Long Ago and Far Away, part two
6. - All or Nothing At All
Laurie, taken to his office Tuesday morning by Ralph, found that even the halls of academia were churning with news of the murder. Conversations were buzzing in every corridor and nook, only briefly damped by Laurie's presence. He heard shocked whispers of wildly unfounded speculation. Galliard had been assaulted. She'd been having an affair with Robert, or Henry -- or Helen. The old lady was crazy; she'd stabbed Galliard with a dinner knife she'd kept hidden in her bodice.
Laurie took refuge in his office all that day, hoping the next day would be quieter and more conducive to concentration. But Wednesday morning proved to be more of the same, so he fled to the library and spent more than three hours becoming acquainted with the collection and ordering the periodicals he needed to have available.
He was on his way back to his office with a heavy reference book he'd managed to liberate stuck under his arm. Halfway across the Quad, he saw Robert sitting on a bench, looking weary. Laurie certainly hadn't expected to see him on campus so soon. He hesitated a moment, then detoured and approached him. When he drew close, Robert looked up and attempted a smile.
"Robert, I can't begin to express my distress at what's happened."
"I know; I appreciate that." Robert's face seemed to have newly-graven lines around his mouth and eyes.
"How is Helen? And your mother?"
"Poor Helen won't leave the house. Mother seems fine. Stoic about it, actually. Perhaps that's her age, and the losses she's already survived. She actually had Henry drive her to see her attorney yesterday, and when I asked her why it was necessary to go out in public so soon, when people had to be talking, she said..." Robert dropped his voice before continuing, "she wanted to review her will. So you see, Miss Galliard's death has made her think about her mortality. She's being very practical."
Laurie was at a bit of a loss, but he managed to say "I'm glad everyone is holding up so well." Robert merely nodded, looking around at other passersby as if he'd just realized they existed. "Well, I suppose I should get back to my office."
"Oh, yes, me too. I've been busy."
"New broom," Robert teased, but he sobered almost immediately. "I do hope you're finding your way?"
"I'm very grateful for all your help, Robert. I'm truly happy here."
They were about to part when Laurie heard a woman's voice calling. He turned back to see Susan almost running toward them, Henry close behind her. Robert looked around him again as he stood, and Laurie wasn't sure if he should leave or stay. He remained frozen a small distance from the bench, trying to give them privacy if they wished, but he couldn't help observing that Henry had changed in the days since he last saw him. The sullen boy had been replaced by the controlled, alert man who'd been a soldier. Susan, on the other hand, looked small and young despite the dark circles under her eyes.
"Oh, Laurie -- have you heard? No, news can't travel that quickly, even in Wrightsville."
"What's wrong, darling?" Robert asked, putting an arm around her. Laurie understood; he had the impulse to go make her a cup of tea. Or, better still, one of Ralph's rum toddies.
"They've arrested Ken."
"They said it was just questioning, but they took him away in handcuffs!" She began to cry and Robert patted her soothingly, frowning confusedly.
"Henry, can you explain this to me?"
"I can't, Father, Susan is the one who spoke to Miss Bentley." Henry looked away, then thoughtfully said, "Someone from the family should be there now."
This was how Ralph found them when he arrived for lunch. He took charge, as usual, herding them inside the closest building -- the engineering school, actually, but at least they were no longer in full view of the entire campus. A little charm applied to a secretary got them inside an empty lecture hall where Susan could sit and drink the small paper cup of water Ralph brought her.
Henry looked restless, and once Susan had calmed down he said, "Dad, Sue -- I need to leave. I want to be at the foundry to look out for our interests. We can't let this mess ruin us. If you need to reach me..."
"I'll see that they get home, Henry," Ralph offered. "Don't worry."
"Thanks." Henry looked at Ralph, then at the others, and Laurie had the oddest feeling that as Henry was bidding them farewell, he was also discarding a part of himself.
Then he was gone, and Susan haltingly told what she knew of the story. "Ken's secretary called the house, asking to speak to Grandmother, of all things." She hiccoughed an incredulous little laugh. "She was hysterical, I could barely understand her. Chief Dakin came by and told Ken he wanted to take him to the police station for further questioning. Ken said he needed to gather his things -- and he tried to run away. There was another policeman at the loading dock, he stopped Ken..."
She looked up at her father with pleading eyes. "Why would he run away? If he weren't involved in ... what happened to Miss Galliard ... there'd be no reason to run."
"Susan." Robert hugged her, but he didn't speak. Laurie understood completely; what was there to say? But Ralph couldn't leave it.
"It might be something else entirely, Susan. We don't have all the facts and we shouldn't jump to conclusions. Ken probably did just that, made an assumption while he wasn't thinking clearly, and then panicked for no real reason." Ralph sounded convincing enough for Susan and her father, but Laurie thought he didn't really believe what he'd just said. They both knew Ken Tinker was a dangerous man; they'd seen how he glared at Jack. Not that jealousy could explain why he might have killed that innocuous nonentity of a woman.
In a few more minutes they'd recovered enough to leave their sanctuary and squeeze into Ralph's car. As they were headed to Robert's house, Susan seemed to recall her manners and invited them to luncheon, since the trip had interrupted their plans. Ralph accepted for them both, though Laurie tried to catch his eye and indicate they should refuse.
When they finally pulled up to the house, Laurie was surprised to see that a police car was parked out front, a uniformed officer sitting inside the vehicle.
Robert followed his gaze and said, "They said it's to protect us."
Laurie wanted to ask whom they needed protecting from, but he just said, "Oh. Of course," and followed Robert inside.
Helen was sitting beside the open windows that overlooked the front of the house, knitting untouched in her lap. The curtains were drawn closed. While Robert greeted her, Susan headed for the kitchen to notify the cook they had guests for lunch.
Helen seemed to rouse herself because of their presence. By the time they gathered around the table for cold chicken salad in tomatoes, they were talking casually about Laurie's work arranging his office. The mood was rather subdued until Ralph shared the news about his writing, and gave them a summary of his encounter with the discharged custodian, Pete.
"I spent the morning speaking with Pete, trying to get all the relevant information. He wasn't very enthusiastic about it; I'm afraid he's having a rough time. He hasn't found another job yet."
"Daddy, can't we put him on the maintenance crew at the foundry?" Susan asked.
"That would be Ken's decision, I suppose," Robert replied. "Or your Grandmother's, now that... well, you know."
"Grandmother would allow it if you requested it, I'm sure."
"Susan, you shouldn't get involved in such things," Helen said, sounding slightly shocked. "We don't understand how the business is run." She didn't say that they really knew nothing about Pete, either, except that he'd been drinking at a tavern. Laurie felt that unspoken sentiment was quite apparent on both Helen and Robert's faces, though.
"Perhaps you can assist with researching Pete's claims," Ralph said to Susan, who was looking very discouraged. "He'll be in a better position to find a new job if the Record publishes information vindicating him."
"Of course," Susan said. "Thank you, Ralph."
Laurie asked Robert a question that turned the conversation back to Merrimac and lunch progressed pleasantly until the doorbell rang and everyone tensed. Susan stood, looking as if she were facing a firing squad, and went to answer the door. When she returned with the visitor, she was pale. Helen's frightened little gasp made her jump.
"Chief Dakin. Do you have news for us?" Robert began, but the policeman was already shaking his head.
"I wish I could tell you we've made an arrest, Mr. Damson, but I'm afraid this case is complicated. You heard we had to question Ken Tinker."
"Yes, Susan took a call from his secretary earlier."
"I'd imagine that was confusing. Things got a bit out of hand at your place, sir."
"Yes, that's what I'd heard."
Susan began, "Well, Chief, if that's all you came to tell us--"
"No, Miss Damson, that's not the reason I'm here. I'd like to see Mrs. Damson. Enid Damson, that is."
"She's in her rooms," Helen said. "I'm sure she's indisposed, Chief."
"I won't tire her, there are just a few more questions that have come up."
"We..." Robert exchanged a look with Helen, then said, "Of course, I'll ask her to join us." He quickly left the room, looking worried. Dakin then turned to Laurie and Ralph.
"Mr. Odell. Mr. Lanyon."
"Chief," Laurie managed while Ralph merely nodded, stone-faced.
"I have a few more questions for you, too, Mr. Lanyon."
"There's no point; I've told you all I know." Ralph's voice was tightly controlled.
"In my experience, it's best when everyone cooperates. Keeps things cordial." Dakin waited a moment, then continued, "When someone isn't cooperative, we have to find our information through other sources. It's more work, of course, but it can be done. Will be done, I guarantee it."
Ralph smiled the hard, bright smile Laurie hated. "That's very interesting. Please do keep me informed."
Dakin looked sour but didn't say anything else. Laurie stared at his hands, wishing they'd gone straight home. Then Robert returned with his mother on his arm. She didn't look indisposed in the least. She was in a plain, simple dress but still exuded the air of visiting royalty.
She gave Dakin a slight nod in passing but completely ignored Ralph and Laurie, much to his relief.
"Mrs. Damson, I appreciate your help," Dakin began as she settled in a chair.
"What is it you want? I don't have all day."
"M'am. Can you tell me how you came to hire Emily Galliard as your nurse?"
"How?" She looked almost frightened, but then pulled her face into a frown and said, "I advertised, of course. In one of the New York papers. Or Boston. I'm not sure which... that was a long time ago."
"Seven months, m'am."
"When you're my age, see how long you can keep things like that straight."
"Did one of the family help you with your advertisement?"
"No, of course not."
"So you advertised. And Miss Galliard answered your ad."
"Yes. She called here first, to set up an appointment. I met her later in the week, and hired her that same day."
"She moved in that afternoon," Helen offered, then looked startled, as if she hadn't intended to speak.
"She had good references, I suppose?" Dakin persisted.
"I didn't bother with such nonsense," Enid scoffed. "What do I care if someone else likes her or not? She fit my requirements."
"Which were? Never mind, Mrs. Damson, I apologize. So, you liked Miss Galliard."
"She was an employee."
"You didn't like her?"
"I didn't say that!"
"No, m'am. Well, we took Miss Galliard's fingerprints. That's standard procedure in a murder investigation. And we wired them to the FBI. I wasn't expecting we'd get results, though."
"Fascinating. Good to know you're doing such a crackerjack job, Chief. Now may I return to my room and the book I left there?"
"Mrs. Damson, your nurse's name wasn't--"
"I don't care to discuss this!" Enid snarled.
"I'm sorry, m'am, but I have to inquire. Did you know she had a criminal record?"
"Of course not."
"Well, then, Mrs. Damson, did she tell you that her name was actually Daisy Wentworth, and that she was the granddaughter of your mother's maid?"
"What?" Enid, who'd been bristling and angry, visibly deflated. She sat with her mouth hanging open, looking foolish.
"That's -- why on earth would the woman lie to us?" Robert said. "If anything, the family connection would have been in her favor."
"Grandmother?" Susan said, and when Laurie followed her astonished eyes, he saw that Enid was laughing. In fact, she was nearly hysterical.
"Mother! Chief, please excuse us now. This excitement has been too much for her."
Helen rang for the cook, Robert bent over his mother with a glass of water, and Susan led Dakin to the door. Laurie and Ralph followed, also ready to leave. Dakin turned at the door gave Ralph a significant look, saying, "I'll be seeing you soon."
Susan stopped him before he went out. "Chief, what's going on with Ken? Can you tell us anything?"
The police chief sighed. "All I can say, Miss Damson, is that there are some questions about how well Tinker knew Emily.. I should say, Daisy Wentworth. He's not being very cooperative, either." The last was said with another look at Ralph, then Dakin was gone.
They thanked Susan for the luncheon and headed for the house. Ralph was silent and Laurie didn't wish to intrude on his thoughts, despite how annoying he found Ralph's behavior. Dakin certainly wasn't making idle threats. Why on earth hadn't Ralph tried to cooperate more? Perhaps it was a bit much to expect he'd be charming, but at the least he should have sounded more respectful. If there was trouble now, it seemed that Ralph was responsible for bringing it about.
Laurie hadn't found anything objectionable in Dakin's questions. What had he said to Ralph? Laurie couldn't ask him; he shouldn't have to force Ralph to confide in him.
Friday morning, after a rather late night having drinks and getting acquainted with Barry and Higgins from his department, Laurie woke to the sound of Ralph typing on the old machine he'd found in a Low Village shop. He'd set up a work table in his room, saying the house was too small for them both to have desks downstairs.
Laurie lay on his back, listening to the irregular noise, thinking that he should have offered Ralph the desk. Unlike Ralph, he had an office of his own and plenty of storage space there. But he didn't want to spend all his time on campus. He needed to start preparing his paper for The Classics Review, and soon he'd have papers to read and exams to grade. No, he needed the desk more than Ralph. Anyway, Ralph should have asked for working space at the Record offices.
The determined tapping was annoying, he decided. He hoped Ralph wouldn't often be working while he was trying to sleep.
He rolled out of bed, put his robe over his pajamas, and headed downstairs to put on the kettle. He'd left the new translation of Plutarch on the table last night, so he picked it up and began reading while he waited for his tea. After re-reading a few paragraphs, he decided he'd better cut back on socializing with his colleagues. Or at least stop trying to match them drink for drink. Those old men must have hollow legs. It was amazing how loud the typewriter sounded.
He was finally having his tea when there was a knock on the side door. He took his book with him to the door, absently clutching his unbelted robe, and then was acutely embarrassed when he opened the door to Dakin.
"Chief Dakin. Won't you come in, please?" He led Dakin to the parlor, wishing he'd gotten dressed instead of being distracted by his reading. He spent a moment opening windows and generally composing himself before turning back to the policeman. "Would you like something to drink? I have a fresh pot of tea."
Dakin lowered his face to hide a smile. "Tea, eh? Thank you, but no. I'm here to see Mr. Lanyon, actually. Is he in?" He quite obviously could hear the typewriter and already knew the answer to his question.
"Yes, he's working, but I'll ask him to come down." Laurie fled the room quickly, but slowed even more than usual on the stairs.
Ralph hadn't heard Dakin's knock; he was intent on his writing and didn't even turn when Laurie entered his room after a light tap on the door.
"One moment--" he hit a few more keys before stopping and turning in his chair. When he saw Laurie's face he quickly rose. "What's happened?"
"It's nothing. At least, it shouldn't be anything... Dakin is here, asking to see you."
Ralph's face changed. "Fine. Don't worry, Spud." He started for the door, but Laurie moved in front of him.
"Ralph... I wish you'd tell me why you're angry."
He looked almost surprised. "I'm not. I don't appreciate being suspected of a crime..." He trailed off, suddenly weary looking, and lowered his voice. "It's dangerous, being under such close scrutiny. I've done some research... Vermont follows English common law, with the addition of a statute about 'lewdness' that outlaws the act of copulating the mouth. One to five years in prison." Ralph started to push past, but Laurie stopped him with a brief, passionate kiss.
When released, Ralph gave him a long look before turning to take his glove and run lightly down the steps. Laurie went to his room to quickly change clothes, then followed him.
He paused outside the room, knowing they must have heard his progress down the stairs. Dakin was saying, "airtight alibi. So of course we have to continue investigating everyone who might be involved."
"Did you know Daisy Wentworth before you came to Wrightsville?"
"No, as I've said before, I met her my first night in town."
"And I'll ask you this again, Lanyon. Can you explain why you left England?"
"I beg your pardon," Laurie interrupted, receiving twin glares from the two men. "What could that have to do with the unfortunate woman's death?"
"Mr. Odell, we don't get a lot of strangers in Wrightsville. At least, we don't have many who arrive with the money and education to live in this part of town. If Mr. Lanyon were a Pole or Canuck who'd come here for a job in one of the mills, it might make sense to me. But as it stands, his presence is a mystery. I don't like mysteries, particularly when someone's been killed."
Laurie and Ralph both said something at the same time. Ralph stopped, but Laurie plowed ahead. "Chief, you didn't question why I've moved here. America is a prosperous place where people can make their fortune. That's what we've heard, at least. You'd understand our reasons if you knew how difficult it is back home. In England they're still rationing food, gasoline -- nearly everything."
Dakin looked bemused, but he admitted, "That makes sense. What I don't understand is why Mr. Lanyon would be so stubborn about answering a simple question."
"Ralph, may I tell him?" Laurie managed a very eloquent look at Ralph, and he nodded, trusting though confused. "We had a very nasty experience with the authorities some years ago, Chief, while we were schoolboys. I know I've never recovered completely. And it's worse for Ralph. He was older and took the brunt of it."
Dakin looked at both of them again, warily, but he nodded. "I suppose I shouldn't press you for more details."
"We appreciate that, Chief. I can assure you it was nothing relevant to your investigation. Now, was there anything else you needed to know?"
"No, I think I have it clear. Mr. Lanyon claims he was here Sunday evening, that he retired and didn't see you again until the next morning." He referred to his papers again, and Laurie exchanged a look with Ralph. "So he has no alibi for the time of the murder. I don't suppose you heard anything that night? A car, maybe?"
"I'm afraid not. We'd had some drinks with Robert, I fell asleep very quickly. Still, I'm sure I would have heard if anyone was moving around inside the house. I sleep lightly."
"Well, then." Dakin looked at his book, made another note, then replaced it inside his breast pocket. "I think that's about it for right now. Again, Mr. Lanyon, I have to ask you to remain in town to be available for further questioning. Now that Ken Tinker has been released, the public are asking when we're going to solve this crime. No one likes to think that women can be assaulted and murdered in their own homes."
"Of course, Chief. I understand," Ralph said tightly.
Laurie took him to the door and watched him walk to his squad car. Ralph came up behind him and, when Dakin pulled away, he closed the door. Then he kissed the back of Laurie's neck, winding his arms around him.
"America is the land of prosperity? I didn't know you'd read Greely in your wastrel youth, Spud."
"I don't suppose I did. I think that's from a radio program I once heard."
"Voice of America, no doubt." Ralph released him and moved away. "I appreciate the fine line you're walking for my sake."
"I didn't lie. Not really."
"You'll lose sleep, nonetheless -- I know your tender conscience. And it may have been in vain. Dakin can continue his independent investigation, and probably will. I don't believe he was making idle threats. He simply doesn't want to wait for a response from overseas -- as he said, public pressure is mounting and they need to show results."
