I had a bad night.
I dreamed that men with cameras were coming into the bathroom while I was dressing and that one of them was the murderer. I swam up from a deep sleep to find rain was patting lightly against my bedroom window. I slept again. When finally I woke up groggy I peered out the upstairs windows from behind my curtains to make sure no one was lying in wait for me. All the cars in the parking lot belonged there. No one was parked out front. There was a large unmistakable sign at the entrance to the parking lot. I padded down the stairs to get my coffee, but took it back up to my room. Mug in hand, I watched Robin leave for work in the city. I saw Bankston go out and get his papers, Teentsy's car pulled out. She must have needed something for breakfast, for she was back within ten minutes. The shower the night before had not amounted to much, not like the rain of two nights ago; the little puddles were already gone. By the time Teentsy returned, I'd worked up enough courage to get my own papers. They were having a screaming field day. There was a picture of Arthur, a picture of Mamie and Gerald at their wedding, a picture of the Buckleys and Lizanne when the Buckleys had celebrated their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, and a picture of Morrison Pettigrue taken when he'd announced he was running for mayor, with Benjamin beaming in the background like a proud father. At least no one seemed to believe that Melanie and Arthur were guilty of anything but being the butt of ghastly practical jokes. I wondered where the hatchet that had killed the Buckleys would turn up, or the knife that had killed Morrison Pettigrue. How could the murderer sustain such a frenzy of activity? Surely there must be an enormous output of physical and emotional energy involved. Surely he must stop.
I managed to dab on some makeup so I wouldn't look like I was going to keel over and yanked my hair back into a ponytail. I pulled on a red turtleneck and navy blue skirt and cardigan. I looked like hell on wheels. My only goal was to get to the library without anyone noticing me, and find out if there was any chance of putting in a normal day's work. To my utter relief, there were no strange cars in the library parking lot. The interest in me seemed to have ebbed. The day began to look possible.
I found out at work that Benjamin Greer had called a press conference that morning to announce another candidate would run for the Communist Party in the Lawrenceton mayoral election. The candidate proved to be Benjamin himself, who seemed to be the only other Communist resident of Lawrenceton. I didn't believe for a minute that Benjamin had any coherent political philosophy. He was getting as much publicity as he could while the attention of the media was still on our town. I wondered what would happen to Benjamin after the election. Would butchering at the grocery store ever be enough again? Lillian Schmidt told me about Benjamin, and altogether covered herself with unexpected glory that morning. She worked side by side with me as though nothing at all had happened, with the exception of describing his press conference. I wanted to ask her why she was being so decent, but couldn't think of a way to phrase it that wasn't offensive. (Why are you being nice to me, when we don't like each other much? Why is a tactless person like you suddenly being the soul of tact?)
I was pulling on my sweater to leave for lunch, when Lillian said, "I know you don't have anything to do with this mess, and I don't think it's fair that all this has happened to you. That policeman coming to ask me yesterday if you were really mending books with me all morning - I just decided last night that was ridiculous. Enough is enough."
For once we agreed on something. "Thanks, Lillian," I said. I felt a little better as I drove home. I took another route so I didn't have to pass the Buckleys' house. Over lunch I watched the news and saw Benjamin having his minutes of fame.
I was off Thursday afternoon since I was scheduled to work Thursday night. I'd been wise to make the effort to go to work in the morning, I found once I was home alone. Though I liked work, usually I liked my time off even more. Today was an exception. After I'd changed into jeans and sneakers, I couldn't settle on any one project. I did a little laundry, a little reading. I tried a new hairdo, but tore it apart before I was half through. Then my hair was tangled, and I had to brush it through so much to get out the snarls that it crackled around my head in a brown cloud of electric waves. I looked like I'd been contacted by Mars.
I called the hospital to see if I could visit Lizanne, but the nurse on her wing said Lizanne was only receiving visits from family. Then I thought of ordering flowers for the funeral, and called Sally Allison at the newspaper to find out when it would be. For the first time, the receptionist at the Sentinel asked my name before ringing Sally. She was riding the crest of the story, that was clear.
