What was that?
What it was, was the damnedest sound he’d ever heard. Something like the noise he’d earlier heard with Esther, but different now, and louder.
Jubal first heard a rustling, then saw, beyond some bushes, a strange figure, a sight so unexpected that it stopped him in his tracks. It was that of a tall, bald man clad all in blue, moving in an odd way, as if he were running in place. Then the man in blue abruptly disappeared.
Moments later there followed unearthly groans, and another moment after that the boy saw, practically overhead, what looked like a huge splash of something liquid flying through the air. It scintillated like fine particles of ice. But unlike any liquid that Jubal had ever seen before, this stuff evaporated before it fell. It looked so realistic that he dodged back to get out from under it, but then stood gaping as the vision vanished.
… for a moment it seemed that the ground was shaking beneath his feet, and he felt again the indescribable sensations that had earlier possessed him when he entered the vicinity of the black statue. But what really set the hair rising on the back of his neck this time was a soft yet trilling kind of cry, the kind of sound he could imagine coming from the throat of Esther Summerson in deep distress. Not that she was out here now, of course; but…
… he was leaning forward, bracing his hands on his knees to try to give his body some stability. Though it wasn’t really his body that needed to be stabilized, it was his mind. The sound of the groans again called up a mental image of a woman or girl, in some kind of horrible trouble. Without stopping to think, he turned and moved forward again, away from the big house.
The world around him had regained equilibrium, but all was not well. There in the long grass lay something.…
Jubal’s heart gave a lurch, and a moment later his stomach followed suit. He needed to take three or four deep breaths before he was able to get himself under control.
The body of a man lay sprawled, face down and arms outflung, just where the slope became gentle and almost leveled out. Surrounding bushes, at a little distance, concealed the spot almost entirely. The man was hatless, wearing a black leather jacket, head covered with thick, fair hair cut short. Both hands were gloved in what appeared to be black leather.
There were no obvious signs of violence.
Gingerly Jubal knelt beside the motionless form, and tentatively put out a hand to touch one arm. A moment later he snatched back his fingers and recoiled. The body was warm, but incredibly, inhumanly stiff, as hard to the touch as any Egyptian statue that had ever been carved. Jubal’s tentative tug meant to roll the man over created only a slight rocking motion of the entire figure.
No matter what he thought he had seen a little earner, the one creature immediately in sight was a human being, obviously not the bald man dressed in blue. And just as obviously dead.
The face, halfway turned in Jubal’s direction, was undamaged, but at the same time it was about the deadest face that Jubal had ever seen. The open eyes were blue glass. And it was not a face that he had ever seen before.
Slowly he got to his feet, and backed away, one step and then another, without taking his eyes away from the horror in front of him. The man wasn’t dressed like one of the groundskeepers, or security guards, and he certainly wasn’t one of the waiters, who were mostly Filipino. Some kind of intruder, then, who had simply sneaked onto the grounds? Maybe he was a burglar, or would-be kidnapper? Someone who thought he had a grudge against Hearst?
Only when Jubal’s thoughts had moved in that direction did he spot the pistol, lying almost concealed by tall grass, near the man’s rigid right hand. It was so close to Jubal that he almost stepped on the weapon before he noticed it.
The pistol seemed to dispose of an alternate possibility that had just crossed Jubal’s mind: that the corpse before him was that of some poor drifter who had just wandered onto the estate looking for a handout. One of those Okies who kept on migrating west to California, their Oklahoma farms having virtually blown away in the great drought of the Dust Bowl. But from what Jubal knew of Okies, they weren’t likely to be wearing leather gloves; most of them would be lucky if they had shoes. And they probably didn’t carry pistols. Whoever this man was, he looked well-fed, well-groomed, and was not actually that poorly dressed.
But figuring out what exactly had happened here wasn’t Jubal’s problem, nor was the identity of the victim. His immediate problem was that he had to find someone, tell someone, at once.
Back on his feet, he had taken no more than four or five strides, running up the nearest grassy slope when he met Captain Murray, the chief of security, flashlight in hand as if anticipating the approach of dusk, and his own pistol holstered on his hip.
Murray’s lean body was moving quickly, and his hawk-nosed face was set in a grim expression. Trotting along beside him was one of his men who Jubal had not seen before, also in khakis, which seemed to be the usual garb, practically a uniform, of Hearst’s security people on the estate.
“Some kind of a problem?” the captain snapped out. Jubal got the impression that a moment earlier Murray had been on the point of asking a guest politely how he had managed to stray this far away from the usual walkways. But the look on Jubal’s face must have made him shelve that query in favor of one more practical.
“Over there,” Jubal told them succinctly, pointing downhill. The two men hurried past him to bend over what was lying in the grass. A moment later the captain turned and beckoned for Jubal to join them.
Jubal did so. As he came up, he gestured awkwardly. “I was just walking around, and I heard… something…”
“Yeah, we heard it too,” said the assistant. Unlike his boss, he was wearing no holster on his belt. “Funny noises. Seemed to come from over this way.”
Captain Murray was now discovering for himself something Jubal could have told him about if asked, the terrific stiffness of the body. Rigor mortis had obviously set in. When Murray pulled on one arm, the whole body moved as a unit, like some dummy from a store window. Awkwardly the captain turned the corpse over, a grotesque process. Jubal got the eerie impression that even the blond hair seemed disinclined to move, except all in one piece, like the bronze hair on a statue. Then he inspected the figure of the late stranger for holes in the clothing, or blood. He found none.
“There’s a gun,” Jubal pointed out helpfully.
Both men looked at the weapon where it lay on the ground. “Didn’t hear any shots,” observed Murray’s assistant. “Did you?”
“No,” said Jubal.
Murray had gone down on all fours in the grass, to sniff at the revolver without touching it. “Hasn’t been fired any time recently,” he commented.
The assistant was shaking his head. “Never saw anyone get as stiff as this feller. Must have been here a few hours.”
“Maybe. But it can happen real fast, sometimes,” his boss assured him. “I seen it in the war, Oscar. Cadaveric spasm, the medics called it”
“I’ll be damned,” said Oscar, duly impressed.
“Quite likely you will,” said Murray in an abstracted voice. Meanwhile he had turned back to Jubal and was gazing at him thoughtfully.
Oscar was now taking his turn at examining the body, which meant poking gingerly at it with two fingers. “Not a mark on him, huh? That’s good, means we don’t have to go lookin’ if all the big cats and bears are in their cages.”
“No,” said the captain, still abstracted. He was still staring at the only available witness. “They’re in their cages all right You’re Jubal Doors, right?”
“Know this fella, Jubal?”
Jubal shook his head. “Never seen him before. No idea who he is. I was just kind of exploring around… and there he was.”
“Should I call some of the boys over here, Captain?” asked Oscar helpfully. “Search around before it gets dark?”
“No, not yet. Search for what?” Then the security chief made a vague gesture, as if shooing his aide away. “Lemme think a minute first. Got to find the right way to handle this.”
Murray didn’t have to think long before he looked up sharply and asked Jubal if he’d seen anyone else around who looked like he didn’t belong on the property.
“No,” Jubal answered promptly. His earlier half-glimpse of a tall, blue-clad figure in the bushes had been so brief, so vague, and so outrageously disconnected from everything else in his surroundings, that he still wasn’t sure if he’d really seen it there or not.