the money, you started thinking a little under your own power. How simple it would be, you know, to have it all for yourself. So you killed her, you rotten hick … ”

“No,” Noles cried. “Listen, I don’t know who you are or who this woman is. I—I don’t even know who I am. I woke up in a hotel room less than two hours ago, sixty miles from here. I had been struck on the back of the head. I couldn’t remember how I got there or anything before I woke up. All I could remember was this woman lying in this room. But I couldn’t have killed her … . I’m not a murderer.”

The man’s eyes narrowed.

“The old insanity business, Noles? It won’t work, Noles. Maybe with the police, not with me. Liss was my sister. I have more of a personal interest than the police … .

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Chapter 8

Had He Really Killed Her?

His pudgy white finger closed around the trigger.

“I’ll tell them you tried to kill me. That I caught you in the act of murdering Liss and you turned on me. I fired in self-defense. He raised the gun. His lips curled. “The town will believe anything of you!”

There it was again. What sort of man had George Noles been? What evil sickness had ruined him? Had it been this woman, Liss Denham?

“Wait,” Noles cried desperately. “I don’t know anything about any fifty thousand dollars. But I can prove I wasn’t taking that much money. Down in my car there is a satchel. There couldn’t be more than ten thousand dollars in it.

The man shrugged that off.

“So you’ve hidden part of it. I’d hardly expect you to carry fifty thousand dollars in small bills around with you.”

Noles’ sick mind raced against time. He had to know all of it now. He had learned that his name was George Noles and that he had worked for the Clayton City National Bank.

Apparently Liss Denham had talked him into stealing fifty thousand dollars from the bank which they were to share. But what sort of power had she had over him? He must have loved her with an intensity that stopped at nothing.

Then had he really killed her? If he had loved her that desperately, he might have killed her out of jealousy. Or perhaps he had wanted the money more than the woman. He could have struck his head in a fall, running away from the apartment.

Liss Denham’s brother raised the gun again. It would take him about two seconds to pull the trigger and send a bullet crashing into Noles’ heart.

His mind went back to that remembered vision of this room and the dead Liss Denham.

Once again, he saw the clear details. He saw himself kneeling beside the dead girl and arranging her locket. A foolish gesture … arranging her locket!

The thought crashed in his mind like cymbals.

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Chapter 9

The Head-Strong Type

At that precise moment, the hallway door in the other room opened. There was the hurried tap of a woman’s heels and the blonde girl, Mary called, “George? I got worried. You have been here so long … .”

She stood frozen in the doorway. Her eyes were on the dead Liss Denham, her face a mask of stunned horror.

In that brief instant, Liss Denham’s brother flicked his eyes in her direction and George Noles leaped. Every movement sent racking pain through his head. He flung himself on the short, balding man, hurling him back.

They crashed into the wall, Noles’ shoulder ramming into Denham’s stomach. He got his hands on the man’s pudgy wrist and he twisted the gun loose. Kicked it across the room, then ducked after it, scooped it up.

Denham had half slid down the wall, clutching his middle, his eyes rolling, face contorted as he gasped for breath.

Noles waited until Denham got his breath back.

“Now tell me all of it,” Noles said. “Start from when I met your sister. You see, I wasn’t lying when I said I don’t know anything that happened before two hours ago.”

Denham looked at the blonde girl, his lips curling. “Want her to hear it?”

Noles hesitated, looking at her.

Her brown eyes were dark smudges in her white face. “I—I guess I already know most of it,” she said.

Then Denham talked in quick, short sentences. When he had finished, George Noles knew all of it. It wasn’t pretty.

Liss Denham and her brother, Avery, had moved to Clayton City six months ago. She’d visited the bank several times and Noles struck up an acquaintance. Soon he was infatuated with her.

He used all his personal savings, trying to keep up with her expensive tastes. Then she’d talked him into taking this money from the bank vault. With his knowledge of the bank procedure it had not been difficult. He had stolen the money tonight.

Denham finished, “I tried to talk Liss out of this but she was always the head-strong type. And tonight you killed her. But you won’t get away with it, Noles … .

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Chapter 10

You Killed Your Wife

George Noles shook his head. “That isn’t all of it. You see there was one detail. The one thing I could remember clearly when I came to back in Sanderton, was this room. I saw Liss just as she’s lying here and that was when someone struck me from behind.

“The last thing I did before that person hit me, was to straighten a little gold locket Liss always wore at her throat.” He nodded at the body.

“But you see, it’s gone now. Someone has been in here since that time. Someone who removed the locket, but did not report the murder, for good reason.”

He moved toward Denham step by step. “I don’t think I killed Liss Denham. I don’t think it at all any more.” He stood before Denham. He ran one hand over the other man’s pockets in a quick motion.

Denham began sweating. Little beads of it stood out on his lips. His eyes flitted like a trapped animal’s.

Noles found the locket in Denham’s vest pocket. He snapped it open. Inside were pictures of Liss and Avery Denham and a fine engraving that read, “To Liss – from her husband, Avery”

“You killed your wife, Denham,” George Noles said. “I must have come in and found her right after you did it. You hit me on the back of my head, planted the gun on me, took the locket off, then drove me to the hotel in Sanderton, left part of the money in my car and put me in a hotel room, hoping I’d be so frightened when I came too, that I’d run with what money I had. The police would naturally connect the theft with the murder.”

Avery Denham panted, “That doesn’t prove anything. Just because she was my wife doesn’t prove I killed her!”

“The police have something called the ‘paraffin test.’ With it, they can tell which one of us fired a gun tonight. I’m willing to take the test. Are you, Denham?”

He reached for the telephone.

Denham’s breath was coming in short, ragged gasps. His shirt was soggy with perspiration. A dark ring of it had soaked through under the arms of his seersucker coat.

“She was going to leave me,” he whimpered. “The way it was planned, she was to get you hooked, talk you into stealing the money. Then we were to take all of the money and ditch you. But, damn her, she fell for you, and I’d rather have her dead than for someone else to get her … .”

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Chapter 11

Who Are You, Mary?

George Noles sat on the sofa with the blonde girl while they waited for the police. There was no fight left in Denham—slumped in a chair opposite them.

Denham had hidden all but the ten thousand dollars he had planted on Noles, but they would find that and give it back to the bank. Perhaps, Noles thought, they wouldn’t be too hard on him.

Gradually, his mind was clearing now, and he could remember scenes from this town. Shady lanes and the quiet, friendly laughter of neighbors. He could even remember walking to church on Sundays beside this slim, blonde girl, Mary.

“I—I may have to go to prison for a while. When I come back, I wonder if I might see you now and then,” he asked haltingly.

Her eyes were filled with that strange look … and with tears. She looked away from him.

“Per—perhaps, George. We’ll see.”

“Who are you, Mary? What were you to me?”

She started to speak, but didn’t. She had been dead inside for so long now, she couldn’t trust herself with emotions. She’d tell him later … or perhaps his mind would clear and he would remember … that she was his wife … .

~ The End ~

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