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Dead of Winter


There are dead people whom we mistake for living beings.

— ELIPHAS LÉVI, Dogme de la Haute Magie


“I came up here to make a dead man change his mind.”

There was earnestness behind the quiet statement.

It was growing dark. The blaze in the huge fireplace flickered on the face of the speaker and made its expression difficult to read. The fingers of his left hand moved restlessly over the smooth coat of the great dog that lay on the sofa beside him. Round-faced, round- bodied, in worn hunting clothes that gave no hint of his wealth, Luke Latham stared belligerently up at his tall house guest.

“Well, go on. Why don’t you laugh?”

“Not until I’m sure it’s funny.”

Latham hunched his shoulders. “It isn’t. It’s plain Hell.”

The black Dane pricked his ears, then sprang to the floor and stood with head erect, growling softly. His master looked at him in surprise. A moment later his own ears caught the crunch of feet on snow. Latham moved around the corner of the fireplace into the hall wing of the low L-shaped room, and opened the door.

The girl outside wore ski togs that took advantage of slim hips and brought out the long lines of her figure. The wind had tinted her cheeks, but her face looked pale against her blue-black hair, and her gray eyes were troubled.

Before Latham could speak, the man with him said, “Hello, Sherry Ogden,” and fresh color leaped in the girl’s face.

“Rogan Kincaid!” She held out both hands. “Jeff told me he drove you up this morning, but I couldn’t imagine anything dragging you this far from civilization.”

“I wasn’t dragged. I was attracted.”

Sherry tilted her head to one side and looked at him. “By a chance to take Luke’s hide at poker?”

“Lots of men have had cracks at my hide,” Latham chuckled, “but I’m still wearing it. Truth is, Rogan was in Quebec, headed south. Jeff met him and offered him a ride this far. But where did you see that nephew of mine, Sherry? He was in such a rush to go hunting, he grabbed his gun and left while the pie we had for lunch was still sticking out the corners of his mouth.”

“Jeff didn’t need a gun,” Sherry confided. “The game he’s after has baby-blue eyes and answers to the name of ‘Barbara.’ As a matter of fact, there’s some doubt about who’s doing the hunting. Either way, the betting is you’re going to acquire a niece. They’re over at my place now, swapping coos.”

Latham took the girl’s parka and they strolled to the fire, where the Dane greeted her by thrusting a cold muzzle into her gloved hand. She curled on one end of the sofa and sat looking up at Rogan. Tall, lean, enigmatic, with strong unsymmetrical features, he was in such striking contrast to his host’s dumpy rotundity that for a moment a smile touched the corners of her lips. Then she caught the older man’s shrewd eyes and her glance dropped. The color had gone from her cheeks, and the hand that pushed back her black curls trembled.

“This isn’t just a social visit, Sherry.” Latham’s voice was kindly. “What’s bothering you?”

Her fingers locked together in her lap. She twisted them apart, and drew a long breath before she spoke.

“Luke, are you certain my father is dead?”

Rogan read surprise in his friend’s face, but there was none in the voice that answered.

“I saw his body.”

“Are you absolutely sure it was Father?” the girl insisted. “I mean, they said he was . . . Besides, it was all so impossible.”

A puzzled expression puckered the corners of Latham’s eyes. “Lots of men get lost in the snow, my dear.”

“I know, but not Father. He’d spent half his life outdoors. And that other man . . . Everyone told me he was a regular old woman about marking a trail. They said he never took any chances. A person like that couldn’t wander away.”

“I’m sorry, Sherry.” Rogan spoke softly. “I didn’t realize. . . . Jeff said nothing about Mr. Ogden’s—”

“Frank Ogden isn’t my father,” she interrupted. “He isn’t even my stepfather.”

“When Sherry was born her mother died,” explained Latham. “Her father married again.”

“I was about twelve when Father . . . was lost.” She began pulling off her gloves with little nervous gestures. “Then my stepmother married Frank. They adopted me, and I’ve called myself ‘Ogden’ ever since. Father was French—from Provence. My real name is Seré Désanat.”

Mr. Kincaid was puzzled. “But if your father died ten years ago . . .?”

The girl flashed him a smile. “It was fourteen, but thanks. I know I’m being a fool . . . only . . . only . . .” Her lips began to tremble and she huddled back on the sofa. “I’m scared.”

“Don’t see what’s troubling you,” said Latham. “Never was any doubt about his death. Made the funeral arrangements myself. That’s how I happened to see the body. Some fool may have told you he was pretty badly . . . changed by exposure. He was. Recognized him, though . . . No question at all.”

“I know,” Sherry admitted doubtfully, “and you couldn’t have made a mistake about his left hand. But”—she gave a little gesture of helplessness—“he couldn’t have gotten lost, either—not Father. He could find his way anywhere, like an animal . . . places he’d never been before. The lumberjacks used to make bets on him.”

