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Crowning design, p.18
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       Crowning Design, p.18

           Leila Meacham
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  When Randall had gone, Deborah sat down before the fire and stared into the flames. She felt in the grip of a deeply penetrating cold, the kind of cold that lies at the heart of betrayal, which no warmth would ever reach. Dan…Dan…She had thought him a mountain, heroic. From the beginning, she should have seen the clues. No man had ever looked at her the way Dan did the first time they met. He had not looked—he had studied. And always, every time she approached the subject of Roger, she had sensed a stillness in him, as if he were holding his breath expectantly. The morning the falcon was shot he had asked, “Is that all of the story?” intimating there was more, observing her with that puzzling scrutiny. Other memories came out of the flames; scenes, comments that she had heard and seen through the senses of love. The one of Mrs. Watson reporting a framed photograph missing. Dan claimed that it had been broken. Now she knew that it must have been a picture of Roger. The night they reconciled: My career has been a cushion, Dan… all that I’ve ever had that I could rely on. “Until now,” he had said. Now she understood the chilling awareness that had been in those blue eyes the night they decorated the Christmas tree: “Whatever it is, Deborah, it will not affect the way I feel about you. Believe me.”

  She should have believed him. He had told her the truth. Her head began to pound with one of the familiar headaches. She must lie down. Forcing herself to rise, she walked into the guest room. It was so cold in here. Where would Randall keep guest blankets? In the old-fashioned cedar chest at the foot of the bed, like the old-fashioned gentleman he was. She moved to the chest and lifted the lid.

  What she saw on top of the blankets made her gasp. The room began to spin. Her mind stopped working. She stood frozen, staring down at the contents. Inside the cedar chest was her stolen mink coat.

  Chapter Twelve

  When her mind thawed enough to function, Deborah’s first thought was that there had to be some mistake. This couldn’t be her coat, the one that had belonged to her mother—the one stolen along with the drawings and other things that Saturday in September. But then she lifted the coat out of the chest, recognized its cut and feel, the faint fragrance of her perfume even before checking the monogram sewn inside. The right side felt heavy. From the pocket, she drew out the gold chain and diamond-and-pearl earrings described on the police list of stolen articles.

  Before allowing herself to think the unthinkable, Deborah briefly considered the possibility that Randall—ever caring and thoughtful Randall—had somehow chased down the stolen articles, knowing how much they meant to her, and planned to present them next month on her thirtieth birthday. But then she saw the framed picture of herself that had been stolen. What pawn shop—what fence—would have kept such an item to sell?

  Deborah dropped the coat and pressed her temples to steady the whirling floor. What was Randall doing with her things? He loved her—like a father. She was sure of that. But the fact that these items were here meant that he had stolen them, and why would he want to do that? To possess something intimate and personal of hers? But if all he had wanted were these things, why had he taken the drawings? Because if Randall had stolen them, then that meant that Dan—that Dan had not!

  “Oh, my dear,” said Randall in annoyance from the door-way, “what have you discovered? I am quite surprised at you. Didn’t your parents ever teach you that it is impolite to rummage through other people’s closets and cupboards? Dempsey, watch your feet!” he commanded the big Labrador as the dog rushed to greet his mistress.

  Deborah stared at the figure of her mentor as a series of whole new theories began to jostle around in her brain. He looked so harmless, endearing really, muffled in the plaid scarf, one end hanging to his knee. Cheeks and nose were wintry red above it, and his hair and brows, all fleecy white now, stuck out from beneath the brim of an old-fashioned golfer’s cap. He needed only knickers to look as if he had stepped out of a Currier and Ives lithograph.

  Struggling to remain calm, to think clearly in spite of the hammer blows of the headache, Deborah bent down to embrace the cold, ruffled neck of the dog, grateful beyond measure for his familiar company. Something dictated that it was absolutely essential to appear composed. “I was looking for a blanket and found these things,” she answered with equanimity. “What are they doing here?”

