by David Montrose
Véhicule Press, 2010 (1951)
An X in the middle of a diamond; that was the way the treasure trail on the Sark’s envelope ended. Supposing the diamond was the lake, the X might mean an island. And there the island was, not two hundred yards ahead. It was the only island on the lake. It was small and bald, with space for only one cottage on it. The cottage was a weatherbeaten shack that had once been painted, with walls that had once been vertical and a roof that probably had not always sagged. It looked habitable, the way an open culvert looks habitable to a cold, wet, broke bindle-stiff. It didn’t look like a place that would be owned by someone in Sark’s social set.
Drawn up on the shore below the boathouse was a flat-bottomed punt, with oars pinned to its oarlocks. I shoved it off, caught two crabs with the left oar before I got the old technique back, and took a quarter-hour to get to the island.
The shack was even worse from close up. It was a dying place beginning to lose its sills and rot at the edges, all grown up in the raggedest of weeds and no path trodden to its door.
I pushed my way through burrs and matted tall grass to crooked steps that climbed the veranda. I ankled across the veranda, being careful where I put my weight, and tried the front door. It swung open.
The long front room ran from one side of the cottage to the other. A worn straw mat covered the floor. The walls were old unpainted wood, grey and hoary. At the left end of the room was a big trestle table with six wooden chairs around it. No three of the chairs matched. In the center of the room opposite the door was an old cot with a patterned slip cover faded to several shades of dim rust, and two wicker chairs. At the right end of the room was a fireplace. There was an upholstered arm chair beside the fireplace. There was a man sitting in the chair. There was a large black hole in the center of his forehead.
The man with the hole in his head was John Sark.
Someone had gone to a hell of a lot of trouble just for me. They had stolen Sark’s body from a slab in the morgue, trucked it fifty miles out of Montreal, set it in this chair and shot it through the head. Just so I could find it here. A hell of a lot of trouble. They really needn’t have bothered.
But that was what they had done, because it was John Sark. He had been shot twice; once through the neck, and that had bled a lot. The front of him was mostly blood, soaking his shirt and tie and jacket. But the face was all right. It wasn’t handsome, with that black hole in the forehead; too bad, because Sark had been a lady-killer when he was warmer and had all his blood in his veins. There had been a distinguished breadth to his forehead, a square forthrightness to his chin. His eyes had been deep set and understanding, his nose sensitively flaring, his lips heavy but firm.
The face was unmistakably John Sark. Just as unmistakably as the face of the corpse in the Cote des Neiges kitchen.
If somebody was playing games with me, they were damned silly games. I had seen enough of the corpse of Sark earlier in the evening. Enough corpse and enough blood to last me until the next war. I didn’t want to play any more.
Just to be really sure, I got an unsoaked corner of the jacket and eased it away from his chest. I pulled his white shirt up out of the pants, and looked. No bullet holes in this chest.
Teed is crazy, or there were two Sarks.
Teed is crazy. No, no.
I got my hand under the waistband of the pants and dug until I came up with the top of a pair of violent yellow pure silk shorts. So much for drawers. I wasn’t entirely crazy. At least this corpse had drawers.
I went all over the cottage. There was only the one floor. There were three doors opening off the main room. The first gave me a kitchen, a pump over an old tin sink, a wood stove, racks with piles of cheap china, no food. The second and third gave me bedrooms, and there was a back bedroom opening off one of these. The three bedrooms were pretty much alike. They were bare and roughwalled and wooden-floored, and they had chairs and tables and beds and mattresses and bent wire coat hangers and old toothpaste tubes that could have belonged to anyone. There were some books tucked up on shelves but nobody had thought enough of them to write a name on the flyleaf. They were mostly Edgar Rice Burroughs and Zane Grey so I was more annoyed than surprised at that. In the back bedroom, tucked under the rim of the wash basin, was an empty bottle. The label said, ‘One teaspoonful after meals, as required.’ It came from Herbinger’s Pharmacy, 4055 Cote Ste. Catherine Road, Montreal.
That wasn’t much. But it was all. Except that in the back bedroom a blanket had been pulled off the bed and thrown back on it, in a heap. I returned to the front room and looked at the corpse again. While I looked at him I remembered I hadn’t eaten for twelve hours, but I only remembered because I was thinking I didn’t want to eat again, not for a long time.
Written by David Montrose