"So you were right about Tinker? He wasn't involved?"
"There's something rotten with him, but Ken's not the murderer, according to Dakin. He can prove where he was that night. Unlike me."
"No. You won't clear my name, only get us both jailed."
Ralph returned to his room and soon the clacking noise began again. Laurie had another cup of tea and decided the sound was rather soothing. Perhaps he could learn to type and use it for the final draft of his journal submissions.
It was almost funny, the idea that he and Ralph would both be writing for publication. Of course, Ralph would be in print first, but it that didn't bother him. In the past they'd never been in such direct competition, though. At school, such a thing would have seemed inconceivable. When they'd met again, the age difference no longer mattered, but Laurie's part in the war had been finished, while Ralph was still serving. Laurie had gone back to being a student, and his mother and her husband had tried to put him in the role of a child again. If he hadn't had Ralph -- and Andrew -- in his life, it might have been possible to accept their verdict and believe he should limit himself to the role of a useless cripple. But now Laurie was the one taking on a new challenge, and Ralph, who'd been at loose ends since his discharge, had agreed to come along without any clear plans.
As Laurie reviewed his thoughts, it seemed that there was a friendly rivalry between him and Ralph, after all. But it was one that worked to the good of both of them, of that Laurie was certain. After all, he'd postulated in his thesis that competition had been necessary for democracy to flourish in Greece. That was the idea he wanted to expand on in his paper. He could apply the idea to other ancient societies, not just Rome... Laurie moved to his desk and began making notes for further research.
Hours later he heard Ralph moving in the kitchen, but he kept writing. He hadn't even noticed when the typing had stopped. Later there were other sounds, but those didn't really register, either, until Ralph came into the room with Susan.
"Can we interrupt for a moment?"
"Please excuse the intrusion, Laurie," Susan began.
"Not at all, it's lovely to see you." Laurie rose and moved to sit beside her on the sofa. "How is everyone at home? How are you?"
"We're ... holding up, thank you. Mother and father are ... they're just stunned, Laurie. None of us can believe this has happened. Henry is working long hours at the foundry every day, trying to get up to speed on his responsibilities. If it weren't for Jack, I wouldn't have anyone to talk to..." She stopped and seemed to pull herself out of her mood. "That's why I'm here, really. I've decided we need some fun, so I'm planning a picnic for tomorrow afternoon. Henry and Jack have promised to take the afternoon off from work, and I've been baking all morning. I do hope you'll join us."
"That's very kind of you. I've missed our rambles, you know."
"Good. I've given Ralph the directions to Lake Pharisee, but of course we should drive together. There's a grove outside of town that's lovely, very relaxing."
"We'll enjoy that very much," Ralph said . "And, as I told you, we'll bring the drinks if you'll let me run over and borrow your ice chest."
"Sure, come home with me now and we'll take care of it. Maybe I'll even let you taste one of the cookies."
When they left, Laurie went back to his work, but he found his ideas were too scattered now and he couldn't continue. He stretched, then began to think about some food. He'd missed breakfast, but was it really lunch time? He realized he didn't have his wrist watch; he'd dressed so hurriedly he'd left it off.
He slowly climbed the stairs, wishing he'd been able to avoid having them in his house. But this place was so perfect in other ways, close to school, but not too close to the neighbors. Big enough for two, but not expensive.
Next week there'd be a stranger in the house every day. It would be nice to have home-cooked meals; neither he nor Ralph were much good in the kitchen. But it would be odd to lose their privacy to such an extent. Ralph would have to return to his own bed so it looked slept in every morning...
At the landing he looked into Ralph's room and saw the tidy stack of papers beside the typewriter. Laurie knew Ralph would read him the story at some point, but he indulged his curiosity and took a peek at the top sheet to see what tale Ralph was spinning.
But the top sheet wasn't his story, it was a letter to Alec Deacon. Laurie didn't read past the first few sentences. Of course Ralph would maintain his correspondence with Alec. Nothing more natural. He'd stayed in touch with him for years now.
Laurie turned and went back downstairs without stopping in his room for his watch.
Ralph came home about an hour later with a carload of bottles. Laurie heard him whistling as he unloaded them in the kitchen, but he stayed at his desk. Ralph stuck his head in the room a few minutes later, just to tell him that he'd made dinner reservations for them at the Barred Rock Inn, so Laurie could work late and not worry about cooking.
He heard Ralph climb the stairs a little later, and soon he was back at his writing. The typewriter tripped and stuttered, too irregular to be soothing.
Laurie put down the book he'd been hiding behind and stared out the window for a long time.
7. - All the Things You Are
Saturday was a perfect day for a jaunt. Bald Mountain loomed before them, glowing in the afternoon sun, as the two cars drove into the foothills toward Lake Pharisee.
Henry was riding with them, leaving Jack to drive Susan's car with her. His driving lessons with Susan had been a great success, though he didn't have his license yet. Henry had claimed that the picnic hamper took up too much room for him to be comfortable in the other car, but Laurie thought it was a bit of self-sacrifice on Henry's part, to give his friend a chance to be alone with his sister. Ken Tinker seemed completely out of the picture for Susan, despite having been cleared by the police. But then, she'd indicated that was true even before the murder. Certainly Laurie had never seen any attraction on Susan's part for her "fiance."
The area Susan led them to wasn't completely isolated; several other groups were enjoying alfresco dinners. Susan assured them as they lugged the hamper and ice-chest toward the well-shaded area she'd chosen that this spot was much better than going to Pine Grove, back in Wrightsville proper, which was always packed with people on Saturdays.
She continued, "I would have invited more friends along, normally. I'm sure you'd like to meet more people." Laurie assumed she meant unmarried women, and hoped Susan wasn't going to attempt matchmaking for them. "But today I wanted ... well, to be able to really talk."
"I thought something was up," Henry responded. "What is it, Sue? Why the big production with the picnic, if you just wanted to talk?"
"No one questions that people go on a picnic on a summer afternoon. At home we might be overheard -- you know how it is, Henry. Sneeze in the attic and by the time you're downstairs, Mother has the cod liver oil ready."
Ralph laughed at that, and Henry nodded. "I know there's no real privacy in the house. The fireplaces carry sounds -- poor Jack can probably hear grandmother grumbling all night, now that he's back in his room... We'd moved him up to my suite so you and Laurie could have the second floor guest rooms," he said to Ralph. "But now that I think about it, perhaps that wasn't the best room. I hope you weren't disturbed when you stayed at the house."
"Not at all. But I didn't realize we'd put Jack out of his place for so long. I wish you'd told us, I could have taken a room on the third floor instead."
"Or we could have shared a room," Laurie said, then wished he hadn't. But no one seemed to question it, and Ralph immediately focused their attention on Susan again.
"What exactly is it that you want to discuss?"
She busied herself handing out plates and napkins before replying. "I want to compare notes. I don't think Chief Dakin is going to find out who killed Miss Galliard. Miss Wentworth, I mean. I think we need to investigate it ourselves."
"What? This isn't a Rover Boys adventure, Sue," Henry scoffed.
Jack added, "It's not our job to catch the culprit."
"No, but it's our family name that's being dragged through the mud. Jack, you must see how it is for my mother and father."
"But what can we do that the police can't?" Henry asked. "None of us are trained for this."
"We can pool our knowledge. We may know more than we realize. Once we share our stories, we'll get an idea of what really happened."
"I'm not sure we have enough information to be effective," Ralph said.
"It sounds crazy to me," her brother insisted.
"It's worth a try," Jack said, and Susan smiled at him.
"So, what are the facts?" Ralph asked. "We know Miss Wentworth was killed on Sunday evening. It must have been after 10 p.m., or Laurie and I wouldn't have been suspects."
"Suspects?" Susan asked weakly. "None of us -- Dakin said you're suspects?"
"Yes, as far as the Chief is concerned I still am," Ralph admitted. "That's another relevant fact -- Laurie isn't a suspect any longer. Once Dakin realized that he has a bad knee, he was ruled out."
"But they said she was bludgeoned," Henry said. "Laurie's knee shouldn't affect his ability to--" Then he saw Laurie's face and quickly added, "Not that you would ever do such a thing. Either of you. It's just ... impossible."
"So is the idea of Ken being involved," Susan said. "At least, that's what I thought. But he won't help with this; I talked to him and he won't even tell me why they were questioning him."
"It was because Ken was a suspect, too, until they confirmed that he'd gone elsewhere after he left your house on Sunday," Ralph said. "Dakin told us that yesterday."
"So he's been cleared? But Chief Dakin said he knew Miss Wentworth, didn't he?"
"Something like that," Laurie said. "When he left your house that day, Dakin said there was some reason to think Ken knew more than he was telling them about the murder."
"That's... Ken came to the house Thursday evening to see Grandmother. I... I told him I wanted to break our engagement. I don't know why I ever agreed in the first place... it was more to please Grandmother than anything." She looked up at Jack. "I'd just graduated and it seemed like I had to think about the future, about marrying."
Jack was intently staring at her as he very seriously said, "Too many people marry for reasons like that. I'm glad you've realized it was a mistake."
Henry cleared his throat a little uncomfortably, and Laurie turned to him. "I suppose, then, that Dakin still thinks all of us in the house are suspects, too."
Susan looked shocked, but Jack nodded confirmation. "He did tell us not to leave town, remember."
"But he's known all of us for years," Susan protested. "That's just horrible."
"Dakin has to think like a policeman and not be swayed by friendship. He can only consider the facts in the case," Ralph said.
"I wouldn't want his job, that's for sure," Jack said. "Hey, are you going to open that chicken anytime soon?"
Susan began serving the food and their mood lightened a little. They continued to talk about the murder, but they didn't really know much more than they'd already discussed. When they finished eating, Ralph and Henry pulled out cigarette cases and offered them around, and they relaxed and speculated. Ralph even began to make notes, but eventually he gave it up, claiming it was confusing nonsense.
"Not as easy as it seems in those mystery novels, is it?" Henry laughingly said.
"No. I'm actually starting to feel sorry for Dakin, if you can believe it," Ralph admitted. "We really don't have enough facts, I'm afraid. Susan, we'd better just hope the police can solve the case soon."
"I'm not ready to give up yet," she insisted. "Perhaps I can find out more information from Candy Joring. Her brother's on the force now."
Jack stood up and stretched. "We're going to have to call you Holmes now, instead of Admiral." He held out a hand to Susan, who smiled and seemed ready to forget all about mysteries. "Come for a walk with me, I want to look at the lake."
"Wants to look at the girls in their swimsuits, more like," Henry groused. He and Ralph remained lazily stretched out, digesting, and Laurie decided to join them. It was very warm; they had their jackets off and their sleeves rolled up. Laurie dozed off for a brief time, the sun slanting through the trees and warming the side of his face pleasantly. He thought the others were napping, too, but then Ralph began talking to Henry. Laurie drifted in and out of the soft conversation, only really waking up when they began to discuss Ken Tinker again.
"So he came back to the foundry?"
"Yes. I told him things will be different now, though. He reports to me, not to Grandmother. I reminded him that she intends to leave the business to me, so I will be the owner someday and he'd better get used to it."
"That couldn't have made him happy."
"No, he's had it all his own way too long. I'm sure that's why he was annoying Grandmother the other night."
"Trying to undercut your authority."
"Yes. He doesn't realize that I'm at last doing exactly what she's always wanted me to do. Ken seems to think it's his foundry and I'm his employee. His secretary tried to keep me out of the files, if you can imagine. I've hired an auditor to look over the books for the last five years. I'm very much afraid Grandmother has been cheated." He sat up, looking angry. "If so, it's my fault entirely that we didn't catch it earlier."
"Henry," Ralph said soothingly, but he wasn't allowed to finish.
"Don't try to make me feel better, I was being a childish fool. It took this horrible murder for me to wake up and realize you were right. I wasn't helping Jack, I was keeping him locked in the past with me. Look how much happier he is now. He's working hard, saving money... He'll be able to have a home, a future."
"A wife," Ralph said softly.
"Yes. Well, if it makes them happy, why not? What does class mean anymore, in this crazy world? Jack was good enough to fight and bleed for his country, he's certainly good enough to marry my sister."
"You won't get an argument from me," Ralph said. "I hope your elders won't make things difficult for them."
"Father seems to know what's happening. I won't say he's happy, but he would never hurt Susan. It's only Grandmother... I don't know what she'll do. She's always been the one pushing Sue to marry into the business. As if Tinker were ... Jack's the better man, anyone can see that."
Laurie took the opportunity to stretch and rouse himself, and the conversation turned to other topics. He watched Henry with Ralph, listening to a complicated tale from his last mission in France that involved a farmer, his daughter, and a goat, and realized Ralph had another admirer. Judging from what he'd said about Jack and Susan, Laurie thought he'd been right to assume that Henry didn't understand everything about himself or his feelings for Jack. And now some of those feelings were turning to someone who must seem more accessible...
No doubt Susan and a score of faculty wives would be attempting to mate Laurie with some wonderful young woman. He knew Ralph would think it prudent to go on occasional dates. They'd encourage people to believe they were housing together merely to share expenses. What they were to each other would always be unspoken, unacknowledged except in complete privacy. He couldn't claim Ralph, nor could Ralph claim him. Laurie knew he should be resigned to these facts, which had been true since the night Ralph first made love to him.
Their picnic broke up shortly, and Laurie was relieved when Henry chose to ride home with Susan and Jack, and delighted when Ralph detoured down a side road Henry had mentioned to look for an apple orchard they could visit in the autumn. In the privacy of the car, Ralph was entirely Laurie's again and there was no need to guard his looks or words.
It was still light when they reached the house, though the sun was tinting the western sky in shades of rose. Laurie waited only until they were inside to turn, grasp Ralph's shoulders and enthusiastically kiss him. Whatever Ralph had been intending to do was forgotten as he wholeheartedly joined in, not even objecting when Laurie pushed him down on the table and began to pull open his clothing right there in the kitchen.
After they cleaned up the broken dishes and wiped down kitchen table, they spent a quiet evening reading together, enjoying soft dance music from the radio. That night when Ralph slipped into bed with him, Laurie didn't roll away. By the time sleep finally claimed them both, they were thoroughly sated and wrapped in each other's arms.
Laurie attended services Sunday morning at St. Paul, leaving Ralph working at his desk. His mind wandered a little during the sermon, but his thoughts were mostly of gratitude and thanksgiving, which seemed suitable to the occasion. When they were dismissed with a blessing and left the building, he nodded to Chief Dakin, who looked very different in his dark suit with his diminutive wife hanging on his arm. The entire Damson clan, excepting Enid, were also in attendance, smiling at him from across the crowd.
He drove Ralph's car home down quiet streets, past several other churches disgorging worshippers. Once the term began, he thought he'd attend the chapel service on campus instead. That was closer to his house than any of the town churches.
Ralph had stopped working and was making sandwiches for them in the kitchen when Laurie walked in.
"She give you any trouble?" he asked as Laurie handed over the car keys.
"No, but I'll still leave you to it. I can't get used to it."
"Well, if Mrs. ... Oliver, wasn't it? If she can get here six days a week by bus, there must be service for you to get around town on your own, if necessary."
They ate and cleaned up -- Ralph believed they should have the house in good order, as clean as they wanted Mrs. Oliver to keep it for them. Their plan for the day was to tidy the entire house, then work on their yard. Laurie wanted to plant a small garden, just to make it a little more homelike. Susan had given them a recommendation for a nursery on the road to Wrightsville Junction where they could find plants. Ralph had offered to run Laurie there Monday morning if he could spare the time from the university. Laurie thought he would; they were already late getting started and he wanted to grow vegetables.
He imagined them celebrating a little autumn harvest, the way it had been every year with his mother's garden. Ralph seemed to understand this was another way of bringing home to this new place. Laurie hoped his interest was genuine -- so much of the work would fall on Ralph because of Laurie's knee.
"I've been thinking about this garden of ours, Spud, and I want to propose that we raise up the beds so it's easier for you to work out here. Plus, I was thinking about window boxes for flowers. There's some scrap lumber in the garage, I could knock together a couple of them."
"That sounds wonderful, Ralph. Will you have the time?"
"You know I'm no good at sitting around. Having a break from the writing should help me clear my head."
"It's a lot of work, I know."
"A nice challenge for us both," Ralph said with a smile.
Two hours later, they were in the yard, already sweaty and grubby, when Dakin arrived.
"Chief!" Laurie tried to jump up too quickly from the back steps where he'd been resting. It took him a moment to recover enough to hear Dakin's apology. "My fault entirely. Is something wrong, Chief?" Dakin looked weary, years older than he'd seemed at church that morning.
"Yes. Ken Tinker was killed last night."
"Murder, yes. If the murderer meant it to look accidental, he bungled badly. The coroner confirms it." He turned from Laurie to Ralph, and continued, "And that's why I'm here. Mr. Lanyon, I don't suppose you can prove your whereabouts at 2 o'clock last night?"
Ralph bowed his head for a moment, and when he raised it he was perfectly polite and controlled. "No, Chief, I can't. I was here, asleep, but there's no witness to corroborate that."
"Then I'm afraid I have to ask you to come with me now."
"It's fine, Spud. I'm sure the Chief simply has more questions for me, and wants to ask them in private. Just give me one minute, please." He turned and went inside.
"No, but... Ralph's not..." Laurie couldn't seem to collect his frantic thoughts and articulate. He took a deep breath and said, "Ralph didn't know that woman. He had no reason to harm Ken Tinker, either."
"Mr. Odell, if you're right I'm sure it will all work out. But I have a job to do. Mr. Lanyon is smart to cooperate, and I hope you'll follow his example and keep your wits about you."
Laurie took a deep breath and nodded, watching as Ralph came back outside. He'd washed up and put on a clean shirt, and he held his jacket over his shoulder jauntily, as if he was delighted to be taken to the police station.
"Feel free to borrow the car if you need it, Spud, I've left the keys. You'll get used to it sooner that way."
Then he turned to Dakin and they both left Laurie alone and wondering if he should be trying to find Ralph a solicitor.
He went inside and paced the living room, trying to think what he should do. He couldn't seem to concentrate. Without Ralph's presence, the little house seemed enormous and every room echoed with Laurie's footsteps. He told himself Ralph would be gone only an hour. When twice that amount of time had gone by, Laurie drove to town and located the police station.
