Brett Halliday: Stranger in Town

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Brett Halliday Stranger in Town
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    Stranger in Town
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Brett Halliday

Stranger in Town


Michael Shayne’s first impression of the girl was her breath-taking loveliness. Not more than twenty, he thought, she had that illusive sheen of youthful vitality that would be replaced in later years by a more mature and steadfast sort of beauty, but right now it caused a catch in your throat just to look at her standing there hesitantly just inside the door of the drab bar-room.

She would be outstandingly beautiful anywhere, Shayne told himself. At a Junior League dance in a New York ballroom, or at a Hollywood premiere flanked by all the Monroes and Gardners and Lollobrigidas the film colony could dredge up to throw into juxtaposition with her.

But in these surroundings she was like a single American Beauty rosebud with the fresh dew of dawning on its petals rising gloriously out of a heap of stinking garbage.

Sure, it was fantastic for a guy like Mike Shayne to have such thoughts the moment he glanced up and saw her. He grinned inwardly at his own poetic imagery while he was conscious of the undeniable catch in his throat, the violent leaping of a pulse that he had long ago thought too atrophied to respond that way to the mere sight of a beautiful girl.

It was a dirty, drab, ill-lighted bar at which he sat alone in the middle booth with an almost-full four-ounce glass of cognac in front of him. A neighborhood sort of workingman’s bar which he had entered by the merest chance because there was parking room in front and it was dusk and he was wearied with a long day on the road and with the prospect of three more hours of steady driving before he could hope to reach Miami.

There were two shirt-sleeved men on bar stools drinking beer and discussing baseball statistics with the fat bartender. Two of the five booths along the wall were occupied. Two elderly men wearing leather jackets were in the first booth talking earnestly with a too-nattily-dressed, too-pallid-faced young man whom Shayne had put down at first glance on entering as a bookie or numbers runner.

The second booth was unoccupied, and a man sat alone in the rear booth, facing the door. He had a tall highball glass in front of him that was half-full of amber liquid in which the ice-cubes were melted. The way his eyes jerked up hopefully when Shayne entered the door and then dropped again listlessly to his glass told the detective that he was waiting for someone to join him, that he had been waiting for some time and was beginning to be apprehensive that the someone wasn’t coming after all. He had mild features and was middle-aged and bald. He wore a dark blue suit and black bow tie.

There were cigarette butts strewn on the floor of the room, and a pervading odor of stale smoke, spilled beer and human sweat in the thick atmosphere.

Not exactly the place Michael Shayne would normally have chosen for a pre-dinner drink, but when you’re trying to make time on the highway you don’t waste time turning off your route in a strange town to search for the perfect surroundings.

And there was a dusty bottle of Martel high on a shelf behind the bar. Shayne’s eyes gravitated to it automatically as a brief silence followed his entrance and the seven occupants of the bar turned their heads to regard him with the mild disapprobation any obvious outlander will receive from the clientele of any similar neighborhood bar throughout the country.

The silence continued when he asked the bartender for brandy, and drew his attention to the imported bottle high on the shelf which had stood unused so long it had been forgotten.

What kinda stuck-up was this, Shayne knew they were asking themselves. Any guy that didn’t order scotch-on-the-rocks or rye-and-water or bourbon-and-soda, for Crissake! Or beer, of course.

But he disregarded the withdrawn hostility of their watchful silence, finally managed to persuade the bartender to fill a four-ounce wine-glass with his favorite beverage and to provide him with a tumbler of ice water on the side. After some cogitation and scratching his third chin with a troubled forefinger, the bartender reckoned that would be worth about a dollar six-bits, and Shayne put two bills on the bar and carried his two glasses to the center booth. The low drone of conversation in the front of the room began again as he settled himself, lighted a cigarette and took an exploratory sip of excellent cognac.

He would be ignored now. He had been classified and pigeon-holed as a queer, but one who need not impinge on the little close-knit community of ordinary fellows with normal drinking appetites.

Michael Shayne’s second impression of the girl was that she was frightened. Terrified, was a better word for it. It showed in the quivering rigidity of her stance just inside the doorway, in the compressed lips that told of tightly-set teeth behind them, in the hands that were clasped into white-knuckled fists at her sides, in the wide blue eyes that surveyed the interior of the barroom with stark fear.

From where he sat, Shayne could not see the reactions of the occupants of the booths to the girl. There was immediate silence as the door closed behind her, and the two men on stools turned to stare. The bartender’s mouth sagged open in ludicrous astonishment.

The girl’s wary, fearful gaze slid swiftly over the trio at the bar and focussed on the first booth. It remained fixed there for the space of ten seconds and then moved down to rest on the angular face of the red-headed detective from Miami.

Michael Shayne’s third impression of the girl was that she recognized him, that she had expected to find him sitting there, that he was the reason she had entered the bar.

It was preposterous, of course. He couldn’t have met her before. No male in his right mind would be able to forget a girl like that if he had ever seen her before.

And Shayne had never been in Brockton before. He was not, so far as he was aware, even casually acquainted with a single one of the 40,296 inhabitants which a huge sign on the outskirts had told him was the population of the city.

More than that: no one could possibly have expected to find him seated in this particular bar at this particular time. No one, again so far as he was aware, could have guessed that he even planned to choose a route that would take him through Brockton on his long drive from Mobile to Miami. And he hadn’t known he was going to select this bar for his patronage until the moment he saw the sign outside and the convenient parking space in front that lured him to stop.

So his third impression was more than preposterous. It was impossible. The girl could not recognize him. She could not have entered the bar looking for him. She could not be moving with that queerly tortured sort of rigidity of body muscles toward his booth, with widened eyes fixed on his face and with lips trembling as she sought to loosen jaw muscles so she could speak to him.

But she was doing just that.

She was younger, Shayne thought as she neared him through the murky atmosphere, a year or so younger than the twenty his first impression had been. Not more than nineteen, with the rose-petal coloring of a young girl trembling on the brink of maturity. Her face was very grave, her eyes wide and unblinking; and he knew again and with deep certitude that she was gripped by an agonizing terror that forced her to approach him.

Her body was slender and graceful, and she held her head erect, chin up-lifted, with a sort of regal grace that accentuated the clean young lines of neck and throat.

She wore a deceptively simple dress of creamy silk, hand-embroidered in jade-green at throat, waist and hem in a bold pattern that looked Mexican to Shayne. She had golden hair that was cut short and clung to her head in tiny soft ringlets that gave an illusion of height above her five feet three or four.

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