  Randall did not reply. He removed the scarf and cap and held them for a moment, considering her thoughtfully. Then he said, “Let’s go into the library where it’s warm. I could do with a cocktail. What may I get you?”

  “A couple of aspirin.”

  “Very well. Kindly take Dempsey into the library.”

  Moments later Randall joined them with a bottle of aspirin. He shook out several into Deborah’s palm and handed her a glass of water that he had poured from the bar. “That should do the trick,” he said, watching her swallow the tablets. “May I feed Dempsey before our chat? What I have to say may take some time. I brought his food, and he’s hungry.”

  “All right,” Deborah agreed, easing her head back against the chair. A gradual warmth was beginning to penetrate the numbness. If Dan had not stolen the drawings, then could that mean that he had not hired John to alter the structural documents? Could it be that he had no hand at all in any of this?

  When Randall returned, he went to the bar and splashed scotch over ice in a glass of Waterford crystal. Bringing it to the fire, he remarked, “Another one of your headaches, my dear?”

  “Yes. I had thought I was over them, but that, too, was a delusion. Why did you steal the drawings, Randall?”

  “Now, my dear,” he flinched, “do not use such harsh terms to describe my actions. After all, I am your mentor, your confidant, the one who put you back together eight years ago, the one who took a chance with you, nurtured your talent, molded you, developed you. In short, created you.”

  Deborah brought her head up. A light had just been shed on this mystery. “In other words, you are my Pygmalion and I your Galatea,” she said, referring to the legend in which a sculptor fell in love with the statue he had created.

  Randall chuckled delightedly. “Aptly put, my dear, aptly put. I had never thought of our association in those terms, but now that you put it in that perspective, I do believe you are right. Not that I am in love with you in any sexual sense, heaven forbid!” he exclaimed, casting his eyes upward.

  Deborah gaped in amazement at the man she had revered and loved for so long. “You altered the drawings, didn’t you?” she said as the pieces of the puzzle clicked rapidly into place. “Of course you did! You had ample opportunity, time, and certainly the knowledge. You knew the exact procedure, the precise status of those drawings every step of the way. But why, Randall?” she asked incredulously. “Why? Was it to destroy Dan financially? But that would mean destroying me!”

  “I—destroy you?” The thought shocked Randall. “No! No! No! Don’t you understand that I was trying to save you from a dreadful fate, preserve you for me, for the firm, for posterity. A gift like yours is rare, dear child. Your reputation may suffer a temporary setback, but talent will out, as they say. With the firm behind you, you’ll resume your status in no time.”

  Dempsey ambled in to plop tiredly on the floor, and Deborah suddenly thought of something. “Oh, no!” she burst out, her laughter edged with hysteria.

  “What is so amusing?” Randall frowned.

  “Not amusing. Ridiculous. This whole mad business could have been avoided if I’d been able to pin down something that has been pestering my subconscious. It was a remark you made to me about Dempsey the morning I told you about the robbery.”

  “What was that?”

  “When I mentioned that I was relieved that Dan had been with me, you said, ‘Yes, thank goodness someone besides Dempsey was with you.’ I didn’t think about it at the time, assuming you were referring to the presence of Dempsey in the backyard. But now I realize that you knew he was with me in the car when we drove up to the house. You gave yourself away, and I didn’t even see it.”

“We never see what we’re not looking for, child,” he said. “My plan to relieve you of the drawings was made easier because you took the dear fellow with you. I learned of that intention when I monitored your telephone call from Dan earlier. But I had already made a trial run with Dempsey, so to speak, one evening when I was…well, spying isn’t the most flattering of terms, but it will do…on you and Dan. I had to determine the exact nature of your relationship, don’t you see. Anyway, I parked in the alley and walked to the back fence to see if the dog would take a tidbit, like the kind I intended doctoring with a sleeping tablet to put him out while I went about my business. I can’t tell you how heartened I was to see Dan drive away that night. That’s how I knew you’d had a good night’s rest.”

