It was precisely four o'clock in the afternoon when Miss Lois Elling heard her employer returning from lunch. There was a solid wooden door at her left, and slightly behind her a side entrance to the old house that opened onto a small concrete porch and six concrete steps leading down to the driveway.
The door opened and Morgan Wayne entered the small room that had been turned into an office by setting up a typewriter desk in the center of it and a telephone stand beside the desk. There was also a straight chair for Miss Elling to sit in, and nothing else.
Wayne was bareheaded and immaculate in a creamy suit of heavy Irish linen, white-and-tan sports shoes, white shirt, and solid black four-in-hand tie. This seemed to be a sort of uniform with him. There had been no deviation in a single article of clothing since Miss Elling had come to work for him, though the white shirt was fresh each morning, the suit neatly creased and spotless.
In many ways Morgan Wayne appeared to be a man of definite and undeviating habit. He entered the door at precisely nine-thirty each morning and said, "Good morning," passing through the open door to the larger inner room, where he seated himself in the comfortable swivel chair behind the clean oak desk and laid the morning Times out in front of him. He sat directly in Miss Elling's line of vision through the open connecting door with his left profile toward her. For a matter of five or ten minutes each morning he sat perfectly motionless, looking fixedly out the single, uncurtained window in the room. At the end of that period he lit a cigarette and began reading the paper. He appeared to read it carefully and with great interest from the first page to the last--a task that required exactly two hours, with no more than a few minutes' leeway in either direction.
Thus, each morning it was approximately eleven-forty by Miss Elling's watch when he laid aside his paper and opened the top right-hand drawer of his desk and lifted out a leather-covered pint flask and unscrewed the large silver cap. He poured this to the brim with good bourbon (Miss Elling knew it was good bourbon because she had helped herself to a snifter from the flask during his lunch-con absence on her third day in his employ) and spent ten minutes sipping the drink. The cap was then returned to the flask and the flask to the drawer, and Morgan Wayne would push back his swivel chair and get up. Moving casually through the door to her office, he would pause beside her desk and remark, "I think I'll go out to lunch now, Miss Elling. You have yours, so you will be here to take any messages?"
"Oh, yes, Mr. Wayne," she would tell him brightly, "I'll be right here to take any messages."
Then Morgan Wayne would go out, and Miss Elling would be alone until four o'clock, when he returned. As he was doing now. Pausing beside her desk to ask, "Nothing, Miss Elling?"
She shook her head and said, "Nothing, Mr. Wayne," and watched him go through the door to the swivel chair, where she knew he would sit until five o'clock, when he would turn his head and tell her pleasantly, "You may as well go along now, Miss Elling. Good night," and she would get up from her desk and say, "Good night, Mr. Wayne," and go out the door and down the concrete steps and out the driveway past his Cadillac convertible to the front of the old mansion on the height overlooking the parkway and the Flushing yacht basin, to walk the short distance to the subway station.
This was Thursday afternoon. Her fourth day on the job. During those four days, Morgan Wayne's routine had not varied. Thus far, he had spoken to Lois Elling exactly fifteen times since the first brief talk on Monday morning when she arrived with her card from the agency and he had explained that in the future he would expect her to bring a lunch she could eat in the office because there were no restaurants nearby and it would be necessary for her to be on hand in case there was a telephone call.
For four days now, the telephone had not rung once. There had been no callers at the two-room suite securely locked off from the rest of the seemingly deserted house.
There had been no dictation for Miss Elling to take, no letters for her to write. That first morning Wayne had gravely explained to her that she would be on trial for the first week, a sort of probationary period to see "how she worked out," as he had expressed it.
Well, she wondered viciously now, just how had she worked out? She glared at Morgan Wayne's profile through the open door as he seated himself in the swivel chair and asked herself for the thousandth time what in hell this rigmarole was all about.
In the beginning--that first day, at least--it had been sort of exciting and fun to wonder about her new job and her new employer. To wait for him to do something, or give her something to do. To wonder what his business was, and why he had this queer sort of office set up in the two front rooms of this old deserted house overlooking the parkway. To wonder with a little tingle of frightened anticipation whether that closed door on the other side of his inner office opened into a luxuriously furnished love nest into which she would be initiated later.
