CHAPTER SEVEN, revised: 11th Installment
Paul poured himself another cup of coffee and asked Vikki and Kate if they'd like more. Kate cheerfully accepted. Vikki declined.
He noticed Vikki smoked almost nervously. She seemed to be preoccupied with something. He had hardly seen her at all today, or Kate, either. The investigation was taking a lot out of him.
They were secluded from the guests in Paul's den at the back of the house. Kate had gone for a long ride in the hills alone today, and Vikki had just returned from town. Paul rubbed the back of his neck. "I don't mind telling you this killing has got me down. I'd just as soon get the whole bunch of them out of here and be done with it. Though how in god'sname this could've happened here, I don't know!" He glanced at Kate, as if seeking an answer from her.
"Well don't look at me. I didn't do it." Kate laughed.
Paul swore and ran his fingers through his hair again. "Kate, how can you joke about this? A girl's been murdered!"
"Take it easy, Paul," Kate said. She put her coffee cup down and went to him and touched his arm reassuringly. "I react this way because there's no point in both of us being upset." She went back to her coffee. "You seem awfully nervous, Vikki," Kate said. Vikki seemed to be off in a world of her own. The worried frown on her face seem to increase with each cigarette. Her coffee was cold, untouched.
"She has reason to be upset, don't you, Vickki?" Paul said tightly.
"What?" Vikki glanced at him, puzzled, almost fearful.
"I said, you have reason to be worried, don't you?"
"Paul, what do you mean? I really don't know what you're talking about."
Paul reached into his pocket and slid out the envelope he'd discovered amidst the letters Vikki had brought down from her room to mail, two days ago. He'd carried it around in agonized silence, giving Vikki every opportunity to say something to him, even providing openings, but she'd kept her silence. He was devastated. He'd loved her and wanted to marry her and now---
Now he didn't know.
Or rather, he knew only too well.
He could never marry a murderous.......She wasn't actually convicted, Paul, a voice said.
He placed the envelope in front of her, wordlessly. She stared at it but made no move to touch it.
"Go ahead. Look at it," he said.
"I already know what it contains."
He picked it up and took out the contents, spreading them over the counter. Several aged newspaper clippings lay before them, accounts of a sensational trial of a woman accused of murdering her wealthy husband because of insane jealousy. Vikki's face stared out at them.
She didn't look at Paul. She didn't even touch the clippings. She just sat in silence. Without looking at Paul, her face set in a grim facade, she said, "I was acquitted."
She didn't plead. Traces of stubborn anger flitted briefly across her countenance, then vanished just as quickly. She didn't plead.
"Vikki, you didn't tell me."
Vikki sat very still, controlled, the muscle in her face taut. But her heart smouldered, her eyes blazed. When she looked up at Paul, who stood in front of her seat, she glared, "Are you accusing me?"
Paul couldn't answer. He looked at Kate. She studied her coffee cup intimately. Vikki glanced also at Kate. She stood up suddenly, causing Paul to step back out of her personal space. She smashed out the cigarette she'd just lit.
"I see," she said coldly. "The least you could have done, Paul, was wait until we were alone!" The look she threw Kate was one of pure hatred.
"I'll leave, Paul," Kate said. She started to get up.
"You will not!" Paul shouted. "What'd you expect, Vikki? Kate's not only my sister, she's my business partner. Who I marry affects her!"
"Then marry her!" Vikki yelled at him.
"That's sick, you know that? Sick!" Paul turned on her. "I've been watching you, Vikki. I never knew how jealous you were before. It's a good thing I found out before I married you! The way you've acted when I flirt with the women who come here--You're even jealous of Kate, for godssake---my own sister! I'm surprised you're not jealous of that poor wretch Dixon!"
"Paul, simmer down. I'm sure Vikki has a reason for not telling us." If Kate expected any sympathy from Vikki, she was mistaken. Vikki glared at her coldly, the hatred undisguised.
"I hope you're satisfied, Kate. It's what you wanted, isn't it?"
"I want my brother's happiness. You really should have told us, Vikki. Paul's not inhuman. He would have understood. But finding out now.....makes it twice as hard, don't you see? This is hard on all of us. Look, why don't we all try to relax a little. We could talk about it if you want."