"What can I do for you, Roe?" she asked briskly. I felt she was only talking to me because I was still semi-newsworthy at the moment. I had been hot yesterday, but I was cooling off. The lack of excitement in Sally's voice was like a shot of adrenaline to me.
"I just wanted to know when the Buckleys' funeral would be, Sally." "Well, the bodies have gone for autopsy, and I don't know when they'll be released. So according to Lizanne's aunt, they just haven't been able to make any firm funeral plans yet."
"Listen, while I've got you on the line ... one of the cops said you were on the scene yesterday." I knew Sally had seen the picture of me with Lizanne in the city paper. She was getting too full of herself. "You want to tell me what happened while you were there?" she asked coaxingly. "Is it true that Arnie was dismembered?"
"I wonder if you're really the right person to have on this story, Sally," I said after a long pause during which I thought furiously. Sally gasped as if her pet sheep had turned and bitten her. "After all, you're in the club, and I guess we're all really involved, somehow or other, right?" And Sally had a son who was also a member, who could not exactly be called normal.
"I think I can keep my objectivity," Sally said coldly. "And I don't think being a member of Real Murders means you're automatically - involved." At least she wasn't asking me questions anymore.
My doorbell rang.
"I've got to go, Sally," I said gently. And hung up.
I felt mildly ashamed of myself as I went to the door. Sally was doing her job. But I had a hard time accepting her switch from friend to reporter, my changing role from friend to source. It seemed like lately people "doing their jobs" meant I got my life turned around.
I did remember to check my security spy hole. My visitor was Arthur. He looked as ghastly as I had earlier. The lines in his face looked deeper, making him appear at least ten years older.
"Have you had anything to eat?" I asked.
"No," he admitted, after some thought. "Not since five this morning. That's when I got up and went down to the station." I pulled out a chair at my kitchen table and he sat down automatically.
It's hard to perform like Hannah Housewife when you've had no warning, but I microwaved a frozen ham and cheese sandwich, poured some potato chips out of a bag, and scraped together a rather depressing salad. However, Arthur seemed glad to see the plate, and ate it all after a silent prayer. "Eat in peace," I said and busied myself making coffee and wiping down the kitchen counter. It was an oddly domestic little interval. I felt more myself, less hunted, than I had since stopping to help Lizanne. It was possible work tonight would be entirely normal. And I would come home and sleep, hours and hours, in a clean nightgown.
After he ate, Arthur looked better. When I came to remove his empty plate, he took my wrist and pulled me into his lap, and kissed me. It was long, thorough, and intense. I really liked it very much. But maybe this was a little too fast for me. When by silent mutual accord we unclenched, I wiggled off his lap and tried to slow down my breathing.
"I just wanted to do something I would enjoy," he said. "Quite all right," I said a little unsteadily, and poured him a cup of coffee while gesturing him to the couch. I sat a careful but not marked distance away. "It's not going well?" I asked tentatively.
"Oh, it's going, now that I've got the Ratkill thing behind me. Of course our fingerprint guy had to go all over my car, and now I've got to get all that stuff off. I'm sure it won't turn up anything. Melanie Clark's car was clean as a whistle. We've completed the Buckley house search, and a neighborhood canvass to see if anyone saw anything. The only thing the house search turned up was a long hair, which may just be one of Lizanne's ... we have to get a sample from her for comparison. And that's for your ears only. The murder weapon hasn't turned up yet, but it was a hatchet or something like that, of course." "You're really not a suspect?"
"Well, if I ever was, I'm not now. While the Buckleys were being murdered I was going door to door with another detective asking questions about the Wright murder. And come to think of it, right before the last meeting, when Mamie Wright was done in, I was booking a DWI at the station. I drove to the meeting directly from there. And Lynn was able to swear for me that the Ratkill hadn't been in the car all morning while we were riding around knocking on doors." "Good," I said. "Someone's got to be out of the running." "And thank God it's me, since the department needs every warm body it can get on this one. I've got to go." He heaved himself to his feet, looking tired again. "Arthur ... what about me? Does anyone think I did it?" "No, honey. Not since Pettigrue, anyway. His old house had one of those claw-footed tubs, way off the floor, and he was a tall man, maybe six-three. You couldn't have gotten him in that tub alone, no way. And around Lawrenceton enough people would know if you were steadily seeing some guy who'd help you move the body. No, I think Pettigrue definitely let you off the hook in just about everyone's mind."