He was almost surprised to find the station open and staffed on a Sunday, but then reminded himself that there was a serious crime to be solved. Laurie asked to see Dakin and was sent to a low bench to wait.
Nearly half an hour later Dakin came out, his face grim. Laurie rose, stiff from inactivity, and asked, "Where's Ralph?"
"I'm afraid we're keeping him in custody, Mr. Odell. Here, sit down..." Dakin grasped his arms and lowered him back onto the bench.
Laurie managed to say, "Ralph is innocent."
"That may be so, but someone's gone to a lot of trouble to make him look guilty. I can't tell you very much, but we found evidence in Tinker's car which points directly to Lanyon."
"It's impossible," Laurie gritted out.
"Our investigation ... the way Tinker was killed, it's probable someone with military training was responsible. Lanyon refuses to tell us what kind of training he's had or what exactly he did for the Royal Navy."
"He's not being uncooperative, the information is classified. He can't tell anyone."
Dakin nodded. "That may be the truth, but it's also quite convenient. And it doesn't rule him out as a suspect."
"Chief, we'd only met Ken Tinker a few times. What possible reason could Ralph have to murder him?"
"We're working on the assumption that it's related to the first crime. Tinker knew something, either he saw the killer or could prove who did it. He was murdered to silence him."
"It's better for Mr. Lanyon to stay in custody, son. Safer. He's a stranger in town. Wrightsville can be ugly when folks are frightened. Murder -- two murders -- that's enough to get them riled."
"I see. Has Ralph been charged, then?"
"Not yet. Tomorrow, if things go as expected. We can hold him for twenty-four hours, and we're going to do that."
"May I see him?"
"Not tonight, I'm sorry. If you'd like, you can send in a note."
"Thank you, Chief." Laurie used paper and a pen supplied by the officer at the front desk to write Don't worry, I'll see you tomorrow. He handed it to Dakin, asking one last question. "Does he need a solicitor? I'm sorry, what are they called here?"
"He didn't request an attorney during the questioning. But if we proceed with charges, then one can be appointed for him."
With a final nod, Laurie left the building. When he reached the car, he sat for a long time, thinking. Then he started up the engine and drove to Damson's house. He was afraid he'd find them upset over Tinker's death, but Robert only looked surprised to see him. Laurie didn't move beyond the doorway before he began to speak.
"Robert, I need your help. You told us that detective was in town -- Queen, the writer? I want to meet with him."
Ellery Queen was staying with one of Wrightsville's most prominent families, but Robert managed, after several protracted phone calls, to get an appointment for Laurie to meet with him at the Square Grill the next morning at ten o'clock.
Laurie arrived there after a sleepless night and a morning spent attempting to behave normally with Mrs. Oliver. It was her first day of employment, and she'd been full of questions and suggestions. Laurie had hardly heard a word; he wasn't sure what he'd agreed to do. All he could think of was Ralph in a tiny cell.
A lean, silver-eyed man with an intelligent face and very stylish clothing was seated in a booth near the rear. He was the only customer besides the giggling group of girls sitting at the counter. As Laurie walked in, leaning on his stick, the man in the booth stood and motioned him over. After introductions, Laurie sat across from him. They each ordered a cup of coffee from the bored-looking waitress. When she left them alone, Queen spoke.
"Mr. Odell, I understand you wanted to ask me to investigate a case?"
"Yes, Mr. Queen. The police are holding my friend, Ralph Lanyon, because they believe he was involved in the recent murders here. I'm hoping, based on what Robert Damson tells me, that you can help me prove he's not involved -- and get him released."
"I'd be happy to examine the evidence. I must warn you, however, that if I investigate I will search out the truth, not for some loophole that could protect the guilty party. So it may cut either way; what is revealed may harm your friend, not help him."
"No, because I know Ralph didn't commit either of these crimes."
"Your faith is touching."
"It's not faith, Mr. Queen. It's fact. If you reveal the truth, whatever that is, I know Ralph's name will be cleared." Queen studied him for a long time, and Laurie hoped his face wasn't as flushed as it felt to him.
"Well, then... I haven't been following the news very closely. What exactly do you know about what's happened?"
Laurie filled him in on the few facts they'd discussed with Susan and the others. Queen took notes on a small pad he pulled from his jacket pocket, nodding and asking many questions. When they finished, Queen pushed away his coffee cup and rose.
"I think it's time for me to visit the police station. In past investigations Chief Dakin has always been happy to cooperate and share information, and hopefully that's still true. What you've told me is helpful, but it certainly isn't enough to get a clear picture of what's been going on."
"Very well." Laurie looked at his untouched coffee and pulled out his wallet to leave payment. Then he realized he hadn't discussed that with Queen, either. "Mr. Queen, do you require an advance payment of your fee for this investigation?"
Queen smiled at him. "We can discuss my fees later. I'm more interested in a good puzzle than in money. So, I understand you just arrived in Wrightsville last month to start teaching at Merrimac University."
"Yes, that's correct."
"How do you like it here?"
"I..." Laurie paused, left with no ready answer because he'd never considered the question. "I never dreamt Wrightsville would feel so much like home, so quickly. It hasn't really seemed foreign since our first days here. At least, that was true until yesterday, when all this happened." He shifted his gaze to the street outside the glass and continued, "I haven't traveled much -- not like Ralph. It's happened so quickly -- I'm still a stranger here, but I already feel as if it's my Wrightsville."
"It's very special to me, too. And I have done some traveling." He smiled wistfully at Laurie. "I've even been to your country, years ago, before the war." He seemed to shake off a memory he'd fallen into as they stood at the table. "So, let's see if I can restore your faith in this corner of America." He smiled and Laurie closed his eyes, feeling almost dizzy with relief.
"May I accompany you to the police station?"
"I think Dakin's likely to be more approachable if I'm alone."
"Go home. Better still, go to work. The time will pass more quickly for you. Give me your address and I'll come find you tonight. By then I should have something to report."
Laurie drove to the campus and went to his office, thinking that had to be better than facing the house and Mrs. Oliver's cheerfulness. He didn't expect to be productive, but finding several memoranda and a frantic note from Higgins requesting assistance with a translation waiting on his desk helped him keep distracted from thoughts of Ralph for the next hour or so.
At one o'clock Barry stopped by. "Odell. I thought you might be here. How about some lunch?"
"That would be fine, thank you," Laurie replied, pitifully grateful for the interruption. He let Barry carry on conversation as a monologue for the next hour. He began by talking about departmental politics and personalities, but then, thankfully, he began expounding on pet theories regarding the founding of the kingdom of Lydia that were interesting enough to fully absorb Laurie's attention.
Once he was back at his office and alone, his thoughts returned to Ralph. He couldn't imagine many things worse for Ralph than enforced inactivity and confinement. His note had been so inadequate. He should have given Queen a book to drop off for Ralph, at the least. Why hadn't he been thinking more clearly?
What really rankled was that Laurie could prove Ralph hadn't killed Ken Tinker. But what good was his testimony if it only meant Ralph would be jailed for a different reason? At least Laurie would share in his punishment. Ralph would never forgive him, though, and their attempt to make a life together here would be over.
He was sitting with his head in his hands, staring at his desk without seeing anything, when the secretary knocked and announced that he had a telephone call. Laurie moved as quickly as he could to her desk and was relieved to hear Ralph's voice.
"I'm headed to the house, Spud, with Queen. Come home as soon as you can."
"Good. See you then."
As he set down the receiver, his hand was shaking. He remained motionless for a moment to compose himself.
"Is there something you need, Dr. Odell?"
"Yes, would you lock up my office, please? I'm leaving for the day."
He made it to the car before he needed to once again pause and breathe, then give devout thanks. He carefully drove the short distance to the house, pulled up, and waited for Ralph to arrive.
When the unfamiliar car pulled in behind him on the drive, Queen was at the wheel. Ralph was with him, smoking, looking pale and gaunt. He smiled and stubbed out his cigarette when he saw Laurie, and Laurie tried to keep his own face moderated.
"Spud, I can't thank you enough for this." Ralph clasped his hand fervently, and Laurie held on to it for a moment longer than he should have.
"Did it work? Are you in the clear?"
"Not exactly. But Queen poked enough holes in Dakin's theories that I'm a free man for the time being."
"Mr. Queen, thank you." Laurie turned to him and shook his hand. "Please, won't you come in? I have some questions if you can spare the time."
"I have questions of my own, and I'd like to continue discussing the case, if you don't mind."
They were soon settled in the living room with glasses of lemonade and plates of blueberry cobbler from Mrs. Oliver, who seemed thrilled to have 'company' to show off for on her first day. Laurie silently blessed Jack for the recommendation as he thanked her, and she discreetly vanished back into the kitchen.
They made small talk for a while, discussing one of Queen's recent books and what they'd seen of his home town, New York City, on their arrival in the States. Then Queen set down his fork and spoke.
"What I'm about to tell you is to be kept in the utmost confidence. Chief Dakin would have my head if he knew I'm discussing this case with you."
"Mr. Queen, if you're not comfortable telling us these things," Laurie began.
"Or if you'd rather I take a walk so you can speak with Laurie privately," Ralph offered.
"It's not that I suspect either one of you are our murderer," he responded. "If I did, I certainly wouldn't have pushed Dakin to release you, Mr. Lanyon."
"Please, call me Ralph."
"I will if you'll both call me Ellery," he smiled. "Now, here's what I can tell you about the murder investigation so far. Miss Wentworth was killed by a blow to the head from behind her, though the murderer didn't realize that had done the job. Her neck was broken, deliberately, and then the murderer climbed on a chair and hung her body from the lighting fixture with a rope -- that's how you were excluded from the investigation, Mr. Odell. Laurie." Queen smiled charmingly.
"I see," Laurie responded. "But why would anyone do that to the poor woman after she was dead?"
"Presumably, so it would look as if she committed suicide," Ralph offered.
"Yes, but our murderer didn't realize that there would be evidence of what he'd done on her body. It was immediately apparent to those investigating that she'd been killed before she was strung up." Queen leaned back and pulled a cigarette case from his breast pocket. "Do you mind if I smoke?"
"Not at all," Laurie responded, reaching for their ashtray.
"Here," Ralph rose and took it from him, then placed it on the table beside Queen. "So we have a man -- or a very strong woman -- who killed Miss Gal.. Wentworth. But the police focused on Ken Tinker first."
"For good reason. They found a note in her room from Tinker, asking her to meet him in town, at Upham House, on the morning of the 30th."
There was silence as they absorbed this information. Something was wrong... "But she was killed on the 27th," Laurie said. "That makes no sense."
"Yes. The note showed there was a connection between them. Dakin questioned the others, indirectly, but no one seemed to know anything about the meeting or a possible relationship between Tinker and Miss Wentworth. Tinker wouldn't explain it, either. He feigned ignorance even when they showed him the note in his own writing." Queen blew smoke toward the window, then continued. "By this point, Dakin's background investigation of Miss Wentworth had revealed her true identity. He assumed that Tinker had learned the information, too. But he couldn't prove that Tinker knew her real name, or that he was blackmailing her."
"That doesn't make sense, anyway," Ralph said. "Robert told us he would have been even more willing to hire her if he'd known she was related to the family. There wasn't any bad blood with Wentworth's mother."
"I see. Well, that leaves us at the point where Dakin had to press charges against Tinker or release him. He simply had no case, so Tinker returned to his job and his life."
"And three days later, he was murdered," Laurie said.
"Murdered by someone who deliberately planted evidence against Ralph," Queen added. "Again, the killer tried to make the death look accidental. He kills Tinker, breaking his neck from behind just as he did with Wentworth. This time, he places the body in Tinker's automobile. Then our killer starts the engine, places a rock on the accelerator and releases the brake. The car moves forward and, ultimately, crashes. Tinker's body is thrown out of the vehicle, and the killer hopes this covers his tracks.
"However, because the police saw through his deception with Wentworth's murder, the killer decides to leave clues that point elsewhere. He places a cigarette butt -- a very identifiable cigarette butt -- in Tinker's car."
"A British brand that isn't sold in Wrightsville. The kind Ralph's been smoking and carrying in his pocket since he arrived here."
"I'm nearly out of them now," Ralph said. "Wish that had happened sooner, but I bought several packs when we were in New York."
Queen smiled at him. "As I pointed out to Dakin, it's not difficult to pick up a dead butt from someone's cigarette."
"It will be from now on," Ralph said grimly. Laurie smiled across the room at him and Ralph seemed to pull strength from it. "In fact, I may quit altogether."
"So Dakin was holding you on very flimsy evidence. He admitted that he couldn't find any connection between you and Wentworth, or Tinker. He has no motive for the deaths, and you don't appear to be a deranged sociopath."
"So that's how you got Ralph released?" Laurie asked.
"Actually, no. I pointed out to Dakin how many mistakes our murderer has made, and explained that a mystery novel reader wouldn't be so clumsy."
Ralph laughed at that. "How did you know I like mysteries?"
"Damson mentioned that you'd both read my books." Queen smiled. "That's not the only reason I took the case, of course, but it didn't harm your chances."
They were smiling and so relaxed that Laurie hated to break the mood, but he had to ask. "Mr. Queen, until Dakin finds the real killer, Ralph is still under suspicion, isn't that right?"
"Yes. For all I know, so are you, at least for the second killing. You've both been in the service, and some branches of the military teach hand-to-hand combat skills like the move this killer used."
"We're not the only ex-servicemen in Wrightsville, though."
"No, you're not. And neither Dakin nor I believe these are random killings, which means there must be a motive for the deaths. One that we can't see clearly right now, but one which will be revealed and lead to the murderer."
"Are you saying that now we just wait and hope Dakin figures that out?"
"No, not at all. I plan to investigate further and see if I can discover a fact that's been overlooked so far, something that will illuminate the reason behind the murders." He rose, and Laurie and Ralph stood too. "I've invited myself to the Damson home this evening for dinner. This will give me a chance to informally question the entire family, and Henry Damson's friend, Jack Fowler."
"You're questioning them? But none of them are likely to be the killer," Ralph said flatly.
Queen looked intrigued. "What makes you say that?"
"It's not just that I know and like them, though I'm sure that's influencing my opinion." Ralph moved impatiently, and Laurie knew he wanted a cigarette. Or a drink. "It's not a logical, reasoned argument. I simply can't imagine anyone from the family would kill Miss Wentworth right there in the house, that's all. So much for your theory about your readers."
"Just to play devil's advocate, why not kill on your home territory, the ground where you're familiar with every inch?"
"Because you don't foul your own nest. If Robert were the killer -- and of course, he's not -- he would have lured Wentworth outside, somehow, to avoid suspicion. And to spare the others."
"Lure her out..." Queen looked very far away.
"Well, yes, that makes sense to me, too," Laurie said. "It would be simple enough to wait for her to run an errand or go out for a walk."
"Yes," Queen said distractedly. "I've got to be going, I don't want to be late for dinner. But to answer your question, no, I'm not assuming that anyone in the family is the guilty party. I'm merely hoping that they know more than they realize, and that by putting together what they don't really know that they know, I can find the key to this mystery."
Ralph chuckled. "Now you sound exactly like one of your books."
Queen smiled and bid them goodbye. It was actually awkward, the silence once he was gone. Ralph looked around the room as if he'd never believed he would see it again, and Laurie was drinking in the sight of Ralph. He was still too tense, and Laurie would have given much to be able to relax him and put contentment back in his eyes. Perhaps later, after Mrs. Oliver was gone for the evening...
"We have some time before supper, don't we?"
"Yes, at least I think so." There were savory aromas coming from the kitchen, but it was still quite early.
"Let's go for a walk, Spud. Or a drive... Which would you prefer? You look done in, I'm certain you're too tired to walk."
"No, I could manage it for a bit."
"Good. Let's go, then." Ralph led the way outside and down the street, away from the houses that clustered closer to the campus. In this direction there were tall trees, smaller houses set on large lots, and empty lots overgrown with Queen Anne's lace and other wildflowers. "This will all change soon."
"Why do you think that?"
"It's just the way of things. Look at what's happing in the town. Scads of new construction, cheaper houses and apartment flats for the returning veterans. That will spread, and our little neighborhood will fill up with new homes and student housing."
"No, not student housing. That's against the rules; only seniors can live off campus."
"That will change, too. I've been reading about the veteran education plan, the G.I. bill they call it. It's taken some time to catch on, but college enrollments are growing. You'll have older students in your classes, men who've been overseas like Jack and Henry... And married men, too, with young families. They won't be able to impose all that underclassman initiation nonsense on such students."
"Perhaps not." Laurie walked in silence for a little longer, then added, "These changes you're describing, they'll change the whole university experience forever."
"Perhaps it's for the better."
Ralph stopped, turned and looked at him. "I didn't expect you'd say that. I know you were ... disappointed by the War. I mean, by the way it affected your education. The school you'd attended your first two years was gone."
"Yes, I was disconcerted by the change. But what I wanted, the search for knowledge, that was still there. It will be that way for the veterans here, too. I've never been exactly comfortable with the idea of education as the exclusive right of the upper classes, you know."
"How very American of you, Spuddy," Ralph teased. "Yes, I know."
"About things always changing, Ralph..."
"Not everything," Ralph quickly asserted. "Externals, but not the important things." His eyes were speaking more than he could put in words, and Laurie responded the same way, knowing Ralph understood him.
They turned their steps home soon after that and enjoyed Mrs. Oliver's meal heartily. Once she was gone, leaving them stern instructions to only rinse their dishes for her attention in the morning, they spent the evening together in the living room. Ralph was writing. Laurie thought he was updating his diary, but it might have been his story for the Record. Laurie was busy reading over last year's issues of the Classics department publication and making notes for his first meeting with the student committee.
Then he noticed Ralph's head was nodding where he sat, and he quickly put his work aside to take Ralph up the stairs and to bed. He didn't even bother with their usual routine, just helped Ralph out of his clothes and put him straight into the bed they shared in Laurie's room. By the time he came back from cleaning his teeth and changing into his pajamas, Ralph looked sound asleep. But when Laurie climbed in beside him, Ralph rolled closer. Laurie put his arm around Ralph protectively, wishing it could always be this simple for them.
