It was a trivial thing—a cigarette lighter—which finally wrecked Philip Connor’s peace of mind.
Angela and he had been sitting at the edge of her pool for more than an hour. She had said very little during that time, but every word, every impatient gesture of her slim hands, had conveyed the message that it was all over between them.
Connor was sitting upright on a canvas chair, manifestly ill at ease, trying to understand what had brought about the change in their relationship. He studied Angela carefully, but her face was rendered inscrutable, inhuman, by the huge insect eyes of her sunglasses. His gaze strayed to a lone white butterfly as it made a hazardous flight across the pool and passed, twinkling like a star, into the shade of the birches.
He touched his forehead and found it buttery with sweat. “This heat is murderous.”
“It suits me,” Angela said, another reminder that they were no longer as one. She moved slightly on the lounger, altering the brown curvatures of her semi-nakedness.
Connor stared nostalgically at the miniature landscape of flesh, the territory from which he was being evicted, and reviewed the situation. The death of an uncle had made Angela rich, very rich, but he was unable to accept that as sufficient reason for her change in attitude. His own business interests brought him more than two hundred thousand a year, so she knew he wasn’t a fortune hunter.
“I have an appointment in a little while,” Angela said with a patently insincere little smile.
Connor decided to try making her feel guilty. “You want me to leave?”
He was rewarded by a look of concern, but it was quickly gone, leaving the beautiful face as calm and immobile as before.
Angela sat up, took a cigarette from a pack on the low table, opened her purse, and brought out the gold cigarette lighter. It slipped from her fingers, whirred across the tiles, and went into the shallow end of the pool. With a little cry of concern, she reached down into the water and retrieved the lighter, wetting her face and tawny hair in the process. She clicked the dripping lighter once, and it lit. Angela gave Connor a strangely wary glance, dropped the lighter back into her purse, and stood up.
“I’m sorry, Phil,” she said. “I have to go now.”
It was an abrupt dismissal, but Connor, emotionally bruised as he was, scarcely noticed. He was a gypsy entrepreneur, a wheeler-dealer, one of the very best—and his professional instincts were aroused. The lighter had ignited the first time while soaking wet, which meant it was the best he had ever seen, and yet its superb styling was unfamiliar to him. This fact bothered Connor. It was his business to know all there was to know about the world’s supply of sleek, shiny, expensive goodies, and obviously he had let something important slip through his net.
“All right, Angie.” He got to his feet. “That’s a nice lighter—mind if I have a look?”
She clutched her purse as though he had moved to snatch it. “Why don’t you leave me alone? Go away, Phil.” She turned and strode off toward the house.
“I’ll stop by for a while tomorrow.”
“Do that,” she called without looking back. “I won’t be here.”
Connor walked back to his Lincoln, lowered himself gingerly onto the baking upholstery, and drove into Long Beach. It was late in the afternoon, but he went back to his office and began telephoning various trade contacts, making sure they too were unaware of something new and radical in cigarette lighters. Both his secretary and telephonist were on vacation, so he did all the work himself. The activity helped to ease the throbbing hurt of having lost Angela, and—in a way he was unable to explain—gave him a comforting sense that he was doing something toward getting her back or at least finding out what had gone wrong between them.
He had an illogical conviction that the little gold artifact was somehow connected with their breaking up. The idea was utterly ridiculous, of course, but in thinking back over the interlude by the pool with Angela, it struck him that, amazingly for her, she had gone without smoking. Although it probably meant she was cutting down, another possibility was that she had not wanted to produce the lighter in his presence.
Realizing his inquiries were getting him nowhere, he closed up the office and drove across town to his apartment. The evening was well advanced yet seemingly hotter than ever—the sun had descended to a vantage point from which it could attack more efficiently, slanting its rays through the car windows. He let himself into his apartment, showered, changed his clothes, and prowled unhappily through the spacious rooms, wishing Angela was with him. A lack of appetite robbed him of even the solace of food. At midnight he brewed coffee with his most expensive Kenyan blend, deriving a spare satisfaction from the aroma, but took only a few disappointed sips. If only, he thought for the thousandth time, they could make it taste the way it smells.
He went to bed, consciously lonely, and yearned for Angela until he fell asleep.