  He gave her his slow, mellow smile and Deborah felt a clammy fear crawl along her backbone. When had insanity overtaken the brilliant faculties she had so admired? When had the creative energy sparkling in the pale blue eyes become the animation of madness? “How could you save me by trying to discredit me?” she asked, covertly looking around for her purse. She had to keep him talking until she could locate it since it contained her keys. “I assume the fate you saw for me was marriage to Dan?”

  “Precisely. Marriages today are not what they used to be, Deborah. Devotion, fidelity, honesty—they are commitments of the past, like honor and quality. The inevitable aftermath of today’s marriage is divorce, custody battles, ruination of the spirit, confidence, and talent. And as for children! Well! The modern child is little more than a monster. It is intellectually and physically lazy, undisciplined, indulged, and promiscuous. It has no mind, no heart. It runs on glandular secretions stimulated by television and fueled by soda pop and snack foods.” Randall grimaced from the picture he had drawn. “You are my crowning achievement, dear child. I was not about to turn you over to that.”

  “You must have thought your plan divinely sanctioned when Dan turned out to be Roger Lawson’s best friend,” Deborah said, her lips lifting ironically. “A perfect candidate to blame for the destruction of my career.”

  “I wasn’t trying to destroy your career, blast it!” Randall raised his voice. “You must understand that, Deborah! I thought that by having it appear that John had made an error you didn’t catch, an error you would naturally deny and that would cost Dan heavily, a wedge could be driven between you. He would have to blame you. He could not possibly forgive you. You were not emotionally stable enough to handle his anger and lack of forgiveness. Your sordid association couldn’t help but disintegrate. Had I known that you had come to your senses in Phoenix over Thanksgiving, I could have saved myself, and you, all this trouble.”

  Deborah watched him get up to replenish his drink, unusual for Randall, who never drank more than one cocktail before dinner. He was agitated, combustible. As for her, she could feel an almost euphoric cessation of the drumming within her head, as if the band were going home.

  “By then, of course,” Randall continued, “the altered drawings were already at the city planning and zoning office, but there was a way to retrieve them, I thought, with none the wiser about what had occurred. I made arrangements with an old friend of mine, an employee there who owes me a few favors, to call me once the documents were approved. I intended to pick them up, switch the altered drawings with correct ones, then give the packet to Dan during a little ceremonial party at the office to make the gesture seem more natural. The steel could then be ordered to the proper dimensions, and life would continue as normal.”

  “But the documents were approved two days early,” Deborah mused, remembering the anger Randall had displayed when informed that Dan had already picked them up.

  “Yes.” Randall sighed. “My informant was out with influenza, unfortunately, and was unaware of what had occurred. By the time he called, the structural drawings were already on the way to the fabricator, and the die was cast. I couldn’t issue a change order without implicating myself. I couldn’t risk any record, anywhere, that might expose what I had done.”

  “You talked John into lying about the columns when you went down to his office yesterday, didn’t you? He was never a part of this until then.” Strangely, her words seemed to be coming from far away, as if her voice were in the other room.

  “Yes. The dear boy would do anything for me, but then I also made him a handsome offer to ensure his loyalty.”

  “And what was that?”

  “Why, I promised him your position as head of the urban planning department, my dear. You’ll be moving into my office when I retire anyway, which will be shortly. However, he doesn’t have to know that. Are you aware that you’re still wearing your coat?”

  “Yes,” Deborah said, openly looking for her purse. She spotted it across the room on a Victorian settee. She had to get out of here. She would just rouse Dempsey, grab her purse, and go. She stood up, conscious that the room was assuming odd shapes and sizes. At the bar, Randall had suddenly thinned into a long, vertical figure that weaved grotesquely as if he were being reflected in a carnival mirror. She nudged Dempsey, lying in the center of the room, but the dog did not stir.

  She stared accusingly at Randall. “You gave him something in his food! You—you gave him sleeping pills!”

