Last Updated on February 14, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1071
Carried south toward his hometown of Metcalf, Texas, Guy Haines stares out the train window at the unending prairie rushing past. An architect in the early stages of his career, Guy is overwhelmed by the mundane stress of his career and the melodramatic stress of his personal life. In Metcalf, his estranged and soon-to-be-ex-wife Miriam—who is pregnant with another man’s child—waits for him. At once upset and excited by the dissolution of their marriage, Guy considers Miriam’s failures and ponders the potential for a happier, post-divorce life with his girlfriend, Anne. As a respite from this personal drama, he thinks about the architectural project hopefully waiting for him in Florida; if he lands it, it will be his big break.
As he mulls, a man sits across from him. Guy finds him strangely entrancing, and the feeling appears mutual; the man introduces himself as Charles Anthony Bruno. Bruno’s presence is stifling, so Guy retreats to the diner car. Yet, Bruno proves stubborn. He accompanies Guy to the diner car, then bullies the architect into dining with him in his private room. There, the two men fall into an awkward camaraderie. Bruno tells Guy about his father, whom he calls the Captain and detests for depriving him of his inheritance and disapproving of how he lives his life. As he complains, Bruno grows animated, then violent, asking Guy if he has ever considered murdering someone. Guy replies negatively, but when Bruno begins to discuss the daring things he has done, Guy finds himself drawn in by the strange man’s nonchalance toward chaotic and immoral acts.
In turn, Guy tells Bruno about Miriam: about her innocence, about her unexpected infidelity, and about how, despite it all, he still cares for her. The conversation returns to murder, and Guy wrestles with himself; as he recalls Miriam’s betrayal and her myriad of lovers, he considers Bruno’s words in a different light. As their conversation reaches a fever point, Bruno makes a terrifying but alluring suggestion: they murder their respective enemies, then rely on each other for alibis. Guy tears himself away from the conversation, drunk on too much Scotch, and leaves Bruno behind.
With the strange encounter relegated to the far corners of his mind, Guy meets with Miriam. She describes her current state to him: she is pregnant with a married man’s child, and he has no wish to leave his wife for her. As such, she wishes to join Guy in Florida and push off their divorce. Guy rejects her but malingers in Metcalf, uncertain of how to move forward. Bruno drunkenly calls him, mysteriously offering his help, but Guy brushes him off, heading to Mexico to visit Anne and her parents. While there, Miriam has a miscarriage, although Guy suspects it was self-induced.
The narrative shifts to Bruno, who is determined to deliver on his promise: he will kill Miriam. He takes a train to Metcalf and stalks his mark to an amusement park. There, he isolates Miriam, then strangles her to death. Back in Mexico, Guy and Anne are happily entangled in a conversation about their future when the phone rings; Guy’s mother, who still lives in Metcalf, informs him of Miriam’s death and begs him to return home. As he packs his bags, Bruno’s face swims ominously before his eyes. In the days, then months following Miriam’s murder, Bruno plagues Guy. He sends the frazzled young architect telegram after telegram, which grow increasingly deranged and demanding.
Unstable and increasingly alcohol-dependent, Bruno begins to stalk Guy, calling often and appearing outside his office. He is obsessed with his unwilling co-conspirator...
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and demands Guy deliver on his end of their compact, sending him letters filled with drawings and detailed plans instructing Guy on how exactly to commit the murder. Shortly after, he mails him a gun and a deadline: Guy must commit the murder in the first two weeks of March, or Bruno will tell Anne.
Bruno’s tactics escalate until Guy, weary from the months of torment, gives in. He travels to Bruno’s father’s home and executes one of the deranged man’s many plans, shooting his father to death while he lies, helpless and asleep, in bed. The murder lacks Bruno’s callous precision, so Guy narrowly evades capture. His flight from the crime scene is frantic and haphazard but ultimately successful, and he makes it home without suspicion. In the wake of the murder, Guy’s relationship with Anne and his grasp on sanity become strained. Arthur Gerard, a decorated detective and friend of Bruno’s father, begins investigating the murder. Long, anxious months pass. Anne and Guy marry, but Bruno remains omnipresent, interjecting himself into their lives whenever possible.
Gerard closes in on the truth, testing the limits of Guy and Bruno’s lie-laden relationship; as he investigates, the pair draw ever closer. Bruno becomes an unwelcome fixture of Guy’s social life, inviting himself to event after event. He accompanies Guy, Anne, and their friends on a boating trip, growing drunker and drunker as the day goes on. As the boat navigates choppy, relentless waters, Bruno—now terribly inebriated—falls overboard. Despite Guy’s valiant attempts to save him, Bruno drowns.
In the wake of his co-conspirator's death, Guy unravels. It affected him deeply, and he copes poorly with the disruption to his and Bruno's perverse relationship. Guy writes letters to Anne and all those in his life explaining things, then decides to confess to Owen Markham, Miriam’s final lover. Guy flies to Texas, expecting Owen to kill him for facilitating Miriam’s death. To his surprise, Owen is unfazed: he neither loved Miriam nor cared greatly about her death. When Guy confesses to the murder of Bruno’s father, he expects outrage, but Owen simply shrugs, arguing nonchalantly: “live and let live.”
Guy despairs about the state of society and wonders about the nature of justice. As the disappointing evening comes to a close, he intends to return home to Anne but is interrupted by a knock at the door. Outside waits Gerard, who overheard Guy’s frank admission of guilt. The months of anxiety and uncertainty catch up to Guy, and he deflates, passively accepting the fate he feels he deserves. With Bruno dead and his secrets dreadfully revealed, Guy departs with Gerard, ready to atone for his misdoings.