I turned the water on full force, let it get good and hot, and stepped into the shower. It was 7 A.M. on a cool, crisp spring morning, and my first conscious thought was: I don't have to go to work today. The next thought was: my life has changed forever.
Not much had ever really happened to me; not big things, either wonderful or horrible. My parents getting divorced was bad, but even I had been able to see it was better for them. I had already gotten my driver's license by then, so they didn't need to shuttle me back and forth. Maybe the divorce had made me cautious, but caution is not a bad thing. I had a neat and tidy life in a messy world, and if sometimes I suspected I was trying to fulfill the stereotype of a small-town librarian, well, I had yearnings to play other roles, too. In the movies, sometimes those dry librarians with their hair in buns suddenly let their juices gush, shook their hair loose, threw off their glasses, and did a tango.
Maybe I would. But in the meantime, I could have a small pride in myself. I had done okay the night before, not great but okay. I had gotten through it. I went through the tedious business of drying my mass of hair and pulled on some old jeans and a sweater. I padded downstairs in my moccasins and brewed some coffee, a big pot. I'd gotten my lawn chairs and table set up on the patio a week before, when I'd decided it was going to stay spring for good, so after getting my papers from the little-used front doorstep, I carried my first cup out to the patio. It was possible to feel alone there, though of course the Crandalls on one side and Robin Crusoe on the other could see my patio from their second floor back bedroom. The back bedroom was small and I knew everyone used it as a guest room, so the chances were good that no one was looking. Sally hadn't managed to get the story into the local paper. I was sure that had been printed before the meeting even started. But the local man employed by the city paper had had better luck. "Lawrenceton Woman Murdered" ran the uninspired headline in the City and State section. A picture of Mamie accompanied the article, and I was impressed by the stringer's industry. I scanned the story quickly. It was necessarily short, and had little in it I didn't know, except that the police hadn't found Mamie's purse. I frowned at that. It didn't seem to fit somehow. There was no hint of this murder being like any other murder. I wondered if the police had requested that be withheld. But it would be all over Lawrenceton soon, I was sure. Lawrenceton, despite its new population of commuters to Atlanta, was still a small town at heart. My name was included:
"Ms. Teagarden, anxious at Mrs. Wright's continued absence, searched the building and found Mrs. Wright's body in the kitchen." I shivered. It sounded so simple in print.
I'd put the phone back on the hook, and now it rang. Mother, of course, I thought, and went back into the kitchen. I picked up the receiver as I poured more coffee. "Are you all right?" she asked immediately. "John Queensland came over last night after the police let him go, and he told me all about it." John Queensland was certainly making a determined effort to endear himself to Mother. Well, she'd been on her own (but not always alone) for a long time. "I'm pretty much all right," I said cautiously.
"Was it awful?"
"Yes," I said, and I meant it. It had been horrible, but exciting, and the more hours separated me from the event, the more exciting and bearable it was becoming. I didn't want to lose the horror; that was what kept you civilized. "I'm sorry," she said helplessly. Neither of us knew what to say next. "Your father called me," she blurted out. "You must have had your, phone off the hook?"
"He was worried, too. About you. And he said you were going to keep Phillip next weekend? He wondered if you would be able; he said if you didn't feel like it, just give him a call, he'd change his plans." Mother was doing her best not to call her ex-husband a selfish bastard for mentioning such a thing at a time like this.
I had a half-brother, Phillip, six, a scarey and wonderful boy whom I could stand for whole weekends occasionally without my nerves completely shattering. I'd completely forgotten that Dad and his second wife Betty Jo (quite a reaction to an Aida Teagarden) were leaving for a convention in Chattanooga in a few days.
"No, that'll be okay, I'll give him a call later today," I said. "Well. You will call me if you need me to do anything? I can bring you some lunch, or you can come stay with me." » "No, I'm fine." A slight exaggeration, but close enough to the truth. I suddenly wanted to say something real, something indelible, to my mother. But the only thing I could think of wouldn't bear uttering. I wanted to say I felt more alive than I had in years; that finally something bigger than myself had happened to me. Now, instead of reading about an old murder, seeing passion and desperation and evil in print on a page, I knew these things to be possessed by people around me. And I said, "Really, I'm okay. And the police are coming by this morning; I'd better go get ready." "All right, Aurora. But call me if you get scared. And you can always stay here."
