The silent hall was not silent anymore. As we left the conference room, the law came in the back door. It was represented by a heavy-set man in a plaid jacket who was taller and older than Arthur, and two men in uniform. As I stood back against the wall, temporarily forgotten, Arthur led them down the hall and opened the door to the kitchen. They crowded around the door looking in. They were all silent for a moment. The youngest man in uniform winced and then wrenched his face straight. The other uniformed man shook his head once and then stared in at Mamie with a disgusted expression. What disgusted him, I wondered? The mess that had been made with the body of a human being? The waste of a life? The fact that someone living in the town he had to protect had seen fit to do this terrible thing?
I realized the man in the plaid jacket was the sergeant of detectives; I'd seen his picture in the paper when he'd arrested a drug pusher. Now he pursed his mouth briefly and said "Damn," with little expression. Arthur began telling them things, going swiftly and in a low voice. I could tell what point in his narrative he'd reached when their heads swung towards me simultaneously. I didn't know whether to nod or what. I just stared back at them and felt a thousand years old. Their faces turned back to Arthur and he continued his briefing.
The two men in uniform left the building while Arthur and the sergeant continued their discussion. Arthur seemed to be enumerating things, while the sergeant nodded his head in approval and occasionally interjected some comment. Arthur had a little notebook out and was jotting in it as they spoke. Another memory about the sergeant stirred.
His name was Jack Burns. He'd bought his house from my mother. He was married to a school teacher and had two kids in college. Now Jack Burns gave Arthur a sharp nod, as clear as a starting gun. Arthur went to the door to the meeting room and pushed it open.
"Mr. Wright, could you come here for a minute, please?" Detective Arthur Smith asked, in a voice so devoid of expression that it was a warning in itself. Gerald Wright came into the hall hesitantly. No one in the big room could fail to know by now that something was drastically wrong, and I wondered what they'd been saying. Gerald took a step toward me, but Arthur took his arm quite firmly and guided Gerald into the little conference room. I knew he was about to tell Gerald that his wife was dead, and I found myself wondering how Gerald would take it. Then I was ashamed.
At moments I understood in decent human terms what had happened to a woman I knew, and at moments I seemed to be thinking of Mamie's death as one of our club's study cases.
"Miss Teagarden," said Jack Burns's good-old-boy drawl, "you must be Aida Teagarden's child."
Well, I had a father, too: but he'd committed the dreadful sin of coming in from foreign parts (Texas) to work on our local Georgia paper, marrying my mother, begetting me, and then leaving and divorcing Lawrenceton's own Aida Brattle Teagarden. I said, "Yes."
"I'm mighty sorry you had to see something like that," Jack Burns said, shaking his heavy head mournfully.
It was almost like a burlesque of regret, it was laid on so heavily; was he being sarcastic? I looked down, and for once said nothing. I didn't need this right now; I was shaken and confused.
"It just seems so strange to me that a sweet young woman like you would come to a club like this," Jack Burns went on slowly, his tone expressing stunned bewilderment. "Could you just kind of clarify for me what the purpose of this - organization - is ?"
I had to answer a direct question. But why was he asking me? His own detective belonged to the same club. I wished this middle-aged man with his plaid suit and his cowboy boots would melt through the floor. As slightly as I knew Arthur, I wanted him back. This man was scarey. I pushed my glasses back up my nose with shaking fingers.
"We meet once a month," I said in an uneven voice. "And we talk about a famous murder case, usually a pretty old one."
The sergeant apparently gave this deep thought. "Talk about it - ?" he inquired gently.
"Ah... sometimes just learn about it, who was killed and how and why and by whom." Our members favored different "W's."
I was most interested in the victim.
"Or sometimes," I stumbled on, "depending on the case, we decide if the police arrested the right person. Or if the murder was unsolved, we talk about who may have been guilty. Sometimes we watch a movie."
"Movie?" Raised beetly brows, a gentle inquiring shake of the head. "Like 'The Thin Blue Line.' Or a fictionalized movie based on a real case. 'In Cold Blood'..."
"But not ever," he asked delicately, "what you would call a - snuff movie?" "Oh my God," I said sickly. "Oh my God, no." In my naivet¨¦, I said, "How could you think that?"
"Well, Miss Teagarden, this here is a real murder, and we have to ask real questions." And his face was not nice at all.
Our club had offended something in Jack Burns. How would Arthur fare, a policeman who was actually a member? But it seemed he would be working on the investigation in some capacity.
