Ladd Cunningham never felt comfortable in his father’s office. After high school he went to Stanford University rather than enter the family business, and he planned never to return. But then his father became ill, dying a slow, painful death, and Ladd was forced to come back. Ladd’s new stepfather David Crown presses him, trying to learn if Ladd plans to finish college or take the reins at Cunningham Company. Ladd says nothing, and Crown gives him a box of his father’s effects. Inside the dead man’s planner, Ladd finds a note implicating Crown in his father’s death. Murder is too good for a criminal. Ladd wants vengeance—slow, calculated, and irreversible.
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A Little Less Than Kind
By Charlotte Armstrong
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1991 Jeremy B. Lewi, Peter A. Lewi, and JacquelinLewi Bynagta
All rights reserved.
The receptionist, with her salaried smile, looked up and read the silhouette against the glass. "Good morning, Mr. Cunningham. We haven't seen you for a long time." Then she could have bit her tongue.
The boy's slight figure moved toward her on the carpet until she could see him clearly, immaculate in handsome slacks and sport shirt, bearing his bare head bent very slightly to the right, as he always had, his face yellowish (or perhaps not. This light was terrible), the dark hair descending upon his domed forehead in the familiar peninsula. He said in a soft and diffident voice which nevertheless had a pleasing suggestion of unleashed melodic power, "Hi, Miss Ellis. I'm expected, I think."
"That's right. You're to go right up to your ..." This time she did bite her tongue. "... stairs," she said.
The boy turned docilely to the wide stairway that was the chief decoration of this lower lobby, a stairway that began in the middle of the floor without visible support and turned upon a suspended landing, lined with planter-boxes.
Hob Cunningham used to hoot at the artificial greenery. "Why does a nut and bolt factory have to look like a tropical forest, I ask you?" he used to say, in all good humor. He used to slog it up those stairs and cross the landing, batting at the huge leaves with his blunt hand, amused by their serviceable elasticity. "One thing, you can't kill 'em," he used to say.
His son went up and across and up again, sedately.
The woman at the desk on the floor above, a fierce fifty-five, had been here before the building was. "Hi, there, Ladd," she greeted him with the privilege of tenure. "Nice to see you. How are you?"
"I'm just fine, Margaret." The boy's voice was in control. His whole body was stiff with control. "Shall I?"
"Sure enough. Go right on in."
She thought, conventionally, Poor kid. (She shook off a creeping underthought. So, at last he takes the trouble?) When he had gone, she took care to sigh.
There was only one office at this level. Large, luxurious, much-glassed, it rode before and above the series of low saw-toothed roofs, as if it were a lookout tower. Hob Cunningham, ensconced here behind his mammoth desk, had always seemed to be both figuratively and literally on top of the works.
There were two men in Hob's office now, neither of whom was Hob, neither of whom rose for their junior. "Ah, there you are, Ladd," said the man behind the desk, pleasantly. "Sorry to have made this trouble for you."
"No trouble, sir." The boy had dark eyes in a suntanned face but his eyelids were very white and half down.
The man behind the desk was fifty years old. His thick cap of hair was almost white but he had been a blond; he did not give the effect of being a white-haired man. He had an etched face, crisp of line. He might have been a scholar, with that face, and his aura of quiet intelligence and a good humor. The other man to whom he turned was about the same age, with heavy features, his face both bold and soft, as if from passion and compassion.
"Aaron," said David Crown, "this is my stepson, Ladd Cunningham. Ladd, this is Dr. Silver."
The doctor's rump left his chair. These two shook hands.
"Aaron is an old college chum," said David, noticing how the boy's twenty-year-old face, too young for lines, had whole planes of tension. It occurred to him that here was an opportunity he had not foreseen, a gift of chance. "You've caught us just before lunch," he said. "How about joining us?"
"No, sir, I can't."
And David was up against the wall. He could not coax, he could not even inquire, but must accept the unexplained. So he said, "Well, I'm sorry. Sit down, then, and I'll get on with the business of the meeting." David opened a flat drawer, extracted a checkbook. "To the Bursar?"
"Yes, sir." The boy sat down in a green leather chair parallel to its twin where Aaron Silver was sitting.
Beyond the glass and the air conditioning, Southern California lay noisy, dusty, tangy, lively in the September heat. There were hills to be seen from here, and the familiar sense of terrain. But the buzz of life, the sound of immediate man and his traffic, was shut away and the big office was quiet enough so that the faint scratch of David's pen was audible. The boy sat almost without breath.
Dr. Silver spoke. "I knew your father, too. We were all at school, together. Or, I should say, at the same time. David and Hob and I."
"Is that so, sir?"
"I was very sorry to hear of his death."
"You are in college, are you?"
"Yes, sir. I have been."
"Where, may I ask?"
The boy's courtesy was so unresponsive as to be discourteous. David waved the check to dry. "Coming up to his senior year," he contributed.
"What is your field?" Aaron inquired. "Your major, I should say?"