I had a sudden flood of nervous energy after I hung up. I looked around me, and decided to put it to good use picking up. First my den/dining room/kitchen right off the patio, then the formal front room that I seldom used. I checked the little downstairs bathroom for toilet paper, and ran up the stairs to make my bed and straighten up. The guest bedroom was pristine, as usual. I gathered up my dirty clothes and trotted downstairs with the bundle, tossing it unceremoniously down the basement stairs to land in front of the washer. Lawrenceton is on high enough ground for basements to be feasible. When I looked at the clock and saw I had fifteen minutes left before Arthur Smith was due to come, I checked the coffee level and went back upstairs to put on some makeup. That was simple enough, since I wore little, and I hardly had to look in the mirror to do it. But out of habit I did, and I didn't look any more interesting or experienced than I had the day before. My face was still pale and round, my nose short and straight and suitable for holding up my glasses, my eyes magnified behind those glasses and round and brown. My hair unbound flew all around my head in a waving brown mass halfway down my back, and for once I let it be. It would get in my way and stick to the corners of my mouth and get caught in the hinges of my glasses, but what the hell! Then I heard the double ring of the front doorbell and flew downstairs. People almost always came to the back door instead of the front, but Arthur had parked on the street instead of in the parking area behind the apartments. Under the fresh suit, shaved jaw, and curling pale hair still damp from the shower, he looked tired.
"Are you all right this morning?" he asked.
"Yes, pretty much. Come in."
He looked all around him, openly, when he passed through the living room, missing nothing. He paused at the big room where I really lived. "Nice," he said, sounding impressed. The sunny room with the big window overlooking the patio with its rose trees did look attractive. Exposed brick walls and all the books make an intelligent-looking room, anyway, I thought, and I waved him onto the tan suede love seat as I asked him if he wanted coffee. "Yes, black," he said fervently. "I was up most of the night." When I bent over to put his cup on the low table in front of him, I realized with some embarrassment that his eyes weren't on the coffee cup. I settled opposite him in my favorite chair, low enough that my feet can touch the floor, wide enough to curl up inside, with a little table beside it just big enough to hold a book and a coffee cup.
Arthur took a sip of his coffee, eyed me again as he told me it was good, and got down to business.
"You were right, the body was definitely moved after death to the position it was in when you found it," he said directly. "She was killed there in the kitchen. Jack Burns is having a hard time swallowing this theory, that she was deliberately killed to mimic the Wallace murder, but I'm going to try to convince him. He's in charge though; I'm assisting on this one since I know all the people involved, but I'm really a burglary detective." Some questions flew through my head, but I decided it wouldn't be polite to ask them. Sort of like asking a doctor about your own symptoms at a party. "Why is Jack Burns so scarey?" I asked abruptly. "Why does he make an effort to intimidate you? What's the point?"
At least Arthur didn't have to ask me what I meant. He knew exactly what Jack Burns was like.
"Jack doesn't care if people like him or not," Arthur said simply. "That's a big advantage, especially to a cop. He doesn't even care if other cops like him. He just wants cases solved as soon as possible, he wants witnesses to tell him everything they know, and he wants the guilty punished. He wants the world to go his way, and he doesn't care what he has to do to make it happen." That sounded pretty frightening to me. "At least you know where you are with him," I said weakly. Arthur nodded matter-of-factly. "Tell me everything you know about the Wallace case," he said. "Well, I'm up on it of course, since it was supposed to be the topic last night," I explained. "I wonder if - whoever killed Mamie - picked it for that reason?"
I was actually kind of glad I'd finally get to deliver part of my laboriously prepared lecture. And to a fellow aficionado, a professional at that. "The ultimate murder mystery, according to several eminent crime writers," I began. "William Herbert Wallace, Liverpool insurance salesman," I raised a finger to indicate one point of similarity, "and married with no children," I raised a second finger. Then I thought Arthur could probably do without me telling him his job. "Wallace and his wife Julia were middle aged and hadn't much money, but did have intellectual leanings. They played duets together in the evening. They didn't entertain much or have many friends. They weren't known to quarrel.
"Wallace had a regular schedule for collecting insurance payments from subscribers to his particular company, and he'd bring the money home with him for one night, Tuesday. Wallace played chess, too, and was entered in a tournament at a local club. There was a play off chart establishing when he'd be playing, posted on the wall at the club. Anyone who came in could see it." I raised my eyebrows at Arthur to make sure he marked that important point. He nodded.
"Okay. Wallace didn't have a phone at home. He got a call at the chess club right before he arrived there one day. Another member took the message. The caller identified himself as 'Qualtrough.' The caller said that he wanted to take out a policy on his daughter and asked that Wallace be given a message to come around to Qualtrough's house the next evening, Tuesday. "Now, the bad thing about this call, from Wallace's point of view," I explained, warming to my subject, "is that it came to the club when Wallace wasn't there. And there was a telephone booth Wallace could have used, close to his home, if he himself placed the 'Qualtrough' call."
