While Robin stood guard over the horrible thing in the alley, I knocked on the door of one of the apartments. I could hear a baby screaming inside, so I knew someone was awake.
The exhausted young woman who answered the door was still in her nightgown. She was trusting enough to open the door to a stranger, and tired enough to accept my need to use her telephone incuriously. The baby screamed while I looked up the number of the police station, and kept it up while I dialled and talked to the desk officer, who had some trouble understanding what I was trying to tell him. When I hung up and thanked the young woman, the baby was still crying, though it had ebbed to a whimper.
"Poor baby," I said tentatively.
"It's colic," she explained. "The doctor says the worst should be over soon." Aside from occasionally babysitting my half-brother Phillip when he was small, I knew nothing about babies. So I was glad to hear that the child had a specific complaint. By the time I thanked her and she shut the door behind me, I could hear the child starting to cry again.
I trudged back to the alley where Robin was sitting glumly, his back propped against the fence on the side opposite the apartments. "Me and my great ideas," I said bitterly, plopping down beside him.
He let that pass in a gentlemanly manner.
"Cover it up," I suggested. "I can't stand it."
"How, without getting fingerprints on it? More fingerprints, that is." We solved that problem as a mist began to dampen my hair against my cheeks. I found a stick and Robin stuck it under the edge of the briefcase, lifting it and dragging it over the hatchet with its dreadful stains. We settled back against the fence, able now to hear the sirens approaching. I felt oddly calm. "I wonder if I'll ever get my briefcase back," Robin said. "Someone came in our parking lot and reached in my car, and took my briefcase, so he could use it for hiding a murder weapon. I'd been thinking, Roe, when this case is all over, if it ever is, that I might try my hand at nonfiction. I'm here, I'm involved through knowing some of the people. I even met the Buckleys the very night before they were killed. I was there when you and your mother opened the chocolates. Now I'm here finding a murder weapon in my briefcase, and I'm telling you, I don't like this much anymore. I don't think I even want the damn briefcase as a memento, now that I think of it." But after sitting for a moment in silence, he murmured, "Wait till I tell my agent." The surface of his glasses began to be speckled with tiny drops of moisture. I took my own off and wiped them with a Kleenex. "I've got to admire your lack of fear, Robin," I said.
"Lack of fear?"
"You think they're not going to want to ask you a few questions?" I said pointedly.
He had only seconds to absorb this and look dismayed before an unmarked car pulled in the alley, with a patrol car right behind it. For some reason, we stood up.
And God bless me, who should emerge from the unmarked car but my friend Lynn Liggett, and she was mad as a wet hen.
"You're everywhere!" she said to me. "I know you didn't do these murders, but I swear every time I turn around you're right in front of me!" She shook her head, as if trying to shake me out of it. Then words seemed to fail her. Her glance fell on the overturned open briefcase, with the handle of the hatchet protruding slightly from underneath.
"Who covered it up?" she said next. After we told her, and she lifted the briefcase from the bloody hatchet with the same stick, all her attention was on the murder weapon.
Yet another car appeared behind the patrol car. My heart sank even deeper as Jack Burns heaved himself out and strolled towards us. His body language said he was out for a casual amble in a pleasant neighborhood but his dark eyes snapped with anger and menace.
He stopped at the patrolmen, apparently the ones who had conducted the original alley search the day before and blistered them up and down in language I had only seen in print. Robin and I watched with interest as they began to search the alley for anything that might have been left by the murderer. I was willing to bet that if he'd left any other trace in the alley, this time it would be found.
People began to emerge from the apartments, and the alley that had seemed so silent and deserted began to be positively crowded. I saw the curtain move at the apartment of the young mother, and hoped the baby had calmed down by now. It occurred to me that this woman was the most likely to have seen something the previous day, since she was probably up almost all the time. I started to suggest this to Detective Liggett, but I reconsidered in time to save my head from being bitten off.
The hatchet and briefcase bagged, the policewoman turned back to us.
"Did you touch the briefcase, Miss Teagarden?" she asked me directly.
I shook my head.
"So you did," she said to Robin, who nodded meekly. "You're someone else who turns up everywhere."
Finally Robin began to look worried.
"You need to go down to the station and have your fingerprints taken," Lynn said brusquely.
"I had them made the other night," Robin reminded her. "Everyone at the Real Murders meeting had his or her prints taken."
This reminder did not endear him to the detective.
"Whose idea was this stroll through the alley?" Lynn counterattacked.
We looked at each other.
"Well," I began, "I started wondering how the Buckleys' murderer had reached their house without being seen..."
"But it was definitely me that wanted to go through this alley as well as the one behind the Buckley house," Robin said manfully. "Listen, you two," Lynn said with an assumed calm, "you don't seem to understand the real world very well."
Robin and I didn't care for that accusation. I felt him stiffen beside me, and I drew myself up and narrowed my eyes.