"Now, Miss Teagarden," Jack Burns went on, his mask back in place, his voice as buttery as a waffle, "I am going to head up this investigation, and my two homicide detectives will work on this, and Arthur Smith will assist us, since he knows all you people. I know you'll cooperate to the fullest with him. He tells me you know a little more about this than the others, that you got some kind of phone call and you found the body. We may have to talk to you a few times about this, but you just have patience with us." And I knew from his face I had better be willing to turn over my every waking minute, if that was required of me. By this time I felt that Arthur Smith was my oldest and dearest friend, so much safer did he seem than this terrifying man with his terrifying questions. And he stepped out from behind his sergeant now, his face blank and his eyes cautious. He'd heard at least some of this conversation, which would have sounded almost routine without Burns's menacing manner.
"Miss Teagarden," Arthur said brusquely, "will you go into the room with the others now? Please don't discuss with them what's happened out here. And thanks." With Gerald presumably grieving in the small conference room and Mamie dead in the kitchen, I had to join the others unless he wanted me to stand in the bathroom.
With a medley of feelings, relief predominating, I was pushing open the door when I felt a hand on my arm. "Sorry," murmured Arthur. Over his shoulder, I saw the plaid back of Sergeant Burns's jacket as he held open the back door to admit uniformed policemen loaded down with equipment. "If you don't mind, I'll come to see you tomorrow morning about this Wallace thing. Will you be at work?" "Tomorrow's my day off," I said. "I can be at home tomorrow morning."
"Nine o'clock too early?"
"No, that's fine."
As I went in the larger room where my fellow club members were clustered anxiously, I thought about the intelligence pitted against Arthur Smith's. Someone was painstaking and artistic in a debased and imaginative way. Someone had issued a challenge to whoever cared to take it up. "Figure out who I am if you can, you amateur students of crime. I've graduated to the real thing. Here is my work."
I felt an instinctive urge to hide what I was thinking. I wiped my mind clean of my nasty thoughts and tried not to meet the eyes of any of my fellow club members, who were all waiting tensely for me in the big room. But Sally Allison was a pro at catching reluctant eyes, and I saw her mouth open when she caught mine. I knew beyond a doubt she was going to ask me if I'd found Mamie Wright. Sally was no fool. I shook my head firmly, and she came no closer. "Are you all right, child?" John Queensland asked, advancing with the dignity that was the keystone of his character. "Your mother will be terribly upset when she hears..." but since John, who was after all a wee mite pompous, realized he had no idea what my mother was going to hear, he had to trail off into silence. He asked me a question with a look.
"I'm sorry," I said in a tiny squeak. I shook my head in irritation. "I'm sorry," I said more strongly, "I don't think Detective Smith wants me to talk until he talks to you." I gave John a small smile and went to sit by myself in a chair by the coffee urn, trying to ignore the indignant looks and mutters of dissatisfaction cast in my direction. Gifford Doakes was walking back and forth as if he were pacing a cage. The policemen outside seemed to be making him extremely nervous. The novelist Robin Crusoe was looking eager and curious;
Lizanne just looked bored. LeMaster Cane, Melanie and Bankston, and Jane Engle were talking together in low voices. For the first time, I realized another club member, Benjamin Greer, was missing. Benjamin's attendance was erratic, like his life in general, so I didn't put any particular weight on that. Sally was sitting by her son Perry, whose thin slash of a mouth was twisted into a very peculiar smile. Perry's elevator did not stop at every floor. I poured myself a cup of coffee, wishing it were a shot of bourbon. I thought of Mamie getting to the meeting early, setting everything up, making this very coffee so we wouldn't have to drink Sally's dreadful brew... I burst into tears, and slopped coffee all down my yellow sweater.
Those awful turquoise shoes. I kept seeing that empty shoe sitting upright in the middle of the floor.
I heard a soft sweet soothing murmur and knew Lizanne Buckley had come to my aid. Lizanne generously blocked me from the view of the room with an uncomfortable hunch of her tall body. I heard the scrape of a chair and saw a pair of long thin trousered legs. Her escort, the red-headed novelist, was helping her out, and then he tactfully moved away. Lizanne lowered herself into the chair and hitched it closer to me. Her manicured hand stuffed a handkerchief into my stubby one.
"Let's just think about something else," Lizanne said in a low even voice. She seemed quite sure I could think about something else. "Stupid ole me," said Lizanne charmingly. "I just can't get interested in the things this Robin Crusoe likes, like people getting murdered. So if you like him, you're welcome to him. I think maybe you and him would suit each other. Nothing wrong with him," she added hastily, in case I should assume she was offering me something shoddy. "He'd just be happier with you, I think. Don't you?" she asked persuasively. She just knew a man would make me feel better.
"Lizanne," I said, with a few gasps and sobs interposed here and there, "you're wonderful. I don't know anyone to top you. There aren't too many single men our age in Lawrenceton to date, are there?"
