Inspector Queen’s Own Case (2 page)

BOOK: Inspector Queen’s Own Case
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The Humffreys turned quickly. The dove-colored Chevrolet was pulling up behind them.

The buxom nurse with the pretty nose got out of the Cadillac.

“No, I'll get him, Miss Sherwood!” Alton K. Humffrey said. He sprang from the limousine and hurried over to the Chevrolet. The nurse got into the tonneau.

“Oh, dear,” Mrs. Humffrey said.

“Here he is,” Finner beamed.

Humffrey stared in at the blue blanket. Then without a word he opened the Chevrolet door.

“Time,” Finner said.

“What?”

“There's the little matter of the scratch,” the fat man smiled. “Remember, Mr. Humffrey? Balance C.O.D.?”

The millionaire shook his head impatiently. He handed over a bulky unmarked envelope, like the one Finner had offered the girl in the suède suit. Finner opened the envelope and took out the money and counted it.

“He's all yours,” Finner said, nodding.

Humffrey lifted the bundle out of the car gingerly. Finner handed out the rubberized bag, and the millionaire took that, too.

“You'll find the formula typed on a plain slip of paper in the bag,” the fat man said, “along with enough bottles and diapers to get you started.”

Humffrey waited.

“Something wrong, Mr. Humffrey? Did I forget something?”

“The birth certificate and the papers,” the millionaire said grimly.

“My people aren't magicians,” the fat man said, smiling. “I'll mail them to you soon as they're ready. They'll be regular works of art, Mr. Humffrey.”

“Register the envelope to me, please.”

“Don't worry,” the fat man said soothingly.

The tall thin man did not stir until the Chevrolet was gone. Then he walked back to the limousine slowly. The chauffeur was holding the tonneau door open, and Mrs. Humffrey's arms were reaching through.

“Give him to me, Alton!”

Her husband handed her the baby. With trembling hands she lifted the flap of the blanket.

“Miss Sherwood,” she gasped, “look!”

“He's a little beauty, Mrs. Humffrey.” The nurse had a soft impersonal voice. “May I?”

She took the baby, laid it down on one of the jump-seats, and opened the blanket.

“Nurse, he'll fall off!”

“Not at this age.” The nurse smiled. “Mr. Humffrey, may I have that bag, please?”

“Oh, why is he crying?”

“If you were messed, hungry, and only one week old, Mrs. Humffrey,” Nurse Sherwood said, “you'd let the world know about it, too. There, baby. We'll have you clean and sweet in no time. Henry, plug the warmer into the dashboard and heat this bottle. Mr. Humffrey, you'd better shut that door while I rediaper Master Humffrey.”

“Master Humffrey!” Sarah Humffrey laughed and cried alternately while her husband stared in. He could not seem to take his eyes from the squirming little body. “Alton, we have a son, a
son.”

“You're actually excited, Sarah.” Alton Humffrey was pleased.

“Nurse, let's not use the things from that bag, shall we? All the nice new things we've brought for you, baby!” Mrs. Humffrey zipped open a morocco case. It was full of powders, oils, sterilized cotton, picks. The nurse took a bottle of baby oil and a tin of powder from it silently. “The first thing we'll do is have him examined by that pediatrician in Greenwich …
Alton.”

“Yes, dear?”

“Suppose the doctor finds he's not as … not as represented?”

“Now, Sarah. You read the case histories yourself.”

“But not knowing who his people are——”

“Must we go back to that, my dear?” her husband said patiently. “I don't want to know who his people are. In a case like this, knowledge is dangerous. This way there's no red tape, no publicity, and no possibility of repercussions. We know the child comes of good Anglo-Saxon stock, and that the stock is certified as having no hereditary disease on either side, no feeble-mindedness, no criminal tendencies. Does the rest matter?”

“I suppose not, Alton.” His wife fumbled with her gloves. “Nurse, why doesn't he stop
crying?”

“You watch,” Miss Sherwood said over the baby's furious blats. “Henry, the bottle should be ready.” The chauffeur hastily handed it to her. She removed the aluminum cap and shook some of the milk onto the back of her hand. Nodding, she popped the nipple gently into the little mouth. The baby stopped in mid-blat. He seized the nipple with his tiny jaws and began to suck vigorously.

Mrs. Humffrey stared, fascinated.

