Real Murders met in the VFW Hall and paid the Veterans a small fee for the privilege. The fee went into a fund for the annual VFW Christmas party, so everyone was pleased with our arrangement. Of course the building was much larger than a little group like Real Murders needed, but we did like the privacy.
A VFW officer would meet a club member at the building thirty minutes before the meeting and unlock it. That club member was responsible for restoring the room to the way we'd found it and returning the key after the meeting. This year the "opening" member was Mamie Wright, since she was vice president. She would arrange the chairs in a semicircle in front of the podium and set up the refreshments table. We rotated bringing the refreshments. I got there early that evening. I get almost everywhere early. There were already two cars in the parking lot, which was tucked behind the small building and had a landscaped screening of crepe myrtles, still grotesquely bare in the early spring. The arc lamps in the lot had come on automatically at dusk. I parked my Chevette under the glow of the lamp nearest the back door. Murder buffs are all too aware of the dangers of this world. As I stepped into the hall, the heavy metal door clanged shut behind me. There were only five rooms in the building; the single door in the middle of the wall to my left opened into the big main room, where we held our meetings. The four doors to my right led into a small conference room, then the men's, the ladies', and, at the end of the corridor, a small kitchen. All the doors were shut, as usual, since propping them open required more tenacity than any of us were able to summon. The VFW Hall had been constructed to withstand enemy attack, we had decided, and those heavy doors kept the little building very quiet. Even now, when I knew from the cars outside that there were at least two people here, I heard nothing.
The effect of all those shut doors in that blank corridor was also unnerving. It was like a little beige tunnel, interrupted only by the pay phone mounted on the wall. I recalled once telling Bankston Waites that if that phone rang, I'd expect Rod Serling to be on the other end, telling me I had now entered the "Twilight Zone." I half smiled at the idea and turned to grasp the knob of the door to the big meeting room.
The phone rang.
I swung around and took two hesitant steps toward it, my heart banging against my chest. Still nothing moved in the silent building. The phone rang again. My hand closed around it reluctantly. "Hello?" I said softly, and then cleared my throat and tried again. "Hello," I said firmly.
"May I speak to Julia Wallace, please?" The voice was a whisper.
My scalp crawled. "What?" I said shakily.
"Julia ..." whispered the caller.
The other phone was hung up.
I was still standing holding the receiver when the door to the women's room opened and Sally Allison came out.
"God almighty, Roe, I don't look that bad, do I?" Sally said in amazement. "No, no, it's the phone call..." I was very close to crying, and I was embarrassed about that. Sally was a reporter for the Lawrenceton paper, and she was a good reporter, a tough and intelligent woman in her late forties. Sally was the veteran of a runaway teenage marriage that had ended when the resulting baby was born. I'd gone to high school with that baby, named Perry, and now I worked with him at the library. I loathed Perry; but I liked Sally a lot, even if sometimes her relentless questioning made me squirm. Sally was one of the reasons I was so well-prepared for my Wallace lecture. Now she elicited all the facts about the phone call from me in a series of concise questions that led to a sensible conclusion; the call was a prank perpetrated by a club member, or maybe the child of a club member, since it seemed almost juvenile when Sally put it in her framework. I felt somehow cheated, but also relieved.
Sally retrieved a tray and a couple of boxes of cookies from the small conference room. She'd deposited them there, she explained, when she entered and suddenly felt the urgency of the two cups of coffee she'd had after supper. "I didn't even think I could make it across the hall into the big room," she said with a roll of her tan eyes.
"How's life at the newspaper?" I asked, just to keep Sally talking while I got over my shock.
I couldn't dismiss that phone call as lightly and logically as Sally. As I trailed after her into the big meeting room, half listening to her account of a fight she'd had with the new publisher, I could still taste the metallic surge of adrenaline in my mouth. My arms had goosepimples, and I pulled my sweater tightly around me.
As she arranged the cookies on her tray, Sally began telling me about the election that would be held to select someone to fill out the term of our unexpectedly deceased mayor. "He keeled over right in his office, according to his secretary," she said casually as she realigned a row of Oreos. "And after having been mayor only a month! He'd just gotten a new desk." She shook her head, regretting the loss of the mayor or the waste of the desk, I wasn't sure which.
"Sally," I said before I knew I was going to, "where's Mamie?"
