Bored, divorced, and unemployed, Chatham is on his way to the Gulf of Mexico when he passes through a small town by the river. It’s a miserable little burg—four stoplights and not much else—and he’s almost escaped it when a drunk’s car darts out in front of him, causing a nasty fender-bender. The thought of three days waiting for his clunker to get fixed is a grim one, but though he doesn’t know it, there won’t be a dull minute. Chatham finds hospitality in the lovely form of Mrs. Langton, motel owner and local pariah. Seven months ago her husband was murdered, and though the police could find no evidence to support the theory, everyone in town is convinced she killed him. Now a string of anonymous threats have left her close to a nervous breakdown, and the violence is about to become real. In a town this small there’s no room for secrets, but plenty of places to bury a corpse.
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Talk of the Town
By Charles Williams
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1958 Charles Williams
All rights reserved.
It wasn't a very large town. The highway came into it from the west across a bridge spanning a slow-moving and muddy river with an unpronounceable Indian name and then ran straight through the central business district for four or five blocks down a wide street with angle parking and four traffic lights at successive intersections. I was just pulling away from the last light, going about twenty miles per hour in the right-hand lane, when some local in a beat-up old panel truck decided to come shooting backward out of his parking place without looking behind him.
There was another car on my left, so all I could do was slam on my brakes just before I plowed into him. There was a crash of metal, followed by a succession of tinkling sounds as fragments of grill-work and shards of glass rained onto the pavement. Necks craned up and down the sun-blasted street.
I locked the handbrake and got out, and shook my head with disgust as I sized up the damage. The Buick's front bumper was knocked loose at one end, and the right fender and smashed headlight were crumpled in on the wheel. But the worst of it was the gout of hot water streaming out through the wreckage of the grill.
The driver of the panel came charging out. He was about six feet, thin, dark, and hard-nosed, and the bony face he wanted to shove into mine was flavored with cheap muscatel. "Look, stupid," he said, "maybe you think this is a race track—"
The bad mood had been building up in me for a long time, and I was in just the frame of mind to be jockeyed around by some summer-replacement hard guy with a nose full of wine. I caught a handful of his shirt in my left and started to slap him across the mouth, but then the childishness of it caught up with me and I merely pushed him away. He sputtered some more, and at the same time somebody behind me clamped a big hand on my arm. I turned. It was a fat man with a hard and competent eye. He was dressed in khakis and a gunbelt.
"All right," he told me, "you want to start trouble around here, start it with me. I'm in the business."
"Okay, okay," I said. "There's no war."
He kept the flinty eye on my face. "You're a pretty big boy to be shoving people around."
The usual crowd was beginning to gather, and I could sense I wasn't likely to be named Miss Northern Florida of 1957. It looked as if I'd started the beef, in addition to running into him, and the California license plates probably didn't help any.
He turned to the driver of the panel. "You all right, Frankie?"
Fine, I thought sourly; they're probably cousins.
Frankie unburdened himself; the whole thing was my fault. Damned tourists, doing sixty through the middle of town. When he ran down, I had a chance to put in my nickel's worth, and that's about what it bought. I polled a few of the rubbernecks, looking for witnesses, but nobody had seen anything, or would admit it.
"All right, mister," the fat policeman told me bleakly, "let's see your driver's license."
I was getting it out of my wallet and making a mental note that if I ever came through here again I'd ship the car and walk, when a tall girl with dark hair stepped off the curb and came over.
"I saw the whole thing," she said to the officer. She told him just how it happened.
In some vague way I couldn't quite put my finger on, his reaction struck me as a little strange. He apparently knew her, but there was no word of greeting. He nodded, accepting the story, but it was a curt nod, grudging and perhaps faintly hostile. She wrote something on a card held against the back of the panel truck and handed it to me.
"If your insurance company wants me, they can reach me there," she said.
"Thanks a million," I told her. I slipped the card in my wallet. "It's very nice of you."
She went back on the curb. Some of the bystanders watched her, and I sensed the same odd reaction I'd felt in the fat policeman. It wasn't quite hostility—or was it? I had a feeling they all knew her, but not a one had spoken to her. But she had poise.
I didn't know whether it was because of her story or because the officer finally got close enough to Frankie to pick up some of his muscatel fall-out, but the picture changed somewhat in my favor. He cut Frankie down to size with a couple of parade-ground barks, and wrote up the report, but didn't issue any tickets. The damage to the panel truck wasn't extensive. We traded insurance company information, and a wrecker came after the Buick. I rode to the garage with the driver. It was back the way I'd come, near the river on the west end of the business district.
It was hot and still, around two in the afternoon of a day in midsummer. Shadows were like ink in the white sunlight, and I could feel perspiration soaking my shirt. I'd left New Orleans early that morning and had planned to go on through to St. Petersburg and have a dip in the Gulf before dinner. Well, it couldn't be helped, I thought sourly. Then I thought of the girl again, and tried to remember just what she'd looked like. The only thing I could come up with was that she was tall and quite slender. Attractive? Somewhat, but no real dish. About thirty, I thought. But there'd been something about her face, a quality that escaped me now—Well, it didn't matter.