  “Yes,” he said with a smile that broke across his face like a pencil line. “He gobbled them right down in the meatballs left over from Sunday’s bridge party. We’ve missed your presence at them, Deborah. You’ll have to start coming again.”

  “Never!” The declaration had the quality of a sound from a record played on a too-low speed. “I am leaving you, Randall. I am leaving the firm. You are insane, mad as a hatter. I love Dan. I will always love him. I can’t think of anything in the world I would ever want more than to be his wife and to have his children.” She groped for Dempsey’s collar, keeping an eye on Randall, who stood weaving in amusement at the bar. “Come on, Demps!” she pleaded, tugging at his collar. “Come awake, boy!”

  “Oh, I was so afraid you would feel that way, my dear. That is why I gave you sleeping pills, too. Now I must decide what to do with you once you are incapacitated.” At her stricken look, he explained, “You belong to me, you see. I created you. Therefore, it follows that I have every right to destroy you. Don’t be concerned for Dempsey. I’ve missed having a dog. He’ll have a good home with me.”

  The ringing of the doorbell startled him, and Deborah seized that moment to propel her lethargic legs toward the open door of the library. “Help!” she screamed. “Help me!”

  Randall hissed a crude imprecation and clutched at the tail of her coat. She whirled to flail at him, meanwhile grabbing her purse and hurling it with all her might at the double glass globes of a floor lamp. “Help!” she screamed again, pushing out the cry, hoping the caller had heard the shattering glass.

  Immediately a pounding came at the door. Deborah heard Dan yell, “Deborah! Are you in there, Deborah?”

  Joyous relief surged through her. “Dan!” she cried, desperately fighting the debilitating drowsiness and the thin circle of Randall’s surprisingly strong arms as he pulled her back into the library.

  Unexpectedly, he stumbled, falling backward with a curse over Dempsey’s prone body, and she was free. Sobbing Dan’s name, struggling like a swimmer caught in an undertow, she reached the door. Her fingers grasped the handle and fumbled with the intricate night latch. Randall, his breathing harsh, appeared behind her, grappling, vituperative, and violent. He struck at her just as the door opened, and a draft of cold, blessed air rushed in. Beneath the porch light stood Dan, tall and strong, a mountain of refuge. He reached for her, drew her to the safe shelter of his arms. “What the hell is going on here, Randall?” he demanded.

  “He gave us sleeping pills,” Deborah gasped. “Dempsey—Dempsey is still inside!”

  It was morning when she awoke. A cold sunlight seeped through the snow patches on the windows of the bedroom, promising a fuller warmth later in the day. The smell of coffee drifted in from the door pushed op
en by an unseen visitor; a large canine head appeared at the foot of the bed. “Demps!” she cried with relief, rising up. “I am so glad you’re all right!”

  “Not nearly as glad as I am that you are all right!” said Dan, coming into his bedroom with a cup of coffee. Deborah thought that she must have died and gone to heaven. But no, the kiss planted on her lips by the man she loved was physical enough to warrant the belief that she was still alive. “Part of you is still in working order, at least.” He grinned. “How do you feel?”

  “Happy to be alive,” Deborah said, taking the coffee. “To be here with you. How did you get us out of there last night?”

  “I told Randall that after I put you into the Bronco, I intended to call my superintendent on the car phone to instruct him to call the police if he didn’t hear from me in ten minutes. He was only too happy to let me in to retrieve Dempsey and your purse. You remember anything after falling into my arms?”

  “Vaguely being walked around and forced to drink hot coffee.”

  “That was all they could recommend at the hospital. It was too late to pump out your stomach, which is just as well now. Your heartbeat and pulse were returning to normal, so the doctor thought you could be released into my care as long as I could keep you awake until it was safe to let you sleep.”

  “How did you know I was at Randall’s?” Deborah asked, moving over so that Dan could sit beside her on the bed. Her spirits were soaring. She felt reborn into a world without migraines.

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