8. - I'll Never Smile Again
Ralph was trying very hard the next morning to behave as if nothing had happened. He proposed taking Laurie to the nursery for their vegetable plants, and when Laurie said he thought it was a better idea to remain at home quietly, Ralph just snorted and went outside to dig in the beds they'd been preparing.
An hour later Ralph came in, cleaned up, then ate heartily of Mrs. Oliver's breakfast. When he finished, he sat back and said, "Spud, it's already August."
He conceded with poor grace and they took the long drive, Ralph speeding along, smoking a cigarette and refusing to look at him. Laurie couldn't sustain his disgruntled mood; he wanted their life back to normal, too. He began to chat about the kinds of plants he wanted to purchase. Ralph took up the conversation gratefully, and the morning passed happily. The nursery staff were very helpful, suggesting some plants unfamiliar to Laurie which were well-suited to Wrightsville's climate. They loaded the boot and the rear seat with flats and fertilizer, and then headed home, Laurie sorting through the flower seeds he'd chosen. Most were for planting in the late autumn, so they'd sprout the following spring, but he did hope they could get something growing on their windowsills for the end of summer.
After unloading, Ralph insisted on taking Laurie to campus. "I know you've still got loads of preparation to do, and it's quieter there -- for now. Once the semester begins, I suppose you'll find it easier to work here at home without interruptions. But there's no point in wasting this day. You didn't get much accomplished yesterday."
Laurie couldn't deny it -- nor could he help being a little annoyed. Still, it would be distracting to know Ralph was laboring in the garden for him while he sat reading. So he went to his office and put in a solid afternoon of work. He wasn't expecting Ralph until after six; he'd told Laurie he planned to drive Mrs. Oliver home once she'd prepared their supper, and then stop by the Record office with the first draft of his story.
But it wasn't Ralph who came for him, it was Queen with the news that Ralph was back in police custody.
"The officer who called said Ralph asked him to contact me, and mentioned that you'd be on campus waiting for him." Queen's brow was furrowed. "I can't imagine what Dakin's thinking... It won't hold up."
"Ellery, would you be willing to take me to the police station?"
"Yes, I thought that's what you'd want to do. My car's not far."
They drove directly to headquarters, but when they asked for Dakin they were told he was at the hospital with "the prisoner."
"What?" Laurie swayed on his feet but Queen was there supporting him.
"Sergeant Grady, can you tell us what happened?"
"Sure, Mr. Queen. Someone spotted Lanyon coming out of the newspaper office. An unidentified man said something to him. Our witness didn't really hear the comment, but she said it must have made Lanyon angry. Instead of just getting in his car, he crossed the street toward the man. Others saw it and they jumped in to help."
"Help?" Laurie asked.
"Protect their friend, I mean."
"So you're saying a group of men assaulted Ralph?"
"Well, yeah. They didn't lay off until our patrolman, Lou Hinkens, saw the commotion and ran over."
"Are these men in custody?" Queen asked, but Laurie didn't care about that, he just wanted to find Ralph.
"Which way is the hospital?" he demanded, but the policeman ignored him, answering Queen.
"Nobody saw nothing, Mr. Queen. And you're not going to find anyone in Wrightsville who'd take the side of a stranger over the local boys, either. After all, Lanyon caused it, really. If he'd just walked away this wouldn't have happened."
"He wouldn't assault someone, no matter what they called him," Laurie said. "You don't know Ralph, he'd... Dakin warned us about you people ..." He was so angry his vision began to blur.
"Here, sit down. Sergeant, some water please." Queen made him put his head down and kept instructing Laurie to breathe, but his heart was pounding so loudly he barely noticed. There was some commotion, but Laurie didn't look up until Ralph was kneeling before him, his hands chained together and his face-- Ralph had a blackened eye and a bandage on his left eyebrow. His clothing was dirty and torn; didn't they know Ralph hated being disheveled?
"Spud, it's all right, I'm fine. Don't worry." Ralph was looking at him so intently. Laurie gasped for breath, and suddenly it all came rushing at him and he was ill. He flung himself away from Ralph and vomited on the floor of the police station.
Queen was there, helping to support him and giving him water, and he could hear Ralph talking to Dakin. All Laurie could focus on was how tight the bracelets were on Ralph's hands, particularly his left wrist. Ralph's glove was gone, and they'd realized that his disfigurement might let him slip out of the cuffs, so the metal had been pressed together until it cut into his wrist...
Dakin was speaking, then, and another officer was leading Ralph away, though he kept twisting and glancing back. He called, "Queen, please help him," and then he was gone. Laurie tried to focus on Dakin's words.
"...examined him and nothing's broken, he's just bruised up. And I'm sorry this happened, Mr. Odell, but I did warn you. After Clyde Hollingsworth was found this morning, people have just about had enough of murder."
"Hollingsworth?" Laurie was glad Queen was asking questions, for Dakin certainly wasn't making any sense. What was he talking about? Ralph...
"Yes, we've had a third murder discovered today, and once again there's evidence pointing to Mr. Lanyon. Clyde was killed, his office was ransacked and a fire was set. All his papers and files were burned, deliberately. That affects a whole lot of Wrightsville citizens, Mr. Queen."
"But you know it's connected to this case because Hollingsworth is.. was Enid Damson's attorney, am I right?"
"I see you've been busy interviewing the family like you said you would," Dakin drawled. "Yes, he was Mrs. Damson's attorney and did the legal work for the business, too. Murders don't happen every day in Wrightsville, Mr. Queen. Even if it weren't for the evidence we found, I'd have to believe these killings are related."
"How was he killed?"
"He was shot, after midnight last night. No one knows why he was at his office so late; we're thinking the murderer made an appointment with him. For instance, someone who didn't have an attorney and pretended he wanted to hire one to help him since he was suspected in a murder case."
"Of course, it's more likely that he'd agree to meet someone he knew so late at night, Chief," Queen stated. "How could a stranger justify requesting such a clandestine meeting?"
"I know, I know. Actually, we're figuring that someone was blackmailing him. Or, possibly, someone was being blackmailed by Hollingsworth. Thanks to the fire our killer set, we don't have any evidence either way, though."
Laurie was finally coming back to full awareness and he'd been following their conversation as he gathered his thoughts. "We've never met this man. I've never heard the name before."
Dakin looked at him. "Mr. Odell, I know this is confusing. I shouldn't say it, but I'm not convinced your friend is our killer. It's too pat; the whole thing smells wrong. But I can't ignore the evidence to follow my gut instincts."
"You won't have to, Dakin," Queen said grimly. "I believe I finally understand the motivation of our murderer."
"You know who it is?" Dakin looked startled but relieved.
"No, not yet. Though this certainly narrows the field of suspects... Dakin, you and I need to talk. Laurie, are you able to drive yourself home?"
"Yes. I need to get ... Ralph's keys..."
"I'll arrange that with the property clerk, Mr. Odell. Don't get up, stay right there and someone will bring them to you." Dakin bustled off, and Queen stood looking down at him.
"I promise you... Wait, I'd better explain this clearly. I agree with Dakin, Ralph is safer here in jail than he'd be at home. I'm not concerned about mob rule in Wrightsville so much as that our killer may not be finished yet."
"You're saying there will be another murder?" Laurie shook his head. "How can someone do such things?"
"Often one crime will lead to another. Sadly, with murder it seems that the more one kills, the easier it becomes. Now that the police have followed the murderer's plan and arrested Ralph, our killer probably thinks he can convincingly fool them. As a suspect, Ralph is valuable, but if he's released again, the murderer may decide that his death, made to look like a suicide, will neatly close out the case. We can't give him that opportunity."
"Ralph's life is in danger?" Laurie wanted to be sick again, but he swallowed hard and controlled it.
"Possibly. But I promise you, Ralph won't go to trial for these crimes. I know you're correct; he didn't kill any of them. And, if Dakin will cooperate, I believe we can prove it and catch the real murderer."
Laurie thought he'd pulled himself together. He got himself home, carefully wrapped and stored the dinner Mrs. Oliver had left for him, and went to bed. He even managed to sleep, though he frequently woke, looking for Ralph.
The next morning his housekeeper arrived full of annoying commiseration about Ralph's arrest. Laurie remained civil with her, but realized he didn't want to face such intrusive gossip all day at his office. He had plenty of things to work on at home, so he installed himself at his desk, asked Mrs. Oliver to see that he wasn't disturbed, and tried to work. He stopped to call Queen, but he couldn't reach him. He went back to his desk but a few minutes later he was up again, calling the police station. He was told he could visit Ralph after two o'clock. He asked to talk to Dakin, but was told the chief wasn't available. He didn't bother leaving a message.
The bell rang and he thought about fleeing upstairs, though he knew Ralph would hate the thought of Laurie hiding himself away like that. Mrs. Oliver answered the door, and enough bustle and noise ensued that Laurie came out to see what was going on.
"Mr. Laurie, I don't know where you want these," she said, wringing her hands in her apron.
There were two men unloading a truck and carrying crates up to the house. Laurie looked at the boxes they'd already brought inside and realized one was familiar. He'd packed it himself when they'd closed up their flat. Books, the rest of his clothes -- these were the items Ralph had arranged to be shipped to Wrightsville once he'd leased the house.
"They can bring them into this room, I'll work on unpacking right here," Laurie announced, feeling relieved at the prospect of something mindless he could do. "Thank you, Mrs. Oliver."
The morning passed quickly as he emptied boxes. Clothes he set to the side, to be taken upstairs later. Books were stacked in two groups, those for his campus office and those he wanted here. He filled the bookshelves around his desk and re-filled boxes to take over to Merrimac. It was a very effective distraction until he opened an unfamiliar box and stared at the contents: boxes of tea from his favorite shop. He'd wished for these but hadn't remembered to ask Ralph to order them.
Mrs. Oliver brought in a lunch tray a few minutes later, but after one look at his face she abandoned any hope of conversation and left him alone again. He ignored the food and brooded, awkwardly pacing between the boxes.
When the doorbell rang, he headed for the stairs. But then he heard Susan Damson's voice, and Laurie quickly turned back and went out to greet her.
"Thank you, Mrs. Oliver, I'll see Miss Damson. Susan, please come in."
"Hello, Laurie. I heard the news and I wanted to see you..."
"I've wanted to express my sympathy to you. I know you'd broken your engagement to Ken, but I'm sure the news of his death was a terrible shock," Laurie began.
"Yes." She looked very uncomfortable. He wondered exactly what gossip she'd heard.
"I can assure you that Ralph had nothing to do with Ken's death, or with any of these horrible murders."
"I'm sure of that," she replied, looking very unsure. "Laurie, my father shared some information with me... this feels terribly rude and intrusive, but I was hoping that you're in contact with Ellery Queen."
That wasn't what he'd been expecting. "I've engaged his assistance, yes. I hope to hear from him soon," Laurie admitted.
"Mr. Queen came to our house, you see. He interviewed everyone, and told us that information was the key to solving the murders. He said that we might know something crucial and not even realize it."
"Yes, he said much the same to me."
"It sounded a lot like what I proposed at our picnic, remember?" Laurie nodded, and she rushed on, "You should have seen Henry's face when he realized that. It was actually a bit funny, or it would have been if we weren't discussing murders."
Laurie nodded again, suddenly overcome with emotion. He was overtired, that was the plain and simple truth. Normally he wouldn't feel so undone simply by polite conversation. It was just... nothing had been right or normal in the last day.
"Anyway, I'm terribly sorry to disturb you this way. If you need to work, just go ahead. I'll find a book to read and just wait quietly in the kitchen..."
"No, Susan, not at all. I'm very glad to have you here, I was ... well, I was feeling very alone."
Mrs. Oliver took that moment to enter carrying a large tea-tray. "Mr. Laurie, I don't mean to disturb you, but I saw how much you ate at lunch. How much you didn't eat, I should say. So I thought maybe Miss Susan could persuade you to have some carrot bread and a nice cup of tea."
"Thank you," he managed, again feeling his throat close up with emotion. Such kindness for him, when those men had struck Ralph...
Susan, bless her, began chattering away about Henry's struggles with his job. Soon Laurie found he could eat; he was actually quite hungry. Besides, Ralph would be upset if he made himself sick. Laurie had to be strong and ready to assist Queen in his investigation. He'd do whatever was necessary to help Ralph.
They were discussing Laurie's garden and the upcoming county fair when Queen finally telephoned. Laurie quickly excused himself and went to the back hallway to take the call.
"Laurie, Dakin and I are coming to see you. Stay put."
"I will. Ellery, Susan Damson is here. She asked to see you."
"Interesting. That's fine, keep her there and I'll deal with her, then we can fill you in on our plans."
He hung up and stood for a moment, thinking about that final remark from Queen. Did that mean he felt he couldn't speak freely in front of Susan? Could Queen honestly think she was a suspect in the murders? Laurie shook his head. Susan wouldn't kill anyone. Besides, hadn't he told them that Dakin was sure the killer was a man? Laurie went back to the living room, his mind racing.
"That was Queen, Susan. He'll be here shortly."
"Oh, good. I just want to tell him something... It might be nothing, but of course I want to help if there's any way to solve these murders."
"Yes, I know."
"Henry says I must be trying to be the first woman on the Wrightsville police force," she said with a laugh. "Father says I take after him, and now he's planning to teach me chess. Henry never did manage to play very well, though Father taught him years ago. Yet he's doing so well at the foundry now..."
"Perhaps it's true that you're more like your father, with his gift for puzzles. And Henry is more like your grandfather must have been, with a knack for business."
Susan looked almost distressed. "Henry really likes it," she said wonderingly. "He always denied any interest in business, but now that he's been forced into it, he's stopped talking about painting or writing or going to Paris..."
"That's good, isn't it?"
"I don't honestly know," she admitted. "It's like my brother is gone and a stranger is in his place. He'll probably wind up married to Amy or some other girl I went to school with, living on Hill Drive with his five children and a dog."
Laurie doubted that would be Henry's future, but he smiled and said, "That's not a fate worse than death, you know. It would please your parents." Susan nodded, then stood abruptly and walked to the window.
"There's nothing wrong with that... and it's not that I want Henry to be unhappy. It's just ... I feel a bit left behind, I suppose. Again." She flopped down on the sofa, looking very young. "During the war, Henry changed, he grew up so fast and then he joined the army. I didn't appreciate being stuck here, going to school and buying war bonds, while he was in danger, fighting and doing horrible things."
"You had your part to do, and you did it. That's all any of us can do. Don't you suppose I felt the same when I was discharged and went back to school, while Ralph and so many others were still serving in the military?"
"Oh, I know. It's just... it's happening again, now. With Henry and with Jack, too. When they first came home, they needed people to love them and care for them. We all treated them like boys again, as if they'd never gone off and been soldiers." She walked back to her chair. "I'm not blind; I can see Jack is happier now. He loves having that job and being more independent. Henry, too... they've gone back to being adults while I'm still adrift. I ... Ken ... well, it wasn't true love but at least I thought I'd be a grownup, a married woman with children to raise. Instead, now I'm ... useless."
"No one thinks you're useless. Susan, you're allowed to have your youth. You're only nineteen, you should be enjoying yourself. What are any of your friends doing that's so different?"
"Nothing." She laughed bitterly. "They're gossiping about me and my family, right now. They say Grandmother is cursed, that everyone who works for her is dying. Nice, isn't it?"
"I'd be among them, whispering in corners, if this wasn't my family and my life. Laurie, I never really thought seriously about doing anything important with my life. Until now."
"I suppose most of us need a push from a person or an event. It's very easy to drift along, doing what our parents expect and not thinking for ourselves."
"Exactly. But an adult should be trying to do more, to find a way to help others and improve the world." She looked at her hands, then up at Laurie. "I'm thinking about applying to nursing school."
"Really?" She looked a little hurt at his tone, and Laurie tried to quickly find a delicate way to phrase a question. "It's just... I suspected that marriage, with someone else, might still be on your mind."
She blushed but did seem mollified. "That may happen, I hope, though not for several years. I don't want to waste my time baking cookies and gossiping, I want to help earn the money we'll need for a home of our own, some day."
"I understand. But nursing?"
"I volunteered at the hospital during high school." She broke off with a little laugh. "I hated it, actually. It's hard work. But it was rewarding, too."
Laurie considered for a moment before answering. "I've spent some time in hospitals, of course. The work the nurses and aides did -- I don't have words adequate to express how much it meant at the time."
"I was too young to do anything important during the war. But now-- They've built a veterans hospital in Slocum, for permanently disabled soldiers. I could probably get a job there after some training, and then save money toward a RN course."
"You've really been planning this, haven't you?"
She squirmed. "I've just been doing a lot of thinking, since Miss Galliard's death. Mother feels useful with her committees and charity work. But there's so much socializing and posturing among those women... I'd rather find another way."
Laurie smiled at her. "I'd say that you are doing a lot of good, just by being yourself. You're here today to help Queen find the truth. Lots of people wouldn't want to be involved, and certainly wouldn't go out of their way to help. And you've done me a world of good, distracting me and helping me remain calm. You're a dutiful daughter, granddaughter, and sister. And a very good friend to Jack, too."
She blushed charmingly at Jack's name, but the bell rang before either of them said another word. Mrs. Oliver showed in the police chief and Queen, who immediately greeted Susan.
"What can I do for you today, Miss Damson?" Queen was being very gallant and charming, and Susan blushed again before answering.
"I .. when you were at our house the other evening, you mentioned that insignificant-seeming details can be important. So I wanted to tell you, once I heard the news..."
"Grandmother went to see Mr. Hollingsworth on Monday afternoon. I drove her there."
"Really?" Dakin leaned forward. "Sorry, Mr. Queen. Miss Damson, what did they discuss?"
"I don't know that, Chief Dakin. Grandmother asked me to wait for her in the reception room. But I have a guess... Mr. Hollingsworth called in his secretary and a clerk to witness a document. So I think Grandmother must have gone there to revise her will."
"Oh, I see." Dakin looked less interested. "Well, it's likely she had a bequest for Ken Tinker in her will, so that seems fairly routine to me."
"Perhaps," Queen agreed. "Was there anything else, Miss Damson?"
"No. I just thought it might be important." She looked very disappointed.