After four days she still had vague ideas about the love nest beyond the closed door, but she knew it to be securely locked and had just about given up hopes of being invited inside.
And she knew no more about the nature of his business or why he required the services of a secretary than she had in the beginning. In the right-hand drawer of her typewriter desk reposed a full ream of printed letterheads. They said "Morgan Wayne" across the top. No address. No telephone number. No nothing. She knew it was a full, untouched ream, because the wide paper band encircling the sheets had not been broken.
In the left-hand drawer of her desk were five hundred large envelopes to match the printed stationery. On the back flap of each was the printed address of the house in which the office was located.
His name on the letterheads and an address on the envelopes.
There was also the bare, flat-topped desk in the inner room, with three drawers on each side and a shallow center drawer. Five of the side drawers were completely empty; the sixth held the leather-covered flask of good bourbon.
There was a checkbook in the shallow center drawer. Nothing else. A large, three-checks-to-the-page book with the name Morgan Wayne printed neatly at the top of each check. Three checks had been used, and the stubs were carefully filled in. The first check was dated less than a month previously, and the two following checks were each dated precisely one week later, on a Friday in each case (Miss Elling had checked the calendar with the dates to turn her first suspicion into a practical certainty).
She was thinking about those three checks as she sat rigidly at her desk a few minutes after four o'clock on Thursday afternoon and glared through the connecting door at her employer.
Morgan Wayne had seated himself comfortably in the swivel chair and was leaning back with both hands indolently clasped behind his head. From experience, Miss Elling knew he would hold that pose without moving for half an hour at least.
Her eyes were slightly glazed as she watched him across her typewriter, and she was thinking about those three checks--and that the next day would be Friday again.
She didn't really know she was going to do it when she felt her right hand going down to open the drawer of her desk. She kept watching Wayne fixedly as her fingers fumbled for the band of paper around the virgin ream and ripped it. The tearing sound was loud in the stillness, but Wayne did not twitch a muscle.
She still didn't know exactly what she was going to do when she lifted a sheet and slid it into the roller of her machine with trembling fingers.
Continuing to watch her employer's profile for some evidence of attention or interest, Miss Elling began typing rapidly. There was no reaction from the silent figure in the inner room. Her fingers flew over the keys nimbly and letters became words, and words became lines, and lines became paragraphs, while she kept on staring at Wayne with hypnotic intensity and allowed her subconscious mind to take over completely.
Who are you [she wrote]? What are you, Morgan Wayne? What sort of crazy setup is this? An office, you call it. In this old house away from everything. With a telephone that doesn't ring, a secretary who doesn't work . . . and you in your swivel chair!
How long do you think a girl can stand sitting here wondering? A week, huh? No more than that. You've got that one figured out. Is that why you fired the others after their "trial periods"? Or did they quit? That's what I'm wondering about right now. Because tomorrow is Friday again, you know, and I'm not going to quit, Morgan Wayne. So you'll have to fire me.
You see, I know about the others. That checkbook in your desk. Did you think for one moment that I wouldn't prowl around while you were out? Or didn't you care? Maybe you wanted me to look. To sort of be prepared for being fired tomorrow.
Three checks. Each for fifty dollars and each dated a succeeding Friday. To three different girls. Muriel Grane, Alice Hobbs, and Janice Neat. And tomorrow there'll be another stub. Another fifty dollars paid out to Lois Elling. For services rendered. What services? What services did Muriel and Alice and Janet render for their fifty bucks?
What about those other three girls, Mr. Wayne? My predecessors. Each one, I assume, hired for a one-week trial period, as I was. Were they surprised when you fired them at the end of one week? Why? Couldn't they handle the job? Weren't they efficient at sitting here in this chair and waiting for something to happen? Waiting for you to say something? To do something? Make a pass or some goddamn thing or other? How inefficient can a girl be at sitting in a chair and waiting?