Vikki turned almost savagely. For a long moment it seemed she held back some retort, for she said with somewhat more quiet restraint, "What good would that do? People either believe I killed my husband or they don't." Then, to Paul, "Why do you think my former fiance broke the engagement, Paul? Must I go my whole life living down something that happened--paying for something I was acquitted of?" She looked at him imploringly. "I thought you were different. Is there nothing in your life you keep silent about, or you, Kate?"
Kate said nothing. Paul looked away, then back at Vikki again. He ran his fingers through his hair. His eyes were bleary. "What can I say, Vikki? I'm not sure I'd ever be able to trust you....I mean, there'd always be doubt...I'm not sure I can handle that." He looked at her helplessly.
"You said you loved me, Paul."
"Vikki,... I don't know what to say. Let's give it some time."
Vikki picked up the clipping. She stared at it. "How did you get this?"
"It was in the letters you brought downstairs to mail a couple of days ago."
"Doesn't that strike you as being a bit suspicious?" She was glaring at Kate, then glanced back to Paul. "All this time I've kept it in a safe enough place. Now all of a sudden Im going to be careless enough to do such a stupid thing as to leave it where you're sure to find it?"
Paul didn't miss the implication of her look. "Are you making some accusation, Vikki?"
"I wouldn't dream of it, " she said sarcastically. "But Kate can't deny she hasn't exactly been a member of my fan club since I came."
"Vikki, that's ridiculous," Kate returned. "Sure I was mad because you took my horse. Anybody would be. On a ranch a person's horse is her own. Or his. Heck, I've forgotten all about it. You've got your own horse now, haven't you? She's as good as Misty, or better. When you've had her longer you'll know how I feel. Right, Paul?" Kate was trying to reconcile.
"Sure. Sure. You women! You amaze me! I'll never understand how you can be all smiles and charm one minute and all daggers the next. I think we're all a case of nerves. This girl getting murdered---"
"Maybe she just fell in the bin. Maybe it was an accident," Vikki said, lighting another cigarette.
"No way it could be an accident. Even if she fell in, in order for her to get covered up like that enough to suffocate, someone had to pull the switch the moment she fell. Otherwise she'd have had time to get out with the safety bars. The opening's not that big. Besides, we keep the lid on as another safety measure."
"Maybe she fell in at feeding time," Kate suggested. "We pull the switches from downstairs then. That activates the upper chute." She was explaining for Vikki's benefit.
"I don't think so, and besides, the lid would've been closed. Someone had to've opened it. And too, she was seen after that." Paul rubbed his hand over his head. "I can't understand what she was doing up there in the first place."
Kate laughed a little. "Oh Paul, you know yourself a barn loft is the first place on a ranch kids head for---remember all the fun we used to have up there when we were kids? I'm sure it's no difference with teenage girls who've never been on a ranch before. Besides, there's a litter of kittens up there now, remember? Who wouldn't want to play with the kittens?"
Paul wasn't deterred.He replied, "It's pitch black up there at night---spooky as hell, even for a man.
She left a note, so she must have intended on meeting someone with some purpose in mind."
Vikki walked over to the window and looked out into the night. At least they'd gotten their mind off her. She didn't join in the conversation. Instead, she was thinking of the night she had gone up to the loft herself....how frightening the dark up there was. She'd been troubled by Paul's attention to Georgia Long. She fought against her own rising emotion, the heat of her anger, the strength of her jealousy.
Yes, she had overheard. Her jealousy always made her mad enought to kill.
Murder would not be hard for her. She knew that without a doubt. Her one blind passion in some moments could very well seek out and destroy some victim. Wasn't the past enough to testify to that?
Well, regardless of what had been said and done in the papers, she herself was the only person alive who knew whether or not she had been guilty of murdering her husband.
As she stared out into the blackness, not really listening to the voices of Paul and his sister Kate as they talked, she saw a dark figure suddenly step away from the covering protection of the house shadow and run stealthily towards the barn. All she could make out was a somewhat stocky figure wearing a hat. He disappeared before she could determine anything more.
She turned to tell Paul what she'd seen, then, for some reason, decided against it.