"If it was her will, she seems almost compulsive about having it fully up-to-date," Laurie said, and the three others all looked at him, startled. "It's just... Robert told me that your grandmother visited her attorney to review her will right after Miss Galliard's death. Beg pardon, Miss Wentworth's death. He said that Henry drove her, so I don't suppose you knew about it, Susan."
Dakin looked confused as he exchanged a glance with Queen, who didn't look surprised at all, merely thoughtful.
"Of course, she's a wealthy woman and must have had him on retainer. So there wouldn't be any expense about updating it again so soon." Laurie felt awkward speculating in this fashion, but no one else was speaking, so he continued, "Robert thought her interest in the will was a way of coping with her nurse's death, you see -- by preparing for the eventuality of her own passing."
"Yes, I suppose..." Susan didn't look convinced, but Dakin and Queen remained silent. "Well, then. I'd better head home and see what ... needs doing."
"Thank you so much for coming by today, Susan. And please tell Henry and Jack I said hello." Laurie walked her to the door, and waited while she put on her straw hat, peering into the little hall mirror.
"I'm glad we talked, Laurie," she finally said. "I don't know what Mr. Queen and Mr. Dakin want to discuss with you in private, but I hope it means Ralph will be released soon. And please tell him I'm very sorry he saw the ugliest side of Wrightsville yesterday."
Laurie nodded, once again unable to speak. She smiled sympathetically and left. He stood a moment after he closed the screen door behind her, breathing until he had control of his emotions. Then he returned to the two men who now were being handed fresh glasses of lemonade by Mrs. Oliver.
"I'm heading out to do the marketing, Mr. Odell," she announced, and Laurie thanked her, wondering if she'd been listening to the conversation. He almost forgot to give her the money to make her purchases; he hadn't yet established credit at the local stores. She took it with a nod and he decided that if she was eavesdropping, she was also showing a good deal of tact and discretion by leaving right now.
They waited until the kitchen door closed. Then Dakin rose and left the house, and Queen began to speak.
"Laurie, we've decided to release Ralph from jail."
"But you said..."
"I know, but that's part of it. We're not going to leave him in any position where he'll be in danger. But we need to trap our killer, and Ralph is ... well, part of the bait."
"So his life will be in danger?"
"No, Spud, it won't be."
"Ralph!" He was standing in the doorway beside Dakin, looking serious. The bruising on his face was more livid today, and Laurie stared at the swollen, cut lip and wondered if it would hurt for Ralph to smile. They both came in a sat down across from Laurie, and then it struck him that Queen and Dakin had deliberately concealed Ralph's presence from Susan.
What could that mean except that they considered Susan a suspect? No doubt all the Damsons were under suspicion, though Laurie couldn't imagine it. Somehow they must be implicated.
"We'll have police observing him and guarding your house, Mr. Odell," Dakin assured him. "Mr. Lanyon will be protected, as will some other folks involved in this whole mess."
"The killer isn't finished yet, Laurie. Remember, I told you it's easier to kill the second time? But it's also true that one murder often leads to another, until there's a whole pattern of crimes. The murderer keeps killing until he feels safe."
"But if you know there's danger, why release him? Of course I'm very glad you're out of that place," Laurie turned to Ralph as he spoke. "But..."
Queen interrupted. "I need to talk this over with you and Ralph, Laurie, and outline my plan. For the rest of today, you both should stay here or in very public places, never alone."
"We'll have your protection set up before this evening," Dakin added. "We've all had a bellyful of killings, we're not letting this continue." He rose. "I'm going back to the station now. Thank you, Mr. Odell, Mr. Lanyon. We appreciate your cooperation."
Ralph got up to show Dakin out, and when he came back he looked at Queen. "You already told me that we're telling the public I've been let out on bond, not released. So people will believe I'm still under arrest for the murders."
"Very few people need to be told that story, Ralph. Believe me, I understand that your reputation in this town is important. You'll be completely cleared. In fact, Dakin has agreed that you can write an exclusive for the Record, once it's over." Queen smiled at them both. "Does that put your mind at ease?"
"Not precisely," Ralph replied. "Ellery, what exactly do you think Laurie and I can do to help trap this murderer?"
"The plan is for you to come with me to the Damson house tonight. I'm going to question Mrs. Enid Damson once again, but this time I have a little more information at my command. Dakin has instituted an investigation, at my request, and I'm going to 'accidentally' let that slip to her."
"But you can't suspect Mrs. Damson is the murderer," Laurie protested.
"No, but we do think the killer will be present while we're there, and will believe everything we tell him about Ralph."
"Then you do believe one of the Damson family is the murderer."
"Ellery, that can't be true," Ralph protested. "We know these people..."
"I know you do, and I wish I could tell you they aren't involved. But if I'm correct about the motive behind all these deaths, they're the only ones who could benefit from the deaths."
"Are you saying there's just one motive for all three murders?"
"Yes, and it's a very common motive. Money, as represented by the Damson Foundry. I don't want to go into it all right now. You'll hear the full story very soon, trust me."
"We do, Ellery," Laurie said. "But it's still inconceivable that any of our friends would kill three people. Or try to put the blame for the deaths on Ralph, for that matter."
"Ralph, did Dakin ever tell you what evidence implicated you in Hollingsworth's death? Laurie wasn't told, I know."
"No, he just said that something was left behind in the room. I thought it must be another cigarette."
"No, it was something more damning. Not to you, as the killer intended, but to the Damson family." Queen leaned back in his chair and had a sip of lemonade. "A silver lighter engraved with the initials RRL was found beside the charred papers in Hollingsworth's office, just a few feet from his body."
"My lighter? But... I haven't even missed it." Ralph looked very upset, and Laurie remembered that the lighter had been a gift from Alec. He pushed down the tiny stab of jealousy to pay attention to Queen.
"Your lighter. Which you kept -- in your car? Or here, in the house?"
"In my room upstairs..." Ralph's face changed. "Where Henry, Susan and Jack helped us paint and unpack."
"Precisely. No one else has been in your home; Laurie told me your housekeeper just began working here this week."
"Yes -- but someone could have robbed the house."
"And only taken your lighter? I suppose it's possible. Let's say the killer, intending to frame you, broke in here and searched for something immediately identifiable as yours."
"Do you keep your lighter on display in some fashion?"
"No, it's usually in my drawer."
"What would lead a stranger who'd never been in the house to look there first? Isn't it more likely he'd be able to find a half dozen items in plain view? Possibly even on the main floor?"
"Perhaps nothing else suited his purpose," Ralph began.
"He's broken in to steal, Ralph. He doesn't have hours to search for the perfect object," Queen insisted. "Besides, our stranger doesn't know you own an engraved lighter, does he? But someone who'd spent time with you might have seen it and known to look for it."
Ralph was silent, but Laurie asked, "Couldn't it be true that the killer is a stranger who's been closely observing all of us?"
"Maybe," Queen sighed, "But when we combine the lighter with the motive Dakin and I have uncovered, and then add in your friends' knowledge of this house and your belongings -- well, it still points to someone in the Damson family being the thief."
Neither of them raised any further objections as Ellery outlined the rest of his plan. Laurie knew he was hoping Queen's logic was wrong, somehow, but he still agreed to play his role tonight. Ralph had more of a performance to give, so he and Queen went upstairs to continue talking in private once Mrs. Oliver returned and began preparing dinner.
Laurie busied himself with work for a while, but soon realized he was terribly tired. He stretched out on the sofa, hoping to rest briefly. Having Ralph back in the house was as soothing as a lullaby; he fell deeply asleep until Ralph woke him for dinner.
9. - There, I've Said it Again
Laurie's heart sank as they approached the Damsons' door. Robert had sounded weary when Laurie telephoned, and he hadn't mentioned that Ralph was no longer in jail, nor that Queen would be with him. He was merely following the directions he'd been given, but it seemed a nasty thing to do to a friend.
Susan, who answered the door, looked delighted to see them. "Ralph! I'm so glad to see you." She gave him a hug and Ralph made a weak attempt to smile. She saw the strain and almost immediately began to look worried instead. "Oh, your poor eye. You did see a doctor, didn't you?"
"Yes, I'm fine."
"Come in, please. We're just relaxing in the living room."
She led them to the familiar room. Helen was in her chair with her knitting, Robert across from her with a newspaper. Jack and Henry were at the side table, close to the radio, but Henry switched it off as they rose to greet Laurie and the others.
"Ralph, it's so good to see you've been cleared of those ridiculous charges," Henry said.
Queen answered him. "No, I'm afraid he hasn't been cleared. Mr. Lanyon is out of jail thanks to Mr. Odell's bail payment. That's why I'm here, Mr. Damson. I'm still investigating the murders, and I'm afraid that means beginning again with more questions."
"Anything we can do to help, Mr. Queen," Robert said, but his tone was definitely cool, and he wouldn't meet Laurie's eyes.
Laurie didn't know whether to laugh or cry. He'd feared their cooperation with Queen's plan might lead to losing these friendships, but he'd never imagined that Robert would actually believe Ralph was somehow involved in the murders. Even the young people looked bewildered and wary, but Laurie forgave them, and Helen. It was Robert -- he'd worked with Ralph for years, enjoyed his friendship... Robert's disloyalty would hurt Ralph deeply, and that made Laurie's heart ache.
"I'd like to begin with a few questions for your mother, Mr. Damson."
"It's very late for her, Queen," Robert protested. "Can't this wait?"
Ralph's face darkened with his best angry look, as planned. Laurie said, "Robert, please. This is vitally important to us."
"I'll fetch her," Helen said wearily. "She won't be pleased. She's been out of temper today."
"I appreciate your cooperation very much, Mrs. Damson. Please assure her I won't take much of her time."
When Helen left the room was oddly silent. Ralph was the one who usually covered such awkward moments, but Laurie made an attempt. "How's your class list shaping up, Robert? Is Evans returning?"
"Yes," he said with a bit of effort. "I'm very glad he was given that scholarship. He's asked me to be his advisor, and I've agreed although I do need to work on publishing some papers I began preparing this summer."
"Ah, I see," Laurie said, and then they all stood silently for another moment. He tried once again. "Henry, Susan tells me you're enjoying your work at the foundry now?"
"Yes," he said shortly, looking a bit put out. Then Laurie realized he'd made it sound as if Ken's death were ... He decided he was not equipped to begin casual conversations when every topic led to a pitfall.
Jack asked, "Ralph, have you been working on a story for the newspaper?"
"Yes, amazingly, even with all the ... interruptions ... I've been researching at the library for the fire code story. And I've finished a draft about my voyage to India in '36. I needed my notes from that year to fill in the details, and our belongings just arrived..." Ralph trailed off, his eyes distant.
"How's the accounting, Jack?" Laurie managed.
"It's not quite what I expected. In some ways what I'm doing now is boring, very basic and repetitive. But I hope that in a few years, I'll be able to do more advising and consulting, working with business owners on long-term plans instead of just counting their money and filling out forms."
Susan said, "Jack, you should be running your own business someday."
He smiled at her, his heart in his eyes as always. "I think it will be more fun to run everyone else's, actually. I'll have poor old Henry here scrambling to modernize and branch out..."
"Over my dead body," said an imperious voice as Enid entered the room on Helen's arm. "It's still my business, you lazy gold-digger."
"Grandmother!" "Mother!" Robert, Susan and Henry spoke at the same time. Queen was watching it all intently.
"I know he's working some pissant job now. But something's not right when a boy lazes around the house as long as he did!"
"I'll agree," Queen cut in smoothly, "Something isn't right here, Mrs. Damson. I'm hoping you can help me set things in order."
"You're badgering me and I haven't even sat down yet," she protested.
"Turnabout," Henry muttered.
"I do apologize," Queen said. "Here, please do take a seat." She did, with much fussing which he very calmly soothed. "Now, then, Mrs. Damson. My first question is, do you keep large amounts of cash in your rooms here?"
"That's a very personal question, Queen," Robert protested.
"And none of your business, young man," Enid said tartly.
"Ah, but it is my business, Mrs. Damson. And you'll note I'm not asking you to reveal where, specifically, you might keep such money. I don't want to know if you have a safe or a mattress stuffed with greenbacks. I merely ask if you are in the habit of keeping cash on hand."
"No, of course not," she huffed. "First National Bank of Wrightsville, that's my family's bank."
"Yes, I remember you told me your maiden name was Wright. Though I don't believe anyone in your immediate family owned an interest in the bank."
"Perhaps not. Still my family, aren't they? All these silly questions..."
"Mr. Queen, mother is fatigued," Robert attempted.
"Just a few more questions, I assure you. Mrs. Damson, since you don't keep money here and the records of your bank account show only withdrawals in the last seven months, can you tell me what happened to the payment you received for your automobile?"
"I spent it, of course. Old heap wasn't worth that much, you know."
"Mother, I hope you didn't sell the car for less than I told you--" Robert began, but she cut him off.
"What I did is none of your business, Robert," she snarled. "Helen, I want to go back to my rooms now."
"Just one more question, Mrs. Damson. Can you tell me what, exactly, you spent that money on? Because between that sum and the twenty thousand dollars you've withdrawn from your account, and the ten thousand Ken Tinker got for selling your jewels -- I know he must have been pawning them with your permission, Mrs. Damson, since you didn't report them as missing or stolen --"
The room was in an uproar, and Enid was the extremely outraged center of it. She shouted them all to silence, then gave Queen a look that could have killed. "So the police have been snooping in my affairs, have they? I'll take care of Dakin later; he's had that job too long. As for your impertinent questions, Mr. Queen, I'll tell you what you want to know. I lied. I do keep some money here in the house. I haven't trusted banks in years."
She stood up, tightly grasping her cane, and glanced loftily around the room. "They were my jewels to sell, I suppose. The money in the bank is my money, too. Lord knows Robert's never brought any income to this house from his piddly teaching job." The contempt in her voice when she said "teaching" made Laurie wince. "So long as you're all fed -- very well fed, I may say -- and have a roof over your heads, I don't think any of you have any right to be questioning my decisions or complaining."
Without another word she sailed out of the room, looking much less frail than she had on her entrance. Queen was staring after here with an admiring look, while the rest of them looked dazed.
"Well," Queen said lightly, "My job here is done. I have to see if I can catch Chief Dakin first thing in the morning, and then I'll give you a call, Laurie. Mr. Damson, Mrs. Damson, thank you very much for your assistance in my investigation. Don't bother, Miss Damson, I can see myself out."
Then he was gone, and the room came alive again, everyone except Ralph and Laurie speaking at once. Laurie felt damned awkward, remaining here when the Damson family obviously would have liked to be alone. But he had his orders from Queen, so he stayed in his chair, accepting a cigarette from Ralph. The others weren't paying any attention to them, yet, which was very good since Ralph's hand was shaking just a bit.
Helen announced she had a headache and left the room. Robert fumed a bit longer, then said, "It's time I spoke to Mother," and stomped out without a glance at them or a good-night to anyone. That was just about the time Susan seemed to remember they were there. She looked a little guilty as she hushed Henry and drew his attention to the two figures still sitting in the corner.
"Oh, jeepers," Henry said. "Laurie, Ralph, please forgive us."
"It's just that what Mr. Queen said -- we can't believe it's true." Susan looked very distressed. "And none of us noticed. Grandmother has always been very self-sufficient, but now... Is this some symptom of old age, that she's being so odd about her money?"
"It is her money, she has a right to do whatever she'd like with it," Henry said. "But I'm afraid she needed assistance, just as she did with the foundry. She wasn't happy with Ken having so much power and control, I realize that now. But she didn't come out and ask for my help."
"No, she tried to browbeat you into the job instead," Jack said. "I get the feeling that she'd always rather do that than admit that she isn't capable of doing something herself."
"I believe you're right, Jack," Ralph said suddenly, rising and walking to one of the long windows. A light rain had begun outside while they were talking, and in the silence now they could all hear it. He tossed out his cigarette butt and stood glowering at the dark garden.
"She's always been contrary," Susan said softly. "And perhaps Jack has been right all the time when he said she's unhappy. Grandmother doesn't believe in 'whining,' but what does she have? A few rooms here in the house, fancy clothing but nowhere to wear it, and declining health. She never found someone to replace Grandfather. No woman wants to be alone like that." The look on her face as she stared at Jack made Laurie look away.
Henry, too, seemed flustered. "Well, enough of that. We'll find a way to help her now. I'm very glad Queen uncovered all this..." Again, a realization of what he'd just said made Henry's face turn dark red. "I don't mean ... well, you know."
"I suppose so," Ralph said quite rudely. "You don't mean that you're happy I'm under arrest, or that Laurie's had to hire an investigator and put up his savings as my bail."
"Your savings..." Susan said. "But..."
"He'll get it back, of course," Jack said. "Bail money comes back once ... well, once the trial begins and Ralph appears in court."
"Well, yes, that's true, it would," Ralph said flatly. "I'm afraid Laurie isn't so lucky, though."
"What?" All three of them gasped the word.
"Ralph's not staying here to be lynched by the next group of upright citizens who decide they don't like his looks," Laurie said. "I bailed him out of the jail so he can leave town."
"But..." Susan looked close to tears.
"We're telling you this in confidence," Ralph said, coming closer. "I'll be gone tomorrow evening, the next day at the latest. I'll find a ship that could use an extra hand."
Henry seemed stunned, too. "You'll be a fugitive, Ralph."
"Only in Wrightsville, Henry. It's a big world out there. I can be perfectly happy never seeing this place again." His voice was full of contempt for Wrightsville and all its ilk. "Except ... well, I did want to say goodbye to all of you. You've been so kind and helpful. I do appreciate that, and I regret that I'll never see you again. That, and taking Laurie's money. It's not likely I'll ever be able to repay him. I'll be lucky just to keep myself going."
Jack stepped forward and extended a hand. "Good luck to you, Ralph."
"Thanks, Jack. I do wish I could be around to see you in a few years, once you're running the town." They shook hands, then Susan came over and awkwardly embraced Ralph with no words. "After I'm gone, please give your father my thanks for all his kindness," Ralph said, and she nodded.
Henry came over and also shook Ralph's hand, his face creased with worry. "Ralph, I hate to see you doing this when I know you'll be cleared of these absurd charges. We can ask Dakin to have you moved out of town properly, and keep within the law."
