Excerpt: A COVENANT WITH DEATH by Stephen Becker (Open Road)

BeckerS-ACovenantWithDeathToday, we have a short excerpt from Stephen Becker’s New York Times-bestselling A Covenant With Death. The novel, first published in 1964, will be released by Open Road Media in eBook next week. If the title is familiar, it might be because the novel was adapted into a movie starring George Maharis and a young Gene Hackman, in 1967. Here’s the synopsis:

On a sultry day in the spring of 1923, Louise Talbot spends the last afternoon of her life lounging in the shade of a sycamore tree in her front yard. Beautiful and vivacious, Louise is the talk of Soledad City — every man lusts after her; every woman wants to know her secrets. She is found strangled to death that evening, and when the investigation uncovers her affair with another man, the citizens of the frontier town draw the obvious conclusion: Bryan Talbot murdered his wife in a fit of jealousy and rage.

Presiding over the trial is twenty-nine-year-old Ben Lewis. Appointed to the bench as a tribute to the memory of his late father, he fears he is too inexperienced to sentence another man to death. All the evidence points to Talbot, however, and it is a magistrate’s sworn duty to see that justice is served. But when a last-second twist casts the question of the defendant’s guilt or innocence in a shocking new light, Judge Lewis must decide whether to uphold the law — or let a murderer go free.

A thrilling suspense story and a fascinating inquiry into human nature and the true meaning of justice.

Read on for the excerpt, which is taken from early in the novel.

*

A COVENANT WITH DEATH

by Stephen Becker

Bryan Talbot telephoned the police at 10:34 on the night of May third. His voice was wild; he was sobbing. He had just returned, so he said, from Peter Justin’s Bar and Billiard Parlor, where the town’s politics took shape, and had found his wife dead, in a bathrobe, bruises on her throat; she was lying in the hallway between the living room and the master bedroom. He called Alfred Harmsworth, our chief of police. Alfred called Doctor Schilling, whom no one ever referred to as Doc, and ran to the Talbots’ house, towing a rookie named Tolliver who threw up when he saw the corpse. “That woman,” Tolliver said to me next day. His eyes went momentarily blank with horror. Alfred was in his forties, and had been a captain of infantry in France; he had seen it all, legs and heads lying loose, barbed wire festooned with American intestines, but this was worse. “Probably I never laid eyes on a finer figure,” he said. “I had to examine her; and I knew why Tolliver got sick. My stomach turned, and the world was kind of fuzzy for half an hour. She looked fine, except for the bruises on her throat. Beautiful. Long legs and that little waist and everything else exactly what a man would specify if he could get a woman from Sears, Roebuck; but she was dead. I would have paid twenty dollars for her in a bathrobe the night before, but now she was nothing. Wood, or marble maybe. Was that all it was, Ben? That she was dead? Was that what made her ugly and me sick?”

“I imagine there was more to it than that,” I said. I knew about the Viennese revolution, so I pontificated for Alfred. “You wanted that woman, like everybody else in town — no, no,” (he had tried to protest) “I don’t mean that you’d have done anything about it even when she was alive, anyway not while anybody was watching, but way down deep all men want all women. Nothing much to do about it and nothing to be ashamed of. And whatever kind your own group decides is jazziest, you want that kind most. And there she was, all laid out on her back for you — but she wasn’t even a human being any more. She belonged to nature and not to you. And all the taboos we don’t even know we worry about hit you at one time, and below the belt. Spooks and the wrath of God. Evil spirits. Devils that would shrivel your equipment if you so much as let the thought of her cross your mind.”

Alfred was nodding. “I felt that way, sure enough. I’ve watched Doctor Schilling handle all sorts of bodies, and this was the first time I wondered how he could stand it. But I’m the chief, so I couldn’t get sick like Tolliver. Tolliver’s only nineteen. If that was the first naked woman he ever saw he may be ruined for life.”

“If that was the first naked woman he ever saw, times have changed,” I said.

“Yeah. Anyway I had Talbot to worry about. And when I got over the willies I remembered that somebody must have killed the woman.”

Talbot sat on a couch, pale as death himself, tears running quick and silent down his bruised face. Alfred noticed the bruise immediately, along the left cheek and temple, the skin barely broken and only a drop of drying blood. Talbot stank of whiskey. Every little while he ran the back of his hand across his upper lip and snuffled. Once he moaned. Doctor Schilling said Mrs. Talbot had been dead for only twenty minutes or half an hour, and then he covered her up and went to Talbot. “Lie down here,” he said, and Talbot broke out sobbing — long, strangled, airless sobs. He might have been thinking that if he’d stayed home it wouldn’t have happened; he might not have been thinking at all.

Doctor Schilling had cleaned Talbot’s bruise and given him an injection. Alfred would have preferred Talbot awake and babbling but no one ever argued with Doctor Schilling. Talbot began to quiet down, and Alfred caught him before he drifted off: “When did you find her, Talbot?”

Talbot answered slowly. “Just before I called.” A pause. “I tried to bring her to.” A pause. “Thought she’d fallen.” A pause. His eyes were closing. “Then I couldn’t … find a heartbeat. Thought she was — oh, God!”

“What’d you do after you called?”

“Rubbed her wrists. Water … put water on her forehead.” His eyes were shut and his breathing was quiet.

“Alfred couldn’t do much more then, but he tried a last jolt, hoping for a flash of truth from the drugged mind: “Who did it, Talbot?”

Talbot shivered. “She won’t leave me.… That fellow Rollins.” (Or so Alfred heard it.) “Nobody.… Nobody.… My wife.”

Alfred bent closer. “Talbot: did you do it?”

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