"Who cares?" Sally asked frankly. She cocked one surprised eyebrow at me. I knew I should laugh, since Salty and I had discussed our mutual distaste for Mamie before, but I didn't bother. I was beginning to be irritated with Sally, standing there looking sensible and attractive in her curry bronze permanent, her well-worn expensive suit, and her well-worn expensive shoes. "When I pulled in the parking lot," I said quite evenly, "there were two cars, yours and Mamie's. I recognized Mamie's, because she's got a Chevette like mine, but white instead of blue. So you are here and I am here, but where is Mamie?" "She's set the chairs up right and made the coffee," Sally said after looking around. "But I don't see her purse. Maybe she ran home for something." "How'd she get past us?"
"Oh, I don't know." Sally was beginning to sound irritated with me, too. "She'll show up. She always does!"
And we both laughed a little, trying to lose our displeasure with each other in our amusement at Mamie Wright's determination to go to everything her husband attended, be in every club he joined, share his life to the fullest. Bankston Waites and his light of love, Melanie Clark, came in as I put my notebook on the podium and slid my purse underneath it. Melanie was a clerk at Mamie's husband's insurance office, and Bankston was a loan officer at Associated Second Bank. They'd been dating about a year, having become interested in each other at Real Murders meetings, though they'd gone through Lawrenceton High School together a few years ahead of me without striking any sparks.
Bankston's mother had told me last week in the grocery store that she was expecting an interesting announcement from the couple any day. She made a particular point of telling me that, since I'd gone out with Bankston a few times over a year ago, and she wanted me to know he was going to be out of circulation. If she was waiting in suspense for that interesting announcement, she was the only one. There wasn't anyone in Lawrenceton Bankston and Melanie's age left for them to marry, except each other. Bankston was thirty-two, Melanie a year or two older. Bankston had scanty blond hair, a pleasant round face, and mild blue eyes; he was Mr. Average. Or at least he had been; I noticed for the first time that his shoulder and arm muscles were bulging underneath his shirt sleeves.
"Have you been lifting weights, Bankston?" I asked in some amazement. I might have been more interested if he'd shown that much initiative when I'd dated him. He looked embarrassed but pleased. "Yeah, can you tell a difference?" "I certainly can," I said with genuine admiration. It was hard to credit Melanie Clark with being the motivation for such a revolutionary change in Bankston's sedentary life, but undoubtedly she was. Perhaps her absorption in him could be all the more complete since she had no family to claim her devotion. Her parents, both 'only' children, had been dead for years - her mother from cancer, her father hit by a drunk driver.
Right now Melanie the motivator was looking miffed.
"What do you think about all this, Melanie?" I asked hastily. Melanie visibly relaxed when I acknowledged her proprietorship. I made a mental note to speak carefully around her, since Bankston lived in one of "my" townhouses. Melanie must surely know Bankston and I had gone out together and it would be too easy for her to build something incorrect out of a landlady-tenant relationship.
"Working out's done wonders for Bankston," she said neutrally. But there was an unmistakable cast to her words. Melanie wanted me to get a specific message, that she and Bankston were having sex. I was a little shocked at her wanting me to know that. There was a gleam in her eyes that made me realize Melanie had banked fires under her sedate exterior. Under the straight dark hair conservatively cut, under the plain dress, Melanie was definitely feeling her oats. Her hips and bosom were heavy, but suddenly I saw them as Bankston must, as fertility symbols instead of liabilities. And I had a further revelation; not only were Bankston and Melanie having sex, they were having it often and exotically.
I looked at Melanie with more respect. Anyone who could pull the wool over the collective eye of Lawrenceton as effectively as Melanie had earned it. "There was a phone call before you got here," I began, and they focussed on me with interest. But before I could tell them about it, I heard a luscious ripple of laughter from the opening door. My friend Lizanne Buckley came in, accompanied by a very tall red-haired man. Seeing Lizanne here was a surprise. Lizanne didn't read a book from one year to the next, and her hobbies, if she had any, did not include crime.
"What on earth is she doing here?" Melanie said. She seemed really put out, and I decided we had here another Mamie Wright in the making. Lizanne (Elizabeth Anna) Buckley was the most beautiful woman in Lawrenceton. Without Lizanne exerting herself in the slightest (and she never did) men would throw themselves on the floor for her to saunter on; and saunter she would, calm and smiling, never looking down. She was kind, in her passive, lazy way; and she was conscientious, so long as not too much was demanded of her. Her job as receptionist and phone answerer at the Power and Light Company was just perfect for her - and for the utility company. Men paid their bills promptly and smilingly, and anyone who got huffy over the telephone was immediately passed to someone higher on the totem pole. No one ever sustained a huff in person. It was simply impossible for ninety percent of the population to remain angry in Lizanne's presence.
But she required constant entertainment from her dates, and the tall red-haired man with the beaky nose and wire-rimmed glasses seemed to be making heavy weather of it.
