_Henry Slesar, young New York advertisingexecutive
and by now no
longer a new-comer to either this magazine or to this field,
describes a strange little town that you, yourself, may blunder
one of these evenings. But, if you do, beware--beware of the
_by ... HENRY SLESAR_
The woman in the doorway
looked so harmless. Who
was to tell she had some rather startling
The woman in the doorway
looked like Mom in the homier political
cartoons. She was plump, apple-cheeked, white-haired. She wore a fussy,
old-fashioned nightgown, and was busily
clutching a worn house-robe
around her expansive middle. She blinked at Sol Becker's rain-flattened
hair and hang-dog expression, and said: "What is it? What do you want?"
"I'm sorry--" Sol's voice was pained. "The man in the diner said
you might put me up. I had my car stolen: a hitchhiker; going to
Salinas ..." He was puffing.
"Hitchhiker? I don't understand." She clucked at the sight of the pool
of water he was creating in her foyer. "Well, come inside, for heaven's
sake. You're soaking!"
"Thanks," Sol said gratefully.
With the door firmly
shut behind him, the warm interior
of the little
house covered him like a blanket. He shivered, and let the warmth
over him. "I'm terribly
sorry. I know how late it is." He looked at his
watch, but the face was too misty to make out the hour.
"Must be nearly three," the woman sniffed. "You couldn't have come at a
worse time. I was just on my way to court--"
The words slid by him. "If I could just stay overnight. Until the
morning. I could call some friends in San Fernando. I'm very susceptible
to head colds," he added inanely.
"Well, take those shoes off, first," the woman grumbled. "You can
undress in the parlor, if you'll keep off the rug. You won't mind using
"No, of course not. I'd be happy to pay--"
"Oh, tush, nobody's asking you to pay. This isn't a hotel. You mind if I
go back upstairs? They're gonna miss me at the palace."
"No, of course not," Sol said. He followed her into the darkened parlor,
and watched as she turned the screw on a hurricane-style lamp, shedding
a yellow pool of light over half a flowery
sofa and a doily-covered wing
chair. "You go on up. I'll be perfectly
"Guess you can use a towel, though. I'll get you one, then I'm going up.
We wake pretty early in this house. Breakfast's at seven; you'll have to
be up if you want any."
"I really can't thank you enough--"
"Tush," the woman said. She scurried out, and returned a moment later
with a thick bath towel. "Sorry I can't give you any bedding. But you'll
find it nice and warm in here." She squinted at the dim face of a
ship's-wheel clock on the mantle, and made a noise with her tongue.
"Three-thirty!" she exclaimed. "I'll miss the whole execution
"Goodnight, young man," Mom said firmly.
She padded off, leaving Sol holding
the towel. He patted his face, and
then scrubbed the wet tangle
of brown hair. Carefully, he stepped off
and onto the stone floor in front of the fireplace. He
removed his drenched coat and suit jacket, and squeezed water out over
He stripped down to his underwear, wondering about next morning's
possible embarrassment, and decided
to use the damp bath towel as a
blanket. The sofa was downy and comfortable. He curled up under the
towel, shivered once, and closed his eyes.
* * * * *
He was tired and very sleepy, and his customarynightlyreview
limited to a few detached thoughts about the wedding
he was supposed
attend in Salinas that weekend
... the hoodlum who had responded to his
good-nature by dumping him out of his own car ... the slogging walk to
the village ... the little round woman who was hurrying off, like the
White Rabbit, to some mysterious
appointment on the upper floor ...
Then he went to sleep.
A voice awoke him, shrill
"Are you _nakkid_?"
His eyes flew open, and he pulled the towel protectively around his body
and glared at the little girl with the rust-red pigtails.
"Huh, mister?" she said, pushing a finger against her freckled
"No," he said angrily. "I'm not naked. Will you please go away?"
"Sally!" It was Mom, appearing in the doorway
of the parlor. "You leave
the gentleman alone." She went off again.
"Yes," Sol said. "Please let me get dressed. If you don't mind." The
girl didn't move. "What time is it?"
"Dunno," Sally shrugged. "I like poached eggs. They're my favorite eggs
in the whole world."
"That's good," Sol said desperately. "Now why don't you be a good girl
and eat your poached eggs. In the kitchen."
"Ain't ready yet. You going to stay for breakfast?"
