There was a strange man in Perry’s bathtub. He was wearing a sports coat — a rather ugly sports coat. And he was dead.
Perry, who had just spent the most painful and humiliating twenty-four hours of his life, and had driven over an hour from the airport in blinding rain to reach the relative peace and privacy of the chilly rooms he rented at the old Alston Estate, stood gaping.
His headache vanished. He forgot about being exhausted and starving and soaked to the skin. He forgot about wishing he was dead, because here was someone dead, and it wasn’t pretty.
His fingers still rested on the light switch. He turned the overhead lights off. In the darkness, he heard rain rattling against the window; he heard his breathing, which sounded fast and scared; and from the living room he heard the soft chime of the clock he had bought at the thrift store on Bethlehem Road. Nine slow, silvery chimes. Nine o’clock.
Perry switched the light back on.
The dead man was still in his bathtub.
“It’s not possible,” Perry whispered.
Apparently this didn’t convince the corpse, who continued to stare at him from beneath half-closed eyelids.
The dead man was a stranger; Perry was pretty sure of that. It — he — was middle-aged and he needed a shave. His face was sort of greenish-red, the cheeks sunken in as though his features were slipping. His legs stuck out over the side of the tub like a mannequin’s. One shoe had a hole in the sole. His socks were yellow. Goldenrod, actually. They matched the ugly checked jacket.
The stranger was definitely dead. His chest wasn’t moving at all; his mouth was ajar, but no sounds came out. Perry didn’t have to touch him to know for sure he was dead, and besides that, nothing on earth would have made him touch the corpse.
He couldn’t see any signs of violence. There didn’t seem to be any blood. Nor water. The tub was dry and empty — except for the dead man. It didn’t look like he had been strangled. Maybe he had died of natural causes?
Maybe he’d had a heart attack?
But what was he doing having a heart attack in Perry’s locked apartment?
Perry’s glance lit on the mirror over the sink, and he started, not immediately recognizing the pale-faced, hollow-eyed reflection as his own. His brown eyes were huge and black in his frightened face; his blond hair seemed to be standing on end.
Backing out of the bathroom, Perry closed the door. He stood there trying to work it out through the fog of weariness and bewilderment. Then, eyes still pinned on the closed door, he took another step backward and fell over his suitcase, which was still sitting in the center of the front room floor.
The fall jarred Perry’s thoughts into some kind of order — or at least action. Scrambling up, he bolted for the apartment door. His fingers scrabbled to undo the deadbolt.
He yanked open the door, but it banged shut as though wrenched away by a ghostly hand, and he realized the chain was still on. Fingers shaking, he unfastened that too and slammed out of the apartment.
It seemed impossible that the hall should look just as it had when he had trudged upstairs five minutes earlier. Wall sconces cast creepy shadows down the mile of faded crimson carpet leading to the winding staircase.
The long lace draperies stirred in the window draughts. Nothing else moved. The hall was empty, yet the disturbing feeling of being watched persisted.
Perry listened to the sound of rain whispering against the windows, as though the house were complaining about the damp, the wood rot, the mustiness that permeated its aged bones. But it was the ominous silence on the other side of his own door that seemed to flood out everything else.
What was he waiting for? What did he expect to hear?
Despite his desperation to get downstairs to lights and people, he felt peculiarly apprehensive about making the first move, about making a sound, about doing anything to attract attention — the attention of something that might wait unseen in the dim recesses of the long hall.
He had to force himself to take the first step. Then he barreled down the hallway, narrowly missing the half-dead aspidistras in their tall marble planters. Despite the reassurances of his rational mind, he kept expecting an attack to launch itself from the cobwebbed corners.
Reaching the head of the stairs, he hung tightly to the banister to catch his breath. His knees were jelly. Uneasily, he looked behind himself. Nothing but the twitching draperies stirred the gloom. Perry headed down the stairs. Fifteen steps to the next level; he took them two at a time.
Reaching the second floor, he hesitated. Ex-cop Rudy Stein lived on this floor. An ex-cop ought to know what to do, right?
Mr. Watson had also lived on this floor, but Watson had died a week ago in Burlington. His rooms were locked, his belongings collecting dust waiting for a man who would never return.
Not that Perry believed in ghosts — exactly — or was too chicken to face another dark, drafty hallway, but after that moment’s hesitation, he continued down the rest of the grand staircase until, at last, he reached the ground floor which served as the lobby of Mrs. MacQueen’s boarding house.
Someone was just coming in the front door, pushing it closed against the sheets of rain. Overhead, the chandelier tinkled musically in the gust of the storm’s breath, throwing eerie colored red shadows across the man’s figure.
He wore a hooded olive parka, and for a moment, Perry didn’t recognize him. In fact, he couldn’t see any face at all in the cowl of the parka, and (his nerves shot to hell) he gasped, the soft sound carrying in the quiet hall.
Shoving the hood back, the man stared at Perry. Now Perry recognized him. He was new to Mrs. MacQueen’s rooming house, an ex-marine or something. Tall, dark, and hostile.
Perry opened his mouth to inform the newcomer about the dead man upstairs, but the words wouldn’t come. Maybe he was in shock. He felt kind of funny, detached, rather light-headed. He hoped he wasn’t going to pass out. That would be too humiliating.
“What’s with you?” the man said. He was frowning, but then he was always frowning, so there wasn’t anything in that. He actually wasn’t that tall — a little above medium height — but he was muscular, solid. A human Rock of Gibraltar.
Finally Perry’s vocal cords worked, but the man couldn’t seem to make out his choked words. He took a step closer. His eyes were blue, marine blue, which seemed appropriate, Perry thought, still on that distant plane.
“What’s the problem, kid?” the man asked brusquely. Obviously there was a problem.
Breathlessly, Perry tried to explain it. He pointed upward, his hand shaking, and he tried to get some words out between the gasps.
And now the corpse upstairs was the second problem, because the first problem was he couldn’t breathe.
“Jesus Christ!” said the ex-marine, watching his struggle.
Perry lowered himself to the carpeted bottom step of the grand staircase and fished around for his inhaler.
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