"Do you know who he is, the man with Lizanne?" I asked Melanie.
"You don't recognize him?" Melanie's surprise was a shade overdone. So I was supposed to know him. I re-examined the newcomer. He was wearing slacks and a sport coat in light brown, and a plain white shirt; he had huge hands and feet, and his longish hair flew around his head in a copper nimbus. I had to shake my head.
"He's Robin Crusoe, the mystery writer," Melanie said triumphantly.
The insurance clerk beats the librarian in her own bailiwick. "He looks different without the pipe in his mouth," John Queensland said from behind my right shoulder. John, our wealthy real-estate-rich president, was immaculate as usual; an expensive suit, a white shirt, his creamy white hair smooth and the part sharp as an arrow. John had become more interesting to me when he'd started dating my mother. I felt there must be substance below the stuffed-shirt exterior. After all, he was a Lizzie Borden expert... and he believed she was innocent! A true romantic, though he hid it well. "So what's he doing here?" I asked practically. "With Lizanne." "I'll find out," said John promptly. "I should greet him anyway, as club president. Of course visitors are welcome, though I don't believe we've ever had any before."
"Wait, I need to tell you about this phone call," I said quickly. The newcomer had distracted me. "When I came in a few minutes ago - " But Lizanne had spotted me and was swaying over to our little group, her semi-famous escort in tow.
"Roe, I brought you all some company tonight," Lizanne said with her agreeable smile. And she introduced us all around with facility, since Lizanne knows everyone in Lawrenceton. My hand was engulfed in the writer's huge boney one, and he really shook it, too. I liked that; I hate it when people just kind of press your hand and let it drop. I looked up and up at his crinkly mouth and little hazel eyes, and I just liked him altogether. "Roe, this is Robin Crusoe, who just moved to Lawrenceton," Lizanne said.
"Robin, this is Roe Teagarden."
He gave me an appreciative smile but he was with Lizanne, so I realistically built nothing on that.
"I thought Robin Crusoe was a pseudonym," Bankston murmured in my ear.
"I did too," I whispered, "but apparently not." "Poor guy, his parents must have been nuts," Bankston said with a snigger, until he remembered from my raised eyebrows that he was talking to a woman named Aurora Teagarden.
"I met Robin when he came in to get his utilities turned on," Lizanne was telling John Queensland. John was saying all the proper things to Robin Crusoe, glad to have such a well-known name in our little town, hope you stay a while, ta-dah ta-dah ta-dah. John edged Robin over to meet Sally Allison who was chatting with our newest member, a police officer named Arthur Smith. If Robin was built tail and lanky, Arthur was short and solid, with coarse curly pale hair and the flat confrontive stare of the bull who knows he has nothing to fear because he is the toughest male on the farm.
"You're lucky to have met such a well-known writer," I said enviously to Lizanne. I still wanted to tell someone about the phone call, but Lizanne was hardly the person.
She sure didn't know who Julia Wallace was. And she didn't know who Robin Crusoe was either, as it turned out.
"Writer?" she said indifferently. "I'm kind of bored."
I stared at her incredulously. Bored by Robin Crusoe? One afternoon when I'd been at the Power and Light Company paying my bill, she'd told me, "I don't know what it is, but even when I pretty much like a man, after I date him a while, he gets to seem kind of tiresome. I just can't be bothered to act interested anymore, and then finally I tell him I don't want to go out anymore. They always get upset," she'd added, with a philosophical shake of her shining dark hair. Lovely Lizanne had never been married, and lived in a tiny apartment close to her job, and went home to her parents' house for lunch every day.
Robin Crusoe, desirable writer, was striking out with Lizanne even now. She looked - sleepy.
He reappeared at her side.
"Where do you live in Lawrenceton?" I asked, because the newcomer seemed dolefully aware he wasn't making the grade with our local siren. "Parson Road. A townhouse. I'm camping there until my furniture comes, which it should do tomorrow. The rent here is so much less for a nicer place than I could find anywhere in the city close to the college." Suddenly I felt quite cheerful. I said, "I'm your landlady," but after we'd talked about the coincidence for a moment, a glance at my watch unsettled me. John Queensland was making a significant face at me over Arthur Smith's shoulder. Since he was president, he had to open the meeting, and he was ready to start.