Alton K. Humffrey said almost gaily, “Henry, drive us back to the Island.”

The old man turned over in bed and his naked arms flew up against the light from somewhere. It was the wrong light or the wrong direction. Or wasn't it morning? Something was wrong.

Then he heard the surf and knew where he was and squeezed his eyelids as hard as he could to shut out the room. It was a pleasant room of old random furniture and a salt smell, with rusty shrimp dangling from bleached seaweed on the wallpaper. But the pale blue wavery water lines ran around and around like thoughts, getting nowhere, and they bothered him.

The night air still defended the room coolly, but he could feel the sun ricocheting off the sea and hitting the walls like waves. In two hours it would be a hotbox.

Richard Queen opened his eyes and for a moment looked his arms over. They're like an anatomical sketch of a cadaver, he thought, wornout cables of muscle and bone with corrugated covers where skin used to be. But he could feel the life in them, they could still hold their own, they were useful. He brought his hands down into focus, examined the knurls of joints, the rivuleted skin, each pore like a speck of dirt, the wiry debris of gray hairs; but suddenly he closed his eyes again.

It was early, almost as early as when he used to wake in the old days. The alarm would go off to find him already prone on the braided rug doing his fifty pushups—summer or winter, in green spring light or the gray of the autumn dawn. The hot shave and cold shower, with the bathroom door shut so that his son might sleep on undisturbed. The call-in from the Lieutenant, while breakfast was on the hod, to report any special developments of the night. The Sergeant waiting outside, the drive downtown. Headed for another working day. Listening to the general police calls on the way down, just in case. Maybe a direct word for him on the radiophone from the top floor of the big gold-domed building on Centre Street. His office … “What's new this morning?” … orders … the important mail … the daily teletype report … the 9
A.M.
lineup, the parade of misfits from the Bullpen …

It was all part of a life. Even the corny kidding, and the headaches and heartaches. Good joes sharing the raps and the kudos while administrations came and went, not touching them. Not really touching them, even in shakeups. Because when the dust settled, the old-timers were still there. Until, that is, they were shoved out to pasture.

It's hard to break the habits of a lifetime, he thought. It's impossible. What do those old horses think about, munching the grass of their retirement? The races they'd won? The races they could still win, given the chance?

The young ones coming up, always coming up. How many of them could do fifty pushups? At half his age? But there they were, getting set, getting citations and commendations if they were good enough, a Department funeral if they stopped a bullet or a switchblade …

There they were. And here am I …

Becky was stirring carefully in the next room. Richard Queen knew it was Becky, not Abe, because Abe was like a Newfoundland dog, incapable of quiet; and the old man had been visiting in the beach house with its papery walls long enough to have learned some intimate details of the Pearls' lives.

He lay in the bed idly.

Yes, that was Becky creeping down the stairs so as not to wake her husband or their guest. Soon the smell of her coffee, brown and brisk, would come seeping up from the kitchen. Beck Pearl was a small friendly woman with a big chest and fine hands and feet that were always on the move when her husband was around.

On the beach the gulls were squabbling over something.

Inspector Queen tried to think of his own wife. But Ellery's mother had died over thirty years ago. It was like trying to recall the face of a stranger glimpsed for an instant from the other end of a dark corridor.

Here comes the coffee …

For a while the old man let the drum and swish of the surf wash over him, as if he were lying on the beach below the house.

As if he were the beach, being rhythmically cleaned and emptied by the sea.

What should he do today?

A few miles from where Richard Queen was lying in the bed swam an island. The island was connected to the Connecticut mainland by a private causeway of handsome concrete. A fieldstone gatehouse with wood trim treated to look like bleached driftwood barred the island end of the causeway. This gatehouse was dressed in creeper ivy and climber roses, and it had a brief skirt of garden hemmed in oyster shells. A driftwood shingle above the door said:

Nair Island

PRIVATE PROPERTY

Restricted

For the Use of

Residents & Guests

ONLY

Two private policemen in semi-nautical uniforms alternated at the gatehouse in twelve-hour shifts.

Nair Island had six owners, who shared its two hundred-odd acres in roughly equal holdings. In Taugus, the town on the mainland of which the island was an administrative district, their summer retreat was known—in a sort of forelock-tugging derision—as “Million-Nair” Island.

