Black Mask

Dig Down Deep

by Frances Beck

 

In a way, Vera Sharp’s death was her own fault. That’s the way Joe saw it. She was one of those dames who hang on like a bulldog—never know when to let loose. It had been a mistake ever to get mixed up with a babe like Vera in the first place. But when you’d spent two years without even a good look at a woman, as Joe had, you weren’t too particular. Not right at first.

After a month with Vera, Joe had given her the brush and headed for a good-sized town in the Middle West. Naturally, he had left no address and he hadn’t written. He had a plan, and Vera wasn’t a part of it.

Joe was smart. He hadn’t wasted his spare time in those two years the way the other guys had. Every minute he could snatch he had devoted to a thick and hateful book on accountancy and to another one, thinner but equally hateful, on business administration. A guy smart enough to study like that was smart enough not to fool around too long with a babe like Vera.

Aided and abetted by the manpower situation and a fortuitous stroke of luck, Joe had made the first rung of the ladder in a remarkably short time. He had sold himself to J.C. Hillary, wealthy oil man and philanthropist in the Middle Western city he had chosen. It looked as if he were all set.

On that Saturday afternoon when his new employer told him to close up the office and come along home with him to his daughter’s cocktail party, he was sure of it. From here on, the upward climb was going to be a breeze—if he played his cards right.

Over the shoulders of milling guests, Mr. Hillary beckoned to a slender, dark-haired girl. “Barbara, come here a minute. I want you to meet my new assistant, Joe Bannon. My daughter, Barbara, Joe.” He chuckled, adding: “She complains that available young men are becoming a species of rara avis, so I promised her I’d fetch you out.”

Joe wasn’t quite sure about the rara avis, but he took the Hillary girl’s outstretched hand and gave her that certain look. Not fresh, not too intimate—just intimate enough to tell her that she was something out of this world, something he’d been looking for all of his life. You didn’t make passes when you first met a girl like Barbara Hillary, nor pull any wisecracks. If you had a nice boyish smile, you used it. And you acted like a gentleman. Joe was smart. He knew how to seem sincere, even a little shy, and he knew how to look at a girl in a way that would bring the color into her cheeks but not offend her.

It worked. He could see the interest quicken in her eyes as they met his and lingered for an infinitesimal second.

“So glad you could come,” she murmured, looking as if she meant it. “And you’re going to be here permanently—I mean, not here today and gone tomorrow like the others. Aren’t you?”

Joe let his eyes crinkle at the corners. They were clear gray eyes with thick, curling lashes. “I hope so,”  he said, grinning, giving her a glimpse of teeth that were sound and white against his tan.

He hoped she would notice the tan. It had cost him countless hours under a sunlamp. Once your skin gets that pasty white look, it takes forever to get any color back into it.

“Thank you,” he added shyly, “for asking me to your party.”

With a charming, friendly gesture, she took his hand, led him to a sofa opposite the fireplace.

Over the mantel was a huge mirror. Except when some of the other guests crossed or stood in front of it, Joe could steal glances at himself sitting beside Barbara Hillary, his smooth blond head near her dark one, his navy-blue pinstriped shoulders neat and square against the brocaded upholstery. A smart young businessman, that’s what he looked like. Well-bred, intelligent, a young fellow who would go places.

He thought: “I look like I belong here. We make a swell-looking couple. She’s class, class with velvet. She likes me and her old man likes me. Wonder what Vera would think if she could see me . . .” Instantly, he was annoyed with himself and a little uncomfortable. Even the thought of Vera had no place here.

“Goodness, don’t look so grim,” Barbara said with her soft little laugh. “You were frowning like an ogre.”

“Was I? I’m sorry.” His quick smile was rueful. “I’m likely to frown like that when I’m thinking hard.” He took out his cigaret case and lighted two at once, one for her, looking at her steadily as he did so. It was a good trick and he did it well.

Barbara took the cigaret. “And what were you thinking about?” she asked lightly. “It must have been dreadfully serious.”

Joe didn’t answer, not in words. He let his eyes speak. “It’s you I’m thinking about, you and me, wondering if you’re going to like me as much as I like you,” they told her. He watched the pink flush creep into her unrouged cheeks, the glow deepen in her eyes. He was doing all right.

It was just then that Mr. Hillary drifted back, sinking down on the sofa with a sigh. “What a clambake! Barbara, I’m taking Joe out to the old Crawford place. If you’ll make these people go home, you can come with us. But I want to get out there before dark.”

Joe knew about the old Crawford place. Mr. Hillary had bought it to turn into a rest home for disabled veterans. A great sprawling estate ten miles from the city, it had once been the private and expensive retreat of a millionaire. It was deserted now, in need of repairs and remodeling. It would take a pile of jack to do what Mr. Hillary planned, but so what? The old boy was a millionaire himself. . . .