How did you break the sad news to each of them, Morgan Wayne? How are you going to explain to me tomorrow afternoon that I simply haven't "worked out"?
Let's see, now. You will have to break down and actually say something to me, won't you? Something more than "Good morning" and "Good night." How will you do it, you big blond impervious self-satisfied bastard?
First I'll see you get out your checkbook and write in it. Then you'll come in and hand me my fifty bucks and you'll say:
"I'm extremely sorry, Miss Elling, but I'm afraid I'll have to let you go. The experiment simply hasn't been successful. You recall, of course, that this first week was a probationary period.
"You see, Miss Elling, I don't approve of your posture as you sit here and perform all the difficult and delicate tasks assigned to you. You simply don't sit still enough, Miss Elling. At four-twenty-six on Tuesday afternoon I observed you wriggling at your desk. And on Wednesday morning just before I went out to lunch you crossed your legs and then uncrossed them all in a matter of ten minutes.
"And, Miss Elling, the crowning horror of all--what actually convinced me that you simply would not do-was that disgusting performance of yours yesterday afternoon. I refer, of course, to your revolting effrontery in sitting here in plain view of me and typing a letter on one of my lovely letterheads.
"There must be silence in this office. Miss Elling. The clack of a typewriter simply must not be. I could set up my office in a mausoleum, of course, and obtain the same effect, but it would be difficult and probably expensive. And people might think it odd. I'll fire you instead and hire another secretary from another agency to report Monday morning. Perhaps she will fit my exacting specifications."
Is that what you will say to me, Mr. Morgan Wayne? Is that what you said to the others? Or will you come back from lunch tomorrow afternoon and go past me into your office and take a key out of your pocket and unlock that door leading into the interior of this old house and open the door and turn and say to me:
"All right, Miss Elling. Please step this way. This is my regular Friday-afternoon experiment to determine whether you will come back to work on Monday or whether I will have to try out another girl.
"That's correct, Miss Elling. Right this way. And take off your clothes, please. Everything, if you don't mind. To the last stitch. We're alone, you know. Quite alone in this old house. There's a comfortable bed in here. And champagne on ice. Soft lights and muted music. Just get out of your clothes, my dear, while I get out of mine. And then we'll see."
I wish you would do it that way, you big, blond Viking bastard. I might fool you, Morgan Wayne. Because I'd love it. What do you think of that? Go ahead and unlock your door and try me.
What in hell am I saying? I don't know. And I've reached the point where I don't care any more. You do that to a woman, you know. I bet you do know. Damn you. Damn you. Damn you. Just by walking past me and sitting there and saying nothing. Not even looking at me.
I'd make you look at me, damn your soul. I'd give you something to look at. Try me and see. I've got breasts, goddamn it, that tingle when I look at your big hands. Does that surprise you? I've got a smooth, flat, white stomach that cringes and does nip-ups inside when I look at the solid bulk of you sitting there in that chair. I've got strong thighs and a dimple in each knee.
So I'd love to be invited into your love nest, Morgan Wayne. I'd love to show you all that--and more. I'll call your bluff in a hurry if you unlock that door. Don't think you'll get rid of me so easily.
Did you frighten the others away? Muriel and Alice and Janet. Didn't one of them call your bluff? Or did they? And you still weren't satisfied, huh? They didn't have what it takes. Poor girls. I'm sorry for them, but then I'm glad, too, because if they hadn't all failed to pass the test I wouldn't be sitting here waiting for you to get up and unlock that door. . .
Oh, my God! Am I going off my rocker completely? How can this happen to me after just sitting here looking at you for four days? Damn you. Damn you. Damn you. I'm Lois Elling. I'm thirty-two years old, unmarried but not a virgin; moderately chaste but not a prude. I've had men in my bed before. I can have any one of half a dozen tonight if I like.
Nice guys, too. Not like you. Men who know what women are built for-and are glad of it. All I have to do is pick up the telephone to have one of them tonight.
But I won't, Morgan Wayne. Do you know what I'll do tonight instead? What I've been doing every night since I started working here.