I glanced around, counting heads. Jane Engle and LeMaster Cane had come in on each other's heels and were chatting while preparing their coffee cups. Jane was a retired school librarian who substituted at both the school and the public libraries, a surprisingly sophisticated spinster who specialized in Victorian murders. She wore her silver hair in a chignon, and never never wore slacks. Jane looked sweet and fragile as aged lace, but after thirty years of school children she was tough as a marine sergeant. Jane's idol was Madeleine Smith, the highly sexed young Scottish poisoner, which sometimes made me wonder about Jane's past. LeMaster was our only black member, a stout middle-aged bearded man with huge brown eyes who owned a dry cleaning business. LeMaster was most interested in the racially motivated murders of the sixties and early seventies, the Zebra murders in San Francisco and the Jones-Piagentini shooting in New York, for example.
Sally's son Perry Allison had come in too, and had taken a seat without speaking to anyone. Perry had not actually joined Real Murders, but he had come to the past two meetings, to my dismay. I saw quite enough of him at work. Perry showed a rather unnerving knowledge of modern serial murderers like the Hillside Stranglers and the Green River killer, in which the motivation was clearly sexual.
Gifford Doakes was standing by himself. Unless Gifford brought his friend Reynaldo, this was a pretty common situation, since Gifford was openly interested in massacres - St. Valentine's Day, the Holocaust, it didn't make any difference to Gifford Doakes. He liked piled bodies. Most of us were involved in Real Murders for reasons that would probably bear the light of day; gosh, who doesn't read the articles about murders in the newspaper? But Gifford was another story. Maybe he'd joined our club with the idea that we swapped some sickening sort of bloody pornography, and he was only sticking with the club in the hope that soon we'd trust him enough to share with him. When he brought Reynaldo, we didn't know how to treat him. Was Reynaldo a guest, or Gifford's date? A shade of difference there, and one which had us all a little anxious, especially John Queensland, who felt it his duty as president to speak to everyone in the club.
And Mamie Wright wasn't anywhere in the room.
If Mamie had been here long enough to set up the chairs and make the coffee, and her car was still in the parking lot, then she must be here somewhere. Though I didn't like Mamie, her non-appearance was beginning to seem so strange that I felt obliged to pin down her whereabouts.
Just as I reached the door, Mamie's husband Gerald came in. He had his briefcase under his arm and he looked angry. Because he looked so irate, and because I felt stupid for being uneasy, I did a strange thing; though I was searching for his wife, I let him pass without speaking.
The hall seemed very quiet after the heavy door shut off the hum of conversation. The white-with-speckles linoleum and beige paint almost sparkled with cleanliness under the harsh fluorescent lights. I was praying the phone wouldn't ring again as I looked at the four doors on the other side of the hall. With a fleeting, absurd image of "The Lady or the Tiger" I went to my right to open the door to the small conference room. Sally had told me she'd already been in the room, but just to temporarily park the tray of cookies, so I checked the room carefully. Since there was practically nothing to examine except a table and chairs, that took seconds.
I opened the next door in the hall, the women's room, even though Sally had also been in there. Since there were only two stalls, she'd have been pretty sure to know of Mamie's presence. But I bent over to look under the doors. No feet. I opened both doors. Nothing.
I didn't quite have the guts to check the adjoining men's room, but since Arthur Smith entered it while I hesitated, I figured I'd hear about it soon if Mamie was in there.
I moved on, and out of all the glaring beigeness I caught a little glimpse of something different, so I looked down at the base of the door and saw a smear. It was red-brown.
The separate sources of my uneasiness suddenly coalesced into horror. I was holding my breath when my hand reached out to open that door to the last room, the little kitchen used for fixing the refreshments ... ... and saw an empty turquoise shoe upright on its ridiculous high heel, right inside the door.
And then I saw the blood spattered everywhere on the shining beige enamel of the stove and refrigerator.
And the raincoat.
Finally I made myself look at Mamie. She was so dead. Her head was the wrong shape entirely. Her dyed black hair was matted with clots of her blood. I thought, the human body is supposed to be ninety percent water, not ninety percent blood. Then my ears were buzzing and I felt very weak, and though I knew I was alone in the hall, I felt the presence of something horrible in that kitchen, something to dread. And it was not poor Mamie Wright. I heard a door swoosh shut in the hall. I heard Arthur Smith's voice say, "Miss Teagarden? Anything wrong?"
"It's Mamie," I whispered, though I'd intended a normal voice. "It's Mrs. Wright." I ruined the effect of all this formality by simply folding onto the floor. My knees seemed to have turned to faulty hinges. He was behind me in an instant. He half-bent to help me up but was frozen by what he saw over my head.
"Are you sure that's Mamie Wright?" he asked.
The working part of my brain told me Arthur Smith was quite right to ask. Perhaps coming on this unsuspicious, I would have wondered too. Her eye - oh my God, her eye.
"She's missing from the big room, but her car is outside. And that's her shoe."