“After you see the place, Joe,” Mr. Hillary said as he turned into the long, winding driveway, “you’ll have a clearer idea of what I want to do. Then you can relieve me of a lot of details.”

*   *   *

The great dark building leaned back against the sunset. Ivy, rich and green, matted on the mellowed stone, and huge gnarled oaks cast their thick shadows over the grounds.

The utter stillness of the place gave Joe a creepy feeling after Mr. Hillary turned off the motor. It was like something out of a Disney forest, not quite real. He didn’t care too much for it himself, but Mr. Hillary and Barbara were eating it up, misty-eyed.

“Isn’t it beautiful!” Barbara said softly. “A place where they can rest and play, and find peace and comfort after . . . Gosh, I get a lump in my throat. Isn’t it lovely, Joe?”

Quickly, Joe took his cue. “It certainly is,” he said solemnly. “And it’s a wonderful thing your father is doing.” He had his own private opinions about what he would do with that much dough, but he made his eyes grow humble and wistful before he looked into Barbara’s. When he spoke again, his voice held just the right shade of restrained emotion.

“Lord, how I wish—” he broke off with a grim little smile. “Oh well, we’ll skip that.”

“I know, Joe.” He could feel the sympathetic pressure of her hand on his arm. “Father told me.”

“Eh?” Mr. Hillary came back out of his dream. “Told you what?”

“About Joe. About his heart—why he isn’t in the service.”

“Oh. Mustn’t let it get you, son. We can’t all go. Just have to help as much as we can at home, some of us. Yes. Well, come along, you young people. We’ll look over the outside first, while it’s still light. I’ve had the electricity turned on so we can go inside later.”

That hadn’t gone off so badly, Joe thought as they picked their way over the flagstone walks, now overgrown with grass. Barbara Hillary was as patriotic as the next one, but she wasn’t uniform-crazy like most girls. And he did have a bad heart. Nothing really serious. “Just keep calm,” the doc Up There had said, “and stay out of trouble. It’ll likely tick along until you’re eighty.”

Lord, he was a lucky guy. Safe from the army, a good soft job with an individual like old Hillary, no snoopy personnel manager to ask you a million questions. You just told him what you could do, said you were 4-F because of a bad heart, and he believed you. That’s the kind of a guy old Hillary was, taking you on face value and backing his own judgment. And Barabra—a slick chick if Joe ever saw one, besides being a millionaire’s daughter. Old Man Hillary would sure make a swell father-in-law. . . .

“Now this sink here,” Mr. Hillary was saying, “it looks as though they’d started excavating for some reason and stopped.”

Joe looked into the basinlike depression in front of them. Several tons of earth had obviously been removed. It was not deep, possibly four or five feet, and into it had drifted the oak leaves of several autumns. It would hold a quantity of water in the rainy season, but now it was dry and the old brown leaves were still and brittle.

“I could fill it in,” Mr. Hillary went on, “and make a tennis court, or I could dig it out and make a swimming pool. You kids ought to have some good ideas about such things.” Barbara and Joe both spoke at once.

“Tennis court!” Barbara said.

“Swimming pool!” said Joe.

“Looks like a deadlock,” Mr. Hillary chuckled. “Well, fight it out. I’ll referee.”

To Joe, it didn’t really matter, but he had a canny hunch that Old Man Hillary wouldn’t be impressed by a yes-man. So he held out politely, logically, and consistently for a swimming pool.

In the end, Barbara won, just as he had known that she would.

“When you’ve lived as long as I have, Joe,” Mr. Hillary said, an indulgently parental twinkle in his eye, “you’ll know better than to argue with a woman.”

“Right, sir,” Joe said with a wry smile.

“So we’ll make it a tennis court and choose another spot later on for a swimming pool. You get a crew out here first thing in the morning and start them to filling in. And see that the specifications call for a good slab of concrete, at least six inches thick. I don’t want it cracking up in a couple of years.”

“Mad at me, Joe?” Barbara’s satin-smooth lips smiled up at him, her eyes held an impish twinkle.

“I certainly am,” he said severely. “But your father is right. No man ever won an argument with a woman. So you can have your old tennis court, and I hope nobody will play on it.”

Barbara laughed, linking arms with her father and Joe. “Here,” she said, “I’ll extend an olive branch. You come out to dinner tomorrow night. There’ll just be father and me.”

On the way home Joe felt so good that he whistled a little tune. Everything was going to be jake. Nobody in this part of the country knew him. In solid with Mr. Hillary and off to a flying start with Barbara. Some babe, that Barbara! Even without dough, she’d be his dish. But you didn’t rush a thing like that. Slow and easy—and careful—would do it. Just give him a year, maybe a little less, and he’d be where he wanted to be.

He left his secondhand car in the garage back of the apartment house and walked up the alley to the front, swinging his shoulders with jaunty assurance. . . .

 

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Copyright © 2021. Dig Down Deep by Frances Beck