By 8:00 they were all there. It was crowded in my apartment, with Jane, Gerald, and Sally given the best seats and the others perched on chairs from the dinette set or sitting on the floor, like the lovebirds, Melanie and Bankston. I hadn't called Robin, because he had only been to Real Murders one time; one disastrous time. LeMaster Cane was sitting apart from everyone else, speaking to no one, his dark face deliberately blank. Gifford had brought Reynaldo, and they were huddled together with their backs pressed against the wall, looking sullen. Gerald still looked shocked, his pouchy face white and strained. Benjamin Greer was trying to be buddies with Perry Allison, who was openly sneering. Sally was trying not to watch her son, and carrying on a sporadic conversation with Arthur, who looked exhausted. John's creamy white head was bent toward Jane, who was talking quietly.
Even under the circumstances, I was sorely tempted to stand and say, "I guess you're wondering why I called you all here," but I didn't quite have the nerve. And after all, they knew why they were here.
I had assumed John would take the lead, since he was the president of our club. But he was looking at me expectantly, and I realized that it was up to me to start.
"Friends," I said loudly, and the little rags of conversation stopped as though they'd been trimmed off with a knife. I paused for a minute, trying to marshall my thoughts, and Gifford said, "Stand up so we can see ya." I saw several nods, so I stood. "First," I resumed, "I want to tell Gerald we're all sorry, grieved, about Mamie." Gerald looked around listlessly, acknowledging the murmur of sympathy with a nod of his head.
"Then," I went on, "I think we need to talk about what's happening to us." I had everyone's undivided attention. "I guess you all know about the tampered-with candy sent to me and my mother. I can't say poisoned, because we don't know for sure it was; so I can't be sure the intent was to kill. But I suppose we can assume that." I looked around to see if anyone would disagree. No one did. "And of course you all also know that Mamie's purse was put in Melanie's car." Melanie looked down in embarrassment, her straight dark hair swinging forward to hide her face. Bankston put his arm around her and held her close. "As if Melanie would do such a thing," he said hotly.
"Well, we all know that," I said.
"Of course," Jane chimed in indignantly.
"I know," I went on very very carefully, "that Sally and Arthur are in a delicate position tonight. Sally might want to report to the paper that we met, and Arthur will have to tell the police that he was here and what happened. I can see that. But I hope that Sally will agree that tonight is off the record." Everyone looked at Sally, who threw back her bronze head and glared at us all. "The police want me not to print that the murder was a copy," she said in exasperation. "But everyone in Real Murders has been telling other people anyway. I'm losing the best story I ever had. Now you all want me to not be a reporter tonight. It's like asking Arthur not to be a policeman for a couple of hours."
"Then you won't keep this off the record?" Gifford said unexpectedly." 'Cause if this isn't off the record, I'm out the door." He stared at Sally, and smoothed back his long hair.
"Oh, all right," Sally said. Her tan eyes snapped as she glared around the room. "But I'm telling you all, this is the last time anything said to me about these murders is off the record!"
That reduced us all to speechlessness for a moment.
"Just what did you want us here for, dear?" Jane asked.
Good question. I took the plunge.
"It's probably one of us, right?" I said nervously.
No one moved. No one turned to look at the person beside him. A presence in the room gathered power in that silence. That presence was fear, of course. We were all afraid, or getting there. "But it may be an enemy of someone here," said Arthur finally. "So, who has enemies?" I inquired. "I know that sounds naive, but for God's sake, we have to think, or we'll be mired in this until someone else dies." "I think you're overstating this," said Melanie. She actually had a little social smile on her lips.
"How, Melanie?" asked Perry suddenly. "How could Roe possibly be overstating this? We all know what's happened. We sure don't have to be geniuses to figure out that Mamie's murder was meant to be like Julia Wallace's. One of us is nuts. And we all know from reading so much about it, that a psychotic murderer can be as nice as pie on the outside and a screaming loony inside. What about Ted Bundy?"
"I just meant - " Melanie began uncertainly, "I just meant that maybe, I don't know, someone we don't know is doing this, and it really isn't tied in to us at all. Maybe the presence of a group like ours sparked all this in someone's mind."
"Maybe pigs can fly," muttered Reynaldo, and Gifford laughed. It wasn't a normal laugh, and the presence was bumping and flopping around the room like a blind thing, ready to grab the first person it lit on. Everyone was getting more and more nervous. I had made a mistake, and we were accomplishing nothing.
"If any one of you does have an enemy, someone who knows about your membership in Real Murders, someone who, maybe, has been reading your club handouts or reading your books, getting interested in what we study, now is the time for you to think of that person," I said. "If we can't come up with someone like that, then this is the last meeting of Real Murders." This brought another silence, that of shocked realization.
"Of course," breathed Jane Engle. "This is the end of us." "It may be the end, literally, of more of us if we can't figure this out," Sally said bluntly. "Whoever this is, is going to go on. Can any of you see this stopping? It isn't in the picture. Someone's having a great time, and I'd put my money on it being someone in this room."
"I for one have better things to do than sit in a room with all these accusations going around," Benjamin said. "I'm in politics now, and I would have quit Real Murders anyway. Don't anyone come trying to kill me, that's all, because I'll be waiting for him."
He left amid uneasy whispering, and before he was quite out my back door, Gifford said audibly, "Benjamin isn't worth killing. What an asshole." We were all feeling some permutation on that theme, I imagine. "I'm sorry," I said to everyone. "I thought I could accomplish something. I thought if we were all together, we could remember something that would help solve this horrible murder."
Everyone began to shift slightly, preparing to gather up whatever or whoever they'd come with.
John Queensland exhibited an unexpected sense of drama.
"The last meeting of Real Murders is now adjourned," he said formally.
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