"We are the police, and we are paid too damn little to investigate murders, but that's what we do. We don't sit and read about them, we solve them. We find clues, and we track down leads, and we knock on doors." She paused and took a deep breath. I had found several flaws in her speech so far, but I wasn't about to point out to her that Arthur read a lot about murders and that the police so far hadn't solved a thing and that the clue of the hatchet would still be in the damn ditch if Robin and I hadn't unearthed it.
I had enough sense of self-preservation not to say those things. When Robin cleared his throat, I stepped on his toes.
I was sorry I'd stopped- him a moment later when Lynn really began questioning him. I wouldn't have stood to her questioning as well as he, and I had to admire his composure. I could see that it did look peculiar,- Robin arrives in town, the murders start. But I knew that Mamie Wright's murder had been planned before Robin came to live in Lawrenceton, and the chocolates had been sent to Mother even earlier. The officer pointed out, though, that Robin had been present at the discovery of Mamie Wright's body, having invited himself to a Real Murders meeting on his first night in town. And he'd been at my house when I'd received the chocolate box.
Lynn was certainly not the only detective who thought Robin's presence at so many key scenes was fishy. And perhaps I was not as clear and free of suspicion as Arthur had assured me, because when Jack Burns took up the questioning he was looking from Robin to me with some significance. Here, he seemed to be thinking, is someone big who could have helped this woman get Pettigrue's body in the bathtub.
"I have to go to work in an hour and a half," I said quietly to him, when I'd had all I could take.
He stopped in mid-sentence.
"Sure," he said, seeming abruptly exhausted. "Sure you do." His fuel, it seemed, had been his exasperation with his own men missing the hatchet, and he'd run out of it. I liked him a lot better all of a sudden. When Burns had taken over the role of castigator, Lynn had started knocking door to door at the apartments asking questions. Finally she reached the apartment where I'd used the phone, and the young woman, now in jeans and a sweater - she'd undoubtedly seen the police going door to door - answered in a flash. Lynn was obviously running through her list of questions, but I noticed after about the third one, she came to point like a bird dog. The young woman had said something Lynn was interested in hearing.
"Jack," Lynn yelled, "come here."
"Go home," Burns told us simply. "We know where you are if we need you." And he hurried over to Lynn.
Robin and I blew out a breath of relief simultaneously, and almost slunk out of the alley, trying as hard as we possibly could to attract no more official attention. Once we were out into the street, Robin went flying along home and dragged me with him by the hand.
When we reached our parking lot we finally stopped for breath. Robin hugged me and dropped a quick kiss on the top of my head, the most convenient spot for him. "That was really interesting," he commented, and I began laughing until my sides hurt. Robin's red eyebrows flew up, and his glasses slid down, and then he began laughing, too. I looked at my watch while I was thinking how long it had been since I'd really whooped like that, and when I saw what the time was, I told Robin I had to go change clothes. At least for a few hours, I had forgotten to be afraid about working at the library alone that night. It had not been noticed until the last moment that no one had been scheduled to take Mr. Buckley's place on the roster. None of the other librarians would now admit to having the evening free, and all the volunteers had been scheduled for other nights.
I told Robin this hurriedly, and he said, "I'm sure the police patrols have been stepped up. But maybe I'll stop in on you tonight. If you need me, call me. I'll be here." He went in his gate and I went in mine. As I pulled on the same blue skirt and red turtleneck I'd worn that morning, I was doing my best not to think of the hatchet. It had been unspeakable. On my drive to work I hoped that the library would be flooded with patrons so I wouldn't have time to think.
I was taking over the checkout desk from Jane Engle, who had been substituting for one of the librarians whose child had the flu. Jane looked the same, with her perfectly neat gray hair, her perfectly clean wire-rimmed glasses, and her anonymous gray suit. But inside, I could see she was no longer a sophisticated and curious witness to the Lawrenceton murders, but a terrified woman. And she was glad to get out of the library. "All the others left at five, not a single patron's come in since then," she told me in a shaky voice. "And frankly, Aurora, I've been delighted. I'm scared to be alone with anyone anymore, no matter how well I think I know them."
I patted Jane on the arm awkwardly. Though at times we'd eaten lunch together, mostly on days after club meetings when we wanted to discuss the program, Jane and I had had a friendly, but never intimate, relationship. "Other people are interested in our little club for the first time," Jane went on, "and I've had to answer a lot of questions no one ever bothered to ask me before. People think I'm a little strange for having belonged to Real Murders." Jane was definitely a woman who would hate to be thought strange.
"Well," I said hesitantly, "just because we had a different sort of hobby - ." Come to think of it, maybe we were a little strange, all of us Real Murderers, as we had sometimes called ourselves laughingly. Ho-ho.
