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Nightmare in Yellow

by Fredric Brown

He awoke when the alarm clock rang, but lay in bed a while after he’d shut it off, going a final time over the plans he’d made for embezzlement that day and for murder that evening.

Every little detail had been worked out, but this was the final check. Tonight at forty-six minutes after eight he’d be free, in every way. He’d picked that moment because this was his fortieth birthday and that was the exact time of day, of the evening rather, when he had been born. His mother had been a bug on astrology, which was why the moment of his birth had been impressed on him so exactly. He wasn’t superstitious himself but it had struck his sense of humor to have his new life begin at forty, to the minute.

Time was running out on him, in any case. As a lawyer who specialized in handling estates, a lot of money passed through his hands—and some of it had passed into them. A year ago he’d “borrowed” five thousand dollars to put into something that looked like a sure-fire way to double or triple the money, but he’d lost it instead. Then he’d “borrowed” more to gamble with, in one way or another, to try to recoup the first loss. Now he was behind to the tune of over thirty thousand; the shortage couldn’t be hidden more than another few months and there wasn’t a hope that he could replace the missing money by that time. So he had been raising all the cash he could without arousing suspicion, by carefully liquidating assets, and by this afternoon he’d have running-away money to the tune of well over a hundred thousand dollars, enough to last him the rest of his life.

And they’d never catch him. He’d planned every detail of his trip, his destination, his new identity, and it was foolproof. He’d been working on it for months.

His decision to kill his wife had been relatively an afterthought. The motive was simple: he hated her. But it was only after he’d come to the decision that he’d never go to jail, that he’d kill himself if he was ever apprehended, that it came to him that—since he’d die anyway if caught—he had nothing to lose in leaving a dead wife behind him instead of a living one.

He’d hardly been able to keep from laughing at the appropriateness of the birthday present she’d given him (yesterday, a day ahead of time); it had been a new suitcase. She’d also talked him into celebrating his birthday by letting her meet him downtown for dinner at seven. Little did she guess how the celebration would go after that. He planned to have her home by eight forty-six and satisfy his sense of the fitness of things by making himself a widower at that exact moment. There was a practical advantage, too, of leaving her dead. If he left her alive but asleep she’d guess what had happened and call the police when she found him gone in the morning. If he left her dead her body would not be found that soon, possibly not for two or three days, and he’d have a much better start.

Things went smoothly at his office; by the time he went to meet his wife everything was ready. But she dawdled over drinks and dinner and he began to worry whether he could get her home by eight forty-six. It was ridiculous, he knew, but it had become important that his moment of freedom should come then and not a minute earlier or a minute later. He watched his watch.

He would have missed it by half a minute if he’d waited till they were inside the house. But the dark of the porch of their house was perfectly safe, as safe as inside. He swung the black-jack viciously once, as she stood at the front door, waiting for him to open it. He caught her before she fell and managed to hold her upright with one arm while he got the door open and then got it closed from the inside.

Then he flicked the switch and yellow light leaped to fill the room, and, before they could see that his wife was dead and that he was holding her up, all the assembled birthday party guests shouted “Surprise!”

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