Willard Higgins entered a few minutes later. He was a small shabby man with a moustache that had never become more than a smudge beneath his nose. He talked as if battling a perpetual cold, and he had a habit of bouncing his fingertips together. He greeted the invalid in hushed, hospital tones, but Maxwell St. John bellowed. "Higgins, you old milktoast! Nice of you to come see me!"
"How are you, Mr. St. John? I can't tell you how sad I was to hear about your illness--"
"It's a plot, Willard, the whole thing. That nurse out there, Miss Cassidy? She's really with the CIA." He guffawed at the sight of Higgins' bewildered face, and then clutched his chest with a groan. "Oh, Willard, they cut out the best parts of me."
"Are you all right, Mr. St. John? Do you want the nurse?"
"No, no, Willard. Just tell me what's new. How's the Maxwell St. John Fan Club?"
"Well, you can imagine," Higgins said briskly. "I've written letters to all the chapter presidents, on an emergency basis. There's some talk about starting a gift fund for you, but I know how you feel about all those cut-glass vases and things."
St. John chuckled.
"But I have to admit," Higgins said shyly, "I did want to bring you a little something myself. It's nothing much, but you know how I grateful I am to you--"
"You don't have to be grateful, Willard. You're probably the only true friend I have."
"Oh, don't say that, Mr. St. John. Why, the whole world's your friend." He took a small package from his pocket and undid the thin blue string. There was a box inside, containing a brown suede bag. From the bag, Higgins produced a cigarette lighter with porcelain sides depicting a hunting scene. "It's not much," Higgins said again.
"Not much?" St. John said. "It's a charming memento of what put me in the hospital in the first place." He grinned toothily. He turned it upside down and saw the small sticker that read: $6.95. "Thank you, Willard. But you shouldn't be spending your hard-earned money on me, I know how rough things are for you."
"Things haven't been too good," Higgins admitted. "But I don't really mind, Mr. St. John. As long as I have your friendship. That's the important thing."
"You do, Willard, you do," Maxwell St. John said, yawning widely "I'm still dopey from the medication. Mind if I just close my eyes a minute?"
The great man shut his eyes and collapsed heavily into the pillows, which promptly became askew.
"Let me fix those for you, Mr. St. John."
Tenderly, Willard adjusted the pillows. The author still appeared uncomfortable, so he suggested: "Suppose I take this top pillow away, Mr. St. John? There are just too many, I think."
"You're right, old friend."
He sighed and folded his hands over his ample stomach. After a moment, he started to breathe audibly.
"Do you want to sleep, Mr. St. John? Do you want me to go?"
"No, no, stick around, Willard. I want to hear more about the fan club ...."
"Yes, Mr. St. John."
"Only true friend I have," St. John mumbled.
"Yes," Willard Higgins said. He sat motionless on the chair beside the bed, holding the unwanted pillow on his lap. When the deep breaths became snores, he bent his head closer again and whispered: "Mr. St. John?"
When the author didn't answer, he stood up and lifted the pillow over the bullet-like head, and brought it down slowly until it almost touched the open mouth. At the last second, he pushed hard until the face was completely submerged. Tensing every muscle in his thin arms, he held the pillow so tightly pinned on both sides of Maxwell St. John's head that the author's muffled, terror-stricken cries were no more noticeable
than the hiss of steam in the radiator, or the click of heels outside in the corridor, or the intermittent traffic sounds from the street. When St. John stopped thrashing and went limp, Higgins raised the pillow cautiously, and stared at his handiwork.
Then he bent his head to the author's chest and listened. Satisfied at the silence, he ran to the hospital room door, crying: "Nurse! Nurse! Nurse!"