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A Touch of Death

Charles Williams

© 1954

Chapter One

It was a fourplex out near the beach. I stopped the car, looked at the ad again, and went up the walk. Only two of the mailboxes had names on them, and neither was the one I wanted.

This was the right address, though, so it had to be one of the others. I picked one at random and pressed the buzzer. Nothing happened. I tried again, and could hear it faintly somewhere on the second floor.

I waited a minute or two and tried the other. No one answered. I lit a cigarette and turned to look along the street. It was very quiet in the hot afternoon sun. A few cars went past on the sea wall, and far out in the Gulf a shrimp boat crawled like a fly across a mirror.

I swore under my breath. It had looked like a good lead, and I hated to give up. Maybe one of the other tenants would know where he was. I tried the buzzer marked Sorenson first, and when it came up nothing I leaned on the one that said James.

The whole place was as silent as the grave.

I shrugged and went back down the walk. I was about to get into the car when I saw the patio wall in the rear of the place. A walk ran past the side of the building to a high wooden gate, which was closed. There might be somebody back there. I stepped across the front lawn

and went back to the gate and opened it.

“Oh. Excuse me,” I said.

The girl was a brunette and she was sunbathing in the bottom part of a two-fragment bathing suit. She was lying face down on a long beach towel with a bottle of suntan lotion beside her and a book open in front of her on the grass. She turned her head casually and looked at me through dark glasses.

“Were you looking for someone?” she asked.

“Man named Winlock,” I said. “He gave this address. Do you happen to know if he’s around?”

“I’m new here,” she said. “But I think the people in the other upstairs apartment are named Winlock or Winchester, or something like that. I suppose you tried the buzzer?”

“Yes. No dice.”

She shrugged a satiny shoulder. “They may have gone

out on a boat. I think he fishes.”

“Oh,” I said. “Well. Thanks a lot.”

I started to turn away, and noticed she was staring at

my face. Or at least I felt she was. The glasses were so dark I couldn’t see what her eyes were doing.

“You could leave a note under the door,” she said. “I think it’s the third one from the left.”

“Thanks,” I said. “But I’m probably too late. I mean, since he’s not home. The ad was in yesterday’s paper.”

“Ad?”

“He wanted to buy a late-model car.”

“Oh.”

She lay with her face turned toward me, her cheek down against the towel, very relaxed but still watching me. The brassiere part of the bathing suit was under her, but she had untied the strap across the back. Tall, I thought, if she stood up. Not that she was likely to, with that thing untied.

“It sounds like a funny way to buy a car,” she said.

“Lots of people do it,” I said. “Saves a dealer’s

commission.”

“I see. And you’ve got one for sale?”

“Yes.”

“You’re not a dealer?”

“No,” I said. I wondered what she was driving at. The cigarette in my hand was burning short. I turned and tossed it through the gate onto the walk.

When I looked back she was working the strap of the halter gizmo up between her arm and side. She clamped it there and started to turn on her side, facing me, until it became obvious to both of us that the thing wasn’t big enough to allow any leeway if she didn’t have it straight.

It was missing the mark. And there was quite a bit of it to miss.

“Would you mind?” she asked calmly. “Just for a moment.”

“Oh,” I said. “Sure.” I turned and stared out the gate, but I could still see her in my mind. I’d called her a girl, but she was probably near thirty.

In a moment she said, “All right,” and I turned around. She was sitting up on the towel with the long legs doubled under her. The halter was tied.

“What kind of car is it?” she asked.

“Fifty-three Pontiac. About fourteen thousand miles on

it.” I wondered again what was on her mind.

“How much do you want for it?”

“Twenty-five hundred,” I said. “Why? You know

somebody in the market for one?”

“Wel-l-l,” she said slowly, “I might be. I’ve been thinking of buying a car.”

“You could go farther and do worse,” I said. “It’s a two-tone job, white sidewalls, radio, seat covers—”

She was studying my face again with that curious intensity. “Is it worth twenty-five hundred dollars, really?”

“Every nickel of it,” I said, ready to go into a sales pitch. Maybe we could make a deal. Then I got the impression that she wasn’t even listening to what I said.

She took off the glasses and stared thoughtfully at me. Her eyes were large and self-possessed, and jet black, like her hair. The hair was long, drawn into a roll at the back of her neck. She looked Spanish, except that even with the faint tan her skin was very fair.

“There’s something about your face,” she said. “I keep thinking I should know who you are.”

So that was it. It still happens once in a while. “Not

unless you’ve got a long memory,” I said.

She shook her head. “Not too long. Four years? Five?”

“Make it six.”

“Yes. That’s about it. I was quite a football fan in those days. Scarborough, wasn’t it? Lee Scarborough? All- Conference left half.”

“You should be a cop,” I said. “No. You were quite famous.” “They get new ones every year.” I wished we could get

back to the car trade. You can’t eat six-year-old football scores.

“Why didn’t you join the pros?” She took a puff on the cigarette she was smoking and tossed it into a flower bed without taking her eyes from my face.

“I did,” I said. “But it didn’t jell.”

“What happened?”

“Bum knee.” I squatted on my heels. “How about the

car? You really want to buy one?”

“I think so. But why do you want to sell it?”

“I need the money.”

“Oh,” she said.

“It’s out front, if you’d like to drive it.”

“All right,” she said. “But I’d have to change. Would

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