The wrong Venus - By Charles Williams


Lawrence Colby by the age of thirty had been a Korean paratrooper, art student, PR man, script-writer, a dealer in art forgeries, and newspaperman, and had once ghost-written the autobiography of a homicidal maniac; he had been married twice, once to an Italian actress with kleptomania and once to a wealthy middle-aged woman who stoned embassies and slugged cops with protest signs at demonstrations; he had been beaten up in riots, shot through the leg in Houston, Texas, by a woman who was trying to kill her husband, and had been down the Cresta Run at St. Moritz three times; but afterward he was prone to look back on all this part of his life before he met Martine Randall as a time when nothing ever happened.

They met just a week after his thirtieth birthday, on a flight from Geneva to London. . . .

* * *

The flight had already been announced when he checked in at Cointrin, so he was the last passenger to board. There were two aisle seats left in the first-class section, one beside a bearded two-hundred-pound Sikh in travel-soiled khaki and the other next to a dream of a girl who was reading the European edition of Time, a luscious brunette with a striking figure and deep blue eyes. She glanced up briefly as he came to a decision and sat down.

“I beg your pardon,” he said, after he had fastened his seat belt and verified his first appraisal of the legs, “but aren’t you Pamela McCarthy?”

She smiled shyly. “Not really, I’m afraid. Pamela’s my roommate. I just borrowed her leg.” She went back to the Time.

He sighed. “Well, I’ll tell her you’re taking good care of it. . . . Goodnight, David.” Lowering his seat back, he closed his eyes.

Normally, he would have probed the defenses at least once more, as the minimal tribute to so much girl, but he was tired: he’d been up most of the night before. In a minute or two he had dozed off, and was only vaguely aware when the plane taxied to the runway and made its take-off run. He was awakened briefly by a stewardess offering lunch, but waved it off, and went back to sleep again.

Then he was dreaming he was riding a roller coaster in an amusement park, a ride full of vertiginous swoops and sudden upswings that threatened to throw him out of the car. It seemed to go on forever. When he awoke at last he saw that the plane had run into turbulence. White wool streaked past outside the windows, and the FASTEN SEAT BELTS sign was on.

They dropped a hundred feet in a sickening lunge that threw him up against his belt, then fishtailed, yawing wildly. He glanced at his watch and saw they should be down in London in less than an hour. Apparently the turbulence had been going on for some time. Most of the other passengers had dozed off, but up forward he could hear somebody being sick. A stewardess came down the aisle clinging to the seats with one hand and carrying one of the white bags in the other.

The plane shot upward and to port. The stewardess grabbed for the back of Colby’s seat, missed, and caught his shoulder. She smiled. “So soddy.” She was very British.

Colby grinned up at her and winked with the kinship of those immune to motion sickness. He turned to look at the girl beside him. She had put her seat back so it was level with his, and was apparently asleep, her face near his shoulder. She was probably in her late twenties, but there was an almost childlike innocence about her face in repose. It was a fine-boned face with a good chin and a beautiful clear complexion, the lashes dark smudges against her skin. Her lips were slightly parted, and he was conscious of the impulse to kiss her. That was just what he needed, he thought, to go through Customs at London with his face under his left ear. The plane bucketed up and down, and took a long skidding dive to starboard.

He had just turned away and was reaching for a cigarette when he thought he heard her say something. He hoped she wasn’t going to be sick. Colby genuinely liked women, and never felt any resentment at having been given the brush; if they didn’t knock down the proffered arm of fellowship a good part of the time, by now there wouldn’t be room left