I managed to say this with my fingers pressed to my mouth. When Mamie had first worn them, I'd thought those shoes the most poisonous footwear I'd ever seen. I hate turquoise anyway. I let myself enjoy thinking about hating turquoise. It was a lot more pleasing than thinking about what was right in front of me.
The policeman stepped over me very carefully and squatted with even more care by the body. He put his fingers against her neck. I felt bile rise up in my throat - no pulse, of course. How ridiculous! Mamie was so dead. "Can you stand up?" he asked after a moment. He dusted his fingers together as he rose.
"If you help."
Without further ado, Arthur Smith hauled me to my feet and out the doorway in one motion. He was very strong. He kept one arm around me while he shut the door. He leaned me against that door. Deep blue eyes looked at me consideringly. "You're very light," he said. "You'll be all right for a few seconds. I'm going to use the phone right here on the wall."
"Okay." My voice sounded weird; light, tinny. I'd always wondered if I could keep my head if I found a body, and here I was, keeping my head, I told myself insanely as I watched him go down the hall to the pay phone. I was glad he didn't have to leave my sight. I might not be so level if I were standing in that hall alone, with a body behind me.
While Arthur muttered into the phone I kept my eyes on the door to the large room across the hall where John Queensland must be itching to open the meeting. I thought about what I'd just seen. I wasn't thinking about Mamie being dead, about the reality and finality of her death. I was thinking about the scene that had been staged, starring Mamie Wright as the corpse. The casting of the corpse had been deliberate, but the role of the finder of the body had by chance been taken by me. The whole thing was a scene deliberately staged by someone, and suddenly I knew what had been biting at me underneath the horror. I thought faster than I'd ever thought before. I didn't feel sick anymore. Arthur crossed the hall to the door of the large room and pushed it open just enough to insert his head in the gap. I could hear him address the other members of the club.
"Uh, folks, folks?" The voices stilled. "There's been an accident," he said with no emphasis. "I'm going to have to ask you all to stay in this room for a little while, until we can get things under control out here." The situation, as far as I could see, was completely under control.
"Where's Roe Teagarden?" John Queensland's voice demanded.
Good old John. I'd have to tell Mother about that, she'd be touched.
"She's fine. I'll be back with you in a minute."
Gerald Wright's thin voice. "Where's my wife, Mr. Smith?" "I'll get back with all of you in a few minutes," repeated the policeman firmly, and shut the door behind him. He stood lost in thought. I wondered if this detective had ever been the first on the scene of a murder investigation. He seemed to be ticking steps off mentally, from the way he was waggling his fingers and staring into space.
I waited. Then my legs started trembling and I thought I might fold again.
"Arthur," I said sharply. "Detective Smith."
He jumped; he'd forgotten me. He took my arm solicitously. I whacked at him with my free hand out of sheer aggravation. "I'm not trying to get you to help me, I want to tell you something!" He steered me into a chair in the little conference room and put on a waiting face.
"I was supposed to lecture tonight on the Wallace case, you remember? William Herbert Wallace and his wife, Julia, England, 1931?" He nodded his curly pale head and I could see he was a million miles away. I felt like slapping him again. I knew I sounded like an idiot, but I was coming to the point. "I don't know how much you remember about the Wallace case - if you don't know anything, I can fill you in later." I waved my hands to show that was inconsequential, here came the real meat. "What I want to tell you, what's important, is that Mamie Wright's been killed exactly like Julia Wallace. She's been arranged."
Bingo! That blue gaze was almost frighteningly intense now. I felt like a bug impaled on a pin. This was not a lightweight man. "Point out a few comparisons before the lab guys get here, so I can have them photographed."
I blew out a breath of relief. "The raincoat under Mamie. It hasn't rained here in days. A raincoat was found under Julia Wallace. And Mamie's been placed by the little oven. Mrs. Wallace was found by a gas fire. She was bludgeoned to death. Like Mamie, I think. Mr. Wallace was an insurance salesman. So is Gerald Wright. I'll bet there's more I haven't thought of yet. Mamie's about the same age as Julia Wallace. ... There are just so many parallels I don't think I could've imagined them."
Arthur stared at me thoughtfully for a few long seconds. "Are there any photographs of the Wallace murder scene?" he asked. The xeroxed pictures would have come in handy now, I thought.
"Yes, I've seen one, there may be more."
"Was the husband, Wallace, arrested?"
"Yes, and convicted. But later the sentence was overturned somehow or other, and he was freed."
"Okay. Come with me."
"One more thing," I said urgently. "The phone rang when I got here tonight and it was someone asking for Julia Wallace."
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