"One of us really is a murderer, you know," Jane chimed in eerily. I felt my thoughts were becoming visible in a balloon over my head. "It's gone beyond an academic interest in death and gore and psychology. I could feel it that night we met in your apartment."
"Whom do you think it is, Jane?" I said impulsively, as she tied her scarf and extracted her keys from her purse.
"I am sure it's someone in our club, of course, or possibly a near connection of some sort to a club member. I don't know if this person has always been disturbed, or if he's just now decided to play a ghastly series of tricks on his fellow members. Or maybe there is more than one murderer and they're acting together."
"It doesn't have to be someone in Real Murders, Jane, just someone who doesn't like one of us, someone who wants us to be in trouble." She was standing by the front door by then, and I wanted her to stay as much as she wanted to go. She shrugged, not willing to argue. "It's frightening to me," she said quietly, "to imagine what case I fit. I go over my books, checking out cases, to see what elderly woman living alone I resemble. What old murder victim." I stared at her with my mouth open. I was appalled to realize what Jane had been going through, because of her active and probably accurate mind. Then a mother trailing two reluctant toddlers came through the door, and Jane slipped out to go home to her waiting house, to leaf through her true crime books in search of the pattern she would fit.
Thank God other people were in the library when Gifford Doakes came in, or I might have shrieked and run. Gifford, massacre enthusiast, had always sounded the warning bell in my brain that cautions me to pick and choose my conversation topics. Though I really didn't know too much about him, I'd always kept my distance from Gifford and limited my contact with him to the bare bones of courtesy.
You wanted to be polite to Gifford. You were a little scared not to be. I had no idea what Gifford did for a living, but he dressed like a "Miami Vice" drug lord, in extremely stylish clothes and with his long brown hair carefully arranged. I wouldn't have been surprised to see a shoulder holster under his jacket.
Maybe Gifford was a drug lord.
And here he came now, gliding over to the checkout desk. I glanced around; that dynamic twosome, Melanie Clark and Bankston Waites, had come in a few minutes previously, their heads close together and laughing, and I could now see Bankston upstairs in the biography section, while Melanie was flipping through Good Housekeeping in the magazine area on the ground floor. Probably looking for a new meatloaf recipe. But bless her, she was there within call. Gifford was right across the desk from me, and my hand closed over the nearest thing, which proved to be the stapler. A really effective deterrent, I told myself bitterly. I could see his shadow, Reynaldo, standing outside the double glass doors, pacing around in the near-dark of the parking lot. He would pass through a pool of light from the arc lamps that provided safety for the lot - theoretically - and then vanish into the gloom, reappearing seconds later. "How ya doing, Roe?" Gifford asked perfunctorily.
"Listen, I hear you and that writer found the murder weapon in the Buckley case today."
The Buckley case? I had a sudden vision of an anthology of accounts of the decade's most notable murders, and of Lizanne's parents' slaughter being included. Other people would read about their deaths, and speculate, as I had speculated about other unsolved cases. Could it have been The Daughter? Or the Policeman who also belonged to the Real Murders Club? I realized that these murders would be made into a book... maybe by Joe McGuinniss or Joan Barthel or Robin, if his taste for it revived... and I would be in it, because of the chocolates. Maybe just "when the candy arrived at the home of Mrs. Teagarden's daughter Aurora...."
For a minute I was very confused. Was I in a book about old murders that I was reading, or was this all happening to me now? It would be nice to have the distance a book would give me. But Gifford's one earring was all too real, and the leopard-like pacing of Reynaldo - in the prosaic library parking lot! - was all too real, too.
"Tell me about the ax," Gifford was demanding.
"It was a hatchet, Gifford. An ax wouldn't fit in a briefcase." I was immediately furious with myself for contradicting a scarey guy like Gifford; but then I consciously realized what my unconscious must have noted. Gifford Doakes was a man with a mission, and he was not interested in sidetracks. "This long?" He held his hands apart.
"Yes, about." Standard hatchet size.
"Wood handle with black tape wrapped around the grip?"
"Yes," I agreed. I had forgotten the tape until he mentioned it. "Damn," he hissed, and then he said a few other things, and his dark eyes blinked rapidly. Gifford Doakes was a frightened man and a furious one. I was scared as hell, too, not only of the murderer but more immediately of Gifford. Who was maybe also the murderer.
I gripped the stapler even harder, and felt like a fool planning to battle a crazy man with a stapler that even, I suddenly remembered, contained no staples. Well, strike that line of defense.