Lizanne looked puzzled. She'd obviously noticed no lack of single men to date. I wondered where all her men came from. Probably drove from as far away as two hundred miles. "Thanks, Lizanne," I said helplessly. Sergeant Burns appeared in the doorway and scanned the room. I had no doubt he was memorizing each and every face. I could tell by his scowl when he saw her that he knew Sally Allison was a reporter. He looked even angrier when he saw Gifford Doakes, who stopped his pacing and stared back at Burns with a sneering face.
"Okay, folks," he said peremptorily, eyeing us as if we were rather degenerate strangers caught half-dressed, "we've had a death here." That could hardly have been a bombshell - after all, the people in this group were adept at picking up clues. But there was a shocked-sounding buzz of conversation in the wake of Burns's announcement. A few reactions were marked. Perry Allison got a strange smirk on his face, and I was even more strongly reminded that in the past Perry had had what people called "nervous problems," though he did his work at the library well enough. His mother Sally was watching his face with obvious anxiety. The red-haired writer's face lit with excitement, though he decently tried to tone it down. None of this could touch him personally, of course. He was new in town, had barely met a soul, and this was his first visit to Real Murders.
I envied him.
He saw me watching him, observing his excitement, and he turned red. Burns said clearly, "I'm going to take you out of the room one by one, to the smaller room across the hall, and one of our uniformed officers will take your statement. Then I'm going to let you go home, though we'll need to talk to you all again later, I imagine. I'll start with Miss Teagarden, since she's had a shock."
Lizanne pressed my hand when I got up to leave. As I crossed the hall, I saw the building was teeming with police. I hadn't known Lawrenceton had that many in uniform. I was learning a lot tonight, one way or another. The business of having my statement taken would have been interesting if I hadn't been so upset and tired. After all, I'd read about police procedure for years, about police questioning all available witnesses to a crime, and here I was, being questioned by a real policeman about a real crime. But the only lasting impression I carried away with me was that of thoroughness. Every question was asked twice, in different ways. The phone call, of course, came in for a great deal of attention. The pity of it was that I could say so little about it. I was faintly worried when Jack Burns stepped in and asked me very persistently about Sally Allison and her movements and demeanor; but I had to face the fact that since Sally and I were first on the scene (though we didn't know it at the time) we would be questioned most intensely. I had my fingerprints taken, too, which would have been very interesting under other circumstances. As I left the room I glanced toward the kitchen without wanting to. Mamie Wright, housewife and wearer of high heels, was being processed as the murder victim. I didn't know where Gerald Wright was; since the small conference room had been free, he must have been driven home or even to the police station. Of course he would be the most suspected, and I knew chances were he'd probably done it, but I could find no relief in the thought. I didn't believe Gerald had done it. I thought the person, man or woman, who'd called the VFW Hall had done it, and I didn't believe Gerald Wright would have resorted to such elaborate means if he'd wanted to kill Mamie. He might have buried her in his cellar, like Crippen, but he would not have killed her at the VFW and then called to alert the rest of the club members to his actions. Actually, Gerald didn't seem to have enough sense of fun, if that was what you wanted to term it. This murder had a kind of bizarre playfulness about it. Mamie'd been arranged like a doll, and the phone call was like a childish "Nyah, nyah, you can't catch me."
As I went out to my car very slowly, I was mulling over that phone call. It was a red flag, surely, to alert the club to the near certainty that this murder had been planned and executed by a club member. Mamie Wright, wife of an insurance salesman in Lawrenceton, Georgia, had been battered to death and arranged after death to copy the murder of the wife of an insurance company employee in Liverpool, England. This had been done on the premises where the club met, on the night it met to discuss that very case. It was possible someone outside the club had a grudge against us, though I couldn't imagine why. No, someone had decided to have his own kind of fun with us. And that someone was almost surely someone I knew, almost surely a member of Real Murders. I could scarcely believe I had to walk out to my car by myself, drive it home by myself, enter my dark home - by myself. But then I realized that all the members of Real Murders, alive or dead, with the exception of Benjamin Greer, were under police scrutiny at this very moment.
I was the safest person in Lawrenceton.
I drove slowly, double-checked myself at stop signs, and used my turn signals long before I needed to. I was so completely tired I was afraid I'd look drunk to any passing patrol officers ... if there were any left on the streets. I was so glad to turn the car into my familiar slot, put my key in my own lock, and plod into my own territory. Functioning through a woolly fog of fatigue, I dialled Mother's number. When she answered I told her that no matter what she heard, I was just fine and nothing awful had happened to me. I cut off her questions, left the phone off the hook, and saw by the kitchen clock that it was only 9:30. Amazing.
I trudged up the stairs, pulling off my sweater and shirt as I went. I just managed to shuck the rest of my clothes, pull on my nightgown, and crawl into bed before sleep hit me.
At 3 A.M. I woke in a cold sweat. My dream had been one big close-up of Mamie Wright's head.
Someone was crazy; or someone was unbelievably vicious.
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