Arthur scribbled in a little leather notepad he produced from somewhere. "Now - Wallace comes in very soon after Qualtrough has called the club. Wallace talks about this message to the other chess players. Maybe he means to impress it on their memory? Either he is a murderer and is setting up his alibi, or the real murderer is making sure Wallace will be out of the house Tuesday evening. And this dual possibility, that almost hanged Wallace, runs throughout the case." Could any writer have imagined anything as interesting as this? I wanted to ask.
But instead I plunged back in. "So on the appointed night Wallace goes looking for this man Qualtrough who wants to take out some insurance. Granted, he was a man who needed all the business he could get, and granted, we know what insurance salesmen are still like today, but even so Wallace went to extreme lengths to find this potential customer. The address Qualtrough left at the chess club was in Menlove Gardens East. There's a Menlove Gardens North, South and West, but no Menlove Gardens East; so it was a clever false address to give. Wallace asks many people he meets - even a policeman! - if they know where he can find this address. He may be stubborn, or he may be determined to fix himself in the memories of as many people as possible.
"Since there simply was no such address, he went home."
I paused to take a long drink of my tepid coffee.
"She was already dead?" Arthur asked astutely.
"Right, that's the point. If Wallace killed her, he had to have done it before he left on this wild goose chase. If so, what I'm about to tell you was all acting.
"He gets home and tries to open his front door, he later says. His key won't work. He thinks Julia has bolted the front door and for some reason can't hear him knock. Whatever was the case, a couple who live next door leave their house and see Wallace at his back door, apparently in distress. He tells them about the front door being bolted. Either his distress is genuine, or he's been hanging around in the back alley waiting for someone else to witness his entrance."
Arthur's blond head shook slowly from side to side as he contemplated the twists and turns of this classic. I imagined the Liverpool police force in 1931 sitting and shaking their heads in exactly the same way. Or perhaps not; they'd been convinced early on that they had their man.
"Was Wallace friendly with those neighbors?" he asked.
"Not particularly. Good, but impersonal, relationship." "So he could count on their being accepted as impartial witnesses," Arthur observed.
"If he did it. Incidentally, the upshot of all this about the front door lock, which Wallace said resisted his key, turned out to be a major point in the trial, but the testimony was pretty murky. Also iffy was the evidence of a child who knocked on the door with the day's milk, or a newspaper or something. Mrs. Wallace answered the door, alive and well; and if it could have been proved Wallace had already left, he would have been cleared. But it couldn't be." I took a deep breath. Here came the crucial scene. "Be that as it may. Wallace and the couple do enter the house, do see a few things out of place in the kitchen and another room, I think, but no major ransacking. The box where Wallace kept the insurance money had been rifled. Of course, this was a Tuesday, when there should've been a lot of money.
"The neighbors by this time are scared. Then Wallace calls them into the front room, a parlor, rarely used.
"Julia Wallace is there, lying in front of the gas fire, with a raincoat under her. The raincoat, partially burned, is not hers. She's been beaten to death, with extreme brutality, unnecessary force. She has not been raped." I stopped suddenly. "I assume Mamie wasn't?" I said finally, frightened of the answer. "Doesn't look like it right now," Arthur said absently, still taking notes. I blew my breath out. "Well, Wallace theorizes that 'Qualtrough,' who of course must be the murderer if Wallace is innocent, called at the house after Wallace left. He was evidently someone Julia didn't know well, or at all, because she showed him into the company parlor." Just like I would an insurance salesman, I thought. "The raincoat, an old one of Wallace's, she perhaps threw over her shoulders because the disused room was cold until the gas fire, which she apparently lit, had had a chance to heat it. The money that had been taken hadn't actually been much, since Wallace had been ill that week and hadn't been able to collect everything he was supposed to. But no one else would have known that, presumably.
"Julia certainly hadn't been having an affair, and had never personally offended anyone that the police could discover.
"And that's the Wallace case."
Arthur sat lost in thought, his blue eyes fixed intently on some internal point.
"Wobbly, either way," he said finally.
"Right," I agreed. "There's no real case against Wallace, except that he was her husband, the only person who seemed to know her well enough to kill her. Everything he said could've been true ... in which case, he was tried for killing the one person in the world he loved, while all the time the real killer went free."
"So Wallace was arrested?"
"And convicted. But after he spent some time in prison, he was released by a unique ruling in British law. I think a higher court simply ruled that there hadn't been enough evidence for a jury to convict Wallace, no matter what the jury said. But prison and the whole experience had broken Wallace, and he died two or three years later, still saying he was innocent. He said he suspected who Qualtrough was, but he had no proof."
"I'd have gone for Wallace, too, on the basis of that evidence," Arthur said unhesitatingly. "The probability is with Wallace, as you said, because it's usually the husband who wants his wife out of the way... yet since there's no clear-cut evidence either way, I'm almost surprised the state chose to prosecute."
