Crumley and I were very quiet as we drove back to the as-good-as-empty canaries-for-sale house.

I stood outside the door while Crumley went in to look at the blank walls of the old man’s room and look at the names, the names, the names, William, Willy, Will, Bill. Smith. Smith. Smith, fingernail-scratched there in the plaster, making himself immortal.

When he came out, Crumley stood blinking back into the terribly empty room.

“Christ,” he murmured.

“Did you read the words on the wall?”

“All of them.” Crumley looked around and was dismayed to find himself outside the door staring in. ” ‘He’s standing in the hall.’ Who stood here?” Crumley turned to measure me. “Was it you?”

“You know it wasn’t,” I said, edging back.

“I could arrest you for breaking and entering, I suppose.”

“And you won’t do that,” I said, nervously. “The door, all the doors, have been open for years. Anyone could come in. Someone did.”

Crumley glanced back into the silent room.

“How do I know you didn’t scratch those words on that wall with your own damned fingernail, just to get my hair up and make me believe your cockamamie theory?”

“The writing on the wall is wobbly; an old man’s scribble.”

“You could have thought of that, and imitated an old man’s scrawl.”

“Could have done, but didn’t do. My God, what do you need to convince you?”

“More than gooseflesh on my neck, I’ll tell you that.”

“Then,” I said, my hands back in my pockets again, making fists, the seaweed still hidden but waiting, “the rest is upstairs. Go up. Look. Come down. Tell me what you see.”

Crumley tilted his head to give me one of those monkey looks, then sighed and went up, like an old shoe salesman carrying an anvil in each hand.

At the top of the stairs he stood like Lord Carnarvon outside Tutankhamen’s waiting tomb, for a long moment. Then he went in. I thought I heard the ghosts of old birds rustling and peering. I thought I heard a mummy whisper, rising from river dusts. But that was the old Muse in me, anxious for startlements.

What I heard was Crumley pacing the milkweed silt on the old woman’s floor, which muffled his tread. A birdcage gave a metallic bell sound; he had touched it. Then what I heard was him bending over to lend an ear to a wind of time that moved from a dry and aching mouth.

And what I heard finally was the sound of the name on the wall whispered once, twice, three times, as if the old canary woman were reading the Egyptian hieroglyphs, symbol by symbol.

When Crumley came back down he was carrying the anvils in his stomach, and his face was tired.

“I’m getting out of this business,” he said.

I waited.

“Hirohito ascends throne.” He quoted the old newsprint he had just seen at the bottom of the cage.

“Addis Ababa?” I said.

“Was it really that long ago?”

“Now you’ve seen it all,” I said. “What’s your conclusion?”

“What conclusion should I have?”

“Didn’t you read it in her face? Didn’t you see?”


“She’s next.”


“It’s all there, in her eyes. She knows about the man who stands in the hall. He’s been up to her room, also, but hasn’t gone in. She’s simply waiting, and praying for him. I’m cold all over, and can’t get warm.”

“Just because you were right about the trolley ticket punchout junk, and found his place and I.D.’d the man, doesn’t make you Tarot Card Champ of the Week. You’re cold all over? I’m cold all over. Your hunch and my chill buys no dog food for a dead dog.”

“If you don’t post a guard here, she’ll be dead in two days.”

“If we posted guards over everybody who’s going to be dead in two days, we’d have no more police. You want me to go tell the captain what to do with his men? He’d throw me downstairs and throw my badge after me. Look, she’s nobody. I hate to say that. But that’s the way the law runs. If she were somebody, maybe we’d post…”

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Categories: Bradbury, Ray