But Ladd Cunningham was taking the check from his step-father's fingers. "Thank you, sir. I'm not sure that I'll use it."
"If you don't use it," said David, smiling, "I hope that means you want to tackle Cunningham Company."
"I'm not sure that I will." The boy had a cryptic and subtly defiant look. It was as if he said, You can't make me tell you what I'm thinking.
"Either way," said David. He said to Aaron, "Ladd's mother and I would like to see him get his Bachelor's, at least. A Master's would be even better. But Hob would have understood and been delighted." A pressure went up in the room as plainly as if a barometer had jumped in their sight. David said to the boy, with challenge, "If you want to come in here, right now, and learn it the hard way, then start tomorrow."
"The hard way?" The boy's voice was very soft and breathy.
David smiled. "That's right," he said gently. "If you were to take say some Business Administration, or even, as your mother has suggested, go on to Harvard School of Business, that might shorten the period of practical apprenticeship. But there has to be one."
"Maybe he would prefer a profession," said Aaron mildly.
"If he does he has only to say ..." The phone rang. David took it. "Hold my calls, Edna."
The boy had his feet flat on the floor and close together. He shifted them, ready to rise. "You're on your way to lunch. I'd better get on my horse."
"Wait a minute," David said. "Just a minute. There's something else." David got up and went toward the solid wall where at one side of the entrance door it was thickened to contain a fully furnished bathroom, and at the other, a large storage closet. He went into the closet. He was thinking, I want Aaron to get a little longer taste of the quality of this boy.
Aaron said, good-naturedly, "You haven't answered my question."
"What question was that, sir?" The boy was in a fever to be off.
"About your major? Your interests?"
The boy's eyes had been flighty. Now they focused. "I think I remember Dad mentioning your name."
"We didn't meet often," said Aaron smoothly. "We always meant to do better."
"It's too late, now," the boy said calmly.
"Is your mother well?" Aaron said. "I knew her, too—at least slightly, long, long ago."
"She's fine, thank you," the boy said. His voice thinned. It became the careful vibration of one string.
David came out of the closet carrying a black cardboard box, a twelve-inch cube. "I wish you'd take this along, Ladd, since it belongs to you."
The boy said nothing. He stood up and took the box into both hands.
"And I'm sorry I forgot to leave the check this morning as your mother asked me to do. Thanks for coming."
The boy said, "I'm supposed to mail it today."
"And will you?" David was taller than his stepson, and thicker. He smiled down.
The boy smiled sideways up. "I think I'll mail it."
"Maybe you'd like to poke around the plant, while you're here?"
"Some other time." The boy began to walk. He looked back over his shoulder and said, "I'm glad to have met you, Dr. Silver."
"I suppose I'll see you again. So long, then."
The boy, with the box in his hands, left them. He left on the air the echo of an impudence, very faint, but saucy. It was as if he had said, I see through all this, you know. You don't fool me, either of you.
"He knows what's in the box?" said Aaron.
"You notice he didn't ask?" David settled into the chair behind the desk and blew out his breath. "He wouldn't ask me the time of day. Is that natural?"
Aaron looked tired. "If you mean is it common, yes. If you mean is it inevitable, no. What is in the box?"
"In the box? Oh, stuff I cleared away from Hob's desk. It could have waited. I wanted you ..."
"From me, a little friendly witch-doctoring?" said Aaron affectionately.
David leaned back against the comforting resistance of the springs in the chair. His mind was comfortable against the memory of long hours of young argument on great questions with this person. "I have the executive's virtue. I listen to experts."
"This is the first time he's been here since his father's death? Or seen you in that chair?"
"He seemed to have it built up as an ordeal."
"I understand that, well enough. But why won't he tell us what he intends to do with himself? Because he knows it teases?"
"I see it teases," Aaron said slyly.
"The fact is, he is going to have to do one of two things. Either go back to school and get involved with his peers and live his life. Or jump in here and apply himself until he can take over where Hob left off." Launched into this exposition, David already felt relief. He was a man whose mind, with pleasure and from long habit, made thoughtful decisions. To add up pros and cons, to devise a plan and then follow it, was natural to him. At the same time, he knew that not all minds operated in just this way. He had been patient. Now, he let off some of his human exasperation. "What the boy had better not do is hang around the place, moping."
"Is that what he does there?"
"As far as I can see."
"It bothers you that he won't choose one of two alternatives you have laid before him?" said Aaron in a creamy voice.
David grinned at him. "Certainly. Since one of those alternatives includes just about all the choices open to a successful life. If he has a third alternative in mind and thinks I should get out of this chair and let him sit down, today, then that wouldn't bother me. I know I can't turn Hob's business over to a green youth, whether he knows it or not. He couldn't cope."
"I believe you," Aaron said dryly. "Tell me, did you plan this encounter?"
"As a matter of fact, I did not."
"He thinks that you did."
"Yes, I noticed. Well, of course, he's ..."