The garage was a big place on a corner, a Chevrolet and Buick agency with a showroom in front and some gas pumps in the driveway. We towed the Buick on into the repair department, and the shop foreman looked it over. He was a thin slat of a man with a cold face.
"You want a bid, is that it?" he asked.
"No," I said. "I'll pay for it myself and let the insurance companies fight about it later."
"Day after tomorrow's the best we can do; might even take three days. We haven't got that radiator in stock, but we can get it out of Tallahassee on the bus."
"Okay," I said. I didn't look forward to spending two days or more in the place, but there was no point in griping about it. I lifted the two bags out of the trunk. "Where's a good place to stay?"
"One of the motels would be your best bet," he replied.
"Fine. Where's the nearest one?"
He wiped his hands on a piece of waste and thought about it. "Only one on this side is about three miles out. East of town, though, there's a couple of good ones, fairly close in. The Spanish Main, and the El Rancho."
"Thanks. Can I call a cab?"
He jerked his head toward the front office. "See the girl."
A big blond kid in a white coverall had come in to get something off a workbench. He turned and looked at us. "If he wants a motel, Mrs. Langston is out front now, getting some gas."
The shop foreman shook his head.
"Who's Mrs. Langston?" I asked.
"She runs the Magnolia Lodge, east of town."
"Well, what's the matter with that?"
He shrugged. "Suit yourself."
He puzzled me. "Is something wrong with it?" I asked.
"I guess not. It's run down, and there's no pool, but where you stay is your own business, the way I look at it."
Just then the name clicked. I was almost sure it was the same one. Rather than fish it out of my wallet, however, I merely picked up the two bags, said, "Thanks," and walked out front to the driveway. I was right. She was standing beside an old Pontiac station wagon taking some money from her purse.
I walked over and put down the suitcases. "Mrs. Langston?"
She glanced around, and gave me a brief smile. "Oh, hello," she said. And all at once I realized what it was about her face that had struck me before. It was tired. Simply that. It was a slender and rather attractive face with good bone structure, but there was an almost unfathomable weariness far back in the fine gray eyes.
"I understand you run a motel," I said.
She nodded. "That's right."
"If you have a vacancy, I'd like to ride out with you."
"Yes, of course. Just put your bags in back."
The boy brought her change and we took off back down the main street. I hoped if Frankie was still in town with his panel truck we'd see him in time to take the station wagon apart and hide it. I'd had all I needed of Frankie. We made it all right.
"When will your car be ready?" she asked, as we paused for a light.
"Day after tomorrow or later," I said. "By the way, I want to thank you again."
"You're quite welcome," she said. The light changed, and we went on.
I turned and looked at her. She had dark reddish-brown hair in a long bob just off her shoulders, and a rather creamy complexion, though she wore no makeup except a touch of lipstick. The mouth was nice. Her cheekbones were high and prominent, giving an impression of faint hollows below them and adding to that overall suggestion of being underweight and overtrained and tired. It was the face of a mature woman, and there was strength in it. Her wedding and engagement rings looked expensive, but the rest of her outfit failed to match them. The dress was a cheap hand-me-down and the sandals were old and beat-up. She had nice long legs, but wore no stockings.
On the right, just beyond the city limits, was the Spanish Main motel. It had a large pool set among colored umbrellas in front. It looked cool and blue in the white glare of the sun, and I remembered what he'd said about the Magnolia's not having one. Chump, I thought sourly. Well, I didn't like being conned. And she had been nice.
The Magnolia was about a quarter mile beyond, on the left. As she turned in off the highway I could see what he'd meant about its being run down; there was an air of neglect about it, or an impression it had never been quite completed. There were twelve or fifteen connected units in the usual quadrangle effect, or hollow square, with the open end facing the highway. The construction itself was solid and not too old, brick with red tile roof, but all the trim needed painting, and the grounds were bleak and inhospitable in the hot glare of afternoon. There'd been an attempt at a lawn in front in the center of the square facing the highway, but it was brown now, and dusty, and the white gravel of the driveways was scattered and threadbare, with scrawny weeds poking up through it in places. I wondered why her husband had let it get in this condition.
The office was on the left. She stopped in front of it. There were two bags of groceries on one of the back seats. I gathered them up, and followed her inside.
The small lobby was cool, and pleasantly dim with the Venetian blinds closed against the harsh sunlight outside. There were two or three braided rugs scattered about the waxed floor of dark blue tile, and several bamboo armchairs with orange and black cushions. A TV set stood in one corner, and in front of a sofa was a long bamboo-and-glass coffee table with a number of magazines on it. On a table against the left wall was a scale model of a sloop. It was about three feet long, and had beautiful lines. Opposite the door was the registration desk, and at the closed end of that a small telephone switchboard and the rack of pigeonholes for the keys. Directly behind the desk was a curtained doorway that apparently connected with their living quarters. Beyond it, somewhere in the rear, I could hear a vacuum sweeper running.