It was unnerving to think that my name had been spoken by men and women I didn't know, men and women who seriously considered I might have killed people in brutal and bloody ways. But all in all, after I'd talked to Arthur, I felt much better.
I saw him off with a light squeeze of his hand, and sat down to think a little. It was about time I thought instead of felt. I had crammed more feelings into the past week than I had in a year, I estimated. The hair the police had found was probably brown, since it might be Lizanne's and hers was a rich chestnut. Who else could have shed that hair? Well, I was a member of Real Murders who had long brown hair. Luckily for me, I'd been repairing books with Lillian Schmidt all morning. Melanie Clark had medium-length dull brown hair, and Sally, though her hair was shorter and lighter, could also be a contender. (Wouldn't it be something if Sally had committed all these murders so she could report them? A dazzling idea. Then I told myself to get back on the track.) Jane Engle's hair was definitely gray... then I thought of Gifford Doakes, whose hair was long and smoothly moussed into a pageboy or sometimes gathered in a ponytail, to John Queensland's disgust. Gifford was a scarey person, and he was so interested in massacres ... and his friend Reynaldo would probably do anything Gifford wanted. But surely someone as flamboyant as Gifford would have been noticed going into the Buckleys' house?
Well, discarding the possible clue of the hair for the moment, how had the murderer gotten in and left? A neighbor had seen Lizanne enter, too soon before I'd arrived to have done everything that had been done to the Buckleys. So someone was in a position to view the front of the Buckley house at least part of the morning. I considered other approaches and tried to imagine an aerial view of the lot, but I am not good at geography at all, much less aerial geography.
I sat a while longer and thought some more, and found myself wandering to the patio gate several times to see if Robin was home yet from the university. It was going to rain later, and the day was cooling off rapidly. The sky was a dull uniform gray.
I pulled on my jacket finally and was heading out on my own when his big car pulled in. Robin unfolded from it with an armful of papers. Why doesn't he carry a briefcase? I wondered.
"Listen, change your shoes and come with me," I suggested. He looked down his beaky nose at my feet. "Okay," he said agreeably. "Let me drop these papers inside. Someone stole my briefcase," he said over his shoulder.
I pattered after him. "Here?" I said, startled. "Well, since I moved to Lawrenceton, and I'm fairly sure from here in the parking lot," he said as he unlocked his back door. I followed him in. Boxes were everywhere, and the only thing set in order was a computer table suitably laden with computer, disc drives, and printer. Robin dumped the papers and bounded upstairs, returning in a few seconds with some huge sneakers.
"What are we going to do?" he asked as he laced them up. "I've been thinking. How did the murderer get into the Buckleys' house? It wasn't broken into, right? At least the papers this morning said not. So maybe the Buckleys left it unlocked and the killer just walked in and surprised them, or the killer rang the doorbell and the Buckleys let him - or her - in. But anyway, how did the killer approach the house? I just want to walk up that way and see. It had to be from the back, I think."
"So we're going to see if we can do it ourselves?" "That's what I thought." But as we were leaving Robin's I had misgivings. "Oh, maybe we better not. What if someone sees us and calls the police?" "Then we'll just tell them what we're doing," said Robin reasonably, making it sound very simple. Of course, his mother wasn't the most prominent real estate dealer in town and a society leader to boot, I reflected. But I had to go. It had been my idea.
So out of the parking lot we went, Robin striding ahead and me trailing behind, until he looked back and shortened his stride. The parking lot let out in the middle of the street that ran beside Robin's end apartment. Robin had turned right so I did, too, and at the corner we turned north to walk the two blocks up Parson to the Buckleys'. Perhaps as I'd driven past the Buckleys' on my way home to lunch the day before, the Buckleys were being slaughtered. I caught up with Robin at the next corner, shivering inside my light jacket. The house was on this next block.