"Now I have to go to the police station," Gifford said unexpectedly. "That's my hatchet, I'm almost positive. Reynaldo found out it was missing yesterday." I laid down the stapler very gently on my desk, glanced upward and saw Bankston looking over the second-floor railing. He raised his eyebrows in a silent query. I shook my head. I didn't think I needed help anymore. I thought Gifford was just as nervous as the rest of us, and for good reason. At this moment, sophisticated pageboy and sharp clothes notwithstanding, Gifford was chewing on his thumbnail like a five-year-old facing a difficult world. "You'd better go to the police now," I said to him carefully. And he wheeled and was out the door before I could catch my breath. Gifford's hatchet, Robin's briefcase. Those not cast as victims were being cast as murderers, to provide even more fun for the killer. I wondered which category was scheduled for me. Surely finder-of-the-body would suffice.
I was still pondering this and other unpleasant related topics thirty minutes later when Perry Allison came in. I could hardly believe my luck at seeing Gifford and Perry in one evening. Two great guys. At least while Gifford had been here, so had a few other people, but in the intervening half hour Bankston and Melanie and the two other patrons had trickled out the door. This time I quietly opened a drawer and slid out a pair of scissors. I checked my watch; only fifteen minutes to go till closing time. "Roe!" he babbled. "Que pasa?" His hands beat a manic tattoo on the desk. I felt a stirring of dismay. This wasn't even the familiar unpleasant Perry, who had perhaps skipped some prescribed medication. Perry was on drugs no doctor had ever given him. The appeal of "recreational" drugs had completely passed me by, but I wasn't totally naive.
"Nothing much, Perry," I said cautiously.
"How can you say that? Things here are just hopping," he told me, his eyebrows flying all over his narrow face. "A murder a day, practically. Your honey, the cop, was at my place this afternoon. Asking questions. Making insinuations. About me! I couldn't hurt a fly!"
And Perry laughed and came around the desk in a few quick steps. "Scissors?" He whooped. "Ssssssscissssors?" He experimented with hissing. I was so taken aback by his quick moves and jerky head movements, so unlike the Perry I worked with, that it took me by surprise when his hand shot out to grasp the wrist of my hand that was holding the scissors. He gripped with manic pressure. "That hurts, Perry," I said sharply. "Let go."
But Perry laughed and laughed, never relaxing his grip. I knew in a minute I would drop the scissors and I could not imagine what would happen after that. Abruptly, he turned enraged. "You were going to stab me," he shouted furiously. "Not one of you wants me to make it! Not one of you knows what that hospital was like!"
He was right, and under other circumstances I would have listened with some sympathy. But I was in pain and terrified.
I could just barely feel the scissors still gripped in my numbing fingers. In a day filled with strange incidents, this crazed man screaming at me, his emotional intensity spilling over me in this quiet and civilized building where people came to pick out nice quiet civilized books. Then he began shaking me to get me to listen, his other hand gripping my shoulder like a vise, and he never stopped talking, angry, sad, full of pain and self-pity.
I began to get angry myself, and suddenly something in me just snapped. I raised my foot and stomped on his instep with every ounce of force I could summon. With a wail of pain, he let go of me, and in that instant I turned and raced for the front door.
I ran smack into Sally Allison.
"Oh my God," she said hoarsely. "Are you all right? He didn't hurt you?" Without waiting for an answer she shouted at her son over my head, "Perry, what in God's name has gotten into you?"
"Oh, Mom," he said hopelessly and began to cry. "He's on drugs, Sally," I said raggedly. She held me away from her and scanned me for injuries, letting loose a visible sigh of relief when she saw no blood. She saw the scissors still in my hand and looked horrified. "You weren't going to hurt him?" she asked incredulously.
"Sally, only a mother could say that," I said. "Now, you get him out of here and take him home."
"Listen to me, please, Roe," Sally pleaded. I was still frightened, but I was acutely uncomfortable, too. I had never had anybody beg me, as Sally unmistakably was begging me now. "Listen, he didn't take his medicine today. He's okay when he takes his medicine, really. You know he can come to work and perform his job, no one's complained about that, right? So please, please don't tell anyone about this."
"About what?" asked a quiet male voice above my head, and I realized Robin had come in quietly. I looked up to his craggy face, his now-serious crinkly mouth, and I was so glad to see him I could have wept. "I came to check up on you," he said to me. "Mrs. Allison, I think I met you at the club meeting." "Yes," Sally said, trying hard to pull herself together. "Perry! Come on!"
He walked over to her, his wet face blank and tired, his shoulders slumped. "Let's go home," his mother suggested. "We have to talk about our agreement, about the promise you made me."
Without looking at me or saying a word, Perry followed his mother out the door.
I collapsed against Robin and cried a little, still holding the stupid scissors. His huge hand smoothed my hair. When the worst was over, I said, "I have to lock up, I'm closing now. I don't care if Santa Claus comes to check out a book. This library is closed."
"Going to tell me what happened?"
"You bet I am, but first I want to get out of this place." I hated detaching myself from the comfortable chest and enfolding arms; it had been nice to feel protected by a big strong man for a few seconds. But I wanted to leave that building and go home more than I wanted anything else, and with luck, we could repeat the scene at my place with amenities handy.
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