Saturday, December 8, 2012

"The Smiling Corpse" by Ellen Lynn

The Smiling Corpse
Ellen Lynn

It was a sizzling hot day. The sun beat down its heat waves on the colored Mexican cliffs. Pete and I were stripped to the waist and our skin glistened with rivers of perspiration. We laid aside our tools ready to call it a day when Pete suddenly yelled—"Ben, look! Look there!" I wheeled around, and there in the open seam of the mountainside was a gleaming white vein. We both stood transfixed, then we rushed over and feverishly started to examine the deposit which our pick-axes had uncovered.

I turned to Pete. "Is it—is it...?" I asked unbelievingly.

He nodded, tongue-tied. Finally, "Yes, it's uranium! Ben, we've found rich deposits of uranium!"

This is what we were prospecting for—my pal and I. I should have been elated over our find. But the same old emotions I had always felt reared up and spoiled the feeling of conquest.

The truth was, I never liked Pete Lawrence. I'll admit it. I was jealous of him. In school, when I was the football star, he was the most popular fellow during the whole four years. He was short and skinny. I was the athletic type—and yet all the girls went for his piano playing and his poetry. I could never understand it.

What was even stranger, he and I were always buddies. He was president of the student organization and I tagged along with him—it made me feel important. But it also made me boil inside—Why should the football hero tag after a mere bookworm? It should be the other way around.

"Won't Joyce be excited," Pete was saying, adding a bitter sting to my already acid thoughts. Joyce! The only girl I ever loved—and she went for Pete. I had introduced them at a dance, never dreaming she'd prefer a little guy like him to a he-man like myself. She used to go for me, until Pete came along. If only I hadn't introduced them! How many times I thought about that! But what was the use now? They were completely "gone" on each other.

There he was, busily snapping away at the shutter. Taking pictures at every angle, making me take the camera to get a shot of him. So excited! He was going to be rich. And he was going back to marry Joyce! No, no! If I had more time I might win her back.

Pete was thrusting me back, back. "Hey, Ben, wake up! Are you dreaming about our rich future? Stand back there, will you? Next to the deposit. I'll take a picture of you discovering the uranium. Hahaha! We can all show it to our grandchildren some day." He snapped several pictures.

As I stood there I saw Ben backing up toward the edge of the cliff, a 3,000 foot drop. My breathing stopped. He was going to back up and fall over! In another step! My God—that would be the solution! I'd have the whole uranium deposit to myself—and Joyce, too.

No such luck. He stopped. "Stay where you are," he commanded me. "Why are you walking so close to me? I also want your picture next to the—next to—Ben, what's the matter?"

I could see horror in his eyes as I moved closer, closer. He glanced back over his shoulder at the sheer drop behind him. "Ben, Ben, you're pushing me—I'll be killed," he panted.

My arm steeled itself and with one heave, I pushed him over the cliff. A great sense of relief filled me. At last, after all these years, I was rid of him. Now I must think clearly how to cover up the murder.

First, I removed the negative from the camera, then I hurled it and the camera itself after the owner. By the time it was found, if at all, the negative would be ruined. Gathering up all our equipment, I quickly descended the mountain. I would return later in the week—and claim the uranium deposit for myself.

As I had planned, I got back to the hotel unnoticed by anyone. Inside my room, under the door was a telephone message addressed to Pete. I opened it. It was from Joyce expressing concern at not having heard from him. I smiled happily.

The next morning I phoned Joyce. She became frantic when I said, "But Pete went to spend the past week with you, Joyce. Hasn't he been there at all?"

"Why, no! Ben—he told me he was going on a prospecting trip and would be gone quite a while! Something must have happened! Ben, I'll leave here at once. Oh—try to find him!"

When Joyce arrived, a searching party was organized to find my missing friend, Pete. I helped in the arrangements, my solemn countenance merely a mask to conceal the elation I felt at Joyce's nearness to me. In a few days, when she got used to the idea that Pete was dead, I'd go back to make my claim and then I'd return to Joyce—and win her for myself.

We were riding in a jeep, my arm comforting her. I noticed the cars ahead were stopping not too far from the base of the cliff where my claim was. I sat erect, somewhat relieved when the searching party set out in an opposite direction to the fatal spot. Joyce was mumbling something. "What did you say, Joyce?" I asked gently.

"I just said that I gave Pete a new camera which he must have taken along. It isn't in his room—I looked for it." Joyce was silent a moment and then her next words froze my blood. "If we could find that camera, it might tell us a story. You know, it was a self-developer."

A self-developer! Then my picture would be developed and the searchers might find it. They'd know I was with him—that I was his murderer! I must find the camera and the developed pictures.

"Joyce, I'm going to help the searchers find Pete—but I'll go in a different direction," I explained to her, and I hurried up the mountainside toward the uranium deposit.

Never had I climbed as I did then. My fingers were torn and bleeding, my clothes ripped, but up, up I went. When I reached the top, I fell flat on my belly and looked over the edge of the cliff. I could make out a man's form sprawled out on a ledge about five hundred feet below. More carefully I made my way down the steep side. As I neared the body, I could make out Pete's face, bloody, disfigured, half-gone. Near his head was the camera and the films. I breathed a sigh of relief. But how was I to get it? The ledge was narrow and Pete's body was sprawled in such a way that it blocked my passage. Perhaps if I could hang on to the overhanging ledge and swing, arm over arm, I could get to the other side of the body and get the photographs. I'd make sure to destroy all the pictures this time. It was just a short distance across his body. I jumped and grabbed hold of the narrow protruding ledge, then I started to swing—trying to avoid looking down at the nothingness of space around me, thousands of feet down to terra firma. Five more swings, I estimated, and I'll have passed Pete's body—What was that? Was I having a brainstorm, or did Pete really move? His eyes—the lids fluttered! His lips—what was left of them—started to smile at me! T-two—more—swings! One! I was at the other side. I dropped down and started to reach for the pictures, my eyes glued on Pete's form. Slowly, it raised up, to a sitting position. I jumped back—and felt myself whirling in space, the wind tearing at my lungs.

They picked up my battered body and brought me dying to the hospital. Joyce and some doctors were standing at my bedside and I heard them talking:

Joyce said, "Ben found Pete's body—and there was the camera beside him. B-but—the pictures were ruined, so we have no record of what Pete was doing on that cliff—or what had happened." Everything was going black—black...

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