"You may trust that man, Henry, but I don't think he's capable of finding his own arse, much less the truth in all this mess," Ralph said bitterly. "His protection is more likely to get me killed than another bloody war."
Laurie said, "I'm afraid we both feel that way, Henry. Your police can't be trusted. After the last assault, they told me it was Ralph's own fault." It was the truth, but it fit in well with Queen's plan, and Laurie had no trouble sounding bitter when he remembered that moment. Laurie had seen how painful it was for Ralph to move and knew his torso, not just his face, was covered in purple and black bruises -- but the police were the ones responsible for the dark bruise encircling his left wrist.
"But they can't believe that," Jack said.
"I'm afraid they do," Ralph said. "I hope you understand my decision, all of you."
"Yes, I suppose we do," Henry said. "Listen, I don't like to see you run off this quickly, so unprepared. I know you worked your way around the world before, but things have changed and a lot of places aren't very safe. Can't you wait for the weekend? I could set you up with a different car and some cash for traveling."
"Henry, I can't accept that," Ralph protested.
"Well what are you going to do, drive off in your own car and have the police stop you in a few hours? Or take the train and have the same thing happen?"
"You can't go by train," Jack insisted. "Someone will notice you boarding and Dakin will hear before you reach the next station."
"I'll manage, don't worry. I'm thinking of heading to the coast, but I'll start out northbound so everyone assumes I'm going to Canada."
"Really, Ralph, if you can wait until Saturday we can get you underway." Jack smiled at him. "Let me apply some of that strategizing you always claimed to admire. We'll pretend it's another picnic in the mountains. Susan can ask Cook for a basket and all of us will drive off in our two cars."
"What good will that do? The police are following me."
"We'll have a friend drive a third car up there and meet us. You can bug out immediately in the strange car, and leave it someplace -- we'll arrange a spot where we can retrieve it. Then we'll keep our friend with us so there are still five people and two cars. Laurie will get home safely, and no one will realize you're gone until long after you've had a good head start."
"That might be the only way to get away safely, Ralph," Laurie said earnestly. "Dakin's people won't be too close. If we can find a secluded place to make the switch..."
"All right, we'll try it your way, Jack. But I won't accept any money. At least this way I can leave my car for Laurie. Kind of an installment on repayment, eh Spud?"
They talked for a little longer until Ralph and Laurie could finally get away. They drove home slowly, aware a police car was following at a good distance. It was comforting to Laurie, though he knew it was also for show. When they finally pulled into their drive, another car was across the street, with an officer behind the wheel watching the house.
They stopped in the kitchen for bottles of lager and sat in their shirtsleeves, drinking, in the still-dark living room. The curtains were billowing; the brief rainstorm had cooled things. The lawn smelled fresh to Laurie.
"Think it worked, Spud?"
"I don't know. Queen's keeping us in the dark as much as everyone else. Do you suppose we weren't supposed to agree to the delay?"
"Nothing will convince me that Henry is a cold-blooded murderer." Ralph took a last pull at the bottle and set it down softly. "I know he was a soldier, but that boy wouldn't kill unless he had to. You've heard how he talks about it."
"Yes. I ... do you suppose Queen really is convinced it's one of the Damsons?"
"He said money is often a motive, and Enid Damson has been stockpiling a lot of money. But no one's threatened her. Anyway, her money will all go to the family in the end."
"True. And the people who've died didn't leave the Damsons any money. I don't see how they can be involved in what Enid was doing. Except Ken, but that makes no sense, either..."
"Let's turn in." Ralph spoke quietly, but Laurie felt warmth down to his toes. It was foolish, he had no doubt of that, but Ralph would be in his bed tonight, he knew it as clearly as if Ralph had just said "Spud, I'm going to have you now."
They did their usual routine, lights on in both rooms, casual conversations and sharing of the facilities. Laurie cleaned his teeth; Ralph shaved. Laurie smiled at the promise Ralph's eyes reflected into the mirror. Then they went into their rooms, called out goodnights, and waited in the dark.
Half an hour later, Ralph was with him, shedding his pajamas before he climbed into the bed where Laurie waited, already naked and hard with excitement. Ralph nuzzled his neck and bit down lightly, and then he moved Laurie's hands to the spindles of the wrought-iron headboard and whispered, "Hold them there or I'll have to tie you." Laurie shivered at the raw lust in Ralph's voice and tightened his grip. Ralph caressed his arms, running his hands down to Laurie's ribs. He bit back a moan and Ralph laughed softly, then kissed him for a long, breathless time.
They were utterly silent, well aware of the police car closer than any neighbors, but it was among the most intense lovemaking they'd ever done. Ralph sucked Laurie until he was ready to burst, then abruptly stopped and moved so he could fondle both their erections together in his two hands.
"That's it, Laurie, stay right there and let me do this. God, you're beautiful and you make me so ... oh, yes." Ralph dived in to kiss him more and Laurie writhed, wanting it to continue forever but he was so close and it was so good.
"So bloody good," Ralph whispered and then he choked back a groan and Laurie felt the drip of hot seed on his belly. That was all it took, he was coming and Ralph was pressing him into the bed, kissing Laurie's nipples and still pulling on his cock, whispering "yes" over and over as Laurie strained, his hands desperately gripping the headboard.
"Beautiful," Ralph said softly, and then he removed Laurie's left hand, kissing the wrist before placing it down alongside him. Ralph took the other hand and held it to his face, turning it to kiss the palm.
It had only been play-acting, Ralph's plan to flee Wrightsville. But if it were true, Laurie would have to leave, too. He needed to be with Ralph, just as Ralph needed him. He'd follow, give up his dreams and drive a coal truck in the poorest section of London, just to have this in his life...
Laurie gasped, "Ralph, please -- more," and felt Ralph's eyes on him in the darkness. Then he stood up and moved to the dresser, and Laurie heard him rummaging in the drawer for a moment. When he came back to the bed, Laurie had his hands on the headboard once again, this time lying face down.
Ralph began to massage him, long strokes up his back and down his sides, strong fingers digging into the muscles of his thighs and calves. Laurie wanted to moan his appreciation but instead kept silent, biting the pillow and holding on so tightly Ralph reached up to grasp his forearms and whispered, "Relax." Then his hands continued moving, kneading Laurie's arms and shoulders, once again smoothing over his back and down to his buttocks.
Laurie was relaxed, completely ready, but Ralph kept petting him, soothing him, and finally he wriggled and stuck his backside up in the air, begging for the attention he wanted. Ralph's finger traced down and found the opening to his body, and then pulled away, coming back coated in petroleum jelly to breach him. It felt wonderful, but too gentle. Laurie tried to push back, demanding more, and Ralph understood. He began to move more quickly, and soon he pushed two fingers up inside Laurie.
"You wear me out, Spud," Ralph whispered close to his ear. "Watching you like this, it's too much."
"Please," Laurie pleaded, and Ralph picked up the pace again, his fingers reaching to hit the place inside Laurie that made him gasp and shudder with pleasure, though his cock was already spent. "Ralph ... so good."
"I love giving you this, love watching you take it," Ralph gasped close to his ear, and then he was removing his hand and straddling Laurie, laying flat on top of him so they could both feel every inch of naked skin touching. Ralph's cock was hard, Laurie could feel it pushing between his legs, and he moaned a little and bucked up. Ralph kissed his neck and reached around for him, and they went at it again. It took a long time for Laurie to find his second release, and even longer for Ralph as he drove between Laurie's thighs, his hands holding Laurie's in place on the headboard.
When it was over Ralph lovingly turned Laurie and held him, mumbling something about smoking before falling asleep with his head on Laurie's chest. Laurie's mind had been wiped so clear that he immediately slept, too, with none of his usual melancholy.
Queen telephoned very early the next morning to tell them he'd meet them at Laurie's office at eleven. Ralph smiled when Laurie gave him the message, making a wry comment about an author's office hours.
Ralph dropped Laurie on campus with a promise to return by the appointed time. He was planning to return home to write and to make a call to Duncan, his editor, to see what he'd thought of the draft piece he'd submitted on Tuesday.
Laurie had arrived early enough that he didn't see anyone on his way to the office, and he managed to accomplish quite a lot by ten. Then he walked to the library to give the librarian a list of books to reserve for his seminar students. He hadn't planned to be there long, but he ran into Dr. Higgins and they had a lengthy conversation standing outside in the sunshine, so by the time he returned to his desk both Ralph and Queen were waiting for him. Ralph had pulled in a second chair and was drumming his fingers on the desk.
Laurie carefully closed the door. "I see you found the coffee pot, Ellery."
"Yes. Neither of you drink it?" He slumped in a chair, clutching the cup and looking tired.
"It would be more accurate to say neither of us really like coffee; I'll drink it. Laurie's a tea drinker, though. I have to wait until the sun's over the yardarm before I can have my beverage of choice."
Queen nodded, drank deeply, then sat up straighter in his chair. "So. Tell me what happened after I left the house last night."
They told him, frequently adding to each other's narrative and even going back to add and correct details. Queen listened intently, asking questions and even making notes in a pocket-sized notepad he carried. When they finally finished, he sat silently for a long time, his eyes far away.
Ralph rose, took the empty coffee cup from Queen's hand, and left the room. When he came back, he had two full cups.
"Thanks very much," Queen said absently. "All right, I believe I can see the pattern here. And it could be very bad. I'm afraid our murderer isn't planning to kill Ralph... at least, not before he's killed another victim and put the blame on Ralph."
Laurie was about to protest when Ralph said, "Really, Queen, this is too much. How can you possibly know that from what we've just told you?"
"I don't know it, not precisely, but I can infer that there is another murder in the works because I'm looking at the entire case, things Dakin has told me that you don't know yet. And now that you've been asked to remain here until Saturday, I believe our time is short." He stood up, placing his coffee cup on Laurie's desk. "Can you please call police headquarters and let Dakin know I'm on my way to speak to him?"
"Yes, of course," Laurie said.
"There's no time to waste. Don't worry, I promise you'll be there when I can finally explain everything."
He rushed out the door, leaving Ralph looking angry. Laurie was about to get up and go to the telephone, but he first said, "Henry is the one who asked you to stay in town until Saturday."
"I know, Spud." Ralph's hand was drumming on the desk again. "I know."
The day passed with no word from Queen, Dakin, or from any of the Damson family. Laurie remained on campus, nicely distracted by a lunch with Dr. Aiken discussing his area of expertise, Alexander the Great. Aiken had studied with Bevan and was a bit set in his opinions, but Laurie considered him a great resource and wanted to spend time with him before he retired, which was planned for the following school year. Laurie talked around the subject of competition without mentioning the paper he was preparing, and decided he might add a section on the Macedonian army and Hephaestion.
Ralph picked him up around six and they went straight home. Mrs. Oliver was gone but their dinner was waiting, covered and keeping warm in the oven.
"She refused to let me drive her home," Ralph said. "Said I might get in trouble in town again. Can you believe it?" He pulled the food out and began unwrapping it.
"I'd say she likes you, Ralph." Laurie smiled at him as he set plates on the table.
"But that little woman, trying to protect me?"
"Some people are like that," and tears sprang into his eyes, thinking of his mother, tiny and so fiercely protective of him. Until Straike came into her life, at least...
"I'm sorry, Spud. Here, let's have a drink with dinner."
"No, please. I'll just get maudlin. More so." Laurie wiped his eyes impatiently, and then Ralph was holding his hand, sitting beside him.
"Talk. I know you miss her, you don't have to keep it all inside."
"Mrs. Oliver is nothing like my mother," is what burst out. "But... having a woman around, taking care of us this way..."
"Mother never would let me fend for myself in the kitchen, as we do now. She always cooked extra portions, and would wrap them up for me, for days when she'd be late coming home..."
Ralph nodded encouragingly, looking as if he wanted to grab Laurie in a hug.
"I don't always miss her, you know," Laurie said. "You ... you're my best friend, Ralph, and you always take such good care of me. It's just ... different ... the way a woman thinks to do things..."
"Mrs. Oliver is a very nice woman, isn't she? Jack did right by us with her."
Laurie could only nod, his mind full of a hundred kindnesses of his mother's that he'd probably ignored at the time. Had he ever thanked her enough? Now it was too late. And she'd died without him being able to tell her how happy he was, having Ralph in his life...
Then he looked over at Ralph, sympathetically watching him, dinner forgotten. Was he doing the same thing with Ralph, taking him for granted? Not telling him...
"I love you so much, Ralph." He didn't say the words often enough, for if he did Ralph's face wouldn't have lit up with such dazed happiness at the simple mention of love.
"Spud... you know," Ralph managed in return, then looked around the kitchen. "I don't want this food getting cold, here, let's dish up."
Laurie looked away, smiling, as Ralph bustled around the kitchen, misplacing the pot holder, then dropping the serving spoon. Laurie would have to remember, the next time Ralph was being too masterful and officious, how simple it could be to take complete control of the situation and turn him into this charmingly inefficient person.
Susan telephoned them Friday morning to invite them for the picnic on Saturday. "Henry said to tell you Jack's invited Sandy Mastern along, too. You'll like him, I'm sure."
"Yes. So we'll drive up together, we can take the hamper in Ralph's car."
"Sounds fine. Meet us at the house at 10, okay? 'Bye." Her gaiety was forced and unconvincing; Susan wasn't fooling anyone at home, no matter what she might think. Laurie hated causing her this discomfort.
He hung up the receiver and turned to find Ralph standing there, listening and reading his face. "The picnic tomorrow..."
"Yes, but surely we'll hear from Queen sometime today? He can't expect us to go through with this 'escape' farce."
"I hope so, Ralph." Laurie decided to remain at the house today, in case Queen was trying to find them. Ralph went upstairs and soon was typing steadily in his irregular rhythm. Laurie still hadn't quite gotten used to that, but when he became absorbed in a journal article, he didn't notice it any longer. He barely heard Mrs. Oliver arrive, and when Ralph came to fetch him for lunch, he was startled to see it was after one.
The afternoon passed uneventfully, with Ralph dragging Laurie away from his books around four to finish planting the garden. The yard was in shade at this time of day and very pleasant. While Ralph dug and knelt, planting their vegetables, Laurie set flower seeds between the ivy shoots they'd put into the new window boxes on the south wall.
"Mrs. Oliver thinks I'd make a passable handyman in the neighborhood, Spud," Ralph told him while taking a break for some lemonade. "Painting and yard work for some of the older folks, that sort of thing. You know I like to keep busy."
Laurie looked at him fondly. "Bored with writing already? I'd think the yard work for our house would be enough."
"Being out and about, meeting people, will help me find new stories. I can't spin out seven years at sea forever, you know."
"I think you could, actually," Laurie said with a smile. Ralph returned the smile almost shyly and moved to fill the watering can. He soaked the newly planted beds thoroughly, then refilled it for Laurie to use.
Mrs. Oliver left for the evening once her casserole was in the oven, once again refusing Ralph's offer of a ride back to her home. They stood together, Ralph leaning on the shovel, and watched her walk toward the bus stop.
"She's a stubborn woman."
"Yes. She doesn't believe in cold suppers. I told her she could leave us a cooked chicken in the ice box, or we'd eat tinned tuna. She was horrified at the idea."
Ralph wiped his sweaty brow, leaving a streak of dirt that made Laurie smile. "We'll appreciate it in the cold weather, I'm sure, but tonight I wish she wasn't heating up the kitchen."
"Go have a nice cool bath, that will fix you. I'll have a whiskey waiting for you."
"Give me your spade, Spud. I've got to wash off the tools and oil them, so you take the tub first." Ralph was walking away as he tossed back, "Your face is like a sweep's."
Laurie laughed as he called back, "Unlike yours -- you're ready for the opera, I'm sure."
Eight o'clock came and they still hadn't heard from Queen. Ralph was pacing by the front windows, muttering about the uselessness of the policeman stationed out front because he'd had no information for them. Earlier they'd called police headquarters and the Bradford residence without finding Queen.
When the telephone rang Ralph jumped up and strode to it, Laurie following more slowly. But the caller wasn't Queen; it was the chancellor's secretary, who asked for Laurie and then informed him that Mrs. Helen Damson had a seizure earlier in the afternoon and was dead.
Queen arrived at the house around nine, looking weary. "I'll tell you what I know -- it isn't very much, even though I was at their house today."
"I told you I believed another murder was going to take place. I didn't inform you that Dakin and I were setting a trap for the murderer. We convinced Mrs. Damson -- Enid Damson -- to allow us to set up surveillance in her suite of rooms, to protect her. That was quite a task, as you might imagine."
"That's the first murder that would make any sense," Ralph muttered, heading to the kitchen cupboard. "Old battle axe."
"I'm sorry, I must ask -- was Helen murdered?"
"No, it appears she died of natural causes. Dakin is insisting on an autopsy, because of all the recent troubles, but the doctors at the hospital who treated her are convinced it was merely a cerebral hemorrhage. No foul play there." Queen accepted a glass from Ralph with a nod of thanks and took a long pull.
"So ... we're not going ahead with our little drama society production tomorrow, then?" Ralph asked. "I don't need to flee Wrightsville?"
"No, we're in a holding pattern right now. The Damsons are all shell-shocked. Except Enid, who was enjoying herself berating me for my idiocy, since there has been no attempt on her life."
"We should do something for them, Ralph," Laurie said.
"Spud, they weren't very happy to see me the other night. And since I so charmingly played the disgruntled, fleeing criminal, I don't imagine any of them will want to see me now."
"They were confused, Ralph, by all the rumors and false evidence. But now -- they'll need their friends."
"I won't stop you from taking one of Mrs. O's casseroles over there. I'll even drive. I'm just saying, I don't think they want us in the house trying to comfort them for their loss." Ralph crossed his arms over his chest. "I am sorry she died. Helen was a lovely woman."
Queen shifted in his chair. "We're going to keep the police presence here at the house, Ralph. I'm not convinced that you're out of danger, even if I was wrong about the murderer's next move. Enid Damson may be safe, but I'm not certain of that. This unexpected death could simply have caused a change in the timetable."
Ralph nodded, and Laurie asked, "Then Ralph shouldn't be alone?"