Robin looked up the street, thinking. I looked down the side street; no houses faced the road. "Of course, the trash alley," I said, disgusted with myself. "Huh?"
"This is one of the old areas, and this block hasn't been rebuilt in ages," I explained. "There's an alley between the houses facing Parson Road and the houses facing Chestnut, which runs parallel to Parson. The same with this block we're standing on. But when you get south to our block, it's been rebuilt, with our apartments for one thing, and garbage collection is on the street." Under the gray sky we crossed the side street and came to the alley entrance. I'd felt so pursued and viewed yesterday, it was almost eerie how invisible I felt now. No houses facing this side street, little traffic. When we walked down the gravelled alley, it was easy to see how the murderer had reached the house without being observed.
"And almost all these yards are fenced, which blocks the view of the alley," Robin remarked, "and of the Buckleys' back yard." The Buckleys' yard was one of the few unfenced ones. The ones on either side had five-foot privacy fences. We stopped at the very back of the yard by the garbage cans, with a clear view of the back door of the house. The yard was planted with the camellias and roses that Mrs. Buckley had loved. In their garbage can - what an eerie thought - was probably a tissue she'd blotted her lipstick with, grounds from the coffee they'd drunk on their last morning, detritus of lives that no longer existed.
Yes, their garbage was surely still there ... everyone on Parson Road had garbage pickup on Monday. They'd been killed on Wednesday. I shuddered. "Let's go," I said. My mood had changed. I wasn't Delilah Detective anymore. Robin turned slowly. "So what would you do?" he said. "If you didn't want to be observed, you'd have parked your car - where? Where we came into the alley?" "No. That's a narrow street, and someone might remember having to pull out and around to get past your car."
"What about at the north end of the alley?"
"No. There's a service station right across the street there, it's real busy." "So," said Robin, striding ahead purposefully, "we go back this way, the way we came. If you had an ax, where would you put it?" "Oh, Robin," I said nervously. "Let's just go." We were leaving the alley as unobserved as we had entered, as far as I could tell, and I was glad of it. "I," continued Robin, "would drop it in one of these garbage cans waiting to be emptied."
That was why Robin was a very good mystery writer. "I'm sure the police have searched them," I said firmly. "I am not going to stand here and go through everyone's garbage. Then someone really would call the police." Or would they? Apparently no one had spotted us so far. We'd reached the end of the alley, at the spot we'd entered. "If you wouldn't park here, you might just cross the street and go through the next alley," he said thoughtfully. "Park even farther away, be even less likely to be seen and connected."
So we slipped across the narrow street into the next alley. This one had been widened a little when some apartments had been built. Their parking was in the back, and in the construction process a drainage ditch had been put in the alley to keep the parking lots clear. There were culverts to provide entrances and exits to the lots. I thought, I would put the ax in one of the culverts. And I wondered if the police had searched this block. This alley too was silent and lifeless, and I began to have the unsettling feeling that maybe Robin and I were the only people left in Lawrenceton. The sun came out briefly and Robin took my hand, so I tried hard to feel better. But when he crouched to retie his shoe, I began looking in the ditches. Certainly the culvert right by us hadn't been disturbed. The water oak leaves that half-blocked the opening were almost smoothly aligned, pointing in the same direction, by the heavy rain of the night before last. But the next one down... someone had been in that ditch, no doubt about it. The leaves had been shoved up around the opening so forcefully that the mud underneath had been uncovered. Perhaps the police had searched, but of course none of them were as short as I was, so they weren't at an angle to see a little gleam from inside the culvert, a gleam sparked by the unexpected and short-lived sunshine. And their arms weren't as long as Robin's, so they couldn't have reached in and pulled out... "My briefcase?" Robin said in shock and amazement. "What's it doing here?" His fingers pried the gold-tone locks.
"Don't open it!" I shrieked, as Robin opened it, and out fell a bloodstained hatchet, to land with a thud on the packed leaves in the ditch.
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