Next morning Connor awoke feeling hungry and, while eating a substantial breakfast, was relieved to find he had regained his usual buoyant outlook on life. It was perfectly natural for Angela to be affected by the sudden change in her circumstances, but when the novelty of being rich, instead of merely well off, had faded, he would win her back. And in the meanwhile he—the man who had been first in the country with Japanese liquid display watches—was not going to give up on a simple thing like a new type of cigarette lighter.
Deciding against going to his office, he got on the phone and set up further chains of business inquiries, spreading his net as far as Europe and the Far East. By midmorning the urge to see Angela again had become very strong. He ordered his car to be brought round to the main entrance of the building, and he drove south on the coast road to Asbury Park. It looked like another day of unrelieved sunshine, but a fresh breeze from the Atlantic was fluttering in the car windows and further elevating his spirits.
When he got to Angela’s house there was an unfamiliar car in the U-shaped driveway. A middle-aged man wearing a tan suit and steel-rimmed glasses was on the steps, ostentatiously locking the front door. Connor parked close to the steps and got out.
The stranger turned to face him, jingling a set of keys. “Can I help you?”
“I don’t think so,” Connor said, resenting the unexpected presence. “I called to see Miss Lomond.”
“Was it a business matter? I’m Millett of Millett and Fiesler.”
“No—I’m a friend.” Connor moved impatiently toward the doorbell.
“Then you should know Miss Lomond doesn’t live here any more. The house is going up for sale.”
Connor froze, remembering Angela had said she wouldn’t be around, and shocked that she had not told him about selling out. “She did tell me, but I hadn’t realized she was leaving so soon,” he improvised. “When’s her furniture being collected?”
“It isn’t. The property is being sold fully furnished.”
“She’s taking nothing?”
“Not a stick. I guess Miss Lomond can afford new furniture without too much difficulty,” Millett said drily, walking toward his car. “Good morning.”
“Wait a minute.” Connor ran down the steps. “Where can I get in touch with Angela?”
Millett ran a speculative eye over Connor’s car and clothing before he answered. “Miss Lomond has bought Avalon—but I don’t know if she has moved in yet.”
“Avalon? You mean…?” Lost for words, Connor pointed south in the direction of Point Pleasant.
“That’s right.” Millett nodded and drove away. Connor got into his own car, lit his pipe, and tried to enjoy a smoke while he absorbed the impact of what he had heard. Angela and he had never discussed finance—she simply had no interest in the subject—and it was only through oblique references that he guesstimated the size of her inheritance as in the region of a million, perhaps two. But Avalon was a rich man’s folly in the old Randolph Hearst tradition. Surrounded by a dozen square miles of the choicest land in Philadelphia, it was the nearest thing to a royal palace that existed outside Europe.
Real estate was not one of Connor’s specialties, but he knew that anybody buying Avalon would have had to open the bidding at ten million or more. In other words, Angela was not merely rich—she had graduated into the millionaires’ super-league, and it was hardly surprising that her emotional life had been affected.
Connor was puzzled, nevertheless, over the fact that she was selling all her furniture. There was, among several cherished pieces, a Gaudreau writing desk for which she had always shown an exaggerated possessiveness. Suddenly aware that he could neither taste nor smell the imported tobacco which had seemed so good in his pouch, Connor extinguished his pipe and drove out onto the highway.
He had traveled south for some five miles before admitting to himself that he was going to Avalon.
The house itself was invisible, screened from the road by a high redbrick wall. Age had mellowed the brickwork, but the coping stones on top had a fresh appearance and were surmounted by a climb-proof wire fence. Connor drove along beside the wall until it curved inwards to a set of massive gates which were closed. At the sound of his horn, a thickset man with a gun on his hip, wearing a uniform of café-au-lait gabardine, emerged from a lodge. He looked out through the gate without speaking.
Connor lowered a car window and put his head out. “Is Miss Lomond at home?”
“What’s your name?” the guard said.
“I’m Philip Connor.”
“Your name isn’t on my list.”
“Look, I only asked if Miss Lomond was at home.”
“I don’t give out information.”
“But I’m a personal friend. You’re obliged to tell me whether she’s at home or not.”