"I'm not going to do anything until you get out of here."
She put the end of a pigtail in her mouth and sat down on the chair
opposite. "I went to the palace last night. They had an exelution."
"Please," Sol groaned. "Be a good girl, Sally. If you let me get
dressed, I'll show you how to take your thumb off."
"Oh, that's an old trick. Did you ever see an exelution?"
"No. Did you ever see a little girl with her hide tanned?"
"_Sally!_" Mom again, sterner. "You get out of there, or
"Okay," the girl said blithely. "I'm goin' to the palace again. If I
brush my teeth. Aren't you _ever_ gonna get up?" She skipped out of the
room, and Sol hastily
sat up and reached for his trousers.
When he had dressed, the clothes still damp and unpleasant
skin, he went out of the parlor
and found the kitchen. Mom was busy at
the stove. He said: "Good morning."
"Breakfast in ten minutes," she said cheerfully. "You like poached
"Sure. Do you have a telephone?"
"In the hallway. Party line, so you may have to wait."
He tried for fifteen minutes to get through, but there was a woman on
the line who was terribly
upset about a cotton dress she had ordered
from Sears, and was telling the world about it.
Finally, he got his call through to Salinas, and a sleepy-voiced Fred,
his old Army buddy, listened somewhat indifferently
to his tale of woe.
"I might miss the wedding," Sol said unhappily. "I'm awfully
Fred didn't seem to be half as sorry as he was. When Sol hung up, he was
feeling more despondent than ever.
A man, tall and rangy, with a bobbing Adam's apple and a lined face,
came into the hallway. "Hullo?" he said inquiringly. "You the fella had
the car stolen?"
The man scratched his ear. "Take you over to Sheriff Coogan after
breakfast. He'll let the Stateys know about it. My name's Dawes."
Sol accepted a careful handshake.
"Don't get many people comin' into town," Dawes said, looking at him
curiously. "Ain't seen a stranger in years. But you look like the rest
of us." He chuckled.
Mom called out: "Breakfast!"
* * * * *
At the table, Dawes asked his destination.
"Wedding in Salinas," he explained. "Old Army friend of mine. I picked
this hitchhiker up about two miles from here. He _seemed_ okay."
"Never can tell," Dawes said placidly, munching egg. "Hey, Ma. That why
you were so late comin' to court last night?"
"That's right, Pa." She poured the blackest coffee Sol had ever seen.
"Didn't miss much, though."
"What court is that?" Sol asked politely, his mouth full.
"Umagum," Sally said, a piece of toast sticking out from the side of her
mouth. "Don't you know _nothin'_?"
"_Arma_gon," Dawes corrected. He looked sheepishly at the stranger.
"Don't expect Mister--" He cocked an eyebrow. "What's the name?"
"Don't expect Mr. Becker knows anything about Armagon. It's just a
dream, you know." He smiled apologetically.
"Dream? You mean this--Armagon is a place you dream about?"
"Yep," Dawes said. He lifted cup to lip. "Great coffee, Ma." He leaned
back with a contented
sigh. "Dream about it every night. Got so used to
the place, I get all confused in the daytime."
Mom said: "I get muddle-headed too, sometimes."
"You mean--" Sol put his napkin
in his lap. "You mean _you_ dream about
the same place?"
"Sure," Sally piped. "We all go there at night. I'm goin' to the palace
"If you brush your teeth," Mom said primly.
"If I brush my teeth. Boy, you shoulda seen the exelution!"
"Execution," her father said.
"Oh, my goodness!" Mom got up hastily. "That reminds me. I gotta call
poor Mrs. Brundage. It's the _least_ I could do."
"Good idea," Dawes nodded. "And I'll have to round up some folks and get
old Brundage out of there."
Sol was staring. He opened his mouth, but couldn't think of the right
question to ask. Then he blurted out: "What execution?"
"None of _your_ business," the man said coldly. "You eat up, young man.
If you want me to get Sheriff Coogan lookin' for your car."
The rest of the meal went silently, except for Sally's insistence
singing her school song between mouthfuls. When Dawes was through, he
pushed back his plate and ordered Sol to get ready.
Sol grabbed his topcoat and followed the man out the door.
"Have to stop someplace first," Dawes said. "But we'll be pickin' up the
Sheriff on the way. Okay with you?"