I set the groceries on the desk. She called out, "Josie," and the sound of the vacuum sweeper cut off. A heavy-bodied colored girl in a white apron pushed through the curtains in the doorway. She had a fat, good-natured face and a big mouth overpainted with some odd-ball shade of lipstick that was almost purple.
Mrs. Langston placed a registration card before me, and nodded toward the bags of groceries. "Take those into the kitchen, will you, Josie?"
"Yes, ma'am." Josie gathered them up and started to turn away.
"Did the plumbers call?" Mrs. Langston asked.
I unclipped my pen and bent over the card to register, wondering—as I had for the past week—why I still gave San Francisco as my address. Well, you had to put down something, and at least that matched the license plates on the car.
"No, ma'am," Josie replied. "Phone did ring a couple of times, but I reckon it was a wrong number. When I answer they don't say nothin'; they just hang up." She went on out.
I happened to glance up. Mrs. Langston's face was utterly still, but the creamy skin had gone a shade paler, and I had an odd impression she was having to fight for the composure she showed. She looked away.
"Is something wrong?" I asked.
"Oh," she said. She shook her head and forced a smile. "No. I'm all right. It's just the heat."
She turned the registration card around and looked at it. "San Francisco?" she said. "And how are you standing the heat, Mr. Chatham?"
"So you've been there?" I asked.
She nodded. "Once, in August. All I had was summer clothes, and I almost froze. But I loved it; I think it's a fascinating city." She reached back and took a key from one of the pigeonholes. "Take number twelve," she said.
"I'd better pay you now," I said. "How much is it?"
She started to reply, but the telephone rang. The effect on her was almost startling. She went rigid, as if she had been sluiced in the back with ice water, and just for an instant I could see the terror in her eyes. The phone was on the desk, just to the left of her. It rang again, shrilling insistently, and she slowly forced herself to reach out a hand and pick it up.
"Magnolia Lodge," she said in a small voice.
Then the color went out of her face, all of it. She swayed, and I reached out across the desk to try to catch her, thinking she was about to fall, but she merely collapsed onto a stool that was behind it. She tried to put the receiver back on the cradle, but missed. It lay on the blotter with faint sounds issuing from it while she put her face down in her hands and shuddered.
I picked it up. I knew I had no business doing it, but it was pure reflex, and I already had a suspicion as to what I'd hear. I was right.
It was an unidentifiable whisper, vicious, obscene, and taunting, and the filth it spewed up would make you sick. I thought I heard something else, too, in the background. In a minute the flow of sewage halted, and the whisper asked, "Are you hearing me all right, honey? Tell me how you like it."
I clamped a hand over the transmitter and leaned over the desk. Touching her on the arm, I said, "Answer him," and held the instrument before her.
She raised her head, but could only stare at me in horror. I shook her shoulder. "Go on," I ordered. "Say something. Anything at all."
She nodded. I removed my hand from the transmitter. "Why?" she cried out. "Why are you doing this to me?"
I nodded, and went on listening. The soft and whispered laugh was like something crawling across your bare flesh in a swamp. "Because we've got a secret, honey. We know you killed him, don't we?"
I frowned. That wasn't part of the usual pattern. The whisper continued. "We know, don't we, honey? I like that. I like to think about just the two of us—" He repeated some of the things he liked to think. He had a great imagination, with things crawling in it. Then, suddenly, there was a brief punctuation mark of some other kind of sound in the background, and the line abruptly went dead. He had hung up. But maybe not soon enough, I thought.
I replaced the receiver and looked down at the bowed head. "It's all right," I said. "They're usually harmless."
She raised her face then, but uttered no sound.
"How long has he been doing it?" I asked.
"A long—" she whispered raggedly, "long—" She collapsed.
I whirled around the end of the desk and caught her.
Carrying her out, I placed her gently on the floor on one of the rugs. She was very light, far too light for a girl as tall, as she was. I stood up and called out, "Josie!" and then looked back down at her, at the extreme pallor of the siender face and the darkness of the lashes against it, and wondered how long she had been running along the ragged edge of breakdown.
Josie pushed through the curtains, and looked questioningly at me.
"Have you got any whisky?" I asked.
"Whisky? No sir, we ain't got none—" She had taken another step nearer the desk, and now she could see Mrs. Langston on the floor. "Oh, good Lawd in Heaven—"
"Shut up," I said. "Bring me a glass. And a damp cloth."
I hurried out front and brought in my two-suiter bag from the station wagon. There was a bottle of bourbon in it. Josie came waddling back through the curtains. I poured some of the whisky in the glass, and knelt beside Mrs. Langston to bathe her face with the wet washcloth.
"You reckon she goin' to be all right?" Josie asked anxiously.
"Of course," I said. "She's just fainted." I felt her pulse. It was steady enough.
"Ain't you goin' to give her the whisky?"
"Not till she can swallow it," I said impatiently. "You want to strangle her? Where's her husband?"
"Mr. Langston," I snapped. "Go get him. Where is he?"
Excerpted from Talk of the Town by Charles Williams. Copyright © 1958 Charles Williams. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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