The six millionaires were not clubby. Each estate was partitioned from its neighbors by a high, thick fieldstone wall topped with shells and iron spikes. Each owner had his private yacht basin and fenced-off bathing beach. Each treated the road serving the six estates as if it were his alone. Their annual meetings to transact the trifling business of the community, as required by the bylaws of the Nair Island Association, were brusque affairs, almost hostile. The solder that welded the six owners together was not Christian fellowship but exclusion.

The island was their fortress, and they were mighty people. One was a powerful United States Senator who had gone into politics from high society to protect the American way of life. Another was the octogenarian widow of a railroad magnate. Another was an international banker. A fourth was an aging philanthropist who loved the common people in the mass but could not stand them one by one. His neighbor, commanding the seaward spit of the Island, was a retired Admiral who had married the only daughter of the owner of a vast shipping fleet.

The sixth was Alton K. Humffrey.

Inspector Queen came downstairs shaved and dressed for the day in beige slacks, nylon sports shirt, and tan-and-white shoes. He carried his jacket over his arm.

“You're so early, Richard.” Beck Pearl was pouring her husband's coffee. She was in a crisp housedress, white and pink. Abe was in his uniform. “And my, all spiffed up. Did you meet a woman on the beach yesterday?”

The old man laughed. “The day a woman messes with me.”

“Don't give me that. And don't think Abe isn't worried, leaving me alone in the house every day with an attractive man.”

“And don't think I'm not,” Abe Pearl growled. “Squattez-vous, Dick. Sleep all right?”

“All right.” He sat down opposite his friend and accepted a cup of coffee from Becky. “Aren't you up kind of early yourself this morning, Abe?”

“My summer troubles are starting. There was a brawl during the night—some tanked-up teenagers at a beach party. Want to sit in, Dick, just for ducks?”

The Inspector shook his head.

“Go on, Richard,” Beck Pearl urged. “You're bored. Vacations are always that way.”

He smiled. “Working people take vacations. Not old discards like me.”

“That's fine talk! How do you want your eggs this morning?”

“Just this coffee, Becky. Thanks a lot.”

The Pearls glanced at each other as the old man raised the cup. Abe Pearl shook his big head slightly.

“What do you hear from your son, Dick?” he said. “I noticed you got a letter from Rome yesterday.”

“Ellery's fine. Thinking of visiting Israel next.”

“Why didn't you go with him?” Mrs. Pearl demanded. “Or weren't you invited?” Her two sons were married, and she had definite ideas about what was wrong with the younger generation.

“He begged me to go. But I didn't feel it would be right. He's roaming around Europe looking for story ideas, and I'd only be in his way.”

“He wasn't fooled by that poppycock, I hope,” Beck Pearl snorted.

“He wanted to cancel his trip,” Richard Queen said quietly. “He only went because you and Abe were kind enough to ask me up here for the summer.”

“Well! I should think so.”

Abe Pearl rose. “You're sure you won't sit in, Dick?”

“I thought I'd do a little exploring today, Abe. Maybe take your boat out, if you don't mind.”

“Mind!” Abe Pearl glared down at him. “What kind of dribble is that?” He kissed his wife fiercely and pounded out, making the dishes on the sideboard jingle.

Through the window Inspector Queen watched his host back the black-and-white coupé with the roof searchlight out of the garage. For a moment the sun sparkled on the big man's cap with the gold shield above the visor. Then, with a wave, Abe Pearl was gone.

With his ability and popularity, the old man thought, he can hold down this Chief's job in Taugus for life. Abe used his head. He got out of the big time when he was still young enough to set up a new career for himself. He isn't much younger than I am, and look at him.

“Feeling sorry for yourself again, Richard?” Beck Pearl's womanly voice said.

He turned, reddening.

“We all have to adjust to something,” she went on in her soft way. “After all, it isn't as if you were like Abe's older brother Joe. Joe never had an education, never got married. All he knew was work. He worked all his life on a machine, and when he got too old and sick to work any more he had nothing—no family, no savings, nothing but the few dollars he gets from the government, and the check Abe sends him every month. There's millions like Joe, Richard. You're in good health, you have a successful son, you've led an interesting life, you've got a pension, no worries about the future—who's better off, you or Joe Pearl?”

BOOK: Inspector Queen’s Own Case
3.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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