"Right. I'm going to see if we can get Enid's doctor to insist that she have a trained nurse to help during this difficult time. There's one woman I know who'd make a great bodyguard, just in case." He pulled himself to his feet. "This can't be easy for either of you, but I can almost see all the pieces. It's as if they're slightly out of focus but moving closer..."
"Don't worry, Ellery, we'll be fine. I appreciate all you've done," Ralph said.
"Yes. It's distressing, of course -- I don't know how you can be involved with such unpleasantness time after time. But we'll do all we can to help, however we can." Laurie meant what he said, of course. If he was really more concerned with keeping Ralph safe and alive, that was his own business.
The week-end was spent at home, quietly. They did make the drive to the Damsons' house with condolences and food, and fortunately found the house full of neighbors and other friends. They were let in the front door by a stranger, another took the food from their hands, and there was such a crowd around Robert and Susan that they only spoke to Henry, who was red-eyed and detached. Enid was nowhere in sight.
On Monday, Laurie put on his best suit and a dark tie. He and Ralph drove to St. Paul's for the funeral service, then out to Twin Hill cemetery for the burial. Someone in the crowd behind them whispered that Ken Tinker's service was also today, wasn't that odd? Thankfully the person was hushed by her neighbor, and no further gossip marred the solemnity of the graveside service.
The day was beautiful, so lovely that Laurie wished they were having a picnic -- a real, carefree picnic, a day of meeting new people and growing friendships. Now, standing at the grave, it was impossible to believe that only nine days ago they'd had such innocent pleasure. That had been before Ken had been killed; before Ralph had been arrested. That afternoon Laurie had never pondered the possibility that one of these kindly people might be capable of committing cold-blooded murder.
The minister spoke of Helen's work for the community, of her many years as a faithful wife and loving mother, and Susan wept silently, leaning on her brother. Robert stared ahead, his mother holding his arm in a very proper black coat and hat. But the hand clutching her cane glittered in the bright sunshine with too much jewelry, and her face showed no real grief at the loss. Helen's family were opposite them, a younger man who resembled her so strongly he must be Helen's brother, surrounded by his wife and four children.
Then it was over, flowers gently placed on the finely detailed casket and the mourners drifting away in clumps. Laurie was slower than most of the others, Ralph's steps matching his so they remained shoulder-to-shoulder all the way to where they'd parked the car. When Laurie looked up, he saw Queen leaning against it, waiting for them.
"Ralph, Laurie," he said.
"Hello, Ellery. Has something happened?"
"No, I just wanted to talk to you both and I knew I'd find you here. Are you headed home now?"
"That's what we had planned, unless you need us..." Laurie stopped speaking when he saw Chief Dakin striding toward them. He fought the need to put himself between Ralph and the policeman, and kept his face frozen, neutral. Then Laurie realized that Dakin was about to walk right past them, his mind elsewhere.
Queen called out, "Dakin. What's wrong?"
The Chief stopped, looking startled. "Sorry, I didn't even see you there. I'm looking for Mr. and Mrs. Enoch Mastern... they should have been here for the funeral." He glanced around again.
"I'm afraid we're among the last people still here, except the immediate family." Laurie looked back and confirmed that Robert and his children were still at the grave, Jack standing a little behind them, waiting.
"Damn. I've got bad news for them, I'm afraid. Young Sandy was killed in an accident on Route 16 -- probably coming here for the funeral. Missed a turn and went into the granite."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Queen said.
"Sandy Mastern?" Ralph said. Laurie hadn't put the names together until he spoke.
Dakin nodded. "That's right."
"What is it, Ralph?" Queen asked.
"It's just ... deuced odd, I suppose. We were supposed to... Susan said he'd been invited to our picnic Saturday."
Queen understood, though Dakin looked confused. "He was the one Henry set up to switch cars with you?"
"Henry... or Jack, it was his idea. I don't know...," Ralph said with a dazed look on his face. They all turned to look back at the four people gathered by the new grave.
"Dakin, we've got some investigating to do," Queen said, and the two men left together, Queen rapidly speaking in a tone too low to be understood.
Laurie turned to Ralph, who still looked as if he'd been dealt a heavy blow. "The car... that boy's car, I was supposed to be driving it..."
"It can't be, Ralph. Accidents do happen, it's just a terrible coincidence."
"But if it isn't?"
"It is, I tell you. He wouldn't... They wouldn't. Even if one of them did kill, for some unimaginable reason -- they wouldn't have tried to put the blame on you."
"Spud, I don't know what to think."
"Come, let's have a drink."
They went to town, not to the taverns along Route 16, where there would be police and a wrecked car at the crash site. Instead they found a friendly pub down the street from the newspaper office, and there they ate sandwiches and drank beer. Afterwards, they walked down to the movie theater and sat through newsreels, cartoons, and a serial enjoying the cool air. But when the feature began, it was a dark-themed detective story. They squirmed for a few minutes, then looked at each other. Laurie nodded and they left, looking relieved once they were outside in the afternoon heat again.
Ralph insisted that they visit the library instead, and Laurie saw the name "Aiken" at the front desk. No doubt the librarian was a relative of the old gentleman; he'd have to introduce himself some other day. Today he took his time learning his way around the place while Ralph sat in a corner with the New York papers from the previous week. They didn't leave until they were chased out at closing time.
When they finally went back to the house Mrs. Oliver was already gone, with a note that she'd come early the next morning to wash the floors before the grocery delivery. She'd left a roasted chicken on the stove for them, and cut fruit. It was a perfect meal for this warm August day, and they changed into their most casual clothing and ate sitting on the back steps in their shady yard.
Much later, as they were reading in companionable silence, Queen telephoned them. From where he sat, Laurie could hear Ralph's side of the conversation clearly.
"You've solved it, then?" Ralph asked. He listened for a moment, then said, "We'll be there. Eleven o'clock. Right." He returned to the room and said, "Queen has asked that we go to Robert's house tomorrow morning. The whole family will be there, and he's going to prove who committed these murders." Ralph moved to the window and pulled the curtains closed.
"Ralph, you don't suppose they still believe you're involved?"
"Queen mentioned his promise, that I could write the story for the newspaper. That doesn't sound as if he's going to arrest me." Ralph gave him a wry look. "Although I'm starting to feel as if I had been involved." He closed the curtain on the second window and said, "Good thing I know someone who can testify that he was with me..."
"Someone who knows you're innocent."
"I haven't been innocent for a very long time, Spud." Ralph seemed serious, but Laurie decided to lighten the mood. He moved closer to Ralph.
"You're innocent of those crimes," he said. "As for other things... I'm usually quite happy you're not all that innocent, you know." He switched off the lamp before clutching Ralph and pulling him in for a long, passionate kiss. He might have felt bad for using sex to distract Ralph... but then, Ralph did the same to him.
And it always worked, for both of them. Soon they were upstairs, tumbling into their bed, where Laurie stopped thinking altogether.
10. - I'm Beginning to See the Light
A little before eleven, Ralph pulled up across the street from Robert's house. He sat back, not opening the door, and Laurie waited.
"No sign of Queen yet," Ralph explained. "I don't want to barge in there."
"We can wait," Laurie agreed, remembering when they'd been in and out of the house as if they'd known the family for years. So short a time ago, yet so much had changed. Was this what life would be like, now, living in America? Would all their weeks and years bring so much change that soon Laurie wouldn't know Ralph, or himself? He looked across at Ralph, who was definitely brooding. "Do you have a cigarette?"
"Yes, here, help yourself." Ralph handed him the case, but when Laurie didn't take it he finally broke out of his thoughts and looked over at him. "All right, Spud?"
"Just wondering if life will ever be the same. Not that it's the same now. If that makes any sense."
"We've had a lot of changes recently, haven't we?"
"Yes. I know I'm the one who said that's what the world's all about -- but I'm beginning to think I don't like it very much." He looked away with a grimace. "Not that my opinion matters."
"Ralph, look at me one moment." Laurie handed back the cigarette case with a piercing look. "The important things won't change. You told me that. It's a promise."
Ralph smiled, his eyes softening. "Yes, that's a promise here, too."
Two squad cars were coming up the road toward the house. Dakin was in one, with another officer Laurie didn't recognize. The second car pulled over and parked. They could see two more men remained inside the vehicle.
Laurie nodded and they climbed out of their car and headed toward the front porch, following Dakin. The Chief didn't ring, he just stood, evidently waiting for Queen. Laurie was glad he still had his cigarette; he sat down and smoked, not up to making conversation. Neither was Ralph, evidently -- he walked to the other side of the porch and seemed to be absorbed by the potted flowers on the railing.
Helen's chair was across from Laurie, and he remembered watching her busily knitting, only occasionally looking up to smile at Henry or add a comment. He'd never known her very well, really, but he did feel the loss. How much more must her husband and children be missing her now? He thought of his mother, and then wondered what they were doing, intruding on the family at such a horrid time. Queen should have tried to find another way...
Queen drove up even as Laurie was thinking of him, quickly parked and trotted up the walkway. "Sorry I'm late, Dakin. Laurie, glad you've come. Ralph -- are you ready?"
"Yes, let's get this over with." Ralph walked toward the door where they waited, and Laurie stubbed out his cigarette as Dakin rang the bell. Henry answered, the set of his chin belligerent.
"Mr. Queen. Chief. Laurie, Ralph ... we weren't expecting you."
"I asked them to be present, Mr. Damson," Queen said. "They've been involved in this case -- unwillingly, for the most part, but I thought they should be here today to hear the truth about the murders."
"We're in the sun room," Henry said, sounding tired. The whole family was there, Enid in another tiny chair, suited to her small frame, which somehow dominated the room. Susan was pretending to read a book and ignored their entrance. Jack was sitting watching her, looking miserable. And Robert was staring out the window; he didn't even turn when they walked in. No one offered any of them chairs or drinks; Laurie couldn't remember a time when he'd felt so unwanted. Then again, he wasn't in the habit of barging into people's homes uninvited.
If Queen felt the same awkwardness as Laurie, he didn't let it show. "Thank you all for being here today. Mr. Damson," he said to Robert, "My apologies for intruding on the family at such a difficult time."
Robert didn't turn or acknowledge the apology, but Queen carried on without a pause. "Mrs. Damson, I certainly appreciate your cooperation."
"Say your piece and get out," she snarled. "We don't need the sideshow, young man."
"Very direct. Well, Chief Dakin, with your permission, I'll get right to the point. Today we're ready to make an arrest. We know who murdered Daisy Wentworth, Ken Tinker, and Clyde Hollingsworth."
"Yes, I think we all knew that already, Mr. Queen," Robert said with a baleful look at Ralph. He moved from the window to a low sofa and carefully sat down. Henry moved beside him and sat on the arm, leaning in toward his father.
"Ah, I see you're making an assumption based on the facts you know. That's all any investigator can do, Mr. Damson, but I want to remind you that your guess is only as good as the information you've been given. It seems to me that most of us have been working at a handicap in this investigation because certain information was being deliberately hidden." He turned to Enid again. "Do you agree, Mrs. Damson?"
"Speak common sense, then I might understand you," she replied testily.
"Very well, I will. Mrs. Damson, I'm aware that you have been withholding information. Now it's time for you to be honest with your family and to truly cooperate with the police. When Daisy Wentworth arrived here calling herself Emily Galliard, why did you hire her as your nurse?"
"I don't know what you're babbling about, young man, but I'd like you all to leave now. How you have the nerve to invade our home today, when we're in mourning..."
"Mrs. Damson, perhaps if I begin, you'll decide to finish the story. Daisy Wentworth arrived here, claiming to be someone she was not, and she blackmailed you into letting her live here in the house."
Susan gasped, and Robert jumped to his feet, but at a nod from Dakin he sat back down.
"She didn't just want a place to live and a salary, though. Wentworth demanded payments, large amounts of cash. You sold your car and fired your driver so you could pay what she demanded. When that wasn't enough, you withdrew money from your bank account. And then, when her demands increased, you asked Ken Tinker to help you sell your jewelry."
Queen was pacing as he spoke, and he paused to pour a glass of water at the bar and take a drink before continuing. "I don't know exactly why you trusted Tinker with this job instead of your own son. Perhaps you felt you'd have to explain Wentworth's hold on you to one of your family members. Tinker was an employee, and you could simply order him around -- as you'd always done.
"But then, something changed. Wentworth must have increased her demands yet again, and you asked Ken Tinker to set up a meeting with her. But before it took place, Wentworth was killed, right here in your home. And the following day, you visited your attorney, Clyde Hollingsworth."
Enid sat, stubbornly silent, but she looked frightened, Laurie thought. Then Robert spoke.
"Mr. Queen, I don't understand why you're telling us all this. What does it matter, now that the woman's dead? And Ken, too."
"It matters because there is a reason they both were killed, Mr. Damson. I do apologize for intruding on you at this difficult time. But the murderer has to be brought to justice, without delay."
"I'm afraid we have to insist, Mr. Damson," Dakin said from the corner where he stood watching everyone.
"Very well. Just... please get to the point."
"I am, sir, as quickly as possible." Queen took a breath. "So, we have a visit to your attorney as soon as Wentworth is dead. That suggested something to me, Mrs. Damson. That perhaps what you asked ... rather, ordered Ken Tinker to do had been accomplished, and you were arranging for his 'payment.'
"I believe that you went to Hollingsworth's office that day to change your will in Tinker's favor. Tinker was afraid that his share of the foundry, which he'd planned to receive by marrying Susan, was slipping through his fingers. In fact, just a week later, Susan did break their engagement. So, when you needed his help, Mrs. Damson, he refused to give it unless you paid him what he really wanted -- part ownership of the foundry."
"But... there's nothing that would make Grandmother willing to let the foundry leave the family," Henry protested. "Mr. Queen, this is preposterous. She went to great lengths to make sure that I'd keep the business in the family, even when I had no interest in doing that."
"The price was high, Henry, I agree. But it wasn't unreasonable considering what Mrs. Damson was asking Tinker to do. The inheritance was to be his payment for killing Daisy Wentworth, on your grandmother's orders."
"Mr. Queen, these are ridiculous accusations," Robert burst out, and Henry was also on his feet, his face red. But Enid seemed to be shrinking where she sat, and she no longer looked like a queen on her throne, but like a weary old woman.
"You must be Satan himself," she said to Queen. "There's no way you could know..."
"Mrs. Damson, the evidence is all there for someone willing to consider such extreme possibilities. And Dakin's investigation of your past found the secret you were being blackmailed over. Two years before your marriage, your mother beggared the family to take you to France for a year. She must have had an important reason to do such a thing... perhaps a scandal that would have ruined your life here in Wrightsville and ended any chance of marrying into money? A secret that you still don't wish to have revealed."
"That woman demanded that I change my will in her favor. If I had, then after my death my name would be dragged through the mud... That's all I'm leaving, the money doesn't matter. But my good name here..."
"Mother," Robert pleaded. "This can't be true. You asked Ken to kill a woman? And he agreed?" Susan began to cry, and Jack put an arm around her. Henry went to his father and rested a hand on his shoulder.
"I would have done it myself, if I could. She wanted to ruin me. But I needed someone young and strong, someone who she knew and would agree to meet. Tinker had been delivering money to her, she knew he was involved. She wouldn't suspect anything, I thought."
"But then she was killed here in your house. It wasn't what you and Tinker had agreed to, but you were ready to pay him off. I don't suppose Tinker denied that he'd done the killing, and you weren't aware of the details of the police investigation. So you didn't realize that Tinker wasn't the person who'd murdered Wentworth."
"He wasn't?" Susan asked in a small voice.
"No. Tinker had arranged a meeting for later in the week with her. He was just as surprised as your grandmother when she was killed. And very, very frightened when the police found the note he'd given her and kept asking him questions about his relationship with her. Luckily for him, he had an airtight alibi -- he could prove he'd been at the Hot Spot that night, playing poker with a group of regulars. So Dakin let him go, and then ... he came to you, Mrs. Damson, didn't he?"
"He told me he'd keep quiet if I gave him part ownership in the foundry right now. He didn't want to wait for my death. Henry had begun really working there at last." She looked at her grandson, who looked away. "The employees were obeying him. Tinker didn't like being pushed to the side. He wanted me to give him back the power he'd had for so many years. Though I never intended that he'd have it..."
"So Tinker was about to begin blackmailing you, in Daisy Wentworth's place. Did he discover your secret for himself, Mrs. Damson? Or did Wentworth 'accidentally' let it slip that she was claiming to be your illegitimate daughter?"
"What?" Robert was white around the lips. "Mother..."
"I had a baby, yes. I prayed it would die, but ... I left her in an orphanage in France. When that woman, Galliard, came here and knew that, knew the birthdate, what was I to think? She was around the right age, a few years older than Robert..."
"Grandmother." Susan came over to the old woman and knelt beside her. "I'm so sorry. That must have been terribly difficult for you... you were just a child yourself." She hugged her grandmother, who testily pushed her off after a moment.
"I never thought about it. Until she arrived here and threatened to tell the whole town."
"And then, after her death, you learned that she'd been lying to you all along. She must have heard the details from her grandmother -- or mother. And, being far less scrupulous than either of them, she thought up this plan to extort money from you." Queen looked around at his audience, every one of them looking as dumbfounded as Laurie felt. "But let's move on. Wentworth is dead and no longer threatening you or the Damson Foundry. But now Ken Tinker is making a play for the family business. And, not very surprisingly, Tinker is killed next."
Robert's face was red with anger. "Queen, are you accusing someone in this family of killing Ken Tinker?"
"I am, Mr. Damson."
"That's... I'm leaving," Henry said.
"Just sit down, Mr. Damson, if you don't mind," Dakin said. "No one's going anywhere until we're done here. I know it's unpleasant, but you'll have to bear with us."
But Enid wasn't happy, either. "No one knew what Tinker said. I didn't tell anyone."
"Well, I wouldn't be surprised if you were attempting to protect your family with that statement, Mrs. Damson. But say I believe you; you didn't reveal this information to anyone. But someone knew about Wentworth's blackmail, because they killed her. So whoever it was also heard about Tinker's threats, and killed him. Perhaps they found a way to listen to your private conversations."