I'll go home and take a bath. I'll lie in the steaming hot tub and think about you. Wonder about you. Want you. I'll wonder if you have my home telephone number, or whether you know it's in the book and all you have to do is look under the E's and find me listed. And I'll think about the telephone maybe ringing in the other room and about jumping out of the tub and running in dripping to answer it and hearing your voice over the wire. The voice I've heard just fifteen times all told. And I'll lie in the hot tub and dream about standing there stupidly, dripping water on the white rug in front of the telephone and asking you in my most ladylike voice how soon you can get there. And dropping the phone and hurrying like hell to dry myself and powder myself and dab on just a touch of perfume and going into the bedroom shaky all over and kneeling down to open the bottom bureau drawer and digging all the way down to the bottom and getting out the tissue-wrapped black negligee that Bill Johnson gave me for Christmas five years ago and that I've never worn. I'd have worn it for Bill, you can bet, but he was killed in an auto accident two days before Christmas and I haven't met another man since for whom I wanted to wear it. Until I met you.
That's what I'll do tonight, Morgan Wayne . . .
The telephone rang at Miss Lois Elling's right hand. She jumped as though aroused from deep sleep and looked at the instrument in dazed disbelief. It couldn't be. It wasn't supposed to ring. It wasn't a real telephone. Just a stage prop, like Morgan Wayne himself and the typewriter and the unused letterheads.
It rang again. Just like any other telephone. In a demanding and businesslike way. She turned her chair to lift the instrument and speak into the mouth piece. She listened intently, frowning in concentration, then slowly replaced the receiver on its prongs and turned back to see Wayne standing beside her.
He had moved as swiftly and as silently as a stalking tiger, and he stood beside her chair looking down at the typed words in her machine.
Momentarily Miss Elling's office training held sway over her mind and she was the crisply efficient secretary she had always been in the past.
"A message for you, Mr. Wayne. And he hung up. He said . . . Oh, my God!" Realization stabbed at her, brought the breathless exclamation to her lips and flaming color to her cheeks.
Morgan Wayne was standing there calmly reading what she had written in her bemused state of almost complete unconsciousness. Her hand clawed out at the typewritten page, but Wayne's fingers closed over her wrist effortlessly, pressed her back into her chair while his eyes raced over the typed words.
A muscle twitched in the right side of his mouth while Miss Elling moaned in an agony of embarrassment and fought against his strength to reach past him and retrieve the sheet.
He released her wrist as abruptly as he had grabbed it, shaking his head slowly and turning amused blue eyes on her. She cringed back in her chair away from him, tight-lipped and crimson and panting with anger and humiliation, wilting before the hot flame she saw lurking in the icy depths of his eyes.
He said, "The message, Miss Elling?"
She averted her head wildly, flinging both hands up to her face to hide it from him, moaning tremulously through tight lips.
"Please." His voice was tolerant and reasonable, yet with an added note of curtness. "You did get the message?"
She nodded her head slowly, keeping her face turned away and covered with her hands. Her voice was muffled and thin as she forced herself to say, "Tell Wayne they jumped the gun and grabbed Letty ten minutes ago on the Sawmill River Parkway. I lost them headed for town."
Wayne stood motionless and silent. Miss Elling held her breath for a long moment, expelled it with a shuddering sigh, and dared to steal a glance at him through outspread fingers.
He stood close beside her, but his head was lifted and he was looking over her head. His face was taut and hard, and there was a look about him of listening, of waiting tensely for some signal.
He had forgotten her, she thought. He stood there beside her chair after reading her nymphomaniacal ravings and was as unaware of her as though she did not exist.
He turned abruptly without a downward glance and strode to his inner office, where he looked searchingly out the window again. Somehow, Wayne's indolent manner had vanished. There was a sudden impression of terrific leashed power in every movement and in his stance before the window.
It didn't mean anything to him, she thought wildly. He doesn't care what I wrote. I needn't be ashamed at all. He doesn't care. She bit her underlip until a drop of blood spurted from it, reached forward listlessly to rip the sheet from her typewriter and tear it into tiny fragments.