"What really bothers me, Aaron," said David, "is that I can't seem to do anything about it. I wonder ..."
"... wonder whether you are guilty?"
David looked fondly at his friend. "I have a hunch that in your business there is no such thing as yes or no. Shall I tell you about it, Doctor?"
Aaron took his pipe out and began to fill it, "Well, why not?"
"Where'll I start?" said David, struggling to overcome a momentary reluctance.
"I'm not a Freudian. Skip the womb. Sure you want your calls held?"
David made a canceling motion of his hand. He thought to himself, This is fair enough. If I want Aaron to advise me, then he'd better know the whole situation, beginning with the way I see it.
"You remember Hob from the old days?" he asked (remembering).
"Loud, quick, smart, fuming with energy. Big man on the campus."
"He didn't seem to try to be. Rose to the top, like cream on the milk bottle."
"Old-fashioned unhomogenized milk," said Aaron. "Excuse that. Sure, I remember Hob. You and he were brothers, in those days. He ran around with Abigail Ladd. He was gown and she was town."
"That's right. But it so happens, that during the years I was in law school and Hob gone, I ran around with Abigail Ladd. So it is that old."
"Turn you down, did she, Dave?"
"It so happened I didn't ask her. I went to war. Hob, of course, had gone off to see the world, and turned up in Spain at the right time—or the wrong time—whichever way you want to look at it. He smelled the hot war sooner than most of us. Oh, he was in. When he got out, in 1944, he went right back, found Abby, and married her."
"Hob beat you home, then?"
"Well, no, that's not quite the way it was, either," said David, smiling. "See, June and I had the words said one rainy Saturday afternoon in '42. Couple of crazy Yanks in wartime England, not positively guaranteed to survive. I'd known her a week. And it was marvelous, all the way. Exception that proves the rule, eh?"
"I believe you," said Aaron gently.
He had better, thought David, seeing pictures. June at Hob's wedding, about as pregnant as she could be and still walking around.
"I was Hob's best man," he said. "The way it was, when I got out—I came home to a wife, a daughter-and-a-half, a steady job in my father-in-law's business and the good life." He glanced up.
"Come on," said Aaron, reading him. "I humanly believe that the good life is possible."
"So long as ye both shall live," said David starkly.
Aaron dropped the light note immediately. "How old were your girls when their mother died?"
"Sixteen, seventeen. Just heading for college. So I held the fort, kept the house as long as they needed a house. Angie's married to a chap named Sullivan Jones. She's in New York. I've got a grandson, poor little slob—named Davey Jones."
David was asking for the light note, back. Aaron smiled.
"And Patty married one Martin Serafino, architect. Chicago. They're avant-garde, poor but proud—and having a marvelous time. Well ... it was a big house. Then, the old man being long gone, I'd trained up a couple of young fellows. So I turned in my chips. Came out here. I don't remember, now, what it was I thought I was going to do. I looked up Hob."
"Winter of last year. I remember."
"You were in Europe."
"I got involved, Aaron. You and Hob ..."
"Never did. For one thing, Hob's range didn't include psychological theory. He thought the unconscious was something found only in the unfortunate." Aaron grinned.
David said suddenly, "I don't like that boy, you know. In full consciousness."
"At least, I don't like the wall he puts up, because it defeats me and I will admit to you that I'm not used to that."
Aaron said nothing. His face was fond.
"You have a son?" David asked him.
"Aged fifteen. And a girl twelve. Late start. Six years of war—in the Pacific for the most part. Medical ..."
David said, "I never had a son."
"Resume, please," said Aaron with a faint sigh. "You got involved. Where was the boy?"
"Yes. Well ... I used to go to dinner. Abby, of course ... The boy was up in Palo Alto. I saw almost nothing of him. As far as I know, he accepted an old friend of the family. In the spring, they found out Hob had cancer. I rallied around better than anybody else they knew—being free. There was surgery. Ladd came home and was told that the operation was a success. Which was no lie, at the time. So he went off with some pals on a jaunt to Mexico City. Hob staggered through the summer. Ladd was home in August, back to school in late September. Hob went back in the hospital in October. By that time, I was thoroughly involved."
And that was a long enough list of dates and places, thought David. It was not "telling." "To the best of my knowledge," said David, carefully, "I loved them both. I am in love with Abby. Did I tell you? In spite of my age, her age—although it's not the same ..."
"How could it be?" said Aaron.
"Yes. Well, Abby is a very feminine female." (Abby has nerves and needs. And Abby, in need, is pretty irresistible. She creates a vacuum and all your noblest instincts rush in to fill it.) David smiled, half at himself. "She needs a rock. Hob knew it, because he was her rock. I'd better tell you, now, what Hob said to me. If we are on the question of my guilt."
Aaron said nothing.
Excerpted from A Little Less Than Kind by Charlotte Armstrong. Copyright © 1991 Jeremy B. Lewi, Peter A. Lewi, and JacquelinLewi Bynagta. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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