“Is that a fact?” The guard turned and sauntered back into the lodge, ignoring Connor’s shouts and repeated blasts on the horn. Angered by the incident, Connor decided not to slink away. He began sounding the car horn in a steady bludgeoning rhythm—five seconds on, five seconds off. The guard did not reappear. Five minutes later, a police cruiser pulled alongside with two state troopers in it, and Connor was moved on with an injunction to calm down.
For lack of anything better to do, he went to his office.
A week went by, during which time Connor drew a complete blank on the cigarette lighter and was almost forced to the conclusion that it had been custom-built by a modern Faberge. He spent hours trying to get a telephone number for Angela, without success. Sleep began to elude him, and he felt himself nearing the boundary separating rationality from obsession. Finally, he saw a society column picture of Angela in a New York nightspot with Bobby Janke, playboy son of an oil billionaire. Apart from making Connor feel ill with jealousy, the newspaper item provided him with the information that Angela was taking up residence at her newly acquired home sometime the following weekend.
Who cares? he demanded of his shaving mirror. Who cares?
He began drinking vodka tonics at lunchtime on Saturday, veered onto white rum during the afternoon, and by nightfall was suffused with a kind of alcoholic dharma which told him that he was entitled to see Angela and to employ any means necessary to achieve that end. There was the problem of the high brick wall, but, with a flash of enlightenment, Connor realized that walls are mainly psychological barriers. To a person who understood their nature as well as he did, walls became doorways. Taking a mouthful of neat rum to strengthen his sense of purpose, Connor sent for his car.
Avalon’s main entrance, scene of earlier defeat, was in darkness when he reached it, but lights were showing in the gate lodge. Connor drove on by, following the line of the wall, parked on a deserted stretch of second-class road. He switched off all lights, opened the trunk, took out a heavy hammer and chisel, crossed the verge and—without any preliminaries—attacked the wall. Ten minutes later, although the mortar was soft with age, he had not succeeded in removing one brick and was beginning to experience doubts. Then a brick came free and another virtually tumbled out after it. He enlarged the hole to an appropriate size and crawled through onto dry turf.
A dwarfish half-moon was perched near zenith, casting a wan radiance on the turrets and gables of a mansion which sat on the crest of a gentle rise. The building was dark and forbidding, and as he looked at it Connor felt the warm glow in his stomach fade away. He hesitated, swore at himself, and set off up the slope, leaving his hammer and chisel behind. By bearing to the left he brought the front elevation of the building into view and was encouraged to see one illuminated window on the first floor. He reached a paved approach road, followed it to the Gothic-style front entrance, and rang for admission. A full minute later the door was opened by an archetypal and startled-looking butler, and Connor sensed immediately that Angela was not at home.
He cleared his throat. “Miss Lomond…”
“Miss Lomond is not expected until mid…”
“Midnight,” Connor put in, expertly taking his cue. “I know that—I was with her this afternoon in New York. We arranged that I would stop by for a late drink.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but Miss Lomond didn’t tell me to expect visitors.”
Connor looked surprised. “She didn’t? Well, the main thing is she remembered to let them know at the gate lodge.” He squeezed the butler’s arm democratically. “You know, you couldn’t get through that gate in a Sherman tank if your name wasn’t on the list.”
The butler looked relieved. “One can’t be too careful these days, sir.”
“Quite right. I’m Mr. Connor, by the way—here’s my card. Now show me where I can wait for Miss Lomond. And, if it isn’t imposing too much, I’d like a Daiquiri. Just one to toy with while I’m waiting.”
“Of course, Mr. Connor.”
Exhilarated by his success, Connor was installed in an enormous green-and-silver room and supplied with a frosty glass. He sat in a very comfortable armchair and sipped his Daiquiri. It was the best he had ever tasted.
The sense of relaxation prompted him to reach for his pipe, but he discovered it must have been left at home. He prowled around the room, found a box of cigars on a sideboard, and took one from it. He then glanced around for a lighter. His gaze fell on a transparent ruby-colored ovoid sitting upright on an occasional table. In no way did it resemble any table lighter he had ever seen, but he had become morbidly sensitive on the subject, and the ovoid was positioned where he would have expected a lighter to be.
Connor picked it up, held it to the light and found it was perfectly clear, without visible works. That meant it could not be a lighter. As he was setting it down, he allowed his thumb to slide into a seductively shaped depression on the side.