Ralph shifted in his chair a bit at that, but didn't speak. Jack, who was holding Susan's hand now, said, "Mr. Queen, this seems very contrived. 'Someone' seems to know everything, hear everything... why couldn't Miss Wentworth's murder be unrelated to whatever shady business she was conducting with Mrs. Damson? Someone that dishonest would have made many enemies. Or, for that matter, how do we know it wasn't simply a robbery gone bad? Someone who thought there were valuables kept in the house may have broken in, and Miss Wentworth was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"Well, Mr. Fowler, we know more than the rest of you about the murders. We know that someone tried to make Miss Wentworth's death look like a suicide. We know that someone tried to make Tinker's death seem accidental. We know that, once the killer learned that Mr. Lanyon was a suspect, they deliberately tried to implicate him in the murders." Queen shook his head. "I wish I could tell you otherwise, but one person is responsible for all these killings. One person with a very old, very common motive: money.
"That person killed Clyde Hollingsworth, too, because he knew what changes had been made -- and un-made -- in Mrs. Damson's will. The bequest to Tinker, and then the reversal, would point right to the person who had the motive. The person who would inherit one-half of the foundry, unless it had been given to Daisy Wentworth or Ken Tinker instead.
"Isn't that right, Susan?" Queen turned to her with a steely gaze, and she turned very red, then white, her mouth falling open. "You've always pretended to have no interest in the family business, but you're just as power-hungry as your grandmother. You killed Daisy Wentworth, believing she was a rival with a valid claim on the estate. And then you learned that Ken Tinker wanted to take away your inheritance, too."
"Queen, this is ridiculous," Robert protested. "My daughter would never... could never..."
Queen interrupted him and spoke so rapidly Laurie could hardly understand him. "Susan was the one who knew about the second visit to Hollingsworth. She even brought that to my attention, as criminals will often do in an attempt to get close to the investigation and learn what the police know."
As he spoke, Dakin was moving over to Susan and pulling her hand away from Jack to close a handcuff on it. Laurie watched, unbelieving, wanting to protest, but Jack was the one who sprang to his feet.
"Don't touch her! Dakin..."
"Calm down, Fowler. We won't hurt her," but even as he said it Dakin was roughly pulling Susan to her feet, and she cried out when he tugged on her cuffed wrists. Queen was holding back Henry, and Ralph actually had a hand on Robert, keeping him from moving. Laurie knew this was wrong, all wrong...
And then Jack said, "Leave her alone. Susan didn't do anything wrong. She didn't even know she might lose her inheritance to that lily-livered coward."
"What?" Enid was peering at him as if he'd grown another head. "You?"
"Yes, me. The useless sissy did your dirty work, Enid, and took care of your problems. You were going to make Susan pay for your inability to keep your knees together..."
Then the room was in an uproar, and Laurie stopped trying to keep track of who was speaking. Dakin had Susan out of the cuffs so fast Laurie didn't believe they'd ever been fastened properly, and he had Jack properly restrained, arms behind him, in another moment. Susan was sobbing in her father's arms, Henry standing by ineffectually patting her, staring at Jack with a heartbroken look on his face. Enid ... Enid was actually crying, and laughing... hysterical, then, and Helen was no longer here to be looking out for her.
But when Laurie saw Ralph staring at him from across the room, everything else faded. Ralph wasn't smiling; he couldn't rejoice at Jack's arrest. But when his eyes met Laurie's, there was a solemn joy. He was free, they would be together tonight in their house. Tomorrow they would go to their jobs, do good work, and come home to a shared meal and the quiet companionship of their evenings.
Then Jack said, "Ralph understands, don't you? You told me there were times to kill, when you were protecting someone. Remember?" Even now he was fervent and beautiful. Laurie looked away in misery. "I knew you'd accept your punishment and just be grateful it was delayed." Ralph just shook his head as Jack continued raving that a trained man couldn't let the innocent suffer when it was so easy to keep killing.
Susan was leading her grandmother out of the room, and her steps faltered when Jack cried out her name. "Susan, you were worth it! I never doubted that!" She kept walking without looking back.
"Dakin, let's get him out of here. He doesn't have anything material to add."
"Right, Mr. Queen. Jack, son, let's go now."
"Henry, I love your sister."
"I know," Henry said, his voice breaking. "Jack ... don't worry, all right? We'll straighten it out, somehow." He managed a reassuring smile, and Jack calmed immediately. He left with Dakin, shoulders back, walking like a man going for a casual stroll. When the door closed behind them, Henry sobbed and his father took him out of the room, a comforting arm around his shoulders.
And they were left in Robert's large, comfortable sun room with Queen.
"Ellery, I'm surprised more of your investigations don't end with you being punched in the nose," Ralph said quite seriously.
"I know, it was a despicable thing to do to the family, particularly right now. But we had no proof. It was clear, logically, that Jack had somehow orchestrated this whole mess. But he had the devil's own luck -- no matter how he'd bungled, there was no real evidence against him, not even motive. He didn't profit directly. So we had to make him confess, and Susan was his only weak point."
"That was quite a leap of faith, wasn't it?" Laurie asked. "Jack was perfectly willing to let Ralph pay for his crimes. And it doesn't seem likely he would have told the truth to save Henry or Robert, either. How could you be sure attacking Susan would work?"
"Because his crimes were all committed on her behalf. Jack wouldn't let Susan be disinherited, but it wasn't because he personally wanted anything to do with the foundry. He wasn't another Tinker, going after the business for himself. No, he really loved Susan and thought she needed protection from her grandmother and from anyone else who wanted to take what -- to him -- rightfully belonged to her."
"So you were certain it was Jack, not Henry?"
"There wasn't any doubt once I knew who'd arranged the plan for you to 'escape' from Wrightsville. Henry may have come up with the idea of helping you, but Jack was the one who devised a detailed plan. Only it wasn't an escape plan, it was a plan for another murder."
"That boy who died -- that was my fault, wasn't it? If I hadn't agreed to Henry's idea, if I hadn't given Jack the opportunity..."
"Ralph, you know damn well you aren't to blame. It was my idea, to try to lure the killer into acting. It succeeded, unfortunately. And Sandy Mastern was caught in the trap Jack set for you." Queen pulled out his cigarette case and offered them to Laurie, then Ralph. Ralph shook his head, and Laurie wondered if he was really going to give up smoking after all. "Jack had tampered with the brake fluid in Sandy's car. He punched several holes in the line, no doubt hoping you'd be well away from Wrightsville when you crashed, and no one would think to carefully investigate the wreckage."
Laurie watched the two of them torture themselves over another innocent's death. Queen was a good man, if ruthless in his methods.
"Ralph, Ellery, let's get out of this house. I think the family needs time alone right now."
"Admit it, Spud. They'll be just as happy if they never set eyes on either of us again. And that includes you, Ellery." Ralph rose as he spoke, and they all headed to the door together.
"I suppose you're right." Queen sighed. "I haven't had much luck with cases here in Wrightsville. The solutions are never what you'd call satisfying. Jack .. he'll never see a prison cell, you must know that. He's obviously not in his right mind."
"He was in a prison camp. God knows what really happened to him there. An experience like that, it must change a man," Ralph said. He paused for a moment on the front porch, looking at the very blue sky and breathing deeply.
Laurie wanted to remind him that all experiences can change a person, often for the good. But he didn't need to say anything, for Queen said, "That seems terribly forgiving of you, Ralph. He did his best to send you to prison, possibly even to death row."
"Am I supposed to hold someone who's sick responsible for his actions? Even when you've just admitted that the law won't?"
"No, you won't, either," Laurie interjected. "I'm afraid I'm the only one who'll be holding a grudge. I can't forgive Jack for what happened to you. And, bad as it was, it could have been even worse."
Ralph didn't answer that, just shook his head as Queen headed for his rental car. Laurie called after him, "Wait, Ellery -- are you staying in town much longer?"
"Just till the week-end, I'm afraid. I have to get back home, see what Dad's up to and meet with my publisher."
"Well, in case we don't see you again, thank you." Laurie shook his hand, as did Ralph. Then he said, "Ralph, can you pull the car 'round? I'm knackered." And when Ralph moved off, Laurie lowered his voice and said, "We never did settle on what I owe you for investigating the case and clearing Ralph. I can write you a check, or get to the bank tomorrow..."
"Laurie, I won't accept money for this. Thankfully, I don't need it. Anyway, you should know, when I first arrived at the police station Dakin told me he'd been ready to call me in on the case. So you're not obligated, not in the least."
By then Ralph was pulling up, and with another fervent clasp of hands and another "thank you," Queen was gone, and Laurie was climbing into the passenger seat on the wrong side. Except he hadn't really thought of it as being wrong, not immediately. Evidently Ralph had been correct; the necessity of driving himself had helped him get used to the American cars.
Mrs. Oliver had lunch ready for them within a few minutes of walking through the door. Ralph poured them generous drinks that were more welcome than food, though they both tried to eat. When that failed, they attempted to relax. Laurie picked up a book, but he couldn't concentrate, and soon Ralph was pacing by the windows.
"Ralph, let's chuck this and drive into the mountains. Maybe we can find an inn for the night."
"Yes, I'd like that. Get rid of Mrs. Oliver, have her come back on Thursday. I'll run up and pack an overnight bag for us both."
Soon they were closing up the house. The day had grown warm so they opened all the windows on the car and didn't even try to converse. Laurie felt his head grow clearer as they drove to the northwest, as if he'd left all sorrow and pain back in Wrightsville. He wondered if that was how Henry had felt when he left during the war... and if he'd dread returning as much as Henry evidently had. But no, there were good things waiting in Wrightsville, his work and a new life. The most important thing, though, was the man beside him, who would be there to share all the adventures and challenges.
The air grew cooler, the scenery wilder, and soon it was just as Ralph had described it. The mountains were another world, with different trees and a sharp, clean feeling in the air they breathed.
They drove another hour, climbing even higher, and then Laurie spotted a sign. "Ralph, look, cottages to rent ahead. 'Turn on Deer Trail Road,' it said."
Ralph obligingly slowed the car and they watched. There was a road that bore left, but no sign, so they went a bit further. Deer Trail came up suddenly, leading to the right, and they climbed that for another mile before reaching a clearing with a clapboard house and another sign.
"A 'modern housekeeping cottage' sounds fairly good, doesn't it? Let me go in, Spud, but do stand up and stretch your legs for a bit. I'm sure that knee of yours has gone stiff after such a long time in the car."
Laurie obeyed, lighting a cigarette while Ralph took care of business. He paced, limping a bit more than usual, noticing how low the sun seemed already and how chilly it had grown while they drove. Ralph came out carrying a key ring and a scrap of paper with directions, which he gave to Laurie once he was re-seated in the car.
"You can navigate, Spud. It's a bit of a drive to our cottage." He pulled out and continued up the side road they'd been on.
"'Count the side roads,'" Laurie read. "'On the fifth right, turn and follow to the fork. Go left, not to the dump.' Well, that's a relief."
"That's the kind of local color we should share with Queen, you know. His next mystery novel can be called 'To the Dump.'"
Laurie laughed. "And the mystery would be what's inside the garbage sack?"
"I think I'd like that better than a murder story," Ralph admitted. "I don't know if I'll ever want to read another, after all this."
"Here, Ralph, that's the fifth road ahead. Turn right, now watch for the fork." A few minutes later they pulled up to a clearing. Nearly hidden among the trees was a small cottage built with split logs. The key worked, and inside it was charming, if a bit dark because of the small windows. The place was spotlessly clean and the mattresses on both beds looked fairly new. It was one large room, really, with a fireplace and a pump for supplying water. Out one window Laurie could see the outhouse a good distance from their building.
"I think we'll have a fire," Ralph said. "There's wood out back, the proprietor said."
"Take the tender to lug it," Laurie advised him. "I wish we'd thought to bring food."
"Ah, I can't claim credit for it myself, but Mrs. O. insisted that I take a basket she fixed up. Cheese, bread and early apples for sure. I don't know what else she stashed in there."
"Really? I believe I'm going to have to increase her salary."
"I always knew the right woman could beguile you, Spuddy. Do I get any points for bringing a bottle of whiskey?"
A few hours later they were together on a blanket laid in front of the fire, Laurie spooned behind Ralph, the remnants of Mrs. Oliver's basket scattered around them.
"This reminds me," Ralph began, then stopped.
"Reminds you of what?" Laurie asked, but he already knew. "My mother's wedding, of course."
"That night, yes. Your cozy house, the fire... being able to hold you at last, and show you... show ... love." Ralph sounded almost shy, speaking the words when not in the heat of passion.
Laurie didn't reply, just tightened his grip on Ralph and stared at the flames. It wasn't the same, not at all. That night, Laurie only knew that Ralph had shown him exactly what he would enjoy in bed. The rest of what Ralph had tried to give Laurie hadn't wished to receive. He often felt he'd given nothing in return, all those years ago. Laurie hoped that wasn't still the case, though he knew he'd never match Ralph's generosity.
Ralph lifted Laurie's hand and kissed it softly, and Laurie leaned forward to nuzzle at his throat.
"We can make lots of noise here, there's no one around for miles," Laurie whispered. "Would you like that?"
Ralph abruptly turned in his arms, and his eyes were burning. "You know," he husked, and Laurie kissed him a very long time, trying to pour enough love into every movement to make up for all his doubts and shortcomings.
They slowly undressed each other between long, burning kisses, each caress speaking love and understanding, and then Laurie worshipped Ralph's body as Ralph had done to him so many years ago. There was no hurry, no rush to completion, just a long, slow build of arousal and excitement. Ralph did cry out when Laurie took him in his mouth. Much later, when they joined in intercourse, they both enjoyed the freedom to make noise without disturbing any human neighbors.
By that time the fire was dying and the room was rapidly cooling. They climbed into bed under layers of blankets, still naked but warm enough. Laurie thought there was very little they wouldn't mange as long as they remained together.
Epilogue - Time
Six months later
"Thanks again, Dr. Odell, for staying late to meet with me." The young man stood, waiting, as Laurie locked his office door.
Barry wandered past, bundled into his overcoat but engrossed in the open book in his hands. He looked up from it long enough to ask, "Still good for Friday night?"
"Eight o'clock," Laurie replied.
"See you then." His attention was back on his book before he finished speaking, and Laurie smiled after him. Then he turned his attention back to the student standing with him.
"You're welcome, Terry, I'm happy to assist you. You're clear on the differences now?" They walked together down the empty hall, passing Barry and reminding him to turn off the light as he left. Laurie buttoned his coat as they slowly descended the steps. Terry didn't offer assistance, but he carefully matched Laurie's slower pace.
"Yes, I've got it now. All I need is to find ... hm, say, twelve more hours in the day for all the reading I'd like to do."
Laurie laughed. "I do understand. You'll find time later, if not now. Every student feels this way during term." Every good student, at least, though Laurie didn't say the words.
It was rapidly growing dark, though the days were longer now, and there was still snow on the lawns of the campus. Students and professors alike were hurrying past, anxious to get back inside the warm buildings. A few paused long enough to call greetings to Laurie or Terry as they made their way south to the circular drive beside the Physical Sciences building.
"I'm off, then. Good night." Terry strode briskly away, and Laurie spotted Ralph sitting in the car across the drive, waiting for him. He was just about to cross when a voice called his name.
"Robert?" He turned, surprised. He hadn't seen any of the Damsons since the day Jack confessed to his crimes. There had been a note from Henry, after Ralph's story was published, but no other contact.
"Hello." Robert looked old and worn, and unsure of himself.
"It's very nice to see you, Robert. How are you? And your mother, and of course the children? Is everyone well?"
"Yes. Well, Susan is in Boston. She's taking a nursing course, started last month. I think you knew about that?"
"She'd mentioned that she was considering that, yes. Please give her my best wishes when you write."
"I will. Mother is declining, I'm afraid. We've hired a full-time nurse for her. A real nurse, recommended by Doctor Willoughby. He's known her for years."
"Ah." Laurie felt like every topic was a minefield. He threw a glance toward Ralph, who had stepped out of the car, but not moved any closer. "I'm sorry to hear that, of course."
"She's not in any pain, but she's lost her sharpness... I've never known her to be so uninterested in the business. Henry's business, I mean. She never cared much for my studies..."
"No. And Henry is well? Business is good?"
"Yes, yes, fine." Robert fidgeted, then burst out, "I wanted to ask you to tell Lanyon I appreciate ... that story he published, his "exclusive" about the murders. He could have ... but he didn't."
"Ralph would never deliberately hurt any of you, Robert. I hope you know that. Neither one of us ... we wish you and your family only the best."
"I haven't exactly been a friend to either of you."
"We understand. It must be terribly difficult for all of you. I know how fond of Jack Ralph grew in the few weeks we knew him..."
"I... He'd become one of the family, he wanted to marry Susan... and to learn that he'd done all that..."
"Yes. Quite." Laurie looked around again, and saw Ralph was coming closer. Robert saw it, too.
"Well, I've kept you in the cold long enough. Please tell Ralph... Thank Ralph for me, won't you? Goodbye." And Robert was gone, vanishing into the building.
"Everything all right, Spud?" Ralph called from beneath a street lamp that highlighted his figure -- straight and true and honest. Not that everyone could appreciate that.
"Yes. That was just Robert, saying hello."
"Really?" Ralph's voice went up a little on the word, and he walked closer. "Well, I suppose if I'd do the decent thing and leave town, you might strike up a friendship there."
Laurie met up with him halfway between the street lamps, and wished it were possible to touch Ralph's cheek at the moment. "No, I don't think so. Robert asked me to pass along his appreciation of your delicacy in writing about his family's recent troubles."
"Not exactly what my editor is longing to hear about me, Spuddy. Keep that one to yourself, please." Ralph's smile was incredibly sexy. Laurie thought he'd take him home and fuck him blind.
"I hope the car is still warm," he said instead, and Ralph's eyes promised that he'd be warm enough, very soon.
In case anyone isn't familiar with 40's music and was wondering about the title:
Ira Gershwin to a Jerome Kern tune, from 1944
Long ago and far away,
I dreamed a dream one day,
And now that dream is here beside me.
Just one look and then I knew
That all I longed for long ago was you.
The Ellery Queen novels alluded to in this are Calamity Town and The Murderer is a Fox, which I highly recommend (and which have much better mysteries than this story).
Back to the Renault page