“That part of the Hudson Bay country is Hell’s icebox, they tell me. Your father and that other man—Querns, wasn’t that his name?—had never hunted it before. Top of that a storm came up—bad one. Fellow wrote me that even the guide got lost hunting your father. Said the poor devil wouldn’t have come out alive himself if he hadn’t run into some explorers.” Latham moved closer to the fire. “Country like that does things to a man sometimes. Gets inside his mind—changes it around. Saw a trapper once who’d been lost for three days. He walked right across a railroad track without seeing it. Started to run away from us when we shouted at him.”

“I know I’m being a fool . . . but . . .” Sherry broke off as the black dog moved over and put his head in her lap. She stared down at him. “Thanks, Thor. You don’t think I’m crazy, do you?”

“We don’t either,” Latham grunted. “Can’t help, though, unless you tell us what’s wrong.”

“It’s . . . oh, so many things.” Again the little helpless gesture. “Luke, why did Frank bring Mr. Vok here? Is it because of the séance?”

“What séance?” asked Kincaid. “And who is Mr. Vok?”

“Svetozar Vok,” Latham informed him. “Frank Ogden picked him up in Quebec. Refugee from Czechoslovakia.”

“He’s more like a refugee from a horror movie.” Sherry shuddered. “Wait till you see him, Rogan. He’s a mile high and looks like the oldest inhabitant of a graveyard.”

Her host chuckled. “Vok’s not that bad, Sherry. Queer bird, but I like him. Struck me as rather witty.”

“He gives me the creeps. He’s like a mummy that’s still smiling over one of the embalmer’s jokes.” She glanced up at Latham. “Besides, why is he at Cabrioun? It’s not like Frank to pick up a refugee. Particularly a penniless one. Frank isn’t the kind to help lame dogs over stiles.”

“That’s not fair, Sherry. I don’t get along with Frank too well myself, but he can be generous when he likes. Practically pensioned Madore Troudeau by making him caretaker at Cabrioun. Frank didn’t get any good out of that. None of the family’s been up here for years.”

The girl was not satisfied. “There are other things too, Luke. We haven’t been here since Father died. Why did we come now? And why didn’t we bring any of the servants? Why has Frank been so jumpy lately? And what has the séance got to do with it? And . . . and . . . lots of things.”

Latham hesitated. “I know you’re not a believer, Sherry. Though how you can help it after what you’ve seen your stepmother do time and time again . . . ”

“I think it’s mostly Irene who’s kept me from believing. I admit queer things occur at her séances . . . things nobody’s ever been able to explain. But she’s such a fraud, I can’t put faith in a thing she does. Everything about her is phony. That’s why this . . .”

The words trailed off. Latham sat on the sofa and took Sherry’s hand.

“Something’s happened to you. You came here to tell us about it. Maybe we can help.”

The girl stared into the fire. Then without looking at either of the men she said:

“Today I heard my father’s voice.”

There was a long silence after that. Thor stirred uneasily. Sherry put her hand on his head and crumpled his ears.

“I didn’t have much to do this morning,” she went on. “Frank was out hunting with Madore and that Professor Ambler who’s staying with you. Irene locked herself in her room, like she’s been doing since we came. Barbara was fixing her hair in case Jeff got here. At last I decided that even Mr. Vok’s company was better than being left alone, so I screwed up my courage and took him skiing. He turned out to be pretty good at it. We went across the lake to slide down The Snake’s Back. It was when we were coming home I heard Father. We were in the middle of the lake. There wasn’t a soul within a quarter of a mile. There couldn’t have been.”

She stood and began walking back and forth before the fire.

“It was the song I heard first, an old Provençal thing. There’s a high note in it Father could never reach. He used to make a funny little trill instead. The words were perfectly beastly. ‘Pierre! Death comes for you; the toad digs your grave; the crows sound your knell . . .’ I hated it,” Sherry grimaced at the recollection. “It’s been a long time since then. I’d even forgotten the tune until I heard it today.”

“Sound travels pretty far over ice,” Latham reminded her. “Wind plays tricks with it, too.”

“Do you think I haven’t told myself all that?” The girl turned and threw out her hands. “It wasn’t only the song. Afterward a man’s voice spoke. It was Father.”

“Make out what he said?”

“There was a little echo, and I missed all but a few words. The only thing I could be positive of was . . . my own name.”

“Sure you remembered your father’s voice after all these years?”

Sherry bit her lip. “You don’t forget things like that. Besides, who else could it have been? There’s no one within miles of the lake this time of year. Jeff and Rogan hadn’t come. Mr. Vok was with me. You wouldn’t do a thing like that, and the other three men were all together hunting.”

She broke off and resumed her pacing. Rogan watched her for a long minute.

“There’s more yet,” he declared. “You’d better let us have it all.”

Sherry spun on her heel and flung back her head.

“All right, and it’s this that’s driving me frantic. The voice was loud enough even if it did sound far away, and I know Mr. Vok has good ears. But he didn’t hear it!”


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