"Fine," Sol said uneasily.
The rain had stopped, but the heavy clouds seemed reluctant
to leave the
skies over the small town. There was a skittish breeze
blowing, and Sol
Becker tightened the collar
of his coat around his neck as he tried to
keep up with the fast-stepping Dawes.
* * * * *
They crossed the street diagonally, and entered a two-story wooden
building. Dawes took the stairs at a brisk pace, and pushed open the
door on the second floor. A fat man looked up from behind a desk.
"Hi, Charlie. Thought I'd see if you wanted to help move Brundage."
The man batted his eyes. "Oh, Brundage!" he said. "You know, I clean
forgot about him?" He laughed. "Imagine me forgetting that?"
"Yeah." Dawes wasn't amused. "And you Prince Regent."
"Well, come on. Stir that fat carcass. Gotta pick up Sheriff Coogan,
too. This here gentleman has to see him about somethin' else."
The man regarded Sol suspiciously. "Never seen you before. Night _or_
"Come _on_!" Dawes said.
The fat man grunted and hoisted himself out of the swivel chair. He
followed lamely behind the two men as they went out into the street
A woman, with an empty market basket, nodded casually to them. "Mornin',
folks. Enjoyed it last night. Thought you made a right nice speech, Mr.
"Thanks," Dawes answered gruffly, but obviously
flattered. "We were just
goin' over to Brundage's to pick up the body. Ma's gonna pay a call on
Mrs. Brundage around ten o'clock. You care to visit?"
"Why, I think that's very nice," the woman said. "I'll be sure and do
that." She smiled at the fat man. "Mornin', Prince."
Sol's head was spinning. As they left the woman and continued their
determined march down the quiet street, he tried to find answers.
"Look, Mr. Dawes." He was panting; the pace was fast. "Does _she_ dream
about this--Armagon, too? That woman back there?"
Charlie chuckled. "He's a stranger, all right."
"And you, Mr.--" Sol turned to the fat man. "You also know about this
palace and everything?"
"I told you," Dawes said testily. "Charlie here's Prince Regent. But
don't let the fancy title fool you. He got no more power than any Knight
of the Realm. He's just too dern fat to do much more'n sit on a throne
and eat grapes. That right, Charlie?"
The fat man giggled.
"Here's the Sheriff," Dawes said.
The Sheriff, a sleepy-eyed citizen with a long, sad face, was rocking on
a porch as they approached his house, trying
to puff a half-lit pipe. He
lifted one hand wearily
when he saw them.
"Hi, Cookie," Dawes grinned. "Thought you, me, and Charlie would get
Brundage's body outa the house. This here's Mr. Becker; he got another
problem. Mr. Becker, meet Cookie Coogan."
The Sheriff joined the procession, pausing only once to inquire into
He described the hitchhiker incident, but Coogan listened stoically. He
murmured something about the Troopers, and shuffled alongside
puffing fat man.
Sol soon realized that their destination
was a barber
Dawes cupped his hands over the plate glass and peered inside. Gold
letters on the glass advertised: HAIRCUT SHAVE & MASSAGE PARLOR. He
reported: "Nobody in the shop. Must be upstairs."
* * * * *
The fat man rang the bell. It was a while before an answer came.
It was a reedy woman in a housecoat, her hair in curlers, her eyes red
"Now, now," Dawes said gently. "Don't you take on like that, Mrs.
Brundage. You heard the charges. It hadda be this way."
"My poor Vincent," she sobbed.
"Better let us up," the Sheriff said kindly. "No use just lettin' him
lay there, Mrs. Brundage."
"He didn't mean no harm," the woman snuffled. "He was just purely
ornery, Vincent was. Just plain mean stubborn."
"The law's the law," the fat man sighed.
Sol couldn't hold himself in.
"What law? Who's dead? How did it happen?"
Dawes looked at him disgustedly. "Now is it any of _your_ business? I
mean, is it?"
"I don't know," Sol said miserably.
"You better stay out of this," the Sheriff warned. "This is a local
matter, young man. You better stay in the shop while we go up."
They filed past him and the crying Mrs. Brundage.
When they were out of sight, Sol pleaded with her.
"What happened? How did your husband die?"
"You must tell me! Was it something to do with Armagon? Do you dream