"Probably," I said without thinking, "the police were under a lot of pressure to make an arrest."
Arthur looked so tired and gloomy that I tried to change the subject. "Wh/d you join Real Murders?" I asked. "Isn't that a little strange for a policeman?" "Not this policeman," he said a little sharply. I shrank in my chair.
"Listen, Roe, I wanted to go to law school, but there wasn't enough money." Arthur's family was pretty humble, I recalled. I thought I'd gone to high school with one of his sisters. Arthur must be three or four years older than I. "I made it through two years of college before I realized I couldn't make it financially, because I just couldn't work and carry a full course load. School bored me then, too. So I decided to go into law from another angle. Policemen aren't all alike, you know."
I could tell he'd given this lecture before.
"Some cops are right out of Joseph Wambaugh's books, because he was a cop and he writes pretty good books. Loud, drinkers, macho, mostly uneducated, sometimes brutal. There are a few nuts, like there are in any line of work, and there are a few Birchers. There aren't many Liberals with a capital 'L', and not too many college graduates. But within those rough lines, we've got all kinds of people. Some of my friends - some cops - watch every cop show on television they can catch, so they'll know how to act. Some of them - not many - read Dostoevsky." He smiled, and it looked almost strange on him. "I just like to study old crimes, figure out how the police thought on the case, pick apart their procedure - ever read about the June Anne Devaney case, Blackburn, England, oh, about late 1930's?" "A child murder, right?"
"Right. You know the police persuaded every adult male in Blackburn to have his fingerprints taken?" Arthur's face practically shone with enthusiasm. "That's how they caught Peter Griffiths. By comparing thousands of fingerprints with the ones Griffiths left on the scene." He was lost in admiration for a moment. "That's why I joined Real Murders," he said. "But what could a woman like Mamie Wright get out of studying the Wallace case?"
"Oh, a chaperoned husband!" I said with a grin, and then felt a sharp pang of dismay as Arthur re-opened his little notebook. Almost gently, Arthur said, "Now, this murder is real. It's a new murder."
"I know," I said, and I saw Mamie again.
"Did they quarrel much, Gerald and Mamie?"
"Never, that I saw or heard," I said firmly and truthfully. I'd always believed Wallace was innocent. "She just seemed to be keeping an eye on him around other women."
"Do you think her suspicions were correct?"
"It never occurred to me they could be. Gerald is just so stuffy and... Arthur? Could Gerald have done this?" I didn't mean emotionally, I meant practically, and Arthur realized it.
"Do you know why Gerald says he was late to the meeting, why Mamie came on her own instead of riding with him? He got a call from a man he didn't know, asking Gerald to talk with him about some insurance for his daughter." I know my mouth was hanging open. I slowly shut it, but feared I looked no more intelligent.
"Someone's really slapping us in the face, Arthur," I said slowly. "Maybe especially challenging you. Mamie wasn't even killed because she was Mamie." That was especially horrible. "It was just because she was an insurance salesman's wife."
"But you'd figured it out last night. You know that." "But what if there are more? What if he copies the June Anne Devaney murder, and kills a three-year-old? What if he copies the Ripper murders? Or kills people like Ed Gein did, to eat?"
"Don't go imagining nightmares," Arthur said briskly. He was so matter of fact I knew he'd already thought of the possibility himself. "Now, I've got to write down everything you did yesterday, starting from when you left work." If he meant to jolt me out of the horrors, he succeeded. Even if only on paper, I was someone who had to account for her movements; not exactly a suspect, but a possibility. Then too, my arrival time at the meeting would help pinpoint the time of death. Though I'd gone over this all the night before, once more I carefully related my trivial doings.
"Do you have a good account of the Wallace killing I could borrow?" he asked, rising from the couch reluctantly. He looked even more worn, as if relaxing for a while hadn't helped, just made him feel his exhaustion. "And I need a list of club members, too."
"I can help you with the Wallace killing," I said. "But you'll have to get the list from Jane Engle. She's the club secretary." I had the book on hand I'd used to prepare my lecture. I checked to make sure my name was written inside, told Arthur I'd have him arrested if he didn't return it, and walked with him to the front door.
To my surprise, he put his hands on my shoulders and gripped them with no mean pressure.
"Don't look so dismal," he said. The wide blue eyes caught mine. I felt a jolt tingle up my spine. "You caught something last night most people wouldn't have. You were tough and smart and quick-thinking." He caught a loose strand of my hair and rolled it between his fingers. "I'll talk to you soon," he said. "Maybe tomorrow."
As it turned out, we spoke somewhat sooner than that.
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